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Could Poetic Incantations Redeem Historical Disasters? Felix Nicolau on Ange Mlinko

March 3rd, 2015 margento No comments

 

 

 

 

 

In the post-postmodern era highly-encoding your creation may be a cultural suicide or a dignified way of masking one’s frustrations. Just try to criticize this phenomenon and those absorbed into the Establishment will label you as a frustrated loser. Ange Mlinko mythologically stresses her poetry, but keeps a keen eye on the catastrophes of recent history. The stake of the bet is recklessly increased but, in the end, she saves the day for poetry by galvanizing the cryptic content. The poems become incantations, which is not the final aim of the poet, as she provides glossaries of the ancient terms used. She ambitions to conjoin polyphony and critical discourse, both of them wrapped in a beautiful language and an elevated vision.

The most ciphered environment of communication is sophisticated poetry. In such a cultural context the addressee has to “translate” allusions, ironies and cultural concepts. In spite of reducing the dynamism of understanding, this cultural contextualization offers spacious shelter for past traumas. Ange Mlinko envisages a healing capacity of poetry when she resorts to complex means of reflecting historic catastrophes. The effort of comprehending her poetry involves not only methods specific to cultural studies and aesthetics, but also others pertaining to mythological hermeneutics.

In an interview with Tyler Burgoise, June 13, 2013, in Paris Review, Ange Mlinko proved her impressive intellectual capacities. Her answers are more documented than her poetry, which is not a negligible aspect. As the interviewer remarks, Mlinko “treats the reader to lines that feel both alive and spectral” (document without pagination available); she also makes extensive use of lots of unfamiliar words and names. As it were, this kind of poetry is not as much as cryptic, but allusive and a bit aloof. The poet, in her turn, points up to the fact that she focuses on exploring time and allows for “measure of strangeness” in her poetry, especially with the help of voices: “I grew up listening to languages my immigrant parents didn’t want to teach me, so I get a regressive pleasure out of feeling my way through sounds to their possible meanings” (ibidem). What the author targets is not Ostranenie, the Defamiliarization practiced by the Russian formalists, but the pure sound experiment; an evocation of events past bearing upon present. Of course, every possible profane reader (how utopian can I be?) of her literary production could enjoy the in-take as sound poetry, as long as her cultural “affiliations” remain obscure for her readership. On this level, poetry is music; on the following one, there show up intricate mythologies and history – a symbolic fantasy with memory scars. In her volumes we have lettrism, but also rich content. All in all, a musical cargo floats on melodious villanelle scores or proceeds in parent-speaking ritornelles. Formal mastery gets embedded in historical allegories and prophecies. Past and Future are filtered through the Present and the other way round. In using repetitions and variations, Mlinko admits to Wallace Stevens’s influence, although she also bows to Wordsworth, Omar Khayyam, Robert Browning, S. Coleridge, and Philip Sidney’s and to other famous sources. Then, she invokes T. S. Eliot’s imperative of comprehending a poem before understanding it. This means that tonalities are preceded by the riddles embedded in the text.

 

Is there something like musical and mythical memory?

THE GOD CATEGORY, a cycle of poems in Marvelous Things Overheard, is especially rich in exotic and picturesque sonorities: “in nearby Baabda,/ connate alexanders in Quadisha, fodder vetch in Zgharta,/While rocket in Sour, gypsywort in Mrjeyoun,/ headed ziziphora in Baakleen, bladder skullcap in Batouk” (SYMPHONIC EXPANSE) (Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard 2013: 31). Or let’s lend our ears to the atonalities of this BAYT, with the subtitle 1. LABID’S “LAST SMILE”: “Is as if she were an earn// gebideo prey for her eyrie.// Perched alertly,// ahoegtesse,// her heart-glittered feathers// suddenly she sees//a fox on the westen.// At that she rouses,// heaved up on high,// and heads straight at him,// in harrowing hoeste// Hearing her, he freezes// his tail. He’s terrified” (Ibidem 34). The author helps us out with a glossary:earn= “eagle”, gebideo= “waiting, alert for”, hoegtesse= “female seer”, morgenceald= “morning chill”, westen= “desert, wasteland”, hoeste= “violence”, stela= “scaling (along the ground)” and so on and so forth. The bits absorbed into the poem from medieval texts, like The Wanderer, are also explained or “translated”. But do we really need a semantic translation here? Isn’t it preferable to translate them into musical signifiers, without an intelligible signified?

Mlinko drops a clue when she warns: “A culture that belongs to science and journalism abjures myth” (Bourgoise). Nevertheless, myths refuse logical and exhaustive explanations. What matters in their case is not clarification, but empathy. That is why she dismisses the possible accusations of intricacy and elitism when she insists that the sophisticated constructs in her poetry are “less of an intellectual pleasure than incantation against absence and loss” (Ibidem). However, we smoothly shift towards polyphonic tonalities, as sounds become incantations on plural voices. This feature is consistent with her allegiance to the traditional poetry and philosophy, as shown above. She refuses assimilation into the group of language poets, as she points out that descriptivist linguistics is void of human pathos. When history is a series of tragedies, how could poetry remain sterile, in an abstruse and abstract realm of ideas? Is her mythological affiliation a genuine one? I would say no: Mlinko always mixes myths with blunt and bleak reality. Sorrow and pain are indiscernible phenomena, they must not be forgotten, but nor mournfully worshiped. They have to be spiritualized and made perennial in our souls through mythization. That is why WORDS ARE THE REVERSE OF PAIN: “Had something gone wrong then I wouldn’t be here/ to tell you this: In November 1944 a baby boy was born/ in Germany – ‘in a cave’, they kept saying,/ ’she gave birth in a cave’. Who thinks a woman in labor might be dancing?/ From a distance of gods, Leto might have been dancing,/ The Leto Whom Hera hated. The Leto who reeled/in search of a place to give birth/Fled Arcadia, Leto did./ Fled Parthenium, fled the land of Pelops (Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard 2013: 5). Myth is thus endowed with Christian valences, whereas femininity is highlighted at the expense of the sanctity of the sanctified baby. It could lead us towards a Catholic approach of glorifying the sufferance of Virgin Mary. But before the end of the poem we realize that myth and religion are localized and “globalized” in order to imbue the horrors of history with a hidden meaning and an unexpected dignity: “not the normally hospitable Corcyra, not Cos./ It can seem so cordial, this sea, with its views/ clear to spiky urchins fifty feet below. And the islands/ close but uncrowded, like cousins slumped about/on pillows waiting for an adored movie to begin./ Think of Leto groaning amid them trying to sweat a pearl./ Think of us cousins/watching Rudolph on (Christmas Eve,/ so many years after the camps and the ruses-/ lifetimes ago – are pretending to be Polish!” - DEMYTHISATION (idem, ibidem)

Is this postmodern demythization, as one could infer from the disrespectful postures or from the “presentification” of worshipped circumstances? I’d rather incline towards a post-postmodernist vein owing to the lack of obvious irony and to the close-ups on maternal and humanitarian stances. In the quoted interview with Bourgoise, Mlinko opposes truncation to condensation. The first manner of communication imply a loss of sensitivity “in an age where information is privileged over symbols”, whereas the second one “must use intuition and sympathy”. Besides, poeticity is not only about subtlety, memory-commemoration and voices. “Poetry must still dance”, the poet brings forward and she reminds us that atrocities shouldn’t become a burden that makes the artist cut a dour figure. Writing about Marvelous Things Overheard, Rebecca Ariel Porte dwells upon The Aesthetics of Enchantment to be found in this volume. Mlinko would have the mysterious ability to re-enchant what has been disenchanted.

 

Sorcery can beautify dire realities

So, are we speaking about an irrational post-postmodernist witchcraft? Or could it be an artistic craft stirred by some Dadaist techniques? Hardly! Not even some surrealist blasts of imagination could be traced along these pages. Porte invokes the figure of Marie Taglioni (1804-1884), prima ballerina, who in 1835 tamed a Russian highwayman by dancing for him upon a panther’s skin spread over snow during a starry night. The suggestion is that Mlinko’s enchantments are pure art and clever craft. THE MED is the poem built on Taglioni’s risky performance. Such a poetic “expertise” is the result of Mlinko’s trips to Orient as well as of her voyages on cultural wings in time. “The Med” is short for Mediterranean. This explains how the poet can hybridize all realities in her texts, but still manages somehow to keep them whole. Chiron, the centaur, is the symbol of successful magic, as Porte puts it: “a hybrid beast, half-horse, half-man, botanical savant”. His half-ness is disentangled from many other halves or quarters. In fact, only this hybridity insures the genuine communication without which there is ever-lasting conflict and masked terror.

The motto of the book is taken from Aristotle’s On Marvelous Things Heard: “The she-goats in Cephallenia do not drink, as it appears, like other quadrupeds; but daily turning their faces towards the sea, open their mouths, and take in the breezes”. Confronted with this fragment, we are left with two interpretations: either the “positivist” Greek philosopher preserved a large quantity of naivety, or he simply stuck to the Platonic poetical vein, in spite of his scientific mindset. In the second case, it means that what a scientist brands as “miracle” may be something unexplainable for the time being and very beautiful, irrespective of its lack of logic. But not every illogical deed or phenomenon attracts poetry. It is the symbolic absurdity that engenders significant openings: “When I turn my hand mill, I think of the dowager/ who ground gems on ham for her guests;/ the queen who ground out two cups of flour/ on the pregnant abdomen of her husband’s mistress” – The GRIND (Mlinko,Marvelous Things Overheard 2013: 3). Mlinko does not simply “hear” things; she “overhears” them, conjuring the miracle out of the easy-to-explain realm. Her miracles are mostly phonetical ones, exotic in-takes in the magma of her poems. She “has a tendency to glorify the administrative potential of language a little too firmly at times and to glance askance at emotions that occupy the more disagreeable, anarchic registers” (Porte, no page numbers). Rebeca Ariel Porte, in the same interview, notices that “words may be the reverse of pain but pain is also the parent of language” (ibidem), so it would be a folly “to forget this, to live in the tyranny of a poetics in which words offer pleasure and onlypleasure” (ibidem). Without any doubt, Mlinko dwells on the causes and effects of pain, even if she dodges, most often than not, the aesthetics of ugliness.

 

The music of encrypted communication

Giving birth, for instance, is a painful situation, but ennobled owing to its consequence. The stress will not fall on the misery of delivery, but on the context of the semi-tragedy of not being allowed to add to life: “There was an island not permitted to anchor,/ named Asteria. Asteria wandered/ across the Aegean, across the Saronic Gulf/ until some unnamed wind blew that midwife,/ part earth part skiff, and Leto together/ The island took pity, and let Leto deliver./ Hera couldn’t intervene. Asteria had once been a woman/ Who accepted punishment rather than bed Zeus./ Double bind rebounded./ After succoring Leto, the island could anchor at last/ She became renowned as the heart of the Cyclades, Delos” – WORDS ARE THE REVERSE OF PAIN, (Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard 2013: 6). This fragment pinpoints that this poetry is both musical and para-musical. Every concert needs an auditorium with a fine acoustics. If the “unresolved tension between plaisir andjouissance explains Mlinko’s fascination with angeliques, chatoyance, psittacines, Pterophyllum altum, the regenbogen, medusozoan nerve nets” (in Porte, no page numbers), we should add to all these the ability to stage this sonorous tension against imposing symphonic contexts. Deeply rooted into the soil of modernism, which is not so far away from high postmodernism, this art does long for a romanticGesamtkunstwerk: a well-organized totality. Such a holistic approach to poetry – through history, myth, music, architecture and many others – could counterbalance the “continuous process of disenchantment in which mystery recedes into personal interactions” (in Porte, no page numbers).

I may infer that Mlinko does not care particularly about communication, but about recovering and working towards sublime memories, myths and legends – the stuff of a petite histoire. Her process of enchanting sufferance is not an escapist one, although she refuses to pass judgments or to insist, at least, on instances of torture or unhappiness. As Rebeca Ariel Porte remarks, “enchantment can have an ethics only insomuch as it has a politics”. The politics here may be that of saving the celestial beauty of an aggressive sublunary world. The bird’s-eye-view dispenses with atrocious details and selects only contrasts, counterpoints and splendid effects of confrontation. In this way, it is hardly possible for any literary critic to label this art as being a scaffolding of phonetic oddities. But then, it is true, such a poetry is digestible only in medium-sized portions and even in these circumstances not to every mind’s stomach. Mlinko’s eavesdropping is not democratic, but definitely elitist. Of course, one can listen to her poetry as to atonal music, without understanding its message. Disenchantment cannot always be told from enchantment, and poetry can be tackled with the stoicism a patient accepts her treatment. The purpose is to avoid oversimplification or fast conclusions. We should remember a poem from Shoulder Season: “It’s a little spa for the mind-seeing butterflies/ set themselves down by the dozen like easels/ on bromeliads, when out on the street the boutiques/are dilapidated, construction can’t be told from ruin./ A single taste bud magnified resembles an orchid/ but what that one’s drinking from is a woman’s eye/which must be brineless. I wonder what she consumes/ that her tears taste like fructose. For minutes she’s all its./[…]// And each tree casts its shade in the form of its summary leaf./ Is a woman’s eye a single taste bud magnified?/ Yet construction can’t be told from ruin./ Out on the street the boutiques are dilapidated// by the dozen like easels. But the mind – it’s a little spa” (Mlinko, Shoulder Season 2010: 1).

 

Yes, it is irony that redeems complexity

All these poetries are permeated by healthy irony. The purpose is to dissuade both excessive enchantment and excessive disenchantment. It seems that the pride of the poet resides in her (cultural) lucidity. Her approach to history and art is subtle, all-encompassing and redeeming. Such an architecturalized poetry has the dignity of a temenos, “the meticulously ordered temple precinct dedicated to a god or hero in archaic Greece […] the product of such divinatory thinking, governed as it is by taboos of pollution and the cult of purity” (Tzonis 1992 1). Mlinko’s art is a multi-layered and strictly hierarchized edifice despite apparent democratic contiguities: “brilliantly spooning up Aphrodite/ to Greek porticoes, and our potatoes,/ and plain living which might be/ shaken by infinitesimal tattoos” – THE GRIND (Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard, 2013: 4). But this masked stratification is even more detectable in THE GOD CATEGORY cycle, with the poem 2. SQUALL: ECHO: “What we need is a suitor perpetually new, the wives agreed/ (their imported spreads, their filigreed eyelids)./ What we need are marvelous things, they said, but Echo/ could not say what she had seen./ Sitting among their pale accessories, all in harmony with white/ceramic tile,/ eggshell balcony railings, green-grape sunlight spilling on the/ metallurgical sound of the waves – more like staves-/ collapsing,/ and so collapsing every riff into one note// The sand was all one color, oat, and the grasses kept/ rebearding where hosanna-ing thalassas/ massacred oysters to pure nacre” (Ibidem 10). Obviously, there is strong and miraculous meaning in this ever-renascent reality. Irony expurgates vanities and fetishisms only to re-state the salient beauty of existence. Thus, Ange Mlinko celebrates the Lévinasian “ethical subject”: “The rationality of the human psyche is explored in the intersubjective relation, the relationship of one person to another, in the transcendence of the ‘for-the-other’ initiating ‘the ethical subject’, which initiates the entre-nous” (Levinas 1999: XI).

I wouldn’t take this reassessing of cultural memory as social involvement, but as a cultural critique of history. Mlinko is not seduced by contemporaneity; she whirls her words up in intricate spirals and she highlights their beauty by chopping away bits of the shameful deeds committed by our ancestors. The beauty she targets is truly artistic, not simply enchanting for our senses – a trans-beauty: “Art and beauty are not, of course, synonymous: one can easily think of many art works that deliberately eschew beauty in order to pursue some other ideal or effect” (Burns 2002 1). A complex, Briareus-like art, may be less artistic, but deeper and more significant. A cantata may remain both ex-temporal and cross-temporal: “Lynette, the stars are kerned so far apart-/ Through a herniated zodiac I almost see your waled skylines/ your shocked Capricorn and Cancer./ In the hundred and two years since you were born, and the/sixteen since your heart failed, and the nearly sixty// Last night, Lynette, my son thought he saw his father in the jumbo jet roaring over cherryhurst: the weather/softer, flight paths altered./ Pastoral ding-dong is OUT”, Lynette wrote, and no wonder -/bombs hidden on the glossy knolls./ In the sorrel./ In the termentil” -CANTATA FOR LYNETTE ROBERTS (Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard, 2013: 56-59).

 

Is this tap dancing or tango?

Mlinko’s assumed stance is that of a difficult artist, although many of her verses are impregnated with less-elevated ricochets. Actually, this is the compost which nourishes the branches of her elaborate poems. As Neil Roberts realizes, there is an academic doom in what concerns the poets on the threshold between the 20th and 21st centuries: “Especially in America, to be a professional poet almost necessarily means teaching writing in a university, and in the latter part of the century, especially in postcolonial studies and the influence of poststructuralism on writers such as the Language poets, the discourse of academics have merged” (Roberts, 2003: 2).

Could this be the source of Mlinko’s many-voiced, even polyphonic low- & high-pitched “intonations”? She may share the fate of high-brow poets, as Dana Gioia envisaged it: “American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class, poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individuals they are almost invisible” (Gioia, 1992: 1).

 

A happy paradox

This is the paradox: to belong simultaneously both in the academia and in the subculture. In both cases, the point with the poets and their verses’ invisibility stands aloof, I could say. Shoulder Season and Marvelous Things Overheard are homogeneous volumes in what concerns their beehive multi-level structure. Maybe the former keeps communication – understood as permeability – in higher esteem: “We went to the vivarium – to see/ the tropical butterflies in a/ walk-through biodome. They were/ cocooning, their insides filled/ with meconium. The chrysalises looked/ like jade and rosy quartz pendants/ for ladies’ ears – with gold worked in,/ something Babylonian./ Enormous specimens/ breathed against tree bark.// Belated naturalists we./ I kept repeating to myself:/ the mind is not a little spa./ The Mind is not a little Spa./ You can’t retreat to its imaginary/ standard distance/ when outside construction/ can’t be told from ruin” – TREATMENT (Mlinko, Shoulder Season2010: 2). The message lurking behind the indirect approach clearly specifies that with the end of the Ancien Régime the ivory tower has become not only immoral, but downright impracticable: inward there is a nightmarish mindscape. The poet as mythical flâneur pinches the cords of an instrument with vast possibilities of expression. Its diapason is so wide, that only powerful choirs could enact the grandiose opera imagined by Ange Mlinko. The plurivocal implications of the verses save them from bleak cultural affectation and cleanse them of phoniness: “Like architecture, rhetoric is formed around divisions that enclose and exclude; Plato’s ideal republic famously excludes poets because of their tendency to adopt duplicitous multiple voices, yet poetry’s multiplicity is inseparable from rhetoric, and keeps seeping back even into the text he is writing. Plato’s democratic vision also excludes women, and the doubly excluded figure of the poet who is a woman offers a revealing point from which to explore the interwoven aspects of language and place that form the contemporary city”(Skoulding 2013: 2). This is Mlinko’s miracle: to pour life into highly-refined formulations. What with other poets would have ended up as formulaic language, with her becomes commemoration and inciting communication: “‘How easy it was to put treacherous beacons on the shoals;/steal a map; distribute counterfeit maps;//falsify navigational charts, or the names for things/in foreign languages.’” – THE HELIOPOLITAN (Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard, 2013: 18). How difficult must have been for the poet to use the mythological paradigm in order to protest against recent history’s aberrations!

Primary Sources:

Mlinko, Ange. Marvelous Things Overheard. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, USA.

Mlinko, Ange. Shoulder Season. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2010, USA.

Secondary and Theoretical Sources:

Burns, Allan. Thematic Guide to American Poetry. Greenwood Publishing Group Inc, 2002, USA.

Gioia, Dana. Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture. Minnesota: GRaywolf Press, 1992, USA.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Entre-nous: on Thinking-of-the-Other. Translated from the French by Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav, West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 1999, USA.

Roberts, Neil, ed. A Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry. Blackwell Publishing LTD, 2003, USA.

Skoulding, Zoë. Contemporary Women’s Poetry and Urban Space. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, USA.

Tzonis, Alexander. Classical Architecture, 5th printing, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1992, USA.

Webography:

Bourgoise Tyler, Poetry Must Still Dance: An Interview with Ange Mlinko, June 17, 2013, Web 26 November 2014, http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2013/06/17/poetry-must-still-dance-an-interview-with-ange-mlinko/.

Porte, Rebecca Ariel, The Aesthetics of Enchantment: Ange Mlinko’s “Marvelous Things Overheard”, in Los Angeles Review of Books, Web 26 November 2014.http://lareviewofbooks.org/review/the-aesthetics-of-enchantment-ange-mlinkos-marvelous-things-overheard.

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Felix Nicolau is Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Communications, The Technical University of Civil Engineering, Bucharest, Romania. He defended his PhD in Comparative Literature in 2003 and is the author of five volumes of poetry (among which the latest, Kamceatka – time IS honey, 2014), two novels and eight books of literary and communication theory: Take the Floor. Professional Communication Theoretically Contextualized (2014), Cultural Communication: Approaches to Modernity and Postmodernity (2014), Comunicare şi creativitate. Interpretarea textului contemporan (Communication and Creativity. The Interpretation of Contemporary Text, 2014), Homo Imprudens (2006), Anticanonice (Anticanonicals, 2009), Codul lui Eminescu (Eminescu’s Code, 2010), and Estetica inumană: de la Postmodernism la Facebook (Inhuman Aesthetics: from Postmodernism to Facebook, 2013). He is on the editorial boards of Poesis International, The Muse – an International Journal of Poetry, and Metaliteratura magazines. His areas of interest are translation studies,  communication theory, comparative literature, cultural studies, translation studies, and British and American studies.

 

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Jericho Brown–The New Testament–An n-dimensional Hybrid of Homogeneities

January 4th, 2015 margento No comments

 

Jericho Brown combines confessionalism with mysticism, sexuality, and politics with an energy and determination hardly ever proved by any other young poet nowadays.  And the feverish will to fuse and diversify concomitantly is paralleled by the wide formal range that he masters like a true virtuoso.  In a longer sequence like “Motherland” for instance, the free verse and alternation of voices in a family reunion episode is followed by elucidating prose accounts, by a sharp blues on Teddy Pendergast being shot, and a sonnet where Brown typically rewrites a biblical passage.  This time he deals with Eve’s temptation—which pans out even more intriguingly than one would expect as the ‘realist’ fragments in the rest of the poem tell the story of an abused wife who finally decides to take fate into her own hands.

But shrewd contextual interplay aside, Brown has an indelible way of revisiting the holy scriptures, neither simply heretic, nor just ironical (if ever so), nor simply rendering it (homoerotically) political, but while indeed doing all of the above actually reinterpreting and profoundly reliving the scriptural scene in a way that will stay very long with the reader.  The sense one gets is that while Brown’s rereading of the bible may be strongly iconoclastic and subversive, it still unveils an unexpected, secret, and deadly profound meaning hidden in religion—which is as a matter of fact quite the feeling we get while reading William Blake, isn’t it?

 

No matter how low she seemed squatting to piss,

 

The damned snake couldn’t stop staring, and she couldn’t

Understand—though he inched close enough

To whisper something wet and true.  He needed to confront

Her with what he knew, needed her stuffed

 

On a sweet that made her see herself, see him

And every beast in the young world watching.

 

This black Blake, Brown, very much like the English Romantic, won’t hesitate to descend to hell to celebrate his mystical marriage; it is only that he has the advantage of also celebrating a ‘satanic’ racial color and a damned sexual orientation.  The latter actually gets to eroticize—uncomplacently and with no easy romance—hell and death itself.  Instead of saying black and homoerotic is not bad, the poet chooses to be ultimately defiant and save even the supreme evil by making it black and gay, and thus sensual, playful, intimate.  Being intimate with an Other portrayed as “The one with the gap/ In the teeth only I get/ To see…” (“At the End of Hell”) invites a telling ambivalence by dint of a strong enjambment (“I get/ To see”) which only announces the powerful image of taking death’s head from the closely following lines; the lingering ambiguity helps to conjoin soon the impressive staging of the descent to hell with a surreptitiously subversive yet equally overwhelming (one could say per…verse) sexual meaning—the head is taken because… head is being given:

 

To see.  What if I risk

Taking the head of death

Here in the dark, far

And deep, where

[…] nobody witnesses

My underworld gangster

Play kidnap, play Mama’s

Baby turned queen, and

If I scream, Pastel—he

swears he’s sorry…

 

Hell/death not only becomes the speaker’s lover but at the same time, a hidden place where the “underworld” game of turning into a “queen” can be played safely.  Unlike the British prophet-bard, the young American poet can of course write in slang and in (consistently transparent) queer lingo while still being mystical and submerged in the experience of hell.

Jericho Brown is actually not the only one doing that.  Other young African American poets have also explored such potential convergences to further cultural ramifications and minuteness.  Amaud Jamaul Johnson, for a brilliant example, has included in his Darktown Follies (Tupelo, 2013) a poem on Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham, in which the star is reified as both “homegrown” [“pigmeat”] and, given his career—that eventually emerged out of the chitlin’ circuit only when absorbed by the mainstream ‘white’ entertainment industry—a Frankenstein of segregated America, “the artificial Negro.”  Johnson, like Brown, also explores the infernal corrosiveness of Blackness, but taking advantage of Markham’s story as forerunner of rap, he also bundles up apocalyptic imagery, entertainment glamor, and mock ‘White’ gibberish or pretentious phrasing, and translates them into hip hop rhythms and rhymes:  “Here comes the first crystal stair./ Here, come Hell or high-water, Hell// Or some falter.  All the ease in legalese./ Here comes my tautology—// A blackness of a blackness of a blackness./ My monochromatic rainbow” [emphasis in the text].  Apocalypse [is] now [and] is black, as Markham’s “heyeah (here) come da judge” schtick gets restaged and reperformed  by the poet as a tap-dancing second advent on an African American Judgment Day: “Here.  Step.  Stutter-step, hush.  I come./ Here comes the judge.  Here comes the judge” (Johnson’s emphasis).

And of course, the brazen sexual connotation is also there (fitting perfectly in the larger ‘traditional’ orgasm-death-apocalypse paradigm), “I come.”  But the most remarkable accomplishment of these wild African American poets is I think the way in which they can talk so naturally about sex, spirituality, and cultural-political issues in the same poem and, more importantly, in the same language.  That is, the same words and phrases, and ultimately, the same speech, can be read as either erotic or political or religious in a way that ensures a totally verisimilar cohabitation of all these registers while not impeding on their own specific contiguity.  Their poetry is therefore an n-dimensional hybrid of homogeneities.

And as an illustration of that, let us go briefly back to Brown’s poem quoted above.   The speaker’s screaming “Pastel!” during the “kidnapping” (erotic wrestling) game could be read in slang as—if I’m not wrong—“[this is too much], I’m giving up” and/or “[this is so powerful/overwhelming that] I’m passing out.”  But at the same time there is a more sophisticated reference there; Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” does exist in a couple of pastel versions, hence in less stark or striking colors.  But Jericho Brown’s speaker detests ‘lighter’ to the extent to which he detests light itself.  “A few bruises” are, he ends the poem, “[b]etter than the light/ Called spring, and I love/ It, every drop of God/ Weeping over me.”  Damnation and redemption, crucifixion and communion, as well as a graphic climactic scene—signalled and anticipated by the “annotated” enjambment “I love/ it”—are all there, all contained by a minimal yet layered diction.

A diction also empowered by form and by the already mentioned tireless and merciless enjambments.  Look how strongly the latter work here, deeply embedding eroticism in denouncing racism (and on top of that, interracial exclusion), and sexual-orientation-triggered discrimination; also, repeating a sentence but changing the place of the line break is a shrewdly ironical nod at William Carlos Williams: “Will black men still love me/ If white ones stop wanting me// Dead?  Will white men stop/ Wanting me dead? …”

A brief note on form in this collection.  I have already mentioned the sonnet (Shakespearean or irregular), the blues as well, couplets, alternations of couplets and tercets (irregular wavelets, if you may), irregular terza rimas (sometimes arranged as blues), blank, free verse, and prose, and there is also a trademark compressed ballad of sorts, where the syllable count is either 5, or 6, or 7, and the beats alternate, 2 and 3 per line, a meter that lends a compelling Nina Simone sound to the poem.  All this amazing formal diversity does not stem from sheer exuberance or ostensive experimentalism though, but (paradoxically?) from the author’s compulsive if not obsessive focus and adamant involvement.

—MARGENTO

————————————-

Jericho Brown. The New Testament. Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2014.

 

Categories: Book Reviews Tags:

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:

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

 

 

Categories: Book Reviews Tags:

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]

Categories: Book Reviews Tags:

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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Romanian Poetry Anthology–Of Gentle Wolves

December 19th, 2013 margento No comments

 

Martin Woodside traveled to Romania on a poetry Fulbright. In the bilingual collection Of Gentle Wolves, he captured a snapshot of the mosaic of trends and confluences that define Romanian poetry of the last few decades. As he suggests in his introduction to the volume, the biggest surprise was the difficulty in categorizing Romanian poets, a reflection of the “tumult and discord that’s characterized the last century of life in Romania, and life after the 1989 revolution” (vi). If anything, the common thread running through the various voices, some decades old, some fresh and pulsing with the blood of the new millennium, is the ambition of being the one to re-invent the poetic form while never severing the bonds with Romania’s literary past.

Yet the volume doesn’t lack unity or a sense of common purpose. There are subtle points of convergence that emerge as one journeys from one poet’s landscape to the next. One witnesses the struggles to place signifying mirrors before a history in the course of finding itself, and one sees the wider and wider spiral that travels away from a nationally defined inner space, and into the larger world of global conversations, only to circle back to the evolving Romanian consciousness, undefeated by half a century of communism, engaged with the present, eager for that ineffable re-definition.

One such thread that one can identify is the need for cultural anchoring—whether it be in the sturdy soil of European tradition, as we see in the poem by Romania’s not so long absconded giant, Marin Sorescu, who attributes to Shakespeare the powers of a Demiurge creating the world in seven days, then “tired to the bone,/He went off to die a little” (5), or the more eclectic allusions in a poem such as “Summa Ethilica” by Radu Vancu, who summons as his drinking buddies the shadows of Thomas Aquinas, Mihai Eminescu (Romania’s staple poet of the 19th century), and even Marx, to derive eternal wisdom from the never obsolete “40 percent liquid hell in iridescent light” (19). In a similar vein, Angela Marinescu sits at an imagined table with “many poets/ Mihai Draghici, Paul Vinicius, Eugen Suciu,/ with novelists Ioan Grosan and Alexandru Vlad/ and with a young woman, beautiful, quiet like a carnivorous plant in repose” (21), an indication that reaching self-awareness is a collective endeavor.

Earlier generation surrealist poet Gellu Naum returns to a mythical past of Romania’s almost unchanged countryside, where Alexander the Great is summoned by a local woman as he “passed one summer in his golden boat reading aloud and making small comments/…/ hey there comrade Alexander the Great she would tell us don’t pretend you can’t hear/ hey there Argonaut I’ll give you my golden fleece that is the law/ I’ll issue a receipt” (7). As if in response to this search through myths in Romania’s millennial soil, crisp-voiced poet Chris Tanasescu finds himself “between stone and stone/ between earth and earth” (57) with a book holding him together as he relives Romania’s myth of the creator’s sacrifice, and the continuous repetition of Genesis as art: “and the book is the only place here/ to enter/ the only place/ to find a way through/maybe this is how the world started/ I say to myself” (59).

It is as if the poets of change seek reassurance in a world that simply is, so that they can glimpse into the possible and venture into a world they can re-imagine. Unsurprisingly, there is also an abundance of references to Romania’s only partially healed wounds of anticommunist and postcommunist struggles. In O. Nimigean’s excerpt from Intermezzo, “ovidean nimigean/ weeps all over the page/ feeling pity/ for this golden age/ ovidean nimigean/ a childish old man/ fills with grief/ for the Romanian” (37), in a voice reminiscent of old ballads but snatching Romania’s old self from the past and dragging it with him into his own, amorphous moment in history. In Radu Vancu’s “Kapital,” the ghost of Marx still haunts the streets of cities and villages, where “in the pubs of Romania,” heavy drinking turns formerly complacent people into anarchists, until “you are already, in all likelihood, a perfect mystic/ with the appropriate set of regrets at hand./ It’s bad not to have guts. And much better, after the first shot of vodka” (17).

It appears that poets are still trying to shake off the shame of inaction that followed the intellectuals of the communist night into the chaos of a democracy still fighting the demons of the past. Chris Tanasescu’s poem “Envoy” reminds Romanians that the ills we bear can take our place if we leave too much room for tolerance of those ills. The lines “Today, tomorrow, she endured/ pitiful girl—shouldn’t be pitied!” (61) reveal the epitome of the fear that is no longer a good excuse.

It appears that many of today’s poets find the self-congratulatory rhetoric of those accustomed with suffering abhorrent, and look elsewhere for redemption. In Gabriel Decuble’s “Crippled Mutt,” the beaten dogs on the street become the city’s guardian angels, a sign that it is, perhaps, time to let the ghosts of oppression leave the country’s crippled body so that it can finally find a way to start anew: “particles rise yelping/ particles limping through the atmosphere/ light slobbered from the fierce staggering over the void/ dispersed/ you don’t hear them you don’t see them/ these microscopic particles in one in all/       damning them not to be damned/ so that they never end” (53).

What’s left after the purging of Romania’s collective sins are “the dead resurrected from rain” (43) in Robert Serban’s poem “I Hide.” In the “nearly empty” village where the sick and old of past generations still wait and watch for something—be it angels or pigeons—in Ioan Moldovan’s poem “In Fact,” and love finds ways to bring the flesh back to the doll-like bodies, in Dan Coman’s “Love Poem.”

It is a bizarre world where people are picking up the pieces after some bewildering cataclysm, but there is much hope in this scattered world. Artists believe in the power of their art to redeem and rebuild, which is why this volume sets itself apart from other contemporary productions as an on-going question whose answer is somewhere under the rubble of history, waiting to be unearthed.

—Liana Andreasen

 

[Of Gentle Wolves, an Anthology of Romanian Poetry

Translated and edited by Martin Woodside

Calypso Editions, 2011,

68 pages, soft cover, $12]

[A shorter version of this review was initially published in Atticus Review]

————————————–

Liana Vrajitoru Andreasen is originally from Romania, and currently lives in McAllen, TX where she is an Associate Professor at South Texas College. She holds an MA from Salisbury University and a PhD from Binghamton University. She published academic work in Alecart, Texas Review, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Southwestern American Literature, The CEA Critic. She published stories in Fiction International, The Raven Chronicles, Thunderdome, The Horror Zine, The Willow Review, Mobius, a Journal of Social Change, and upcoming in Scintilla, Weave Magazine, and Calliope. She received two Pushcart nominations (for fiction and for translation work).

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Joanne Dominique Dwyer–”Belle Laide”–If to Love Is to Inhabit

December 3rd, 2013 margento No comments

 

 

One cannot but love a book that starts this way: “First my father Killing Me Softly with his Roberta Flack album./ Then my son Killing Me Softly with his Fugees CD” especially when those are the opening lines of an ars poetica—actually “Ars Poetica, or Keeper-of-the-Water.”  Contemporary young poets apparently feel a need to start their (first) books with ars poeticas, and some of them do it well.  Joanne Dominique Dwyer is one of those—while providing a relevant imago of the poet at work as being at home, since the metaphor in the title has to do with the frozen birdbath the birds peck on in the cold outside the speaker’s home.  The image gives her the opportunity to interrupt her own speech with a sharp aside in which she both scolds and… scalds herself: “Excuse me un mementino, while I boil/ water to pour on the ice.  Bullshit!/ you’re not going to take time to boil water/ when it scalds right from the tap.”  A quirky discourse of a restless poet who will not take bull from anybody, herself included.  And, like in other recent ars poeticas, she addresses the reader directly, but since other poets unwillingly prove to actually be afraid of the latter, or at least mistrustful, and try to compensate for that by showing off, she off-handedly invites them into her family, her home, her own body (of words), even calling them lover but also warning all the way about the deadly dangers of such togetherness “I can see why lovers commit suicide together./ And why you enter me with such abandon,” as the only one she’s actually afraid of seems to be herself and the cancer-like unstoppable expansion and inclusiveness of her verse : “On my shoulder a carcinoma that will eventually kill me—/ will eat my flesh, as I eat yours.”

But is this a Whitmanesque inclusiveness—not really, not at first at least, rather one centered on or starting from the familial, the interior, the bookish.  “I don’t get out much—socially, for adult pleasure./ But I read a lot” starts a captivating poem that takes us into the speaker’s extensive readings of Turkish harem accounts, and then to the speaker’s daughter’s ceramics class work, a conversation at a wedding party casually and awkwardly switching from horrid jail stories to deluxe breast jobs, and then back again to harems, Islam, ceramics, and a Persian hair removal kit recently that the speaker recently purchased but “has yet to use.”

Dwyer is compared in a back cover presentation with Plath and Sexton, and indeed, her confessionalism and acted childishness every once in a while allows questionable traumas to surface menacingly (“my missing daughter returned by midday muted,/ having been held on a rooftop”), but the general tone is rather relaxed as she enjoys digressing and surfing her own stream of consciousness in more of an O’Harian style.  The ‘wild’ surprises occasioned by language ramifications, by the dark associative power of her unconsciousness, and sometimes by multiple voices (in “Barely a Body Comes Knocking” for instance the deceitful complaint about the lack of visitors veers at a certain point into a fantastic and funny Voodoo curse against possible thieves—“And my assistant ghosts will hex your virility/ And you will sit all your remaining days/ In a rocking chair like a ceramic troll on the porch/ Of the state home in Maine for old and demented alcoholic ship builders/ Because the home for old and alcoholic sailor is full// You think I’m semiserious/ I do my best work when hypnopompic…”—) may also remind one of Ashbery, with the significant difference that Dwyer wants and manages to convey a (multiple but) coherent image of the self that is propped by the consistent pursuit of memories and dreams, and by memorable self-definitions and metaphors, “keeper of the water,” “an encyclopedia salesman,” “ a footless repairer of huaraches and boots,” etc.

The second section persistently and sometimes manically pursues possible ‘definitions’ of love, ranging from “if love is to imagine” to “if love is a door,” “a mezzanine,” “to fall,” “to inhabit,” and eventually “to be thirsty in the night/ un-slacked in the day.”  Such ‘philosophical’ musings are actually as bodily and sensual as could be, and, what is absolutely remarkable in Dwyer compared to other contemporary poets, the erudite references, the mythologies and metaphysics, the asides and the detours do not slacken the passion and the emergency, but quite on the contrary, they keep mercilessly spilling fuel on the fire of the crescendos, while also adding a bite of inquisitiveness, sarcasm, and, of course, self-contradiction:

In the Louvre we saw the carved bit of ass

showing on the Venus of Milo.

Lift my dressing gown over my head,

or take it all the way down.

Look me in the eye when we make love

so I don’t mistake you for a blind man.

Don’t be afraid of my dark,

buy me a bird of my own—

spit on the candle in the corner.

“Request to a Lover”

 

The breathless 3 or 4-beat-per-line hurried complexities, intimations, and urges, make room at a certain point to a bluesy shorter piece, in which St Augustine (a recurrent reference, or rather character), Billie Holiday, sensuality & grimness, homelessness and glamour, death and a repressed knowledge of the spiritual powerfully converge.

A nagging question and potential problem in writing such poems would be (besides what if love were… [at all]), but how do I end this, and, if after all the deployed artillery I need a simpler or quieter ending, how can I make sure it’s not going to be flat or irrelevant.  Dwyer finds good or not so good answers to this question (among the most unfortunate ones are those that go like “You are intrigued with her/ and I hate her”) until she realizes it would be better to confront and testify for the lack of any solution and the confusion itself rather than improvise single-use surrogates.  That is what she does in the cosmic spectacular finale of “Bent,” the final poem in the second section, where a maddening maenad squeezes the love and… the life out of her lover, and then, a bacchant drunk on his “lake water,” she admits no reciprocity or communion in facing her own deepest uncertainty, and along with that, the demise of the sacred.

I am bent around the darkness of the sun

siphoning salt form your skin,

eating almonds from your cupboards,

drinking the last of the lake water

as the sails come to a halt on the sand.

I will never give back the lake its love!

It’s mine! It’s mine!—Loch Ness monster

or man on the shore carving canoe paddles,

I’m not certain.  It’s so ark without the moon,

difficult to find the far encampment—

the inward holy body.

 

This last note lingers into the third section, where Dwyer directly addresses her need for a spiritualism of her own and “an instance of devotion” for the sacred madness of maverick figures like Christina Mirabilis, for instance, whom the church has kept out “of the sanctioned canon of saints on the grounds/ that you are not the beau ideal to follow,” and who, spiritually speaking, is therefore an emblematic “beau laide.”

Paradoxically, the intensification of the search for the spiritual brings about more explicit confessional or maybe even autobiographical texture, and along with that, even more popular culture and consumerist ‘flavors’ than before, while pulling back a bit from the earlier grandiose metaphorical imagery and approaching the erotic much more directly.  But is that really paradoxical?  Not for a poet like Dwyer, who, while taking the customary American distance from institutionalized religion is relentlessly in search for an actual experience of the sacred, for the ‘real’ ([un]canonical) thing, which, of course, once reached, cannot but illuminate (through) the profane as well.

Profane in all senses, since in one of the most powerful poems in the collection (“Down-by-the-River”), the speaker takes “a shit behind skinny oaks” and asserts (more than elsewhere) an Irish-Catholic-pagan-Gypsy-outlandish-Mexican (non-)identity (“No Identity Crisis Here” reads another relevant title), fusing a Whitmanesque celebratory union-with-the-cosmos eroticism (“I long for the lightning/ of your ejaculate in my mouth, on my breasts/ between the folds and fabric of my flower./ Call it a pussy or a cunt, or the shores of an eel-infested river”) with her unmistakable sarcasm, fierce political/gender critique and brilliantly ironic associations (“Only do not […] pretend to care about the young girls/ who open their mouths like milking machines on dairy farms,/ or take it in the ass, all to remain immaculate until marriage./ I wiped my ass with dry oak leaves, and yes it scratched.”)

The poet’s deepest and most intense purpose always keeps its promise—and therefore the last poem in the collection is indeed an eschatological poem… “of sorts.”  And not in spite, but actually by means of self-irony as well (yet is this just self-irony?—“J. Dominique is certain that Christ will return soon/ […]/ as a guest at the wedding of two men madly in love/ and turn tap water into bubbly water”), the ardently mystical vibrates ever stronger, so much the more as it is (in the end as well as in the beginning) experienced strictly on a stripped corporeal level.  Listen to this crossover ballad-chant-lease-like ending; there is multifaceted irony here indeed, only that it aims beyond the traditional postmodernist paradigm, while still sounding postmodern (although it is not for the first time in the book that Dwyer euphonically pairs holy and body).  This is probably the greatest merit of this first collection and the major promise that Joanne Dominique Dwyer may represent:

And she’ll be ashamed for her ego-driven desire

to be listed among the holy,

and humbled into a hollow love for her body—

no matter how temporary the occupancy.

 

[Joanne Dominique Dwyer. Belle Laide. Louisville, Kentucky: Sarabande Books, 2013]

 

—MARGENTO

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