Around the block too often

, Jasmine Dreame Wagner (Ahsahta Press)
Noise Event, Heidi Lynn Staples (Ahsahta Press)
Pitch, Todd Boss (Norton)

I enjoyed reading these poems by Jasmine Dreame Wagner. There's a sort of ongoing, open-ended rhythmic quality to this writing which echoes an echo of Whitman via a post-modern knowingness which still feels genuine and real in its own terms.

Form becomes content and content form to the point where it's the writing itself which is the subject, up there and projected in full self-consciousness, yet the artfulness of this book is its strength, not a weakness, where the limits of what can be said are written into the script in a manner which feels laid-back and at ease with itself, as in 'Key of C' - 'and the problem is, our language is a shell company/that needs rebranding.'

This isn't the sort of poetry that gives an immediate pleasure rush, neither would I include it on my 'top ten of 2013' but it's consistently stimulating and full of interest, you're never sure where you're going to end up and I found it a pleasurable and easy-to-consume read:

                  Humidity holds its breath
          and hiccups, disrupts
                the heatwave's continuity
     that heralds a crack in the house of cards.
                    (from 'Favor is an arbitrary seed')

I like the way the language works, its mix of abstraction and listing, its ease of continuity despite its unexpected twists and turns, yet there's something comfortable and not remotely spiky about its language mix and its querulous, restless quality which I just feel at ease with. Great stuff.

Much of Heidi Lynn Staples' work is developed through a series of processes. The title gives a big clue in the sense that the musical quality of her writing precedes its semantic element, which isn't, of course, to say that this poetry is devoid of 'meaning'. Some of the work I most enjoyed here was in the section 'Palm of Palms' where we get this:

     Fish of my flora, Bobolink of my Black Bear,
     Lizard of all Crustacean. Flounder
     Of my Frigatebird, Owl of my Oak, Longleaf of all
     Red Fire Ants. Squirrel of my Scrub,
     Isle of my Anhinga, Alligator Flag of All Flowering
     Dogwood. Common Sea Star of my
     American Redstart, Comet Darner of my River Cooter,

     Bracken of all Beard Lichen.  ...
                    (from 'Prayer')

Apart from the listing device above, there's an almost abstract lyrical quality to some of this writing which recalls Finnegan's Wake. In 'Barking at Blue Clouds' (title from Lyn Hejinian) the procedures combine chance 'cut-ups' with collage and homophones. This is a mixture which works well at times, especially as the reader is introduced to the techniques in such a manner that makes the process part of the reading strategy and enhances the enjoyment of the text. This is poetry which is playful, as well as being purposeful and is pretty much enjoyable to read and think about. I wasn't as taken with the long poem 'Florida Native' which started out well and was very funny in parts but became a bit too repetitious (I know that was the point) and clotted after a while. Overall though, a very interesting collection, from another new writer, to me, which combines unusual word clustering with colloquial interjections and the sort of wit and wordplay that I thoroughly enjoy.

I didn't really like the moralistic tone of much of the poetry in Tod Boss's Pitch. This is poetry which clearly has 'intentions' upon the reader, and while I quite enjoyed some of the narratives and the evocation of a harsh environment I wasn't really taken by the use of language or by its often mildly didactic style. There's a musical quality to Boss's writing which I did find attractive however, even when I'm not entirely sure about its 'message'. Take, for example, this section from 'Don't be Flip':

     when you drop
       your mate
          at the door or

     your children
       at school. Don't
         be cool. Don't

     be coy. Or if
       you do, don't
         assume it's

     okay to act
       that way. For
         today may

     be your last
        chance at
         joy before it

     flashes away
       like a tin
          toy in one of

     those shooting
        galleries in
           midways:  ...

I guess there's a comforting aspect to this poetry - particularly evident in pieces like 'The World is in Pencil' - where the aim is to pinpoint the particular and the physical in a sort of homespun way which encourages effort and suggests an aesthetic which praises the familiar and the worked-at, but it all feels a bit too clichéd to me. I'm sure lots of people will love this poetry but I think I'm becoming ever more cynical and to repeat another cliché, I think I've been around the block once too often.

       Steve Spence 2013