Author Archives: Katie Provenzano

TROUBLING THE LINE

Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics
Edited by TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson
Nightboat Books ($27.95)

by Matthew Cheney

Lori Selke’s biographical note at the end of Troubling the Line gives some sense of what is both at stake and at play in this extraordinary anthology: “Lori can’t decide on a gender or a pronoun: she, s/he, they, butch, pirate, genderfuckable.” Pronouns are a common theme throughout the book’s more than 500 pages. English limits us, imposing binary standards that don’t work for these poets, people who do not accept the neat, strict separation of he or she. “My name’s Reba,” Reba Overkill says. “I like the pronoun ‘it’, but you can use ‘they’ if the other makes you uncomfortable.”

New language offers new possibilities, but also some losses. D’Lo’s poem “Growing’s Trade Off” begins:

Since I have started using male pronouns,
I have come to miss the communities of “she”.
I never knew that’s what the trade off was
In coming closer to a “me” that better fit me.

A “me” that better fit me is also a theme through many of these poems: the search not only for a pronoun, but for some way to express a sense of identity that doesn’t fit the most easily inherited, most socially normed models. Identities are partly constructions from available materials, partly aspirations, dreams, desires, intuitions. What Troubling the Line so vividly demonstrates is the multiplicity within any identity. Most of the fifty-five poets in the book are represented with a statement on poetics, and these statements provide opportunities for us to see the diversity of thoughts, feelings, aesthetics, and politics that are embodied by and envisioned through the poems. Stephen Burt writes: “I am a gender-dysphoric, looks-wrong-in-the-mirror, says-so-when-asked once-again (but not enough) cross-dressing dad and husband and writer and professor and ex-Minnesotan and current New Englander, a disappointed political partisan, a secular Jew, a forty-year-old bourgeois, a classical-curious indie-rock fan, a supporter of the 2011 WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx. All those identities animate some of my poems.”

The wonder of Troubling the Line is that editors TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson have allowed the book to be big and vehemently eclectic, and so the diversity of writers and poems across its pages is animated by such a rich diversity of identities that generalizing about them becomes impossible. For any seemingly useful generalization there is likely an exception somewhere here. For identities such as trans and genderqueer this is especially important, because these identities are so marginalized within the general culture that it is easy for even well intentioned readers to assume that such identities are predictable or able to be summed up in simple equations. For the equation Trans/genderqueer poetry = x, this anthology offers at least fifty-five solutions for x.

Though there is, thankfully, no single definition of trans or genderqueer or poetry herein, there are commonalities, overlaps, echoes, and reiterations. Bodies, borders, and childhood are often a topic of concern and consideration. The names of Gloria Anzaldúa, Judith Butler, and Audre Lorde come up regularly. There are almost no traditional, European poetic verse forms evident.

But more common than commonalities are differences and multiplicities. The anthology’s organization heightens this effect: the poets are presented in alphabetical order of first initial (Meg Day appears between Max Wolf Valerio and Micha Cárdenas). Performance poets are next to Stein-influenced experimentalists who are next to confessional lyricists, and all of them are next to poets who mix up those (admittedly inadequate) categories with glee. One statement on poetics after another speaks to the queering of language and the queer will to language and the queer impulse within language, but often from vastly different, even contradictory, perceptions of queerness and of language. For some of these writers, poetry is a form of politics; for others, poetry is itself identity; for others, language is its own world; for others, all of the above, and then some.

Anthologies are, by their nature, a mixed bag, and they are often problematic in appearing more inclusive and definitive than any single book about any but the most narrow of subjects could be. The genius of Troubling the Line is to start with that knowledge and to turn it into a mission statement and act of generosity. Because the book offers so many different types of poems and poets, it is impossible to see it as definitive—it suggests possibilities, not canons. There are no totalities here, even within specific poets’ work (“All those identities animate some of my poems”).

Reading the book, with all its diversities, can be dizzying—and it’s a glorious feeling. Rarely do anthologies capture quite so much energy of expression. No reader is likely to find all of these poems to their taste, and that is part of the fun, because as we traverse the types and tones, we are challenged to define our own tastes, desires, and identities. Who am I when I read this book? we ask. And: Who might I be?

Regardless of our own relationship to gender, to bodies, to love, lust, and loss, we will find ourselves somewhere within these pages, within these lines. Here are voices to hear—voices that, because of all their differences, are ineluctably human: our friends, family, neighbors, ancestors, lovers, selves. Listen to Ari Banias: “who is ghost, is the translucent almost / who is flotilla, is footless / is died and come back, who is sheet / and oooo who is remembered” and Jenny Johnson: “Oh, Lord of Parts, Oh, Holy Tool Shed, / When I rise from these sore bones, / What have you taken? What have you left me?” and Oliver Bendorf: “Call me tumblefish, rip-roar, pocket of light, / haberdash and milkman, velveteen and silverbreath, / your bitch, your little brother, Ponderosa pine.”

Who cannot inhabit these words? Who cannot be thrilled, awed, beguiled by them?

The poems and statements on poetics present paths and potentials. Some writers are their own subjects, others reject subjectification. Some writers claim a comfort within expressions of masculinity or femininity, others claim multitudes of gender identities, others write elegies to gender or celebrate its demise. The writers are of various ethnicities, various degrees of able-bodiedness, various classes and contexts. Lilith Latini’s biographical note states that she is “as yet unpublished in print,” while Stephen Burt has a poem in a recent (as I write this) issue of The New Yorker. To readers who assume that trans and genderqueer are stable, static, predictable, narrow identities, Troubling the Line stands as evidence otherwise. It is among the most diverse anthologies you are likely to read any time soon. Queerness is about the expansion of possibility and identity within selves, societies, and languages. We need more pronouns, not fewer.

The question of the pronoun problem in English is solved by Julian Talamantez Brolaski. If proposed new pronouns such as hir cannot catch on because they fit awkwardly into standard English, these poems say, don’t give up on the necessary new but rather the standard, unfitting old. Brolaski’s poems are some of the most exciting in a frequently exciting anthology because here the language quite literally becomes queer:

who hath bespoke
wheelis flyan upright
who sat bolt upright in thir coffin

There are traditions even in this magnificent neologizing—traditions of orature and dialect, but also traditions deep in written languages and literatures: the writers in Europe before orthography settled down in dictionaries, or the lone wolves and idiosyncratics such as the writer redolent in Brolaski’s lines, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Queerness has always been among us.

“We are attempting to sturdy and thicken a conduit for expansions,” writes j/j hastain. It would be another way to think of this book: not as an anthology, but as a conduit for expansions, a tool to trick out the “me” that better fits me, you, us.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore

Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

POEMS FOR THE MILLENNIUM

Volume Four: North African Literature
Edited by Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour
multiple translators
University of California Press ($39.95)

by Brooke Horvath

The first two volumes of Poems for the Millenniumanthologized experimental poetries from the fin de siècle to the end of the twentieth century; the third gathered those Romantic and Post-Romantic poets out of whose work the several varieties of modernism emerged. All three volumes made room for writers from around the world but focused primarily on North Americans and Europeans. Volume Four, described by its editors as “a natural progression from its predecessors,” compiles work primarily from the Maghreb (North Africa from Tunisia west to Mauritania) and from al-Andalus (eighth- to fifteenth-century Moorish Iberia). Although their primary interest is poetry, the editors have made room for creation myths, folk tales, legends, riddles, pictographs, parables, and proverbs as well as excerpts from novels and from a great variety of nonfiction—from Ibn Sharaf al-Qayrawani’s eleventh-century “On Some Andalusian Poets” and Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed to Tahar Haddad’s 1929 plea for equal rights for women, Frantz Fanon on the “colonized intellectual,” and Malek Alloula on postcards and the colonial gaze.

In myriad ways, historically North Africa has been deeply involved with western thought and culture, and to remind us of how far back this connection goes, editors Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour open with “A Book of Multiple Beginnings”: brief selections from, among others, Hanno the Navigator (sixth century B.C.E.), the Greek poet and scholar Callimachus, early Church Fathers Tertullian and Augustine, Lucius Apuleius (author of The Golden Ass), Magos (whose Punic treatise on agriculture survives only in Greek and Latin fragments), and the sixth-century C.E. Roman poet Luxorius of Carthage. Following are five diwans (meaning a “collection” or “gathering”). The first is devoted primarily to examples of early Andalusian, Sicilian, and Maghrebi lyric poetry. The second, “Al Adab: The Invention of Prose,” samples thirteen prose authors from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries; the third gathers prose and poetry from the five centuries of “cultural slumber” following the fall of Grenada in 1492 and is followed by “Resistance and the Road to Independence,” which presents work written during the years of colonial rule. A sizable double diwan of postcolonial work subdivided by country brings the collection into the present.

Inserted between the principal diwans are six briefer sections. Three are devoted to oral traditions—transcriptions of often anonymous tales, songs, fables, and folk poetry as well as recent examples drawn from working-class “bards and popular tellers of tales”—while the other three sections highlight topics of special interest: esoteric Sufi poetry (“A Book of Mystics”), examples of Arabic calligraphy (“A Book of Writing”), and “A Book of Exiles,” which spotlights both writers (such as Jacques Derrida and Hubert Haddad) who emigrated from the Maghreb and writers (Paul Bowles, Juan Goytisolo, Cécile Oumhani) who made North Africa their home. Brief introductions preface each section, offering concise remarks on poetics, history, and politics (these are sufficiently up-to-date to consider the up-in-the-air consequences of the Arab Spring). In lieu of headnotes, most selections conclude with a short “commentary” that provides biographical information, comments from other scholars, and information otherwise meant to aid comprehension and appreciation. The editors, however, do no more than nudge readers in helpful directions; nowhere do they insist that we notice and admire what struck them, or understand the texts as they do.

Although repressive regimes have taken their toll of the possibilities for poetry over the past half century, post-independence North African literature is extremely well represented with ninety-six authors anthologized (the majority from Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco). The premodern poetry assembled, important in its own right and both accessible and charming, serves also as context for the modern work, limning “the historical processes that led to the most innovative contemporary work” from the Maghreb. However, the evolution of Maghrebi poetry is explained rather piecemeal throughout via the abbreviated introductions and commentaries, and a more sustained account would be welcome. Additionally, given that this anthology constitutes the fourth volume in the series described above, more might have been done to chart the cross-fertilization of North African and European literatures (especially given the editors’ emphasis on twentieth-century innovation). The impact of colonialism; the continuing choice of whether to write in French, Spanish, or Arabic; Europe as haven from persecution and locus of publishing opportunities: these facts are clear. Less clear is how the anthologized writers have reworked the literary lessons of European modernism and postmodernism, or what European writers have learned from them. When an infrequent nod is made in this direction, the gesture is telling. For instance, the editors relay scholar Robert Irwin’s suspicion that “Ibn Shuhayd’s fantasy of an afterlife . . . may have indirectly inspired Dante’s famous Divine Comedy,” but how this may have (indirectly) happened is unelaborated. Again, Ezra Pound’s insistence that European lyric poetry began “in the French/Occitan troubadour tradition” remains “canonical” to this day, the editors observe, despite the fact that since 1928 it has been known that “the obvious root oftroubadour is the Arabic tarab,” hence pushing the origins of lyric poetry across the Mediterranean or into al-Andalus, but this information goes nowhere save to provide an example of another “deeply denigrating attitude” toward Arabic achievement and influence.

These are, however, small complaints, and the editors have rightly kept their focus on the literature itself. Perhaps for similar reasons, they have elected not to annotate individual texts, a task that, once begun, would doubtless have left a good third of many pages deep in footnotes. A glossary might alleviate some occasional puzzlement, for it proves difficult to keep in mind terms that, once defined, are subsequently deployed elsewhere; the assumption seems to be that readers will plow straight through these 744 pages (and indeed I did so for this review, but that’s not how anthologies typically get read), and that they all have excellent memories. What, again, does naqd mean? NajdMuwashshadaRazzia? Also useful would have been a bibliography listing the several books and articles mentioned passim in the commentaries.

I suppose I could keep nickel and diming my betters: why are writers who have published volumes of poems represented instead by excerpts from novels in a book professedly devoted to poetry? Why are five Maghrebi writers singled out for inclusion in the “Book of Exiles” when more than a dozen others located elsewhere in the book also seem to have left North Africa for good? However, the principal point to be made is that this is a magisterial effort by two absolutely serious and accomplished poet-scholars. It is an important addition to the Poems for the Millennium series and significant in its own right, both expanding and complicating notions of the modern by introducing us to many writers we might not otherwise encounter. Moreover, as one turns from the spare poems of Mohamed Sibari to an excerpt from Tahar Ben Jelloun’s early novel Harrouda, or from an ancient Berber tale about the first humans to Omar Berrada’s curious meditation on ’pataphysics and the work of bpNichol, from examples of Shawia amulet inscriptions or an eleventh-century drinking song to Tuareg proverbs or Sheikh Nefzaoui’s fifteenth-century list of “The Names Given to Woman’s Sexual Organs,” the variety and manifold pleasures on offer quickly come clear.

Although female poets were few in the Arabic past, they are well represented in the later diwans, and even in the eleventh century, Wallada bint al-Mustakfi wrote straightforwardly from Córdoba, “By Allah, I’m made for higher goals and I walk with grace and style. / I blow kisses to anyone but reserve my cheeks for my man,” while Hafsa bint al-Hajj Arrakuniyya, a twelfth-century woman writing in Granada, averred, “If I keep you in my eyes until the world blows up I’d still want more.” With equal flirtatiousness, the Shawia bard Aissa al Jarmuni al Harkati (1885–1946) offers this four-line wink:

You are Jews and your black veils are pretty,
and how beautiful is your women’s talk!
My fate is to die with so much pain inside
for I don’t know how I can forget your beauty!

Less amorously, the contemporary Algerian poet Hamid Skif manages to violate at least a couple taboos in “Poem for My Prick”:

Today they are burying my dog of a prick.
The imams surround it,
Those crows at all major feasts
Psalmodize
Its arrival in Paradise.

Just as disenchanted, if for different reasons, is Hamid Tibouchi (b. 1951), who laments while looking out a train window, “my god! so many beggars! / they have replaced the trees / that once lined the sidewalks,” or Mustapha Benfodil (b. 1968), who protests, “I asked the hill for a light / It gave me a tank / Pulverized by a scream.” Similarly, Mohammed Bennis (b. 1948) despairs, “Will I speak to you of people resisting exile and suffering? / Will I speak to you of a village where men women / children were exterminated? . . . What do you want me to tell you?”

Under the influence of modernism, much of the recent poetry gathered here becomes more elliptical, more recognizably innovative, as in this stanza from Amin Khan’s prose poem “Vision of the Return of Khadija to Opium” (first published in 2012):

you are no more the sensitive prisoner rolling in the flight the rust the hair the bleached static of your body captive memory stopped in the silence of midday perfumes the odor of liberty white opacity that expands it’s the death of you that touches me and brushes me with your fingers and pulls me toward your body of sadness neglecting

Or again, these lines from Jean Sénac’s “Heliopolis”:

So each was allowed to perish according to his joys.
The words no longer encumbered the vertebrae
Nor the marrow our horizon.
All hurdles abolished, you followed into the steps of those
who no longer expect the halt.
And they know what is stardust around our blood,
which is the paraphrase of nothingness.

“Raise your voice / with the tongue / of your pen,” wrote the early cabalist Abraham Abulafia more than seven hundred years ago, and this is what these writers have done for millennia, writing in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, classical and vernacular Arabic, French, Spanish, Amazigh. Reading them provides more than the pleasure of seeing “what the poets in North Africa are doing these days.” Although Stephen Watts insists in the Summer 2013 issue of Banipal that this anthology “should not be read as filling a gap in our ignorance, but rather as indicating a source of difference . . . another regime of cultural viability,” I cannot see why erasing a smidgen of our ignorance would be wrong, for as Joris and Tengour calmly observe, this literature arrives from a part of the world “whose cultural achievements—including their impact on and importance for Western culture—have been not only passively neglected but often actively ‘disappeared’ or written out of the record.” Perhaps Watts means to discourage an idle curiosity or premature readiness to deny differences, to see only oneself in these others. Still, given the amount of bad press countries of the Maghreb routinely receive here in America and the number of unfortunate caricatures misinforming the West from foreign-policy assumptions to popular culture, acknowledging difference can be only half of the story. The other half must be the encouragement of empathy and identification. Thirteen years into our new millennium, that would constitute a welcome difference.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore

Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

VENERABLE MADTOWN HALL

Jim Cohn
Musex Records ($25)

by Kirpal Gordon

Although Venerable Madtown Hall is postbeat poet/scholar/musician Jim Cohn’s eighth CD of spoken word and music, it’s his first to come with a DVD, and he couldn’t have chosen a better date. Filmed in black and white by Katrina Miller and William Garrison, The Making of Venerable Madtown Hall is an ars poetica, a delight for eye and ear, and highly useful for fans, poets, and musicians making sense of this tradition.

In writ-oral-aural fashion, one can read the poem (at https://www.poetspath.com/homepage/listeningroom.html) before listening to it on the CD or watching Cohn speak the poem on the DVD with the band. All three are quite different experiences. Observing Cohn phrase his poetic line is a study in Whitman-Kerouac-Ginsberg cadences and Dylan-Waits-Neil Young double entendres. He’s blessed with an impeccable sense of time, his syllables are elastic and his honey-gravel-bourbon-inflected voice whispers, laments, and celebrates his lyrics—but it is the deep-pocket rapport he builds with Bob Schlesinger on keyboards and Chris Engleman on bass that turns the session into a seminar on the art of collaboration. Cohn unites word to note and “leaves room,” as the nuns told us when we danced too close to our partners in high school, “for the Holy Ghost.” There’s plenty of space for everything in this bardo blues project, and because nothing is rushed, all is revealed in Cohn’s smoky, spooky, indeterminate delivery.

Cohn’s willing not to know what he’s after until it happens. Like Miles Davis in the studio, he keeps instructions to a cryptic minimum, and the result is Miles-like: the musicians discover new ways to cohere the score. In the opener, “Extraterrestial Girl,” for example, Cohn shares a few laughs on the title, asks for “trance music, kind of Philip Glass,” listens with rapt attention, and then lays down lyric as if he’d been rehearsing it to this melody all his life, the final chorus—“Things that cannot possibly exist are utterly real. / You’ll see me again and never know it”—hanging in a stunning “Crystal Silence”-type mood.

The magic’s in the interaction, and watching Schlesinger search out a blues “more gnarly, dirty and grunge” on “Medicine Verbs,” one can see how the trio invents. Engleman’s electric bass line opens tasty and phat, the organ wails a gospel prayer and Cohn sings-speaks-haunts these lines as if across a thousand galaxies: “You and I speak to one another in medicine verbs. / These are the words we live by after we die and there are no words.”

The music does more than give form or accompaniment to the words. It totally changes the context, enlarging the poem’s possibilities, drawing out its enigmatic elements, suggesting alternate meanings. “When Hard Times Take Everything,” the final track, a Schlesinger ballad of exquisite beauty, turns Cohn’s last lines—“Many life forms have evolved beyond us. / Although their transmissions are murmurs, / They grow within our children and transform who we become”—into a joyous hope, the embodiment of Venerable Madtown Hall’s theme.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

QUARANTINE

Malachi Black
Argos Books ($10)

by Tikva Jacob

The best way to read Malachi Black’s Quarantine may be to start at the end. Or in the middle. Of course, there’s always the option of starting at the beginning—if you can find it. As a collection of crown sonnets, this chapbook is extremely cyclical. Black trudges from desperate pleading to fervent gratitude, from solitude to singularity, from life to death to rebirth. He recognizes the inherent activity and monotony in the crown sonnet structure and utilizes it to explore a period of quarantine in his house, in his thoughts, and in his faith. He sees himself, his ailments, and his god as if through a shifting kaleidoscope: with vibrant colors, shapes, and variations of light, too fleeting to preserve but too impressive to dismiss.

To travel the thematic aspects of this work, the reader must consider Time. Black explores the passage of time and the repetitious flow of thoughts and emotions. He transfers the reader through time but he simultaneously levels time’s partitions, dissolving hours into one constant wheel of motion: “There is no end: what has come will come again/will come again: and then distend: and then / and then: and then again: there is no end.”

The individual poems themselves echo the progression in time. The poems are arranged according to the time of day and titled according to that hour’s liturgical office: Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline, Nocturne, Vigils, and Matins. Thus, Black recounts his time spent in thought and in search of the divine.

While Matins are generally considered the beginning of the service (the midnight prayer, said after a short rest period), Black uses this title for his last sonnet. As opposed to separate prayers, Black’s poems become one continuous prayer, one constant appeal. His faith wavers, then wanes, then strengthens. “Matins” ends with the words, “Somehow I am sturdier, more sure.”

Left at this point, the poems tell the tale of a successful hero, stronger, solidified, and definite. But Black didn’t merely write a series—he wrote a rotation. On the second round through the book, the reader will notice that the first words of “Lauds” are, “Somehow I am sturdier, more shore.” Though the words sound the same, “shore” is one rising and falling tide, one disappearing stain on the sand away from “sure.” It is clear that Black wakes with the sense of uneasiness, aware that some form of stability has been lost somewhere in the transition of time.

Through the book’s circular motion, Black sooths the reader into the lulling journey ofQuarantine. The constant gain and loss of proximity and understanding produces a relentless “one step forward, two steps back” effect, which resonates within our human core. It is painful but it is beautiful. Even when faced with our transience, all we have and all we need is the reality that Black chimes: “I am that I am.”

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

FRONT PAGE NEWS

Jen Hofer
Little Red Leaves ($12)

by Marthe Reed

Jen Hofer’s new chapbook Front Page News, a series of newspaper cut-ups clipped from the front page of the Los Angeles Times, leads its readers through a recitation of the matter-of-fact violence that characterizes the pages of newspapers everywhere. Part of a longer manuscript which Hofer composed each day over the course of a year, using the front page of the newspaper of whichever city she woke up in, the pages of Front Page News are taken from a fifteen-day period in Los Angeles, where Hofer resides. These cut-ups, held together by careful clipping to include a connective tissue of the white space of the paper, crack open reportage to create new texts that call into stark relief the sensationalized, quotidian violence of the newspaper writings from which they are composed.

Each page in Front Page News bears the iconic “Los Angeles” from the front page of the Times along with the date, which ranges from Saturday, April 23, 2011, to Saturday, May 7, 2011. The gray/creamy paper of the clippings is lined along the green-on-white gridlines of calendric accounting sheets, emphasizing the temporarily and gridded layout of the source material. Hofer’s individual titles accentuate the drama of headlines—predators, prison, battlefield, security—the type-sizes varying according to the Times’ editors’ intent: shadow, diplomacy, KILLS. This latter poem is composed almost entirely of the word “kill” itself or its near kin, though the font size is tiny in comparison to that of its bloated title:

 

In this poem, Hofer calls out the hyperbolic principle of newspaper headlines and storylines, with their subtext—a response to the pressure of selling ad-copy and getting eyes-on-pages—being what sells: “a corpse / crowds / the / people.” A corpse, indeed, is what passes for news.

In the poem dated Sunday, April 24, 2011, Hofer tenders a compressed moment for the inhabitants of Chernobyl, post-nuclear meltdown. The poet pushes the source material beyond “human interest” or environmental reporting, past even headline fascinations with war, death, and disaster. In the compression of language and syntax, Hofer transforms the abstraction of news (always happening elsewhere to someone else) and returns to it the immediacy of people caught in the midst of life’s exigencies: “in radioactive / breath / we eat / we drink / trying . . . the years were / a casket.” For a moment, in the midst of these lines, “we” are caught in the toxic air, our feet planted on the contaminated ground, our lives reduced to the relenting countdown of an atomic clock.

As an object, the chapbook owes much to the contribution of publisher Dawn Pendergast at Little Red Leaves. Using several of Hofer’s collages printed on cloth as a cover, Pendergast has sewn the chapbook together by machine, mimicking the mechanical processes of printing newspapers yet, like Hofer, bringing it back to the immediate and personal, one woman feeding the cloth beneath pressure-foot and needle. It is thus a pleasure to hold and admire, as well as to read.

Political, ambitious, visual, and compact, Jen Hofer’s Front Page News pulls its readers out of quotidian distraction and into a heated cynosure, the clipped, cryptic language reconfiguring the blatant emotional manipulation of news media and our own hunger for its “sizzurp.” It’s a remarkable collection, and makes one long for the full-length manuscript to find its way into print soon.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

TABLES

Alfred Corn
Press 53 ($14.95)

by James Naiden

Alfred Corn has published nine volumes of poetry since 1976. He has also published a novel and a book of essays as well as a book-long study of prosody. So he knows, presumably, how to construct a readable poem. Unfortunately, in his new book Tables, he stuffs many of his poems with overwhelming information, too much for the reader to find a coherent idea. An example is a long effort—I’m not sure whether it’s verse or prose poetry—titled “Oklahoma,” a dense, rambling testament to the near South. Here are middle lines of this three-pager:

Lawton’s Fort Sill, Tulsa’s Lockheed, and McAlester’s ammunition
Plants evidence the martial character of a people whose staked claims
Were often guaranteed by gunfire, and whose blood paid for conflicting
Rebel and Yankee loyalties. No better training for war than team
Spirit—just ask Jim Thorpe, or, since you can’t, inspect the medals displayed
In his house at Yale. Where’s the Wrestling Hall of Fame but in Stillwater?

If this is poetry, it’s also pedantic; Corn’s eagerness to tell you all about this or that frequently gets in the way of his intended art. When he is more disciplined in his lines, Corn writes well, if coyly, as in the first four (of seven) couplets written during a flight from England to Russia:

Mind, though they’ve banned material counterparts,
Your conscious page and pen got past the guards.

Think back to Mandelshtam at the Black Sea,
Composing silently, invisibly . . .

“It must be memorable.” Yes, or else
Our uninscriptions will unwrite themselves.

Then, too, if bombs incinerate this brain,
It won’t recall so much as my own name.
(“In-Flight Couplets Composed During a Bomb Alert”)

Corn is also fond of sonnets, and shows a playful side in constructing them—sometimes Italian in form, sometimes Shakespearean, sometimes a mix. The form limits his loquacity, and sonnets such as “St. Anthony In The Desert” and “Domus Caerulea” demonstrate that Corn can ennoble his writing with discipline. We see it too in the final six lines of his masterful “After Valery”:

Sleeper, massed gold and shadowed indolence,
Tranquil abandon its own best defense,
Doe, forever couched near mounds of grapes,

If the soul is absent, summoned to Hades,
Your form, whose womb a fluid forearm drapes,
Is awake. Your form’s awake, and your lover sees.

Corn also knows how to wave to friends in the crowd. In Tables, he writes “letters” to famous poets whose paths he’s crossed over the decades—Marilyn Hacker, Robert Pinsky, Grace Schulman, James Fenton—and refers to other literary figures such as the late Joseph Brodsky, all obviously intended to make the reader well aware of his connections, that he’s read the right books, and knows all the inside jokes. But one can tire easily of such name-dropping, however much one might appreciate the erudition and literariness of it all.

At his best, Corn can write a pithy effort of simple beauty—as in the final poem of Tables, “Lighthouse”:

Pilot at the helm of a hidden
headland it steers free
from convergence with the freighter
when fog and storm clouds gather

Sparking communiqué no full stop ends
its broadcast sung in a three-sixty sweep
the cycle burning up five solar seconds

Midnight eye that blinks away
invisibility      a high beam
revealing as it scans whatever seas
or ships return terra firma’s landmark gaze

Here, the poem hews to brevity, rather than expanding the basic trope into a dissertation. Alfred Corn seems to know this course is better, but he too often ignores this most basic element of craft: sculpting one’s work.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

SAILING THROUGH CASSIOPEIA

Dan Gerber
Copper Canyon Press ($16)

by George Kalamaras

Dan Gerber has always been a quietly magnificent poet. From his earliest book, 1971’s The Revenant, to his remarkable new collection, Sailing through Cassiopeia, Gerber’s poetry is a poetry of respect. One thinks of Chinese poets of antiquity who emphasize seeing “the world of the ten thousand things.” Unlike many lesser poets, Gerber has never been shy about wearing his influences on his sleeve, his respect for the world extending to poetic lineage: García Lorca, Machado, Rilke, Stevens, Kabir, and Rumi, to cite a few, as well as Tu Fu, Wang Wei, and other poets of the T’ang Dynasty. In a world where poets are obsessed with standing out and “finding their voice” (a model of individualism that serves corporate interest), Gerber is one of the few who truly does stand out because he blends in. He is like a gorgeous magnolia blossom on a tree of beautiful blossoms—his “individual” beauty is stunning, but it’s the tree that’s important, each blossom enhancing everything around it. He has given his life to poetry as a practice, his poems chronicling how he shapes and is shaped by voices and silences of those who have come before.

Never derivative, eloquently poised at the precipice of silence, Gerber’s quietly magnificent poems speak with the weight of living—what Robert Bly has referred to in other contexts as “psychic weight.” Perhaps it is this weight that has contributed to Gerber’s relative obscurity (despite his close association with Jim Harrison, with whom he founded the seminal journal Sumac and Sumac Press in 1968), which is unfortunate because younger poets have a great deal to learn from him. One thing to be gleaned from Gerber is how to engage poetry foremost as a practice. In Sailing through Cassiopeia Gerber’s decades of apprenticeship are palpable in a book so stunning—so tenderly branching into the world even as it tunnels inward—that it is difficult to put down.

Of course it opens with an epigraph from Rilke. Its first poem, “In Our Rented Cabin,” follows with an epigraph from Tu Fu: “I live my late years as if I’ve stolen my life.” Gerber’s courage in locating his sources at the outset is admirable, especially at his ripe age of seventy-two. His work, though, is uniquely its own, even as it shares points of engagement with mentors. He reflects back not only upon his life, and forward into what will come, but more importantly remains attentive to the now. It is telling that Gerber mentions the rented cabin in a few poems; he recognizes the delicate edge between dichotomies (self and other, individual and collective, owner and tenant, “owning” one’s body and abandoning it at death):

Little creek,
under the willows by my rented cabin—
more mine than any I could own—
tell me again the secret name
you murmur as I sit here alone,
without disappointment or hope.
(“In Late September”)

One element of the past that permeates the book is family. We meet Gerber’s mother and sisters Scotti, Sally, Paula, and Gay. The poet’s father, though, is most prominent. Gerber stirs memories, sometimes humorous, as in “Subject.” After the initially vague title, the poem clarifies the ambiguity: “When I asked my father if it would / make me insane / or cause dark hair to grow in my palms, / so everyone would know— / he laughed, and his head / bobbed back a little, in surprise.” However, for Gerber, the past never remains mere memory but is alive not only with the world but with ancestors, with lineage. He makes this marvelous connection in “Crocus,” for example, achieved largely through a subtle shift in verb tense and caesura:

Thirty-six years ago my father died
while snow was melting
and white and yellow crocuses,
in their spiked cups of bright green,
push their way into the air,
through soil that’s just now waking up.

Thus, Gerber experiences the past as a method of inhabiting the now. His work, like poets of the T’ang Dynasty, achieves a remarkable transparency between inner and outer worlds—“I resign / to the cries of others in me” (“Prolegomenon”)—leaving one’s ego aside, merging self and other. This extends to the world of physics, as in “To an Electron”: “you are here, / a tiny thing spinning among / tiny things spinning / that exist—if they do— / only because of each other, / only because there is spinning.” In “Rothko,” the poet investigates the complexities of seeing—how much of seeing is individual action and how much of seeing “sees us,” so to speak: “Does the painting come from my seeing, / as if it were a thing, and I a thing, seeing?” In one of the most moving poems in the collection, “Quail,” Gerber takes this a step further:

When I listen to Bach the world is Bach.
When Mozart, then Mozart.
Yesterday, all morning long
the world was Arvo Pärt,
until it became a commune of California quail
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

When I turn to Machado, the world
is incomparably Machado,
until it becomes Wallace Stevens—
like the quail—
pulsing pizzicato of hosannas,
taking me right back to Bach . . .

Typical of Gerber’s earlier books, we get a nice dose of poems about his dogs, tender yet never saccharin, as in “Old Dog”:

She has lived in us like rain in clouds,
and now, unsteady on her feet,
half-dead, half-blind, half-daft . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I doubt she feels the sense of doom
we carry
in our also-aging bodies.

Other animals populate this collection—snails, Mexican Doves, even parasites, as in “To a Tick,” where he again demonstrates reciprocity: “What a perfect couple we are / now, living off the same blood.” The most moving example is “Barking and Howling,” in which the poet hears a pack of coyotes in a canyon,

most likely closing in
on the spotted fawn I saw this morning,
dragging its right hind leg
to keep up with its mother and twin.

I pray it may not be
the wounded fawn I saw,
now trembling in fear.

Another perhaps
but not that one.

Dan Gerber’s work is complex without being complicated, his language keenly aware of itself without being flashy. He’s a fascinating blend of voices and traditions, none of which compete with one another, the poet not even competing with himself to be distinct from his poetic ancestors. In a word, he is not fashionable; Gerber simply doesn’t fit. And that’s what’s most endearing about him, but also painfully frustrating, as his work is not as widely known as it should be. As he says in “Dyslexic,” after being tutored in second grade to help with his “spelling,” though “they didn’t yet have the word”:

After a week of frustration,
my teacher quit.

It was like trying to reeducate a magnet,
he told my mother. As if
I’d been born into the wrong language, he said.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore

Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

OUR GLEAMING BONES UNROBED

Grant Loveys
ECW Press ($18.95)

by Erick Piller

While the title of award-winning fiction writer Grant Loveys’s first book of poetry, Our Gleaming Bones Unrobed, calls to mind the tough, disembodied structure that underlies experience, it also suggests, by a trick of opposites, the body that enrobes this structure and obscures its luminescence. This paradox runs throughout the collection, most evidently in the poems’ use of physiological imagery and metaphor. “Method,” for instance, imagines “the streetlight’s teeth through wet leaves”; in “On the Occasion of a Book Burning”—perhaps the book’s most gratifying poem—Loveys writes that “the universe’s heart is a ruined house” and that “a pile of ash in a clenched fist will turn to blood.” Yet in opposite fashion Loveys reaffirms the body’s place among the world of things: “the china plate of your skull,” “the church of his chest,” “my heart just a drop of blood / suspended in an amber jar.” Although Our Gleaming Bones Unrobed refuses to offer any easily accessible narrative or theme by which the reader may understand the collection as a sequence, the insistent imagistic movement between embodied and disembodied forms acts, one might say, as a kind of ligament between the poems.

So preoccupied with the constructive and deconstructive powers of the gaze, Loveys’s speaker tends to recede, earlier in the book, into a mode of detached observation; at times, the speaker becomes an eye without an “I.” “Wolves” in particular, with its disinterested, God’s eye point of view, recalls the absent first person narration of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novella Jealousy with lines such as “A fresh spurt of blood like gold thread on the snow” and “The moon knuckles a skin of frost from its eye.” Remarkably, the speaker’s self-effacement exemplifies the prevailing tension between flesh and bone, being and not-being. Often, this relentless gesturing toward physical sensation, accompanied by a progressive disembodiment of the “I,” threatens to tear Loveys’ poems apart.

Further along in the collection, by contrast, the speaker returns with renewed presence as the central actor in a series of absurd narratives suggestive of the work of fellow Canadian-born poet Mark Strand. Among these later poems, “Apes” and “No Mercy” stand as two of the most engaging examples of Loveys’ use of symbol to lend force to dreamlike narrative without falling into sentimentality:

This morning I awoke to an ape
resting in a slant of light
on your side of the bed.
It smelled of your lotioned skin,
worked its joints into your usual
slumbering tableau,
your rhythm in its cavernous breath
as it opened its damp eyes.
(from “Apes”)

In the final analysis, Our Gleaming Bones Unrobed remains less interested in investigating the psychological nuances of its speaker than in formulating a broader anatomy of matter and meaning. Loveys arrives at the book’s title via a pronoun transformation, the generalization of a line from “Funeral through a Glass Bird,” “your gleaming bones unrobed.” This move from the poem’s “your” to the title’s “our” at once enlarges the semantic scope of the title and, in its extreme breadth, weakens its power of representation. The corollary, the speaker’s alienation from the world of the poems—his refusal and, finally, inability to participate in that world—seems strangely apt in a collection that concludes: “Sometimes the world’s indifference / makes all the difference in the world.”

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore

Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

SPELLS: New and Selected Poems

Annie Finch
Wesleyan University Press ($30)

by Bethany Rose Prosseda

Annie Finch’s Spells is an aptly named compilation of poems, performance pieces, poetic dramas, and verse translations written by the author over the past forty years. Deeply inspired by the feminist movement of the 1970s and the incantatory quality of language, Finch’s collection engages in a conversation with both cultural and poetic foremothers—from Demeter and Cleopatra to Sappho and Lorde—that aims to transcend all space and time.

While an exploration of the feminine mystique lies at the heart of Spells, the collection works towards bigger themes. Organized into six sections by decade, Finch’s poems unfold in reverse chronological order. Opening with her newest poem and ending with a translated fragment of Sappho, Finch seeks to transport the reader back in time. Or rather, she seeks to transport the reader to a space devoid of time. In this space, where time is no longer a unit of measure or a means of comparison, all distance is lost.

Finch succeeds in transporting the reader to this timeless space not only through the employment of a reverse chronology, but also through her use of a strange yet familiar metrical language. Although metrical poetry can often tend towards anachronism when viewed through a post-modern lens, the strangeness of Finch’s meter prevents her verse from being predictable or feeling dated, and its familiar pulse creates a deep and mysterious relationship with language that drives each line forward. The pulse and patterns of Finch’s meter preside over the collection’s lexicon and work to evacuate, at least in part, language of its meaning. The hybrid language that results from the collapse of language into rhythm is less polarized, and more open than the one we know:

All we want is to find the love
in the faces of the people we love.
All we need is to find the dark
in the nighttime sky, to lie down to sleep
in the darkness, where stars and moon keep vigil,
in the silence of a sleeping earth.
All we require is to wake to sunlight
in the morning, to simple sky,
to breathe aloud as the sky is breathing,
to drink the water of the earth.

All we need is to touch the planet
and find it clean where we were born,
where our ancestors breathed and planted,
where we live with the plants and birds.

For Finch, to be open is to be whole. However, such wholeness cannot be achieved in the present, where binaries and time cleave us from other people, the world, and ourselves. As such, the only way to achieve any semblance of wholeness is to return to the past and to our prelapsarian state where there were no binaries: no good nor evil.

Spells is an incantation meant to make the reader complete. Finch succeeds in creating a sense of wholeness by abandoning the minutia of the present for bigger and more human themes, such as love, spirituality, death, nature, and the patterns of time. This book’s grand dream is to bestow us the chance to forge newer, more open, and deeper connections between ourselves and others—a chance to build a better world. Finch acknowledges the likelihood of this dream coming true in the collection’s final moment:

It is not appropriate, in a household
Given to the Muses. Those lamentations
Do not belong here.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore

Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

HOT FLASH SONNETS

Moira Egan
Passager Books ($14)

by Heidi Czerwiec

I bought Hot Flash Sonnets assuming it was a sequel to the anthology coedited by Moira Egan, Hot Sonnets (Entasis Press, 2011), a collection of sexy sonnets about and by women. It both is and isn’t: though these poems are all Egan’s, the title, perspective, and style evoke the anthology. Yet where the anthology is a luxurious romp, Egan’s new volume details the unsexy and unsettling symptoms of how “we euphemize this ‘moon of pause,’” through a sequence of sonnets with titles like “Insomnia,” “Weight Gain,” “Dryness,” and “Clicking Knee.” Her tonal range sweeps from sarcasm to panic to sorrow, often within the same poem. In this book, she performs one of the greatest gifts of poetry: to remind us (well, at least us girls) that we’re not alone.

The volume opens with the hilarious “What the Flesh Is Heir To,” which proposes a “menopause kit” analogous to the first period kits distributed to preteens:

Dear Kimberly-Clark:
We have some suggestions.
We need Kleenex, Lightdays, and also sage
Advice about the menopausal question:
To HRT or not.           Soy? Calcium?
And could you please throw in some Halcion?

There are several cleverly wry moments, as in “Confused Complexion” when, after finding a zit next to a crow’s foot, Egan declares “I object to this correlative”; or in an ode to the female Viagra, “Femystique®”:

We, former horn-dogs, floozies, tramps;
[much] (dated:) scarlet women, tarts, hussies,
old-school sluts, harlots, trollops—we, strumpets,
can’t seem to get it up.

The “Mood Swing” poems are especially deft, making use of the sonnet’s structural turn to illustrate via metaphor the violent change of stormy weather, a cat’s temper, or a riptide.

The sonnet sequence is central to this project’s subversiveness. Traditionally, the woman is the object of desire: Petrarch’s Laura or Dante’s Beatrice, as alluded to in “Arnica.” Here, Egan inscribes herself into the sonnet sequence, and though the topic is still desire (or the waning of it), and though she’s often humorous, she highlights a crucial theme—one Egan states baldly in “Things That Disappear,” via a friend’s plea, “You have to write about the things that vanish!”, and in the stark first line of “Two Middle-Aged Women Walk Into a Bar,” “I think at fifty women disappear.” This sonnet sequence brings into sharp focus the experiences of women who aren’t supposed to signify—who, having outlasted their sexual relevance in a culture that worships youth, are expected to dissipate gracefully.

As Tina Fey has noted, show business dismisses “a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.” Even poetry, with its Younger Poets Prizes and lists of hotshots “Under 30,” isn’t immune from fetishizing the young. Yet Egan refuses to go gentle, declaiming “O fucking menopause. O for a muse / of estrogen.” This is why we need a book like Hot Flash Sonnets. Moira Egan, please, keep talking.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013