Tag Archives: winter 2008

SHEER FICTION

Volume IV
Paul West
McPherson & Company ($26)

by Jeff Bursey

Paul West (b. 1930) is the author of over three dozen novels and non-fiction works, including The Rat Man of Paris, a fictionalized account of a Parisian eccentric traumatized by the Nazis, and The Shadow Factory, a recent memoir about his battle with aphasia after a stroke. This recent work—the final volume in a series of essays and reviews on writing and writers, one rich in allusions drawn from astronomy, air flight, and etymology—is a genuine delight to read, while at the same time an exercise in peering into the darkening night of a stylist from another time and sensibility.

Having said that, I ought to clarify that West is completely unlike that very English English professor everyone had whose classes were interminable, the drabness broken now and then by whistled arias to illustrate some dry point taken from notes yellowed with age and home to earwigs. Here is a fair example of West in full stride:

If you fix one eye on Faulkner and the other on Melville, and you remember some of what Keats said about negative capability, you can just about manage to commit the delectable autonomy known as writing for its own sake—for the glory, the rebirth, the illusion of doing what nobody has ever done before. There’s nothing more unassailable than that, even as things fall apart around you and you see the fruitflies ascending to power without composing so much as a paragraph. Vary the image a bit, amassing the bestiary of the foul, and you can add Zola’s toad of disgust, which he said you have to swallow every morning before getting on with the work. Swallow it, note the hegemony of the fruitflies, and indeed the demise of yet another noble unicorn gone to roost in Paris or now plying trade on Wall Street, and you then become clear enough to write for the next few hours as if the world were waiting for your sun to rise and would do nothing serious without you. That’s the feeling, the pumped-up, inspired elation that lofts you—me—from novel to novel even while the tweetie-pies of Stodge College, Oxbridge cough up some dark perilous matter and plaster it into their album of envious sorrow.

No apologies or hedging about there when it comes to the joy of writing, or, more to the point, its importance. In this he differs from many in his adopted land, as he declared in “The Shapelessness of Things to Come,” from the first volume, that art is “a word that few American novelists care to use about what they do, as if art were a somehow retrograde thing, somewhere between lunacy and impetigo.”

The four volumes of Sheer Fiction (from 1988, 1991, 1994, and 2007) total roughly 800 pages, with an index at the end of the fourth volume, and comprise the equivalent of a master class in the appreciation of reading others and the hard-won joy in writing one’s own works. Essays in this volume cover, among other subjects, J. M. Coetzee (and his mischievous use of West as a character in his recent novel Elizabeth Costello), Borges and West in conversation, Beckett (West has a marked preference for the novels over the plays), poetry about the Titanic, Faulkner, words, the use of history and deviating from it when writing novels (as West has done), and much on the importance of the novel.

What keeps a reader immersed is the combination of style, ideas, and West’s fervent readiness to talk about literature meaningfully and deeply, without being precious or narcissistically over-indulgent. In “Backlash Against the Novel” there are spine-stiffening lines for those who may be drooping over their desks: “the novel, fiction, style should be seen to evolve, as black hole theory or the pacemaker has evolved, maybe not en route to perfection, but in its own punctuated evolution... intermittently improving. A meliorist’s approach? Yes, but, more than that, a view that hates stagnation.” The writers that have helped the novel evolve include Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Vladimir Nabokov, Witold Gombrowicz, John Hawkes, Blaise Cendrars, Primo Levi, David Markson, and W.G. Sebald. Someone who thinks the novel must evolve won’t have a high regard for mock-Victorian works, minimalist works, Tom Wolfe, and most of the fiction that lies inert, almost an insult against intelligence and aesthetic discrimination, inside the pages of The New Yorker and occasionally The Atlantic Monthly. West is firm about this pursuit. “So, when you consider the writing of fiction, you are not only saying, ‘Test it against the stars,’ you are inspecting the very purpose of sitting down to cast an observation in language, which is in a sense to misrepresent it, change its appearance conceptually.”

It’s daunting, and an act of responsibility, and opening oneself to judgment, to test what you write “against the stars”—against those who have come before. West admires the first line from Beckett’sMurphy as saying something perfectly: “The sun shown, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” A real writer “starts peering into the bowels of language, mimesis, model theory, in the interests of a praiseworthy match: word to thing. It doesn’t always work, and half-decent words will often carry the day when, with a little more sweat, a superior set would have won the palm. . .” We’ve all read fiction that seemed to issue forth from a forge, hammered out by starvelings of literature disdainful of adjectives and scornful or fearful of adverbs, unwilling to stretch syntax or send the gentlest ripple across the stylistic pool, hoping their caution will land them an academic post, if not create a best-seller. West will have none of that; he’s an advocate for a style that has a definite personality or character. Parsimonious, colourless sentences are anathema to him, and he has many different and biting opinions on the paucity of the language used by today’s novelists.

Often, those who press against the boundaries find their books shunted to the side, not discreetly—no one’s paying attention except the affected and a few interested parties—but obviously. “Thus, after the fashion of the Soviet Encyclopedia, certain people get unpersoned,” West writes in “Of Morrow and Tomorrow,” an essay on Bradford Morrow. “The nation stands between the partial menace of cliquism and the total scandal of a retreat from imagination, from style, from the fastidious. When everything, because that’s the way the nation wants it, turns into entertainment, nothing meritorious is going to survive, not with illiteracy being promoted full-time in the schools.”

West is an inspiring artist who reminds one, through his driven, incessant (and at times, over four volumes, slightly repetitive) visits and revisits to those writers who matter to him, that writing is a calling, a force, faced with hazards that extend from the “gestapo of the plain prose party” to giant corporate publishing entities. “When the semi-literates have organized themselves even more thoroughly than they already have at the publishing houses and the magazines, phrasemakers such as I will be the first to go, and a small platoon we will be, disdained by book editors who cannot spell and magazine editors who equate literature with gossip or the facetious.”

Many will see that, and much else, as the complaint of an old man, no different from others who say that today’s athletes aren’t as good as they were way back when. The best way to rebut West is to read him, take in what he is looking for, and respond at length. Perhaps some young novelist could become riled and write a book of essays to nail their colours to a mast. If someone else’s shirt or skin gets pinned, so much the better for a conversation about what literature really means to people.

In his introduction to this volume, West writes that “the people running the book trade” consider the essay “anathema, the book of essays space poison.” Thanks, then, to McPherson & Company, who have had faith in these four volumes of invigorating, purposeful, and rambunctious prose prods. This is a handsome set every adventurous writer will delight in.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009

A MESSAGE BACK AND OTHER FURORS

Leonard Schwartz
Chax Press ($16)

by Craig Santos Perez

Leonard Schwartz’s A Message Back and Other Furors is a furious study of language and form. This book is divided into two sections: a 60-page serial title poem and a 7-page prose coda, titled “Coda (Red Fog).” The first poem begins: “Familiar ground is a foreign land,” a line that serves as the first line for several poems. Throughout, Schwartz draws our attention to the familiar and the foreign; what’s more, he sketches the various perceptual experiences of defamiliarization and deforeignization.

Formally, the poems alternate (recto / verso) between long and short lyrics, as follows:

Familiar land is a foreign ground.
Zero built its nest in These States.
Some people naked, others partly clothed.
How many gods people the thundering hall?
Words are animals that want to run away,
deer startled at the sight of mental agitation.
And being each and all unfurnished
when the grass and flowers are all gone
Americans awake in the artificial light of a large hall.
Our preference: not to observe that we are used like things.
Such obedience to cause and effect, action and sound.
Everything in this world is made to fit.
Everyone in the world works to make it fit.
It is fitting that everyone in the world should so work.
In winter I experience autumn’s losses.
Spring fosters an awareness of that loss.
In summer, just summer, just this once.

//

Human remains remain human.

Schwartz has the remarkable ability to integrate lyricism and politics, image and abstraction, and he uses the major compositional mode of A Message Back, repetition-and-re-arrangement, to excellent effect. Across poems, lines and phrases repeat themselves in surprising variations:

Familiar land is a foreign ground.
Some nudes escape, other partly clothe.
Animals the words that decide to run away forever.
Being each and all furnished with waves we don’t need
we Americans awake in the morning to high tide.
Such obedience to cause and effect, action and sound.
Everyone in the world works to make it fit,
after all zero built its nest in these States.
How many natures people the thundering howl?

In this formal movement, certain signifiers are freed from their original use and allowed to occupy different contexts. Schwartz thus encourages the reader to look back—or “message back”—to contemplate the possible meaning of the re-arrangements. Besides “Familiar land is a foreign ground,” the phrase “Human remains remain human” echoes in different poems, each time adding a new layer of meaning: “Human remains remain human / makes for an emotional humus”; “Human remains remain human; / some humans apparently don’t”; “Human remains remain human / but not the particular humans they once held”; “Human remains remain human; / human remains are all that remain.”

Alongside this serious strain is a more colloquial and humorous texture. Phrases like “smart aleck” and “Star-69” pepper the work as Schwartz’s voice moves from meditative to agitated. We gain a sense of the impending madness about midway through the book, when we read:

Your attention please:
train #117, The Signifier,

Bound for Shapely Union,
making stops in Logos, Lyre,

Limpid, and Translator-Of-Desire,
is now boarding.

All ticketed passengers are invited to assemble
at the gate marked “Broken Mirror”.

Tying into Schwartz’ “other furors” is his humor. Rarely does a poetry collection make one laugh out loud, but these lines are irresistible: “I think, therefore I have an office”; “(I plan to invest in a line of houseboats / without any floors—driftwood really); “You want to have your Odysseus / And Ulysses it too.”

In the coda to the book, Schwartz states: “You believe in perceptions, in forms, in bodies, in perceptions of forms and bodies, but these are all maps, the perceptions, the bodies, the forms. You choose to look at them—the bodies and the forms—but there are no maps onto which to place what you see, no charts with which to freeze what you feel, no maps or charts to deploy in order to traverse or conquer this field.” With this in mind, we are able to read A Message Back and Other Furors in all its perceptual and formal terrains and let go of any desire to place or freeze or conquer the field. What remains is poetry and its “ceremonies of deep listening.”

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009

SOURCES

Devin Johnston
Turtle Point Press ($15.95)

by Joseph Bradshaw

In his essay “On Robert Duncan,” Michael Palmer posits that Duncan’s modeling of himself as a “derivative” poet—“a poet of near infinite derivations”—is “grounded in his conviction regarding poetry’s responsibility toward and derivation from the immediate world, that is, a world of multiple immediacies, socio-political, sexual, psychic and imaginal.” This intermingling of textual and experiential derivations conflates the “read” with the “lived,” and it is just this conflation—a paradox, if you want to call it that—which forms the core of Duncan’s expansive, difficult poetic.

Duncan scholar and poet Devin Johnston explores this same conflation of the read and the lived in his aptly titled Sources. As with his previous collection, 2004’s excellent Aversions, there is the presence of ancient voices such as Propertius and Sulla, and layered allusions to a rich lyric history. In Sources, however, these voices seem more intermingled with invasive memory, door stoop observations, travelogues, reflections on bird flight and relationships gone awry—voices more intermingled, in short, with “the immediate world.”

Take, for instance, the second stanza of “After Sappho”:

Everybody knows—every day
some Helen leaves her husband, home,
and daughter, to board a train that’s bound
for Shreveport or Cheyenne

Where George Oppen in “Of Being Numerous” takes pains to inform us that the Phyllis he’s referring to is “not neo-classic”—“the girl’s name is Phyllis,” he insists—the name Helen (a name readily associated with the horrors of war) here assumes its mythological weight while implying a generic category of contemporary experience—the wife abandoning home. Curiously, while the mythological name is in part made generic and deflated, the place names here are elevated to the level of myth: What’s in Shreveport or Cheyenne anyway? Refuge from violence? Wounded soldiers of the War?

Wallace Stevens once famously said that a poet can write about war by describing the movements of ice skaters. With “After Sappho” Johnston demonstrates that a poet can write about war by conflating the present with the mythological past. The poem continues:

—led astray, I almost said

but that she steps
so lightly down.
Which brings to mind Elena—
she’s not here.

I’d rather catch her eye
across the shop
counter than watch
a full squadron rise
by vectored thrust
above the dunes.

Elena, a derivation of Helen, is invoked after Helen “steps / so lightly down,” as from a train platform—an immediate place and experience. But Elena is invoked against her absence—“she’s not here”—she’s only alluded to by Helen’s bodily movements. In other words, Elena would be our non-neo-classical Helen if she were present. And she would most certainly be more lovely to regard than “a full squadron rise / by vectored thrust.” But alas, “across the shop / counter” we have only American television screens delivering far-off wars, as we sit with the myths we choose to live among—the sources that inform our experience, which in turn inform and alter our other, perhaps deeper, sources.

While “After Sappho” cannot be called a translation, it does carry Sappho across the expanse of history into the present moment. This poem, like many in Sources, is rather a re-version, or, to use the etymological heft of that word, a re-turning—a slow grinding and enriching of the same soil that Master Duncan ground into our common poetic culture. It is our job as readers, if we too are to be enriched by the common work, to take the handle of the plow (or, if you prefer, the rototiller) and give ourselves over to the “infinite derivations” of attention that Johnston’s poems ask of us.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009

THE GOLDEN AGE OF PARAPHERNALIA

Kevin Davies
Edge ($15)

by Steven Zultanski

Kevin Davies has trafficked in disruptive formal entanglement for three volumes now. He’s a virtuoso of white space, using the blank page to punctuate convolutions of thought and utterance. Often this is a part of the poems’ humor, but just as often it’s a way to make connections between lines precisely by bringing to the fore the distance between them. Instead of the mental leap that a reader must make between lines in a poem that may be linguistically disjunctive but nonetheless left justified, Davies’s poems literally leap across the page. However, this leaping is not an element of expressivity, and Davies never stoops to merely fashioning a pretty shape—his forms are taut constructions that work to continually subvert the meaning of any given line.

For example, in the middle of a seemingly untitled section of his new book, The Golden Age of Paraphernalia, we get this constellation:

lakes ● Mansion,
yacht, and high-powered friends.
Remarks are literature. ● Excellent, scholarly
bartenders

On the page, the sparseness of these lines is followed by another short series of “remarks,” which shifts altogether the direction of the poem—each stanza is altered by the next, and by the generous blank space between them. While the effect is admittedly somewhat lost now that the above stanza is surrounded by chunky prose instead of cascading into another tightly-wound miniature, we can still get the picture: associations are contorted through a highly-wrought machinery. The word “lakes” is followed by a dot and the beginning of a new sentence, and is thus both associated and disassociated from the mansion. On the one hand, the lakes are private lakes, the view from the window of a wealthy person with “high-powered friends.” On the other hand, few people actually own lakes, and even the wealthy homeowner probably looks out onto someone else’s lake—or onto the state’s lake. Lakes are just as likely as anything else to be caught up in the circuit of commodities, but they also may function as a remainder of public property in the massive grid of private property. The next line, “Remarks are literature,” works as a kind of ars poetica, given that Davies’s poems often feel like a series of remarks, skillfully arranged to become more than remarks, but without losing their status as overheard statements and quotidian comedy. Finally, “Excellent, scholarly / bartenders” is a perfect example of the system of inversion at work in this book. So often, an image or a statement is flipped on its head by the line break, and ultimately the poems begin to feel like a series of somersaults.

The centerpiece of this collection is a long poem entitled “Lateral Argument.” Here Davies doesn’t construct small stanzas on mostly empty pages, but instead runs the lines from top to bottom, in a variety of shifting stanzaic forms, in order to craft a dizzying lyric from an array of personal, ironic, and politicized statements. “Lateral Argument” concludes:

Most of the crops look bad, the reservoirs are severely
depleted, and a huge brown

cloud hangs over south Asia.
The very fact that you are writing

a string quartet is itself an argument.
I then witnessed my own liver being roasted.

The tone is largely ironic, but not completely. It’s clear that the writing of a string quartet, as an aesthetic argument or political act, is laughable in the context of drought and the “huge brown cloud” that ominously looms over Asia. Even though Davies’s work can often read like a concentration of discursive formations, its argument, in the end, is not simply about discourse. The place of the poet is not within an ongoing aesthetic conversation somehow transcendent of material reality. Instead Davies treats the poet as a composer already caught up in the most dangerous currents of the contemporary: the policing of the physical body and the all-pervasiveness of dominant ideologies. It seems at first to be discursive critique, to be undermining our forms of speech. However, Davies’s work does so only to the extent that those forms of speech construct our understanding of the world, and of the “huge brown cloud.”

Thus the digressions and thwarted clichés that litter these poems are comic, but in a profound sense—they are also a political argument, a way of inverting the familiar or expected and uncovering the strange and/or uncomfortable truth. The Golden Age of Paraphernalia is not about overturning expectations per se, but about the form of overturning itself. The gaps between lines and clever reversals are part of an optimistic, almost utopian attempt to untie ideological knots and rewrite the present in terms that are funny, true, and always mournfully aware of the impossibility of the task.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009

A Counterpunching Radio: Jack Spicer in American Poetics

MY VOCABULARY DID THIS TO ME
The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer
Jack Spicer
Edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian
Wesleyan University Press ($35)

by Stephan Delbos

In his 1960 National Book Award acceptance speech, Robert Lowell made one of the most famous distinctions in American poetry by drawing a line between “raw” poets like Allen Ginsberg, who had rocketed to fame four years earlier with “Howl,” and “cooked” or academic poets like Lowell himself. Few figures besides Lowell had the authority to make such a statement and be taken seriously, and at the time, he seemed to have captured the zeitgeist: A rupture had been developing in American poetry for almost a decade and Lowell’s speech acknowledged that a decisive break had finally been made. Poets chose sides and wrote, or continued to write, accordingly.

Jack Spicer was, by Lowell’s standards, a kind of anti-poet. Though he was part owner of the Six Gallery where Ginsberg first read “Howl,” Spicer’s relationship with the Beat movement was strained at best, as he preferred alcohol and arcane wisdom (Gnostic texts, Tarot cards) to marijuana and satori. “Ferlinghetti is a nonsense syllable invented by The Poet,” he wrote in 1960. But Spicer was no more aligned with the halls of higher education than the bearded Beats. Trained in literature and linguistics, both of which informed his poetry, Spicer nevertheless became alienated from the dispassionate rigors of the academy after 1950, when his refusal to sign the Loyalty Oath got him expelled from the PhD program at the University of California, Berkeley. Though he would continue to teach throughout his life, most notably his “Poetry as Magic Workshop” (which became a seminal event for a diverse group of poets including Jack Gilbert, Robert Duncan, and George Stanley), Spicer maintained an uneasy truce with formal education.

Spicer’s refusal, or inability, to allow himself and his poetry to be categorically defined more or less guaranteed that he would never achieve the level of success enjoyed by many of his contemporaries. Though his work would eventually be viewed as a precursor to the New American Poetry and the post-avant movement, Spicer toiled in relative obscurity during his lifetime, keeping a shabby, one-room flat in North Beach, San Francisco, where he lived on peanut butter sandwiches and cocktails of milk and brandy while writing—or “receiving,” as he called it—difficult poems which grappled with the very roots of language and utterance at the expense of a wide audience.

In August 1965, Spicer’s friends found him in the poverty ward of San Francisco General. He had suffered an alcoholic collapse in his apartment building days before and was brought in unidentified. In Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian’s tremendous Spicer biography Poet Be Like God (Wesleyan University Press, 1998) friend and fellow poet Robin Blaser described Spicer’s last moments: “The only time he brought down that incredible garble was the point at which he broke, and with a terrible struggle, shitting in his pants and everything else, to speak those sensible words to me: My vocabulary did this to me. Your love will let you go on.”

Part of that now-legendary statement has become the title of the long-awaited volume of Spicer’s collected poems. Masterfully edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, My Vocabulary Did This to Mepresents most of Spicer’s published and unpublished poems in a single, chronological volume. The collection expands and improves on two previous volumes, The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, (Black Sparrow Press, 1975) and One Night Stand & Other Poems, (Grey Fox Press, 1980) which gathered Spicer’s mature and early work into separate publications. By presenting all of Spicer’s work in a single volume, My Vocabulary Did This to Me allows readers to track the radical evolution of the poet’s style and come to a fuller understanding of Spicer’s significance in the American literary landscape.

Spicer distinguished two periods of his own oeuvre as decisively as Lowell had divided American poetry. An older Spicer would ridicule his early poems as “one night stands,” and distance himself from the idea of a single, perfectly-crafted poem in favor of purely inspired, or “dictated,” book-length poems. Nevertheless, his early poems bear the seeds of a style that would eventually flourish, and the best of them are beautiful and richly strange. “We find the body difficult to speak,” is one example:

We find the body difficult to speak,
The face too hard to hear through,
We find that eyes in kissing stammer
And that heaving groins
Babble like idiots.
Sex is an ache of the mouth.

As his poetry developed, Spicer moved beyond a neo-romantic tone and narration (which his contemporary Robert Duncan would continue to practice for most of his life) to an uncompromising sense of poetics that wrestled the angels of language, meaning, and perception. The change is dramatic. In an early poem, Spicer wrote: “I would like to write a poem as long as California.” By the time he had reached what he considered his mature phase, he would write: “I would like to make poems out of real objects.”

In a 1957 letter to Robin Blaser, which Spicer published in his book Admonitions, Spicer explained the concept of the “serial,” or book-length poem: “The trick naturally is what Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us—not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem…. There is really no single poem.” Spicer would pursue this ideal for the rest of his life, composing book-length poems of separate sections woven around a single concept (After Lorca), tone (Admonitions), vocabulary (Language), or image series (Map Poems).

After Lorca, published in 1957, is the first book Spicer considered mature. The book consists of a series of “translations” from Lorca, interspersed with letters from Spicer to Lorca and even an introduction by the dead Spanish poet. Translation is a term that must be used loosely, however, as Clayton Eshleman has calculated that eleven of the thirty-four poems in After Lorca are completely original, and that Spicer took liberties even with the poems which are more faithful to Lorca. As Spicer said in a 1965 lecture included in The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi (Wesleyan University Press, 1998): “The fact that I didn’t know Spanish really well enough to translate Lorca was the reason I could get in touch with Lorca.” Spicer claimed that he had channeled Lorca’s presence—that the dead poet was, in fact, active in the book’s composition.

The poems in After Lorca dance between presence and absence. Seemingly hollow and resonant, they point toward meaning rather than create it. Setting and narrative dissolve to imagery and reference. As Spicer wrote in one letter to Lorca contained in the book: “I would like to point to the real, disclose it, to make a poem that has no sound in it but the pointing of a finger.” The poem “Forest” is one example of such disclosure.

You want me to tell you
The secret of springtime—

And I relate to that secret
Like a high-branching firtree

Whose thousand little fingers
Point a thousand little roads.

I will tell you never, my love,
Because the river runs slowly

But I shall put into my branching voice
The ashy sky of your gaze.

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

The secret of springtime. How
I wish I could tell you!

The fourth couplet especially shows how Spicer allows his poems to sway between disclosure and withdrawal. By postulating a verbal equation that doesn’t precisely add up, Spicer creates the illusion of disclosure while actually deepening the mystery he is supposed to be revealing. Both the speaker and the being addressed in this poem dissolve into the imagery the poem activates. The “secret of springtime” is the core of the poem, a seed of emotional energy that can never be precisely imparted; the poem is the speaker’s best effort at disclosing the ineffable truths of love and natural regeneration.

The concept of the serial poem was only one tenet of Spicer’s idiosyncratic system of poetics. Some of Spicer’s later poems are themselves descriptions of the theories governing his poetic practice. In the poem “Sporting Life” from Language, published in 1965, Spicer described his theory of composition by dictation, using the metaphor of the poet as a radio.

The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios
don’t develop scar-tissue. . . .
....................................................

The poet

Takes too many messages.

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

The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a
counterpunching radio.
And those messages (God would not damn them) do not even
know they are champions.

In Spicer’s language, the poet is a radio receiving signals from Outside. Rather than being the expression of an individual ego, a poem, for Spicer, is the expression of a source that exists beyond the poet’s consciousness. Any interference on the part of the poet is bound to result in a less pure, or a failed poem. As he said in a 1965 lecture: “try to keep as much of yourself as possible out of the poem.” In the same lecture, Spicer goes on to describe the painstaking process—which sometimes lasted all night—of trying to decide whether a certain line was conscious, and thus worthless, or truly dictated, and thus part of the poem.

This concept of poetic dictation runs back through Yeats and Rilke to Blake and even to the Biblical prophets, a heritage of which Spicer was well aware. What makes Spicer’s take on such theories particularly interesting in mid-century American poetry is not only the metaphors he uses to describe the process of poetic dictation, but the fact that this concept takes all responsibility out of the hands of the poet, and thus stands in stark contrast to both the ego-driven bardic ramblings of Allen Ginsberg and the crafted self confessions of Robert Lowell.

In the same 1965 lecture, Spicer described the idea of dictation this way: “In other words, instead of the poet being a beautiful machine which…did everything for itself—almost a perpetual motion machine of emotion until the poet’s heart broke or it was burned on the beach like Shelley’s—instead there was something from the Outside coming in…. if you have an idea that you want to develop, don’t write a poem about it because it’s almost bound to be a bad poem.” Such theories will seem antithetical to some and outright blasphemous to others. Nevertheless, it is precisely these ideas and Spicer’s dedication to them that have established Spicer as a poet ahead of his time—a poet who, whether he knew it or not, was following Mallarme’s dictum of writing for an audience which does not yet exist.

There is a kind of black magic, a Faustian danger inherent in the process of dictation, or at least in Spicer’s description of the indifferent and possibly malicious sources which guided his poems. It is this danger that provides a possible key to Spicer’s early death, and some explanation of his final words. As he described the dangers of dictation in a lecture, Spicer’s words seemed personally prophetic: “Take what you want and pay for it, says God…. But the closer you get to [the source of dictation] the worse off you get, and the more it eats into you.”

Spicer’s final book of poetry, Book of Magazine Verse, was published posthumously in 1966. The poems were intended for popular magazines, from Poetry to The St. Louis Sporting News, and Spicer actually submitted them prior to the book’s publication. As planned, none of the poems were accepted. However, the book contains some of Spicer’s most memorable and most quoted lines, such as “Get those words out of your mouth and into your heart.” The book also features some of Spicer’s most obvious outright attacks on his poet peers, in which he displays the full breadth of the vituperative tone that had been present in his verse from early on. In contrast to the self-referential and mytho-hermetic poems of Spicer’s middle period books like The Holy Grail, the poems in Book of Magazine Verse are nakedly compassionate and actively engaged with politics, religion, and history.

The final poem in the book, the tenth of “Ten Poems for DownBeat,” addresses an unnamed but obvious Allen Ginsberg, for whom Spicer harbored particular contempt. As a fellow homosexual poet based in San Francisco, and one who achieved phenomenal fame while he himself went unknown, Ginsberg was an understandable object of contempt for Spicer. The poem is a crooked capstone to Spicer’s career, as it ruefully expresses his resignation in matters of artistic integrity and the fame he always self-consciously wished for but was never to enjoy:

At least we both know how shitty the world is. You wearing a
beard as a mask to disguise it. I wearing my tired smile. I
don’t see how you do it. One hundred thousand university
students marching with you. Toward
A necessity which is not love but is a name.
King of the May. A title not chosen for dancing. The police
Civil but obstinate. If they’d attacked
The kind of love (not sex but love), you gave the one hundred
thousand students I’d have been very glad. And loved the
policemen. Why
Fight the combine of your heart and my heart or anybody’s
heart. People are starving.

Challenging, rewarding, befuddling, sublime, and even scary—Jack Spicer’s work has no real precedent in American poetry and his example stands as both a breakthrough in American poetics and a grim example of the dangers of a single-minded pursuit of the pure Word. My Vocabulary Did This to Me will remain a touchstone for anyone interested in the work of an American poet both shaped and ultimately destroyed by the vast but uncompromising limits of the language he dared to challenge and explore.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009

FRENCH SYMBOLIST POETRY | THE YALE ANTHOLOGY OF TWENTIETH-CENTURY FRENCH POETRY

FRENCH SYMBOLIST POETRY
translated by C.F. MacIntyre
University of California Press ($18.95)

THE YALE ANTHOLOGY OF TWENTIETH-CENTURY FRENCH POETRY
edited by Mary Ann Caws
Yale University Press ($30)

by John Herbert Cunningham

French poetry, with its many movements from Symbolism to the Oulipo and beyond, has had a profound influence on North American writing: Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, and countless others have been attracted by the vivacity of French verse. These two volumes, offering the history of French poetry from the period immediately preceding the twentieth century up to the present, amply demonstrate the range and vitality of their work.

“To speak of the symbolist movement,” as critic Kenneth Cornell states,

is almost invariably to conjure up the names of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Rimbaud and in so doing to group as precursors men who were born thirty-three years apart, yet who, by reason of their greatness, as well as by certain original attitudes of spirit, determined the destinies of poetry during the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.

C. F. MacIntyre, in French Symbolist Poetry, expands beyond the four names mentioned to include Gérard de Nerval, Tristan Corbière, Paul Valery, and Jules Laforgue, but we are still left with the question as to what binds these individuals into a movement. Charles Chadwick’sSymbolism succinctly defines it as “an attempt to penetrate beyond reality to a world of ideas, either the ideas within the poet, including his emotions, or the Ideas in the Platonic sense that constitute a perfect supernatural world towards which man aspires.” MacIntyre further emphasizes that these writers

had revolutionized French poetry. Rhetorical flourishes, factual descriptions, neat statement of moral dicta, were banished; rules of prosody were fractured, vocabulary opened to all comers, syntax squeezed like an accordion. Music was brought in for its own sake, to achieve effects that could not be had from logical arrangements of words. What the poet wished to say, he expressed in terms of something else.

The final death knell of Romanticism had been heard and the way opened for the ‘isms’ of the twentieth century.

French Symbolist Poetry was originally published in 1958 but was re-released in 2007, in preparation for its fiftieth anniversary. A bilingual edition, it gives the original French on the left page and the English translation on the right, the difficulties of translation from one language to another to be clearly seen. For example, Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondences,” which carried an abba rhyme structure in the French, has been translated with an abab rhyme structure in the English. This format does create limitations and problems, especially in the poems selected to represent Mallarmé. His most famous poem “Un Coup De Des” (“A Throw of the Dice”), could not be included as it requires facing pages of French; the only possible way of representing this poem in translation is through the format that Henry Weinfield used in his 1995 translation of Mallarmé’s Collected Poems, which essentially doubled the usable space of each page.

MacIntyre may also be criticized by some for including Nerval and Laforgue or for neglecting Théophile Gautier, but these would be minor complaints. The inclusion of Nerval represents the last gasp of German Romanticism, MacIntyre stating that he “was a Romantic poet who almost saved himself” whereas Gautier would have represented the transition from Parnassianism, the poetic style that reigned in the mid-1800s. Laforgue, much respected by the Surrealists, represents the transition of French poetry into the twentieth century. Another minor criticism is the placement of notes. MacIntyre does an exceptional job of providing a brief note on each poet and extensive explanations of each poem. However, these are placed in a ‘Notes’ section at the back of the book. While the notes on each poem belong there, the notes on each poet would have been better placed at the start of each poet’s respective section. These minor inconveniences aside, this is an excellent introduction to the poetry of the Symbolists and an effective introduction for the twentieth century and its poetry, as represented in The Yale Anthology of Twentieth-Century French Poetry.

Mary Ann Caws preempts any complaints regarding selection of poets and poems in her editor’s note:

Compiling a major volume such as this one is, of necessity, a highly subjective process. In considering the many poets writing in French in the twentieth-century and just after, I have given less attention to the number of poems and pages per poet than to the more important goal of including as many poets from as many countries as a single volume permits. My aim has been to create a truly international anthology, one that represents the diversity and changing nature of French poetics during the century just past, giving sufficient space to the voices of the living, while not letting them overwhelm those of the past. Every effort has been made to include poets that seem to have been most crucial to their own time as well as those from the present that demand to be read.

This effort can certainly be commended, as can the fact that this volume is again bilingual. “As in all bilingual editions,” Caws plainly states, “the translation is meant to draw attention to the original on the facing page.” But there is a statement in the introduction that might cause some concern. “This anthology is divided into six chronological parts, reflecting major trends in French poetry during the twentieth-century. Within the division, poems appear under an alphabetical listing by poet. Poets’ dates of birth, not the dates their first books were published, determines the placement of their work.” Does this mean that the major schools such as Cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism are going to be ignored or dealt with in a cursory manner? Fortunately, Caws senses the concern that will be triggered and addresses it immediately by including these movements in her chronology.

The first section, “1897-1915: Symbolism, Post-Symbolism, Cubism, Simultanism,” opens with Apollinaire, as does twentieth-century French poetry itself. We are immediately confronted with the difficulty of translation: Apollinaire’s “Miroir” (“Mirror”) is part of his Calligrammes series, in which the poems are written in a visual manner. In “Miroir,” Apollinaire’s name appears surrounded by words broken into their respective syllables, which form a border around the name. The translator, Roger Shattuck, realizing the inability to translate this into English, merely puts it as “In this mirror I am enclosed living and true as one imagines angels not as reflections are. Guillaume Apollinaire.” It could be argued that this poem should not have been included due to its inability to be adequately represented. However, as the Calligrammes were such an important component of Apollinaire’s oeuvre, they could not simply have been ignored, so the least complicated of them was translated in order to represent all.

Blaise Cendrars, the other great Cubist poet, is represented by one of his most famous poems, “The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jeane of France.” Pierre Reverdy, who “inspired the Surrealist movement and its leaders, in particular through his theory of the image as constituted by two elements from widely differing fields, forming a vitalizing explosion upon their meeting,” was also the founder of the extremely important literary journal Nord-Sud in which the Dadaists would come to publish. The spectre of Surrealism can be seen in his “The Web”: “A hand, with a rhythmic and thoughtless motion, / was throwing its five fingers up towards the ceiling / where fantastic shadows were dancing.” This section ends with a poem by Renée Vivien (Pauline Tarn), “one of the last to show allegiance to the Symbolist movement,” who, along with her lover Nathalie Barney, scandalized Paris as “leading proponents of the ‘lesbian-chic’ movement in Paris in the 1890s.” Her “Ransom” consists of rhymed couplets that have been translated into English unrhymed: “Come, let’s find the secret of the clear waters; / I’ll adore you, as a drowned person does the sea.”

The second section, “1916-1930: Dada and the Heroic Period of Surrealism,” contains the work of Louis Aragon, Antonin Artaud, Andre Breton, Robert Desnos, Paul Eluard, Francis Ponge, Raymond Queneau, Philippe Soupault, Tristan Tzara, Maguerite Yourcenar, and others. These are probably the most influential to North America—can we conceive of the New York School without those poets having lived? Or Wallace Stevens? These short fourteen years, interrupted by war and depression and poverty, were responsible for the essence of world poetry in the latter half of the twentieth century. As the brief note on Aragon that opens this section states, his work “has exercised an enormous influence on literary theory and encompasses most of the primary literary trends and ideas of the twentieth century—from Surrealism through Social Realism.” We see in Aragon’s “Pièce á grand spectacle” or “Big Spectacular Play” the influence of Mallarmé’s “Un Coup De Dès” with its spatial innovations:

The Director believed in André’s love
Curtain                                              rises
The bird         flies off
We had forgotten to plant the sets
Hullabaloo
The puppet sheds wood tears
To Take Leave

Those who don’t know what Surrealism is need look no further than André Breton’s “Free Union”: “My love whose hips are wherries / Whose hips are chandeliers and arrow feather / And the stems of white peacock plumes / Imperceptible in their sway.” But in addition to prominent poets, Caws has unveiled some very obscure ones—particularly women. For example, Claude Cahun, whose real name was Lucy Schwob, who was the original flower child: she and her lover, Suzanne Malherbe “tried to inspire German troops to mutiny by pinning butterflies on their tanks.” One poem, “Sadistic Judith,” recalls the 1929 film by Dali and Bunuel Un chien andalou in its graphic portrayal of sadism: “Watch out for this mouth, this nape, these ears—for everything that can be bitten, torn, sucked until your foreign blood is exhausted—delicious.” This is one of the milder passages.

The penultimate poet in this section is Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dadaism. His placement near the end of this section highlights the problem that the alphabetical listing creates: although Dada preceded Surrealism, it is inadvertently represented as coming after. Having said that, we still have some magnificent poetry by Tzara. The African influence and the use of nonsense syllables in his work is readily seen in “White Giant Leper of the Countryside”:

salt groups itself in a constellation of birds on the cotton tumor

in its lungs starfish and bedbugs swing
the microbes crystallize in palms of muscles swings
goodmorning without cigarette tzantzantza ganga
bouzdouc zdouc nfounfa mbaah mbaah nfounfa

Likewise, Tzara’s long poem “Cosmic Realities Vanilla Tobacco Wakings,” included here in its entirety, uses an innovative typography and testifies to the permission Dada bestowed on all who came after.

“1931-1945: Prewar and War Poetry” again contains many familiar and important names: Aimé Césaire, René Char, Michel Deguy, Jean Grosjean, and Edmond Jabès among them. It is from this point on that women poets also begin to make their presence felt. In addition to the previously mentioned are Claude de Burine, Anne Hébert, Dora Maar, Joyce Mansour, Meret Oppenheim, etc. One of the most important poets during this period is Césaire from Martinique who, in an “article against assimilation that incorporated his term négritude helped to launch post-Colonial literature.” Négritude “would come to describe a movement of black writers and intellectuals interested in preserving a positive racial identity.”In “New Year” we read:

Out of their torments men carved a flower
which they perched on the high plateau of their faces
hunger makes a canopy for them
an image dissolves in their last tear
they drank foam rhymed monsters
to the point of ferocious horror.

It is astounding that, after stating his “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal” “inspired a major current of Francophone expression in poetry and prose,” Caws fails to include this poem in the anthology.

The three remaining sections are “1946-1966: The Death of André Breton, the Beginning of L’Éphémère.” “1967-1980: The Explosion of the Next Generation,” and “1981-2002: Young Poetry at the End of the Millennium.” Anne–Marie Albiach’s poetry is the French equivalent of Language writing: in “The Hermitage Road” is the inscription “Parallel life of corporeal horizons already lived – the ties loosen along a trajectory, leaving to silence a dynamic of power or of destruction.” Nicole Brossard, a prominent Québécois poet, is “at the center of feminist and postmodernist writing in Canada.” She intermixes French and English along with other innovative techniques. In “I Want To Revise This Sequence,” she writes:

in this tournament I cultivate the singularity
of love and symptom therefore
I accost/si proche
dans ton __________ cerveau
with no translation/dans le Temps/I remember
and come in one rush: excited landscape

Michelle Granguad is an adherent of Oulipo and an anagramist who, in her “Isidore Ducasse comte de Lautréamont,” uses anagrams based on that 32-letter title to create a sestina in which each line must be 32 letters long and must use the letters found in the title: “I am more cursed at close a dent outside / a sluice meet roused a distracted moon / some toadies direct moat clause under. . .” Besides the increase in women’s voices, another trend in the latter half of this anthology is that most poets are represented by only one, perhaps two, poems. Jacques Rouboud, another Oulipo poet, is an exception, with several of his poems translated. Here is “The Past”:

She said to him: “It is very nice out.”
Therefore
it was nice out.
If it is nice out, it is not necessarily very nice out.
If she had said “it is nice out”
could he have understood that she had, as it were,
potentially
said
“It is nice out, but it is not very nice out”?
No.

There is so much more that could be, and should be, said, but even a review three times this length would be inadequate. These two excellent anthologies capture a century and a half of French poetry, a monumental task. One may quibble that this poem should have been included or excluded, more should have been offered from this poet or that, etc.—but, in the end, MacIntyre and Caws deserve the enduring adulation of the writing world for their achievements.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009

BEHIND MY EYES

Li-Young Lee
W.W. Norton ($24.950

by Kristina Marie Darling

In Li-Young Lee’s Behind My Eyes, hieroglyphs collide head-on with parables, burning books, and “breath to fan the fire’s nest,” setting the stage for an elegant collection of poems. A highly anticipated follow-up to the author’s previous four books, Lee’s newest work examines the many contradictions inherent in the immigrant experience, depicting them in spare, lyrical narratives throughout. Often juxtaposing thoughtful observations on identity and family with Western attempts to commercialize and quantify, Lee’s poems convey the difficulty of negotiating one’s heritage with American cultural values, proving at once philosophical and grounded in everyday life.

Pairing consumer culture with the intensely personal, Lee often parodies the commercial when conveying the experiences of immigrants and refugees, suggesting that popular solutions like self-help and checklists prove frivolous in truly critical situations. His poem “Self-Help for Fellow Refugees” exemplifies this trend:

Don’t ask her what she thought she was doing
turning a child’s eyes
away from history
and toward that place all human aching starts.

And if you meet someone
in your adopted country,
and think you see in the other’s face
an open sky, some promise of a new beginning,
it probably means you’re standing too far.

Mimicking the tone of a self-help book through his use of imperative sentences and extended lists, the content of the poem creates a sharp contrast with the form the author appropriates. By such incongruities, Lee suggests that “history” and “human aching” remain fundamentally incompatible with commercialized solutions—a theme conveyed with elegance and refinement throughout the collection.

Lee’s poems impressively use domestic imagery when depicting the transcendent and find otherworldly significance in the everyday, a phenomenon that his speakers attempt without success to categorize. Suggesting that truly meaningful experiences are mismatched with this American desire for definitive cataloging, works such as “Have You Prayed” explore such contradictions with wit and grace:

When the wind turns traveler
and asks, in my father’s voice, Have you prayed?
I remember three things.
One: A father’s love

is milk and sugar,
two-thirds worry, two-thirds grief, and what’s left over

is trimmed and leavened to make the bread
the dead and the living share.

In this passage, part of a persistently incomplete list, Lee narrates an attempt to divide a father’s affection as one would “milk and sugar,” themes that surfaces throughout the book. Implying through this metaphor that, just as in the tangible process of baking, the narrator’s efforts will never be precise, “Have You Prayed,” like many of the poems in Behind My Eyes, imbues everyday experience with philosophical significance, proving both lyrical and image-rich throughout.

Lee’s use of avian imagery to convey similar thematic elements is also impressive. Often using birds as emblems for immaterial ideas like love, death, and the afterlife, Lee implies through this motif that such experiences remain both enigmatic and ultimately inaccessible. Take the middle stanzas of the elegiac “The Shortcut Home”:

In my brother’s story,
our death sings to us from the highest branch
of the oldest tree the birds remember
in song, and we wander our father’s house
in search of the origin of the hours.

Here, Lee represents the idea of death subtly, the “tree the birds remember / in song” being the speaker’s father’s final resting place. Using hyperbole to convey the inaccessibility of both the creature itself and the narrator’s lost loved one, Lee describes the birds as inhabiting the “highest branch / of the oldest tree,” suggesting, as do many poems in the collection, that some experiences prove beyond the reach of human song.

Ideal for readers who enjoy spare yet expressive poems, Li-Young Lee’s Behind My Eyes is a thought-provoking and finely crafted read. The book also includes a CD of Lee reading twenty-two poems from the collection in his resonant voice, a model other premier poetry publishers would do well to follow.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009

THE GOLDEN BOAT: The Selected Poems of Srečko Kosovel

translated by Bert Pribac & David Brooks with the assistance of Teja Pribac
Salt Publishing ($20.82)

by Martin Balgach

Revered in Slovenia as an essential modernist figure and a formative avant-garde poet, Srečko Kosovel died in 1926 at the young age of twenty-two. A prolific writer, it is said that Kosovel wrote over a thousand poems, although few of those poems were published during his lifetime. Often called the Slovenian Rimbaud, comparisons are also made to Rilke and Lorca, and Kosovel deserves a place among these men—as can be seen in The Golden Boat, the most comprehensive selection of Kosovel’s poetry available outside of the Slovenian language.

English language readers will find in these poems the firsthand accounts of a historically relevant European voice interwoven with the metaphysical sensibilities and tender poignancy of a young poet. Take, for example, “The Sun, Nada”:

The sun,
Nada, has set already,
as if hiding
from my eyes.
The sun
has sunk beyond the grove
and all is silent in the wood.
All? I don’t know!
It’s just that the shadows stare
mournfully,
the flowers breathe out their fragrance
in the dusk.
You can feel the tulips bleeding.
I could weep but I am not allowed.

Kosovel’s poems also show us the pessimism of a young European experiencing the turbulence of a new century, as in “This Horrible Time”:

This horrible, unsettling time
is flooding our search with disquietude—
in every direction, every direction,
breaking and killing our dreams.
Crime—Sacrament, the sacrament is a crime,
suffering attached to love,
the heart’s old temples plundered
as if they were damned.
From dead and abandoned dwellings
grey, desperate prayers are sailing—
European man, half-dead,
calling for salvation. . .

The Golden Boat also chronicles Slovenia’s vulnerable position at the geographical and political crossroads of the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire. For many Slovenian writers, including Kosovel, literature was not only a form of artistic expression but also a way to preserve and define a threatened society. In this context, the struggle for a cultural identity becomes equal to the poet’s metaphysical concerns. In poems such as “Autumn Quiet,” Kosovel often oscillates between the expectations of cultural definition and his developing sense of self:

It is quiet as autumn inside me
and outside. Beautiful
as far as I can think.

A big job awaits me.
Isn’t that joyful?

I am not striving
for an honorary award
in the society of man,
just for
a world of beauty
and justice.

What is joy?
The wish to live.
The joy of life.
Who care for awards!

I am a step closer to life
in which I must make
my mark.

As we see in “Autumn Quiet,” cultural place and self-knowledge are interrelated; for Kosovel, they must be elucidated in tandem. Along with the informative postscript notes found throughout these selections, we are given access to Kosovel’s highly attuned emotional and intellectual sensibilities as he defines his political, cultural, and spiritual existence.

Kosovel’s poems are intoxicatingly honest, and the skillfully cadenced translations that comprise The Golden Boat allow us the opportunity to experience the tender curiosities and melancholies of a poet who was not given much time to understand his place in the world. These lucid meditations show us Kosovel’s intense appreciation for the natural surroundings of his native Karst region. We also find in these poems the sincere longing for quietude, which is not to say utopia; utopia would be too forthright. Beyond the compelling emotional ferocity of the young poet, there is a vulnerable tone in these poems, and that tone conveys a young man’s yearning for peace, not bliss. The Golden Boat illuminates that difference.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009

A GATHERING OF MATTER A MATTER OF GATHERING

Dawn Lundy Martin
University of Georgia Press ($16.95)

by Haines Eason

a gathering of matter a matter of gathering, the debut collection from 2006 Cave Canem winner Dawn Lundy Martin, is an artful scar winding over broken bonds of trust—trust in father and family, trust in men and mankind. Starting from the recesses of memory marred by abuse, Martin’s speaker dredges a harrowing past and stages it as an ongoing condition of living in the present. Martin attempts to rid her speaker of a painful history while reformulating it via damnation of the perpetrator, a world permitting perpetrators, and even the child abused. At times confessional, and persistently lyrical, percussive, and thrumming, a gathering of mattershatters the at-large world of bodies while endeavoring to reconcile her speaker’s memories and present body.

The broken bones of these two objectives must knit if the collection is to succeed, and titles like “I/M/A/G/E” and “Completion Cleaved” (subsections of “Negrotizing in Five; or, How to Write a Black Poem”) gesture toward that end. At first look Martin does succeed. The collection is arguably a long poem of enraged bereavement, which in itself is no straightforward thing. Being an amalgamation of contradictory emotions—some that tear and some that bind—bereavement is both a process and result that the plenary person has literally survived.

But as readers, we are obligated to ask if the threshold verging the aforementioned struggle toward unity is believably crossed—we must ask if a chronicle of bereavement is sufficient for poetry. Closer scrutiny reveals a gathering of matter remains raggedly sundered, so much that it blurs the line between therapy and art. The poems’ timbre is at times too invested in its fever, and the poems are often too spinningly linguistic for the sake of the emotional matter. Furthermore, the collection suffers from a hasty conclusion—the reader is asked to believe conciliation between the book’s present speaker and past speaker has occurred.

The first poem, “Last Days,” surveys from a cold vantage the damage done a daughter by a father’s sexual abuse:

What is the relation between Figure A and Figure B?

That is what the father has become.

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

Who breathes in the room?

A girl on the bed, a daughter.

Only one then?

They won’t deliver him to her, her palms, little petals.

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

There are A and B, and some curtains drawn tight to lock the room.
There is the scent that I will remember for many years.

This is what happens before the figure disappears?

A row of unkempt stones they call heroes.

How is the pain endured?

A stem of grass imagined when it is not raining.
All those things called intentions. The private treasures one keeps safe.

From this point forward the speaker’s memories darkly coalesce. Out of this darkness sometimes spills a storming rage that buffets the bounds of diction, as in “Bone”:

Toward him. When sleep comes, it comes bare. Barely.
To balance there. It has been twenty years.
“What do you think about when you think about him?” Only,
toward him. Brush of him. Breath brush. Rum.
It was my first drink. Hairless arms and legs. Breath
of drink. Breath. Barely breast.

The collection is constructed from poems more resembling the latter than the former, in which we may hear Nathaniel Mackey as an influence. “Direct at blood-beat angled as to cease it,” from Martin’s “Sunday Lessons,” purely picks up the sparkling tones and textures Mackey perfected in Splay Anthem’s “Song of the Andoumboulou: 50,” for example. Consider this segment: “emollient feel for what / might not have been there. Head in the / clouds he'd have said of himself, / she'd / have said elsewhere, his to be above and / below, not know or say, hers to be / alibi, elegy otherwise known. . .” The matter of this Mackey passage is undoubtedly softer than Martin’s, and the lyric is less compressed or prone to slippage. Martin tends to extend or heighten the musicality with a plosive consonance that is jarring and metallic—as in “Breath / of drink. Breath. Barely breast.” Despite the differences, however, one notices the debt.

One might also make the oblique connection of Martin to Harryette Mullen, especially in consideration of the passage above from “Last Days.” The chance encounter with cooler language in that poem—and chance encounters with cooler language in a matter of gathering overall—make it easy to link Martin to contemporaries who play languorously, as Mullen does. The slowness of “Last Days” might seem to link well with Mullen’s “Any Lit” or “Sleeping with the Dictionary.” But I believe Martin channels deeper currents in her slower movements: more surprising than Harryette Mullen, we may, as we turn from a Mackey moment, chance upon something in the mood of Virginia Woolf. From Martin’s “I/M/A/G/E.”: “I / want to tell you about the splitting of a female body—how I squeezed into / it—fitting barely, of the texture of melancholy, of a sycophantic love, draw / a flicker for you, let you enter as if entering me.”

This is of course a leap, but what is interesting in this potential connection is how Woolf, in On Being Ill, describes a process of pain. She notes the body impinges in building measure upon the mind and is capable of driving one quite mad. A damaged body impedes the spirit’s search for the Essential:

All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours. . . The creature within can only gaze through the pane—smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife. . . until there comes the inevitable catastrophe; the body smashes itself to smithereens, and the soul (it is said) escapes.

Further complicating the matter, Woolf believes, is one’s inability to give voice to this process:

[L]et a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. . . . He is forced to coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other (as perhaps the people of Babel did in the beginning), so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out.

This description of a body impinging on the soul is of course apt for Martin’s narrator, whose scars are as fresh as sutures—they’re integral to the frame and have become indistinguishable from it. Returning to “Bone”: when the subject of the father arises, the narrator admits to thinking of him “only”—despite the intervening years, the father looms (“It has been twenty years.”). In this instance the speaker is no longer a single self, and is broken over grief. Despite intervening years in which she could have muted her anger, she has frayed into a composite of herself now and herself as she believes she was in youth, with the abuser standing beside. Martin’s speaker breaks the past into so many pieces—the painful and pleasant memories, etc.—that the result is an irreconcilable dust which, come the concluding poems like “Instructions” and “Fire Island,” whisks off into some undisclosed vista, un-re-attainable, unresolved. “Instructions” gestures toward a fairy-tale motif: “Imagine her surrounded by toads and a pen.” Also mentioned: “A tea towel folded into halves,” which we might assume lies in someone’s lap, and which presents the idea of family and condolence after, perhaps, the great violence of the preceding poems. Following “Instructions” is “Fire Island,” which tries to drown the collection’s burden in the sea: “She unremembered here. A pounding, sucking force— / think about the water’s white rim.” Also from that poem: “plunging / colorless against expanse, devoid of scent, devoid of air. She is full.” But these conciliatory poems are circumvented by “Bleeding, an Autobiographical Tale,” which details “the stinked history of other inappropriate drills—being a girl.” The work to achieve solace in “Instructions” and “Fire Island” is erased; the balance is tipped against artfulness.

Paul Celan, upon receiving the Bremen Prize, took a moment to enumerate what remained in the midst of the loss he experienced:

. . . language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, “enriched” by it all.

Martin does not retreat with a bare language to a sanctified core, nor does her experience “go through its own lack of answers” (my italics), as it does not achieve an other-side as of yet. Indeed, she invokes a “ murderous” speech, but we still await “words for what was happening.” a gathering of matter chronicles its speaker’s ravages, but its conclusion does not provide a core or new language from which we may progress.

Perhaps in later collections Martin will refine her considerable energy and build the converse of this ravaged past. She certainly matches, sometimes even bests, our contemporary greats in lyricism and shift of wit, and has an undeniable talent for concretizing physical manifestations of the macabre. Deeper still, she has a love of place and history that, given full room, will provide good root for a future beyond grieving. And fairly, there are few satisfying answers to the questions abuse and grief asks; to frame a new language from a private carnage is a daunting task. a gathering of matter a matter of gathering does not raise new landscapes from the charred pain at its core, but it heralds a talented and terrifying voice, and this is bounty enough for now.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009

THE BALTIC QUINTET: Poems from Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden

edited by Edita Page
translated by Inara Cedrins, Eric Dickens, Herbert Lomas, and Edita Page
Wolsak and Wynn ($25)

by Amy Groshek

It's easy to describe the seasonal changes one experiences when living in a circumpolar climate, but difficult to convey the impact of such changes on the psyche. One can describe the maritime chill and palpable darkness of an Alaska winter; far more difficult to explain the platitude of 2:00 PM streetlights, the freedom of interpretation implicit in a red traffic light hung over an intersection which, for six months of the year, is rutted ice. In The Baltic Quintet: Poems from Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden, one finds this same intimate, self-conscious relationship with the natural world—and some sense of its elusive milieu.

“For twentieth century Lithuanian poets,” writes the collection's editor, Edita Page, “nature has never been neutral, it has been their spiritual doppelgänger, their spiritual being, their conscience.” This seems to hold true not just for Lithuanians, but for every nationality in the anthology, though there are various applications for such content. In the hands of Finnish poet Saila Susiluoto, nature is a thing which overtakes, transforms, and alienates. In “Wolf Tale,” for example, a woman believes she has been transformed into a wolf, causing her husband to reject her:

I lay awake every night, she
whispers, and I pressed my hands on my ears to stop them
changing again.

A tongue-in-cheek conclusion, fortunately, is not lost on what might otherwise have become a mystical feminist treatise. “Have I got the ears,” the wife asks. “No,” replies the husband, “nor a head either.” Another such common-sense quip appears in Swede Lars Huldén's “Loving one's native soil.” His predominant whimsicality is reminiscent of Polish poets Wisława Szymborska and Tadeusz Różewicz:

Your native soil will kill you
without the slightest compunction.
Climb a tree and jump. . .

There is also the natural imagery of the esoteric or spiritual lyric, more familiar to North Americans, as exemplified by Estonian Doris Kareva: “Grazing land shades into dawn, / chill. Pulling my coat flaps across. / Will you come too?” Many such gestures appear in The Baltic Quintet, for the most part indistinguishable from their equivalents on this side of the ocean. If, in this anthology, depictions of nature know no national boundaries, neither do contemporary aesthetics.

But rather than dwell on images of nature, let's ask the set of questions which we hold, spoken or unspoken, for states which existed for five decades either under or in the shadow of Soviet occupation: what was it like to compose a poem, or a book of poems, as did Latvian Pēters Brūveris, only to see it censored and never published? What exactly has independence offered? How easy, or how difficult, has it been to move on? Three of the five nations featured in this anthology were part of the Soviet Union, and Finland was required, for decades, to maintain a precarious economic relationship with the USSR. So it seems strange that only two poets in twenty, both Estonian, are credited with poems which refer to a Soviet past.

The elder of these is Hasso Krull, and the sociological and political landscape he portrays in “A Trip to the Country of the Mari” is riveting. Mari is a Finnish language spoken by inhabitants of the Mari Republic of the Russian Federation. Krull's journeys in post-Soviet Russia are recorded in spare lines, and politics holds a primary but unforced position:

war makes the people rich
said Andrei that evening

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

somewhere a pig was rooting
one star stopped above the narrow yard
I had tried to explain
that producing weapons makes you poor

Krull's sense of the land is innately politicized. Looking onto the banks of the Volga, the speaker's instinct is empathetic: “this land has so long/ found it hard to be Russia.”

Near the end of the poem, Krull records an old woman leading two goats, perhaps alluding to Tadeusz Różewicz's “In the Midst of Life.” The speaker's companion yells “how much does a goat cost” to the woman, but the speaker has his own, very different, idea:

dear old woman
never sell one goat to anybody

teach them to eat
weapons and rockets

and bite painfully all
those that boss them and make them toil

If this poem is indeed a revision of Różewicz's, the revision is a somewhat ambivalent acquittal of anti-establishment violence, a dispassionate regression from the heroic effort of rehumanization Różewicz's poem depicts. Overall, Krull's appeal is an ethical one, his nature aestheticized only in the embodiment of humanity's oft-failed obligations. The rest of the collection is worth reading merely as a contextualization of his work.

Krull's “Trip” is soft-spoken and apolitical when compared with the fiery allusions of Elo Viiding. Born in 1974, she is the youngest poet in The Baltic Quintet, but her work features mass graves, bodies thrown into bogs, and a family home “now the property of the state.” In one poem, she evokes Soviet-enforced quietism, asking, “do you want to live or dying / be submissively witnessed against.” “The law,” Viiding writes in “The Snow-Woman,”

has to be binding—on the ground
snow must fall.
Snow must fall on the ground on your father and mother,
on your sisters and brothers, your home—your body

Does Viiding's work read to Estonians as painfully necessary or sensationalist? Can the North American reader trust his or her own fascination with post-Soviet references? Regardless, the fusion of natural and human interests utilized by Viiding and Krull is noteworthy because, as we have been learning, our world does come with an ethical balance sheet—however esoteric—which neither governments, nor economies, nor the natural world escapes.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009