Bordering on madness

A review of Bhanu Kapil's 'Schizophrene'



Bhanu Kapil

Nightboat Books 2011, 73 pages, $15.95, ISBN 9780984459865

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), defines schizophrenia as “a disorder that lasts for at least six months and includes at least one month of active-phase symptoms (i.e., two [or more] of the following: delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, grossly disorganized or catatonic behavior, negative symptoms).”[1] In fragmented, perhaps schizoid, prose passages, Bhanu Kapil’s book Schizophrene speculates that the high incidence of schizophrenia in diasporic Indian and Pakistani communities extends from the trauma experienced during Partition and the subsequent displacement, xenophobia, and racism confronted by those who fled and their descendants. She also implicates Partition in the “parallel social history” (i) of domestic violence. Through these explorations, Kapil begins to prod the question of how both mental illness and national identities are constructed.

In the introductory “Passive Notes,” Kapil explains how Schizophrene was assembled from the handwritten draft she had discarded, thrown into the garden to be buried in snow. “[B]efore the weather turned truly warm,” she writes, “I retrieved my notes, and began to write again, from the fragments, the phrases and lines still legible on the warped, decayed but curiously rigid pages”(i). Thus Schizophrene is a palimpsest, a text constructed from successive layers and erasures. In a work spanning three continents, the juxtapositions of narrative fragments and the placement of space mark border crossings, as reoccurring images of maps and grids document movements, locations, and violence, the relative positions of bodies.

In “Partition,” Kapil writes,

It is psychotic to draw a line between two places.

It is psychotic to go.

It is psychotic to look.

Psychotic to live in a different country forever.

Psychotic to lose something forever.

The compelling conviction that something has been lost is psychotic.

Even the aeroplane’s dotted line on the monitor as it descends to Heathrow is a purely weird ambient energy.

It is psychotic to submit to violence in a time of great violence and yet it is psychotic to leave that home or country, the place where you submitted again and again, forever.

Indeed, it makes the subsequent involuntary arrival a stressor for psychosis. (53)

Thus, for someone who lived through the Partition of India, psychosis is inescapable. It is a condition perpetrated and perpetuated by borders, by breakage, by violence and displacement.

One of three epigraphs to Schizophrene is from Dinesh Bhugra and Peter Jones’s Migration and Mental Illness. In this quotation, Bhugra and Jones suggest that the combined stressors of migration, racism, and poverty contribute to mental illness. Kapil characterizes schizophrenia as a “trans-generational effect” (i) of Partition. Yet neither Bhugra and Jones nor Kapil herself seems willing to consider that these factors may lead to the increased likelihood of a diagnosis of mental illness rather than the thing itself.[2] On this subject, the DSM-IV remarks:

There is some evidence that clinicians may have a tendency to overdiagnose schizophrenia in some ethnic groups. Studies conducted in the United Kingdom and the United States suggest that Schizophrenia may be diagnosed more often in individuals who are African American and Asian American [and, presumably, Britons of African or Asian descent] than in other racial groups. It is not clear, however, whether these findings represent true differences among racial groups or whether they are the result of clinician bias or cultural insensitivity.[3]

Like borders, mental illness is constructed — the invention of a powerful few that is imposed upon the many. But if Kapil is primarily interested in mental illness as a metaphoric or formal device, why choose schizophrenia? Why not multiple personality disorder? Why not, for the cartographic resonance of its name, borderline personality disorder, hovering over a demarcation?

According to the DSM-IV’s entry on schizophrenia, “Delusions (Criterion A1) are erroneous beliefs that usually involve a misinterpretation of perceptions or experiences. Their content may include a variety of themes (e.g., persecutory, referential, somatic, religious, or grandiose).”[4] In the context of Schizophrene, a perception of persecution is likely not delusional at all. During Partition women were tied to border trees and disemboweled (40). In Britain, immigrants are harassed by racist and xenophobic neighbors (49), and domestic violence is quite literally mapped onto ethnicity, as “a local government map of the London Borough of Ealing, of the ethnic origin of a borough-wide population, overlays a Social Services map, in which different kinds of abuses are recorded as having happened in particular homes” (44). Could impressions pathologized as “delusional” be accurate perceptions of insane realities or, as Kapil is suggesting, the stains left behind by them? And is a somatic delusion not also linked to some reality? In “India: Notebooks,” the speaker recalls:

In the pharmacy, I met an exhausted woman whose daughter had been hospitalized for a phobia. When a spoon touched her lips, she had the terrible sensation that it was slipping down her throat. Her condition worsened. If anything touched her sari, if one of her children brushed against her thigh, she felt a peristaltic reflex. She felt she was swallowing them too. (18)

In Schizophrene, eating is linked to violence. When the speaker’s mother glimpsed women tied to border trees during Partition, it was their stomachs that were cut out (40). The lone sentence on another page reads, “He dragged her down the stairs by her hair to the room where we were eating” (47). Is this an act of domestic violence or of political violence? Does it occur in India? Pakistan? Britain? The US? A meal is the only location given. For immigrants, food is a mark of difference. “I keep going back to what we ate, what we were fed,” Kapil writes in “Partition.” “It is my way of communicating with you, the other children in your houses,” who come to the window to jeer “with a boo and a hiss and a You fucking Paki, what do you think you’re doing? This is England, you bleeding animal” (49). When eating is such a fraught activity, is a fear of swallowing so irrational?

At times the disease and the cure seem nearly interchangeable. In “India, Fragments,” Kapil writes, “Schizophrenia is rhythmic, touching something lightly many times” (61), while in her notes at the back of the book, she explains, 

From cross-cultural psychiatry, I learned that light touch, regularly and impersonally repeated, in the exchange of devotional objects, was as healing, for non-white subjects (schizophrenics) as anti-psychotic medication. In making a book that barely said anything, I hoped to offer: this quality of touch. (71)

Thus, with its use of restraint, fragmentation, and intermittent italics, Schizophrene moves toward a kind of ritual healing — even as it enacts the very thing that must be healed. Near the end of the book, the speaker tears a page from her notebook and holds a funeral for it, alone within the communal space of a riverbank.

Mid-air, above the ghat, ochre shards began to stream, upwards

 from the bank. They reversed themselves to make an urn.

 Fire and water flowed from each cracked point.


This image knew no bounds. Red then white.

White then red.


Then black. (66)

Only in hallucinations do borders disappear. In the world of Schizophrene, the space opened by hallucination is the only place that is not restricted, multifurcated, schizoid. The question becomes not whether schizophrenia is the result of systemic mass trauma but whether the cure for that trauma can be the “illness” itself.

1. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV-TR (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2000), 298.

2. Author’s note, June 2014: Since this review was originally published in June 2013, I have learned that Kapil has discussed the possibility of misdiagnosis on her blog and elsewhere. See Was Jack Kerouac A Punjabi?: Misdiagnosis, the allele and syntax: vectors from an interview with FLORE

3. Ibid., 307.

4. Ibid., 299.

A poetics of appropriation

A review of William Fuller's 'Hallucination'



William Fuller

Flood Editions 2011, 75 pages, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-9819520-7-9

Like the obscured, faceless old portrait on the cover of William Fuller’s new volume of poems, Hallucination, it’s difficult to pick out an overarching voice throughout this collection from Flood Editions. At an organizational level, there is a noticeable divide between the prose works and those set in verse, so much so that the book almost feels as if it were written by two different poets. This sense of different writers or speakers amplifies on the poem level as Fuller appropriates various forms of stilted language, from stodgy academic phrases to business memo boilerplate. Chief fiduciary officer by day and poet by night, the Chicago-based Fuller keeps his intentions neatly hidden with Hallucination, which may be intolerable for some readers. However, to lighten things up, Fuller’s speakers occasionally sympathize with the reader by drawing attention to their own inability to make sense of the world around them. Over three sections, Fuller’s Hallucination makes full use of shifting speakers, simultaneously identifying with readers and pushing them out using declarative statements that don’t declare anything logical.

Section 1’s shorter prose work “You and Your Spies” exemplifies Fuller’s many speakers and use of appropriated language. The poem begins by poking fun at conventions of academic writing:

There is a case to be made for listing things about which we do not care. A point of confusion arises regarding order, where order is nothing save a faint posthumous beat signifying — what today? Signifying both. Both an intensity armed against slackness, and a stylish meandering near boundaries. (24) 

Fuller’s wry humor comes through in these lines, as he appropriates the certainty and conviction that characterizes academic writing and turns it into a nearly meaningless clump of words that sound like they were picked up from a stack of rejected scholarly essays. However, always firing on multiple levels, Fuller cleverly replicates the same sense of confusion and bewilderment felt by readers of his work in the phrase “A point of confusion arises regarding order” (24). And can’t Fuller’s practice in general be described as a “stylish meandering near boundaries” of various forms of writing, with the poet appropriating phrases he likes along the way? Besides the academic satire of “You and Your Spies,” Fuller also  borrows phrases from government reports and psychoanalytic texts: “Stages of avowal are managed consecutively, if state law allows. Many older organisms tend to be self-governing, and no amount of reflection can unscrew the basic template for their embittered sentience” (24). These sentences feel stable and certain, like their meaning should be immediately clear. However, Fuller’s hodgepodge of appropriated language from psychoanalysis (“stages of avowal,” “embittered sentience”) and government reports (“if state law allows,” “many older organisms tend to be self-governing”) completely undercuts any expectations of clarity while creating humor through the improbable combination.

Fuller uses these nonsensical declarative statements heavily throughout the prose poems of Hallucination, making for a wonderfully disorienting reading experience. Regardless of the reader’s confusion, Fuller’s speakers frequently chime in with their own, giving his poems (which feel initially impersonal) some sense of sympathy for the reader. As a speaker remarks in “Blood Red Roses,”

Their faces and bodies are changing in ways I can’t follow. […] Inside daylight a false daylight waits, and they are drawn to it. They have no power to retain their own structure, and have been advised that this is the case. They eat burnt flies’ wings and bed down on diatoms. Overlooking their lunar otherness, I catch glimpses of sandy shapes, walking or crawling. Beyond them, whalefish blow, and I see a cold gem ripening. (56)

It’s unclear what this speaker is describing — sea creatures? a lunar landscape? — yet these simultaneous feelings of bewilderment and awe duplicate the experience of reading Hallucination.

The white elephant lurking in Fuller’s poetry is his relationship to the corporate business world in which he works and which makes fleeting appearances in Hallucination. The office setting crops up in the volume’s clearest work (“The Circuit”), and Fuller elliptically references the corporate world throughout the collection by lifting phrases from memos and other office documents (74–75). The easy reading of his inclusion of these details is that Fuller is satirizing a corporate culture that he sees as soulless and stifling. However, Fuller is more self-aware than that knee-jerk reading. In a long interview with Eirik Steinhoff originally published in Quid, Fuller said, “I don’t see them [people in the business world] as manipulated by a discourse whose motives they don’t understand — many of them have acute understandings of the most subtle nuances of that discourse and offer hilarious insights. So to stand outside and comment ironically on the whole of it would seem adolescent to me.” Accordingly, it’s not accurate to read Fuller’s occasionally chuckle-worthy interpolations of business language as pure irony: Fuller knows that he is just as much a part of that world as anyone else working at the Northern Trust Company, so his tone is not biting irony, but something lighter. The report that grows to the size of a planet near the end of “The Circuit” reflects on the day-to-day strangeness of any job and 9-to-5 life more broadly, and not just the corporate business world.

Despite their relatively uniform appearance — one thin, left-aligned, centered column descending on the page — Fuller’s verse poems in Hallucination are harder to pin down. For the most part though, the verse poems contain less clear appropriation than his prose works, and they make it difficult to confidently pick out settings. “For the Lawful Heirs” seems to portray wealthy residents of Chicago’s northern suburbs, but only because the prose poem on the back of the page is named after Tower Road, one of the major east-west thoroughfares in the northern suburbs (25–26). Together, “For the Lawful Heirs” and “Tower Road” work as gentle indictments of wealth and privilege on Chicago’s north shore, or really anywhere. Other verse poems have less obvious subjects: “Morning Sutta” and “Earthly Events” show Fuller’s fascination with obscure, dated language (no doubt inspired by his study of seventeenth century lit), while “Treasure Hidden Since” finds Fuller’s imagery decomposing over the course of the eleven lines, all the way from the grandeur of a state down to a filament (27; 18; 37).

These verse poems at first feel radically different from Hallucination's prose poems, but there are linkages. For instance, Fuller is still at work pushing the reader out from pinning down definitive readings by using obscure language and unsteady, shifting poetics. However, in his verse poems, there usually isn’t a speaker to express the confusion of the reader, making these poems less sympathetic in a way. The wild turns of imagery that characterize Fuller’s prose poems definitely crop up in the verse poems too, and are perhaps more noticeable. For instance, the prose work “You and Your Spies” has only one major swerve at the end, in which the speaker declares, “I’m looking for a vale to wander in, a vale of views enjoyed as much as for their beauty and sweep, as for their way of adapting themselves to states we can inhabit simply by bending our knees. And once having found it, I won’t return” (24). Conversely, the associative verse poem “OK Jazz Funeral Services” is a poem full of these turns in imagery. One indicative moment:

[…] enclosing birds
who listen out of strangeness

then posthumously descend

great flocks of them

migrating nine miles

through a silvery drainpipe

to the demonstrated absence of a material fact —

hence these baskets (6)

Hallucination isn’t easy to read, and in fact, it’s probably good to have a dictionary nearby while doing so. But this unsteadiness only adds to the reading experience. Like the amorphous shapes at the end of “Blood Red Roses,” Fuller’s poetry also refuses to hold form. The poems twist line-by-line through various settings and appropriated languages, making for a dizzying reading experience at times. Despite the unsteadiness, Hallucination hangs together in a weird way, or at least it seems to. Fuller does his best to push us out from pinning concrete meanings to his poems and his language in general, but he’s not cruel about it — the speakers are just as confused as we are at times. As a speaker in “Blood Red Roses” puts it, “For several years now I have considered words and phrases in isolation, but have fallen short in being able to construe what they mean” (56). Hallucination exists in that place just shy of attaining full understanding, yet Fuller makes our attempts to reach clarity thoroughly enjoyable.

Stephen Ratcliffe, a view from the writing table

A review of Stephen Ratcliffe's 'Conversation'



Stephen Ratcliffe

Bootstrap Press, Plein Air Editions 2011, 98 pages, $12.00, ISBN 0982160062

Stephen Ratcliffe’s book-length poem Conversation (2011) is a sharp and prescient writing that continues the one-hundred-year tradition established by the early Imagists. That there be “Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective. Regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase …”

In Ratcliffe’s writing, movements are on the page — with their own integrity and ruminative space, not simply for the purpose of character description. And this is an important distinction; the motion within Conversation is alive.

In addition, he actually procured the rights to the Matisse painting …

Robert Motherwell contemplated Lorca’s poem “Five in the Afternoon”; from this he initially painted and kept painting Elegies for forty years. Stephen Ratcliffe, after viewing Matisse’s painting Conversation, determined he’d work with the oil-on-canvas image for his book of the same title. Ratcliffe has had a long-standing interest in collaborative art and its relationship to duration. This past winter, for example, at Mills College in a gallery filled with sculptural wooden boxes, baskets, multicolored seeds: millet, rice, corn … he gave a fourteen-hour reading amongst musicians and dancers.

So there are ekphrastic writers; what makes Stephen’s efforts noteworthy is the awareness with which he searches for resonance, between Matisse’s painting and his own present physical and emotional landscape. I’m thinking of Basho, “Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old masters, seek what they sought.” And Stephen does this, writing in order to locate the source.

The poem opens,

how the voice is going forward in such a measure,

farther on,

rocks placed one on top of the other (meditation) in a landscape that isn’t under water,

How to acquaint oneself with a new place? Maybe by reforming the material at hand, maybe by going to the dignity of elements that reside there is a way. In Conversation, what otherwise might be considered details, or background sounds, are brought to the fore. Blake called these “the Minute Particulars.” It is refreshing in an age of post-post this, post-post that, to read this kind of mutual dignity from one page to the next.

I say to Ratcliffe that while Conversation occurs in a specific place that it also touches at state-of-place. He laughs, “Yeah, maybe state-of-time too.” In this way it’s less concerned with the epiphanic, and more with the ongoing quality of nature, where the features are inclusive and interdependent. 

Even the materiality of the work, the Courier font — with equivalent width of letters and spaces between words, as well as the horizon quality of the text blocks which may be read as long sweeping lines across both pages, or if preferred read down one page at a time — emerges from Ratcliffe’s sense of place and home. Namely, from his writing table which looks out to a span of scrubby pines, ridge, skyline.

sun rising in branches at top of ridge,
moon in cloudless blue sky above point

For those of you who know Ratcliffe’s blog, he posts a photograph of this view daily, documenting in poems its subtle changes and similarities. Here he enters another kind of portraiture, now turning his attention to the simultaneity of life — and the subtleties of human relationship, by turns frail and surprisingly robust. That in any moment one may discern the hopeful attempts at communication.

if what he wants to say will reach the porch of her left ear the moment she hears it, followed by the woman whose face registers what it means to face the end of his life.

Conversation could stand well alongside other equally multivalent texts — those of Gertrude Stein, Georges Perec, Ron Silliman, Robert Grenier — where the tactile form dignifies reader, writer, and the players there.

A study in how we define the world outside

A review of Maxine Chernoff's 'Without'



Maxine Chernoff

Shearsman Books 2012, 82 pages, $15, ISBN 978-1848611962

The cover photograph of Maxine Chernoff’s latest book of poems, Without, shows a scruffy western American landscape in the hallucinatory amber light of late afternoon. The black shadow of a porch cuts a geometric shape across the landscape, framing leafless trees and twisted stumps; in the distance lies a low hill covered in chaparral-like vegetation. The photograph, by Carolyn Guinzio, suggests a dry land lacking the moisture needed to sustain growth: it is a landscape without. But the photograph suggests something else: that “without” means not only “lack of” but also “exterior to.” This is a crucial addition, for Chernoff’s book is a meditation not only on loss but also on the poet’s (and, by association, every human’s) relationship to the exterior. It is a study in how we define the world outside—how our interior losses shape the exteriors that surround us.

In this series of sixty-four poems, each title is bracketed and begins with the word “without.” The opening poem, “[without resolution],” sets the tone and the place of the poems, which are dominated by ambiguity. Resolution is not only a driving force, a commandment to the self meant to better one’s behavior in social terms, but also an ending, the completion of a complicated and difficult situation. It’s as if the writer were not actually setting out to complete a discrete work of art but, rather, awakens in the midst of a chaotic and indefinite state. The poem’s first lines are true to the title’s implication:

consider our planet

 woeful cauldron

 far-fetched utopia

 oiled by power (11)


The poet asks us to join her in her perception of the world’s improbable mess, which is both “sunlight” and “jasmine’s / March-night scent / which slightly reeks”: we exist on a generic planet where “all the deaths / we are counting” form a “titanic excess.” Our Earth is a “woeful cauldron,” a blackened pot where witchy potions are brewed — potions that create doubtful and dangerous states of being, linked with elemental power. In this case, the brew is a mixture of sorrow, loss, and anger. Linked to the personal loss of relationship that appears throughout the book — “one ran / and one followed / one fell / one called after” — is the degradation of the planet and furious wars of the Middle East.

This intimacy between the self and the planet is most closely revealed in the poem “[without pain]” in which the ending metaphor guides the poem from the mind — “she signals rejection / he signals loss” — to the terrain of the Earth: 

who can say

 what a gesture means

 surveyors have

 their job to do

 locating where

 it used to hurt (41)


Although this mixture seems to swing over into the domain of pathetic fallacy, Chernoff enlivens more than the nineteenth-century concept of Nature. An animistic sense inhabits Chernoff’s understanding not only of nature but also of both the body and language:

all this hurts

 the ocean suggests

 as if waves

 could privilege

 ear’s dumb gestures

 or a ghost of a sentence learn

 to read its

 own dried ink

 ([without a listener], 14)


The ending metaphor intimates that language creates a material object with a separate existence. And that separation from the speaker or writer is also a type of loss.

The series is less dependent on the characteristic projections of poetic fallacy; it is, instead, a systematic stripping down of the world. Each poem suggests a view of the world as it would be without the particular emotional or mental feature stated in the poem’s title. But throughout the poems as a series, other words reappear that weave a web of association between the particular worlds: this multiverse may in fact be a universe. “White” repeats in “[without light],” occupying a funeral, and also appears as a summer night in “[without design]” and as the color of a monster, a sickness that goes by the name of radioactivity, in “[without substance].” White signifies relief as the color of the uniforms of the clean-up crew at the Fukushima reactor in the poem “[without intention].” And white variously inhabits bones, the ambiguously planetary moon, snow and ice, ash and salt, clouds and ghosts. All of which stream back to the writer’s blank page, which is endlessly capable of silence. The reappearing aspects of white tie the multiple worlds of the book together — each is somehow familiar, each a possibility of the other.

Among white’s many shades and hues is the color silver: a color vibrating between white and black, illusory in its indefinite character, as illusory as the images used within the poems:

what we tried

 to understand


 from our view

 like the sheen

 you see

 on roads

 when summer

 knows you


 just to know

 ([without a view], 72]


Throughout the book the ability to forget or to select wavers, and the reader must constantly decipher where the writer is placed in relation to the text. Does she pronounce the words or do they describe her? Is she subject or object? 

what to forget

 when knowing

 leeches out like

 oil buried

 in sandy ground


 laments unmute

 their billowing song

 their edges

 taut with recognition

 ([without erasure], 13)


The quality of the language is vaporous, escaping definition and giving the words the features of a vision. The writer — the poet spinning out words as if they were equivalences — assumes the countenance of a visionary. Thus loss becomes a doorway, a medial state like that time of day in Guinzio’s cover photograph: it exists in some time between day and night, a twilight zone with its otherworldly colors. Though in Chernoff’s universe the sky is white, that absence of color, milky as an overcast day, layered with strata of clouds.

The overall structure of the book is that of a list. A list, paradoxically, of absences. Within the individual poems lists make connections between things ambient and disconcerting: 

birds on a wire

 spycams winking

 the floods of 1873

 hairs of the elephant

 the lipsticked

 cup he used to kiss

 ([without number], 51)


The lists are delicately surrealistic in their unpredictability, often pairing opposites that cluster in startling relationship to each other:

painless torture

 painless denial

 painless poem masking

 its plan

 ([without pain], 41)


The poems are composed of short lines, most five to six syllables long; some, such as “[without movement]”, only two or three syllables in length. These short lines give the poems a breathless quality, which would move the reader through the poem quickly and comprehensively if it were not for the syntactical ambiguity caused by the poems’ lack of punctuation. Although it’s clear that meaning gathers as you read through the lines, it’s not always clear whether a line links to the line above or below, or is meant to be read separately, as its own image or idea. Thus, Chernoff compels two movements and two speeds in the reading. The first drives the reader forward as quickly as possible so that the lines can be gathered and interpreted. The second requires the reader to slow down, loop back, and reread the lines in different configurations. “[without shadow]” opens:

death stutters

in the voice of a judge



blatant and grave

the body asks

for frost

… (17)

It is impossible to say with sureness whether “ostrich-headed” modifies “the voice,” “a judge,” or “predilections,” and the same can be said of “blatant and grave,” which could modify either “predilections” or “the body.” This device is not unusual in contemporary writing, but it is used so unceasingly and it fits so snugly with the original and multiple worldview that Chernoff creates within the book that it’s worth noting; it is the central technique of the poems.

One of the implications of this technique is that the poems are oral in essence. Only through the poet’s speaking voice can the poems’ meanings be elucidated, crystallized (even though her performance may change with each reading). And it is here that Chernoff’s practice as a storyteller, both in novels and prose poetry, is revealed and transformed. There are stories behind these poems and a larger tale to be told, but like the more enduring of oral mythologies, they lie in a mysterious realm where existential sorrow moves the imagination to speak. Words rescue the lone human, stranded, unleashing her from the arbitrariness of loss. And the listener and the reader are drawn in by the mystery, searching within its enigma for truths and truth’s power to heal.

As the book closes the poet offers the long-delayed resolution: first apologizing to the dead that have vanished in life’s turmoil, then to the living:

i am sorry for


my slights of


my unturned cheek

I am only trying harder

to be what light

calls itself when

it enters a room

full of sorrows

([without sympathy], 78–79)


In the closing and longest poem of the book, “[without without],” Chernoff puts forward the image of art, following the mandate of her grandson — merged with the reader in an anonymous “you” — to “draw a dowel / draw a compass / draw a kind of cup / draw an old man.” She “would teach you nothing” — for the ability to imagine and to create is innate: “you know the words / you say them     you.” The resolution is that sorrow and even death are lightened by the human compulsion to speak and to create.

Ryan Eckes's American poetry

A review of Ryan Eckes's 'Old News'

Old News

Old News

Ryan Eckes

Furniture Press 2011, 70 pages, $12, ISBN 9780982629949

In her essay “Against Transparency: From the Radiant Cluster to the Word as Such,” Marjorie Perloff argues that poetic imagery can’t avoid reproducing the “videation of our culture.”[1] Noting Charles Bernstein’s concept of “‘imagabsorption’ — the ‘im-position of the image on the mind’ from without” (79). She attributes this condition to the conjoined histories of marketing, public relations, and propaganda in twentieth-century America. As wordy ads targeting a consumer in the decades of radio went the ways of a picturesque television, the message changed into a compact visual of simplifying elegance. In stores, catalogs, magazines, the news, a moment’s image proved infectious: “telenostalgia” (77). This shift in how many could experience the same totalizing picture in their head meant that, for some poets, by the conclusion of the ’80s:

Image as the dominant gives way to syntax: in Poundian terms, the turn is from phanopoeia to logopoiea. “Making strange” now occurs at the level of phrasal and sentence structure rather than at the level of the image cluster so that poetic language cannot be absorbed into the discourse of the media. (78)

When mediating images appear, the tongue should be tied in the grammar of what marketplace lies about them. Today, post-paper, there is a return (popular among many) to an imaginary life of typed pictures, but they are far from the direct treatment, whose sincere associative is-ness bears a hint of the absurd.

The spirit of this trend (whose identification will have to stand without proof or names), though still suspicious regarding the value of a hot commodity, which is the profound lesson from the Marxist Language school to the MFA (and perhaps accounts for its avid interest in writings from lost cultures), dismisses the Language poet’s denial of the validity of feelings to understanding the experience of readers. This history aside (ignoring the conceptual, and perhaps thanks to the confessional), it is now serious business to speak of the “emotional center” of a poem’s work: 

you need to learn to pump yourself up, she said. (Eckes, Old News, 13).


i wanted to say, i’ll pump you up

 but i could not pump myself up enough

 to say that. funny how you can leave your

 self so farx behind when you talk to some

 one. and where is that self, just now? (7)


All of this is too much preamble to Ryan Eckes’s stunning book from 2011, Old News, which isn’t concerned with movements or schools and so is interesting when compared to them:

you look for work, the world’s largest living thing. its door weighs
4,000 years and grows one centimeter every decade. (16)

In the first place, joining the experiential to the weight of the visual reminds me that the actual subject matter that becomes poetry, or any writing, will remain the base condition of its audibly cognitive, oxygenated rendering. I am also reminded that poetry, like any writing, can construct minds, even mock or titillate them, even if the writer’s wonder and trouble is still attached to the things themselves, their conversing and what it means; poetry is often discovered like a fresh membrane to filter through what preexisted, probably survives, and maybe even ruins his or her contemporary translation. The addictive quality of such reception has always been that, sometimes, from an admittedly uncertain but nonetheless methodic, scientific point of view, a novel (semantic) pattern of organization (and crossing this threshold spontaneously, into its own organism) may appear, however much the fleeting, ineffectual permeation into us. “Work,” and even looking for it, as “the world’s largest living thing” — this is an ecopoetic point of view, romantic as hell, and it is not new.

Within its first few pages, Old News explains:

we tore up the rotten carpets and the mats underneath, which were

 stapled to the old pine floor from the days before carpets, and found

 newspapers from 1923 spread across the room. some Philadelphia

 Inquirer, some Evening Bulletin. some 1923 in some 2007. (9)

Old News
lineates the ordinary language of the picturesque stories of people and events from those found newspaper pages, producing enjambed verse. Also peppering it are partial facsimiles of “the American Geographical Society’s pamphlet series ‘Know Your America Program: Philadelphia’ printed in 1951” (2). On one of the book’s pages, a photograph of congested traffic going into and from the steel horizon of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, capturing the “rush hour progress” of the almost identical vehicles standing still and probably emitting today’s smog, is juxtaposed to a larger image:

Looking past Logan Circle, central feature of one of Penn’s original city square parks, along the beautiful spacious tree-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway toward the Museum of Art and Fairmount Park beyond. William Penn would have liked this part of Philadelphia, for it is indeed full of greenery. (17)

And the fragment of some reproduced tourist’s propaganda, à la Perloff, that Eckes places under these pictures and their captions speaks of a similar marriage of industry to someone else’s beauty and independence. The material gleaned from a pamphlet and some old news, found under (someone’s) old carpet, brief snapshots of what the reader is to call “Philadelphia” in 1951 and 1923, form the frames for reading the poet’s more immediately contemporary poems, whose earliest indicators say “mouse-infested apt, Feb 2003” (13): 



 the walt whitman bridge is no cheaper

 than the ben franklin

lay on the horn all you want

camden is poor (36)


Regardless of national origin, the Philadelphian is aware of a rich heritage. He is aware that his city fostered the birth of a nation and through the years established an extraordinary record for political, cultural, and scientific firsts, many of which had far-reaching effects on the country as a whole. He is proud of all this, and of those who maintain the city’s best traditions. He works hard — but not too hard — and in his leisure time he goes to a museum, a concert, an opera, or at the very least he tries to support such endeavors. As in the time of Franklin, a well-furnished mind is practically a requisite for membership in the elite, especially if your ancestors didn’t happen to be among the Signers. (41)

Inasmuch as the poems in Old News paint things like frailty, error, and resignation as operative, nostalgic, wordy events for their contemplative “I,” the speed at which its history finds form is impressive, as diachronic and synchronic links and patterns emerge from experienced and reported situations within the tight, expository, conversational verse; next to an obsessive enjambment, down the page, identifiable units, often about the size of a line, link individual poems to the next, making Old News into a reader’s trip through its map of the city. And with his depictions of Philadelphia’s people, of their mostly wide-eyed desires and foibles amidst all that comes and came with their news, Eckes shows the reader a city vibrating with confused, misunderstood, historically determined attitudes and segregations. I hesitate to quote directly from their mouths, in which neighborhoods and race play a part. 

The poems in Old News do not shy away from writing (about) the tribe’s experiences, justified, in part, by an archival dumpster-diving methodology and quick wit whose attention to what’s what in his surroundings is razor sharp. The speaker articulating these poems in this city seems sensitive to the boundaries of the denizens filling it, to including its illustrious dead. And yet its frank curiosity and, at times, outrage indicates a gift (and willingness, it seems) for ignoring that. Living narrative is the dominant mode (enjambed), with some strict tercets and quatrains and almost some sonnets (with their crown-like quality, already described), with ample amounts of dialog and witnesses, but it is the strange secret of where they have come from that piques this renter’s interest: 

people say but you own it

but i know that it owns me

which is fine, it’s much bigger

than i am and older and here

i am writing my checks now

to […] (12)


With peculiar bits of history included in it, Eckes has written a book that is remarkably successful in addressing the psychological underbelly and larger implications of a people’s actions — it discovers a hidden story, linking past with future, out there. And as the undead of strange history is found to be infecting the city in this book, they seem to this reader to have been mostly actual things. The power of the poetry in Old News, like the news it finds and found, lies in an unsentimental use of language to depict what is witnessed and what is reported.

1. Marjorie Perloff, Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 74.x