News that stays

I recently shared the limelight with an LA poet and artist, Jen Hofer. We read together at Cal Plaza as the culmination of our City of Los Angeles (COLA) literary fellowships. We made an unlikely pairing—I gave a rather staid and traditional poetry reading, while she premiered a performance piece in which she and her cohorts read a poetic re-scripting of scenes from Polanski’s “Chinatown,” which were looped without sound (mostly). It was an intriguing presentation, though it’s impossible for me to view such “neo-benshi” without thinking of Woody Allen’s “What’s Up Tiger Lily.”

Since then, I’ve been perusing Hofer’s chapbook, Front Page news. The book is a work of art in itself—hand-stitched, with a silkscreened fabric cover. But though the chapbook is small, the poetic conceit is large: Every day for a year, from birthday to birthday, Hofer created a poem by excising all but a few words from the front page of the local newspaper wherever she happened to be that day. The newsprint is glued to an old-style ledger of some sort, and this is another feature that makes the chapbook such a joy to hold. The concept of erasure is of course not new—I first encountered in back in the ’80s in Ronald Johnson’s Radios, which was an erased version of Paradise Lost. But while Johnson’s work seemed more like an academic exercise, tailor-made to suit the deconstructionist zeitgeist of the day, Hofer’s is more firmly rooted in the seamy world at large. The use of a newspaper as the substrate conveys an odd sense of urgency mixed with banality. Pound famously declared that “literature is news that stays news.” In Hofer’s case, the news is literature that stays literature.

The chapbook only includes two weeks worth of poems, in April and May of 2011, which are remarkable for their repetition. Does the news ever really change? Have we all become so inured to tragedy that we fail to see it repeating or proliferating day by day? I don’t know Hofer’s actual birthday, so I can’t say whether the chapbook begins with her preliminary birthday poem, but it was certainly an eventful two weeks. The limitless war on terror was still in full swing, so words such as “war,” “kill,” “force,” and similar terms dominate the poems. More significantly, the time span includes May 2, 2011, when front pages across the country trumpeted the killing of Osama Bin Laden (Hello, NSA! Welcome to the blog!). It also includes Shakespeare’s birthday, though through some strange oversight, that failed to make the front page.

Hofer was (I think) born in 1971, so 2011 would’ve marked her 40th year. It’s probably just a coincidence, but the poems average about 40 words apiece. It’s more likely, of course, that the word count was not intentional, but informed by an imagist or zen sensibility that seeks to convey the grandest truths in the fewest words. Unlike Radios, Front Page News erases a text set in multiple columns, and takes advantage of the format. There is not always a linear progression down the page, and no grammatical sentence structure. Words and phrases can be read in several directions, rightward and downward, or as loosely connected but isolated images and phrases. At times, the format can be reminiscent of refrigerator-magnet poetry—but at its best, it conveys a progression of ideas that gain significance as they build, ultimately revealing a consciousness shaped by a sense of dread, horror, outrage, and impotence. It is hard to quote such poems—not just because of the uncertain line breaks, but because the physicality of the medium is part of the meaning, much as it is for concreate poetry—but the May 2 installment is worth attempting. The “title” comes from the headline (set in a huge pont size the dwarfs everything else): “Kills.” The poem reads: “terror / murder / death / war / terror / fighters / and / terror / days / ravaged / grim / violence / and / terror fact / killed / killed in the city / killed   killed   killed / killed / fight     forces / attacks   death     war     a corpse / crowds / the / people / dark streets / the former   World / bitter / still.” The result is a damning summation of our entire imperialist endeavor. And as in the best Deep Image poetry, the lack of punctuation expands, rather than confounds, our understanding. The ending of this poem is fine example, allowing the dual readings, “the former world still bitter” and “the former world bitter and still.” Even focusing on the single word, “still,” we get—depending on our own mindset—a sense of continuation, as of something still happening, or conclusion, as in the stillness of death.

Front Page News is probably not available on Amazon or in your local bookshop—because it’s more than a book. Perhaps that’s just the direction we’re headed, where books will become more than just another exchangeable container for words, but artifacts and objets d’art in their own right. Certainly, Front Page News fits (or should I say breaks?) that mold.

Something we can feel

I was writing a small poem recently that had a pair of recurring lines–it seemed like a triolet, but not quite. To remind myself of the exact rhyme scheme of a triolet, I turned not to a stodgy textbook but to The Shifting Line, the debut collection by a master of the form, Chelsea Rathburn. Indeed, there are at least half a dozen triolets in the book. One might suggest that Rathburn is single-handedly trying to revive or rescue this increasingly rare form, often neglected in favor of its more familiar cousins, the villanelle and pantoum. (OK—maybe not single-handedly: Stallings also achieved wide recognition for her triolet beginning, “Why should the devil get all the good tunes…”)

What I love about repetition (aside from its ability to satisfy my OCD impulses) is how it demonstrates, literally, an odd fact of phenomenology: when you really look at something, it ceases to be what it was, or what you assumed it was. Stare at your hand long enough and it takes on an uncanny “otherness.” Likewise, when you repeat the same line, it takes on different meaning every time. And this is a quality that I find in my favorite contemporary poems–the ability to say something quite simple that is completely true on more than one level. In modern politics, the conventional wisdom seems to be that if you say something often enough–even if it is a baldfaced lie–people will start to believe it. Repetition in poems functions in the opposite manner: say something often enough, and it becomes entirely suspect. Consider, for example, Bishop’s “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Perhaps, in this way, the form demonstrate’s Auden’s assertion that poetry “makes us more difficult to deceive.”

The triolet is also one of those forms that showcases the writer’s skill (or lack thereof). Deceptively easy, it has only eight lines, and only five of those are unique. Well, not quite–the skill comes in knowing how to alter those repeating lines for maximal effect. For example, “Home Maintenance” begins, “Charred cords, bad lines, the smell of something burning, / and currents we can’t see but must repair.” By the final line, that’s been changed to “currents we can feel but can’t repair.” The negation, “can’t,” is still there, but it’s moved, changing the determination of the earlier line to the resignation of the last. Also, “can’t see” becomes “can feel.” On one level, the change is dictated by moving the word “can’t.” But it also makes the sensation more visceral. Also, the negation works in an interesting way. The phrase “currents we can’t see” implies a desire to be able to see them, whereas “currents we can feel” implies a desire not to feel them. I’m not sure why this work, or whether it appears that way to every reader, but it certainly does to me.

This poem, by the way, is largely representative of the book overall, which often focuses on domestic unease and “the woe that is in marriage.” (That’s Lowell, not Rathburn). The title of this poem, for example, speaks not just of the need to keep up an aging house, but to service a tenuous home–that is, the domestic relationship. The poem is ostensibly about an effort to fix a burnt fuse–and the reader can’t help feel that it was written after somebody “blew a fuse.”

Carrying this theme further, several poems pick up on the Orpheus myth from the perspective of newly disillusioned Eurydice, and still others treat the newlywed subjects of a Van Eyck painting. The most poignant, to me, are the poems that focus on an unnamed teenage daughter. These are still tinged with frustration and fear, but they are manifestly different from the emotions that bubble up in the spousal poems; it is a tender frustration, one that hits home without sentimentality. They certainly add depth to what could’ve been a one-dimensional (though equally gripping) collection.

When you are ode and gray and full of sleep

The Winter holidays have again brought a sublime and blessed abundance. Three of my favorite journals have all arrived within weeks of each other to help me through the bleak and blurry embers of the year: Cave Wall (12), River Styx (90), and Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review (39).

One thing I love about these (and other) journals is the personal connection that the editor has to the poetry, and to the readers. This always comes through in the editor’s letter, which opens up each issue and sets the reader’s expectations. It also shows the connections among the journals, which probably should not come as a surprise, as they seem to favor a similar aesthetic. For example, Cave Wall opens with a poem by Nathaniel Perry. He’s the editor of Hampden-Sydney. The River Styx poetry competition in this issue was judged by Terrence Hayes; his work also appears in the latest Hampden-Sydney (I’ve never met him, though we shared the National Poetry Series honor in 2002). I also see that Renee Soto has joined the staff of Cave Wall. She was the editor of the short-lived magazine, roger (she’s also a fellow UNCG alum).

And speaking of UNC, I was pleased to find two poems by Michael McFee opening up River Styx. He hasn’t lost his gift for poignant yet whimsical nostalgia. It’s fitting that he open up an issue dedicated to the American ode. It’s remarkable how many poems have “ode” in the title, and I wonder whether they were written or renamed specifically for this themed issue, or whether they were composed independently. I particularly love Jim Tilley’s “Ode to a Martini,” a drink which does indeed merit a dry sonnet, smugly stirred. Another standout is Lee Upton’s “Love’s Ode,” and I love the device of taking a piece of each metaphor to craft a new metaphor (hard to illustrate without reprinting the entire poem). George Bilgere is certainly not the first to trawl for meaning in the preparation and consumption of a lobster, but he does so with a buttery richness, capping his ode with a description of “their red steaming vaults / ready to be plundered.” Niamh Corcoran gives us a different kind of love/hate ode in “A Love Affair.” The poem is a lush and exuberant indulgence in the patois of the English language, with its history of assimilating foreign words (in that way, the language becomes the synecdoche of empire). The turn comes in the last two lines, when the plundered language is Irish. It is probably no coincidence that some of our greatest English writers were in fact Irish, writing in what is essentially the language of the subjugator, and many if not most Irish writers have had a troubled relation to it. River Styx also includes a poem by Joan Murray in an obscure and intriguing form known as the cento—a poem composed entirely of lines from other poems. This is the sort of form that must appeal to poets who read and memorize great poems (and I’m somewhat surprised that I’ve never attempted one). One the one hand, it is severely constrained and contrived, but on the other hand, deliciously random. And as a reader, it’s fun to recognize the lines and the myriad associations they induce.

In a sense, several of the poems in Cave Wall can be considered odes, including several focused on the father figure. Bruce Bond’s “Ground Zero” is one such ode, juxtaposing the destruction of the Twin Towers with his father’s illness or operation in a hospital. And Perry’s “In Bloom, Where the Meadow Rises,” has some fabulous imagery. In The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo presents some of his rules for writing poetry; one that has always stuck with me suggests that the word “so” should never be used as an adverb unless it sets up a larger subordinate clause. Perry applies that admonition to great effect in lines such as “a field so bleached with drought the giant cross / of shadows from the pines is friction enough / to set the day on fire.”

Robert Wrigley’s “Tinnitus” in Hampden-Sydney is at once a nostalgic ode to the pay phone, but on retrospect, speaks more generally to the alienation and lack of intimacy in a world where personal communication is ubiquitous, and in which the excess of connection spawns its opposite, where speech is reduced to a dull white noise. Though not a cento, the poem does lift a few lines verbatim from the past, notably Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and Yeats’ “Adam’s Curse.” Appropriate, perhaps, considering those poets’ inability to connect with Margaret and Maude. I was also singularly impressed by Craig Challender’s “Alzheimer’s Cookout.” I had already read it three or four times before I even realized the poem is a sestina. And again, an appropriate form, given the subject matter, as the repetition (with variation) accentuates the struggle of the central figure to reconstruct a cohesive narrative of the past-into-the-present, or even to remember simple words and names. I love the way the poet actually leaves words out, and represents them simply by blanks, as in “with the _______________ sponging open her hand.” The reader becomes complicit in the process of creation, and I wonder whether the poet had specific words in mind or not.

Many more in this issue deserve more than a shout-out—Eamon Grennan’s “Camouflage,” Don Johnson’s “Hazard,” Hannah Craig’s “Turkeys”—but that’s all I’ve got time for today. The new year is pacing by the door, jiggling its keys in its hands, impatient to get on the road.

Dig with it

Heaney today. Hollander two weeks ago. The world of poetry has grown a bit smaller.

I had the good fortune to see Heaney just a few months ago, at the AWP conference in Boston. I missed his reading, regretfully, but I attended a conference session that was essentially a tribute to him. He was in the audience, and said a few words at the podium following the presentations, seemingly bemused by the effusive encomiums. I believe it is a peculiar ability of the Irish to appear grave and dignified and puckish and homespun all at once.

I remember my first encounter with his poetry, years (OK, decades) ago. It was through an anthology—I don’t remember whether it was specifically an anthology of Irish poetry or simply contemporary poetry in English. I must confess my ambivalence after reading the opening of “Digging,” which reads, “Between my finger and my thumb / the squat pen rests, snug as a gun.” Squat pen? Snug as a gun? How awful, I thought, how amateurish, how polemical. And what does a gun have to do with the following bucolic scene of digging potatoes and turf? And yet, those words have never left me. And of course, guns were certainly part of the local environment. And I subsequently dug into more of his work, particularly Station Island. Here was a man who loved language, and had the benefit(?) of two rich traditions, the Irish and the English. During the early part of the past century, the Irish language was kept alive as an act of political defiance (it was in fact banned under British rule). And even those who did not speak it could not help but absorb some of its structure and mannerism. Of course, Heaney’s Irish tradition was different than mine. He was there, in the North, whereas my ancestors fled to America. And my ancestors didn’t live in the occupied counties. And of course, Heaney was anything but polemical. Perhaps one virtue of loving two languages is that you can’t hate the people that speak them. And the poems that were infused unavoidably with violence and politics were complicated and conflicted—as befitting the subject matter.

I consider myself, at heart, a Nature poet, so I was of course gripped by poems such as “Death of a Naturalist,” which conveyed the visual scene though its deft imagery and conveyed the sounds and sense through the language itself. Who could not love the guttural consonance of “Bubbles gargled delicately,” or the echoes through “bluebottles,” “spotted,” “slobber,” and “clotted” in the next few lines, or the “strong gauze of sound” with its smashed-together velars? And in describing the frogs with their “blunt heads farting,” he marries the highbrow and the low, the poetic and the vernacular, the serious and the childish. My own poem “Mosquito Spawn” was surely influenced by “Death of a Naturalist,” which probably introduced me to the word “spawn” to describe a clutch of eggs (Heaney’s poem mentions “frogspawn” twice).

Even in “Naturalist,” Heaney’s sense of the Anglo-Saxon tradition is evident, so it’s not surprising that his translation of Beowulf immediately became the definitive version. I’ll never forget opening that book and being stopped by the very first word. As many readers know, the “Hwaet” the starts the story is in fact an aberration from the strict form that follows. And translators have tried various ways to present it. But nobody ever really captured it. Heaney’s solution? “So.” I know that seems simple, even obvious. But no one had done it before. And in that one word, that one syllable, he set the entire scene, evoking an image of an old-timer waiting for the perfect moment to start his story, silencing the rapt kids clustered around the hearthfire.

* * * * *

In other news, the paperwork has been submitted, so I can now say that I’ve been awarded a 2014 COLA fellowship from the City of Los Angeles. It’s kind of like the city’s version of an NEA grant. So I will have to stop saying that this city does not care about poetry. I might even give a reading or two in town.

From My Past

I recently reconnected with a friend from college, Jeff Schwaner. We were both aspiring poets, and of course found ourselves in many of the same classes (including, if memory serves, a seminar with Archie Ammons). But he was living a decidedly more literary life—he edited one of the undergrad literary mags and lived in the “artsy” residence hall (Risley), where he convened a regular open mic for writerly types (a group that included housemate Matt Ruff). I, on the other hand, was living with a bunch of engineers above a bar in Collegetown. But Jeff was an inspiration for me, and though we lost touch after school, I was delighted to learn that he’s continued to write poetry throughout all these intervening years. He sent me a few of his books, including his latest, Artificial Horizon. I may, of course, be biased, but I find myself drawn in by the compelling and sympathetic voice. I’m also impressed by the deft turn of phrase and keen observation. Imagine e.e. cummings as a zen master.

The poem “What I Told the Shadow” is a fine example. It includes a line that has been stuck in my head since the moment I read it: “you are made of nothing yet you need / so much.” All poets run across lines that they wish they’d written; I wish I’d written that one. I detect a whiff of Ammons in the line (and line break) “you collect the / Rims of waves and marsh knobs / Into yourself…” And the lack of punctuation recalls Merwin, who famously eschewed such stuff in his poetry (the poem does in fact contain a colon or two—perhaps another artefact of Ammons?). The subject matter, though—the centrality of absence, the importance of not being—comes straight from Lao Tzu. The speaker asks a questions of a reflection on a pond’s surface, and in response, “the reflection shimmered / Saying nothing.” And here, of course, nothing is something, is the main thing. I’m again reminded of a zen koan in which silence becomes the only possible answer to any question. The poem concludes with the speaker noting, “So I stepped less heavily for a while / On my own absence.” Which is perhaps a way of saying, “I have made some peace, at least for now, with my own death.” And while it is hard to read of shadows and not contemplate Plato’s cave, it seems in this case that there is no world beyond the shadow, no ideal. There is only this reality, which often appears more than a bit surreal.

It’s interesting to compare this poem with the one that directly precedes it in the volume, “The Crickets.” Here, every line in the first part of the poem ends with a period, giving a flat tonality and sense of resignation. Moreover, the first three lines grow successively longer, building momentum, piling up anger and despair (though at this point, we may not recognize those as the underlying theme):

The crickets are never wrong.
When you go by them they stop tuning the night’s fiddle.
They don’t begin to play until there is no chance of winter coming back.

I am reminded of Babel’s famous dictum: There is nothing so devastating as a period in exactly the right place. This is especially true in the second part of the poem, which loses the terminal punctuation altogether, until the final line. The counterpoint is striking, as the poem lifts off from that first short deadpan assertion to a lush extended metaphor that carries the reader along on its trajectory. The crickets are not singing a dirge—only the mention of “each lost friend” makes it seem so. But ultimately, the crickets—that is uncaring nature—is what survives us and continues quite well without us. “The crickets will not leave you,” the speaker asserts. No, it is you who will leave the crickets. And when that happens, the final line tells us, “nothing will be disturbed.”

I feel privileged to discover Jeff’s work after all these years. And to think I thought I was too old to be surprised.

Cimarron, Spring 2013

The Cimarron Review has become in recent years one of my favorite journals. Physically, it is attractive and comfortable—the size, the fonts, the cover images all convey a refined aesthetic sensibility and a sense of seriousness. And as for the work, I usually find at least one poem (and usually several) that stick with me long after I’ve put the journal down. The Spring 2013 issue is no exception. Noteworthy items in this edition include “Wasp Nest,” by Robert Gibb, a poet whose name I know, but whose work is not familiar to me. This poem follows in the what might be called the Southern imagist tradition (that includes the likes of Robert Morgan and Michael McFee), which prods the reader to notice, appreciate, even extol the most ordinary items in the ordinary world. Collectively, such poems serve to accentuate the improbable and mysterious fact of existence, fixing in time the temporally fleeting (which includes not only the observed but the observer as well). There’s some wonderful wordplay at work here, as when Gibb alters a vowel to turn the wasps into “wisps” or a “bundle of battered duct tape” to a “bindle of stiff gray rags.” (And who could help but love a word such as “bindle?”) There’s also a curious attention to sound, with a number of true rhymes (“year” and “wear,” “shape” and “tape,” “zigzags” and “rags”) but no apparent rhyme scheme.

Also gripping is the poem “Losing Limbs,” by Ariana Nadia Nash. A recent review of my latest book notes that I “participate[] in what seems the current fashion of describing suffering in almost pornographic detail.” I wasn’t aware of any such fashion, but if there is one, then I confess that I am a slave to it. Nash’s poem also follows this fashion. It presents a visceral description of a leg amputation from the perspective of a military surgeon in the field. There is nothing in her bio to suggest that she has any experience in this area, but I must say, the perspective is convincing and the imagery is indeed haunting.

Which brings me to the next notable poem, “Haunted,” by Charles Harper Webb (an LA local like myself, though we’ve never met). I’ve never been a fan of “stand-up” poetry, but Webb at his best shows how effective the genre can be. It’s hard not to be charmed by the insouciance of the narrator—which seems to be one hallmark of the genre—as he relates a quasicomical anecdote while pretending to pretend not see the underlying tragedy and horror. This poem is a fine example; it describes a Halloween haunted house that was erected by a mother of two kids who died in a house fire. The pathos is real, if not exactly subtle, as we come to realize how the death of the boys still haunts the mother, and how the house of horrors forms an objective correlative for her internal psychic state. The details of the tragedy (“their heater— / bought to keep them snug—lit / the drapes she’d hung to help them sleep”) somehow escape being maudlin, perhaps because we accept them as the obsessive retrospection of the grieving mother and not the words of the poet (who should know better). But the fact is, people turn to poetry precisely because they believe they lack the skill to give proper expression to their difficult emotions. The challenge for the poet is to be true to those emotions without appearing facile (Yeats famously decried “easy sentiment,” but he was apparently OK with complicated sentiment). The final stanza of the poem hones in on the gravestones in the front yard, noting that “the actor in the giant-suit / takes care, in his stilt-high stumblings, not / to knock them down.” The actor, of course, is the poet’s doppleganger, stumbling around the mother’s inexpressible grief without belittling it with an attempt to do more than acknowledge it.

Flipping through this issue of Cimmaron Review, I’m struck by how different the poems appear—some lines extend nearly to the page margin, others are extremely spare—yet all achieve the single overriding criterion of being well worth the reading (and rereading).

Paradise

Months since my last post, I know (thanks, Mom, for noticing!). During that time, I had the pleasure of attending the AWP conference in Boston for the first time. If you’ve never been, I highly recommend it—everybody who’s nobody is there. I got the chance to meet a few folks in the poetry world, some for the first time, some for the first time in person. And snow! I’d nearly forgotten the joy of walking down a deserted city street late at night with snow flakes swarming beneath the streetlights. Would’ve been even better if I’d had appropriate footwear.

Also in the recent months, I received a wonderful book called Paradise, Indiana by Bruce Snider, which won the Lena-miles Wever Todd Poetry prize from Pleiades Press. A remarkable work of deep emotion, delightful language, and disturbing obsession. In fact, a more appropriate name would’ve been something along the lines of “Homage to Nick.” This is one of those books that gains heft in its assemblage, as each poem comments on and contributes to the others. In some poems, we learn that Nick was a cousin and lover—perhaps the narrator’s first. We learn he died by suicide, apparently by shutting himself in the garage with the car engine running. And he was young, as the epitaph to another poem suggests (“for Nick, 1971–1988”). We also learn that, though gay, he put up a pretense of heterosexuality, having a girlfriend who shows up in various poems. Did this internal conflict lead him to his death? The narrator doesn’t speculate. He does, however, relive every detail of their time together. At times, the two seem like typical boys from the farmlands, whiling away their time with hunting, fishing, traipsing through the woods, dreaming about cars. But these episodes are always punctuated by the sexual interludes, the secretive kisses and undone zippers. This dichotomy really comes through to wonderful effect in the poem, “The Ambiguity of Stone.” It begins with the memory of the two fishing, but immediately moves to the memory of a kiss: “a dive lure flaring / like a tiny orange flame between rubber / night crawlers as a breath from / my mouth entered his.” Or consider these later lines:

Pounding out dents
in the shanty, we talked of smallmouth jigs
and where the bluegills might bed
in the spring. We cast our lines,
gutting a trout that spilled its clutch
of eggs…

These lines would not seem out of place in a poem by any number of southern or rural writers, but the particular sexual overtones really set them apart. This poem also includes the line, “In the woods / I’d find a bike so honeycombed / with hornet nests I could taste / their wings in my chest.” Where’d that come from?!?! Don’t know, but wow! But the truly obsessive nature of memory comes through in the fact that six separate poems all carry the same title, “Afterlife.” Interestingly, these all (except for the last one) employ the same form, arising as a series of paired couplets. As such, they can be read as a single long series. Perhaps they were designed that way. The poems are haunted by objects that recall the lost Nick: his knife, his socks, his hockey stick, his car. In one, the narrator sums up his obsession (and indeed, the theme of the book): “His memory, an endless window / I can’t get shut.” And I love the way the word “get” in that sentence conjures a visceral image of a repeatedly frustrated attempt; think of how different it would be if it simply read “an endless window / I can’t shut.” But in the final “Afterlife” poem, the one in quatrains, the narrator comes to accept the endlessly coming future and the receding past. He notes a field giving way to cluster of chain stores—Walmart and Pizza Hut. Nothing we hold dear is exempt from the ravages of time. He looks out over the silent field and concludes: “Dirt. Distance. It does not end.” No, it does not end, the pain, but it does diminish, it does recede. And life goes senselessly on.

The final poem, “Gutting the White-Tail,” continues the lush, visceral, palpable physical description that characterizes the entire collection. But perhaps more than any others, it presents a dense juxtaposition of bodies alive and dead, bodies recently or soon to be dead, the sex and gore, the irony of hindsight. Consider, collectively, this graphic—nearly pornographic—narrative: “we roll the carcass onto its back… I spread the hind legs… He slits around the anus, / drawing it up into the body… With a heave, / he splits the breast… We flip the body belly down… We high-five, passing a cigarette as the body cools…” The poem, and thus the book, ends with “We watch the windpipe steaming in the snow,” a line made more poignant by the revelation in an earlier poem that Nick died of asphyxiation. It also suggests, in a way, a body that cannot speak. Also significant, we find Nick cracking a joke in this poem, which renders his later suicide all the more shocking and unexpected, in retrospect.

One odd note: the cover of the book shows a photo of men bent down in prayer, and it looks like it could’ve been taken in Indiana 100 years ago. But the photo credit reveals that it was taken in Mexico (Zacatecas) less than 20 years ago. Well, I guess you can’t judge a cover by its book.

Everyone’s a critic

Finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced this week. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I’ve only read one of them (Olives, by A.E. Stallings). I notice that all of the books were published relatively early in the year—February, April, May, June (the one outlier is David Ferry, with a pub date of early August). From a statistical perspective, that makes sense: the earlier a book is released, the more time it has to get noticed by reviewers and award panels. (Though I suppose, if you’ve already got a reputation, your book is likely to get noticed right away.) I’m curious to know (but too lazy to find out) whether this phenomenon holds true for earlier years. If so, perhaps poetry publishers would do well to release their books early in the year, or time their releases to take advantage of a lack of competition—much the way the film industry holds certain movies to coincide with the summer blockbuster season or the film festival season. Perhaps some publishers already do so (though I get the sense that poetry presents too small a market to even bother with such considerations). My prediction? Well, Ferry’s book has already received the National Book Award, and considering Ferry’s age, it’s probably the last book he’ll write, so I suspect the auguries are pointing toward him this time around. But my predictions about the future are usually as off-base as my predictions about the past, so don’t bet any money based on my tip.

Also, a quick thumbs-up for the latest issue of Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review. A solid collection all around. Many of the middle poems share a wonderful ebullience, a penchant for echolalia, the is collectively invigorating. I was particularly taken with the work of Hannah Faith Notess, previously unknown to me. Her language and images evoke Richard Hugo, with his keen sense of dispair in dissolution (perhaps not surprising—she apparently lives in Seattle). Consider, for example, these lines from “To the Church Across the Bridge Who is Claiming the City for God”:

The barges dredge and dredge, but turn up
nothing, and the drawbridge gapes open

like the gulf between Man and God, but nobody
is waiting to cross over…

I adore the deadpan, epigrammatic line later in this poem: “It hurts to watch the world split down the middle.” Or this line from “To the Body Carried Out of the Apartment Across the Street”: “The crocuses next to the dumpster are opening / their fat purple mouths.” An intense image of Nature at its most uncaring. The cruelty is accentuated by the turn: the line that ends on “opening” is potentially a positive image of renewal, but quickly remakes itself into an image of greed and bloat and selfishness.

And it’s always refreshing to read work by a poet who still holds down a day job. From great adversity springs great art.

Of dirt and music

Let us continue wandering in these perishable machines
made of dirt and music

These lines are from the final poem in Traci Brimhall’s debut collection, Rookery. The poem, “Prayer to Delay the Apocalypse,” is a fitting summation of the book that has preceded it. Many of the recurring tropes and images show up: prayer, faith, madness, father, whales, God, love, joy, death, destruction, and resurrection.

The book, as a whole, is more than the sum of its parts, and it’s clear that considerable thought was given to the arrangement (though its also possible, even probable, that many of the poems that are grouped together were also written in the same timeframe). The book begins with a prologue, “Prayer for Deeper Water,” and ends with the “Prayer to Delay the Apocalypse,” quoted above. Within these bookends, the collection starts with a series of aubades and ends with a nocturne. It is divided into three sections. The first is the most personal, filled with poems about infidelity and betrayal. The second delves into formative childhood memories as well as the poet’s conflicted relationship with her parents. The third contains a mixture of personal and persona poems, with a greater fixation on death and rebirth.

Throughout, the language is surprising and delightful, gripping in its deft turn of phrase. You can pretty much turn to any page and find an image that will draw you in as it is extended to an unexpected conclusion. Take, for example, these lines from “Concerning Cuttlefish and Ugolino”:

You tell me you found
a coyote’s leg in a spring trap once. 

You knew that an animal, in its wildness,
would chew through its tendons, snap
its own bones. There are parts of ourselves

that we can learn to live without.

Or this, from “Possession,” which ends with a missionary in Brazil being attacked by an anaconda:

…the tribe waited, their raised
machetes cutting the light, trying to figure out
how to divide the human from the god.

Many of the poems in this book form a collective whole; individual poems may be marked by uncertainties that are resolved by others. Poems in the first section, for example, are individually evocative, but collectively intense. In addition to “Possession,” the middle section includes other poems about a pair of missionaries and their daughter in Brazil. After reading these poems and others in the section, I suspect that the child is the poet’s mother (though there is nothing to prove that theory). If so, that knowledge adds another layer of depth to the poems about her parents. The father apparently leaves the mother, who subsequently (or perhaps causally) descends into a state of psychosis that recreates a reality based on her fundamentalist upbringing. Some of these are truly wrenching, as when she the poet visits her in an institution and decides to “let them give your body enough electricity / to calm it.” The flat tone belies a well of conflicting emotions.

The father is also an intriguing figure. He seems to have a thing for guns—in one poem, he shoots and kills a snapping turtle, in another, he commands the poet to shoot a caged feral cat, and in another, he (if it is indeed the father) collects bullets and takes part in a Civil War reenactment. He takes the poet to a “torture museum” and takes a photo of her next to a collection of chastity belts. In another poem, he heart “is a jar of nails.” And yet, in another the poet holds the father’s hand as they “crossed the icefields / and looked into a glacier’s deepening blue.” And another poems relates how the father “came home and held my mother and pushed her / curls behind her ears and said, That kind of loneliness / is dangerous.

There is also something unequivocally American about this book. Partly, its the undercurrent of Southern biblical tradition—more than a third of the poems mention God with a capital “G,” and a good many mention angels or scripture. Partly, its the sense of place: different poems mention Appalachia, Kentucky, Ohio, Lake Superior, Ellis Island, the Triangle Waist Shirt Factory, the Empire State Building, Philadelphia, Charleston, Atlanta, Manassas, the Mississippi. Maybe something in the diction, too, embodies a distinctly American idiom.

Case and point, I leave you with the end of “American Pastoral”:

The angel wants more of this. More
generosity. More tenderness. It wants more
of everything on earth it cannot have.

Ditto that! And I am looking forward to seeing more from Traci Brimhall.

LA’s new Poet Laureate

This morning, Mayor Villaraigosa announced the appointment of the first poet laureate for the city of Los Angeles, Eloise Klein Healy. I’ve never met her, as far as I know. But she did serve on the judging panel that awarded my first book the PEN book award. So, obviously, I’m predisposed to applaud the decision. But even putting that aside, her name has become synonymous with the LA poetry scene, such as it is (her presence on the PEN panel further testifies to that fact). As such, she’s a logical choice. Los Angeles is situated, both physically and mentally, on the margins of inhabitable space, and its poets have largely embraced that marginality. And if there is one attribute that unifies the disparate elements of the LA poetry scene, it surely is the respect for poetry as activism and the understanding that a poet is more than simply a person who writes poetry. And from what I know of Eloise Klein Healy’s work, she seems to embody that position.

When I first heard that LA was looking for a poet laureate, I reflexively put together an expected shortlist in my head. It was, indeed, a very short list, for not many LA poets have much recognition outside the city—or even within the city. There’s Carol Muske Dukes at USC (?), but she recently served as the state laureate, so I would think that would take her out of the running. Timothy Steele lives in LA, as far as I know, but I don’t think his poetry is indelibly associated with the city. Dana Gioia grew up in Hawthorne and recently took a post at USC—but he was head of the search committee. Stephen Yenser at UCLA has published books of poetry and critical analysis, and curates the wonderful Hammer reading series—but he’s probably seen as too much of an academic to represent LA’s counterculture reputation. David St. John comes to mind, Harryette Mullen. Elena Karina Byrne is another of those names like Eloise Klein Healy that seems to pop up whenever LA poetry is discussed. Charles Harper Webb at CSULB is well known for his brand of stand-up poetry. More than that, though, I’m kind of at a loss. The news reports said that the laureate search committee reviewed 40 applications, and that they presented three finalists for the mayor to choose from. I’m real curious to know who they are—and whether our new poet laureate can find some way to channel their collective energy.