A review of 'Just Kids'

Just Kids

Just Kids

Patti Smith

Ecco 2010, 304 pages, $27, ISBN ISBN 978-0066211312

Raised in a poor but loving family in New Jersey, Patti Smith wasn’t happy with the range of opportunities open to her after high school. Artistic and strong-natured — she played the General in her games with her brother and sister — she got into trouble with an unwanted pregnancy, gave the baby up for adoption, quit her factory job, and took a bus to New York.

Her memoir Just Kids is a love story, a kind of American La Boehme. Within a few weeks of her arrival in New York during the summer of 1967, she met a male counterpart, a former choirboy from a strict Catholic family from Queens, Robert Mapplethorpe. The two lived in poverty together, scrounging money for food and sleeping in borrowed apartments, before finding enough work to set up their own tiny household. At the same time, each recognized and nurtured in the other the artistic gene in its early budding.

Just Kids gives the lie to Robin Williams’s famous quip that if you remember the sixties you weren’t there. Smith remembers photographically (we learn that she didn’t do drugs) virtually every item she and Mapplethorpe wore, both of them budding style mavens. They made a pact to keep each other safe — if one was ill, intoxicated or otherwise down, the other was designated guardian. While working briefly for the Fillmore East, Mapplethorpe got her a comp ticket for a Doors concert. She writes:

I had a strange reaction watching Jim Morrison. Everyone around me seemed transfixed, but I observed his every move in a state of cold hyperawareness. I remember this feeling much more clearly than the concert. I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that. I can’t say why I thought this. I had nothing in my experience to make me think that would ever be possible, yet I harbored that conceit. I felt both kinship and contempt for him. I could feel his self-consciousness as well as his supreme confidence. He exuded a mixture of beauty and self-loathing, and mystic pain, like a West Coast Saint Sebastian. When anyone asked how the Doors were, I just said they were great. I was somewhat ashamed of how I had responded to their concert.

In 1972 Andrew Wylie, Victor Bockris, and I collaborated on a literary press, Telegraph Books, and published Smith’s first book of poems, Seventh Heaven. At a photoshoot to publicize our venture and its dozen or so writers, Smith’s fluency and ease before our photographer, Berry Berenson, startled me. While the rest of us stood around in various degrees of literary introspection, this slight woman in black stretch pants, Capezios, and an oversized tee shirt was like a cross between a street urchin and Mick Jagger, and at the same time managed to charm everybody.

Just Kids contains cameos of sixties stars including Janis Joplin, Kris Kristopherson, Jim Carroll, Viva, Bobby Neuwirth, Harry Smith, and Sam Shepard in the downtown environs centered at the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City, but what sustains the book’s strong emotional current is Smith’s love for Mapplethorpe, even as their lives move apart. They worked side by side together — she on poetry and drawings, he on drawings and collages — and slept in one another’s arms. Smith eventually found a regular job at the venerable Scribners bookstore on Fifth Avenue.

Having discovered photography, Mapplethorpe gradually acceded to his homosexuality, eventually finding a patron and partner in Sam Wagstaff. “Patti, do you think we lost ourselves to art?” he asked her a decade later as he was dying of AIDS.

Beginning with portraits of her, he quickly evolved a high definition photograph that embraced a wide range of subject matter, from flowers to male and female nudes to portraits of celebrities, babies and children, to images of gay men, often in S&M scenarios, which brought him fame and notoriety. What all of these photographs have in common is that each is scrupulously posed and lit. He also did sexual self-portraits in both macho and femme personae. Coming after Diane Arbus and a contemporary of Nan Goldin, he combined their gritty adventurousness with an artfulness that recalls Irving Penn. Long a painter and collagist, he seemed to attain mastery virtually overnight in his new medium.

More or less in tandem with him, Patti Smith achieved punk rock stardom, married a fellow musician, the late Fred Sonic Smith, and the two raised a family in Detroit.

The firsthand accounts of the 1960s have been surprisingly few. Two writers, both a decade older than the young who created the epoch, have been the dominant popular commentators, Joan Didion (Slouching Toward Bethlehem, The White Album) and Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). Just Kids, written in the retrospect of Patti Smith’s own sixties, changes that. She was there.

The trial of Elizabeth Willis's 'Address'



by Elizabeth Willis

Wesleyan University Press 2011, 86 pages, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-8195-7348-3

When asked about the voices that spoke only to Joan of Arc during the second session of her trial for heresy on February 22, 1431, she answered in Middle French a statement transcribed by the English-financed court in Latin that Anne Carson translates to English as follows: “The light comes in the name of the voice.”[1] By beginning her recent collection Address with the poem “Address,” Elizabeth Willis addresses the selfsame syncopation in our present constitutions. Willis’s first poem “Address” begins as follows:

I is to they
as river is to barge
as convert to picket line
sinker to steamer (1)

From the beginning, Willis mangles proportion by using a form encountered in standardized tests to arrive at iterations of belonging. The first line “I is to they” sets up the succeeding anaphoras by disrupting scales used to evaluate intelligence today. Because of the trace of a sentence unit in the capitalization that marks the beginning of utterances, one can read the first three lines in two other ways:

I : They :: River : Barge
I : They :: Convert : Picket line

I is to they as river is to barge as convert to picket line

By using the Aristotelian format in the first version, “They” can be understood proportionally to “barge” and “picket line,” and they can function as infinitive phrases for the characters of “I,” “river,” and “convert” simultaneously taking place. With the omission of “as” in “sinker to steamer,” the fourth line functions as both a development of the “I is to they” analogy and an end to the sentence unit. A sinker (fishing tool) and a steamer (kitchen appliance) are analogous in that they are both inventions that displace water and use the end rhyme “-er” to render their root verbs (i.e. “sink” and “steam) into inventions. By thinking about the line “sinker to steamer” in terms of water, one can read the narrative gesture in the rise of water from the sinker to water’s evaporation from the steamer by way of “to,” which is present in all four lines.

The first four lines of the first poem in Address initiate the ethical gesture of “to” akin to sounding out “address,” where “to” initiates an element of scale, recognition and action between positions and formal encounters with addressees. By utilizing iterations of analogy within the rhythms of poetry, the collection creates arguments in conflict with its own sense of scale in order to arrive at what Peter Gizzi develops as “a vortex of dissent” in Jack Spicer’s sense of community:

In many ways, dissent is Spicer’s utopia. Since a community of heterogeneous members could never live in agreement without becoming a tyranny, it seems the only hope would be to value instead its disagreements, to see arguments as progressive, and to create a context for heterodoxy.[2]

In the engagement with current poetic record and its heresies, Address arrives at an environment fraught with an argument it creates by also refuting it. It uses names relentlessly over its voices to think about the anxiety of inheritance over influence. In this way, the names in the collection are used to take account of the sonic and historic structure each poem creates and willfully disobeys with others, so every poem titled “Poisonous Plants of America,” which alphabetically incorporates plant names like April fool, Bear’s-foot, Bog-onion, Devil’s-apple, Dog parsley, Doll’s-eyes, et cetera, echoes a poem titled “Species Is an Idea” with couplets that develop the conflict in incorporations of plant and name:

All this reflection
amounting to shadows

Ink eats the page:
It’s Chemistry against the Forest (11)

In the two couplets, the conflict one reads into the poem on the page is seen in how the poet’s act of reflecting (read: writing) about a forest destroys a forest in order to mass-produce the poem. With “Chemistry” and “Forest,” the capitalized nouns are mock species that establish a history of its being used or sounded out inasmuch as they also pertain to the materials in which the poem is rendered readable. One can return to Anne Carson’s translation of Joan of Arc’s response to think about Address and “address,” where Joan of Arc’s light came to mean how it comes with how we come to know it. Or, we can turn to another poem from Address titled “The Oldest Garden in the World” for the selfsame configuration:

A body that fulfills its face
carries into day
what fades behind it. (25)

The arguments of Address exist in the lines, “Of this was told / A tale of our wickedness. / It is not our wickedness” (i.e. George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous”), with the relentlessness of the rivers of Rappahannock, Danube, Nile, Niagara, Loire, Cher, St. Lawrence, et cetera and the poetic closure of et cetera (i.e. John Ashbery’s “Into the Dusk-Charged Air”). This vortex comes to a head in the collection’s two long poems “The Witch” and “Blacklist,” where examples of analogical argumentation are brought to its uttered ends:

The Witch

A witch can charm milk from an ax handle. (19)


When all the witches in your town have been set on fire, their smoke will fill your mouth. It will teach you new words. It will tell you what you’ve done. (22)


Sarah Wilds, Deliverance Hobbs, and Dorcas Hoar were witches. (56)


I have personally known witches whose voices seemed to rise out of a hole in the earth as if it were a mouth.

Hannah Weiner saw words — like the Apostle John — and if she is not a saint, she is a witch. (60)

“In Strength Sweetness,” the last poem of Address, is made up of lines that use the slash (/) as a final turn on its mode of argumentation:

in the wind / an inky air

in the air / finchness

in the ink / a stone (61)


in your anger / a harbor

in your harbor / a boat

in the boat/ open sea (63)

The slash (/) functions as the mark used to harvest the ethical turns in the collection’s dissent. The act of slashing connotes a violent motion similar to how it functions as a punctuation mark (i.e. caesura, abbreviation, solidus, et cetera, et cetera). In “In Strength Sweetness,” this unsettling multivalence becomes a fault line that recognizes the discontinuities in its uncapitalized nouns. Similar to names and their voices, nouns carry the conflict in their history (read: etymology) through the discontinuities created by conflict’s erasure. In this way, the slash (/) also functions as choice (i.e. “or”) and the line break of poetry translated in prose, where the poetic is arrived at through the engagement between its own echoes and a reader’s translation of these echoes. It feels inevitable that Address ends with the possibility of going out of ourselves and our addresses by harnessing materials from our discontinuities into an opening: “in your anger / a harbor // in your harbor / a boat // in the boat / open sea.”



1. Anne Carson, “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” A Public Space (2008), 7.

2. Peter Gizzi, ed., The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer (Connecticut: University of Wesleyan Press, 1998), 97.

'An endless, polyglot failure party'

A review of Robert Fitterman's 'Now We Are Friends'

Now We Are Friends

Now We Are Friends

by Robert Fitterman

Truck Books 2011, 126 pages,

Founded in 2009, Truck Books is “a small press specializing in contemporary experimental writing in the avant-garde tradition” which focuses on “works that focus on a variety of objects from vernacular languages to social and information systems, production systems and capital flows.” They have published five books to date (four of which are listed on their ordering page), each of which is available as a free pdf or as a printed edition sold on a sliding scale.

Their editorial mandate focusing on “social and information systems” belies their dedication to conceptual writing siphoned from the gushing falls of the internet into seven-by-seven-inch square-bound editions of bottled information.

Robert Fitterman’s latest volume, Now We Are Friends, builds upon his previous volumes in the Metropolis series, most particularly his Sprawl: Metropolis 30a (Make Now Press, 2010). In each volume, Fitterman has placed increasing distance between his work and the traditionally poetic in favor of the language of malls, consumer sites, discussion groups, Facebook, and blogs as he mines “our” “daily” “language.”

Fitterman’s oeuvre has been dedicated to defining the new poetic pastoral as the suburban mall (and, in later volumes, the Internet). For, as Sidney exclaimed,

Does not the pleasantness of [the Internet] carry in itself sufficient reward for any time lost in it, or for any such danger that might ensue? Do you not see how everything conspires together to make this place a heavenly dwelling?

With Now We Are Friends Fitterman has turned to populating that new Arcadia with his own brand of lazing shepherd constructed from the same corporate language he used to sculpt the shepherds’ fields.

In October 1969 Vito Acconci performed “Following Piece,” in which he chose a series of strangers, followed them through their daily activities, and transcribed their movements. With Now We Are Friends Fitterman “follows” a single random person across the digital fields of the Internet, allowing the personal flotsam of a single person’s life to accumulate into a rhizomatic biography.

Fitterman chose, at random, the euphonious name “Ben Kessler” as the basis for his poetic exploration of online identity and tracks him through his Twitter feed, his “my 10 favorite iPhone Apps of 2008” post, his Tweetdeck reviews, and any other online flotsam of Kessler’s public Internet profile. As Fitterman continues to mine into Kessler’s public Internet appearances, the manuscript begins to envelop “other” Ben Kesslers. When egosurfing — Googling your own name — or responding to Google Alerts — how many of us have had the uncanny moment of reading an entry about another internet denizen with the same name as ours? Just as our individuality has become performed through online testimonies, archives photographs, and abandoned dating site profiles, so has Ben Kessler become intriguing only as one of a platoon of identically named laptop-wielding Internet-addicted individuals who feel their skills are best used commenting on which fictional character from a video game or comic book they would most like to eat a sandwich with.

Ben Kessler’s identity begins to blur when this flotilla of Kesslers interrupts the narrative by discussing “keeping Faith in times of transition,” the pratfalls of being a “freelance permaculture teacher,” and warning that

designers who strive for success should prepare themselves for the challenges of doing creative work in the middle of an endless, polyglot failure party. (52)

That “endless, polyglot failure party” (which ominously describes many of the literary salons and poetic endeavors happening today) becomes weirdly overpopulated with the further introduction of a choir of “Ben’s friends” and “Ben’s friend’s friends,” each of them listing their favorite films, their online biographies, their “five things other should know about [them].”

As a coda to the text, Steve Zultanski has “followed” Robert Fitterman through information provided by Fitterman’s own family. Listed are his favorite colognes, his ex-girlfriends, information on his parents and brother, dedications and inscriptions Fitterman wrote in books given as gifts, his pet’s veterinarian report, and mundane notes left to his wife, poet Kim Rosenfield. Zultanski also interviews Fitterman’s daughter Coco (who provides a screenshot of Fitterman’s computer desktop).

What dates Acconci’s “Following Piece” as a cultural antique is its dependence on physical space (as we have online profiles we have long since abandoned and “friends” we’ve never interacted with) and on the transcription of a single follower (as Facebook has made us each the cult leader of our own band of followers — “friends” who follow our movements and respond to every flickering change in our “relationship status”) in a single social space. With Now We Are Friends, Fitterman gathers the diverse portraits of a single digital everyman, Ben Kessler, and presents to us a portrait of our new digital Willy Loman.

Now We Are Friends Ben Kesslers us all. Fitterman exposes the digital flatness of the language of our friendships, our relationships, our jobs and hobbies, our passions and interests. The details of our lives, as mundane as they may be, are not only constantly observed, they are constantly recorded — we are constantly on display, hoping we’ll hear that now we are friends.

To learn more about and interact with me, why not say hi? You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed and Linkedin.

Scholars to come

A review of Matt Miller's 'Collage of Myself'

Collage of Myself: Walt Whitman and the Making of Leaves of Grass

Collage of Myself: Walt Whitman and the Making of Leaves of Grass

Matt Miller

University of Nebraska 2010, 320 pages, $40.00, ISBN 978-0-8032-2534-3

The image on the cover of Matt Miller’s new book, Collage of Myself: Walt Whitman and the Making of Leaves of Grass, will look especially familiar to anyone who has googled the good gray poet in the past few years. While the William J. Linton engraving of Walt Whitman, itself based on a photograph by George C. Potter, first appeared within the poet's published work in 1875, the last place many of you may have seen this “rough-cut mask” was on the homepage of the Walt Whitman Archive, an electronic teaching and research tool that makes Whitman’s work — from his earliest extant manuscripts up through the so-called “deathbed” edition of Leaves of Grass — available free online.

As a graduate student at the University of Iowa and now as an assistant professor at Yeshiva University, Miller has worked extensively with the Archive, most notably on the transcription, encoding, and dating of Whitman’s earliest notebooks. In ways far more significant than the book’s cover, Collage of Myself — the first full-length study of Whitman’s innovative compositional practice, a collage-like process that Miller establishes as a predecessor to the visual art of Picasso and Braque — is an homage to the Archive and a testament to the promise of digital research in the humanities. Utilizing manuscript material now easily accessible through the Archive — notebooks, drafts, and prose fragments that in the past scholars would have had to travel around the United States to see — Miller has produced a thoughtful examination of Whitman’s theory and practice of collage first developed in and through the poet’s writing shortly before the publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855.

By turning to Whitman’s own notebooks — the most reliable documentation of the poet’s process — for an understanding of how Whitman sprang, seemingly full-grown, onto the poetry scene in 1855, Miller’s book stands as a significant departure from earlier studies that have strained to explain Whitman’s sudden discovery of a signature verse style. In this sense, Miller’s turn inward towards the manuscripts is refreshing and provocative. And it’s through this methodology that he is able to reconstruct for us the collaging Whitman: a poet whose theory of language enabled him to appropriate the writing of others and incorporate it into his own; a poet who also almost compulsively cannibalized his own writing, “packing and unpacking” words, phrases, and even whole lines as he moved closer and closer to the mature style recognizable in poems like (the one eventually titled) “Song of Myself.” For Miller, the evidence of a procedural, collage poetics found in Whitman’s notebooks is a direct extension of the poet’s philosophy of language, a performance of the poet’s approach to “all writing that he both found and wrote.” According to Miller, Whitman: 

extracted phrases and lines that attracted him, and in the process of moving them from their initial sources into new contexts, he filtered and changed their tone and meaning. His appropriation of found text is not a weakness or a disguise; it is something essential to his writing process and reflective of his lifelong involvement with language: as a newspaper writer, a typesetter, an editor, a layman scholar and linguist, and a nomadic young poet who wrote while on the move.

Miller offers several examples of the “radical portability” legible in Whitman’s earliest manuscripts, demonstrating how Whitman “saw the language of his drafts not as a series of interlocking units in an implacable architecture, but as blocks of text to be toyed with, cut and pasted (sometimes literally so) into ever new shapes and forms.” For those hooked on Whitman the Romantic, a bard of divine inspiration and ecstatic revelation whose Leaves of Grass begs to be read in the open air, Miller’s Whitman the Modern will come as a much needed shock. But even if you are reluctant to let go of that caricature of the poet you love (or just as likely hate — he does contain multitudes), Collage of Myself will remain a fundamental gateway to our understanding of Whitman’s proto-modernist poetic project. 

Whitman’s theory of the “poem of materials” (from an original manuscript).

As the characterization of “text” as “blocks” above may suggest, the Whitman that emerges from Collage of Myself is a poet highly attentive to the materiality of language. In his book’s most illuminating chapter, Miller demonstrates how Whitman, approaching language “as something that [preceded] his own creativity, as opposed to originating within himself and flaring up in inspired burst,” continually explored “the material nature of words on the page and the idea of words as materials, the building blocks … of both poems and people.” Whitman’s concept of a “Poem of Materials” — a phrase Miller picks up on from a manuscript in the Trent Collection at Duke University, available on the Archive as well as pictured here — is brought to life through an extended and subtle reading of “Song of the Broad-Axe.” For Miller, Whitman offers readers of “Broad-Axe” “two kinds of poetically reimagined materials — language and the productions of the axe … at the same time [stressing] the material nature of his art.”

But for all we gain from Collage’s turn inward towards Whitman’s writing process, some will be left looking for more comparative context, if not in the form of an overview of popular proto-collage practice during the mid-nineteenth century, at least through a glimpse at manuscript evidence demonstrating the essential differences between Whitman’s writing process and the compositional practices of his literary contemporaries. In one sense, Miller anticipates this critique; acknowledging the role the Archive played in the maturation of his project, he gestures, at least implicitly, toward the current impossibility of a comparable study of a writer like Martin Farquhar Tupper, or, even more surprisingly, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Miller provides the obligatory discussion of both Emerson and Tupper, two writers contemporaries often associated with Whitman, but nowhere are we given access to their manuscripts as we are to Whitman’s. Even a cursory look at Emerson’s or Tupper’s writing process might be enough to assuage any lingering doubt concerning the true originality of Whitman’s poetic and procedural breakthrough leading up to Leaves of Grass. Perhaps that’s the greatest gauntlet thrown by Collage of Myself: through his example, Miller calls for the creation of large, free, public archives that will enable, not necessarily challenges to his work, but the depth of scholarly engagement, the near total manuscript immersion Collage is able to achieve. For anyone who has spent time digging through Whitman’s manuscripts, digital or otherwise, you are often left wondering just how idiosyncratic Whitman’s tendencies are. Questions spring up ranging from those central to our appreciation of Whitman’s place in literary history — how are other writers “packing and unpacking” their manuscript lines? — to the more banal — could Whitman possibly be alone in drawing these little pointing hands everywhere? Those questions remain beyond the scope of Miller’s project; however, the strength of Collage of Myself lies in its astounding depth, even if at times we are left searching for a broader manuscript context. Collage of Myself thus invites us to create that context, calling poets, scholars, and those at the forefront of the digital humanities to facilitate this level of critical inquiry for a new generation of readers. In this challenge to the future of literary studies, Collage of Myself is worthy of its subject, Walt Whitman, a poet “hungry for equals night and day.”

The decidedly American, Whitmanic grain

A review of Matthew Henriksen's 'Ordinary Sun'

Ordinary Sun

Ordinary Sun

Matthew Henriksen

Black Ocean 2011, 120 pages, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-9844752-2-3

To address Matt Henriksen’s poetry, we start with a passage from Whitman’s preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass:

… from the eyesight proceeds another eyesight and from the hearing proceeds another hearing and from the voice proceeds another voice eternally curious of the harmony of things with man.

I cannot think of a better definition of poetry’s visionary impulse. The poet employs his or her senses in the service of a perception that is not of the order of this world. It is a mode of perception that points to another world right here in our everyday homelessness. The key to the visionary impulse is in our mutual sympathy: if the poet is curious about “the harmony of things with man,” then we too can be curious. The aim of the visionary impulse is to explore the endless ravishments and ravagings — harmony’s dualities — of the unacknowledged worlds within our world.

Matt Henriksen is a visionary poet in the decidedly American, Whitmanic grain. His first book, Ordinary Sun, is a record of his process of discovery and invention as he has harnessed various strains of the American Visionary. Throughout the book we find Blakean prophecy as filtered through the Beats’ rebellion against the limits of stifled selfhood; we find James Wright’s pessimism bound in pastoral; we find a Stevensian beatitude; we find Romantic Brooklyn (R.I.P.); we find the haunting Southern convulsions of Frank Stanford; and we find the transcendentally homespun observations of the Williams lineage. 

This list of Henriksen’s influences, though incomplete, should indicate the calico quality of Ordinary Sun. Its varied inspirations are never far from the textual surface, while prosodically the poetry bounces between the baroque and the plainspoken. In terms of tone, it is a book of extremes. Take for instance its opening stanza, from the quietly powerful patchwork, “Copse”: 

An eye is not enough.
A hand rubs an unpainted fence. 

Compare this to the book’s final poem, “Ordinary Sun,” a simultaneously propulsive and idling text that at its opening declares:

The Center that Pretends to Start the Engine
Ignores the Regime of Endless Centerlessness.

The contrast between beginning and end should be telling. In “Copse” the straightforward statement that “an eye is not enough,” suggesting an uncanniness of the body (of being homeless in one’s body), gives way to a subtle, visionary treatment of bodies moving through domestic space. In “Ordinary Sun” the center continually gives out as the poem thrashes through various registers, from the bombastically surreal to the plainspoken. The book ends where it begins: with a disarmingly straightforward couplet, suggesting this time a literal homelessness: 

When she came to the curb
I held out my paper cup. 

Between beginning and end is a dappled collection of poetry that stems from a deep engagement with the doubled, dual perception of the sort Whitman espouses in his Preface. If the couplet is the stanzaic form that best conveys both duality and the turning of thought, it is no surprise then that it is the most commonly employed form in the book. Henriksen is a strong turner. Viz:

We’ll miss the world bitterly.
We’ll go on without it.

(“Ordinary Sun”)

Light from the garage: hands from the tree.
Memories stopped making sense.


Sometimes she’d touch
a body in her empty bed.


At such moments Henriksen touches a sort of Stevensian grace. In fact, the Stevensian Moment — when the turning of thought is seduced by a hypnotic prosody — peppers the poems throughout Ordinary Sun. It can be heard in phrases like “all edges edging,” or “cloudless marrow burning stones,” or “Birds beyond the window cried the glass.” At other moments — no less charged with Vision — the rhythms are softer, the images homelier: “A bucket in the garage burned.”

What is interesting about Henriksen’s disparate influences, prosodies, and attentions are the tensions that arise between them. One could dismiss this mottledness as an indication that Henriksen has not absorbed his influences, though the presence of so many lineages converging in his poetry is one thing that makes it unique. It is refreshing to read a contemporary book of poetry that is diverse in its attentions without boasting its diversity. This evidences Matt’s fidelity to poetic process, which is finally a fidelity to poetry. But to place process over product — especially when the poet is not working in fixed forms — will lead to varied results. And the results are varied in Ordinary Sun. Take for instance these four lines from “Carolla in the Midden”:

In refuse we find a hidden refusal
to die, a shape

that never forms, a blinking eye
that will not shut. 

The first turn — “In refuse we find a hidden refusal / to die” — embodies a negative truth on level with Williams. It offers a clean angle on the connection between garbage and death that, though abstract, is married to sense. But “a shape // that never forms” is overly abstract, and “a blinking eye / that will not shut” is easy surrealism. These second and third turns are both abstractions severed from perception — they veer into a realm of entropic symbolism. The impulse here is visionary, but in moments like these Henriksen loses his vision.

While I feel that in these lines Henriksen is attempting to stretch the poetry beyond its impulse, they do stand as further evidence of his motley poetics, combining as he does so many seemingly contradictory influences. One of Jack Spicer’s many characterizations of the act of poetic creation was of the poet wrestling with the limits of the poem. Here Matt is wrestling with the possibilities inherent in past poetic traditions by reconfiguring them in new ways, as he does throughout the book. It just doesn’t always work.

When Henriksen’s attentions follow objects perceived, employing a visionary perception rooted in the senses, the poetry is strongest:

We set our bodies on the grass.
Stones held our breath. 


The plainspoken tone here conveys a densely charged moment. The scene described could be one of astral birth, just as much as bodily death. There are dual undertones of the terror of disembodiment and of creature comfort. It is a true marriage of the quotidian and the visionary, the Of This World and the Of Another World, the core dualities of Henriksen’s purview.

While moments of Ordinary Sun seem oddly abandoned, I find a poetry that makes visible its lacunae — or its scars — much more engaging than another well-wrought urn. Maybe Henriksen knows when the spirit of the work has left him, when the corpse of the words on the page is all that’s left. Rather than cut open the corpse and attempt to Frankenstein a new poem, he lets us readers do what we will with what he has.

Of course I am hypothesizing here, projecting a philosophy of poetic composition onto Henriksen’s practice based entirely on my own bias. Maybe “a blinking eye / that will not shut” will be the one relic from this book to survive a millennium from now, after several apocalypses have occurred and only shreds of shreds of our era remain. If so, so be it.

But here is the point: Ordinary Sun offers a variety of visionary embraces of ordinary life, and in much of its prosody is an acute awareness of the ways inspiration momentarily inhabits and slips away from us. Poetry does not care whether the poet is able to finish the poem. Matt Henriksen not only knows this, he has reckoned — and wrestled — with it within the space of poetry itself.