Recent Reading, March 2008




Call me jaded, but it gets more and more difficult to find enthusiasm for most of the review books that arrive at Stride HQ - and this state seems to have overcome a lot of our reviewers. So here are some of the books that I have enjoyed over the last few months. (I expect some of the reviews team would have, too, but I kept them for myself.)


Rusty Morrison's The True Keeps Calm Biding its Story (Ahsahta) is quite simply knockout. Every one of its fifty four poems is entitled 'please advise stop' and uses one of those three words as the end of each and every line. There are lots of 'stop's, a few 'please's and a final 'advise' on each ninth line (each poem has 3 stanzas of three lines). You'd think this might become boring, and that end-stopping lines in this manner would slow the poem down, but actually with its cultural echoes of telegrams it seems to speed the reading process up, as well as punctuating it, and providing the work with an overall form.


Mixing both mundane and surrealist images with philosophical tidbits, along with apparent confession and fragmented narrative, Morrison has come up with a simple but delightful form[ula] allowing 'a kind of retention that isn't reducible to memory'. Please don't stop. I advise you to read this.



Ever since I was sent Brenda Coultas' Leroy pamphlet The Bowery Project I've been telling students and friends about her work, and using it as an example of prose-poetry, creative non-fiction, and journal. It's an astonishing piece of work which was the highlight of A Handmade Museum, her first full collection. The Marvellous Bones of Time (Coffee House) is nowhere near as immediate or exciting, but I have persisted and engaged with the two long poem sequences which constitute this big book.


'A Lonely Cemetery' is the second work in the volume, and is an exploration of the paranormal, drawing on secondhand stories and hearsay along with documentation and folk history. It becomes a kind of fragmented ghost story as it goes along, as the narrator and reader gradually get sucked into the re-presented stories and tales, despite an over-arching scepticism which casts doubt on the whole proceedings. The suspension of disbelief, the wanting to read on, is what really makes the book work for me, despite some personal disinterest in the subject.


It's this distancing that makes me struggle with the first sequence, 'The Abolition Journal', too. As you may have assumed, it is to do with slavery, but it is also to do with borders and countries, possession and dispossession, the American Civil War. Whilst I have walked The Bowery many times, I know little about Indiana, its geography, people or the civil war. Rereading has allowed me part-way into this work, but in the end it feels too enclosed and personal, perhaps too American, for my taste.



Paige Ackerson-Kiely's poetry is rooted in narrative moments, too, and the American landscape - but In No One's Land, not in Coultas' specifics. These poems are fluid, sometimes abstract, explorations and meditations on life seemingly without cultural or geographical roots. Ackerson-Kiely's narrator in 'Furniture Shopping' has been told


     …you don't have to go

     to the grave to talk about

     the grave


and knows


     I will build the home I will die in

     the home I will build


although you get the feeling that isn't going to happen soon, if at all. Elsewhere these poems inhabit the places where nobody lives, where nature dwarfs and overcomes the human. Loves and loss, relationships and families exist among, between and across the mundane and everyday that fails to provide meaning or roots. These poems and prose-poems are full of startling images and asides, documentary and fizzing, living language.



As are Ann Killough's poems in Beloved Idea (Alice James), which is an extended riff on metaphor and definition. These longish prose poems are divided into sections, and these sections accumulate into a discussion and debate about, an exploration of, certain metaphors/topics, and then the poems accumulate into an ongoing exploration of how and why metaphors work, and how and why we humans use them. I've used several of these with students discussing metaphor, and we've been able to unpick them, line by line by line, but this is only one way of reading them. Time and time again, Killough comes back to ideas of place and nationhood, of self-definition in both the personal and public sense.


Her language is witty, fluid and startling; it questions itself and the reader, and also critiques and satirises itself and the reader's assumptions as the poems slowly unfold, fold and tangle in contradictions and debate. I suspect the book's subject is also poetry (or writing) itself, and the final poem could be read as a kind of manifesto for leaving the '[refuge]' of the title for 'the "open" sea' of the blank page , '[t]he "mouth" of the river' of poetry. But perhaps I'm trying too hard, or I may be like the narrator of '[stuffed animal]' who '…wanted everything'.



Somewhere between Killough and Coultas lies Cole Swensen's The Glass Age (Alice James), in which she explores ideas of vision, windows and their significance (and use as metaphor), and glass itself. She does this by revisiting the work of those artists and writers like Bonnard and Apollinaire, and writing her own meditations and ideas around this. With philosophy and colour theory, architecture and postmodern theories at her fingertips, she manages to not only let the reader see through her poems to the sources, but also construct prisms and lenses to facilitate further exploration.



Steve Erickson's Zeroville (Europa Editions) book is also about light, but mainly in the cinema and in the heart. It is also about the dark and shadows that haunt Vikar, Erickson's protagonist, California and the film industry itself. Vikar arrives in 1960s Hollywood as Charles Manson and his gang are out on a killing spree, but he is too busy watching films to know until the cops arrest him. This is just the start of a strange, hallucinatory journey into film, society and consciousness.


Like his beloved subject, this book flickers and jumps from frame to frame to cut frame, offering a variety of scenes, images and points of view. Characters walk on and off, the background shots become less and less focussed, and Vikar gradually becomes a cult director without really trying. Erickson's books are all wonderful, but Zeroville has a new, intense focus thanks to its subject matter and form, which has really pulled the whole thing together in a new way. This really is 21st century fiction.



I'm not sure I dare call Allen Fisher's Leans book of 21st century poetry, not because it isn't radical and of the moment, but because it's the concluding volume of the Gravity as a Consequence of Shape project which he started back in 1982. Although the blurb says that the title apparently refers to to 'the condition experienced by a jet pilot as he leaves the Earth's gravity' it seems as appropriate to regard it as the thinning down, paring back, of Fisher's poetry. Not in any negative sense, but this poetry is lean and fit, more streamlined and lucid than ever before.


Perhaps I've just got used to Fisher's language over the years, but it seems to me that although still complex and slippery, much of the poetry here is clear and forthright, focussed and almost explanatory. Here are scientific and cultural terms deconstructed, then used as extended metaphor and subject. Here are playful poems about post-punk bands such as The Slits, makeshift alphabets and string theory games. And throughout a delight in the world, in what we have discovered, found or created and how me might describe and engage with it. Whatever happens next?


          © Rupert M Loydell 2008