Trying to keep your voice clear (your voice will break)

A review of Joseph Lease's 'Testify'



by Joseph Lease

Coffee House Press 2011, 63 pages, $16, ISBN 9781566892582

A new volume by Joseph Lease is cause for celebration by the most discerning readers and writers of poetry. Testify emerges at a timely point in American history, in which verisimilitude has become the order of the day; rote mimicry retains the tinny sound of a better past; and reflex has been turned away from what collective inner feeling remains. Against this ominous backdrop emerges a book that simultaneously owns the cultural realities, while refusing their inevitability.

Lease is the master of tenderness, crafting a deeply felt synthesis that is as potent in its specificity as it is accurate in its intuitive musicality. Each word feels equally found and chosen. One senses an unprecedented level of balance in the intellect and the heart that undergird this poetry. Not only does work by Lease speak to me, it singes while it sings, it reminds me of better selves within us all, selves that reach and recover and refashion the raw bounty given us.

Joseph Lease functions as the quintessential poet. The successive versions of his poems depict continual renewal that vibrantly shows in the works as it evolves far beyond their original versions. Lease’s singular use of anaphora, the deliberate repetition of a word or phrase for a specific effect, achieves perfection as it sings or cries its musical reality in repeated chant-like fragments that become in their aggregate more whole than any more traditional construction would allow.

And this is and you are and we
are: say we are the people: we are people, the people:
say democracy: say free and responsible government, say
popular consent:
say democracy so polarized, say polarized, say paralyzed (22)

The fourfold structure of Testify begins with the long poem “America,” and proceeds into “Torn and Frayed,” a sequence of shorter poems that distinguish multiple symptoms of harshness that define the current state. The work then moves into a reverent and powerful prayer sequence of “Send My Roots Rain,” concluding with “Magic,” a fusion of the emergent and desired miracle posited as the optimal definition of the possible.

Rarely does a book of poetry release universal truths so skillfully and passionately by pinpointing such surprising and specific images as “There’s a fist of meat in my solar plexus / and green light in my mouth and little chips of dream flake / off my skin.” Lease carries the reader with him as he allows supreme vulnerability to be sung.

In Lease’s words, “I’m trying to make change actual, to embody change. It has to do with the lyric sequence, and feeling tone, and scene structure. You can play self-consciousness, the way you can play the violin or the cello.” As a reader, I am more than willing to be carried forward by Lease’s work, implicitly trusting where he will carry me. Embracing knowledge as responsibility is the reconstituted innocence of Testify. A heartrending trio of lines, italicized, is allowed to guide “America”:

the sin most insistently called abhorrent to God is the failure
of generosity, the neglect of widow and orphan, the oppression
of strangers and the poor, the defrauding of the laborer —

Coming right out with the most accurate accusation of the greed that has been allowed to flourish as a national raison d’etre, Joseph Lease has mastered the art of selecting the harmonic that brings to life the pain of being induced into the scheme that has dissolved our collective dream. Testify becomes the act of trembling with courage to scream whispers to the hardened sky. The cap across the horror, the realization of the horror, the recognition that horror can be multiplied, and multiplies itself …

Rarely have I been so relieved to hear a person say the word “prayer” as I was in Lease’s poetry. The work instills a willingness to connect beyond limitation, in search of a full stop to the collective (t)error. The animal self-turned-narcissist, the sensory deprivation, the heart’s starvation, becomes the permanent and pure desire for touch, for release, for an inherent and everlasting music. Lease voyages to the right side of the brain where lines dissolve and the great act of “rescuing” a hypothetical democracy becomes possible again through recognition of the truth.

The chatter that fuels polarization through recitation of empty phrases like “free and responsible government,” “popular consent,” along with the projection of “Airbrushed / Gwynneth” and a host of recipes “write to your congressional representative,” further distance us both individually and collectively from the inner impulse to imagine an inherent music: “they keep showing / the real world on TV” (20).

Nature holds, primal scream holds, colors hold. Surfaces and edges hold. Just as “You / Are past the boundary now And repetition of the definition of “the sin most insistently called abhorrent to God” gathers material meaning as it continues like a snowball collecting dirt and tiny stones. In the poem “Enjoy Your Symptom,” we hear:

Really your whole stance of precious self-regard, your whole delicacy and force, is a fart at this point. No one cares. You’re just one more sensitive ice cream cone in a world of unemployable spaniels. (29)

The symptom assumes multiple forms in Lease’s work, as the poet gently, artistically splinters words across the page, depicting the constancy of desire, even as it has been warped away. In a parallel fashion, Leases uses insistent, syllabic points across to share a renewed form of reality:

Traces of snow in the
Autumn soft
Sung moons (36)

The brain, “ready or not,” delivers an interior, monologic, pounding chant:

You’re in the rain a million miles from rain and you and you
and you and you —  (41)

At the threshold of the moment, threats to the abbreviated individual immerse the psyche in its own possibility, acknowledging the bountiful arena of infinite holiness, of an unfathomable tenderness that never loses the word “vow,” the word “try.”

Authentication failed. “Dignify my renaissance.” In the
rhythm of hair and sky, in this telling so rivers and hedges
and horses, in this so hard then, so hard and free, in this
telling cradled by slow moss, breathing September. I can’t
break again. I want to give you this. Wander all day, sleep
like a dog, sleep like a wren, sleep like a fire. (“Your eyes are
made of cash and going broke.”) If I fall down or dance or
go across the road where orange leaves are spinning in a
thin gray rain. If I fall down or dance or go. (44)

Lease encompasses the division line between the specific self and the wall of community. “God won’t leave our / dreams alone” (53).

I find a singularly remarkable feature in Lease’s poetry that sets him apart from every romantically inclined writer I know. Lease can capture, depict, and bring to the forefront of consciousness the horror of human failing to be human, and without restraint transform the essential self to do what needs to be done. Consciousness becomes synonymous with responsibility.

turn toward night, speak into it: the bright invisible red
blood: you want, you need, which is it —

something tawdry, he writes behind glass, on life, on death,
cast a cold eye — passersby pass by —

the eye, O priests, is on fire, the buried life, the buried life —
                        shower door on grass, shower door on grass,
rain beads on jade — “you’re it” — (61)

The final section of the book, “Magic,” deliriously unfastens each of the specific figures and integers and points of understanding from its lockstep position.

branches, desire, little ifs of white spin in the bowl — (70)

Lease questions the “I,” the “me” the narcissistic spree of nonsense:

Jesus told “me” so, he gave “me” laws, he gave “me” diamond
rings, he gave “me” laws, he gave “me” nations too —  (71)

And in a final moment of chanted magic, the book closes with:

pro-business policy solutions solve your child’s sleep
problems book-birds shining leaves hang fat grapes so mist
deep kiss mouthful of wind like wet peonies his head is
winter are you a worker health insurance health insurance
health step into the water and step into the road step into
the water and step into the sky health insurance greed
health insurance greed before you know it you’re lying in a
pool of blood
            I hear that everywhere I go (75)

The singular, passionate, precise, and potently skilled energy revealed in Testify consists of truths that, as I repeat them in my voice, his voice, other voices, with which I can barely cope, knowing their accurate pain. This is poetry that is what it speaks. The sounds themselves attest to the power of immersion in the emergency of our culture.

If you do not buy any other poetry book this year, buy Testify by Joseph Lease. Read it aloud to anyone you love. And read it carefully, specifically, reverently, while trying to keep your voice clear (your voice will break). The breakage will be real, beyond mere sentiment; it will be the “fist of meat in [the] solar plexus” (11). You will experience word choice recovering the ingredient that found your pores. All of them.

This collision of multiplicity and singularity

A review of Thomas Fink's 'Yinglish Strophes 1-19'

Yinglish Strophes 1-19

Yinglish Strophes 1-19

by Thomas Fink

Truck Books 2009, 44 pages,

While this is a review of a particular title, I deliberately chose a title from Chris Alexander and Kristin Gallagher’s (quite) newly formed Truck Books. The press, based in Queens, has been publishing since 2009 and has published six titles to date. This Spring 2011 they have made three publications available: Robert Fitterman’s Now We Are Friends; as well as titles by the editors — Gallagher’s We Are Here (an expanded continuation of the latter half of her experimental essay “Some Limits of Ratio; or, Aesthetic Has No Goal” from Crayon 5, Roberto Harrison and Andrew Levy’s sincerely useful journal); and Alexander’s Panda.

Interestingly hidden among the book reviews in that same issue of Crayon is a (sometimes cruelly dismissive) provocation, “Neoliberal Poetry,” by Alexander, Gallagher, and Matthias Regan that writes from the accusatory observation that poetry’s marketplace has assumed the structure of deregulatory, free-market capitalism in which community gathers and functions through competitive need, and the winners are those whose self-promotion brands a product that recognizes and fulfills a market niche. In opposition they propose a recognition and reinvocation of a history of poets’ and poetries’ activity outside the logics of capital market and the communal activities (and communities) resultingly invented.

With Truck Books, Gallagher and Alexander gesture to community before market by making attractively designed perfect-bound books accessible on a sliding scale of $5 to $25, and by offering free PDFs of each publication. I don’t know of another poetry press that so explicitly accounts for and attempts interaction with the varyingly broad individual financial states of its community of readers. I’m writing this review not only out of a very active interest in the work of the poets they are publishing, but also in support of the ethics of their endeavor. Whether this model of publishing will be sustained by the community it invites remains to be seen.

(Tangentially: is there a conscious relation between this press and David Wilk’s alternately labeled Truck Press or Truck Books of the 1970s that additionally served as an effective small press distributor?)

Thomas Fink’s Yinglish Strophes 1–19 collects in one volume the series which has been appearing in his published work since After Taxes (Marsh Hawk, 2004) and which is now extended beyond nineteen in Peace Conference (Marsh Hawk, 2011). Each of the nineteen strophes writes a syntactically interrupted and incomplete English that emerges filtered through the syntax of Yiddish. These lyrics are set to a repeated formal constraint, in which the first line of the poem isolated is followed by a three-line stanza, a five-line stanza, a three-line stanza, a four-line stanza, and then sometimes another stanza of varying length. In this repetition lies the strophiness, I suppose, and its consistency forms by contrast the continuously interruptive style of the series. 

Rather than representing the Yiddish-syntaxed English of the Ashkenazi-American immigrant as a gap in the complex (and often neurotic comedic) transfer of trauma between an immigrant generation and their English-fluent offspring (think Philip Roth, Art Spiegelman, Woody Allen), Fink’s strophes perform the translative gap in the landing of Yinglish syntax as both an investigation of the speaker’s expression of immigrant experience and, in a productive simultaneity, the flexibility and concerns of the poet-descendant’s hearing.

Though only a few of the poems explicitly infer a younger, English-fluent addressee, an intergenerational relation is active in each poem, for as Fink’s writing of Yinglish syntax creates a distinctly heard voice from poem to poem, it also plays a multiplicity of meanings in the word apprehended by the writer/listener whose generational status as emerged cultural fluent arrests the syntax as a subject of investigation. This is to write that these poems are distinctly not persona poems, in the most productive way. For while they consistently write a person’s voice, they write that person through the poet’s attention to the problems of signification in language. The titles of these poems (“Yinglish Strophes¹,” “Yinglish Strophes²,” etc …), by maintaining the plural of the series title (“Strophes”) in each instance, performatively point to this collision of multiplicity and singularity in the poems.

(Note: sometimes the inversions and absences of the Yinglish syntax explicitly express ambiguities in the space between people, i.e. “Sometimes friends / grow out you or / you grow out them.” While expressing the assertion of singular identity (an outgrowing and separating from your friends), the syntax also speaks a sense that friendship and identity are inseparable multiplicities in which people are growing from the bodies of others.)

Remarkable to these poems is how the poet’s attention to the multiple significations in the inverted English syntax of the speaker — an attention marked by interruptive line breaks and punctuation, mis-punned hearings and spellings — can also reflect itself back onto the person-voice in the language, not as mockery, but as a compassionate (a compassion not rooted in nostalgia) imagining of what this language signifies about particular immigrant experiences. What is investigated is an experience of identity in repeatedly speaking an English through Yiddish

“… No more 66 years.
Still greenhorn on the mouth
that’s me."

that expresses a non-distinction in perceiving abstract concept and physical object:

“                … The small
of the sentence, cavity
spoiling the mouth off.”

that inverts subject and object:

“Everyone keeps when they go 

to war things.”

walks a tonal ambiguity between statement and rhetorical question or exclamation:

“                              … She
wouldn’t let you anybody 

should help her”


“(A baby can explain

both assigns the gendered pronouns of Yiddish to objects and confuses the pronouns of English, can quickly cross the line into incomprehensibility, and must forcibly repeat the gap between the intention of saying and the said.

These investigations are often conducted through individual poems that begin with a subject integral to immigrant experience. “Yinglish Strophes²,” for example, writes the expression of adopted American nationalism in relation to Cold War politics:

Yinglish Strophes ²

Everyone keeps when they go

to war things. You remember
Miss Liberty? Russia’s a liar;
I don’t believe him. How

 far are they? They’re in
Cuba. They’re slaves. And they

want to expand over the whole
world they want. Not human
people there to give human

rights anyone. I like capitalism.

As far as I remember
is a lot progress. My

dentures isn’t Republic or Democratic.

Listen, it’s just as bad
all around and no president’ll
do any better. To find

meaningful jobs the unemployed. High
cost of living what can
we do about. A great

country like this shouldn’t
have their own oil, their own
everything? I have sweet potatoes
don’t give me. Soon, soon,
soon, soon you’ll get your

The speaker here expresses her/his relation to the US and Russia as gendered and pronouned: “You remember / Miss Liberty? Russia’s a liar; / I don’t believe him” (in which I’m strangely hearing Dylan’s reply to the “Judas” screamer!); and then voices ethical concerns of communist expansion: “Not human / people there to give human // rights anyone.” The situation of the stanza break in these lines critically reflects back on the expressed refusal to view the communist subject as human, by constructing the self-justifying nature of such as refusal in the statement “to give human, rights anyone.”

(Note: by instigating the addition of absent words and punctuation to fill out the sentence, Fink uses the Yinglish syntax as an expansion of the possibilities of reading by filling absences into multiple significations.)

The speaker then voices a permissive relation to the foreign policy of her/his adopted nation (“A great / country like this shouldn’t have / their own oil, their own / everything?”) that reanimates the origins of American manifest destiny with the debt of experiencing the nation as a refuge from persecution. This sense is affirmed and identified with its relation to capital gain and comfort of material possession by pun in the last lines of the poem when the speaker interrupts to address the listener: “Soon, soon, / soon, soon you’ll get your / steak.” 

Not all of the poems in this volume are so explicitly referential. The first six or so poems in the volume tend towards the declaration (with a not too filtering fidelity) of a discrete subject, while these subjects (nationalism, capitalism, religious and generational differences, narratives of an othered past) then seem to happen less as organizing principles in later poems, but rather reoccur within the poems’ somewhat entropic trajectory. 

Considering that quite a few lines have been drawn in the last few decades’ sand between poem as language subordinate to a speaker’s voice, and poem as investigation of the way meaning is produced in language, it is significant to read work that is clearly concerned with what performing both might mean. In Fink’s Yinglish Stropes 1–19, this involves creating a second-language speaker as an investigation of underlying structures in signification, but not only, it also uses the significance of those structures to better perceive the speaker’s world in relation to the act of it being written.  

A Marxian whelm of a pillowcase

A review of Timothy Donnelly's 'The Cloud Corporation'

The Cloud Corporation

The Cloud Corporation

by Timothy Donnelly

Wave Books 2010, 144 pages, $16, ISBN 9781933517476

Timothy Donnelly’s second full-length book of poetry, The Cloud Corporation, is chock-full of feverish strings of iambs and strictly measured stanzas that deftly lilt their way into the subconscious. Donnelly’s virtuosic aptitude for employing traditional poetic form to deliver delightfully idiosyncratic content will come as no surprise to any reader already familiar with the poet’s previous collection, Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit. As Richard Howard observes in the foreword to that volume, “every poem coils about its syntax like a sleek python of reticulated verbality” (ix). What moves The Cloud Corporation into distinctively new, and welcome territory, is Donnelley’s inspired decision to indenture this formal prowess into the structural backdrop for his text.

The poems in The Cloud Corporation are fundamentally aware of themselves as objects of production. Donnelly frames each poetic art-object as an aesthetic commodity with the reflective capacity to wonder “why clouds we manufacture / provoke in an audience more positive, lasting / response than do comparable clouds occurring in nature” (31). This approach frees Donnelly to embrace the role of aesthete even as he dissects poetry’s inevitable complicity in the construct of capitalism.

The Cloud Corporation is populated by a mélange of first-person personas with an array of spatial and temporal origins. There are historical, contemporary, and imagined characters occupying landscapes that range from ancient Mesopotamia to the 9/11 Commission Report. These voices are intensely communal, mapping themselves over a “we” that sifts through both time and space. Collectively, these protagonists, whatever their origin, strive to imagine “what it might be like to live / detached from the circuitry that suffers me to crave” (146). They systematically chip away at the finely crafted veneers of the poems they occupy, all the while rebuking themselves, and us, for our inability to see past them.

A cloud of hypocritical guilt looms over the proceedings, which constantly calls into question the efficacy of any resistance these voices prepare to implement. If a poem’s position as an art-object provides a soapbox from which to launch a program of resistance, it is also a potential prison, where aesthetic value is prized absolutely. “I don’t want to have to / locate divinity in a loaf of bread, in a sparkler, / or in the rainlike sound the wind makes through // mulberry trees,” writes Donnelly in the book’s fourth poem, The New Hymns, “not tonight” (10).

Just as he plays the restraints of form and meter against the emerging voices of these poems, Donnelly allows the notion of singular transcendent genius to collapse under its own weight. “Listen to them carry on / about gentleness,” he continues later in the same poem, “when it’s inconceivable / that any kind or amount of it will ever be able to // balance the scales” (10). Rather than pulling away from introspection and self-discovery, Donnelly writes straight into these modes, embracing them with a cacophony of self-reflective “I’s” all reflecting at once. The result of this rhetorical end run is a sort of communal transcendence that refuses to accept compartmentalization.

To call these poems political, at least in a conventional sense, would be a distinct misrepresentation. These poems make no attempt to call readers to any particular action, aside from a general resistance to the status quo. And yet, neither are they apolitical. The poem Dream of Arabian Hillbillies — an amalgamation of language appropriated from Osama Bin Laden and the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies — searingly underscores the absurd repugnance of our contemporary political power structure even as it outlines, with businesslike pragmatism, the humble species of resistance we can hope to expect:

                                   May your life
not be a lifelong movie of your life
     but a steadfast becoming other than that

which you are: a slave to the power
     fiddling among hills of fed clouds and shaken
into wonderment like a shot horse barely
     gathering will to lay down with it, y’hear? (82) 

These are not propagandistic poems of revolution, but neither are they a battle cry for the disillusioned. Rather than simply identify the ills of society, Donnelly deliberately exposes the systems, both internal and external, that prevent us from righting them. These poems are fundamentally disinterested in oversimplification; they strive to expand their net of introspection “to know the world’s big backslap // unhampered by the stream of this or any downpour” (92).

Donnelly presents us with a veritable Marxist tract for the twenty-first century, fueled by a nagging uncertainty about revolution’s inevitability. He redeploys complex Marxian notions such as commodity fetishism (“I hear the naked hands of strangers make // my dumplings but experience insists what makes them / mine is money”) with such simple poetic panache they resonate with unexpected clarity (70). The Cloud Corporation, in all its temporal and self-reflective tumult, unearths the taproot of contemporary political malaise — our internalization of the new manifest destiny, an unwavering belief in the inevitable expansion of capitalism.

On the outskirts?

A review of Stephen Coliss's 'On the Material'

On the Material

On the Material

by Stephen Collis

Talonbooks 2010, 128 pages, $17.95, ISBN 889226326

For some years now, Stephen Collis has been working on a grand plan, a mission even — a plan toward which the volume under review, On the Material, apparently plays little part. Collis’s last two volumes of poetry, The Commons (2008) and Anarchive (2005) were contributions to what he has called The Barricades Project, an amorphous work-in-progress originally envisioned as including maybe three or four books of poetry and a novel, but now increasingly expansive and (the same thing?) ambitious. (For more details of the genesis and ongoing metamorphosis of The Barricades Project, see The Poetic Front, the online poetics journal Collis edits. He currently sees the pre-existing volumes as part of an initial section, “Platform,” while a second section, “The Architecture,” waits in the wings.) The focus of these first two volumes, and what they tell us of the scope of Collis’s project, is instructive.

Anarchive takes as its explicit subject matter the Spanish Civil War, but draws a lot of tangential material into its gravitational field: the anarchist thoughts (and deeds) of Kropotkin and Bakunin; Durutti and Ferrer; the Picasso of Guernica; Buňuel; Robert Motherwell; Lorca; Lorca as interpreted by Jack Spicer; the apocryphal Ramon Fernandez of Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” (rather than, or maybe in sync with, the real life critic); and, last but not least, Joe Strummer and the Clash (via “Spanish Bombs”). Despite the punning title and the self-depreciating self-depiction of himself “pulling down texts,” what is most striking about the volume is Collis’s continual passion and engagement: this is not backward-looking historicism for him, not an academic exercise; these are not dead battles:

I produce what is past
again and again
our souls slumped against
the desk whispering
throw it down
throw it down
at the heart of the future
this hope this elegy
espero elegio
that the violence of forgetting
will be remembered
with indignation
and a correspondence
over Spain will be
the always of revolutions

(There’s even room for a good bad joke: “and you called it paltry / when I spoke only of chicken”).

This powerful sense of empathetic engagement is carried over to The Commons, where the focus is now on the romanticism of Wordsworth, Clare and (via a quick transatlantic leap) Frost and Thoreau, the disputed reality of enclosure and landownership underlying their supposedly neutral “landscapes,” and the ideal of “wandering” as political act. Collis fervently disagrees with Frost’s neighbor that “good fences make good neighbors;” “The Frostworks,” the first sequence in the book, is a commentary on/palinode against Frost’s “Mending Wall,” and sets the agenda by preferring commonality over separation:

something there is
isn’t just
yours or mine
but between
the light of
eerie dawn or
dusk I coat
the fresh rockery
with movements
and maybe
stone fish fibre
crack block breath
bends leans turns
this onto that
in structure
I’m leaning
Into you too

Collis sets revolting peasants, Levellers and Diggers against enclosure, John Clare’s solitary journeying against confinement, a variety of period tourist guides to the Lake District against Wordsworth’s monolithic vision, all the time stressing freedom and variety over restriction and dearth: “O fence us not to fringe our senses” vs. “enclosure came / to dampen rambles.”

The aim of both books is seemingly to render a lost historical moment tangible again, for the grain of unused potentiality buried in the strata. Borrowing an epigraph from Frederic Jameson — “History progresses by failure rather than success” — Collis casts this belated quarrying piercingly:

What is history but the record
of the places where we were broken?

The triumph of these books, however, is that they refuse to see this situation as merely hopeless:

the wall
between us
is a collapse
of constituency
the boulders
are loaves
we break
all is pine
or apple trees
only he says
with nothing
between us
how are we
yet broken

In contrast with such ambitions, On the Material is “just” a book of poems. It is, in fact, the most disparate full-length volume Collis has produced thus far (even his debut, Mine, was unified in the attention it paid to the mining history of Vancouver Island). Given that The Barricades Project is, in prospect at least (and contra Pound), a poem containing everything, what does it mean to designate On the Material as outside the work? Is it even possible for there to be an outside? One of the most obvious differences, although it yields to complications on closer inspection, is that, coming from a poet more usually concerned with the epic (or, at least, the semi-epic, or post-epic), On the Material offers a relatively joyful (though occasionally sorrowful) romp in the fields of the lyric.

The first section, “4 X 4,” is the most contained and immediately engaging and attractive. Made up of forty-four sixteen-line poems, each organized into four-line stanzas (4 x 4), topped and tailed by a “double” intro and outro of eight four-line stanzas, making for a grand total of (48 x 4) 192 stanzas and 768 lines, it is shapely and orderly despite its locally disjunctive syntax. Such order both does and does not fit the subject matter. The sequence recounts a period “between February and May 2008, while travelling (or in anticipation or the immediate aftermath of travelling) in Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Toronto, Buffalo, Portland, Anaheim, and San Diego,” the planning beforehand and the retrospection afterward. Place tends to bleed into place, and the titular vehicle becomes the defining constant. It all makes for thrilling contrast: as with all true satire, it flirts to some extent with the thing it professes to hate, and Collis does a good job invoking the sublime joy of the automotive:

Looking out the window I will
SUV all over this tarmac world
Fogs lights on                        suburban gladiator grill
Crunch of rock under tire

Whenever such elevated perspectives induce dreams of hubristic, panoptic power, the poem rights itself with playful bathos:

Here is a claw I
Took from a crab and now
Pretend to pinch at people with
Allegorical delight

Indeed, “4x4” and this volume as a whole allow Collis to stray away from the history of the Barricades volumes into genres (lyric, elegy, satire) and contexts (contemporary landscapes both tangible and geopolitical) previously alien to, or on the margins of, his poetry. In fact, it is somewhat shocking to encounter Collis so resolutely in the “now”:

We were in the last days of the
Poem            sun glinting off countless new and identical
Condo towers                        hard and the warmth of
Gourmet coffee            car idling at the curb

References to “Dubai indoor skiing,” “Hotel Europa,” “Ikea,” “Rumsfeld insisting insurgents / No longer be called ‘insurgents,’” “my Google brethren” and “the vast salt deserts of the Americas” abound, showing Collis’s mind out beyond his immediate physical peripheries, roaming the biosphere.

“4x4” ends stalled — as all satire must? — in “the desert of desire,” with a mere Utopian glance at a possible “ark of resistance” as “horizons future-lit burst bright beyond the frame.” Fun and games continue in the book’s second section, the Sonny Curtis, Bobby Fuller and Clash-echoing “I Fought the Lyric and the Lyric Won.” Collis has long rewired the lyric to carry epic-heavy freight, but has he been explicitly antilyric in the process? Well, if a prominent, foregrounded and consistent “I” is the lynchpin of “lyric” poetry, then that has never been the primary concern of Collis’s history-centric work, even if it has never directly denied the subjective: he simply wasn’t there personally and — as the “Dear Common” sequence shows — The Barricades Project keeps floating the possibility of the communal instead, of a subsuming of the lone ego in the mass.

Equipped, then, with a newly defined, individuated ego, the poems in “I Fought the Lyric and the Lyric Won” ring the changes on a whole gamut of recognizable lyric forms — the death haunted nature-inspired epiphany (“The End of Flight”); the modern(ist) twist on the classical (“Aristeus Mourning the Loss of his Bees”); the ode (“The History of Plastic” — more than ambivalent, admittedly); the intertextual conceit (“Self-Portrait in a Corvette’s Mirror”); and, last but not least, the ekphrastic ars poetica (“Poem Beginning with the Title of a Cy Twombly Painting”) — all given a Collis-specific spin (a natural-epiphany poem in Zukofskian five-word quantitative lines? A bee-filled Virgilian pastoral complete with cell phones, emptied accounts and spy cameras?). In its lack of a single unifying theme or approach, this section may seem the slightest of the three in the book, but that overlooks (or undervalues) the considerable wit on display and the degree to which these poems, precisely because of their “outsider” status, throw up microcosmic metonyms for Collis’s whole project, sometimes plaintive:

Is making itself
the problem?

Sometimes strident:

This means build I think
The architectures of dream the
Streaming columns rooms of gold
With poetry walls all jade
And gleaming and dark with
Night and wanting the firey
Posts shining lintel and above
This I’ll hang a flaming
Bird and its eternal flight
Will take whatever I have
Built with it

The book’s third and final section, “Gail’s Books,” carries Collis’s newly established lyric perspective further into the realm of elegy. The introduction relates how, shortly after the 2002 death of Collis’s sister from cancer, a fire destroyed her house, taking with it her worldly possessions, including her library, with the exception of only a few books: Kathleen Raine’s Selected Poems, Rilke’s Book of Hours and Novalis’ Philosophical Writings among them. With poetry presented as the “hinge” where the siblings’ interests met, it is not surprising that Collis seizes on the textual as a possible bridge between his own materialist perspective and the mystical and spiritual concerns that gave his sister what he calls an “outsideness to time.” The section takes it epigraph from Michael Palmer — “There’s still no truth in making sense” — and many of the poems seek to reverse the phrase’s logic, wringing some kind of hidden truth out of near-nonsense. The sequence “Variations and Translations from Rilke’s Book of Hours,” for example, translates not only homophonically (leading to such splendid right-wrong titles as “The Night Dies Sick and Stunned, Its Root Mic On” and “Ditch Water Nixed my Steam Watch”) but also “from one English to another,” yielding depth-sounding counterfactuals:

Swell, eye, to end times
Mic a bee whispering
“Lover of sheaves,” night
And waking feel the stream
Oven on, it’s cooking books

A stream wants moss
A rung lower, and tongs

Everywhere, Gail’s present absence is palpable. This is the burden of elegy, and, unsurprisingly, it draws from Collis some of his most tender and hushed writing to date:

Who speaks in limits is smoke

Whose hand opens the book points threads

Whose sister is the fire forming smoke

Whose ash is now ash’s ash

Who walks in that tall flame smoked

A politics rests its hands on its knees

A bird is in one hand it is
a flicker

The final (and title) poem links this individual loss back to Collis’s overarching rationale for poetry:

Though long dead
they reach you
with lines more
material than you
could have imagined
stays and spars
holding your vessel
in place

Whatever the individual attractions of the poems in On the Material (and they are, as I’ve hopefully indicated, numerous), as a whole it drives this reader at least to more general questions of inclusion vs. exclusion and the role of the “long poem” (or, even more dangerously, the “epic”) in early twenty-first century poetry. Is On the Material mere “parergon,” fingerwork warming up for the next bout of Barricades-related poetry? That belies the emotional heft of “Gail’s Books” and the satiric energy of “4X4”. There are things here, emotions and techniques, that, so far, Collis has not included in his longer work. One suspects the vacillation itself — is this out or in? — to be creative, a sort of built-in irritation out of which (does the oyster want the pearl?) further poetry will grow. The juxtaposition generates its own effect: this is Collis’s most personal volume to date, but, due its place alongside his other ongoing work, it never feels blandly confessional, rather just one more avenue of possibility.

The attraction of “The Barricades Project” as title, as concept, as riff on Benjamin’s Arcades Project, is in the translatability of raw material, the cobblestones that allow for swift transportation transfigured into defenses and obstacles that thwart access. Move them from one street to another, wherever the fighting is. Collis, as poet, unsurprisingly sees such flexibility and use in words themselves:

Try a “Barricades Project.” It can be made of words — it (power/revolution) always is. Tear them out of text and put them up against the sky, across the street.

Collis writes of the lifepoem, the work like Wordsworth’s The Recluse or Pound’s Cantos so tied to the poet’s life that death alone provides (artificial) closure. What does it mean, now, to adopt such a model self-consciously? Can one plan a ruin? Collis, quite likely, would assert that matter dictates the matter and that his expediencies and plans are as nothing compared to his whims and the necessities of his project (remember Pollock: “I am nature”):

It’s not that I advocate errantry
It’s that movement says rive

 So, is On the Materials in or out? If you say so.

Migratory vernaculars

A review of Mark McMoriss's 'Entrepôt'



by Mark McMorris

Coffee House Press 2010, 90 pages, $16, ISBN 978-1-56689-236-0

Once, we were told by word of mouth that Heraclitus of Ephesus spoke of a grotesque kind of order whereby he declared that: “War is the father of all and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men, who made some slaves and some freemen.” Rather than deploring the inequities of the world, he suggests that perpetual conflict is a way of life; it gives us meaning, much as our own history of recent memory has been shadowed by the thrust and force of war’s traumas. In Mark McMorris’s new book of poems, Entrepôt, we confront a like darkness where “The melodious waves / of grass promise no sanctuary / except to the beetle and cicada.” 

McMorris’s poems are capacious meditations, investigations, critiques, and queries on the weight of history’s wars and traumas as they seem to enscroll a poetics and ethics on ancient parchment — scrolling that reaches forward toward a future readership. In Entrepôt, war is a threshing ground, a rumbling echo in an olive grove, an acre of light stained by blood and the mark of a pen. The poems challenge in as much as they bring a revivified reading to bear on the present; the inquiry into civilization’s centuries old quest for meaning through art and conflict remains attuned to the need for the poem to be a space where one may cross borders and boundaries. If the poems in Entrepôt arise out of a lyric accretion and ordinary vernacular, it is toward a nomadic flight of probing and investigatory thought.

In the poem, “Dear Michael (2),” McMorris writes: “The wound cannot close; language is a formal exit / is what exits from the wound it documents.” Further on in the poem, we read: “It is the source that makes the wound, the wound / that makes a poem. / It is defeat that makes / a poem sing of the light and that means to sing / for a while.” To speak of a source that wounds, thus necessitating an act of language, infuses a much needed renewal of the lyric’s potential to address and ruminate on what a wound might disclose. Here, as McMorris tells us, “the wound is deaf to what it makes.” In other words, the poem brings us closer to something like revelation, allowing the sequence of words their order and shapeliness to congregate around a vector of its own making. The wound that he calls forth is personal, communal, and historical. It is also a trope for the occult music that arises within a poem. The wound is between something; it is extraterritorial.

The lyric utterance transmitted throughout Entrepôt offers a rich matrix of provisional grounds that can be trespassed and negated. We are properly placed between a formal and experiential arc as the poems remain unfixed, as if they are always at the point of vanishing. As McMorris writes in “Dear Michael (3),” Just so / in any case it is true that I must speak / not only of speaking but of things otherwise unsaid / things and not their names, not the mood of a text / but the text burgled and naked to the wind, at risk / of dissolving as the rain falls, as the sea washes over it.” In these lines, there is an inherent tenuousness to the prospect of speaking and naming; a nagging doubt that what language carries through might fall flat. To speak in such a way is to recognize the potential for a poem to be a dialogic form that sets out to address something.

As McMorris shows throughout his major poem sequence, “Letters To Michael,” the poem as an epistolary event proposes a space where a reader might interact or hover above the interlocutor’s positioning within the poem. It’s not one’s voice propelling the poem forward, but a voluminous echo of overlaying voices straining for a dialogue to take shape. However, looked at another way, on a formal level, a letter is usually addressed to someone. While McMorris samples Michael Palmer in “Dear Michael (14),” “anemone, and the plasma of mud,” a line from Palmer’s “Letters To Zanzotto,” the letter poems in Entrepôt seem to be of a larger structure in which to invoke heterogeneous voices, rather than a singular address to one receiver. At times, though, we might very readily infer that McMorris, as with many other poets, is writing not only forward to a potential reader, but backwards towards previous texts.

The poems of Entrepôt enact the very framework that the title calls forth. An entrepôt is an “intermediary center of trade and transshipment.” In an interview with Rain Taxi in their Winter 2008/2009 issue, McMorris spoke of an entrepôt as “a figure for a space of transition,” and “a place that is between other places.” In this way, beyond the ideational, the poem itself becomes the formal enactment of an entrepôt. If McMorris’s poems resist any defining or absolute location and origin, a place on the map as it were, it is not to dislocate or unsettle the reader, but to enact a language practice where what is said, propositioned, declared, or questioned can reverberate in a meeting place. In “Anaphora of Shadows (11x11+33),” McMorris brings us “ever closer to an entrepot / where signals cross and cancel, or cross and multiply / bands of dark and transitory splinters of light.”

 McMorris’s poems are truly a wonder of imagery, sound structure, and intellection; his poems make evident the fact that “the mind is bottomless.” There is a particular gravity to the lyric utterance weaving its way throughout Entrepôt that is of and beyond its moment. It is as much grounded in modern tradition (McMorris draws on Yeats, Stein, Hugo Ball, and others) as it is grounded in classical texts, history’s scholiasts, and the “tin-cup goliard.” From the poem “Three Aspects of the Name”:

The gospel tells us that tradition flows like a river
to irrigate the soul, from origin to the fringe
of reason. It is the thing you can’t avoid belonging to
just as the sea cannot escape mingling with water.
The voice of tradition is ours, or else we are empty
forms cast aside like husks from a coconut grove
able to lie in the sun but not to speak of the havoc
of hunger, or so the philosophers aver, in their moods.
The history of the tribe is fixed within the orbit
traced by the name in written records. Nothing else exists.

The tradition that McMorris is speaking of here can be read as a larger invocation of how identity is made up of a series of sedimentations from the past. Read in more local light, and in a closer reading of McMorris’s imagery, tradition as enounced in “Three Aspects of the Name,” involves a struggle as the speaker “encountered a ghost, my name.” The unspecified name is from “a violent clan of laborers, / men given to dance in the costume of underworld spirits / who took ship with the merchants from the Gold Coast, and blew / ashore in the Latitudes of Weeping.” The speaker’s recalling of the past is closely bound with “events best left to the whistle of tree frogs at night.” While tradition for McMorris is unavoidable, it is also fraught with the memory of colonialism and the challenges present in the act of salvaging a postcolonial identity free from the bonds of colonial rule. Rather than the poem being a site of critique or a potential utopian space, McMorris calls us into the song, where an “untethered polyphony” becomes the currency of the poem.

 In the magisterial poem, “Auditions For Utopia,” McMorris imagines the potential for a utopia that begins with a propositional setting within a room that is covered with a mural. On one wall “there is a scene of naked olive bodies / and giant ferns, bodies like ferns and ferns / with the aplomb of the forest.” To set up the imagery of opposition, the second wall shows the “polis in smoky industrial affray, the emblems / of feudal lord and banker and sea captain / in stately parade underneath the parchment heaven.” In order to reconcile these two competing images, the former image has to be dematerialized “to become the prehistory of advertising perfume: / languorous beaches kissed by a glittering sun / where industrialists repose in the elbow of a cove.” McMorris brings us to the very impossibility of there being any kind of utopia that might arise under these conditions. Further on in the poem, the notion of utopia is further expanded upon: it is not a place on a map that one can point to; it is not a place that one arrives at by conscious choice.

Threaded throughout this poem, there is a nameless African boy who dances on the shore of the beach where the “ancient dance of the waves and torchlight” embody the very negation of traditional life that was revealed in the first mural. The boy, who is described as a “miracle of teleported motion,” is also a countermeasure to the surrounding tensions inherent in the Caribbean setting the poem in situated within:

The boy was content to dance himself
bizarre and unreachable as he seemed
to us, almost invisible, in touch
with secret chords and the generations.
He did not have a name. The dance
passed through the slash of the waves
to become a visible present tense
wholly of action in that small frame.

Not only does this boy seem as if he has been transported to this location through a mental process, but through his fluid dance, there is something almost otherworldly about the way he carries himself through time and space. Perhaps there is an inherent innocence that can be attributed to the state of childhood, or conversely, the boy becomes a larger figure for a lost time and memory amid the island’s history of plantations and the chronic behavior that comes with such an oppressive social matrix. Echoing the impossibility of attaining a utopian state, the poem “Inescapable Country,” locates us within pastoral Jamaica. This is another site, rich with natural beauty that recalls a violent history. The speaker of the poem writes: “Something about pastoral calms / the violent heart, wherein desire / takes form in the visible world. // Bending a corner, you see it green / as it once was and will be then / and always with the mind’s deceit.”

Entrepôt as a whole presents a rigorous poetics, in terms of thinking about the formal concerns that might be imbedded in a poem. Again, from “Anaphora of Shadows (11x11+33),” we are told “the poem goes ahead of us and waits.” In “Dear K,” the closing poem of the book, the speaker says “The poem inclines / to restless thought: the night relentless / the heavens unimaginably vast.” In these lines, the poem becomes much more than a depository of materials in flux. Here, the poem is a bearing. It is not just a formal procedure, but a site where things that wouldn’t normally to be placed together are suddenly brought into a dialogic structure. If McMorris’s wielding of language recalls that of the mythmaker in an alchemist’s lab, it is because he finds a variety of forms to push the bounds of thought to a new lyric intensity.