'It feels like painting a larger picture'

A review of 'Try a Little Time Travel'

Try a Little Time Travel

Try a Little Time Travel

Natalie Lyalin

Ugly Duckling Presse 2010, 20 pages, $10,

As the title poem of Natalie Lyalin’s Try a Little Time Travel makes clear, this book is not concerned with telephone booths or Tardises, but rather with “time travel” as a mental process. The reader is exhorted to “Close your eyes, // And think, Grandmother, / I’m coming to you, live!” (6). In these poems, time travel becomes a method of inquiry, of digging through the shifting sands of memory and desire to discover imaginary truths about imaginary pasts and futures. Of her own journey in “Try a Little Time Travel,” the speaker reports:

I learned:
I was not evil,
Fjords made a screeching sound when formed,
G-d is not vengeful,
My uncle smothered someone in an open field. (7) 

This collection of heavy biblical lessons is something of a surprise at the end of a poem that began by glibly encouraging readers to try time travel “instead of sexing / one night,” and that along the way entertained the pop-culture commonplace about whether it would be advisable for a time traveler to kill Hitler. But these shifts in register are part of what makes these poems interesting and what allows them to cover so much ground. In the poem “Burn, Burn, Burn the Air,” for example, a flippant, matter-of-fact tone makes a startling juxtaposition with the grim subject matter: 

       Anyway, we went

Walking. The galaxies tried to part us. We were then 

Pardoned for the war crimes. It was only after that we

Lead them to the mass graves. With some gravitas we

Dug for survivors. There were none, so they hanged us!

They hanged us in the brightest spot of our youth. (2) 

With this juxtaposition in mind, the line about killing Hitler becomes more than a cliché. This series of quasi-comic reversals (being pardoned for war crimes before revealing graves, digging in graves for survivors) delivered in straight-faced, declarative sentences is strongly reminiscent of Yiddish nonsense tales for children. For example, the opening lines of a Yiddish story called “The Pain in the Neck” are designed to delight children through their continuous flow of contradictions: “Once upon a time there was a very rich poor man. He had no children except for nine daughters. His oldest son took it in his head to go to the fair.”[1] Lyalin brings this comic structure closer to the theatre of the absurd, turning the real impossibilities of the Holocaust into grim entertainment. 

Families figure prominently in these poems as a form of “time travel” in themselves, their generational structure linking the past with the future. A poem called “I Had This Hair When My Dad Was Alive” begins with seven relatively coherent lines reflecting on a past in 1980s Poland, when “it was hard to find boots and stockings” (14), then careens forward into thirty-nine relatively unconnected lines that loosely share a theme of life’s transitions, suggesting a contrast between the past’s existence as pat stories and the chaos of the present. But if the past is story, it’s also fantasy and guesswork, making it not all that different from the future. In addition to fathers, uncles, and grandmothers whose lives are half remembered and half imagined, there are a lot of babies and children in these poems. In a poem called “To All My Babies,” the speaker apologizes to her eerily and nonspecifically plural “babies,” who seem almost insect-like in the way that they’ve scattered to the winds. And in “All the Missing Children Go to Florida,” Florida is imagined as both haven and mother to the children on milk cartons, who roost in trees and taunt those who would bring them back to their homes, boasting about their alligators, orchids, and “the stench of [their] / Swamp hearts” (5). In both these poems, the speaker imagines a future for children whose fate she cannot know as a way of comforting herself in their absence.

What Lyalin’s first book, Pink and Hot Pink Habitat (Coconut Books, 2009), accomplished with invention, this chapbook does with increased focus on cohesion and coherence, which invites from the reader different emotional responses. The mothers, lovers, fathers, grandmothers, uncles, and children who populate these pages all seem to understand that the insight into one another provided by all this mental “time travel” — these memories, dreams, fantasies, and projections — is no less real for being imagined.


[1] “The Pain in the Neck: A Nonsense Tale,” in Yiddish Folktales, ed. Beatrice Silverman Weinreich, trans. Leonard Wolf (New York: Schocken Books, 1988), 35.

Translation's lucky hand

A review of 'Fortino Sámano'

Fortino Sámano (The Overflowing of the Poem)

Fortino Sámano (The Overflowing of the Poem)

Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy

Omnidawn 2012, 200 pages, $21.95, ISBN 978-1890650674

To grasp this amazing book — this doubled and redoubled book — is indeed to hold a lucky hand. To read the words of Hogue and Gallais translating Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy is not just to devour a long poem. It is also to receive a device for reading poetry and for exploring the possibilities of lyric address, for opening spaces in and between two languages, French and English.

We are first confronted with the book’s title, two words that mean nothing in French or English, Fortino Sámano. Latinate, they could point to a name, index an individual life, though at first I am not sure it is a name I am reading. In English, the words seem to go beyond language.

Impossible to translate, they arrest me.

Inside the book, the poems of Virginie Lalucq offer us multiplied, shorn, angulated words: a trenchant and repeated déclic that is at once the image of a man about to be executed, the images of a poem in the process of its own summary execution, and images of us reading the image-poem. In Fortino Sámano, there is no photo shown, no “representation,” no passport provided. Here, execution is also creation, and the executory process suspends the sinews of the poem between writer and reader in a productive space beyond that of mere expression.

Poet Virginie Lalucq does not execute alone. Just as the translation of her work into English is doubled, by two translators, the book itself is doubled, has two authors. We even read the poems twice before the book ends: once, as Lalucq, and again when philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy executes his lyric reading of her poems, a beautiful and nuanced reading of work that, paradoxically, refuses what we often consider to be lyric values.

The name Fortino evokes luck and power, and Lalucq’s and Jean-Luc’s names also, funnily, echo luck. Fortino Sámano, man and name, offers us su mano, pointing to the fortunate power of the hand at work in creating the unspeakably aphasic parts of poetry, using what is at hand. In the poems, the image of the man smiles, exchanges pronouns with us, puts us in his spot against the wall of execution and makes us own the “I” that the poem is speaking.

Lalucq’s work contains great défis — challenges defying translation — in lineation, rhythm, in the transpositions, say, of adjective-noun (English) and noun-adjective (French) that underpin each language’s structure and conveyance of power. Then, Gallais and Hogue confront a redoubled challenge: to translate the lyric overflow of Nancy’s reading of Lalucq’s poem, to make Nancy’s text work alongside Lalucq’s in English, as well as in French.           

Translators know that translating quotations (and here Nancy quotes the entire poem!) inside the work of another author is not easy. You can’t always use a previous English version of the quotation, because what was important in it to the one who quotes may have been stripped away in the standard English version. To translate it again means creating a foreignness that insists on the provisionality of all translation, context, readings, executions. Out of this, somehow, Gallais and Hogue create a version of the poem that works in both its roles.

Fortino Sámano is poetry in translation that pushes my own relationship with English into a new place of questioning, and that refuses the process of legitimation that so often goes hand in hand with translation, a process that often unwittingly seeks poetry from other languages that reflects, or can be translated as reflecting, values already embedded in American poetry. Fortino Sámano brings something new into North American poetries, not just in the line or in the stanza, not just in the image or its refusal, but in the structure, tension, and extension of the poems as book as well.

Words, says Nancy on the last page of his piece, are always démesurés — “unmeasurable,” but also beyond measure, disproportionate, excessive, unruly. And in the mouth, they do run backward to aphasia, as the book’s epigraph (Jacques Roubaud via Rosemarie Waldrop) advises us before we begin.

How then can we read at all? A face, an image, a memory, a poem? Lalucq’s creation insists on this question, on its cut and fracture. Nancy addresses the question as well, by reminding us what poetry can do: “The poem gives words a common measure, which reading recalculates each time.” He ends by insisting we read the poem aloud, starting with its title: For-tin-o Sá-ma-no. The poem overflows now into our own vocal apparatus; we execute it out loud.



PS: Three wee remarks (no translator can repress a few remarks) that don’t diminish my love of this book. 1) There is a second photo of Sámano, at the execution wall, also taken by Agustín Victor Casasola on January 12, 1917, seen on this site just below the photo that Lalucq saw. 2) The Breton verb “disac’her” is in dictionaries: here we are told that disac’her means dépanner, in the sense of faire avancer, débloquer, to get something going again, get over a breakdown or obstacle. As well: [x] Disac’her : vb. (de disac’han) vider un sac, sortir d’un bourbier, débloquer, finir par dire sa pensée. It’s in the Vocabulaire du breton d’aujourd’hui, by H. J. Gouélian, Editions Jean-paul Gisserot, 2002. And here: disac’hañ: (v) s’ébouler; débloquer, dépanner, décoincer. 3) To write a poem, or to read an image, concludes Lalucq, is a difficult harvest from steep terrain using a faucille, which is a sickle, a one-handed instrument that lets you cut while leaving one hand free to grasp what’s cut. With a “scythe” (as Hogue and Gallais have it), a faux, both hands must grasp the tool; the swinging would be precarious on a slope and the cut stems, the harvest, would cascade out of reach.  

A walking proposition

On Pam Rehm’s 'The Larger Nature'

The Larger Nature

The Larger Nature

Pam Rehm

Flood Editions 2011, 71 pages, $14.95, ISBN 978-0981952086

Pam Rehm is a poet whose work consistently abounds with a quiet intensity. The nature of this intensity might best be described, as in her opening poem, “Another Dimension,” as an “evident immersion / in another dimension” (4), a “diligent seclusion” being the necessary beginning to such an immersion. This other “dimension,” a way of being, thinking, and observing, is a space imagined by Rehm where words fail, or at least present limitations, for “Stepping among the primary questions / the body is altered attention” (1).

Rehm’s newest book of poems, The Larger Nature, formally continues the spare lyricism that has marked her previous books from Flood Editions. Rehm’s poems courageously employ an unadorned sparseness recognizing limitation rather than deprivation; their manner is austere, negotiating sight, the eye, with a spiritual diffusion: “Your vision will alight / the fire to create // a continual source / of sustenance” (13). Indeed, it is the prospect of vision that impels the lived life of Rehm’s poems for a reader, at least this reader. It is a vision whose desire is a necessary and difficult cultivation. The poems emerge from a genuine and searching rigor, like a monk’s hermeneutic: “It is the road to ardor / wrought through uncertainty” (19). In another way, the poems’ austere manner and searching register reflect an unspoken vow towards poverty. The austerity of spirit and observance seems a value the poet cultivates from the depths of the questions and inquiries that surface into a form of attention. And it is in this kind of rare attention that Rehm is that speaker, unafraid of considering the provenance of the human soul and the heart. 

In the poem “I Followed, I Found, I Went Down,” the speaker makes silence an object of attention: “I uncover his trail / what is really there // Searching and waiting / I keep close to him —” (17). If silence is a stranger, it is also a stranger, for Rehm, who might provoke her heart to some kind of transfiguration. After all, as Rehm catalogues silence’s status and objecthood, he is a presence to be pursued: “He is the hawk / He is the ten-mile walk / and I follow his fear // He is alone / He is the insatiable eye / the sky flows out of / to keep the birds near” (17). Rehm cultivates the very possibility that silence is a kind of altar by which one listens; it is a necessary condition to uphold and cultivate as a meditational space.

Rehm’s lyricism borders on being awestruck by the eye’s ear. In sight there exists a quiet listening; Rehm listens to her earth in solitude, in an almost religious ecstasy, and wanders the fields of her geography, all the while open to being woven by the strands of her immersions into the natural world. In a retreat to nature, there is freedom that cannot be replicated by our immersion in society: “I wend down the street / take a detour through leaves / to emulate freedom / from traffic, crowds” (67). Here, recognizing that nature is a site of opportunity, a place to immerse oneself, the speaker posits that the act of retreat into the natural world might equal the silence of the “land’s mercy” (66). It is as much a perception as a striving to actively dwell in the house of nature with its comings and goings. In this dwelling there is intimacy. There is a retreat into the natural landscape, as well as a retreat into the mind’s cavernous spaces.

Just as in the natural world, or just as Rehm’s local environment demonstrates metamorphosis and flux, we are beings whose identity constantly experiences shifts and changes. But in our private space of housing a body, flux is arbitrary. In her poem “Identity,” she writes: “Thinking between / the apartment and the street // how easy it is // to change / one’s mind” (7). And the poem that follows, “Continuity,” reads in its entirety:

What survives scatter
insists upon the power to rise

Seeds dropped from mouths
or spit a distance

remnants that become
something else

Something other than

 attachment (8)

 In Rehm’s use of a seed as a metaphor for transformation, we are able to see how her thinking asks the reader to consider that the ways in which we exist in the world are amorphous rather than stable. There is also the quality of chance embedded in transformation because there’s no underlying promise that a particular object or way of thinking will continue to thrive in its physical or mental environment. Rehm proposes, though, that those traces of the seed that do “survive scatter” are wholly opposed to becoming calcified by permanence. They continue in an uninterrupted process of new connections being temporarily fused. 

Rehm’s poems don’t begin with a concrete realization; rather, they carefully grope towards a way of existing in the world. While much might be made of our daily, modern clatter, our rich and cacophonous human activities and their attendant language acts, Rehm’s poems seem concerned with crafting and proposing an inquiry of what may very well confound our immediate understanding; that is, Rehm lingers over and invites her reader into an activity that necessitates the act of listening, as if poetry, and its ancient calling, demanded anything less. Her poetry begins with an inherent skepticism in language, in words, that they can make their mark. She acknowledges that “The imagination struggles // Words intensely aware of / distance bowing to distance” (35).

Throughout The Larger Nature, the act of walking is offered as an activity where one might exist and think with the evidence of things we live among, both animate and inanimate; it is also a practice, an activity as old as the poem, where we might dwell. In perhaps a revealing line from the “Depths of the World,” we read: “Faith is underfoot” (54). And in the same poem, Rehm announces that “I have become one / possessed / to walk the earth” (55). Walking is a form of movement; the act of walking is almost as individual as its walker. From “Another Dimension,” we read: “Walking on all fours / it is bold to reach an animal capacity” (2). And further on in the same poem: “A lane, a journey / every footstep” (2). For Rehm, the foot in motion, treading the earth, opens a space for something to happen. It is an act deeply rooted in traversing distances, physical, emotional, and psychical, to be in pursuit of a depth realized within one’s capacity for reflection and from one’s attendant relationship to the materials outside one’s consciousness. Rehm’s serial poem “The World’s Welter” begins: “Perhaps there are many ways / to be at home in the world // I know this is the torture / of the imagination” (34). Then, further on in the poem, Rehm writes that “Out of the turbulence / of this world’s welter / I’d feel better // walking” (38). For Rehm, walking is almost akin to a monastic retreat; it provides the space for reflection, where “For as long as possible / our lives plumb the depths // the whole fragile edifice” (38).

As in her previous books, Rehm continues to bring the reader into even sparer territory; a territory affixed to thinking’s joy, terror, confusion, and uncertainty. She mines a metaphysical depth, which meditatively unpacks the distance between the phenomenal world and individuality. In the poem “Grace,” Rehm asks: “What / would we be without // gravity and the silence / of a single needle on a // pine tree; each one, an / entire emblem for the whole” (32). With characteristic attention to those larger questions, Rehm pursues the vitality of living just off the grid. Her poems restlessly confront the imagination’s power to both make and unmake a world, a space to inhabit, while also negotiating the tenuous reaches of perception.

Whether in the taut, quickly descending lines down the page, or the white space surrounding her words and lines, she proposes new insights into being in the world as perceiver, crossing a risky boundary between spirit and matter. How many poets can get away with declaring, “The earth connects to the soul” (3) or “I can imagine the body / embroidered to the soul” (5)? If Rehm is a poet of deep abstraction, her poems ask us to reacquaint ourselves with such a word as soul, which almost seems passé to our modern sensibilities. At the heart of Rehm’s poems, a longing sense for a navigable homeland carries an abiding wager to her work. This wager is altogether a vital sign that poems matter, that poetry still has a job to do in making our dwelling-place in the world legible.

“To bind the mind / to the ocular” (68) is perhaps one of the undergirding, ecumenical statements that serves as a coda to Rehm’s The Larger Nature. In poem after poem, Rehm alights on the distance between sight and perception, how we attempt to bridge that gap. For all of Rehm’s exhilarating and probing engagement with abstraction, she is also the committed observer of the natural landscape, the walker that declares “I shall read the Earth // I will clasp it // I will put on / the image of form” (52). Earlier on in the same poem, “The Depths Of The World,” she admits: “Now I write / with the perception of walking // a wanderer losing / the trail” (48). Rehm’s terse phrasings, her formal spareness, sound the depths of walking through this world in the hopes of finding some refuge, some labyrinth that can be measured. 

Ongoing 'Planisphere' notebook

At right: John Ashbery. Photo by Arielle Brousse.



John Ashbery

Ecco 2009, 143 pages, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-06-191521-5


People are much too free with the phrase “a great book of poetry.” They think if the book has ten really good pieces in it then it’s a great book.

They don’t talk that way about albums. For it to be a great album it can’t just have some hits. You have to consider the not-hits, too. I wanna say: If you simply skip over the not-hits with no regret whatsoever, you can’t really call it a great album.

Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs has twenty, maybe thirty jewels. Plenty of the not-jewels are more or less unintelligible. Yet you regret skipping them. Somehow they contribute something to the overall presentation; you never wish ’em away. Shakespeare’s sonnets — same thing. Heaven knows one does pick up these books and skip to the best stuff. But one regrets it.

Now compare all that with, for example, Yeats’s The Tower. There, you have plenty of hits, but you skip over the other stuff quite, quite gladly. It’s boring. You have to assign the not-hits to yourself like homework. I do, anyway. Planisphere, meanwhile, is almost exactly the reverse. The hits are in rather short supply — but you really do wish you could take in the whole thing, every time you read any of it.

Trying to pick out anthology pieces from Planisphere would be like trying to take excerpts from a CD of whale songs. You don’t put that stuff on for five minutes.

And actually, you could say this is a large part of the nerviness of Ashbery’s work. He has dared — for fifty years  — to be supremely unportable.


On the other hand, if an editor were prepared to concoct an Ashbery “Selected” in total defiance of any and all expectations — principally the expectation that such a collection ought to contain {pieces representative of the poet’s oeuvre as a whole} + {a more or less even distribution of poems, starting with Some Trees and ending with Planisphere} — if, I say, an editor could forget about all that, he or she could deliver an Ashbery hitherto unsuspected by his detractors, and, to a lesser extent, unsuspected by his admirers.

A fine samizdat project for some enterprising young citizen.

(I recommend including “The Youth’s Magic Horn” from Hotel Lautréamont, and “… By An Earthquake” from Can You Hear, Bird. From Planisphere: “Default Mode.”)


Actually, now that I think of it, another way in which Ashbery is quite portable is on the level of the individual line or ‘bit.’ Nothing easier than to gather neat buttons at the button store. Here’s a grab bag:

I’m barely twenty-six, have been on Oprah
and such. (2)

Call me potatoes and soap.
Call me soap and potatoes. (10)

They were living in America further gone into teats. (17)

Ow. In fact ouch. (44)

Refusing to admit
something is the matter with you is like taking
a life. There are no witnesses. (46)

You say your cunning comportment
is artless? Well then so am I
for containing you, champ. (54)

A love like self-love
upgraded to “pastoral.” (68)

Alongside, something was running.
It had a note in its maw. Hey,
give me that, like a good animal.
That’s fine. Now get lost. (89)

[…] and the boy stands at attention, distracted,
in the sexual chapel surrounded
by correct, cream-colored leaves. (92)

The playoffs — don’t get upset. (96)

He was a very mobile person throughout his life,
instrumental in helping promote the Indians. (98)

What about poisonous sea snakes?
I know one. I bet you do. (107)

Then it’s back to basics, or in
my case forensics. What doesn’t
dapple you makes you strong. (107) 

Or ask Leporello. (107)

It was time to drink,
and drink they did until the heavens reopened
and the stars were raked into a pile. (115) 

Why what a lovely day/street/
blank canvas/pause/orb/
old person/new song/milestone/
caned seat this is! (119)

So we’ll go no more a-teething. (125)

Claymation is so over. (130)

Here as I have erected
to do is a baseball bat. (132) 

It wasn’t meant to stand for what it stood for.
Only a pup tent could do that. (133) 

If tact is a mortal sin
we shall not miss. (135)

The above nosegay was not created casually. Those twenty-one items were culled from a batch more than three times that length: a comprehensive transcript of all the passages that are neatly underlined in light green ink, in my copy of Planisphere.

Anyone who has read the book is bound to view the above selection with a pleasant combination of recognition and bewilderment. Anyway, about half the time R. reads me choice bits out of his copy, I think Ah?? Now how did that get by me?

After all, though, it’s not too hard to figure that one out. Book’s a forest litter.

4. Some common objectings to Ashbery — answered


(a) Doesn’t all this allegory and code on the subject of poetry-writing itself get a bit wearisome after a while? I mean, it’s not like he’s saying anything bold. And it’s every other poem.

(b) The persona of this book — gentle, quirky, finicky, likable, 100% harmless in every way — don’t you ever get sick of the coyness of all that, the self-satisfaction?

(c) Aren’t seventy or eighty percent of these diction oddities just a bunch of honors-dorm humor?

A stupor like sheep’s nostrils
chases the ground. Day arrives with a thwack
and is left to sit all day. (129)

I’ll have a mustard coke. (134)

  — and so on. —


(a) When people object to poetry about poetry, it’s usually because they don’t like the specific attitude being struck. Anyhow, in my experience, the same readers who reject Ashbery’s devotion to writing about poetrywriting never seem to mind it when, say, Hafez or Han Shan relentlessly handle the exact same theme. The difference is that those two guys never do anything but vaunt poetry’s powers. Meanwhile, Ashbery is a relentless skeptic, both of the art in general and of his own stuff in particular. Which is the very reason he is attractive to some readers. 

(b) Is Ashbery coy and self-satisfied? Take the case of Ashbery’s references (supposedly much multiplied since Flow Chart, 1990) to his own can’t-be-very-far-off death. Ashbery always handles the theme in exactly the same tonal register:

I guess I must be going. (2)
Now it was time, and there was nothing for it (6)
Don’t forget to write! (64)
I was halfway out the door anyway (70)
There is nothing like putting off a journey (75)
Yet one says, so long (81)
I’ll be on my way (99)
I have to go (108)
Well I can’t stay (129)
We’re moving today (130)
We’d better be getting along before it gets dark (135)
Soon it was time to choose another climate (139)

 Now, obviously the tone here is appealing. Modest, inoffensive, quotidian — and above all, reconciled. (He even has a poem here that begins, “As virtuous men float mildly away. …”) And the question isn’t even whether all this is a sham or not. It’s whether there’s an unseemly self-amusement/self-satisfaction evident.

Say it is a sham. A fantasy of going gently into that good night. As fantasies go, it’s not ignoble. The poet is led away to the common slaughter, his eyes wide open, his mind somewhat fuddled, his mouth full of neither fulsome blessings nor thrilling curses. He says merely Bye now! and Que sais-je?

Sounds like as good a way to go as any. The obnoxious thing would be if Ashbery were rubbing that ideal up the reader’s snout. Certain people can’t help but take it that way, depending on how strongly they think it’s the wrong fantasy. If your aesthetics of deathbed speeches calls for Shakespearean oratory (of one form or another) or zoinks of Zen cold fusion, then you’re bound to feel like Ashbery’s trying to score a point off ol’ Shakespeare or whatever. 

In other words: “self-satisfied”? Sure, if you like. But if you say the li’l guy routine is a smarmy put-on, I say unto you: Examine your conscience. I bet your objection is more to li’l guys than to put-ons and smarm.

(c) Diction oddities and honors-dorm humor. Now, here I’m happy to admit Ashbery’s sense of fun does not do it for me, a whoppin’ percent of the time. Phrases like “mandrills on the turnpike” leave me cold, cold. But there is a very great difference between being left cold and being provoked to the kind of rage represented by a certain familiar illustration from Through the Looking-Glass

That’s how I used to react.

What made me change? That’s easy. I stopped thinking Ashbery was grinding an axe with that stuff. Making a point. Mocking expectations. Being deliberately lame. These days, I just figure he thinks all that stuff is swell, and I calmly disagree. 

I still have Tweedledum-style meltdowns from time to time, but latterly I reserve that kind of thing for situations where I have to listen to the dorks defending the yaks and the thwacks and the mustard cokes by recourse to high-sounding words and philosophy.

(This is actually a deep point about misplaced dislikes of Ashbery. Gotta take care not to hate him when you should be hating the people who smack their silly lips over the worst parts of him.)



Pol. What is the matter my Lord.
Ham. Betweene who.
Pol. I meane the matter you reade my Lord.
Ham. Slaunders sir; for the satericall rogue sayes here, that old men haue gray beards, that their faces are wrinckled, their eyes purging thick Amber, & plumtree gum, & that they haue a plentifull lacke of wit, together with most weake hams, all which sir though I most powerfully and potentlie belieue, yet I hold it not honesty to haue it thus set downe, for your selfe sir shall growe old as I am: if like a Crab you could goe backward.

MRS TEASDALE: I’ve sponsored your appointment because I feel you are the most able statesman in all Freedonia.
FIREFLY: Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You’d better beat it. I hear they’re gonna tear you down and put up an office building where you’re standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can’t leave in a taxi you can leave in a huff. If that’s too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff. You know you haven’t stopped talking since I came here? You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle. 

These are samples of bewildering nonsense. Which is not to say there isn’t any sense there. In fact, it’s almost all sense. It’s just strange.

What exactly would have to be left out from those bits to make ’em into Ashbery poems? And what would need to be added? I feel like if I could put my finger on that, I’d really have something.

I think most of what stops the Hamlet and Groucho bits from being Ashbery poems is the jiu-jitsu aspect. In both cases, an affront is being prosecuted, quite single-mindedly. Ashbery would never do that. He only allows bitchiness or obnoxiousness to show their heads for half a second.

You know something?
I don’t care. (12) 

— and the like.

But even if we leave out the aggressive energy, the Groucho/Hamlet things still have too much forward momentum to count as Ashberian. Their logic doesn’t zigzag any old way; rather, it spirals upward and comes to a point, like a sundae with its cherry. The cherry is not ice cream; crabs have nothing to do with it; where did that phonograph needle come from — and there you are. It’s the “and there you are” effect that makes Hamlet or Groucho quite distinct from the author of Planisphere.

Ah. To make a poem that might pass for genuine Ashbery, you have to create speed without momentum. The associations have to move as rapidly as they do in the material quoted above, but they can’t seem to be tumbling downhill. You can have an exciting ending, but it has to come out of nowhere. Or seem to. 

Naturally, the above principle is violated occasionally by the master himself. But when he does so, he produces a poem that would never win a Pass-Yourself-Off-As-Ashbery Contest. Wouldn’t even make semifinals.

(Young poets should take heed. For many and many a magazine does indeed operate almost exactly like a Pass-Yourself-Off-As-Ashbery Contest.)


Occurs to me to mention: people need to stop talking about Ashbery’s poetry like it mimics the way people think. I mean, I guess it does, in a sense. But.

Here, look at this famous thing out of Hobbes:

For in a Discourse of our present civill warre, what could seem more impertinent, than to ask (as one did) what was the value of a Roman Penny? Yet the Cohærence to me was manifest enough. For the Thought of the warre, introduced the Thought of delivering up the King to his Enemies; The Thought of that, brought in the Thought of the delivering up of Christ; and that again the Thought of the 30 pence, which was the price of that treason: and thence easily followed that malicious question; and all this in a moment of time; for Thought is quick.

In that sense, yes. Ashbery mimics the flow of, etc. But real free associations don’t have anywhere near the kind of verbal body that the poems in Planisphere have. When one is ambling through one’s day, washing dishes, unloading the car, one’s thoughts are like a muddy river on which a few twigs and sticks are being pulled along. Those are words and phrases. The river itself is something else again. If one were to translate the whole river into language, it would look like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It certainly wouldn’t look like a Planisphere poem.

I say this with some heat because I have heard Ashbery explained ten billion times in terms implying that the justification for his procedures lies in the way they reveal something about how consciousness operates. As if that’s why he’s good! But how uninteresting Ashbery would be if his explainers were right about him. To me, the exhilaration of the thing is not that it mimics the flow of consciousness; it does something much better. It mimics the flow of a superhuman consciousness. 

This is the thing it has in common with the Hamlet and the Groucho bits. Nobody could make all that stuff up at that speed in real time. If a person pulls it off to the depth of twenty seconds, he or she is said to be in rare form, “on a roll,” and so on. You wanna run off and write down what they said.


The speed of the associations is its own thing. It doesn’t need defending under color of mimesis. But there is one thing about Ashbery’s poems that really is wonderfully mimetic of ordinary mental operations. The strong — and indeed unignorable — presence of banality. Ashbery has found a hundred good uses for that.

I’m reminded of Auden on the subject of Boswell’s journals:

When we read Rousseau or Stendhal or Gide, we are conscious of artful highlights and shadows, and keep asking ourselves, “Now, just what was his secret motive for confessing this or recalling that?” But when we read Boswell, the character presented is as complete and transparent as a character in a novel by Defoe or Dickens; we cannot imagine there being any more to know than we are told.
          Take for example, the following extract:

When I got home, I was shocked to think I had been intimately united with a low, abandoned, perjured, pilfering creature. I determined to do so no more; but if the Cyprian fury should seize me, to participate my amorous flame with a genteel girl.

An ego-conscious writer like Stendhal would never have allowed himself to write phrases like “the Cyprian fury” or “my amorous flame”; he would have reflected, “These are clichés. Clichés are dishonest. I must put down exactly what I mean in plain words.” But he would have been mistaken, for everyone’s self, including Stendhal’s, does think in clichés and euphemisms […]. 

Auden’s defense of cliché is limited to its deployment in self-portraiture: diaries and the like. He prizes it as evidence of honesty, authenticity. But that’s not what I’m saying about Ashbery. I’m saying Ashbery’s insistent use of phrases like “I kind of liked it, though” and “it was so nice outside” represents THE thing his poems have in common with normal thought. NOT the speed of association.

When it comes to speed, the poems are analogous to thought. The banality, on the other hand, is the thing itself. 


A previous version of this piece first appeared in January 2010 on Digital Emunction (now defunct).

His own shine, her smooth inscrutable

A review of Pattie McCarthy’s ‘Marybones’

Right: McCarthy reading at the Kelly Writers House on January 23, 2013.



Pattie McCarthy

Berkeley: Apogee Press 2012, 70 pages, $15.95, ISBN 978-0-9851007-3-5

I’ve heard people gasp when they first see the cover of Pattie McCarthy’s Marybones. They’re responding to the fabulous and impossible breasts (one in particular) in Jean Fouquet’s 1452 painting. This Madonna is pornographic: anachronistically Barbie-dollish and as gray as a corpse. And the infant on her lap is also morbid, made of a kind of marble, oddly jointed, like a marionette or a sketch for a Pixar character. Like most paintings of Mary, the predominant hue is blue.

There’s nothing human in this picture — nothing that could include you, you who have adored this image in various media — stone, glass, paintings, medallions — forever. Imploring this one woman who is tight with the Trinity: please intercede. Save him, me, them, us. And help me to be more like you — quiet, impenetrable, long-suffering — ye who are unlike all other women.

We turn the page: “The passive banter of saints.” Now we are in new territory — the world of postmodern poet as mother, as uninhibited Catholic, as barker at a carnival of Marian attractions, as chief mourner for all the Marys who’ve ever suffered; poet as historian and meticulous glutton. Mary only had one son, but it seems she had many daughters, including the author of this romp through two thousand years of Maryology.

In Marybones, McCarthy suckles and sees, reading everything from her children’s faces to Samuel Beckett’s letters in the light of the Mother of God. This is unabashedly emotional documentary poetry, triggered and informed by pretty much everything: the work of Ted Berrigan, Frank O’Hara, Lorine Niedecker, a fugitive NPR broadcast, Social Security Administration records, paintings, art histories, encyclopedias, an online timeline of the Salem witch trials, and Babar the Elephant (and more — see the note on sources at the back of the book).

McCarthy might have written this book for me, though she didn’t know me. Or else the history of “afflicted girls … possibly mary” who “was in line when FDR shut the banks” (10, like my own grandmother Mary) is so general and vast that it only seems like McCarthy has divined the story of my particular Irish girl in the mosh pit of Marys.

Though individual women are invisible and disposable, “Mary” is everywhere. “Mary / was surprised her son was given CPR since he was shot three / times in the head” (24); Mary is the name of a caulked ship (45); Mary is nursing in every possible and impossible position and medium (56); Mary is suffering:

mary is pregnant when        the mayflower
leaves leiden                      mary gives
birth to a stillborn son                   only ten months
after burying                       an unnamed child
                                                   mary gives
birth to a stillborn son                      while still at anchor
in plymouth harbor           Friday                     22 december
1620                       mary already
has two daughters             named mary (34)

I devoured Marybones the way I devoured Susan Howe’s The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History and My Emily Dickinson — prose of historical inquiry and imagination feeding some hunger I didn’t know I had. But Marybones is poetry, and the tone is hectic, partly because it was written in the digital era. Here the Internet flickers like a wacky votive. It’s as if Billy Preston were playing the piano with one hand while fingering the electronic organ with the other (all the while listening to hear if the baby has woken from her nap). There’s a lot going on most of the time. And then, sometimes, things slow down, as in the sisterly lyric “maudlin” (a lullaby that includes the word “intertextual”).

Though apparently housebound with small children, McCarthy travels, taking us from vesperbild to pietà, from a Stabat Mater to ebay, from Goya to pie charts of fecundity and mortality in the 1700s. The cult of the Virgin and the imperatives of the Church have yielded millions and millions of babies; half of them seem to be mentioned in this book. Marybones is a maternity ward or a cemetery in a time of plague, a ship packed with emigrant women named Mary. Milk flows and dries up in sentences and lines, a kind of blue wash throughout the book.

There’s a lot of color in the book, because there are a lot of paintings and icons. Lots of names, lots of marvelous Latinate vocabulary and repetition, a kind of syntactical rocking (“rock & hum”).

After reading and loving Marybones, I reread Marina Warner’s Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. Mary’s singularity always made her seem lonely to me, and sometimes made me feel lonely too. Now when I think of Jesus’s mother, McCarthy’s “horizontal collaborator,” I will think of George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous and Edouard Glissant’s “consent not to be a single being.” There are so many of her. So many of us.