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Shane McCrae’s “Blood”–The Unstoppable Epic

December 3rd, 2013 margento No comments

 

 

“Probably the real story of race in the United States, […] an epic that spans three centuries,” reads Kathleen Ossip’s blurb on the back cover of Shane McCrae’s latest collection.  Terrance Hayes concurs with an accolade that sounds like an intersection of his own language and the author’s: “His disconcerting language tracks the estrangement and strangeness, the severance and severity of a Self seized by history.”

McCrae professes a poetics of capitalization and line breaks, where enjambments are not so much meant to amplify aesthetic quality and meaning-related complexity, but convey subversive messages and ensure survival while telling histories of massacre, abuse, and misfortune.

Some niggers isn’t and they is

Never gonna be and them I known

And I remember best

is niggers I seen dead                       / Remember even

the breaths they was

always breathing

(“Heads”—“2. Captured and Returned to His Master”)

 

The “niggers” both exist and do not exist, as they (sort of apophatically) are beyond the ‘grammar’ of the establishment and they endure in ways that elude the masters’ control.  The enjambment transforms an auxiliary verb into a main one asserting existence (and they is/ Never gonna be) and then further assertion is hidden behind the capitalized “Never.”  Bad grammar and typography thus renders unexpected value to the language distorted and translated by rebellion and by the gasping breath of the chased slave—ontology (“they is”), knowledge (“I known”) and cultural heritage (“I remember best”) are thus established and fiercely defended under the nose of “the Master” with the latter’s tools.

Slashes also play a shrewd role throughout the book.  In the quote above for instance the slash is placed ‘unnaturally’ far from the line break it feigns to accommodate, and acts like a hideout for the capitalized “Remember,” and for the way in which the slaves get “even” by never forgetting those who “was the breaths” of their culture.

In fact, McCrae accomplishes a lot with very few devices.  There is barely any description in the book yet the images (and the sounds) are unforgettable.  Complexity is reached by ellipsis, by clashing scenes, narratives, and voices, by speech that seems to be drowned out by other speeches, memories, and fears, but then resurfaces even stronger than before.  The poetry flux is a wave encountering particles of matter (of matter that matters, the one of life and death) and thus seems to be obnubilated, but actually nothing blocks it; in fact, it is exactly such brief (and horrific) episodes that render it perceptible.

Ranting, raging, rambling syncopated voices that seem to sound the same, cover in fact an impressive number of forms and styles—satire (“the silver [money] rattled as I ran it sounded like/ a chained dog jumping”), black (or rather cynic-horror) comedy (“he was barefoot in/ Shit when the white men found him     /[author’s slash] He stank so bad/ They couldn’t hang him didn’t want those feet/ over their heads// That’s why they burned him”), prophecy (“Our Savior comes disguised     /[author’s slash] Like a thief in the night/ […] down from the cross/ And he must set the cross on fire”), ballad/blues/farce (in “The Ballad of Cathay Williams William Cathay”), elegy (“Brother it keep us like a pond keep leaves/ from trees on the pond they/ Rotting in the thing they lived on/ […]/ Brother our father me and him / [author’s slash] That’s how it love/ keep us together”), etc, etc.

The fragmentary epic seems to go full circle when in the last poem, the speaker sardonically acknowledges that “I thought// Who do I got to kill/ to get all the way free/ And it was     more people than it was/ alive in the world,” thus echoing as if from the other end of the world (and history) the oppressive image at the beginning of the book, with its ominous enjambment-puns: “The death in us was bigger than the life in us/

except for some of us        it seems like now/ And them the niggers got their heads cut off…”  The massacred rebels are still around (here and) “now,” moreover, they are the (atemporal?) here and now, they have become the matter history is made of (they are beheaded now and… them).  But if the victim, the enslaved, the exterminated want to be free (not to survive…), they’ll have to imagine a holocaust the world is not big enough for.  McCrae goes beyond the victim/victimizer overlap and reaches the negative (capability and) sublime of a poetry that, in order to be true, will have not only to account for but also reenact the endless horrors of his people’s history.

The characters’ confessions are truncated, contorted, distorted, stressed, compressed, pressed for time and space.  If it is an epic it is one of deeply subjective and incoherent voices that have no time or reverence neither for the ample Homeric meter and its circuitous rhetoric—the “niggers’ song” is not meant for ceremony or leisure—nor for the gluttonous Whitmanesque enumerations—since although they crave and recognize democracy (“The Yankees were/ Shaking hands” and calling the slaves by their names) they haven’t really enjoyed any justice or democracy yet.  The vision is not huge, but relentlessly ramified, not gigantic, but unstoppable.  That’s why—it gotta be continued…

[Shane McCrae, Blood, Mesilla Park, NM: Noemi Press, 2013]

–MARGENTO

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A.L. Nielsen–”A Brand New Beggar”–Open Tuning Poetry

December 3rd, 2013 margento No comments
A.L. Nielsen’s new book is praised by Evie Shockley in one of the blurbs on the back cover, for the fireworks lit under its language, and the way in which it stitches together places, people, and moments.  Stitching al those things together is actually, in Nielsen’s case, like playing series of chords (with riffing and variation) on a (blues) guitar; only he uses an interesting and quite hard to master technique—open tuning.
“Seven Series,” for instance, is a poem that illustrates Nielsen’s preoccupation with seriality (whence the recurrent motifs of trains, train sets, traveling, slide-shows, etc, and whatever involves sequences or cycles or reformulations), which relates him to Spicer, but it would be a mistake to make of that a pervasive feature, as Nielson is actually related to so many and to nobody in particular.  (Apropos of Spicer, though, “Hidden Lake” is a funny but convoluted reprise of “Concord Hymn.”)  The first one of the seven series stands proof—“An end to all this// Eschatology”—a distich which, pardon my punning, should indeed make history.  Or is, in any way, an opening that promises a lot.  Nielsen chooses ‘not to deliver’ though, and so, what follows sounds (not like Spicer but) more like a sequence of Koch’s blandest surreal (yet metropolitan) jokes—“I have/ To hurry// Here// They close/ The dictionaries/ At seven” (5th series)—and after trying to compensate for the lightness with a ‘hard surrealist’ totally puzzling 6th series, the last one, like a Dadaist farce, confirms the closing of dictionaries “at seven”: the 7th series contains no words.
Many other ‘jokes’ in the book are actually much more relevant than that, such as “41” which is a “series” of mass media and political and everyday clichés in a crescendo where totally probable absurdities (“Continuous/ Breaking developments,” “We ran a touchdown/ And the enemy didn’t show up”) lead to a black humor cynicism that would make Frederick Seidel jealous: “We get more punch per bomb// A struggle to the last child.”
“Higher Math”—higher because it’s about wild geese flying up in the sky, and math because the shape of the flocks is equated with the greater/lesser than symbol in mathematics—describes the phases of a contest between the hunter and his game which reminds one of Charles Simic’s mathematical symbolisms of crows in winter, only now (depleted of the visionary tone and) humorously remixed by a laconic Billy Collins.  Still, Nielsen manages to compress there both ecological concerns and a subtle ars poetica—“I wait unlicensed/ In the caesura of their seasons/ Scrawling with my shotgun in mid-mud.”
After a number of such poems the reader realizes that there are apparently two poets taking turns in this collection (both of them versatile and alluding to quite a deal of contemporary writers, as already stated), one that writes song-like (and most of the times deceitfully) light poems, and another one that specializes in hard to follow, contorted syntax, nagging indeterminacy, and non sequiturs.  The former’s palette ranges from idiosyncratic limericks, “A is for an/ Other/ Part of our/ Name a/ Part…[etc]” (“Anna”), to emphatic blues poems, “Really doesn’t matter/ How hard I sing/ Night still/ Removes everything”) (“Small Song”), to political critique and creed, “Word arrives that Jesse Helms has died/ Tolson’s Africa shakes off a fly” (section IV, the best in the book), and the oracular (and therefore, political) poetry of place “There’s no/ Their there” (section II).  The ‘other poet’ often places his pieces right next to the first, letting the reader decide which poem is a make-up for which, as for instance, right before the above quoted “Small Song”, “Rivers” (meant to also be read as “reverse”?) deals with the same theme, only in a more complicated unnecessarily philosophical (and thus facile) way—“An idea/ Pitched in the rest//Taken up by the rest/ Rests.”  Compare the two finales, “The finite work of morning/ Refrains// Evening/ The score,” and “Really doesn’t matter/ What I might will/ Night/ Still.”
Nielsen sometimes acknowledges the ambivalence (“I hear voices/ From the other’s side/ As if someone wore/ Reading a Poem” (my emphasis)—he puns in a poem involving an ingenious typographical word-play, “Silence of the Iambs,” where the sparse irregular iambs are themselves the silenced… lambs), but the ‘less likable’ ‘other’ breaks loose in the last (and weakest) section, where he over-insists on the trite figure of the slide-show as disparate and sometimes painful or nostalgic memories.  When the jumbled enjambments and rumbling syntax seem to find a way of cohabitation and signification in “Zoo Slide,” the poet drops them altogether and switches to end stops and romance.  Still, the poem concluding the section and the book is an excellent one (and like most of the best poems, an instance of collaboration between the ‘two writers’ in the collection), a blues of strong rhythms, unexpected phrase turns, both sudden rhymes/puns and remote echoes fusing the personal and the political, “This suitcase intends/ A world/ Broke at the clasp/ Grasp// World gone wrong// […] These unintended/ Blues stones/ In my passway/ Cinders rasp/ In my draw/ Rail against the night/ Smokestacks steel strings/ Open tuning…”
Still, the book’s major contribution is its poetry of place.  In section II, “From Kansas,” which is actually just a short preview, and then in the full-throttle section IV, “From Ghana,” Nielsen writes an intriguing, both alluring and aloof, mysterious one-of-a-kind poetry of locality.  The complexity and immensity of a place and culture are made palpable not by erotic immersion or elated enumerations, but by what we gradually sense is being left out—as well as by the speaker’s own puzzlement and wonder.  Yet it is not primarily ellipsis that does the trick in these laconic poems, but the always fresh eye of the observer, and the refusal to categorize or generalize (mainly manifest in the amazing capacity to shift and turn and [still] be inclusive within draconic brevity).  These are poems in which the tools of imagist poetry are used to the opposite ends. As (perhaps) post-post-colonial poetry, such verse not only refuses the stance of the western colonist/traveler/tourist/orientalist, but, without professing the old news of postmodernist disenchantment, does not even consider the option (as it is strongly skeptical of the actual possibility) of description (while being, among other things, once in a while descriptive as well).  The result is a sequence of multifaceted puzzle pieces for us to (re)arrange and approximate the mystery(ies) of both the place and the speaker, and thus participate in the incomprehensible experience of being a contemporary inter-cultural person interacting on different levels with a certain place of wondrous culture and landscape marked by political injustice and tragic history/ies.  Just like in open tuning (a figure so relevantly employed by the poet in the above quoted blues), Nielsen does not bother to ‘fret’ the strings of the reality he encounters, but (apparently) plays them as they come, and the strong effect results from the order, frequency, and rhythm in which he chooses to pick or strike them.
Gratitude for such wary
Signage as
Sings to me
Each morning
Such as this
Muddy Waters pouring
From seaside speakers
Sounding
Homecoming baptism
The echoes—sing/sign—of the speaker’s personal cultural background present on the public globalized speakers’ playlist represent signage for him to get back home every morning, but (the “gratitude” for) such experience is best expressed by an oxymoron—“homecoming baptism.”  Certain layers of American culture here (the icon of Muddy Waters but also the more recent blues and pop hits with lyrics celebrating being baptized in muddy water) gain unexpected relevance as the speaker, in Ghana, is baptized in the muddy water of his true “home,” African(-American) culture and literature which he has studied and celebrated for decades.
In dialoging with or evoking other major rock culture figures, the poet seems to almost forget about the place he’s supposed to ‘tell us about.’  In a poem referencing “[Frank]” he writes, “The/ Mothers// Of necessity// Sang// Kansas/ Kansas/ do-do-dun to-to// It was/ For them/ An invention,” being as ironic at Zappa just as the latter once was at everybody, but at the same time giving him credit as a major artist (of the ‘necessary’ proportion).  Moreover, the doo wop refrain, if heard as forms of the verb to do, unexpectedly renders the language, the politics (necessary and of “necessity”), and the politics of language… of Kansas (and not only).
Other times, the reader has more dots to connect as (in alluding to Nkrumah’s biography for instance or) in the poem concluding “From Ghana,” where the actor Omar Epps (who, we are not told, but presumably know, starred in Deadly Voyage, playing the part of a sole survivor of a group of stowaways from Ghana) introduces himself to the speaker “in the market” (‘here’, ‘there’?, what difference would it make?) and is “Surprised/ As I am/ To find himself/ Talking to Elvis” (my emphasis).  What we have here in the ways the poet references rock culture is a (long awaited) brilliant sequel to David Wojahn’s rock and roll sonnets (since, after all, both Wojahn and Nielsen share an interest in “mystery,” as well as in… all sorts of “trains”), while also bringing such a different approach and perspective.  And, at last (in the poetry trying to speak of place and history and identities by manipulating symbols of popular music and culture), such a different purpose.
[A.L. Nielsen. A Brand New Beggar. Bolder, CO, and Normal, IL: Steerage Press, 2013]
—MARGENTO
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Peter Joseph Gloviczki—From Contorted Ars Poeticas to the Funny Banal and Back

December 2nd, 2013 margento No comments

 

“And what will the ricochet/ of my ankle be worth […] this bony puzzle/ in the window doubling,/ now, as a mirror: the person/ I was before I kicked gravity/ hard in the abdomen.  Laugh,/ babe, that’s what you told me […]

… those taller/ versions of yourself when they/ appear between the boundaries/ of what that old architect let in/ when he said: Put it here,/ yes, that’s it, now we’re home.”

These are excerpts from the intriguing opening poem, “Door,” from Peter Joseph Gloviczki’s Kicking Gravity.  The architecture of the poem (and of the book) is thus laid down by an “old” architect—most likely of form and tradition that draws boundaries and gives directions—in this poem.  He’s not the only character in the poem though—“babe/you” is another one who actually speaks when we think the speaker does, since when half way through the poem, when we believe we just heard the (indeed) contorted lyrical confession of the speaker, we find out it (or at least part of it) is actually what that “you” answered the speaker when the latter asked for advice regarding dealing with the former’s “taller versions”.  This is self-referential and it develops an (at least apparently) complex allegory of the writing of a poem involving deceitful rhetoric, recurrent indeterminacy (“what will it be worth,” “what you told me,” “what the architect let in,” etc.) and masterful enjambment.

The few following prose poems that follow are far from being that complicated though.  It is as if after expelling the “taller versions [expectations?]” of the reader, the poet relaxed and started telling anecdotes from his childhood, about an aunt “we” like to call “Lefty,” and soft-surrealist Simickian mixes of blurry memories, oneiric fears or eroticism, and submerged personal mythologies—

Sara taught me where all the doors where; I loved the ones inside her elbows.  I learned how to open those first; how they connected to other openings in her body, wired one to another like a burglar alarm (“Wired”),

but unlike the Serbian-American master, he either overdoes it by adding unnecessary ‘strong surprises’, or dismisses any possible richer meaning by settling either for a sentimental conclusion or a joke.

The prose poems in the first section are interrupted by a funny and captivating “Sonnet for Anne” written after Stephen Dobyn’s “How to Like It”—

… to make Anne

blush.  Her cheeks become cherries: fresh, ripe Bing,

the kind that would have been painted by Rembrandt.

Anne turns that cold Pepsi to sweet Riesling.

She sends Catholic school girls into a jealous rant.

 

One would picture the poet’s imaginary audience hollering and asking for more, but Gloviczki prefers to go back to the less appealing puzzling prose pieces.

The second section seems to start off the same kind of scenario as the first one, a first rather twisted abstract poem, a possible ars poetica (“(i) can’t stand” “the mechanisms which facilitate hands opening and closing […]” etc) followed by a couple of seemingly biographical notations, but then a couple of sparse poems with scattered short lines fortunately change the pace.  “The Tornado Sequence” captures well the experience of potentially devastating weather by stitching together apparently unrelated fragments, thus suggestive of the effects of a tornado—“the guy whose tractor/ trapped him,/ the woman thrown against her fence./ I bought a lottery ticket, he [the speaker’s brother] says,/ on my drive home” which unfortunately the author chooses to spoil (in this one once again?) with a flat joke: “I’ve been fooled by light before,/ never by wind—/ even my best chair failed me” (as above, the poet’s emphasis here as well).

Gloviczki’s travel poems, which are praised in one of the blurbs for their “listening with a journalist’s ear” are not travel poems.  But unlike in A.L. Nielsen’s Ghana or Kansas sequences where there is no ‘travel poetry’ because the genre along with certain capital assumptions in modern poetics are challenged and reshaped in remarkably relevant ways, here what we get is scenes and/or reflections that hardly have any relevance or efficacy in describing (let alone enacting) a relationship between a problematic speaker and the elusive alterity of a place or community.  The bad English of a cab driver, for instance, who takes a circuitous route most likely in order to rip off a speaker who doesn’t resist because of his stomach flu hardly tells us anything interesting about the latter’s experience of visiting Budapest.

In the third section, some more family poems draw a few good sketchy portraits or scenes, while certain images successfully circumscribe unclear but persistently haunting events from the past.  In “Breakfast,” for instance, the speaker’s mother apparently thinks the former could have but did not prevent somebody’s death.  She then sets a knife on the table and starts spinning it “with a sure hand.”  A number of ‘advice’ or ‘instruction’ poems are both funny and convincing.  In one addressed to (or spoken by?) a groundskeeper, the various thoughts, pieces of advice, and everyday tidbits make room, at a certain point, to the surprise of a couple of very good lines taking some unexpected turns: “Sure,/ the evening light always visits and windy doors know to slam shut./ Love, write my number on your hand./ Call me with my digits against your flesh.”

[Peter Joseph Gloviczki. Kicking Gravity. Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland: Salmon Poetry, 2013]

—MARGENTO

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