Climbing earth

The spiritual materials of Hank Lazer and giovanni singleton

N18 (complete)

N18 (complete)

Hank Lazer

Singing Horse Press 2012, 81 pages, $15, ISBN 9780935162479



giovanni singleton

Counterpath Press 2012, 82 pages, $14, ISBN 9781933996264

Hank Lazer’s most recent collection, N18 (complete), and giovanni singleton’s first collection of poetry, Ascension, deploy similar formal strategies to remind us of an old truth: the bone of spirit means just that, the inseparability of the spiritual from the material. Lazer uses handwritten shapewriting as a kind of “first tool” to meditate on song, knowledge, and being in relation to the quest for transcendence embodied in his ongoing projects. singleton frames her more normative meditative lyricism with shapewritten (non-standard) typographical differences. Moreover, singleton’s book title, an allusion to a John Coltrane composition, might very well describe the strategic turns and twists of N18 as a kind of Nocturnes 18 — serpentine handwriting as night music (and an allusion to the name of the poetry journal singleton edits) that points toward what hovers “above” or “beyond” while Days, a previous Lazer book, could serve as the alternate title of “Eye of the Behearer,” a section of singelton’s book composed in honor of the forty-nine day passage of Alice Coltrane’s soul into eternity. In citing an earlier Lazer publication as well as singleton’s magazine Nocturnes, I am suggesting that the paths of these two poets have long been intertwined even if they do not know it (or each other’s work). I refer here not to their metaphysical ruminations — we could cite everyone from Nathaniel Mackey to Elizabeth Robinson, Noah Eli Gordon to Fanny Howe, on that score — but rather to the specific procedural methods both poets deploy as gestures toward the ineffable.

N18 (complete) is the latest incarnation of Hank Lazer’s work as a series of Benjaminesque dreambooks: allusions to, and quotations from, Levinas, Heidegger, et al. dominate the text (qualitatively if not quantitatively). The Nietzschean-Heideggerean subtexts offset each other rather well, the former’s humor and hubris compensating for the latter’s solemnity, though as absorbed and refigured through Lazer’s writing, these serpentine citations still make for some fairly “serious” reading. On the other hand, the spare, fierce lyricism of Ascension, harmonizing with the late music of Coltrane, has the effect of the epigram and aphorism, though without the despair underlying, say, Pascal. As for “content,” the differences are stark enough. The cultural contexts of singleton’s work — in general, what do “we” do in the wake (in every sense of the word) of the Black Arts Movement and its “political” wing, the radical Black Power movement — grounds her work in a specific culture and epoch even as it attempts, ambivalently, to go beyond the last century’s very real social and political possibilities, however much compromised, internally, by sloganeering and posturing. By comparison, as its apotheosis of shapewriting implies, N18 is both more iconoclastic and “universal” inasmuch as the Big Topics — “the downpour of holiness goes by the name each instant is miraculous the …” (21) — processed through Oulipo proceduralism, explicitly inform its trajectory. Still, each book, in its own way, seems to presuppose an impasse — spiritual and political, metaphysical and materialistic — that is both specific to our epoch and, possibly, a general condition of human existence. In that sense, as Elizabeth Robinson notes in her Rain Taxi review of singleton’s book, Ascension must be understood, pace its title, as a refusal of verticality and its hierarchical implications.

In that spirit, Ascension opens with a mandala entitled “The Odds,” essentially a spiraling series of hedged bets — “read the leaves roll the dice shuffle the cards lay the runes write some poems and pray pray pray” (3) — and closes in “silence” with “Eye of the Be/Holder,” an abbreviated journey toward (Buddhist) self-abnegation (the three movements of the poem are “I,” “I,” and “.”), that “final” period a nano-mandala purified of language. Between “The Odds” and “Eye of the Be/Holder” three serial poems challenge verticality even though they, as more or less normative poems written in English, invite left-right, top-bottom, reading practices. “Eye of the Behearer” and “Melanin Suite,” comprised, respectively, of forty-nine and nine movements, link the bardo of Alice Coltrane’s soul to the dialectics of negrophobia (e.g., Jim Crow) and negrophilia (e.g., the Black Arts Movement). Singleton imagines this “argument” regarding the “negro” transcended by the spiritual flights in “Exodus” (“this earthen soul, a flock / of birds // where we are new / we are new / we are new to this body”) (62), a poem situated between “Eye of the Behearer” and “Melanin Suite.” The thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure, traditionally represented by the pyramid (replicated in “Day 45” of “Eye of the Behearer” as a triangle comprised of the repeated sentence “The World Is Round” — thematizing the mandala — and punctuated at its heart by the tag “Ain’t it”), is echoed by the last poem in “Melanin Suite,” an acrostic tribute to ecumenism that spells out Alice Coltrane’s name, the first letter of which represents both pyramid and triangle: “vedAntic / tempLe prayers / tambourInes and / hallelujah Claps for/Krishna, GanEsha, Shiva” (75). Unlike the normative wordprocessed fonts of the bulk of “Eye of the Behearer” and “Melanin Suite,” both “Exodus” and the acrostic are reprints of pages typed on a “broken” typewriter (the right column of “Exodus” is a handwritten series of Greek letters). These typographical irregularities mimic handwriting, suggesting that, for singleton, the “moments” of transcendence can only appear, from the perspective of the world, as apotheoses of iconoclasm.

In N18, Lazer accepts the apotheosis of iconoclasm, of handwritten shapewriting. In our historical moment, such a gesture can be understood as both pre-and post-conceptual, pre- and post-flarf, even though it approaches the former’s solemnity more than it does the latter’s humor. The tension Lazer enacts here is largely (though not only) formal: a personal hand writing its way through largely Western philosophical and theological arguments, ideas and values. Though Lazer’s “own” thoughts are given more than their due here, neither his ideas nor his procedures reverse the text-marginalia relationship; rather, N18 emphasizes the ideational (rather than the sensory) level of citation in general. The centrality of the a priori text — here, as direct quotations — and its authoritative potency is only partially mitigated by Lazer’s handwritten shapewriting since his ideas bear the traces of his predecessors. For example, the page dated 10/16/10 is comprised of two quotations in the shape of mandalas linked by two lines of “original” writing: “pay attention pay attention to what / what exactly it is that calls us into attention.” Echoing singleton’s “pray pray pray,” this page of writing has the shape of a quarter note, not the first or last time Lazer (like singleton) links the possibility of transcendence to music (cf. Days). Despite their mutual valorization of the uppermost limits, the Heideggerean-Levinasean undertones in N18 pigeonhole Lazer as the prototypical scholar-academic poet. Of course, to put it that way only reinscribes what N18 (as well as some of Lazer’s previous books) is at pains to dispel: the Romantic notion of originality as the aesthetic value par excellence of poetry. Indeed, what marks Lazer’s writing is its insistence on playing with the tradition, somewhat along the lines of jazz improvisations of popular tunes: “on the bridge   to sing with   the sound of what passes by / this way / his way / the play // of sway machinery” (37). In that sense, Lazer’s handwritten shapewriting is not teleological or, if it is, if it does tend toward the answer or the truth, it insists on dancing down the many roads already traveled. That traditional, if ecumenical, impulse also links N18 to Ascension. Still, if N18 is more scholarly, more academic, than Ascension, Lazer’s apparent aversion to titles — the book is one long poem — and narrative makes it even more serial, more radical, than the poems that comprise singleton’s book. Or does it? After all, a few of the pages of N18 are dated.[1] At any rate, Lazer’s writing, largely shorn of the lyricism that informs Ascension, can be read as a critical “commentary” on singleton’s work. And need I add that Ascension can be understood as marking the limits of the sweeping grandeur that shadows N18?



1. Do dates of composition function as titles? Put another way, does the shift from thematic or structural markers — the usual function of titles — to temporal ones reduce the normal stop-and-go reading process? Is the difference between a title of letters and one of numbers merely the difference between red stop and yellow slow down signs? And in the context of reading practices in our age, what is the significance of the fact that Ascension asks us to occasionally “stop” while N18 (complete) “merely” asks us to slow down?

Beauty is useless

A review of Noel Black's 'Uselysses'



Noel Black

Ugly Duckling Presse 2012, 115 pages, $15, ISBN 978-1-933254-89-0

In the Proverbs of Hell, William Blake stated that “Exuberance is Beauty.” In Uselysses, poet Noel Black unravels each word in Blake’s proverb: the beauty, the exuberance, and especially the is. In this unraveling, Black’s poems find nothing too sacred or too mundane. Here, exuberance and beauty are abundant givens (take titles like “Ballad of the Homeopathic Pony” and “Huckleberry Finnegan’s Wake”), but it’s the poet’s subtle inquiry into being — the ontological ground we’re standing on — that drives these poems, and their reader, forward into new terrain. Uselysses candidly traces a journey through space and time, from rural Colorado to New York City and back to the poet’s very birth. Along the way, it manages to ask the most daunting questions about who we are and why we’re here in terms that are simple, funny, and full of a singular voice. The result is a pursuit as heroic as the book’s title suggests. 

One of the first things to notice about Black’s work is the valence of the epic lyric merged with that of the delightfully banal. “I wish I had time to work / on my zombie novel / down at the Dunkin’ Donuts / all day long,” ends “In the Manner of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sort Of,” the first poem in the book. The mind that occupies these poems delights in the full spectrum of its experiences and desires, often tied in with playful idioms: Dunkin’ Donuts, Dr. Pepper, the poet’s son calling the Beach Boys “The Beach Brothers.” The tendency toward play coalesces early in the book with “8 Dead Poets,” a series of tombstone-sized poems that disclose the deaths of canonical poets (Whitman, Dickinson, Shelly …) in their own diction: 

Frank O’Hara



“If I had my way I’d go on & on 
and never go to sleep,” 
said Frank O’Hara just hours before 
he got hit by a Jeep. (19)


All eight of these literary giants influence Black in ways that emerge throughout the book. Here, he honors them by building them a new kind of pedestal, one that includes both their genius and their mortality. I can’t help but think it’s what each of them would have wanted. Black’s use of puns and rhymes (“Sylvia Plath / turned on the gath”) makes this poem as memorable as the works its subjects wrote. The section of the book titled “Moby K. Dick” expands on this project by combining the titles and styles of seemingly-disparate works of literature. I laughed aloud at “Miss Lonelyhearts of Darkness” and “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold Blood,” and there’s a beating heart behind the obvious wittiness, evidence of the deepest kind of admiration.

These homages represent a meeting between the book’s main themes: the personal versus the universal, the major versus the minor, what makes a life meaningful — and a death. Seen as a sort of Venn diagram, Uselysses overlaps the sphere of the quotidian with the sphere of the great cosmos, what Charles Simic calls “the secular divine”; the place of intersection manifests as both reverence and humor. There’s a human dialogue with poets of yore who also dealt, coincidentally, with this same intersection.

Like Whitman, Black revels in his multitudes. Despite the simplicity of the poet-narrator’s desires — adventure, comfort, fast food — these poems spring from a complex identity. Many of the poems in the book seem to begin with unremarkable events in the poet’s life, which then set off chains of thought and feeling leading toward something much larger. “‘The Truth Is Right Here,’ / says the little plastic box of tea tree toothpicks,” begins one poem, before carefully investigating why Truth and toothpicks should occur within the same ordinary thing. A few pages later, “Another Poem” starts with “The mysteries of the universe are contained / in a single varicose vein.” Many of the poems in Uselysses that deal with the ordinary and the divine — and the lack of difference therein — were written during Black’s time living in New York City, far in every sense from his native Colorado.  Take “Poem on My 36th Birthday”: 

I wonder if I ride my bike through Brooklyn fast enough
if the particles of Walt Whitman 
would smash into my face 
revealing the mysteries of the universe, 
which means what — one singing or one seeing? (45)


There’s a dense, searching quality to the New York poems, noticeably shrugged off once Black and his family return to Colorado. Places and travel are significant to this work — San Francisco, Bogota, Crete, Oklahoma. A necessary tension among urban, suburban and rural environs yields some of the most interesting material in the book. Places have particular and almost totemic character that colors everything that happens within them. This character comes across effortlessly. “You’ll take [Ron Padgett] to buy a bowl of potato soup at the Safeway where you learned to shoplift …” stands alongside “You’ll get flashed by a wanker in a park outside Ephesus.” The care taken with places and events confirms a sense of awe at the very fact that we are here on Earth, sharing our lives in the present.

Having lost his father to AIDS, Black makes no secret of his own intimate experience with cosmic impermanence. The generosity around sharing this experience opens up the reader’s awareness of her own most meaningful experiences. Uselysses concludes with a long poem, “Prophecies for the Past,” a series of lushly-wrought “predictions” about what will happen to the poet over the course of his life. Autobiographical details range here from pathetic to outrageous to dazzlingly tender. Throughout the book, Black directly acknowledges the immediate forebears of his poetics — Padgett, Schuyler, Kyger — but it’s the spirit of Joe Brainard that this poem owes its life to. Far from a simple imitation, this reenvisioning of I Remember proves what a wild journey a single human life can be.

Uselysses touches a wide spectrum of sincere feeling, although perhaps the image of a spectrum is too linear. In reading, expect to enter a whole field of feeling, a palpable space, where arousal and boredom interact freely humor and tenderness. Expect to remember what it is to be friends with the dead, friends with the living, and ultimately, joyfully curious about being here at all.

Reading 'Iovis' in Bolinas

A review of Anne Waldman's ‘The Iovis Trilogy’

The Iovis Trilogy

The Iovis Trilogy

Anne Waldman

Coffee House Press 2012, 1013 pages, $40, ISBN 978-1-56689-255-1

In Bolinas, California, on a sunny late spring afternoon, four of us are sitting at a small round table set for tea. The table setting is unquestionably Joanne Kyger’s: woven bamboo mats trimmed smartly in black, small dishes of nuts, seeds, and cookies, a cheese board with a local cambozola, crackers, fruit, a small tray of spicy dried seaweed, delicate china plates and silverware tipped with arabesque, and everyone with their drink — some with chamomile tea in small jade-green cups, sparkling water in translucent blue glasses, white wine in stemware — around a centerpiece of pale purple Hydrangea and a few sprigs with tiny white flowers all fringed in broad, sphere-shaped leaves. We are passing around The Iovis Trilogy, because Joanne — who is always pulling book after book off a shelf or from a small table nearby and putting them into your hands one after the other, so that you place one book on the table to empty your hands to receive another book until the table is full of small heaps of books and in need of clearing — insists that one can not read Iovis alone, that it’s meant to be read aloud: “for it was her song, & / she always wanted to sing it / moving as she did among his waves” (213). Donald Guravich, Joanne’s companion of over thirty years, who so often serves as a verbal counterpoint to Joanne’s proclamations, emphatically agrees, and we, Eleni Stecopoulos and I, having just arrived from a quick picnic lunch at a windy Limantour Beach on Point Reyes National Seashore where a horse had rolled his huge, muscular body down onto the sand, and where children rolled and ran, and sand got in our hummus, we agree, too. We have all seen Anne Waldman’s ‘Socratic rap’ at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program, have been at her elbow for some social occasions, have seen her perform her poems with and without musicians, and sharing a sense of her, we are all one in agreement on this point. This is an occasion to read Iovis aloud.

But this is not the only point Iovis brings us to. It is, instead, Joanne, a moment ago, pulling book and stool over from the periphery of the tea zone (and this looks like a significant struggle, to move this 1,013-page book and its stool only a few feet across the floor [when “the poet positions herself in the cosmos” it’s going to be big (7)]) so that it becomes, also, another seat at the table where the four of us sit. The point is that Joanne, insisting we now in turn read aloud, reveals that Iovis is not so much “meant” to be voiced as it requires it, demands it. This book must breathe, and our breath carries its words into the verbal open. “Because I’m so enthusiastic on this logopoeia” (829).

At this juncture, while the book and its stool are being dragged to the table, I quietly point out that I have been reading Iovis alone, and it’s not so much that I’m compelled to divulge this fact as that I am struck by this coincidence, so that it feels as though there is something in this moment directed specifically toward me, a current reader of Iovis, though one who failed to follow her own disciplined agenda, which was to read one section of Iovis as a daily meditation and to thus let it accumulate in me while jotting the notes that would become the review. Reading one twelve-or-so-page section is a considerable commitment (and it would be best to really live with it, to spend all day with each section rather than the morning hour or so my schedule afforded), and with each book (published consecutively in individual volumes by Coffee House Press in 1993, 1997, and 2012) containing about twenty-five sections (and weighing in at 300 or so pages), it would take three months (skipping a day here and there) to finish. In the process of reading Iovis, my notes themselves had become epic, because Iovis, being a work of an expansive mind and heart, at so many points sutures itself to our familiarly troubled world: “suffering suffering / what is it like / graphomania” (847).

“Iovis omnia plena” — “all is full of Jove” (2), all is “full of,” ruled by, the laws and social order laid down by the male god’s principle. Virgil’s phrase becomes the initiating emblem for patriarchy in Iovis, at once a personal epistle and a highly staged response to our time of military imperialism and myriad collateral damage:

what are we dying for?
58,000 of “our own”
did die, then died on them
did die them, then
& now?
       we die others, many thousands
they die on us
die on me (725).

With her roiling, roving, inquisitive, and accusatory words on our lips, Anne (we all refer to her as “Anne” as though she were here among us in her book) combats the masculine energy to which all of Iovis is a huge heave-ho. History is an unavoidable invocation “to take on the manifestations of patriarchy in writing, tracking, tracing, documenting” (xi) and, aided by “investigative travel” (xi), this project spans the globe. Iovis thus draws on and expands the modernist American epic — she cites “masters Williams, Pound, Zukofsky & Olson” (3) as precedents. And as for H.D.: the fact of her lone female predecessor is significant. It’s easy to recognize both Helen in Egypt and Iovis as acts of productive counterforce to the ideologies and imaginations that came to dominate the long poem tradition.

Above all, Iovis is Anne’s “narration of a time […], a way of being in the world” (xi). Opposite the title page we encounter a snapshot of the world Anne was born into: she is a buntinged baby on the knee of a uniformed soldier, her father; it is 1945. Her epic fully embraces this world, unflinchingly passing on the story of the tribe. But it is also passing on a family history (relatives’ letters are consulted, their memories plumbed), and this frontispiece image is echoed in the repeated references to her son, Ambrose Eyre Bye, to whom the trilogy is dedicated and who, as a small child growing into a young man, was her male-companion-spirit in writing Iovis, because the adult male story is of war and the boy-child’s is of the hope of reparation and she is between these stories, literally: “if she includes him he understands the world better, simple as that” (240). The photograph serves as a humanizing counter-image to the state of perpetual war and conflict that keeps her busy: “Here are your spoils little girl, little Annie. / Here are the spoils of war” (715). The poet’s life and its antecedents bump up against and break up and slide over one another like tectonic plates. Here is a hot, living poem.

Iovis challenges the generic boundaries of the masculine epic tradition, expands them as Anne inserts herself in it, writing a vast archive “to see how the woman poet-mind would fare and flow” (xi). Wrought through multiple formal propositions — chants, dream narratives, reportage, letters, lists, and rants — attacking from myriad angles and playing in voices, it rejects unilateral male energies and breaks open an insular American-centric vision: “Add[ing] other voices that inform and infuse a life” (xii). It proceeds episodically, but refuses to adhere to a linear temporal logic, instead pinning its “narrative” to sequential explorations of spaces, material and immaterial, through which meaning is made, inhabitance undertaken, in its epoch. It broaches the question of “what is ‘appropriate’ stuff for epic attention” (529) and even, in one of several instances of self-reflection through the lens of others, documents the front lines of this discussion in a letter from “K,” a student in a class on Olson taught by Robert Creeley, which reports on his dismissal of Iovis (Book I was then in print) as too “personal” to be an epic (370). As a conscientious citizen, “Anne-Who-Grasps-the-Broom-Tightly” (15) attempts to be fully aware in a time of innumerable social inequities and injuries. As a Buddhist, Anne compassionately responds. How can one (a woman) assertively be in the world and not take any of it personally?

As I’m sitting at Joanne’s table, I’m realizing that this visit for tea in Bolinas has unexpectedly offered an opportunity to rightly read Iovis, and no one is paying any mind to my tiny confession, drawn as we all are to the book (feeling the pull of the book pulled over to the table). And I do mean we are drawn as readers of Anne. And we are drawn, in this moment, by Joanne, into a community. Joanne opens the book by what logic I know not to Book III, somewhere in the middle of section XIX, “Matriot Acts,” in which Anne plays the legislative and theatric senses of “act” against each other. Somewhere near where I had put the book down a few weeks earlier (I had put the book down on section XIV, in fact, but the nearness is uncanny enough to reconfirm the notion that there is something in this moment directed specifically toward me), and passes it to Eleni on her right, and we begin reading aloud, first Eleni, then me, then Donald, then Joanne, reading a page and passing the tome to the right. We land down past these words — the solid zigzagging line down the middle of the page effects the sense of its having been torn in half and reunited:

                                                             \ She will write out a new creed for
the protection of all the animals / therein And the entire world &
the nations therein & the trees, \ the greenery, & so on therein” (901)

We land down past these words — and we run along with them. We listen inwardly, laugh, perform for each other and comment and hear through each other and this collaborative reading becomes consistent with, threads into and out of, our conversation, the one we were and are now having, sometimes as a group or broken into pairs or in threes (when hostess Joanne temporarily leaves the table), our words resonating, not always pointedly, with different stratum of Anne’s words — “When you think about it what are the stakes? The end of Nature, the end of civilization, a truly inhumane Dark Age if this keeps up on the horizon …”(918) — for someone had said she felt we were entering a new dark ages, and someone else responded that we’ve been there for a while.

The breadth of Iovis is huge, spanning a spectrum pegged down on one end by the prose that prefaces each individually titled section noting the events personal, national, and global that create the lived space-time of the text that follows. On the other end, not so much pegged down. The page is energetically inhabited anew through an array of textual strategies: prose in various forms, poetry stanzaic and idiosyncratically spaced, the whole range of typographic marks on your keyboard deployed in signification, hand-drawn images, photographs, and collages, are but few. Even within one section, the words are rendered through a shifting subjectivity: sometimes I, sometimes she, sometimes another; sometimes female, sometimes male, sometimes androgynous; sometimes pedestrian, sometimes psychotropical, sometimes theatrical, sometimes scholarly, sometimes prophetic, sometimes not-quite-nameable. Reading Iovis requires an act of faith. You have to trust not only the poet but your experience of your own moments of dark and light or uncertainty and clarity that the poem recalls or opens up in you. Take the imperfect alignment of prose summary and poetic text to announce that there can be no single lens onto this multiple, shape-shifting, knowledge-and-subterfuge-investigating text. She cannot “read” her own unfolding journey to provide a succinct summary — it remains an open text written by “an open system (woman) available to any words or sounds [she’s] informed by” (1).

Whatever the time/space consciousness a section springs from, the overall effect of Iovis is to make visible the previously covered-over or unimagined female heroics of deep inquiry, replete with all the critical and responsive mechanisms that could possibly entail. And it’s clear that the heroics of deep inquiry are those of listening: Anne delves into a wealth of histories and cultural materials and delivers up in Iovis multiple myths and daily lives, so that, for instance, we learn in detail aspects of Hindu texts and temple rituals in one section (“Because life is short / & suffering is infinite / we study the Texts / to keep a shine on our universe” [437]), while another explains Beat generation gender dynamics (in the form of a letter to one Jane Dancy), while another reports on acts of domestic terrorism, provides a ballistics lesson, and “call[s] upon the President of the United States to reassess the easy availability of guns” (365). Iovis is the multimodal poetic equivalent of a people’s history of the world, striving to reach back and through its many beginnings: “I come here trembling, to remember how we studied the past to understand the future. Remember?” (727). Says the book’s flyleaf: “Iovis goes beyond the old injunction ‘to include history’ — its effort is to change history.” Indeed. When we read together, we become community theatre, all creative potential. “You will be a community of eyes. And you will create the world in your heart” (329).

On the page that I read I encounter “Invoked here then, was a host of fluid active female principles in the imagination and psyche of public space” (918) — and I stop to comment on it, voicing my reviewer’s mind, that here we have an articulation of the very heart of Iovis, of what it is “about,” how it is driven by an ethic to publically act — to write, teach, investigate, enable, organize, demonstrate, document, and perform, often ceremoniously — to act as a counterforce in an age guided by war and seemingly bent on destruction. This Anne lives in how she conducts her life as academic program director and global emissary and poetic community member, and Iovis is bound up with that, a part of this cloth, is her daily experience and thoughts and readings and spiritual practice and travels, so that Iovis is, grandly, a millennial poetics, a guide to being a poet of this world now-as-it-is-and-got-to-be, offering lessons in mastering “weapons like articulate speech & poetry, beauty” (154) — and this, if you read even a small slice of Iovis, you find made in its pages.

We are lovely people for each other when we read Iovis together. We are forces of good together; we witness for each other and together what is and what may be imagined. Together we witness as Anne experiences and imagines, as she assembles and teaches and indeed it feels as though she has materialized among us when Joanne performs her page in Anne’s deep down voice and with Anne’s dramatic hand gestures. Then we have all read. We commend Joanne for her idea, and agree with her, it must be read communally. Donald says you can’t read it silently, it won’t come off the page, it has to be read aloud, it’s the fact of the book. He’s right, we’re all right in that moment, and I’ve been reading it all wrong, sitting alone, silently absorbing, as though I could be a giant sponge to it all, a critical sponge that can pull out pertinent passages to stud the review I imagine I am writing. It’s simply too much to take in alone. It’s a culture, it’s many cultures, it’s your culture with the face of the thunderbolt-bearing head-of-statesmen sky god Jove. And you’re in it, and you draw it into yourself, which is not advisable, you need the space of other voices to bear the burden, the way Anne needs Kali, goddess of time and change in her benevolent guise, to “resume a dark shape. Fade into the street, down the alley, be invisible. Be the small shadowy quiet thing you are” (919). As Donald read these sentences, I felt again as though there was something in that moment directed specifically toward me. But isn’t that the sign of a great epic work, that we feel articulated in and through it, and surely there is something for anyone on even one page of all of Iovis. With its energies animated on the breath of its readers, it is how we acknowledge, is our communal, public voice. At the heart of the epic Anne insists, “Community is ‘voice’” (2), and through her insistence (and Joanne’s) “one” is invoked into “we” through the words of Iovis. But that is not all. “This is everything, this is nothing, this is not a conclusion” (831). With its energies animated on the breath of its readers, it is how we make space and, how, most importantly, we, along with Anne, create a cultural document, “leave a trace so that poets of the future know we were not just slaughtering one another” (656).

Devisable matter and sheer overjoy

A review of Peter Richards's 'Helsinki'



Peter Richards

Action Books 2011, 97 pages, $16, ISBN 978-0-979-9755-9-2

Even though I might try to define Helsinki in Peter Richards’s latest collection of the same name, I don’t think it would be all that constructive an endeavor. It is, however, important to note that location is integral in that it is a reoccurring motif as well as the gesture of the book’s title. But when I say location, I hesitate to affirm the specificity that the wordimplies; rather, the locative forces that energize Helsinki do more to strip the idea of location of its specificity, transforming the lyric into a mode that sustains placelessness, a medium through which lush imagery and skewed perspective enact a state of being instead of a particular setting.

The poetry that populates Helsinki’s five sections does not have titles, only three addition symbols at the top of each page occupying the spaces where titles might go. Instead of the narrative suggested on the book’s back cover, we encounter the vestiges of narrative — phrases, words, and lines that haunt the space of the poems with their narrative signification, preying on the expectations of readers who want language to follow the same narrative patterns found elsewhere. This is no ordinary narrative; it is one that holds a funhouse mirror up to its own absence, distorting and distending where it would continue its usual causal relationships:


My own bad recollection landed me too much alive 
to the first signs of disintegration in a prairie in a baby 
metabolizing bees was the first sign my illness had presented 
the feminine smell of devisable matter and sheer overjoy


The opening lines to the ninth poem of section one exemplify the narrative haunting of which I speak. The lines have no punctuation and allow for a kind of reading that shapeshifts and morphs. We encounter verbs that denote a feeling of narration (“landed,” “presented”), but this feeling is subverted by the way the lines hinge upon a precariousness that gives the poems a sense of wonder. “Was” sets up this precariousness; we seesaw between readings: “in a prairie in a baby / metabolizing bees” is a way of reading that forces the “was” to dangle indefinitely, whereas “metabolizing bees was the first sign” is another reading, but one that jars the line’s causal relationship to “the feminine smell of devisable matter.” And yet these readings coexist, rendering much of our desire for sense-making irrelevant.

Further on in the same poem, we read, “all the flash clubs / in Helsinki had the foresight to be in Helsinki everywhere,” which, on the surface, has all the familiarities that encourage us to read briskly (the lack of punctuation adds to this tempting briskness). But when this second line is read on its own — “in Helsinki had the foresight to be in Helsinki everywhere” — we are presented with issues of language’s visual trickery. The ‘i’ of Helsinki slips away from its word and forces us to reckon with a shadow line that occupies the same space: “in Helskini [I] had the foresight to be in Helsinki everywhere.” This moment captures placelessness in real kind of way — the “I” is everywhere and, thus, nowhere in the sense that it is also hidden in words that contain it. 

Similarly, these poems contain beautiful lyric moments that seem to lift off the page just like the “I” separates from “Helsinki.” Take, for example this moment:

I think it must be cold so cold the cold outnumbers ice
From when the ice was young no tear has taken its place 
So it must live beyond the great doors of winter and sing 
As many flesh and blood songs as a frozen tear can sing


These beautiful lines arrive at the end of its poem, out of the memory-dreamscape of a “villa / my parents shared between them each room holding / a portrait of one of my parts.” While I would be inclined to suggest that these moments break the sustained tonality of Helsinki’s lyric mode, they operate with the same formal techniques as their surrounding lines creating a kind of netherworld where the lyric sustains its continuity as well as its breaks, giving everything equal resonance. Lines that precede or follow these lyric eruptions have the same feel to them, giving readers the odd sensation of being lifted out of the lyric space even when they are fully entrenched in it. 

Considering this feeling of entrenchment, it comes as a surprise to encounter lines that provide a key to Helsinki’s many folds: “I am afraid my body will not convey so / let us melt as two rocks of pink flake.” The anxiety that one’s body and thus, one’s language, cannot adequately convey experience is not in-and-of-itself surprising, but when it is contained within a text so concerned with sensation and image-making, one cannot help but look to all the shape-shifting and morphing in Helsinki as a kind of struggle to make the lyric an immediate, transformative experience just as our experiences in the world have the capacity to bypass mediating forces (e.g. language) to transform us in a very real way. Regardless of the way the lyric struggles for immediacy in Helsinki, what we read cannot escape what muddles our world — our words and our desire to make sense of things — and so we have the rocks of pink flake, which still retain the same collection of molecules even when rearranged into melted form.

The impression that one cannot escape what creates us — for humans, sensory experience, for the poem, language, etc. — is manifested in various ways in Helsinki. The series of three plus signs that exist in place of titles as I previously mentioned are an example of this impression, linking the pages in anonymity, fusing them together into one poem, the poem, that which stands in for the lyric as well as the vague state-of-being evoked by allusions to specificity vis-à-vis Helsinki. Additionally, the occasional appearance of “yes” as a tick of affirmation — as in, “some light study yes but also on occasion they’d go out / dressed up as brash Catalan characters” — is another manifestation of this impression, revealing a related anxiety, an anxiety about the nature of truth and whether it might be possible to convey. Truth may not be able to be conveyed, so what we have in its place are the images and sensations that give our lives some semblance of shape, which is to say, “it feels really good / just letting the waves make their own history.”

It also feels really good letting the waves of Helsinki wash over you. That Peter Richards is able to sustain the book’s rampant curiosity for ninety-plus pages is a gargantuan feat. And though I might not be able to identify where Helsinki is in Helsinki or what it means with any exactitude, I revel in its placelessness and am no less awed.

Literature's nuisance: (Riding) Jackson's memoir

A review of 'The Person I Am: The Literary Memoirs of Laura (Riding) Jackson'

The Person I Am: The Literary Memoirs of Laura (Riding) Jackson, Volumes 1 and 2

The Person I Am: The Literary Memoirs of Laura (Riding) Jackson, Volumes 1 and 2

Eds. John Nolan and Carroll Ann Friedman

Trent Editions 2011, ISBN 9781842331439 (Volume 1); ISBN 9781842331446 (Volume 2)

Rarely do authors talk back to the literary apparatus — criticism, reviews, biographies —that builds up around their work. In the two-volume collection of Laura (Riding) Jackson’s “literary memoirs,” (Riding) Jackson does just that, while also providing new insights into her theories on literature, ethics, and the topic of memoir itself. As (Riding) Jackson wrote in 1984, she faced “a stream of published erroneous representations of myself, my thought, my writings” (2:229). In responses to her work and in accounts of her life, (Riding) Jackson has indeed been villianized, marginalized, and ignored. Many in academic and poetic scholarship (including myself) have attempted to reclaim (Riding) Jackson from these representations; adding to these recent scholarly attempts, The Person I Am offers a valuable, personal defense of the author and her work.

Rather than a complaint, a correction, or an autobiography, this collection is more, as (Riding) Jackson explains, an aid to understanding. Both volumes will be useful to those seeking additional knowledge about (Riding) Jackson’s philosophy and point of view. (Riding) Jackson put together the first volume herself; the second volume, which consists of essays, short pieces, and correspondence, was put together by the editors. The editors selected the title, explaining that (Riding) Jackson considered others, including “Praeterita” and “Later-Life Commentaries.” The term “memoir” here is somewhat awkward, as (Riding) Jackson and her editors acknowledge. The text includes several points of interest which broaden our knowledge of (Riding) Jackson’s biography — including new information about her relationships with figures such as Robert Graves and Geoffrey Phibbs, her participation in the Fugitives poetry group, her life in Wabasso, Florida, and her personal thoughts on a range of other artists, from filmmaker Len Lye to Sylvia Plath — but these volumes do not take the form of a typical autobiographical narrative.

(Riding) Jackson’s “literary memoirs,” in the spirit of her own devotion to etymology and linguistics, are more in line with the origins of the word “memoir” than with our contemporary understanding of memory-based personal autobiography. Older, more obsolete definitions trace “memoir” to “memorandum,” “note,” “record.” The Person I Am operates more as a collection of extended footnotes than as a tell-all life story. (Riding) Jackson documents her perspective, supplementing critical studies as well as giving us a theoretical guide to her writings. The result is a significant contribution to the expanding body of interpretations and reinterpretations of (Riding) Jackson’s consistently perplexing and often uncategorizable work.

Throughout the text, (Riding) Jackson conflates herself with her written work. She says “I have not known … a sense of writer-identity in separation from my sense of human-being identity” (1:177). (Riding) Jackson views both her life and writing as part of a moving “continuum” (1:17); she writes,

In trying to help those who have applied themselves in writing doctoral dissertations on my work, I have in each case, offered the recommendation: ‘Think of me as, generally, in movement.’ It is a kind of movement not for solitary attainment to points forward. I have proceeded, and proceed, in expectation of the necessary appearance of company at some point, or points; it is a spiritually natural human condition. I do nothing in my writer’s course inconsistent with what it befits us all spiritually to do, in being human. I have labored towards, I labor towards, our knowing, our knowing how to rightly tell, and truly live, our story. (1:190)

The Person I Am, in its refusal to accept existing accounts of (Riding) Jackson’s life and work, contributes to this ever-changing process. In layering new information and interpretation on top of scholarship, (Riding) Jackson does not allow her work to stagnate; instead, she participates in self-analysis and encourages readers to join her in this type of midrashic reading.

(Riding) Jackson’s carefully developed and defined belief in the role of literature and language conflicted with what she found when, as a younger poet, she encountered the “literary world.” She poses the “literary world” in opposition to what she calls “reality” or the “plain world.” She sees herself occupying this more “human,” “plain world.” In her introduction to the memoirs, she explains how her “way of being” led her into a “literary life-course,” but that her view of literature differed sharply from others in her time-period. She critiques the “literary world mentality” as ingrown, out of touch, and stifling: she writes,

In the special literary world, writers of natural-writer identity are exposed to various dangers of unacceptance or suspicious or hostile treatment, if they do not accommodate themselves to codes of autonomous literary-world legislation, and rituals of literary-world self-worship. (1:23)

(Riding) Jackson turns to the example of Robert Graves (with whom she had a working and romantic relationship) in order to illustrate her position and to distinguish herself and her writing from the selfish motives of the literary world. Much of the literary criticism and biography that (Riding) Jackson responds to in The Person I Am depict her as either subordinate to or smothering of Graves’s talent. She dismisses Graves’s intentions as self-interested and lacking seriousness, characterizing him as driven by “ambition to achieve importance in some field of activity” rather than committed to the sacrifices required of the truly devoted writer (1:210). In conveying her religious-like belief in language, (Riding) Jackson forces others to examine their commitment to writing and avoid distractions such as ambitious “self-worship” and literary-world “codes.” She questions the motives behind writing and the processes of criticism which can (unfairly) elevate or erase particular authors. These explanations both give new depth to her decision to renounce poetry and recharge debates about literary attention-getting.

To critics, (Riding) Jackson says, she is “a nuisance” (1:145): “my work has an effect of dampening, discouraging, literary interest in it because it asks no favors of good regard, and offers no congratulations for attention paid to it as manifesting sensible discretion and sagacity” (1:201). It is in fact her work’s demanding, unapologetic quality — and its continuing relevance to writers and readers — which provokes fascination and literary investigation.