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
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:
spins into green,'
['Acrylic on Canvas']
date would be death'
does not come from memory?'
In fact Rubin should listen to himself:
symptom of madness is perhaps
what you say to yourself...'
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
page 41, top left, a sixth page advert, black type on white
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
close in turn, at random, swaying slightly
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?
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':
makes a little pool of itself
but she also can also move along from where she starts and open up the poem
to a wider meaning:
tells you where.
What wings to
read to know.
Where. How to
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
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,
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
last night, my true love was not true, and I'm
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
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:
ing I came. I sold
say. A sister's
name. Not mine.
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:
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
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
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
flickers on the rockface'
moon working against
petroglyphs of bison
shadows on the wall.
or the William Carlos
Williams-esque broken line music of 'Spirit Guide':
Now I want to
fistful of fear in my chest
coming up silent behind me'his laughter
at my sharp
when his shadow swept over me.
it wasn't a
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 Ð 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
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:
An American soul An Amer
I can soul inside
An art museum
Where my millions died
Her burning robe
3rd degreeing for the last time
Forgive I read
Before the book
My moving lips
A box of
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
writing can come to know
one reading does
might never know
If anyone is
and then moves on to specifically consider, or allude to, Jane Harrison's Prolegomena and the Orpheus myth, before concluding
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
These notions of plastic language, wit, humor, religious and philosophical
considerations underlie all the work in this book. Keelan isn't scared to make
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
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:
flowers, without water, without breaking,
the back sill, glass almost touching glass,
of my mother's vases opens wide at the top,
pulls in at
the waist, a wash of violent color:
no life study, just a figure in the void
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
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
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 Ð 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:
unmaking the explosion. Everything still.
It feels like
baking, everyone huddled in the blue kitchen. The two
are wide-eyed. I can't see myself. There are no more
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:
snapping. The nap of numbers. The way language
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
are you flying to?
I went to
and now I'm
on a porch
open to the
['Sic Itur Ad
She knew what
she was and
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
© Rupert Loydell 2004