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Diane Raptosh–”American Amnesiac”–The (Non)Self as a Thousand Localities

October 24th, 2014 margento No comments

 

Diane Raptosh’s Cal Reinhart/John Doe is a nephew of John Berryman’s Henry—“Named after/ my father’s uncle”—hence possibly named after Berryman’s good friend “Cal” Lowell, as his disruptive  speech is also strongly marked by Lowellian deep concerns regarding (American as part of a wider) modern culture.  But he is also a grandson of Beckett’s Molloy, while also having the penchant for ‘aberrant logic’ arguments and dislocated common wisdom of Ionesco’s characters.  Although self-declared American, he is a citizen of the global age whose speech contains surprisingly scanty popular cultural references—or quite ‘honorable’ ones, Frank Zappa appears in a couple of poems for instance, alongside (in quite a Zappian fashion) Zorro, Nietzsche, and Dali—but profuse high art, world history, multilingualism (a rare gift in nowadays US verse, have you wondered why?), and philosophy, while once in a while seemingly quite well-versed in business, cuisine, word games, puzzles, and ecology.

The result is a philosophical fata morgana in an ever fresh playful language spiced with self-irony, political sarcasm, and mordent humor.  The character’s pretended amnesia is infecting in the sense that the poems manage to distract us by their continuously funny and captivating surprises, thus swiftly transforming us from bewildered witnesses into pervert accomplices to this psychological suicidal (as we enjoy the riddles and pretend to forget they are actually about us too).  Therefore, Raptosh’s ingenious scenarios speak not only about contemporary human condition, but also about the cultural and linguistic conditions of engaging with that condition.

In such a context, any identity marker is curtly rebutted and contradicted in a zigzag of misleading assertions, sudden shifts of perspective and register, and (suspiciously) ingenuous refutations.  The map of this self-description is thus a continuously distorted and delocalized one, but the cartographer is nevertheless obsessed with locality and specificity.  “The name’s Joe Doe.  And I am a place, the holder of a pose” begins a poem, typically orchestrating the gradual alteration and corruption of meaning in Raptosch’s fluctuant poetics.  A no-name speaker introduces himself as such, but then the locus (as in “common place”) seems to become a literal locality.  The Shakespearean “habitation and a place” conferred by naming things is here (apparently) a strong assertion of identity and, at the same time, the possible inception of a captivating geography of the self.  But this is once again twisted into a mere frame for readymade postures and attitudes, “poses.”  The “common man” belongs in (and therefore fundamentally is) the public place, the agora, but at the same time he craves the exceptional; whence the cloned stances and… the masquerade.  Still neither the raving speaker nor the ironic poet holds elitist views here, they both rather circumscribe the topos of public interactions as melodrama and (in Peter Brooks’s terms) (melo)dramatic psychology and posturing.

Here comes the punch of the second line of the couplet though—“All selves serve as other people, and I’m no exception.”  An agile sparring partner, the poet seems to anticipate our suspicions and knocks them out even before they actually loom in our minds.  The self appears in the plural and thus the brilliant phrase “selves serve” consists of two words almost identical in sound but triggering multiple tensions and complications.  Although it is pretty close to “self-serving,” it most likely means the opposite, but as we read the whole line we realize that it may actually accommodate all opposite partial or transitory meanings.

Yet even the inclusion of so many conflicting messages is in its turn no more than one of the several things the poet strives—and the speaker off-handedly allows himself—to include.  As we read in the last couplet, the soul is declared global, planetary, but only after it requests a definition by “something kind and specific,” which one suspects may be a distortion in the speaker’s rambling speech of “something kind of specific”…; besides, of course, the allusion to one’s tribe or kind, the kith and kin to whom he has been anything but kind (the suspicion arising in a previous couplet about his killing his wife is confirmed later on in the book):

 

Since then I’ve searched for something kind and specific.  Der Tafelspitz

in den Fleischtöpfen Wiens, to start.  The soul’s composed of the entire planet.

 

Raptosh articulates a credible psychology of the ‘global man’ whose daily life is connected to or even incorporates “the entire planet” but at the same time is hungry (even literally so, as in the quote above) for the local and the specific.  Still, the latter is inevitably delocalized as the “soul” is (de)“composed” now on a global scale, and thus what is expected to become a landmark ends up by spawning disorientation and confusion.  Whence the obsession of those suffering from this “Transient Global Amnesia” with localities, itineraries and connections, mazes and architecture, (crossword) puzzles and word games (a poem simply consists of a wordsearch table with a “theme of the day” actually so relevant for the whole book, “get and give”), and (brilliant pun,) You-Q tests.

I have mentioned cartography already [and I shall further look into certain possible aspects relevant to topology and graph theory in a future posting in the “graph poem” section of this website], but here I would like to insist a little bit more on the configuration of place and the role of toponyms in this book.  In Poetry & Geography. Space & Place in Post-war Poetry (University of Liverpool Press, 2013), the editors Neal Alexander and David Cooper draw in the introduction (among many other brilliant elucidations) on Peter Barry’s distinction between “setting” and “geography,” the former being urban generic while the latter loco-specific (toponymy included).  In Raptosh’s case, we have an interesting simultaneous combination and deconstruction of both setting and geography.  Ravenna is in that respect a very telling example, one that appears a couple of times in the collection as part of almost identical formulations.  First time, in italics, as a possible quote, “How mad would I have to be// to say He beheld a better order in Ravenna, where he began/ to unbelong from every place he knew?…” and later on in another poem, “I beheld a better system in Ravenna, but I didn’t stay there,” where we realize that the feared madness has already happened, as the speaker assumes the voice he has earlier resolutely censored.  This is symptomatic of how voices and identities (along with localities) shift throughout the book, and typically several times actually in the same poem.  Still, can we solve the puzzle?  Is that “he” by any chance Dante who died in Ravenna, thus “unbelonging” from his beloved Florence, and is the order he beheld there his vision of the Comedy, entirely written while in exile?  Or is this about Antonioni’s celebrated movie The Red Desert (shot in Ravenna), whose haunting theme is indeed unbelongingness?  Or about Byron’s sojourn in the city and his political realizations and disappointments?  Or is it Oscar Wilde who in “Ravenna” extols the same Byron right after bowing to Dante, but not before describing the legendary place as the site of, again, ultimate unbelonging: “here, indeed,/ Are Lethe’s waters, and that fatal weed/ Which makes a man forget his fatherland.”  Yet what if this mysterious character in Ravenna is one and the same with the “[o]ld man cuffed in Italy” in another poem later on in the collection?  The latter may very likely be Pound while locked in a cage outside of Pisa, but then the “order/system” in the quotes above is a fiercely ironic opposite of the one advocated by Byron and Wilde.  It may also very well be something (also) autobiographic, since Raptosh is herself of Italian descent.  Maybe either, all (opposites included), or none of the above, and anyway certainly also something else that has eluded me here.

In Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) Ian Davidson argues that contemporary poetry increasingly “refuses a fixed location and shifts between places” (31) thus actually redefining place as “a kind of open field or three-dimensional network with unlimited potential combination and connectivity” (30) (again a view relevantly converging with our own graph poem project and computational graph poetics).  One can indeed sense this unlimited connective and combinatorial potential in Raptosh’s treatment of place, as seen in the particular example above.  Not only that her poems shift from one place to another all the time, but even the apparently fixed geography proves to be an intersection of so many other cultural loci and localities.  Just like the “self.”

“The self is a thousand localities” begins indeed another poem, and then is seized by the anxiety of being/representing a(n emerging but already dissuaded) transnational nation.  Unlike Walcott’s character who trenchantly rules that he is either a nation or nobody, Raptosh’s everyman is a “nobody” (a… John Doe) because of being a nation (American) and an inter(net)nation.  The former—Americanness—is just a “term” shattered by his manic (and mnemonic?) punning that uncovers the property and production-centered gravity forces interacting, through consumerism, with family and private life—“America is one such term.  It contains acre and cream/ acme and ma, crime and me.  America has a mashed car in it” (author’s italics).  As for the latter (the global/virtual nation), its definitory interconnectedness still requires cartography to reach—through demarcations nonetheless—a possibly actual togetherness: “assembly required: borders and roads…”

The poet’s shrewd language memorably charts the paradoxes of being connected (across various kinds of distances if not divides) and astray, outside and inside (or ‘in the loop’), in ways that x-ray the ongoing negotiation of social relationships in a world where things have apparently become easily or instantly reachable but overwhelming nevertheless.  In such a world, poetry is a huge effort for no more than a ditty, but therefore (who would have thought?—not even poets maybe), through its both integrative and discerning processes, possibly on of the most typical act of this age.  The poetry of this age, says Raptosh, is this age.  But the courage of such a vision results, in her case, in neither celebratory, prophetic stances nor in dismissive irony or detached ennui.  She does not take sides, she does not look down on anything or anybody, and she does not take things lightly either.  Raptosh’s speaker wants (and actually has no choice but) to experience this age to the full, and his total immersion into his time as personal sociopathic disease is the poet’s way of bearing witness of a transgressive culture not (only) of “anarchy and futility” but mainly of infecting and fundamentally mutual (or should I say collusive?) beautility:

Which reminds me that everyone I’ll have to live without

I must help to find a place within.  Which is an act

 

of granite will.  A strain.  A ditty.

An exercise in utmost beautility.

[author’s emphasis]

 

A brief note on the form too.  The vast majority of the collection consists of sonnets, most of which are written in couplets with erratic rhymes and irregular meter (generally gravitating around an alternation of loose iambic octometers and heptameters).  Why sonnets?  Well, this is almost like asking why poetry.  For one good reason, the cacophony between the speaker’s gaudy Americanness (is he one of Santa’s reindeer, by the way, a rein… hart?) and the high cultural European references.  But why couplets?  As a deconstruction of the clarity and impetus of the classic heroic couplet?  Maybe; but also, one may suspect, as a means of crossing the sonnet and the ghazal.  The poet needed both the methodical pace of the former and the capricious unaccountability (or mischievous non sequiturs) of the latter to illustrate best the manic dissociative disorder of her speaker.  Moreover, with this choice she also proves to be quite un-amnesiac about Adrienne Rich’s, John Thompson’s, and Phyllis Webb’s work in this vein, thus joining a motley contingent of other contemporary maybe less consistent but as unpredictable practitioners of the form, such as Jill Peláez Baumgaertner and Amanda Earl.

 

—MARGENTO

—————

Diane Raptosh. American Amnesiac. Wilkes – Barre, PA: Etruscan Press, Wilkes University, 2013

 

Categories: Book Reviews Tags:

Bruce Bond–Poetry and Community

September 26th, 2014 margento No comments

In a cave in southern Germany, archeologists found what they believe might be the oldest surviving musical instrument, a flute made of vulture bone, and they thought, so that’s it, that’s why the Homo Sapiens survived and the Neanderthals, who were physically superior, did not. Not the mighty flute, of course, though it no doubt raised some spirits along the way, but the flute as evidence of music as evidence of community, of social organization. My mother sang to me as a kid, and then at a certain age she stopped. Many years later, she died. I hear that singing still.

And yes, part of the power of music is its phantom nearness, like the breath that sings. The poetry I love is like that. Sometimes when I write I close my eyes to see how things sound in the dark. Sometimes the silence around the language has the power of another person in the room. It is not of course. And yet, as a part of language, it becomes part of the expressive yearning, that hunger for connectivity and its opposite, for the play of meaning, that longing to be two people and one at the same time.

Of course the communal is in there, the historical, the political, and even our conditioning to say they are there—though it is a lie to say we see these things any more clearly than we see what it is that is original in our own decisions, our gestures, our errors and gifts, our words. Language is where we feel most acutely the tension between the individual and the collective, the private and the public—a tension which, mercifully, never resolves.

I feel most honest if I begin my musing on community by conversing with one person, real or otherwise. That’s how days tend to begin, by talking to one, considering, if I am mindful, that person’s face, how full of character it might be, what is in there and not there yet, the inner life in all its lovely complexity that dissipates in the hands of the larger categories. I think I do better, starting with one to see the many. This way I am more acutely aware of what in “the one” is and is not of “the many.” Both seem central to my imagination of humanity. My experience. Both. And I would say, likewise, both seem central to the experience of language. Particularly language that would embody most inclusively what we are, paradoxically by way of radiant essentials. Particularly poetry.

I am not terribly invested in the label “poet.” I tease a friend of mine who is a well-known poet who said in a radio interview that he is not a “poet,” just “a guy who writes poems.” Oh, brother. He laughs about it now too. We are all on a path somewhere. If you have written a poem, you’re a poet, I say. But “poem” can mean a lot of different things. Too many to discuss here. Perhaps central to the question about community is that “poetic activity” and what I find valuable in it is, to me, universal. It meets a universal need. That need and its symbolic expression allow for the wider resonance of poems that, in light and in spite of their inner intensities, refreshes many.

When language reaches beyond its utilitarian dailiness, via play and singularity of expression, to model one’s inner life as invested in and shaped by the outer world, it engages in something poem-like. For this reason, I find it useful to be out and about each day, trading words with whomever, because they surprise me, feed me, feed my writing. And what I say in return surprises me. Our greatest animating tensions are between the private individual and the public world, and poetry aspires to bear fuller testament to what those are by refusing to separate or conflate them absolutely. They dream the reconciliation of dualities more largely, of facts and values, culture and nature, imagination and reason. Metaphor as the heart of the poetic does similar work: bringing together without dissolving the vital energy of difference.

I see poems as “the other self,” or conscience, of philosophy. Likewise as the conscience of sociology. We’ve all seen it: the ardent Marxist, usually young, who is so smart and full of both good intentions and a desire to matter, full of the handed-down categories, brilliantly recast, the large mannered gesticulations that are the signature of civic mindedness—but the jargon has a way of effacing individuals in the distance. It’s not my intention to throw this jargon out or condemn such things, but one way of making immediate the notion of dialectic is to consider what these categories do not say. This means considering what the category of “community” can never say. Poems enact that kind of mercurial questioning, or can if they aspire toward the subtlest of inclusions. They are the one hand clapping, the one calling to the many, the many calling to the one. So when the topic turns to politics, just who is that person speaking? Who is listening? Who is imagined as listening? Are we getting better? Closer? Getting things done?

So yes. Poetry is fundamentally communal. It has the power to bring us together in the way that music does, to fill an auditorium with palpable awe as the last word falls. Perhaps it changes the behavior of some. Possible. Unknowable perhaps. Or rare. Surely it can voice a conscience that we recognize as something the culture desperately needs. I hope so. To put this hope into action is to let the best words inform our own, and so on. Words that are heard by many would be good. Really heard, the way poetry encourages us to hear by breaking into lines, slowing us down. “Bombs with slow fuses,” that’s what Ginsberg called poems. Or perhaps they comfort a mother who, in hospice, has a book by her bedside. There was a book like this at my mother’s place, a book she discussed with no one I know. I want to think it moved her. It made something enormous happen. I do not know this. I want to say, however sad or happy, it made her feel less alone.

(first published in 32poems magazine)

—————

Bruce Bond is a classical and jazz guitarist and professor of English. He earned a BA from Pomona College, an MA in English from Claremont Graduate School, an MA in music performance from the Lamont School of Music (University of Denver), and a PhD in English from the University of Denver. He is the author of a number of collections of poetry, including The Anteroom of Paradise (1991); Radiography (1997), winner of the Natalie Ornish Best Book of Poetry Award from BOA Editions; The Throats of Narcissus (2001); Cinder (2003); Blind Rain (2008); Peal (2009); and The Visible(2012). His poetry combines personal lyric and metaphysical inquiry as well as the influences of music and jazz musicians.

Bond has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Texas Commission on the Arts. He is a professor of English at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas, and a poetry editor of the American Literary Review.

 

Categories: Poetries & Communities Project Tags:

The Graph Poem Operational Reflections. I. Maudelle Driskell and David Wolach

September 24th, 2014 margento No comments

In Maudelle Driskell’s Talismans (The Hobblebush Granite State Poetry Series, Volume VIII. Brookline, NH: Hobblebush Books, 2014) the gradual transition from talismans, charms, and relics (or rather remnants of mythologies and rituals) to scars and then to disease experienced either as a patient or as caretaker/medic/rescuer is what perhaps challenges computational analysis the most. The engine of this transition is gender renegotiation within childhood and animal (toy) memories, fairytales, and allegories. This makes the collection more complex and problematic to computational analysis (as well as perhaps to any other critical approach actually) than other ones having similar subjects. Still a potentially more seminal comparison that we’ll have to process will be the one with David Wolach’s Hospitalogy (Grafton, Vermont: Tarpaulin SkyPress, 2013)–the book that (as we find out from the substantial concluding critical essay/statement “Musicked, Acknowledged”) was mostly written in hospitals and hotels as a sequence of “letter-notes, scraps, and song-like things” aiming at a “‘poetry of disablement’ or ‘disability.’”

Unlike Driskell, who is very good at using contexts and vaguely outlined but deeply impacting relationships to explore the volatile identities and inner landscapes of her speakers, Wollach is impressively professes that “[I] [p]erhaps explore the erotics, therapeutics, and contradictory impulses of clinical disclosure […] where the roles, personae, and systems of power of the doctor and patient […] seem, in the after-word of their telling, to intertwine, mingle, in a sense fuck their way out of their own use-values into a sphere of confessed exchange.  Perhaps not.”

Confession in particular triggers some of the most mesmerizing of the jazzy suites in which Wolach bends both morphology and syntax in manic relentless and yet so relevant a fashion.  “i’s matter, con/ fessional grade junk, no/ one single payer/ plenty to go round// bar room con/ fissional up/ ends in urinal migraine/ sans f/u pissing away yr liquid” or the brilliant “some i’s fess up/ for what has yet to apo/ logos i’s o u pre/ tense as add vertised.”  This is also a radical example of the difficulties we shall have to deal with in the Poetry Computational Graphs project when processing the diction of certain poets and assessing diction-related commonalities among poets.

Wolach is also extremely relevant to our graph poetics in at least one more respect.  As he “confesses,” in this book he “quote[s] or riff[s] on several made things” by other poets and writers, but in ways that are not always very clear (from literal quotes, to variations or “riffs” to “pieces of overheard language”), as “one way of tracing what ‘friendship’ or ‘common’ might mean.”  Not only we have here a poetics of commonalities that is also at the heart of the graph poem project, but also a way of writing that traces and follows such links while exploring, performing, and developing those commonalities, as the contributors to the graph poem have done before.  “I take Hospitalogy to be, as any of the writing I inhabit, collaborative: the trace or tracings of these correspondences and resonances.”

One of the authors Wolach draws consistently on is the well known poet-theorist Fred Moten.  We will back on the latter and particularly on his poetics of communities and performance in/as the poem.

 

Categories: The Graph Poem Tags:

The Inner Voice of Translated Landscapes: “Sheds / Hangars”, Jose-Flore Tappy’s Collected Poems in English

August 6th, 2014 margento No comments

 

John Taylor does not merely translate or critique poems, but poetries, not writings, but oeuvres and literatures.  He always looks at authors and oeuvres as both wholes in themselves and integral parts of literatures and cultures that are, in their turn, ever-related with other literatures and cultures.  To follow his work over the years (criticism, translations, and his own writings) is like contemplating a progressing mosaic with subtly interconnected themes and details or, to paraphrase the title of one of his books, to roll out a huge and still growing tapestry that illustrates a literary, cultural, and at the same time, if not totally autobiographical, than symbolically confessional saga.

 

His interest in Swiss poetry is, in that respect, naturally related to his vast familiarity with French and Francophone literatures, and, at the same time, with his continuing project of going as deep as possible—to paraphrase another celebrated title of his—“into the heart of European poetry.”

 

The previous milestone on this road was his contribution to the bulky Modern and Contemporary Swiss Poetry: An Anthology (Dalkey Archive Press, 2012) edited by Luzius Keller where he translated the whole French section, including major names such as Philippe Jaccottet, Edmond-Henri Crisinel, Gustave Roud, and Anne Perrier, along with José-Flore Tappy herself and many others.

 

In the captivating and, in terms of Tappy’s poetics and writing process, surprisingly elucidating interview at the end of Sheds/ Hangars. Collected Poems 1983 – 2013, the poet confirms the early influence of Jacottet and particularly Perrier, while Taylor perceptively advances the names of Crisinel and Roud as two other very likely forerunners.  Still, in his own introduction to this first and at the same time comprehensive translation of José-Flore Tappy’s poetry into English, John Taylor does not mention the Dalkey Archive anthology, but another earlier one, edited by none other than Philippe Jacottet.  Why does he do that?  Here as elsewhere, Taylor actually not only places the poets he translates and writes about in wider relevant contexts, but, for those who have the patience to follow and remember his (usually concise and to the point) comparative assessments, he actually draws edges of various graphs connecting poets in networks of resemblance, kinship, and contrast.

 

And therefore, quoting Jaccottet and his highly selective (Taylor dixit) anthology actually comes in handy in at least a couple of respects.  First, it is an opportunity for the critic and translator to expand his own description of Tappy’s poems—“ short, fragmentary, discreetly lyrical—and haunting”—by quoting the authoritative evaluation of the Swiss master poet himself—“a poetry that sets her readers before this same necessity: that of a <<struggle>>, to quote Jaccottet once again, <<not to fall, not to sink>>.”  And, second, this gives him the chance to draw a relevant and elegant parallel between Tappy and Jacottet.  While speaking of Tappy’s obsessive landscapes, down-to-earth diction an elemental simplicity—one of the sequences in the book is indeed titled “Élémentaires / Elementals”—and a unique poetic account of time, not as fleeting, ungraspable, and evanescent, but rather pending, weighing, and “wobbly,” Taylor wonders if there is any glimmer of hope or consolation in this poetry.  The question triggers a shrewd comparison between the two poets and occasions memorable insights into the poetics of both:

 

A fugacious metaphysical hope as is sometimes sensed by Jaccottet? This is less likely, for the varieties of doubt, disappointment, anxiety, and anguish—offset by empathy, open-minded observation, and resoluteness—that are perceptible in her work accommodate no yearnings for this transcendental horizon. Something even less definable is at stake. What it might be arises often, almost invisibly, especially at the end of sequences. There are no pat answers. The final lines of the aforementioned poem [“Shadow Poems”]—“a fractured world/ where memory shimmers// a skylight/ in the black today”—alternate negative and positive symbols, but leave the emotion in abeyance. Tappy’s oeuvre is full of such psychological intricacy.

 

Still, given the potential profusion and complexity of the associations, John Taylor would not (and maybe, for practical reasons, could not) review every time all the vertices on such comparative literary graphs or networks, which nevertheless represents a challenge and a potential source of satisfaction for the attentive reader who can therefore gradually discover for herself the wider picture while putting together the jigsaw puzzle of references and analyses strewn across Taylor’s various writings.

 

In this particular case, a path (both in terms of the graph theory I have briefly referenced here as well as in those of Taylor’s own prodigious research into and writing on “Paths in French literature”) could be drawn, through Jaccottet, from Tappy to Pierre-Albert Jourdan (“Path” is actually also the title of one of Tappy’s sequences and a recurrent motif in both poets), another name who had been virtually unknown to English language audiences until the substantial The Straw Sandals, edited, introduced, and translated by the same John Taylor, a book of selected poetry and prose that came out from Chelsea Editions in 2011.  Since they are, like most if not all of Taylor’s translation projects, bilingual, both Tappy’s collected and even so much more so Jourdan’s selected have also proven extremely useful for the Francophone reader who might have meanwhile lost track of the scant original editions of such authors, major and relatively secret at the same time (which is, one has to admit it, here and elsewhere, and quite often, the current fate of significant contemporary poetry).

 

Jourdan—although reaching at times a more sensory (at times epidermal, at others sanguine) fusion with the landscape—shares the same unsated relentless drive of the wanderer to roam against, and more often actually deeply into an avid landscape.  These paradoxically enthusiastic (in the etymological pantheistic sense of the word) and at the same time evasive or even elusive speakers want to either organically absorb or fade into the view.  One would expect to run across lines like the following

 

may the calm cedar sap rise in us

with night

brightening our breath

in a superior gesture of peace

 

in both poets, maybe, although the last one is less likely to appear in a Jourdan poem, while it is nevertheless typical of Tappy’s personal style.  And why is that?

 

Now and then, Tappy employs metaphors and other ‘genuinely’ lyrical tropes, which Jourdan consistently resists, as he tries to capture the image (if not the thing) in itself and, beyond it, the pre-wording or even un-worded experience resulting in paralinguistic and parapoetic (in)coherences.  Although Tappy is as much as Jourdan a masterful artist of the tongue, unlike him, she dismantles and reassembles the language while trying to reach the poetic, and particularly a poeticness classic in the sense that it may accept or even envisage a possible congruence between intention and speaker, on the one hand, and poem and language, on the other, even (or so much the more so) when expressing an incongruence with the world.  In fact, the speaker seems to be instrumental in revealing a sort of Gnostic or hermetic correspondence (choked or “coughing” as it may be) between the “story” of the speaker/poem and the life in or the life of the landscape:

 

On my back

I bear

a brief tale

knotted into a scarf

 

It matters little if I forget

its beginning its end

if I lose its source

the path coughs

with my footsteps

 

While Jourdan intimately or feverishly engages with the landscape and at the same time strives to save it from signification, Tappy once in a while “translates” the landscape into poetry just as she translates the poem’s algorithm (along with the ‘self’) into nature’s fractals —“Step by step/ to slip into/ this narrow sheath.”  Such consistent coherence within the poem-world continuum, paradoxically operating mainly by ellipsis and a recurrent, compulsive imagery related to the void and absence, brings about ample impressive metaphors—“All summer long/ the sea rises/ to the parched lips of the cliffs/ offering itself/ burning like wine/ in a bronze chalice”—or overwhelming images of both anthropomorphic and cosmic magnificence bridging the most intimate emotions to the vegetal and astronomic cycles—

 

Every evening

the moon comes down

on the bare plains

 

It alone knows how

to calm the blaze

to relieve

the aching wheat

ease the stings

even more diligent

it unburdens the earth

demands better gestures

like oil

on the axles of our nights

remedies unhappiness

 

Nothing replaces

such an old custom

this slow caress

over hills

steeped in ignorance

the long scrawny body of land stretching out

its stone shoulder blades protruding

 

From such powerful images, the poet moves on (at times through imagist tornados, at others through nothing else but pastels) to lyrical definitions, an even more salient testimony of poetic (c)osmosis within the (at least apparent) chaos of estrangement—“The sky: pit/ into which the eyes sink…”—and, once such magic connections are established, even further on, to ritualistic gestures and exhortations—“I will rub my bloody wrists/ like pieces of flint/ against each other/ to rekindle the flames// life/ between my teeth” or “go into/ the lowest room/ where the shadows/ keep silent…”  This latter imperative, for instance, continues by asserting the kind of esoteric correspondences that are traditionally familiar to a certain psychology of magic—“…watch/ a woman is listening/ to fruit falling/ afar”—that later on shall hieratically enumerate propitiatory supplications: “May their [the aloes’] glimmering points/ manage to retain the day/ may their gleam divert glances/ suspend hours.”

 

What is remarkable though about this poetry is that it remains a poetry of the landscape and of modern subjectivity and sensibility—with all the typical disparities, disenchantment, and angst thereof—while masterfully orchestrating ‘universal’ oracular and hermetic effects.  This is possible, as John Taylor suggests first in his introduction and then also while interviewing the poet, through the subtle connection between psychology and testimony on the one hand, and the treatment of sound and syntax on the other.  Tappy is a great master of ellipsis and suspended syntax, on the one hand, and of euphony—assonance in particular—on the other.  The reader can enjoy that both in the original as well as in the renditions offered by Taylor who, a gifted writer in his own right, not only rises to the occasion, but even comes up with solutions that are stylistically speaking totally comparable to the source, a feat so much more commendable as it is accomplished while staying as faithful as possible to the French text and keeping the contribution of the translator as ‘invisible’ as should be.

 

Here are a couple of relevant examples: “Roussie la terre/ rabougries les pousses/ que la poussière étouffe”—“The scorched earth/ the stunted sprouts/ choked by dust”—where Taylor’s jumbled, parched, smothered, literally “choking” sounds are, in certain ways, more faithful to the original than the original itself; or for instance: “Mais déjà/ entre la terre et l’air/ un monde tournoie”—“But already/ between earth and air/ a world is whirling”—for which one could not find a better rendition of the airy vibrant sound of the original, and where, again, in the sequel, the translator comes up with a most ingenious network of slant rhymes, consonantal echoes, assonances, and last but not least, his “own” English alliterations: “l’herbe disperse/ enlève toute assurance/ au passage du vent/ avant que le soir/ nous retourne comme un sablier”—“ the scattered grass/ strips off all confidence/ when the wind rises/ before evening/ turns us over like an hourglass.”

 

Collecting all the poems of a great contemporary poet both in the original and in excellent translation, accompanied by a thorough introduction and a captivating interview, this book is a formidable event for both Franco- and Anglophone readers, and a bridge between cultures, literatures, and languages that only perennial poetic art can build.

 

—MARGENTO

===========================

José-Flore Tappy. Sheds/ Hangars. Collected Poems 1983 – 2013, trans. John Taylor. Fayetteville, New York: The Bitter Oleander Press, 2014

 

 

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Kevin Prufer–Poetries/Communities: Against Sentimentality

May 13th, 2014 margento No comments

 

When I was growing up, I thought of poetry as a solitary endeavor, one best accomplished in the privacy of one’s room.  Poetry, I imagined, was a kind of self-expression, an exploration of some inner emotional complexity.  At first, I imagined this complexity was communicated somewhat self-reflexively; that is, the poet thought deeply about his relationship to some event or other, then worked this out in a poem which he communicated to only one person, himself.   Later, the poet might allow others to indulge in his own interiority, perhaps at a poetry reading or in the pages of a small literary journal. I do not know why I imagined that anyone in the world should care about my inner turmoil.  I suppose I thought that the writing of poetry was a species of what I’d later call narcissism.

Recently, I was asked to make a presentation about sentimentality.  Our relationship to the word has changed over the centuries and now, I confessed to the audience, I did not know what it meant.  Surely, sentimentality, wrapped up in the softer emotions, is in some ways indecorous or cheap.  Surely there is something essentially untruthful about it, often in its overabundance or its misplacement of emotion.  There was, I suppose, something essentially sentimental about my early relationship to my own work and to my (mostly imagined) audience, believing that my display of emotion and autobiography might resonate profoundly with others, drawing us together in some intimate literary embrace.

Of course, in the American academy (and among most poetry readers and poets, who have lived in its groves) we abhor sentimentality, have been trained to root it out of our work and to recognize it in the work of literary poseurs and amateurs.  There is no greater literary crime, one of my friends recently told me, than sentimentality; one needs only say the word to condemn a writer’s entire oeuvre.  (“Longfellow,” another friend once said, “is sentimental,” and with that he washed his hands of him.)

Beholden to orthodoxies passed down to us, we rarely, if ever, pause to ask why this is so.  What is it that makes sentimentality rise above all other sins in poetry?  And what does this tell us about the way poetry serves the community, about (as you asked) “poetries and communities.”

In 1918, a preternaturally mature Wilfred Owen described the horrors of young British soldiers marching to their deaths surrounded by mists of poison gas.  A young man, failing to get his gas mask on in time, slowly dies, his white eyes “writhing in his face.”  Then blood “comes gargling from the froth corrupted lungs.” But instead of ending the poem on the harrowing, if meaningless, death of an anonymous soldier, Owen points the finger at Jessie Pope, a writer of sentimental war propaganda, the kind of stuff that convinced young men to enlist in the first place: “My friend,” he writes:

 

… you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori.

 

Owen would not survive the war, but other poets would pick up on his deep distrust of sentimental language, and that distrust would become infused in the Modernist movement.  Sentimentality, they knew, is bad because 1) it is often untruthful and 2) it is dangerous.  Its potentiatl for untruthfulness is clear: there is nothing sweet and proper about the young man’s death in Owen’s poem.  It is dangerous because sentimentality is a powerful mode for communicating to the masses, for using untruth wrapped in layers of sweetness, nationalistic pride, nostalgia, and (for earlier writers) decadent Victorian Romanticism to convince us, against our better judgment, to believe and do stupid, often fatal, things.  How often have we seen intense sentimentality used as a way of convincing us to enter an unjust war (witness the rhetoric of George W. Bush during the run-up to the war in Iraq), to keep women in their place (witness the proper housewife of 1950s sentimental movies), to justify the bondage of others (witness sentimental paintings of happy slaves singing in the cotton fields, wanting only to serve their masters well). No wonder so much of our distrust of sentimentality emerged in the work of Modernist poets who witnessed the first World War, and no wonder this mistrust appears only to have grown throughout the 20th century. When the WWII poet Dunstan Thompson looked over the destroyed body of yet another young soldier, he exhorted all of us: “to love him, tell the truth.”

That said, I think I’ve grown into some strong beliefs about poetries and communities.  I am suspicious of my earlier self, the young man who wrote poetry imagining that my emotions were of any importance to anyone.  They are not.  No one, beyond my family and few friends, cares.  Why should it be otherwise?

Rather, I imagine that poetry might be a vehicle for telling the truth, for working against the overwhelming tide of dangerous sentimentality, of mistruth wrapped in sugar, of lies told to us by our governments, our corporate betters, and by ourselves.  These days, the voice of poetry often seems small and faint—once, in a poem, I imagined it was like the voice of a young man locked in the trunk of a car being driven who knew where by our leaders—but it might, used well, serve as just one counterpoint in a world awash in lies.  Poets, I imagine, ought to tell the truth for the purpose not only of self-knowledge, but a better, clearer world.

That said, I don’t imagine that there is only one truth, nor do I imagine that any of these are simple.  Poetry is also uniquely suited to expressing the complexity of a moral or theological universe, one in which truths clash, in which one truth confronts another, competing one. (For Emily Dickinson, there is simultaneously a God and no god, there is both an afterlife and the void.) I am not, that is, in favor of poetry that is dogmatic, that simplifies the world, that distorts it, even for good purposes.  Nor am at all interested in poetry that sees in a multiplicity of truths only the emptiness of the very notion of truth, that merely throws up its hands or plays around in a Postmodern mode. Instead, I believe that poets might imagine themselves as citizens of a larger universe defined by complex moral positions—that we might think of ourselves if not as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, then at least as people who speak the truth to the community in the interest of much more than beauty and self-expression, in the interests of making the world better.

——————————–

Kevin Prufer‘s sixth book, Churches, is just out from Four Way Books.  Among his recent books are In a Beautiful Country (Four Way, 2011), a finalist for the Rilke Prize and the Poets Prize; and National Anthem (Four Way Books, 2008), named one of the five best poetry books of the year by Publishers Weekly.  He’s also co-curator of the Unsung Masters Series, Editor of numerous volumes, and Professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston.

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Felix Nicolau–On Romanian Poetry Manifestos of the 1990s and 2000s

April 21st, 2014 margento No comments

Poetic turmoil and half-fledged creativity

 

What degree of independence from the social context can poetry reach? When I say “social” I mean politics as well. All along the 70’s to 80’s interval, the late phase of postmodernism, political turmoil boiled over and few poets could stand aloof from that. In the East-European bloc they were forced to sift their inspiration and chaff away contemporary references. One escape was to delude censorship using irony, as the Romanian poets did in the 80’s. The end of the second millennium and the beginning of the third one were quasi apolitical in what we call western civilization. The Gulf war and the Afghanistan guerrilla war were not in our proximity. These were decades of political correctness disturbed only by a few terrorist attacks of a dubious nature.

Times are achangin’ now. Conflicts, revolutions and anti-corporatist riots set afire the whole world. That is why I think the near future of poetry is bound to be political.

In the following paragraphs I intend to offer an outlook on the Romanian poetry of the last decades. The organizing principle will be the literary manifestos of various groups. I have to stress the fact that after the fall of the communist regime the first step taken by the literati was to enlarge the scope of their vocabulary and range of inspiration. The freshly liberated literature oscillated between two poles: the new Russian School (of literature) and the American Beat. Both influences contained a massive cargo of slang, violence and scary fantasies. The uninitiated public was aghast.

 

Fractures

There is another angle on all these. In 1990, two young writers, Marius Ianuș and Dumitru Crudu, concocted the Fractures Manifesto on the night of 10 to 11 September 1998 as a consequence of a street fight. Whence the fractures… Their aim was twofold: on the one hand they wanted a less conventional style of writing, with harsh words and juxtaposed, non-discursive verses, able to render the psychic and bodily torments; on the other hand, they repelled those older writers well-accommodated into the establishment. Writers should live as they write and the other way round! This was their slogan. Twenty years later, Ianuș secured himself a position at a newspaper and after being dumped by his wife (a poetess herself) he turned to a fiery religious poetry. Crudu, in his turn, became famous especially due to his theatrical plays and novels. Both of them somehow ballyhoo characters.

Being written in a ferocious disposition, the manifesto throws the blame of the full-contact situation on the institutionalization of culture. The fake Marxist-anarchists, as they call themselves, are angry at the people who “destroy the spiritual values of humanity”. That is why they yell: “Down with the prize-winning poets! Down with the ‘mobsters’ who take profit of their literary victories and lay hand on rewarding jobs! Down with the literary small bourgeoisie!” As we can see, innovative stuff…

Wordier than ever is the rhetoric: “Fracturism won’t kill anybody, unless necessary”. They go on with finding their ancestors between foreign poets and they even produce a list with proselytes. The fracturists wage an uphill war against all the political promotions before them. They get to grips with their predecessors because these ones are not able to feel the authenticity of the common life any longer and mask this handicap by using a sophisticated, impenetrable language. In the same line with Chimerism, but for different reasons, Fracturism calls for the abolishment of postmodernism. The poetry of transitiveness and literality will remain too-high a peak to settle on. Some poets, in some moments, managed to conquer it, but the rash winds of imagination and intelligence made them climb down and go for a burton. Again and again, the theorizations included in these manifestos cannot be tracked down to ensuing creations.

 

Delirionism

Another manifesto, quite different from the first one, is Ruxandra Cesereanu’s Delirionism or the Concise Textbook on how One Shouldn’t Get Stuck in Reality. This is a neo-onirical way of escaping reality and it envisages a more intense “alteration of reality, a much more traumatizing dream”. The author could have acquired the “technique of delirium” from Leonid Dimov’s “unbridled imagination”, while Angela Marinescu could have lent her the “neurotical poetry”. From their conjunction emerge the gap and the trance induced through shamanistic techniques. The purpose is the “re-signifying of madness”, while “the metaphor and the image suited to the delirious poem are those of a sunk and flooded submarine”. Later on, Ruxandra Cesereanu collaborated over a massive poem (The Forgiven Submarine) with Andrei Codrescu.

The reference to G. C. Jung’s theory of archetypes reveals the underlying structure of the delirium. Freud’s repressed memories, transformed into phantasms, are also invoked. Let’s not forget that the phantasmatic is different from phantasm. A phantasm creates the (fake) image of reality. A demi-illusion, so to say. Enlarging upon delirium, Jung used the term “inflation”. All these allow for an expansion of personality up to archetypes.

The delirionism remains silent as to the artistic stimuli able to blur lucidity: pills, mushrooms, herbs, potions. Nothing about these intensifiers of extrasensory perception! One clue could be the musical records played during several workshops. Indeed, delirionism seems a trifle different from onirism: less literaturized and somehow riskier than the surrealist movement. I think a reference point could be Carolos Castaneda’s novels and his science of dreaming. Corin Braga, Ruxandra Cesereanu’s hubbie, wrote about the Mexican writer’s works. A close reading of the Forgiven Submarine would hint at the intelligence and humor substantial to the complex game which is delirionism.

 

Chimerism

In 1999, Vasile Baghiu published in “România Literară” The First Manifesto of Chimerism. Chimerism focuses on the social condition of writers and on their delusions of epic grandeur. The manifesto is a remote relative of Gerard de Nerval’s Les Himeres (1854).

In a nutshell: to be a writer is the highest position in the world. Literature is an “ailing passion, as if one would catch hepatitis or AIDS”. Vasile Baghiu is proud of having succeeded in implementing “the theme of sanatorium in Romanian literature”. In the interbellic period the sanatorium was a constant presence in the art of many writers, many of them evolving under French influence. Illness may stimulate delirium or compensatory fantasying based on the books one read. Sanatorium bovarism equates to imaginative wanderings in space and time. The author even manufactured a human embodiment of this attitude: Himerus Alter. This alter-ego loathes the postmodernist irony and parody. He dreams about the re-instauration of magic and illusion. The Imagination of “parallel realities” and “the taste of alienation and the Fever” needed a frame.

The chimerism contends provincialism using “the need of utopia” and the historical and spatial evasion. Summoning it all up: a heroic opposition to the world with the help of culture. Of course, culture is at odds with the shallow forms of entertainment.

The story goes on with The Third Manifesto of Chimerism on the Live Experience of Fictional Reality (“Poesis”, no. 6-7-8, 2006). The main ideas are resumed obstinately and the birth date of the movement is boastfully retained: “about 16.30 on the 21st of August 1988”. As in the case of delirionism, no stylistic or narrative innovations are homologated. The only point of reference is the irritation provoked by the postmodern parody and demythization.

 

The Depressive

With the inauguration of the new millennium, sprouts of fresh manifestos pop up. An interesting one is The Depressive Manifesto by Gelu Vlașin. In a solemn voice, we are informed that poetry remains “the personal release of a state of mind at an existential level”. He proceeds, then, with attacking mannerism, minimalism and imitation. “The colleaguewise writing” and “the hypocrites who manufacture poems as if they wrote recipes for domestic wives” push Vlaşin out of his wits.

The inceptive clarity is getting hazier and hazier. First, the depressive manifesto is endowed with a definition: “a literary movement which branched out from the new wave zone” that is “defined by the thematic approach of reality, based on the suppressing the concept of individuality and on its imprisonment into a globalizing system”. The charm dwindles and the language is getting priggish, engineer-like. To get the full Monty we are ingratiated with some indications about form: “The dispersion of blanks all over the space of the poem”. It is exactly how the pages look like in Vlașin’s volume Panic Attack (Atac de Panică): anxiety and energy are made visible with the help of emphatic blank spaces between words.

Utilitarianism

Another challenging manifesto was launched by Adrian Urmanov, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics and who, a few years later, converted into a monk. Presented as a foreword to The Utilitarian Poems (Poemele utilitare, Pontica Publishing House, 2003), the manifesto envisaged the absorption into poetry of the techniques of communication and advertising. If the Fracturism absorbed into “the equation of communication” the context of writing, the addressee’s perspective didn’t matter too much. Conversely, the utilitarian art will assume the specificity of advertising slogans and it will focus on readers. Persuading the reader means to carve the message into the receiver’s memory. Thus, the utilitarian poetical text is not literature any longer, but an obsessive Morse signal. It is useful to the receiver owing to the facility with which it can be assimilated. It is a type of poetical inoculation. The poems in the volume offer samples of persuasion: the fluency of the text (simple, declarative and full of compassion) is severed by brackets between which the teller confesses his empathy with the existential torments of the receiver. The advertising strategy is used (again between brackets) to turn the page and read further. Beyond the programmed humbleness and empathy flickers the temptation to manipulate. Urmanov’s enterprise is more effective in practice than in theory. Among his literary brethren, only Andrei Peniuc exercised a less hesitant-and-routinely-metronymic utilitarianism.

 

A bout de souffle

All these manifestos appeared at the delayed end of postmodernism. Some of them wanted to shun the problems of immediate reality, others, on the contrary, targeted exactly these ones. Communication is an important asset for the new poetry, too. These were the golden years for manifestos, but the iron ones for literary programs, on the other hand. With the advent of post-post-modernist literary trends, manifestos lose their edginess, while creativity is dismissed without much social fuss. As Michel Foucault once insisted, nothing escaped ideology in postmodernism.

 

——————–

Felix Nicolau is the author of four collections of poetry, two novels, and five books of literary and communication theory: Homo Imprudens, 2006; Anticanonice (Anticanonicals), 2009; Codul lui Eminescu (Eminescu’s Code), 2010; Estetica inumană: de la Postmodernism la Facebook (The Inhuman Aesthetics: from Postmodernism to Facebook), 2013; and Fluturele-curcan: specii ameninţătoare (The Turkey-Butterfly: Dangerous Species), 2013. He is on the editorial boards of Poesis International, The Muse–an International Journal of Poetry, and Metaliteratura. Nicolau is Associate Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Communication, The Technical University of Civil Engineering in Bucharest, Romania. His areas of interest are: Comparative Literature, Translation Studies, Theory of Communication, Cultural Studies, British and American Studies.
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Mary Szybist–”Incarnadine”–Mysticism by Means of Poetic Experimentation, The Worldly, and the Other

March 10th, 2014 margento No comments

 

 

The recurrent motif impressively and proteanly reprised and refashioned by Mary Szybist in Incarnadine is the one of the Annunciation.  And one of the most unique “Annunciation” scenes is staged as “from the grass beneath them,” which not so much means that the ‘announcement’ is made by the grass, but that, unlikely as it may sound, the voice in the poem is the voice of the grass.  The grass beneath “them” who?—and them doing what?  What seems to be sure is that it is the grass beneath a possible (‘deconstructed’?) scene of the annunciation, or more precisely, under a “girl” with her “knees pressed into us”—us?, us the blades of grass—while an ineffable “it” hovers above and descends in a both powerful and flighty manner, barely “skimming the tips” of the grass but still cool form the clouds and making the air “itchy.”  Whether “it” be the spirit descending, orgasm and/or impregnation (by a man, since the fact that “the shadow her chin made/ never touched but reached just past/ the crushed mint” may speak of a rather ‘unholy’ position), or the baby being conceived, this is still not the annunciation, but the ‘consummation’ of what has been announced, the act itself.

“[We] held ourselves tight/ when it skimmed just the tips of our blades” says the unusual plural speaker, “it” being the wind of the spirit. And “holding tight” may be read there as pulling ranks, a possible emphasis on a symbolic community reinforced by the Whitmanesque motif with its both erotic and funeral connotations; plus the reference to the bard’s poetics of the earthly as the same as/ultimately fused with the beyond.  But Szybist’s is a community of poems rather than one of characters or personae, with mainly a variety—or, better, variations—of form, style, and angles on a certain theme in diverse contexts.  Charles Altieri in his blurb, after speaking of the nothing out of which presence comes and the “self’s reality,” confesses to feeling “at times that I am witnessing a rebirth of the lyric.”  What a wonderful compliment, but what the famous critic does not mention is that the context in which he witnesses the lyric’s rebirth is every now and then a substantially experimental one.  And indeed, Szybist has this rare capacity of professing a fervent lyricism along with (and in the most felicitous cases, when the recipe is not more obvious than the meal itself, precisely by means of) an impressive range of styles, forms, and approaches.

These things are actually shrewdly and sort of programmatically enmeshed together in the opening poem, “The Troubadours Etc.,” the title of which can be of course read as an expression of post-postmodern ennui, but also literally, the troubadours and the rest of other such… poets and poetries fusing the deeply lyrical/confessional/sentimental with form, experiment, and song or declamation.  The very first line actually encourages this latter reading rather than the former, as it tries to cast irony away —albeit temporarily and merely in a funny way: “Just for this evening, let’s not mock them./ Not their curtsies or cross-garters…”

And then the poem lithely veers to the landscape and, under the guise of journey notations digresses from ecological and farm animal treatment concerns to the clouds of blue and the messenger pigeons,

 

Before us, above us, the clouds swell, layers of them,

the violet underneath of clouds.

Every idea I have is nostalgia.  Look up:

there is the sky that passenger pigeons darkened and filled—

darkened for days, eclipsing sun, eclipsing all other sound…

 

images that ultimately lead (in actually quite a traditional troubadour fashion, although of course in a different diction and form) to the speaker’s innermost feelings and deepest ‘anima’, still seen as shared with the other(s)—“And when we stop we’ll follow—what?/ Our hearts?” (author’s emphasis)

Szybist elegantly circumscribes in this poem the three main themes of the book: (experimenting with) poetic tradition, the (eco and/or city)scape, and the paradoxes of (encountering/approaching/describing/translating) the other.  For the latter, the overture comes at the end of “The Troubadours Etc.”—“…won’t you put me before you/ until I’m far enough away you can/ believe in me?// Then try and come closer—”

And the key metaphor for all these three themes is, as already stated above, the Annunciation, but an “incarnadine” one, that is, strongly colored by fiery emotions, and celebrated in the flesh only.  Yet in the flesh not in the sense of utter denial of the transcendent, but as the mainly if not the only way to have access to, or rather, as in the recurrently dislocated biblical scene, to receive the transcendent.

In one of the best poems (and also one of the most accomplished in terms of expressing the main concerns) in the collection, “Hail,” Szybist alternates couplets (in a book of great variety, the most frequent stanzaic pattern, maybe due to its psalmic connotations and elegiac resonance) with stand-alone lines, just as the speaker herself seems to shift from the voice of Gabriel to the one of the tapestry weaver depicting the scene to that of ‘the’ poet—“I sleep to the sound// of your name, I say there is no Mary/ except the word Mary, no trace…” is strongly allusive of Stevens’s “there is no life except in the word of it”—and finally to that of the poem as such.  The latter, containing, just like the introductory poem, masterful and relevant enjambments, testifies to its own completion and contradictory nature at the same time, perpetual and temporal/temporary, constant and in motion, a “momentary stay” finally engulfed again if not by confusion then by silence, even if meant to render an enduring image and voice: “…Mary, I am still/ for you, I am still a numbness for you.”

But Szybist’s poetry is actually never still.  “How (Not) To Speak of God” is a concrete poem in which the lines are arranged as the spokes radiating from a void hub, a solar symbol maybe that is frequent in so many cultures.  The first word in all of these lines and therefore the closest to the center is “who” (twice in the modified form, “whose”) an emphasis maybe on the personal God of the annunciation and Christianity in general, but also a smart way of embedding ambivalence in the poem—just as the title, these lines can be read both as assertive descriptions as well as questions.  But beyond such negotiations of meaning, there is a genuine fervor that really irradiates through both the diction and the design—“who should be extolled with our sugar tongues/ […]/ who saw the world incarnadined, the current flowing/ whose face is electrified by its own light…”

The author of such concrete poetry who also included a poem arranged as a syntactic tree diagram, erasure poems, found poems, poems composed of intertwined citations, ekphrases (not only of paintings but of family snapshots as well), later on in the book also authors a sonnet, “Annunciation: Eve to Ave,” whose stanzaic configuration and the rhyming scheme observed in the first quatrain are Petrarchan, but which, once reaching its volta, goes beautifully crazy, as a Mary subtly merged with Eve machineguns her amazement at the mystery of the holy experience to a hip-hop beat, playful, impudent, not forgetful of the power games informing not only (a woman’s) life but soteriology as well:

 

“And when I learnt that he was not a man—

bullwhip, horsewhip, unzip, I could have crawled

through thorn and bee, the thick of hive, rosehip,

courtship, lordship, gossip and lavender.”

 

On the facing page, in a totally different tone, a speaker (a possible far relative of Martha the sister of another Mary in the Gospels) overhears the annunciation from her kitchen; the angel is now a director shooting the scene for a movie since—“Mary, step back from the camera”—is what the speaker overhears while washing some pears in the sink.  The poetically ineffable is masterfully juxtaposed with a both subtle and overwhelming mystical experience, urbanized nature, contemporary family life, and their inevitable mediation by media.  But above all, this is the unforgettable music of the inclusive, lay and sacred chants poetry can now freely intone in the verse of the world’s most gifted young poets, mystical in the starkest bodily way, inexhaustibly experimental since relentlessly open to the other:

 

There were faint sounds

like walnuts being dropped by crows onto the street,

almost a brush

of windchime from the porch—

 

Windows around me evgerywhere half-open—

 

My skin alive with the pitch.

 

—MARGENTO

 

[Mary Szybist. Incarnadine. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2013]

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Adam Dickinson–”The Polymers”–or The Poetry-Chemistry Continuum

February 23rd, 2014 margento No comments

Reading Adam Dickinson’s new book is quite a challenge.  The title sounds like a chemistry treatise, there is no contents at the beginning, and the interiors abound in chemical diagrams, symbols and illustrations, notes and lists, indexes and methods, etc.

 

Okay, says the intrigued reader, let’s start at the start—the first poem.  The disparate images seem to come from a refracted seascape filtered through a series of what could be a number of carefully hidden (sometimes ironical) literary allusions—“Hail from inside/ the albatross” (Baudelaire and/or Coleridge), “coral beds/ waving at the beaked whale’s/ mistakes” (Shakespeare and possibly Melville), “Hello from the zipped-up/ leatherback/ who shat bits of rope for a month” (Zeno’s tortoise paradox sarcastically combined with Sextus Empiricus’ snake-rope argument?)—and a progress from the inner-subjective—or what could be conventionally called lyric (“the inside of the albatross”)—to the exterior world of consumerist and popular culture.

The short sinewy lines have most of them two strong stresses across a variable number of syllables, an accentual pattern that may represent the symbol “H” for the hydrogen molecule the poem represents on the polyester diagram the whole section draws, also present in the title—“Hail”—as well as at the beginning of every sentence in the poem, all starting with “Hello.”  One also comes across “Halloween Hulk” but other than that, “h,” especially as the [ h ] or [ ɦ ] sound-denoting letter, is almost absent.  Lost again?

From the argument/epigraph—printed on a semi-transparent-paper so that the two paragraphs can be read and seen through at the same time on both pages, although never as truly contiguous, since they are in fact printed each of them on a different side (and therefore somehow working as a Moebius strip)—we find out that plastic is “an organizing principle (a poetics)” for the “macromolecular arrangement of people and waste in geopolitical space,” and are thus presented with the metaphor of “social polymers,” patterns of our culture and politics.

And in a good Language and/or conceptualist tradition, such patterns are to be dug out of and explored through the language.  One learns, therefore, from the “Materials and Methods” section at the end of the book, that “Hail” is a “partial list” of “disintegrated greetings.”  Still, Dickinson not only disintegrates common formulations (is that really all he does there?) but also deconstructs literary/cultural commonplaces, in this case the opening traditional salutation/apostrophe of the classic epic—the Greek “Sing, O goddess” or, say, the Anglo-Saxon “Hwaet.”

Each of the poems in the section (and similarly in the following sections) correspond to a molecule on the polyester diagram (“Hail” for instance being the hydrogen one at the top of the central hexagon), but not in a predictable order—as the second poem for instance, is the last but one towards the right end of the chain of molecules, another hydrogen developed as “Halter Top (Translating Translating a Polyester).”  But the order of the poem-molecules is far from being the only element that renders the whole enterprise multifaceted and comically confusing.  The bracketed part of the title is, of course, a poetics in nuce of the book in its entirety, therefore speaking of a (molecular) sequence of chemical-cultural diagrams translated into letter (lettrist?) symbolism and then into poems.

Still, from the ‘explanatory’ section at the end of the book (in itself a funny, captivating poem) one finds out that the lines of the poem are actually all anagrams of the letters making up the name of the substance at stake—“polyethylene terephthalate”—hence, a, e, h, l, n, o, p, r, t, y.  The outcomes are fascinating, as the ‘game’ ranges from Mother-Goose-like sing-song lines and tongue twisters, “Let the python plot the thorn/ Let the hornet paper the tree” to surrealist ecopoetic riffs, “Nylon antelope threaten the Tylenol people,” to a baffling (al)chemical, geopolitical, and digital-age restaging of the tree-of-knowledge scene:

 

Her teeth apply to the planetary apathy.

They are polar, they are throttle,

the error apparent

 

to the hyperreal

apple

 

with, among other things, a dart thrown at the multinational computer company in the last line.   The composition principle and the resulting baroque-surreal imagery work here (and not only here) towards, of course, a parody of Christian Bök’s Eunoia (in its turn a parody in so many respects), but while the latter’s main allegiance may be with Oulipo, Dickinson is adept at the magic philosophy of Pataphysics, which he fuses in his own fashion with biosemiotics, new media, and industrial chemistry or—when for instance reading another author’s text and counting the letters with most occurrences, then treating them as chemical symbols and drawing the corresponding substance diagrams—not pataphysical but “patachemical” lettrism and cabalism.

Actually, in a recent essay on Kenneth Goldsmith (J. Mark Smith, ed., Time in Time. Short Poems, Long Poems, and the Rhetoric of North-American Avant-Gardism, 1963–2008, McGill-Queen’s U Press, 2013), he describes Goldsmith as “a kind of environmental scientist” that through his writing/recording techniques “illuminate[s] the membranes and structures through which information from and about the environment” (135, my emphasis) is processed.

It seems to me that if in the statement above we read the “structures” as polymers, we actually have a remarkably accurate assessment of Dickinson’s own poetics.  Moreover, if to that we add the proposition in the same essay to consider “the link between poetry that imagines itself as science (pataphysics) and science that imagines itself as poetry (biosemiotics)” (ibidem), we most likely obtain the most genuine key to the multiple layers of meaning in Polymers.  As a matter of fact, the typical pataphysical facetiousness and sarcastic humor are present in the very presentation on the back cover where we are announced this is “an extraordinary science project performed at the nexus of chemistry and poetry” (added emphasis).  This “science project” really combines poetry imagining itself as science and science imagining itself as poetry, since the “protocols” followed in writing the first poem (“Hang-ups”) in the “Polyethylene” section are: “Hiding behind humor can be dangerous applause in the hands of an addict.”

Maybe indeed, what “hides behind the humor” is a radical warning regarding the pitfalls of conformity in all walks of life, science and ecocriticism included (for not accounting for subjectivity, and the implicit scientific realism, respectively).  The only risk is for the reader who is even more skeptical than that to see in Dickinson’s pataphysical copious playfulness just the ‘joke(s)’ and, ultimately, an art-for-art’s-sake kind of accomplishment, since the criticism of everything can be seen from the other side (of the Moebius strip) as the critique of nothing.

But the poet does not flinch, and the stakes go higher and higher as he dauntlessly keeps adding new dictions, new puns, new facets, and, what is probably his strongest trump, ever shifting angles.  In one of the strongest pieces in the collection, “Chemgrass,” a fast-forwarded cartoon-style sex scene crossbreeds domestic “doing it” with home decor and surrealist vegetal-animal-parts and clothing and (heretically rendered) theology (and of course media and sports and politics) and what not in a deafening language blender (with a blown up diction) that will not (be) stop(ped) until the all-gulping poetic chemical grass (or “pot”?) is fully brewed:

 

… We shag all the flies

in the ripped-up scouting reports

from the dead-ball era.  Sunburns calisthenic

elbows and knees, exorcising exercise

with the double-stolen gnosis

 

of Clement of Alexandria, who declared

that for wedding performed on shag carpet,

the benediction remains in the dirt…

 

And so the sarabande goes on, reaching and then leaving behind fractal lines (oops, I almost said modular… ars poeticas)—“I field birdseed”—as the posthuman poetic catalyst consistently eschews any single-minded political critique: the “carpetbagging sentimentalists” commandeer the spot on the forehead needed for… faking.  It is not the ‘message’ or the attitude (of an “us” gradually obliterated anyway), but the configurations and maps of “geopolitical spaces” of waste(d) language.

Dickinson’s is therefore a fierce challenge, whereby, in spite of the apparent playfulness and exuberance, verse is actually confronted with (scientifically speaking) certain draconically stinted prospects.  Our age’s poetry thus becomes a huge mimesis and an ‘against-nature’ automaton at the same time, the most democratically inclusive manipulation orchestrated in ineffective elitist ways, an n-dimensional joke, vulgar without being popular, arcane without being revelatory.

But only a poet with an incredible vitality can make that compulsively apparent, one that, in a recent interview, has (paradoxically?) stated, that poetry is more relevant than ever.

—MARGENTO

 

[Adam Dickinson. The Polymers. Toronto, ON: Anansi, 2013]

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Adrie Kusserow–”Refuge”–Travel Lyricism Traveling Between Cultures

January 30th, 2014 margento No comments

Challenging political clichés, clashing voices, and employing chameleonic speakers—“No one wants to challenge your story,/ you who never should have left Burma” outrageously says one of them to an émigré (who in her turn actually outwits a system ready to assimilate her with an obtuse if not downright derogatory generosity)—Adrie Kusserow’s latest collection speaks in a both complex and enticing fashion of Africa and Asia, war and the aftermath, traveling and immigrating, and the reshaping of the familial in a globalized world of enmeshed yet infinitely specific locales.

In going through this book, one is impressed with two complementary features—the remarkable variety and, at the same time, the pervading persistence of certain themes and motifs.  “Mud,” for instance, is one of the latter, a recurrent, strong and complex presence in the poems—“he [Arok Deng, a Sudanese hiding from the Arabs in the branches of a tree] shinnied down, scooping out a mud pit with his hands/ sliding into it like a snake” reads the opening poem (“Skull Trees, South Sudan”), a similar image being later on used in a much less threatening context for what happened to the speaker’s son playing in the mud in Vermont—“cold mud sucking his foot into its mouth” (“Mud (Vermont/South Sudan)”) while her daughter gets to know the world “through April’s black mud” in a poem that typically travels between the two places in the US and Africa, while staying urgently familial.  “Mud” also conjures compelling images from the traditional, familial, and political life of South Sudanese communities, as the speaker’s husband’s desperate attempts to save a boy from the cholera decimating a village are put on hold by “tracks large as elephants lying on their sides.”

Other poems fail where “Mud” succeeds though—such as “Borders,” in which the daughter jabbing the son “hard in the ribs” inspires in the speaker an unconvincing repetitive series of cause-effect pairings in which the family scene looks disproportionately irrelevant compared to the (inter/trans)continental one: “[her] anger spilling red down her face and chest.// And it happens again,/ whereby war, […]/ whereby the suffering of Kenya begets Uganda,/ begets my husband/ begets me, begets Ana, begets her brother…// Later in the mudroom, getting ready for school/ I see Will kick our tiny old mutt.”

Still, the latter is an exception, and after just a couple of pages, a totally recovered speaker resumes bombarding the reader with powerful images and figures, as the opening of a secondary school for girls (again, in) a Sudan described as a “post-war nursing home” occasions grim reflections on the women “stirring and tending/ […] their daily cauldrons of meat and blood,/ the war still raw inside them,” and as the ubiquitous mud is equated with being devoured and then birthed again by the foreign land—“whole jaws of road gaping open,/ van rebirthing through mud hole after hole.”

Here, actually, and even more so, in “Milk” and “Young West Meets My East (India)” Kusserow powerfully and convincingly combines the foreign political and cultural, with the most private and familial.  In the former she both stages and suppresses the worries and sometimes even deepest fears about her son and her husband against a Sudanese refugee camp backdrop, where while “Will on my lap, [is] trying to nurse between bumps” with his mother’s hands symbolically protecting him like “a helmet to his bobbing skull,” the locals witness the humanitarian convoys as well as the tragedies of war or the weather; and where she labors behind her “dogged Dutchman” “he afraid of nothing, really, not even his death/ me afraid of everything really, most of all his death.”  Kusserow’s poems are once in a while pierced by such sudden pangs of fear and vulnerability, yet it is their pertinent verisimilitude and confessional genuineness that ensure the credibility of the unrestrained assertions of vitality—and, yes, happiness!—that follow, a tone so rare in our jaded contemporary poetics: “Will’s nursing again […]/ swelling like a tick/ and though I don’t want to love/ […]/ the lush wetlands of our lives/ […]// the fat claw of my heart rises up,/ fertile, lucky, random/ pulsing and hissing its victory song.”

Besides the confessional-testimonial-political tune, Kusserow masterfully plays three other scores in the book—portrayals, allegories, and travel poems in which the speaker (at least apparently) assumes an omniscient narrator’s voice.

All of the above are of course intertwined, as one would expect things to be in a coherent collection; they are all political, to start with, (but then, well, isn’t all poetry political?), particularly in the sense that being deeply familiar with African realities and at the same time keeping a sharp eye on American life (also as in the life of African and Asian immigrants to the US and its myriad of cultural and political implications), the poet is able to drop every now and then brief but acutely perceptive bits of social-cultural critique while mainly focusing on a particular character, event, or image.  Kusserow is in this respected one of the best contemporary illustrations of Simon Cooke’s recent critical assessments regarding cultural self-reflexivity as “a component of, rather than a substitute for, engagement with the other.” (Traveller’s Tales of Wonder, Edinburgh University Press, 2013, p 36)

In fact, not only are these forms and perspectives intertwined, but like in other aspects of Kusserow’s poetry, they are so in the most unexpected and ingenious (and therefore relevant) ways.  In one of the portrayal poems, for instance, “Dinka Bible,” whose epigraph is a reenactment of the empty tomb scene in the Gospels, now in an African context, a Sudanese boy (relevant gender translation of the myrrh-bearers) who finds his parents’ home burnt to the ground, when asked by “two figures in white” (again, relevantly ironic transposition of the angels into [white-coat wearing and/or racially white] relief workers) why he is weeping, replies “[T]hey have taken away my family, and I do not know where they have laid them.”  But unlike the biblical scene, the figures in white remain silent.

In the poem proper, the “lost boy” already has an American host mother who, when powdered doughnuts are offered to the congregation after the church service, “wipes the sugar off his mouth,/ marking him as her own.”  Some “fat ladies smelling like diapers [noticing he’s sweating heavily…] pat his damp skull” making him catapult “out of the land of good intentions/ and throw up outside.”  As is typical of Kusserow’s poetics, the portrayal and the funny-cynical and ridiculous-sad story of Achak’s new life in America equally involves flashes of the quotidian that are so much the more (culturally) pungent since taken through the eyes of a foreigner.

But the poet saves best for the last.  The host mother’s coming outside to check on the vomiting boy triggers in the latter a stunning insight into (some of) the muzungus’ (white people’s) relationship with the landscape, the God of the Gospels, and the other.  As the poem goes full circle and back to the image in the epigraph, the white woman is perceived as typically missing the mystery of the boy’s otherness, along with two other huge (‘familiar’) mysteries, the one of the resurrection, and of the nature around her: maybe even the stone that once rolled away from the door of the holy sepulcher actually just tried to escape the blank eye of certain onlookers…

 

And he knew how lonely Mary must have felt

when she came upon Jesus’ empty tomb,

this pockmarked country, cold as moon,

the stones rolled back from the muzungu’s eyes,

the black hole everywhere.

 

In the second genre, her characters are God, the Buddha, and even Mother Theresa, always “looking down” (from heaven) on a Yoga class, on lonely and tormented people still “instinctively opening their mouths/ toward sky” “like small birds,” or on an orphanage in Calcutta.  Just as the portrayals and the travel poems say unexpectedly relevant things about the familiar while focusing on the (cultural, racial, and topographical) other, in these poems the grim or ‘trivial’ reality is both minutely examined and placed in a surprising perspective as the heavenly observers find themselves in the most phantasmagoric situations.  In “Hunger Sutras,” for instance, both God and Buddha look down on the earth from “the hospital for sick, endangered, and arrested gods.”

In another poem, God has spent 300 years in solitary and is now taken to the lethal injection chamber.  When the omniscient “He” comically asks the guardian what happened, she replies (note the relevant gender markers) that “the New Age arrived, the Old Testament stamped out.”  When he is allowed one last look on “the whirling cacophony” of the Earth, he spots a yoga class where “they were all women” which “was no surprise,” given that all women “did was bitch bitch bitch/ toward the end of His rule.”  A shrewd and complex satire, with a humor of rather the absurdist variety, and, of course, harsh (post)feminist criticism of long-expired male-centered mysticism.  The keenest irony though comes at the end of the poem where, right before dying, finally humanized (not through the mystery of incarnation, but by being… turned on) by the fascinating spectacle of the women’s shifting postures and undogmatic religiousness, God begins “to unfurl,” thus escaping his rigid authoritativeness and embracing at last (his?) creation.

Yet, the manifold irony brings about more than just that—what is more impressive than the spectacle God watches, is the very spectacle of God watching, his amazement at the  “sacrotropic” “sea plants” women are, the drama of his own reactions and reflections, as followed by the truly omniscient sensibility of the poet.  The architecture of the satire thus allows Kusserow to indulge in a cosmic visionarism refused nowadays to any ‘orthodox’ Dante or Milton, and the reward for her shrewdness is access to a poetic beauty that most contemporary poetry does not even dream of:

 

…His mouth would sag when they began to pray,

slow and fluid as underwater ballet,

their bodies like tendrils curling up and out,

deep sea vines reaching, uncurling like fiddleheads in unison.

 

“No one told Him they would look so graceful” reads a line before the above quoted excerpt.  No one, but the poet who simply has the guts to do it—and just did.

Last but not least, in the third class of poems, Kusserow masterfully describes exotic locales that in the progress of the poem become the stage for multi-leveled cultural interactions.  In “Beneath the Sky, the Longing (Thimphu, Bhutan),” the “lust for the West [that] huddles like fog” is obliquely reciprocated by the “schools of ghostly expats” who cannot helping coming back to the same “density of longing,” but what the locals and Westerners share is also paradoxically what separates them, the “hard kernel of desire where the bulky psyche chips its tooth.”

In “To Market, to Market (Dharamsala, India, Tibetan Government in Exile),” the Himalayan boys turn “the switch of authenticity ‘on’” for the Western girls studying Buddhism, ready to deliver in an exchange in which it is hard to be sure exactly which of the parties is the commodified one, since the girls themselves are also “ready to fling the cramped purse of ‘the self’/ onto the street and give themselves to everything.”  The contemporary condition—as described by Susan Sontag in At the Same Time and by James Buzard as the “meanwhile problem” (both analyzed in Simon Cooke’s above quoted book, 53-54)—is the very substance of such poetry.  As the American girls get home with the “opiate” of their exotic ‘spiritual’ souvenirs, the boys in Dharamsala dream of their own myths (most likely of immigration and success).  The picture is ironical, but not only, as contemporaneity (the complexity of which is rendered, paradoxically, by the time difference as well) involves, along with the teenagers connected across continents through commodification and, therefore, miscommunication, vicariously living in a delusive elsewhere, the contrapuntally simultaneous and elemental image of the Dalai Lama that “rises to meditate at 3 A.M.”

In probably the most accomplished poem in this third category, “Christmas Eve, Kampala, Uganda,” the sordid atmosphere of the god-forsaken celebrating “compost city” brings HIV infected soldiers, abusive husbands, western pop music and muzungus “working off their Western guilt” all together under an anti-post-romantic and postcolonial hungover moon, “creamy and subdued,” inspiring not a poet’s ethereal vision but a drunken man’s masturbation.  Still this all ends with a ceremonial invocation, an almost mystical effusion—and just as in “Milk” we have encountered a direct assertion of optimism and joy, here we have a vibrant invocation infused with praise and prayer, ecstatic and enthusiastic in the etymological sense of the world (‘filled with/thoroughly experiencing the sacred’), again so rare nowadays.  Kusserow’s speakers have actually been in hell, and therefore can uniquely sing paradisiacal chants as well.

The great advantage of such poetry is that while delving into the grisly grimness, chronic dereliction, extreme dangers, and sometimes overwhelming horrors of our contemporary world (conventionally and quotidianly [as the poet puts it somewhere else, on “this glossy CNN planet”] always out there, and afar), it probes and expresses a genuineness that will also afford it a ‘pure’ solemnity otherwise virtually impossible in mainstream lyric poetry.  What one encounters in this verse is posthuman humanity and postpoetic lyricism and hymnalism:

 

…and the drunken man

sitting in a corner

working his cock into a frenzy

as his groans stretch wide with defeat

into some warm swatch

of the moon’s sweet milk.

 

Oh holy tenderness of this mute misty planet,

bless the fragile, harried nests

the tired and hungry build.

 

—MARGENTO

 

[Adrie Kusserow. Refuge. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2013]

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José Antonio Rodríguez—“Backlit Hour”—The Poem Listening To the Community and Speaking with the Voice of Memory

January 12th, 2014 margento No comments

In the opening of Backlit Hour, José Antonio Rodríguez writes an ars poetica, specifically a poem about writing a poem—not any—but that particular poem itself.  The self-reflexivity is not meant here to express postmodernist skepticism and detachment, but quite on the contrary, to voice some of the deepest concerns of the poet and, to quote the title of another poem, his true “allegiances” (family history and communion, the immigrant’s condition, and community’s indelible stories—“I’ve never met the granddaughters,/ but how do you forget stories like those”).  Moreover, the poet follows the poem together with the reader as a performance presented ‘live’ before our eyes—“Anyway, the poem begins with wanting the juicy peaches/ but moves into the way they bruised so easily, how they fell [etc]”—, a work-in-progress.  But again, this does not play out (only) as a demonstration of the inconsistency and ‘unsacredness’ of poetry, which would be old news, but it also (re)defines the poem as a place and state of mind connecting us to “the quiet,” to those beyond ourselves who need to be heard (and who, while being heard within and by the poem, get a voice).  Therefore a poem-performance that rather listens than speaks.

Rodríguez is not afraid of recycling rich traditional (Anglo-American) literary motifs as he actually manages to render them so fresh that an unsuspecting reader may even miss the reference and still enjoy these accomplished poems nevertheless.  In the first section, dedicated to the childhood and early school years, a poem tells the story of a selection of presentations for a science fair (while the title is shrewdly reversed as “Fair Science”) and the speaker remembers coming up with a drawing of a blue whale whose belly the kid would fill with all sort of (impressive) data related to the creature.  But the boy keeps erasing and redrawing the outline trying to get more and more info in till the paper starts to flake off and the sound it thus makes therefore becomes more evocative of the mammal’s actual life than the biological data.  The dialectic of whiteness/erasure and drawing/remapping articulates an apt metaphor for the alternatives (or cycles) of inclusion and minority (or why not, Whitmanesque) ‘untranslatability’ attitudes both on the part of the outsider and the system—the boy is for instance aware that his “drawing” into the activity is “something/ to shore me form the playground/ of ruined homes/ where children shoulder an anger”—while of course it also ‘draws’ not only on the tearing paper but also on Moby Dick and its numinous white (paper) mask(s),  as well as Melville’s encyclopedic and cross-genre inclusiveness, now reinterpreted in a (self)ironical manner: “As if everything worth knowing could be/ chaptered into a bound page.”  The irony is not only literary, but, given the word choice—“chaptered”—political, just as the color of the whale symbolic of the ‘blues’ of somebody lost in the new world ocean, “[t]hrumming/ [their] song to find the other in the dark.”

A more subtle palimpsest is “Figs,” where D.H. Lawrence’s explicitly erotic metaphor is rewritten into an account of sexually coming of age.  Or so the reader would think, up to a point, and starting actually from the very first line which could be very easily read as sexually explicit, charged as it is with the common periphrastic and urgent syncopated syntax—“She told me to do it, said”—but in fact it is not, as it goes on with—“it would look better in the school photo.”  The story of the teacher getting the speaker to take out his undershirt for the school photo is indeed galvanized by an emerging sexual awareness (“I’ll hold it until after school,/ she said, her finger around,// that which had hugged my body”), and the Freudian reference to the mother coming after that would total make sense in the context.  Only that it is not just a passing reference meant to reinforce the erotic crescendo, as Rodriguez actually chooses to stick one more time to the familial and the political.  The long tradition of the fig as an erotic fruit (Lawrence himself draws on Graeco-Roman traditions) is now politically deconstructed becoming “the fruit my mother loved, the fruit/ she never held in her hand// because it wasn’t hers, she said.”

Rodriguez subtly equates the (again, Anglo) literary tradition with a monopoly of the metropolis even over erotica, to which the marginal speaker opposes the family and the community (“we,” “ourselves,” etc) that would paradoxically be dismembered if remembered in the system’s cultural code.  Thus the magic spell of the alluring teacher is cast away when the young “I” (re)discovers the “we” that would be entrapped in an eroticism of domination and registration: “[…] stolen form ourselves/ only to be re-membered into something/ worthy of a camera, all smiles and naked necks.”  All of a sudden, the deceitfully erotic first line of the poem reads, on second thought, more credibly as actually the master’s orders…

The second section seems to consist of most likely older poems, since the voice is not as strong as in the first one anymore, and the purpose far from clear.  Memories from childhood are now interspersed with surreal images, some of them mysterious—like the hen dragging the TV between its legs in “Tethered” or the “throbbing classroom” with its “shivering windows” in “Starving”—others just puzzling or even irrelevant, as the “stars I have stored in my underwear” of a boy who is apparently past the age of wetting the bed.  The mother is evoked in almost all of the poems, but there is hardly any portrayal or any eye-catching detail—except for the “beads of damp dirt pooled// in the crook of your elbow like remnants of a rosary” (“Ant Farm”)—and she is far from triggering the powerful multilayered discourse in the first section.

The sequence is all of a sudden interrupted by the strong gay confession of “Ache of Pupils” where the surreal finally falls into place as it backs up the blurred images and the tense reticence of the narrator shocked by his own outburst.  Within the section, it radiates like an oasis of very good writing, reminding one of Rodríguez’s real potential:

 

The splinters of the plywood dig into

 

my fingers until I unhook the latch and scurry,

whisper an apology that I hope reaches

him who stands silent somewhere back there.

Rushing through a hallway with doors half open,

 

television images flashing, I conjure

an image of light bouncing off clouds,

how it must overwhelm the surface of things,

almost bleach them out of particularity.

 

When I step out, sunlight floods my pupils

that, for a second, ache.

 

In the third section, the deconstruction of Anglo-American symbols continue, with sometimes a shift from the literary to the historically-political.  The iconic image of the minuteman becomes a patrol officer cynically pursuing illegal immigrants across the Arizona desert, and Mount Rushmore is seen as a symbol of marginalization for a speaker obtusely labeled as “Ethnic,” and whose “only currency here [is] silence.”  Unfortunately, again, the voice is weaker and significantly less convincing than in the first section, the surreal and introspective effects simply seem mislaid in the context—“his [the minuteman’s] arm a threatening reach,/ hand splayed under a night/ that has turned its face today/ […] all that his mind won’t hold/ won’t utter in the light/ of a star that is also the sun”)—and the bombastic ironies misfire—“all I can think of is the half-million tons/ of rock blasted off [Mount Rushmore] by dynamite—a love/ so overwhelming it broke a mountain.”

Some of the ‘nature’ poems and pastels conjure once in a while passing lines or images of certain interest—“[I] wonder if the song/ of this scorched world comes to them [jackrabbits] as a roar or as a chorus,” “All of them [sunflowers] like halos/ without saints to weigh them down,” etc.—which are most likely accomplished exercises (when not loosely versified everyday jottings) from a poet’s notebook, but rarely anything more than that.

Although it contains only four poems, the fourth section may make up for the shortcomings in the second and the third.  The major themes of the book are revisited here in a strong voice—coming of age as an immigrant in a foreign language, powerful memories from the family’s past, coping with one’s irrepressibly emerging homosexuality and, to a lesser extent than in the first section, the life of the community (within another community).

In “Cows and Bonnie Tyler,” fore instance, the speaker starts out to write something inspired by a “poem about cows” by Matthew Dickman, but something on the car radio—Bonnie Tyler’s “throaty voice/ howling through that orchestra” the way Rodríguez’s voice becomes strongly audible in spite of the American poem he promised to rewrite—makes him remember how he would listen to Tyler’s music in his teenage without getting much of the lyrics and how he watched a video on an “old man’s” TV through the latter’s window, as the man was “[s]ipping beer—up to his lips, then down, then up—/ like an oil well.”  The political critique is there deftly intertwined with both popular culture as well as vivid memories from a young age.

Enter community.  And the local environment!  A masterful shift of focus allows the speaker to zoom out and come up with the overwhelming image of the region in the wake of April’s tornadoes (an ironic echo of Eliot’s “cruelest month”?):

 

Out by the road is the aftermath of April’s tornadoes

felling a small town.  Would you judge me if I said

the trees pained me the most?

Their twisted limbs damaged past repair.

The pile of lumber—what used to be a house

of already dead wood—making a mockery of them.

And among the debris, the cows mowing away.

 

[José Antonio Rodríguez. Backlit Hour. Nacogdoches, TX: Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2013]

 

—MARGENTO

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