ANOTHER AMERICAN ROUND-UP

With the ridiculous and unpleasant screeching of Don Paterson and co. ringing in my ears, and little beyond the Salt and Shearsman lists adding anything worth reading in British poetry at the moment, I turn again to North America. The American Poetry Review offers, perhaps, some kind of representative sample of what's going on over there, so I shoot off emails to the presses who advertise in the current issue [which incidentally features some astonishing new poems by Jorie Graham].

Soon, padded envelopes and cardboard boxes are being delivered to Stride HQ. I make rough groupings, then pairs, of books in attempt to organise the work, then abandon my plan.
American Poetry Review is beside me - we'll let them organise this their way:


page 16, bottom left, a box advert for
Five Colors by Stan Sanvel Rubin [$17.00, 88pp, CustomWords]

One of the jokers in the pack. Dull work wrapped in a dreadfully designed cover. Stan Savel Rubin uses a poem about someone regaining their sight as a prologue, and then as an organizational apparatus: his five book sections are entitled Red Purple, Green, Blue and Yellow. There are odd moments of interest here - a poem about Coltrane's music, for instance - but in the main these are squibby little stories that work their way toward epiphanic endings. They're too busy telling the reader, declaiming and insisting:

     'Reader, if you know
     how green spins into green,'
           ['Acrylic on Canvas']

     'The perfect date would be death'
            ['Emily Was Right']

     'What evil does not come from memory?'
          ['Departure']

In fact Rubin should listen to himself:

     'The true symptom of madness is perhaps
     believing what you say to yourself...'
          ['Sonnet Lacanique']

and ask why he wants to share all this stuff with us. His pontificating has little to say, and nothing new to offer. At the end of 'Sonnet Lacanique' he asks 'but what about / the words, the words worn out with weeds, what / will they let us be?' Well, nothing - you see the writer and reader make things with words, and not the other way round. Maybe this is where the problem lies?




page 41, top left, a sixth page advert, black type on white page, for
Island, Charles O. Hartman [$14.95, 107pp, Ahsahta Press]
Saving the Appearances, Liz Waldner [78pp, $12.95, Ahsahta Press]
They also sent along
Dear, Read, Lisa Fishman [96pp, $14.95, Ahsahta Press]

I've struggled with
Island, and have had to put it aside. The most interesting piece in the book is a short explanatory prose afterword, which tells us far more about Aigini than the squibs of poetry that come first. Hartman declares 'Home, if we make a place home by learning every step of it, is unconscious geography', but his poems are too generalised and dull to share his island with us. There is certainly little sense of home, more of a tourist desperately trying to invoke and evoke the magic he clearly finds there. In desperation he writes about the moon, the stars, the sea, the sky, the hay in the fields, and the people he watches. But ends up with inanities such as 'Breezes played over / the warmed rocks...' Amazing! These winds crop up elsewhere, too:

     In the hands of the breezes doors all over the house
     open and close in turn, at random, swaying slightly
     or slamming with a final report: nothing.
            [from 'In the Hands of the Breezes']

Did he really have to travel to Greece to discover what wind does to doors? Come on!

Liz Waldner also has a tendency to describe the ordinary and expect it to be a revelation to the author, as here at the start of 'Scry':

     The candle makes a little pool of itself
      almost black ....

but she also can also move along from where she starts and open up the poem to a wider meaning:

     A pattern tells you where.
     Someone tell me.

     What wings to read to know.
     Where. How to go.

I like both the assured declamation and the hesitant follow-through of this, the final part of 'Scry', and many of Waldner's poems work in this way - picking up and running with thought stimulated by an everyday image or event. Some poems fall down because they are kind of discussing the discussion itself as it goes along, others manage to leave the thought process as a kind of subtext to the poem and move the reader swiftly along to genuine new places and language. Take the prose poem '
Marchen, Truckin' ', which starts

     We are sitting in our truck in Tivoli next to the laundromat
     where a load of whites hasn't made it to rinse yet and it
     occurs to us that this is the moment hoped for, referred to,
     suggested by, so many moments before....

and then goes on as the narrator pricks her finger to wander through fairytale and myth and inspiration to get to

                        ... these brambly blue words all look prickly
     too, because last night, my true love was not true, and I'm
     afraid no other will blind my eyes.

I'm not quite convinced by the declamatory and slightly over-poetic tone, but I do like the way the story prompts the move into consideration of language itself and introduces the failure of love just as the poem ends. I guess in the end though, I find it all a little bit pedestrian and ordinary, something you expect from a poet at the start of their career, or from serious workshoppers, not from someone who has several books out.

Waldner could do worse than look at Lisa Fishman's
Dear, Read, which the press also sent along for me to review. At first I flicked through these short skinny poems, sometimes almost haiku, and thought 'oh no', but returning to the book, with encouragement from blurb writers Michael Palmer and Robert Creeley, I find a clarity and precision in the work.

Fishman chooses her words carefully, and pares them back to the minimum required, leaving the reader to flesh out or simply savour what is actually given. There is no sloppy sentiment or lazy journalism, no
telling here. This poetry gives to the reader. Here is 'Toward' in its entirety:

          As then

                were other

          may

                be so


          Toward a flower
                 ing I came.  I sold nothing
          I could say.  A sister's
                  name.  Not mine.


           Sing and
                       keep
                       on.

I do hope Fishman will keep on writing these exquisite, moving poems.



page 41, bottom left, a sixth page advert, white type on black, for
The Soup of Something Missing, Rick Bursky [$12.00, 67pp, Bear Star Press]

Among other things, what's missing in this soup of workshop poems is:
music
rhythm
shape
form
subject
and any sense of or the possibilities of poetry or language. This is the real joker in the pack. Absolutely appalling. Let's move on.




page 44, a whole page advert for the 2004 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, the winner of which is
Rhinoceros, Kevin Ducey [97pp, unpriced, hbck, The American Poetry Review]

It is only in the fourth section (of six) in Rhinoceros, that I found the kind of poem I expected to. The blurb says that 'Kevin Ducey riffs on history, mythology, desire, death, sex, and food', and suggests that the poems 'are poetic investigations of the human impulses of comedy and tragedy'.

You can kind of see what I thought was going to be inside, can't you? Funny stories of people out of their own time, characters satirised by juxtaposition with their opposites, or inappropriate other characters from different times, locations or poems. So here in the second half of the book they are: the witchfinder general commuting home on the train, Disney and Hawking, Edison and Browning, 'Wim Wenders vs. The Wolfman', but also witty-but serious poems about apocalypse, Brecht, Lorca and personal experience.

Truth be told it's all a bit of a mixture - I can't quite get hold of Ducey's work at all. Every time I shrug another shaggy dog story or wordplay joke off, he hits me with a beautiful image, such as this, the opening to 'Moth light nostalgia':

     The light flickers on the rockface'
     A retinal moon working against
     Time: petroglyphs of bison
     Hunting shadows on the wall.

 or the William Carlos Williams-esque broken line music of 'Spirit Guide':

     Now I want to remember
                                     instead
                                                the fistful of fear in my chest
     as the cyclist
                      coming up silent behind me'his laughter
     at my sharp breath
                              when his shadow swept over me.
                                                                        My mistake,
     it wasn't a leaf falling
                                   it was a bird. Our perceptions
                                                                         are not even that acute:
     how can we perceive the heart of a man? The laughing cyclist
                                                                  disappears over the rise
                                                                   in the ground, ha ha ha ha

This kind of thing is in total contrast to much of the first three sections of the book, where I simply don't understand many of the poems. I suspect this is to do with frames of reference, which may be an Anglo/American difference, but many of the poems seem to be sending up linguistics and history in a mannered and insular way one where you'll either be in on the joke or you won't. Best of the bunch is 'Over and After', which I think is to do with the notion of beauty and deflating it. The quote is about aesthetics, the poem alludes to corpses and the past... you can work it out; I can't.

Rhinoceros is rightly named. It is a lumbering, ungainly book which might be compared to the idea of an animal made from too many large spare parts. It doesn't hold together for me as a book - something I look for more and more. Ducey must decide whether he is going to be court jester, stand-up comedian or a kind of postmodern satirist, for this book suggests he can do all three.




page 46, top left, a quarter page advert for three titles including
The Devotion Field, Claudia Keelan [$13.95, 65pp, Alice James Books]
I also requested having visited their website
Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced, Catherine Barnett
[$13.95, 66pp, Alice James Books]

Claudia Keelan's work is full of words which are wide awake and being put in their place. The very first poem, 'Day Book', alerts us to the playfulness and possibilities of language:

     Looked inside                 An American soul An Amer

                       I can soul inside

     I found                         An art museum

                       Where my millions died

     Mother moon                  Her burning robe

                       3rd degreeing for the last time

     Forgive         I read

                       Before the book erased             My moving lips

     A box of heaven            Sold!

Already we have rearranged/disrupted words, ideas of art, faith, books, language, forgiveness, business, myth... already I am intrigued and want to read on. 'Critical Essay', three more poems in, perhaps acts as some kind of manifesto, as it patterns and re-orders, whilst mulling over the whole concept of reading and writing. It starts

     Anyone writing can come to know
     Everything one reading does

     Anyone reading might never know
     Everyone one writing does

     If anyone is really writing
     Anyone is really reading

and then moves on to specifically consider, or allude to, Jane Harrison's
Prolegomena and the Orpheus myth, before concluding

     Truly writing the end's beginning the empty
     Alpha full of the gone God's writing

managing to both use the idea of, yet also dismiss, any romantic notion of god-given writing.

These notions of plastic language, wit, humor, religious and philosophical considerations underlie all the work in this book. Keelan isn't scared to make pictures or be simple there are plenty of striking, careful images here; love poems, too - but neither is she afraid to grapple with ideas and explore the notions of writing and interior life. These poems may be rooted in experience, experiences which ring true, but they are used as stepping stones to something else: that something being poetry rather than stories told in broken lines.

There are poems in
Into Perfect Spheres... that also attempt a kind of take-off into abstract thought, but Catherine Barnett's poems work more by juxtaposition and allusion. The surprise and unexpectedness of grief ties the poems in this book together. There is memory, loss, moments of forgetting and then remembering again, and slow healing and moving on.

But this makes it sound like dull confession or narrative again; and this book isn't. The poems often work by accumulating images, often disparate ones that often remain awkward and intriguing. Don't get me wrong, this is neither 'difficult' nor 'experimental' poetry, but it does track the thought process, the way we flick through channels and ideas in our head, how strong emotion such as loss and grief can scramble the transmission. This book doesn't express grief and mourning in a way I've come across before [or for that matter written myself]. It aims - indeed desires and longs for impossible lucidity and comfort against all the odds, just as the vase in the third and final section of 'Body of Water, Body of Glass' struggles to be translucent:

     Without flowers, without water, without breaking,
     centered on the back sill, glass almost touching glass,
     the tallest of my mother's vases opens wide at the top,
     pulls in at the waist, a wash of violent color:

     no hourglass, no life study, just a figure in the void
     'silhouette, witness, portrait, ghost'
     trying to let light pass through.

The book reaches no final conclusion or healing, in fact it almost says nothing bigger than '... I see it's not all gray' in the final poem, 'River'. But it manages to document real emotion and the workings of the human mind in a clever, uncontrived and genuinely surprising way which is quietly innovative and new.




page 54, bottom left, a quarter page advert
Underwater City, Kelle Groom [78pp, $12.95, University Press of Florida]

Underwater City is full of poems that start 'A girl was', 'An old woman / came in', 'In the black lake', 'In the cement duplex', 'In the back seat of the car' - you just know you're gonna be bored by what comes next; and you usually are. These are quirky stories told in verse, aiming for epiphany and closure in the closing lines. But hidden in among these are some genuinely startling poems, though they tend to take some finding.

'Pinhole Camera', the opening poem, starts uneasily - 'I have to go to sleep so I can have my night' - but then moves on to unravel threads of image-making, light and dark, illness and death, bringing in Antarctica, Auschwitz, Split and Tito, and personal confession on the way. It's this ambitious eclecticism that really makes this poem work, the lines can't possibly hold all the ideas and images in, so the reader is left to do plenty of work for themselves. This is a good thing. The poem's achievement is only slightly undercut by the last line which presents a photographic image of 'the town's people ... standing on a hill', with the wind blowing 'through their clothes, their hair' as a clumsy metaphor for freedom [the photo is from Lilli Jacob Mieir's Auschwitz album].

Elsewhere the lovely music of 'Pitchpine, woodbine, hemlock, / bayberry' which opens 'Burial' is deflated by a slow unravelled narrative about death and longing. Other poems are short tales drawn out by rewriting as skinny long poems; and others slip into prosaic questioning of the reader - 'What is metaphor and what is reality?', a question I feel the poet should answer for herself.

The poems that really show Groom's strengths are two prose poems. 'Home to an Island' draws on the novel
Fugitive Pieces and is both an amazing piece of evocative precis and fictional/poetic intervention as the narrator's self-questioning and the story she had heard intermingle and interact. 'Two Black Suitcases' is, however, the best piece in the book for me. The story of a hunt for a deceased relative it's touching, moving, witty and beautifully told in a clear, unmannered way, and is full of startling images and truths. If Kelle Groom wants to tell stories in her poems, it is to this shining example she should look for future direction; elsewhere, where she tries hard to be 'poetic' and heighten the reader's experience, she simply trips over herself and her language. Here she has moved beyond that into something new, accomplished and truly poetic.




 

page 55, bottom right, a quarter page advert for 'Award Winners from the University of Georgia Press', which includes
Mead, An Epithalamion, Julie Carr [$16.95, 97pp, University of Georgia]
Fluorescence, Jennifer K. Dick [$16.95, 87pp, University of Georgia]

Julie Carr is fantastic at pushing language to the edge of everyday usage, disrupting it just enough to make us see it anew, yet still follow what she is saying. Fragments of conversation and story, images, asides and the most secret thoughts gradually accumulate here to explore a mother's family relationships from the inside.

Carr is well aware that she is using language: titles like 'Six Sentences Darkly With Nouns Spent' and 'Subplot Descending' make that quite clear as if the poems themselves don't. And they do. From fragile lyric and delicate evocations of the moment, through diary jottings and heartfelt asides, to words spread out on the page's canvas in scattershot array, it's impossible to summarise or excerpt this work.
Mead is an astonishing, accomplished work that consistently surprised and delighted me.

Jennifer Dick's book is good too. In fact it's one of my favourites of all the books reviewed here, although I wish it was more of a
book than a gathering of poems sometimes the forms are simply too diverse [and they aren't part of a whole, like Carr's book, where the sum is greater than the parts]. So, the concrete poem which starts the book reads as a workshop aside, a personal experiment not followed through. As does the similar 'Sighted' later on, or the poems 'Gravity' and 'I hold your cheek in us or to connect' whose spread-out fragments of sentence sit uneasily amidst the long lined poems and prose-poems which constitute the bulk of the book.

But I can't resist poems which begin 'To be at a loss and return there, saying things and /speaking ...' or 'In the room there is nothing but the waiting'. Through setting up poems with remarkable lines like this, Dick then goes on to explore the repercussions:

     We are unmaking the explosion. Everything still.
     It feels like baking, everyone huddled in the blue kitchen. The two
     violinists are wide-eyed. I can't see myself. There are no more
     mirrors and the light is
            [first poem from 'What holds the body']

The blurb on the back suggests that Dick is 'dedicated to an understanding of the internal tensions of the lyric voice and the human heart'. I think this hits the nail right on the head. All of this exploratory and inventive work ultimately becomes heartfelt music for the reader. As the author puts it at the end of 'Shutters', a prose poem:

                                                                          It is
     the click snapping. The nap of numbers. The way language
     means. Signals.

This is great stuff.




Rita Dove hasn't got an advert for her book in the Review, but she does have five poems across three pages of the magazine, and a biographical note which tells me she was Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995. So she's a major poet, although American Smooth [$22.95, 142pp, hbck, Norton] suggests otherwise in purely literary terms.

From the squibs that make up 'Twelve Chairs' to the constant mundane images elsewhere

     The glass shone cold
     with water fresh
         ['Now']

     Bed, where are you flying to?
     I went to sleep
     nearly an hour ago
     and now I'm on a porch
     open to the stars!
         ['Sic Itur Ad Astra']

     She knew what
     she was and so
     was capable
     of anything
     anyone
     could imagine.
         ['Fox']

this is interminably pedestrian, dull and ordinary writing. The first section, 'Fox Trot Fridays', takes dance as a motif ['American Smooth' is a form of ballroom dancing] and music also underlies some of the book, but I couldn't help comparing Dove's work to that of Allen Fisher who titles his poems by dances. Unlike Fisher and his boundary-pushing exploratory poems, Dove's work is rooted in the idea of a poet telling the reader something, with little interest in how it is said. It's clunky and portentous, like the title of the final poem: 'Looking Up from the Page, I Am Reminded of This Mortal Coil'. Personally, I look up from these pages out of boredom, and am reminded that time is too precious to waste on being generous to this kind of nonsense.
 

        Rupert Loydell 2004