Poemland by Chelsey Minnis (126pp, $14.00, Wave Books)
Take It by Joshua Beckman (62pp, $14.00, Wave Books)
Quaker Guns by Caroline Knox (67pp, $14.00, Wave Books)
I've heard Chelsey Minnis's work described as 'gurlesque' but I'm not going to call it that, as the term sounds like it was invented at a marketing meeting. OK, the cover's pink and some of the content is sort of seedily burlesque-Gothic, but I prefer 'bubblegum punk' as a description. Poemland is a mix of quasi flarf, insistent simile (pretty much every one of the short poems uses 'like' as a pivot), ellipsis and exclamation marks. Like punk (but pink, like bubblegum) its in-your-face obvious -- everyone's thought it but nobody's said it this way -- and sung-shouted over simple chords and angry cliches, but in a good way:
If you want to be a poem writer I don't know why...
It hurts like a puff sleeve dress on a child prostitute
Nothing makes it very true...
Except the promised sincerity of death!
Poemland's an exciting read, even if the ironic tone might become a bit wearing (for some) in long doses or (for more, maybe) on a second, more ruminative, reading. In fact, on a second romp through it occurred to me that possibly it wouldn't have hurt for the book to be half the length, as it would make the same impact and I could have been doing something else -- dressing up as a coconut for charity or filling in a tax return, say. But there's a gleefully disposable quality to the writing that's reminiscent of fluxus (everything in the book, even death, works within an ideological system of use(d)-and abuse(d)-and-move(d)-on). And on a first reading, I enjoyed the sprawl of Poemland and, contradictorily, the sense of forward motion and accumulation of layers I got from a pedal to the carpet, headlong, one shot encounter. Only one niggle: the very disposability of the writing, though maybe conceptually anti capitalist-consumerist, surely places it within the same tradition as the one it seems to be critiquing? I don't know, maybe that's missing the point. And either way Poemland is a lot of fun. It's not a book you want to put down, even if you might want to throw it across the room occasionally.
Joshua Beckman's Take It is full of the sort of casually brilliant poems that keep you loving poetry. Witty, contemporary, wry and compassionate, it just gets better with every reading. It's poetry that's able to deal with big ideas and abstract concepts with precision and without losing its swing. A poem of thirteen lines, that opens with “Cracked drags the callous enchantment of thought”, and middles with 'A beautiful perfect horse etched into an ashtray', is somehow able to get to:
I feel now like I am saying sorry for something, when
what I am saying here is that the unknowing spirit is
greater than the knowing spirit, that no matter what
emboldened structure descends to stand before you
in its plan and fullness, you do not know what it is.
without the gear-shifts being noticeable. It's probably unfair of me to quote bleeding chunks like that, but I promise it's slick when you read it.
engages with the absurd unashamedly: 'the children with hoops and balls / in
exceptional mimic of that insufferable woman/ who always chases hornets round
her shed.' But he's never absurd simply for the sake of it. You don't get the
sense that he's writing this way to keep up with the cool kids. Instead, his
is a cautiously humane treatment of absurdity in the real world, often tinged
with sadness, as in the coolly beautiful return of Tinsel in a winter movie
imaginatively directed by the poet:
was a calm reluctant piece of coral,
and his words spread out as tankers making
their way from Japan, weeks between them,
and yet in the wide ocean still forming a line,
which was absolute glory for ending a movie.
Total constancy and incontrovertible snow.
The Times said, touching.
As with the best absurdist poetry, in Take It Beckman creates a seemingly illogical world that in fact operates in accordance with a network of internally (maybe un)reasoned connections. Once you're inside the writing, things happen according to a twisted but consistent illogic. If Beckman tells you that there's a lazy caterpillar on a snow crumb, then you feel sure there's a reason for it. You may not be certain what that reason is but you trust him (Beckman that is, not the caterpillar) enough to go with it. That's not to say the surprises and twists of logic aren't still able to shock you into thinking in new ways. They are. It's just that they're consistent with the imaginative world of the poems. And the imaginative world of Take It is one you'll want to keep returning to. I really can't recommend this book strongly enough.
Caroline Knox's Quaker Guns is a different beast. The Quaker Guns of the title refer, according to good old Wikipedia, to 'a deception tactic that was commonly used in warfare during the 18th and 19th centuries. Although resembling an actual cannon, the Quaker Gun was simply a wooden log, usually painted black, used to deceive an enemy. Misleading the enemy as to the strength of an emplacement was an effective delaying tactic. The name derives from the Religious Society of Friends or "Quakers", who have traditionally held a religious opposition to war and violence... and used these false weapons to intimidate possible foes without breaching their pacifistic vows.' So now you know.
Knox uses collage, occasional rhyme, a variety of forms and metre, and straight translation to structure the book and to deliberately bewilder the reader, presumably in imitation of the Quaker Guns of the title. As such, although sometimes conversational, overall the book feels measured and crafted, each line dense and weighed against the next:
first, the nebula Midges, a diffuse
nebula, and like all diffuse
nebulas, a luging blob
wheeling light, the starry map
of cells which die every day,
of seed-shaped clay molecules
[from 'We Beheld Two Nebulas']
There's a self-referential archness to Quaker Guns too. In the sixth section of 'Hooke's Law' Knox catalogues the forms she uses in her book:
The book you are reading,
Quaker Guns, contains the
sequence you are reading,
two sonnets, two haiku,
a sestina, an homage
to George Herbert, some tercets,
a masque, two translations,
two erasure poems, an elegy,
a recipe, a song, an ABC,
an eclogue, a canzone,
a group of rubayyat, and other poems
Is this a kind of smoke-screen itself, inviting readers to engage with the forms rather than their contents? I hope not, because even if sometimes in this book you might feel that the formal experimentation and in-your-face technique can become a bit much there's still fun to be had with the ways in which the forms are filled. There's an entertainingly surreal exchange between a lark and an owl, in which the lark suggests that 'Maybe you threw the remote out the window / when you threw the toaster out the window during the Toaster Fire.' There's a fox playing mole tennis and there are shoes you can swim in. And there are also moments that make you stop dead and think - what the fuck was that?:
Are you having trouble about an
internal combustion engine with
a MacPherson-strut-type design?
Have you got a swickle tranny?
[from 'Who'll Buy']
Some parts of this book seem designed to provoke the yes-but-is-it-a-poem brigade, which can only be a good thing. And I don't think the brigade will be alone in finding Quaker Guns a slippery customer. As Knox puts it in 'Line Poem': it's a Moebius strip and a broccoli elastic'. I don't think she's writing about the book but she might be. So the moment of truth: I'm going to hide behind my smokescreen and say that I'm pretty sure I liked Quaker Guns and I'm pretty sure you might too. It's definitely well worth a read. As is, I have to say, just about everything I've seen from Wave Books so far.
© Nathan Thompson 2010