Tag Archives: summer 2010

I HAVE TO GO BACK TO 1994 AND KILL A GIRL

Karyna McGlynn
Sarabande Books ($14.95)
by John Jacob

Karyna McGlynn’s I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, the most recent recipient of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize, shows remarkable talent, even if it must be seen in the scrim of literary experiments performed long ago. McGlynn’s repeated use of columns of idioms and language eventually wears thin, since it was done definitively by Imagist and Objectivist poets and in more recent years by fiction writer Raymond Federman in his novel Double or Nothing(1972) and by poet John Ashbery in his famous “Litany” (1979). But an early poem in the book, "I Want to Introduce Myself, Not Quite Human" shows how sharply she can utilize the technique: a reader can take in the dual closing lines of "spirit slaking from / this bleached body" and "spirit slaking from / damp shorts on a dock, my elver / in the gut of a roller" with equal sense.

McGlynn goes back to that well a few times too many, but is more successful when she allows her sense of image to rally intact around either shocking or mundane elements: "its peg-legs rested on pure membrane // a girl just stood in her underwear / ran the tips of her fingers over her ribs." Halfway through the volume, she starts to explore other voices, as in "They Shared Her on a Chicken White Sheet," a poem in which McGlynn introduces Erin, a swing dancer from Minneapolis whose ankle tattoo fascinates two boys. The poems that utilize character later in the book work best when they exhibit specificity, as in "A Girl Bellycrawls into My Room in Weeds," which ends: "she can only make one long milk blanched face / I mean she's down under the dust ruffle / and taps 17 times on my bedpost, which is a wheel . . ."

Many of McGlynn’s poems are delicious to read, suggesting and selective: "and she only half in the shell of this time / an aneurysm opens its trap, or the devil says: / you will never know her, you never even happened". From its insouciant title to its final words, this debut marks Karyna McGlynn as a poet to watch.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

THE RAVENOUS AUDIENCE

Kate Durbin
Akashic Books ($15.95)

by Johannes Göransson

Kate Durbin’s iconophilic, starving first book proclaims its poetics in its very title: Ravenous Audience. This is a poetics of a Plath-influenced engagement with the “peanut-crunching crowd.” If Judy Grahn’s famous “I’ve Come to Claim the Body of Marilyn Monroe” rewrites Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” as a grave-robbing, revenge fantasy about Monroe—picking up on the violent, B-movie element of Plath’s poem—Durbin lets both Plath and Monroe into her spectacle: both “celebrities” are invoked for their violence and their spectacular assemblages.

In many ways the book displays the aesthetics of the recent trend (detrimental connotations intended, revoked, and repossessed) of “the gurlesque,” which Lara Glenum has described as “deploying an aesthetics of spectacle” and using “hyperbole” to display the performativity of gender. It is decidedly not a poetics of the “distanced” critical reader, but a poetics of possession. In her blog manifesto, “A Teenage Girl Speaks As A Melodramatic, Hysterical Demon,” Durbin invokes this B-movie poetics: “Say nothing is more melodramatic—and pisses off Mom and Dad more—than claiming to be possessed by the Devil himself.”

The great theorist of this kind of aesthetic is, of course, Antonin Artaud, who in his “theater of cruelty” manifestoes called for a spectacular theater that acted like a plague, generating the kind of energy that causes people in plague-torn cities to loot and destroy houses. Unlike Artaud, however, Durbin invokes the kitschy and the paraliterary in order to turn this possession into a feminist critique of gender.

Except “critique” is the wrong word here, implying as it does a sovereign agent capable of evaluating and uncovering the truth—enlightenment illusions that linger in contemporary American poetry and art. No, this poetry doesn’t criticize; it is possessed by, and possesses, other texts, other bodies, femininity itself, poetry itself. Unlike the “critique” of language poetry, this is a poetics of movement. It does not imagine the world a static place that can be analyzed, criticized, resisted. It moves and surges, coupling and uncoupling with new codes, personas, texts, in the process generating strange hybrids and monstrosities.

Durbin’s poetry often invokes the quiet lyric of the workshop poetics, but it consumes and blows it up. For example, “Gretel and the Witch” consists of a retelling of a fairytale in clean couplets, complete with the kind of italicized dialogue that is quite common in a workshop lyric. But the content is anything but measured, as Gretel cannibalizes her brother, leaving “This small skeleton beside, also asleep, / Bees tenderly sucking the skull’s final juices.” The poem possesses and is possessed by not only the fairytale but the lyric as well. And, tellingly, the possession results in a “bad fit,” a poem that does not give us the feeling of an autonomous artwork, a B-movie poem.

This sense of possession—or even parasitism—becomes more obvious in a series based on Catherine Breillat’s movies. For example, in “36 Fillette,” Durbin cuts-and-pastes the often awkward dialogue from the Breillat movie of that title (notably not translated, “virgin,” absent, a hole):

what does she want isn’t she too young for a disco? A car is like a chick you soon get tired of it you discover the flaws too late what’s the problem I didn’t look at you enough? how old are you?

Much like in August Strindberg’s brief play “Stronger,” it is the one who does not talk, the quiet “filette,” the woman, who grows huge and powerful in her absence of speech. She is the black hole in the poem.

For an understanding of how Durbin moves through these movies, fairytales, and genres/media like clothes, we might turn to John Kelsey’s recent article in Artforum, “Riches to Rags,” about the design duo Rodarte. Kelsey says that Rodarte’s violently gothic and “Frankensteinian” clothes are specifically “American,” not European, especially

in all the improvisatory ways it de- and recodes a culture that is already impure and blended with crisis. If the typically European strategy is to construct avant-garde gestures around the inversion of established, legible codes (aristocratic or bourgeois), an American vernacular is corrupt in advance, the border between high and low long since dissolved. Here, it is less about turning the queen on her head than a matter of tracking mutations in the desert, where celebrity and nothingness have always shared a strangely productive cohabitation. Rodarte are perhaps closer in spirit to Roger Corman or Wes Craven than to the top men of haute couture.

It is not surprising that we find an extensive interest in fashion and clothes and accessories in Durbin’s gurlesque horror show. The Marilyn Monroe fantasia ends, much like Plath’s (the teeth, the lampshades) with a heap of relics, or “leftovers”: “a black embroidered handbag a pearlescent Bakelite clutch a jewel-encrusted evening bag with a chain strap a Lucite handbag,” etc. One could say that Durbin, in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s terms, minoritizes fashion: just as Franz Kafka exaggerated the features of Prague-German to create a foreign language within German, Durbin exaggerates fashion, femininity, to find a foreign, gothic woman within that femininity.

This poetry and its larger gurlesque trash aesthetic are finding quite a bit of opposition from a literary culture still invested in the idea of poetry as high art (whether quietist, well-made, authentic art, or experimental, distancing art, both defined against mass culture and kitsch). But most likely it will also find its stunt-double readers tracking its mutations in the desert.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

WE DON’T KNOW WE DON’T KNOW | THE LIGHTNING THAT STRIKES THE NEIGHBORS’ HOUSE

WE DON’T KNOW WE DON’T KNOW
Nick Lantz
Graywolf Press ($15)

THE LIGHTNING THAT STRIKES THE NEIGHBORS’ HOUSE
Nick Lantz
University of Wisconsin Press ($14.95)

by Weston Cutter

I. THE THINGS THEMSELVES

Nick Lantz's We Don't Know We Don't Know and The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors' House are both phenomenal books—the former is the 2009 Bakeless Prize-winner for poetry, the latter the 2010 Felix Pollack Prize-winner. Let's acknowledge that any writer who won just one of those contests would be worth attention; to win both prizes, and to have the books come out basically simultaneously, is the equivalent of a baseball player hitting a home run not just in his first at-bat, but off his first pitch.

Lantz's work could, like a good swath of American poetry presently published, be filed under the heading of Elliptical Poetry. In Stephen Burt's defining ur-text, a review of Susan Wheeler's Smokes in the Boston Review, he writes "Elliptical poets try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves." It may be a testament to Burt's acuity that this exact tension is something of a default setting in contemporary American poetry.

How this tension plays out in Lantz's work is not necessarily as "verbal gizmos,” however, and certainly something's being undermined, but it's not necessarily “the coherence of speaking selves.” From "Vermeer's Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window" in We Don't Know We Don't Know: "Vermeer's light fools you." From "The Marian Apparitions" in The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors' House: "One Thing is not really / the other no matter how badly I wish / it were so." From "Either Or," in We Don't Know: "Naming / everything is a way / of naming nothing." What's being undermined is the stability of things—the suitability of the light in a Vermeer to truly illuminate; whether or not the name given to a man will be enough for the man to live within; how things, fundamentally, cannot be what we wish they were.

It's not for nothing that Lightning begins with a poem titled "The Ship of Theseus," (which your memory or a Google-search will let you know has to do with the paradox of an object's objectness if its constituent parts have been replaced); also not for nothing is the fact that We Don't Know We Don't Know takes its title from Donald Rumsfeld's famous speech delineating the four types of knowledge (known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns, and unknown knowns). In both books, in their own ways (and in complementary ways when considered together), Lantz's poetry examines conceptions of knowing, with Lightning focused on the slipperiness of the objects trying to be understood and We Don't Know focused on the inconsistencies and difficulties inherent in the person trying to do the understanding.

 

II. AND WHO SPEAKS

That last bit, more than anything else, needs attention: the person trying to do the understanding. This is what makes putting Lantz's work among other Elliptical writers dicey, because Lantz's poetry is among the most self-less work in contemporary American poetry. To some degree, kudos is in order for that fact—it's far too common and simple for contemporary poetry to be built upon the shivery, unstable rock of the "I," and Lantz avoids that tricky trap. However, in its place is a startling lack of narrator, of poetic self. This lack wouldn't be a problem were it not for the fact that Lantz's poetry seems, at times, to be trying to make aspects of narrative cohere; for instance, a dead brother haunts both collections; a single father plays a large role; whatever consistent speaker is present is married (a wife is mentioned in both books); and religion, specifically Christianity, plays heavily throughout all of this, as do paintings and myth.

Read just about any contemporary poet working the seam between lyric, narrative, and surrealism —C.D. Wright, Bob Hicok, or Tony Hoagland, for example—and you can't help but have an understanding of that writer's writerly self after a handful of poems (or, if the narrator is someone other than the writer, that's made clear). Lantz, however, seems to be trying to work the magic of the lyric/narrative hybrid from an absence of self. This particular trick is made manifest through Lantz's use of "you" in his poems, which somehow ends up being massively troubling. For instance, "Thinking Makes it So," fromWe Don't Know We Don't Know:

Less matter with more art, I say. Don't
retell the story of your brother and his
seven dogs minus one. How did it go?

The reader's thrust weirdly into this poem, having to somehow tell a story s/he likely doesn't know. Stranger still, halfway through the poem come the lines

You first told me this story while we were looking down
into a volcanic crater
filled with a lake so blue the sky was ashamed of itself.

The construction here—the fact that Lantz would make the poem contingent on a “you” to tell/complete the story instead of a “you” who is the listener, the spoken-to—is both a cool shift and a difficult one.

 

III. HOW

Lantz offers, despite this unstable and destabilizing “you,” startling imagery and fantastic conjunctions in both books. Seemingly unafraid of any subject, Lantz dances fast from Aristotle to astronauts in We Don't Know We Don't Know's very first poem, “Ancient Theories”:

Why not believe that the eye throws its own light,
that seeing illuminates
the world?
On the moon,
astronaut David Scott drops a hammer and a falcon feather,
and we learn nothing
we didn't already know.

Beyond the wordplay and strange conjunctions, however, Lantz is working magic in terms of structure and form. In both books he utilizes an intriguing form, as in Lightning’s “Judith & Holoferenes”:

The brain goes on living, or so they say, for a few
seconds after the head is
severed. The tent stays
shut. The sword rusts down to a feather of iron.

I don't know if there's a name for this: the lines essentially form triplets, starting at the left margin, tabbing in one, and then tabbing in severely (the third tabbed-in line varies). The form—malleable, shifting, recognizable—is welcome and interesting, and allows Lantz both the flexibility to whirl through his poetry and dramatize breaks while simultaneously offering the reader the comforts of classicism and formality.

We Don't Know We Don't Know is sectioned according to the Rumsfeldian quartet (though the second section, Known Unknowns, is made entirely of the long poem "Will There Be More Than One 'Questioner'?"), and a good chunk of the poems feature either a Rumsfeld quotation at their start or, more startling, a passage from Pliny the Elder. Side-by-side, Pliny's observations about the natural world and how it's apprehended form a pleasing dialogue with Rumsfeld's lines about the tricky linguistic horrors of the war in Iraq (though Lantz's politics don't color the poetry; dogma is, in fact, absent, and, regardless of how one feels about the war, it's impossible not to be a little mesmerized by Rumsfeld's linguistics). Against these two questioning guides, eons apart, the poems probe at ideas of memory and knowledge, returning always to the slipperiness inherent in ever truly knowing anything. The opening lines of "List of Things We Know" acknowledge just how slippery is the slope:

40% of all
births are
accidental.
10% of all
accidents
are births.

The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors' House is divided into three parts, structured almost as a trip—it starts with the Joyce Carol Oats-ian "Where You Are, Where You've Been, Where You're Going," heads through "What Land of Milk and Honey," and ends with "Back to Earth Unharmed." Rumsfeld and Pliny are gone; in their place are Bible stories, myths, paintings, national parks, newspaper headlines, films of Bigfoot, and Jimi Hendrix. In place of We Don't Know’s long "Questioner," there's "The History of Fire," a seven-page whopper that establishes that the reader and the world of the poems are within history (and, therefore, inherently obscured):

for hours, the train

glides through the smoke, and this
makes it easy to forget where you are,

where you've been, and where you're going.

Nick Lantz's two debut books establish him as a major new poet, and his willingness to challenge form and narrative identity is laudable. Regardless of the occasional haunted feel of certain of his poems, both books are testament to someone deeply engaged with trying to come to some meaningful and stable system through which to understand, apprehend, and appreciate the world.

Click here to purchase The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors' House at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase We Don't Know We Don't Know at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

DRIVE BY: Shards and Poems

John Bennett
Lummox Press ($15)

by Stephan Delbos

In his poem “A Sick Child,” Randall Jarrell wrote, “If I can think of it, it isn’t what I want”—a line which should serve as a sterling example to young poets seeking words. John Bennett, who has published more than twenty-five collections of poetry since 1975, is not a young poet, but his latest book shows the fruits of a lifetime of observation and writing, and the best of the poems charge off the page with the urgency of immediate experience. Though some of the poems seem too easily arrived at, as if Bennett had wanted only what he could think of, they gather momentum en masse, and the collection picks up speed as one becomes familiar with the paths and destinations of Bennett’s aesthetic.

Anyone who has read the countless disciples of Charles Bukowski knows that life, no matter how adventurous and vice-strewn, does not always make good reading. Poets, therefore, often comb experience for lucid moments where past, present and future combine and shimmer with congruency. If his seemingly autobiographical work is any indication, Bennett has a long, eventful life to look back on, and some poems in Drive By exemplify an imaginative insight into personal experience which Bennett’s shaved-down language facilitates. “Crossing Over” is one in which Bennett achieves this sought after synthesis:

When I met her
she rode a bike
with one pedal
& hadn’t yet
turned twenty.

We lived together
six years & then
she went to college
& left me for
a boy who
studied Latin.

The last I heard
she had a
PhD, a baby
& was married
to a physicist
from the Ukraine.

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

& I’ve crossed a line
where I’m
more one with
the night sky
than the
life I’ve led.

While highlighting the instability of “her” youth, the opening image also imbues the female with a kind of fractured grace. The second and third stanzas pile heartbreak for the narrator, and an element of uncanny humor is added with the mention of “the Ukraine.” Finally, the poem lifts to a wider scope as Bennett snaps us out of recollection into the present, providing a touching revelation of the narrator’s alienation from his own past and the course of his life.

This point of touching revelation is reached in many of the poems in Drive By, but less often than it is attempted. The most affective poems in this collection are those in which Bennett drops his tough guy persona of bar room brawls and unfiltered cigarettes—literary clichés even if they are accurate autobiography—for disarmed and disarming honesty. These are the poems of an aging man trying to come to terms with his past and the emerging present, with all its technological advances.

“Anita O’Day” is an example of what Bennett calls a “shard,” or what has been elsewhere termed “flash fiction.” In it, the narrator watches a film about the famous jazz singer with his teenage granddaughter, who is astounded by O’Day’s embodiment of her own voice. It is sufficient to quote the opening and closing:

There are lots of checkmates and fool’s mates and a good number of stalemates and forfeits in life, but no en passants. Once something passes you by, it’s gone forever.

My son went that route, marched right out of my life, but I wound up with his daughter, and chess has no name for second chances.

She’s staying with me now, healing from the road, but she has a deeper pain that no one can get to, so deep it turns physical, a knot in her stomach. . . .

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

Later I’m on the computer, tapped into some photos of crazy artists and poets from my past. I call her in and scroll through the photos, and when I’m done she says, “I want to have pictures like that.”

“You will,” I said. “You’re still young.”

“No,” she says. “People aren’t like that anymore,” and we both grow silent.

Hackneyed expressions such as “healing from the road,” moments where one feels Bennett isn’t reaching far enough into imagination and language to frame his description, mar this poem and others in Drive By. But what prevails is the sensibility of an aging man trying to make peace with himself and his past while seeking some kind of security, no matter how fleeting, for those he loves.

Bennett’s shards are most interesting for the questions they raise regarding what minimums are required for a coherent and resonant tale. Detractors of such attempts at stark brevity would call Bennett’s shards false starts, abandoned attempts at what could have been stories. Reading Drive By, however, one gets the sense that Bennett is doing just that: driving by without lingering long on any single moment; thus achieving effect through quantity. The result is a wide-cast net, a book of poems that manages to capture a lifetime of experience with an immediate, no-nonsense craft.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

LONG DIVISION

Andrea Cohen
Salmon Poetry / Dufour Editions ($21.95)

by Warren Woessner

Did you ever wish that you could read other people's thoughts? In a memorable episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy suddenly becomes able to do just that. The problem with this power is that it can't be focused. In a busy high school hallway, Buffy is barraged with dozens of thoughts on dozens of topics. When she hears an urgent cry for help, she can't locate its origin.

Did you ever wish that any subject, concrete or abstract, that captures your attention, however briefly, could be captured in a poem? The poems assembled in Long Division left me with the conviction that Andrea Cohen has this power, and that it is both a blessing and a curse.

Almost any subset of poems in Long Division demonstrates Cohen's range of subject. For example, in one sequence of poems she ponders the travels and manifestations of water ("Underground Stream"), the fate of a bird kept captive in a hotel room by naturalist Alexander Wilson ("Song of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker"), the positive side for the needle in the haystack ("In a Haystack"), and the way scanning lost collectables in a flea market might change the course of the shopper's interior life ("As Is"). Not surprisingly, Cohen finds the mélange nearly overwhelming:

Tell me, who might I have been
had I not glimpsed that green
forest of bottle, not imagined
an ample spinster in her kitchen,
taking stock, divesting, puzzling
how best to label the miracle
elixir still uncorked: Emerald
vessel, still full, and not for sale.

These are the final lines of "As Is," but for a poet with Cohen's gift, it must require immense control to stop once she starts. When Cohen turns to a topic like "Current Events," she swerves away from the expected meditation on today's headlines and begins to catalog a simpler kind of current event instead:

for the punctual soprano practicing
Don Giovanni off key across the alley,
for the starlings who string their nests

with hair nets, Christmas lights and yo-yo
twine in the hollow rusted portico,
for the cicada that plays

long and furious at dusk . . .

To be fair, in the next lines, Cohen praises "the paper boy who pumps his red bike, / thrilled at the extra burden / of world events," but the poet has no interest in "the news"—it is already at hand.

Cohen is not a poet grounded in a particular place; poem after poem metaphorically cries out, "Don’t fence me in!" But these are also not poems without borders. Cohen can get into a poem like “Accomplice” in a flick of her well-trained eye—"The white underside / of your forearm / startles me"—but she knows not to overstay her welcome and is out of this poem fifteen well-set lines later.

In poem after poem, Cohen becomes her own critic. She knows she can't sit in one place for very long. In "Ferry: Somewhere Between Boston and Yarmouth," the poet loses "a cup of quarters in the slot machine," reflects on how gambling is "choosing how much to lose," then imagines "leaping into the bulging sea" but rejects this ending:

From that titanic Gulf
I saw myself yet aft—
quizzical, windswept, unfinished,
and so swam back.

Long Division opens with an epigraph from Wallace Stevens: "There may always be a time of innocence. There is never a place." In these poems, Cohen responds, "No problem." Anywhere she hangs her voice is home.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

RUMORED ISLANDS | FANCY BEASTS

RUMORED ISLANDS
Robert Farnsworth
Harbor Mountain Press ($14)

FANCY BEASTS
Alex Lemon
Milkweed Editions ($16)

by Raphael Allison

Who speaks in a Robert Farnsworth poem? Whose voice is it that draws from the daily trudge such an attentive texture of observations:

Sunwashed haze brings up the ruined river’s smell, slashed
with mown grass and diesel smoke. I get words in edgewise
closing them inside storm doors. In one window a few still
waxy leaves, a Romanesque wooden radio, doilies, a brackish

light upon the massy furniture.

Plumbing the shades of experience and wringing from them as much light as they’ll yield, these are lines of a meditative observer, a careful learner who draws from the details of his experience an equivalently rich set of reflections on it. That is to say, the poles of Farnsworth’s attention, in his new book Rumored Islands, are clear: a rendering of the poem’s events on the one hand, and the writer’s reflections on those events on the other, recollections of experience reproduced in relative tranquility.

Take the above lines, from “Referendum,” about the canvassing of a poor neighborhood and distributing pamphlets before a vote. The buildings are tenements, the tenants are poor, and if not suspicious, then at least impatient with the intrusions of this do-gooder upon their daily lives. As the poem opens, we’re swept into the speaker’s exterior world, knocking on doors and having them closed swiftly in our faces. The lines amass observed details—a woman who “narrows / her eyes in skeptical greeting,” “the round / of beers a small, sallow elder woman swings between her knuckles”—before obliquely plunging inside the psychic and moral space of their creator’s consciousness to work out these concentrations of attention. Here are two samples of the plunging:

I smile at them. I have
information here, refutations of hysterical rumor, invitations
to consider every person whole and human, equal before the law.

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

I don’t know about convincing. What is this dread,
for those the light cuts down, or for the stubborn valiance
some develop to survive, a tremendous effort surmounted
by a gilded plaster eagle, a crucifix, a flag?

“Referendum” is, in fact, concerned with the gap between Farnsworth’s own “invitations” to engage in these political ideals and the tenement-dwellers’ wary distance. After each description, the poem backs off. “I smile at them”; “I don’t know about convincing.” It’s that logic of impassioned interiors knocking at the doors of the world’s impassiveness that gives this poem, like many of these poems, its tension. Can Farnsworth bridge the gaping gulf that separates his “smile” and their “rumor”?

Perhaps another way of saying this is that Farnsworth is a poet in the great tradition of Romantic lyric. In this volume he’s fond of alluding to and quoting Williams and Stevens, but at least one eye is cast back to the crucible of the same European consciousness that formed the Romantics’ imaginations, its growing sense that the human mind is engaged in some mighty struggle with the brutal World. Thus it’s no coincidence that one of his poems is a reworking of Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” which famously begins, “Earth has not anything to show more fair.” Farnsworth’s intentional misprision is only comic at first: “Earth had plenty to show more fair, / but the tour launches hadn’t begun / guzzling upriver.” The poem is really a modernized Wordsworthian mediation: Wordsworth looked out over London in order to locate an internal, compensatory peace in a natural world under threat (Wordsworth’s description of the “smokeless air” suggests just how clearly he understood the threat of industrial smoke and how pleased he was at its absence). Farnsworth, however, looks out over Wordsworth’s world, the one enshrined in the sonnet, searching for that poet’s confidence in the “mighty heart” that can be found there. Perhaps it doesn’t exist? “Oh yes, I knew the poem testified / to no fact, just to his capacity for vision.” And yet, in the end, he finds “fixed beneath a torrent of traffic, / as a noble instance of clarity, the place / where all that mighty heart is lying, still.” For all the speaker’s self-consciousness, of which there is a lot—“I’d been / for several days a tourist, composing / a self in which collected novelties / might cohere”—there is also a deep commitment to what Wordsworth himself understood of the poet’s task: to animate and plumb the struggle of a mind confronting experience, the “self” in colloquy with the world around it.

In Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric, M.H. Abrams, who wrote influential 20th-century studies of the British Romantic poets, defined Romantic lyrics like this:

They present a determinate speaker in a particularized, and usually a localized, outdoor setting, whom we overhear as he carries on, in a fluent vernacular which rises easily to a more formal speech, a sustained colloquy, sometimes with himself or with the outer scene, but more frequently with a silent human auditor, present or absent. The speaker begins with a description of the landscape; an aspect or change of aspect in the landscape evokes a varied but integral process of memory, thought, anticipation, and feeling, which remains closely intervolved with the outer scene. In the course of this meditation the lyric speaker achieves an insight, faces up to a tragic loss, comes to a moral decision, or resolves an emotional problem.

One of the key attributes here is the dichotomy Abrams describes of a “determinate speaker” and a “particularized, and usually a localized, outdoor setting.” Here is the opening of Farnsworth’s poem “Unforgivable Landscape”:

Near New Haven the landfills wear pathetic
green fringes beneath their gull-infested buttes,
where tiny yellow tractors crawl in a fine drizzle.
Above the junkyard leach ponds and the piles
of old tires, stare the incurable windows
of the valve factory.

While the speaker isn’t mentioned in a particular way, the perspective is stable. We are situated in space—we are “near New Haven” and the phrase “tiny yellow tractors” tells us we are gazing at the landfill from afar—and that space is a subject for reflection. We’re already getting the sense that something is amiss, as the title word “landscape”—an unavoidably bucolic word—seems decidedly at odds with this “incurable” world. And then, from this set of situated observations of a palpable and problematic world, we plummet back into the mind of the perceiver, who will wring from this scene some “insight,” as Abrams would say, some manner of truth: “All those rusty coils, filthy / corners, ferrous mud—who’ll say how we’ve / arrived at our nature?” This is the poem’s difficulty, the great question it sets itself to answer: how can we wrestle from a fallen world some sense of ourselves? Is this world of filthy corners adequate to the belief in our own humanity? What do we do, the poem asks, with such a scene?

This writing is serious. It takes up its task with urgency and a great trust in the reader’s thoughtfulness. Farnsworth’s poems are after something, working with what American English offers them to investigate the world. According to Abrams, such a colloquy should result in an insight, and “Unforgivable Landscape” does offer one, though it’s not what we expect. Rather than condemning the bleakness, the speaker realizes its essential completeness, its representation of the totality he understands is his lot: “Thisnature we have made or acquiesced to, / which is no mere backdrop, but the whole of life / as it must be taken.” And by the end of the poem, after we realize we’re driving down a highway and moving through this landscape, having ridden these troubling observations for a page’s worth of lines, the poem ends on a surprising moment of repair: “And while neither of us turns, exactly, having / plumbed the silence, we do at last begin, / slowly, as after love, to talk more tenderly.” One might say, with Abrams, that an “emotional problem” has been finally resolved.

This isn’t to say that every poem in Rumored Islands is a contemporary version of one of Coleridge’s conversation poems. Farnsworth is deeply rooted in the present, with all of its tell-tale crises and catastrophes, and at times, the situation of the speaker and his sentiments is not so easy to place. “Eminent Domain,” for example, describes the demolition of a house and its brutal act of exposure. (It might seem that this poem stands in trenchant relation to the current housing crisis in all of its forms, except for the fact that the poem first appeared in The Hudson Review in 1994; Farnsworth’s two previous books appeared in 1982 and 1989, so this book draws on literally decades of work published in a range of journals since). After gaping at the wreckage for a prurient moment or two, long enough to register the foulness of marauding this home’s erstwhile privacy—“A closet / door (with a porcelain knob!) dangles / from one hinge,” “How the bucket knocks / thoughtfully on a window frame until / it shatters, then digs intimately away / at the wreckage for a while”— the poem makes an unexpected swerve away from simply recoiling at the exposure of intimate spaces. “Catastrophe doesn’t / hold me here,” the speaker says. “No, it’s the performance, the stylish wag / and swing and grasp of that iron arm / that fascinates.” How tricky it is, the poem discovers, to be sentimentally driven by the sorrowful exposure of intimate life in this spectacle and simultaneously horrified by the “hopeless” interior the wrecking actually reveals. The end of the poem is oddly ambiguous: “Down with it. / Untraceable motive, terrible claw, down with it.” Is the poem condemning the destruction of the house? Or the keen pettiness of life its raping reveals? Is it cheering “down with the house!” or shouting “down with destruction!”? We may not know, and the poem leaves us caught as the speaker was caught, configuring ourselves.

Many poems in this volume reveal Farnsworth is of the Elizabeth Bishop school of publication: don’t publish a lot, but what you publish, make perfect. The lines here reflect careful sculpting, the vocabulary thoughtful minting. Syllables can fill up the mouth with a pleasing voluptuousness to match their subject: “mustard-colored, / scrotal strands of rockweed swirl like mops / in the tide swell.” Imagery is rendered with arch visual precision to create crystallizing similes: “The seal’s slick head slides from cold, / polished water like the recollected portion / of a dream, into sunlight.” Farnsworth’s fascination with Stevens shows up not just in numerous allusions, but even as the subject of an imitative villanelle, which captures that poet’s looping rhythms and emphasis on contemplation: “Read late a winter’s night. Feel the rooms around, / The rooms within the mind resist the dark. The fire burns as the novel taught it how.” There are numerous other poems of note here, including “Snow,” a poem about work and writing; “The Shutters,” a spare scrutinizing of a long ago creative act; the moving “Long Light,” which opens the moments after Farnsworth has dropped his kids at school; and the revealing, comical tableau of “Why I’ve Never Bought You Fishnet Stockings.” These are poems of precision, grace, compression, and wit. This poetry is gratifying, intelligent, and thoroughly of the moment, steeped as it is in a consciousness of the past.

Alex Lemon’s poems in Fancy Beasts present an altogether different picture. Lemon’s are poems of immediacy and effect, not meditation. If Farnsworth projects shades of Romanticism, Lemon echoes the New York School brand of casual, glittering brilliance, characterized best by a writer like Ted Berrigan. Lemon is far more concerned with leaps of language and consciousness and less obviously worried over contemplative depth. Here is “Bling Ding Bling” (the title might tell you something of this already), in its entirety:

The oven is left on all night,
so the cupcakes turn into
twelve blackened fists,
& being that we are hoodlums
& thugs, we go outside & hit
the rock-hard treats into the air
with aluminum bats, golf clubs
& tennis rackets. It’s beautiful
really, watching the dark specks
rocket over the shingled roofs.
& we won’t admit it when we’re
caught, but of course we’re aiming. All
of us know whose windows they’ll smash
through. The hands that’ll pluck up
the shards. A triangle of glass arrowed
upright into the hardwood floor. Glittering
in the sunlight as we laugh & jab each other
in the mouths. Glittering & upright,
like the birthday candle on your last cake.
Upright & glittering through your cataracts
& Alzheimer’s. Glittering & glittering, that candle,
that last sweet, that something
you’ll never remember.

It’s not just that this poem is loosely arranged, full of ampersands and casual phrasing and line breaks (“It’s beautiful / really”). More importantly, Farnsworth’s Romantic poles of attention—the seeing eye at work in an objective world—has turned to this inside narrative of a long-ago event: as a child, the speaker and his friends chucked burnt pastry through the windows of a local old coot, some man or woman. Only now, in the apparent present, does he realize the poignancy of this callow act of terrorism. It’s the direct address to the Alzheimer’s patient that tells us the most here: the broken shards of glass turn into birthday candles in the man’s mind, a moving recognition of the codger’s confusion and an almost sentimental image—candles on a birthday cake—of time’s passage that he won’t even understand. So the poet’s memory of this event becomes a kind of memorial to a man with no memory left.

Perhaps it seems too obvious to point out how this is no Romantic lyric. The mind of the speaker seems to look upon its subject with decisiveness, and seeks not to wrestle from the memory some resolution but to palliate it with an image. Of course, the Romantic mode is historical, except in the various ways it still resurfaces (Stevens, Farnsworth, etc.). Still, it’s worth pointing out how much Lemon’s poetry is driven by the urgency of his interior mind and its finding of itself in language. Here is the opening of “There’s So Little To Do in a Hospital Bed”:

Although tiredness whirls
All the while, the hive

Of my head shines with love.
Inside my chest, umbrellas

Open warmly—the last
Vacancy where I might

Get it right. My under—
Thighs have stopped

Bleeding. Even though
My skin has God’s stamp

Of approval—USDA Choice—
Fear comes & the sheets

Look lightning struck.

The irony of the poem, of course, is that it details how much there is to do in a hospital bed. The poem presents observations of oppositions: on the one hand, there’s what one might expect (that “tiredness” would create torpor, that fear rises despite other assurances) and on the other, there’s what actually occurs (love, fear). The voice articulating all of this, however, is hermetically sealed, like one of the doctorly instruments or syringes this body must submit to. It’s a willfully opaque voice, and because of this dichotomy there’s a blend of intimacy and disengagement. How else to square the admission of bleeding thighs with the vagueness of “God’s stamp / Of approval.” We learn elsewhere that Lemon has tattoos, so perhaps that’s what he means; or perhaps it’s a reference to a doctor’s positive assessment of his physical condition. In any case, the angle and pith of these clipped couplets tell us not to strain too hard.

The most arresting poems in this book occur, however, when the language does ask us to strain a little and the voice extrudes from the self, imagining itself into the world that constrains it. Perhaps the book’s best poem, “Verde Vista,” opens with the speaker in line at the post office. An old coot (there are lots of coots in this book) tells him, due to the tattoos on his arms, “You know, Hitler would have / Made a lamp out of you.” And here begins a train of fantasies that Lemon can’t quite control. After finishing his business, he winds out of what we now learn is a mall, stalking the old man by waiting in the parking lot, ready to toss a shopping cart through his Cadillac’s windshield. But when the man comes, clacking on his walker, something shifts. Perhaps the man will collapse? And it’s here that the poem lifts off, working through his anger and frustration to achieve a moment of clarity:

He stops at the curb, heavy breathing, & inside
Him, I imagine his heart dropping the white

Flag of surrender. That he is about to crumple
& the next thing I know, my piled hands

Will be compressing his sternum & lips, tender
As the crust of a burnt loaf of bread, will open

Against mine & as the air I just breathed into him
Returns, the taste of mayonnaise & his aftershave

Fills my mouth, & I realize that in the end it will
All work out, brilliant with dirt & light. Cryogenics

& biogerontology & pregnant men & clones
Of our favorite Chihuahuas. & if the old man, still

Kicking around, vigorous with his fourth
Or fifth different baboon heart growling within

Him, wants to stay up a little longer to finish
The terrific book he’s reading & tugs on

The bedside lamp & is illuminated by the patchwork
Of colors that had, years before, covered

My body, well, I guess, that’s fine with me, too.

How did we get here? Suddenly, the poem moves from the desert of the real into the science fiction future, where the man himself has become some emblem of the Nazi order, the specter of which he threateningly raised just moments before. And yet instead of revenge upon this blighted near corpse, the poem breathes, considers, and drops back to acquiesce. What does it matter, it wonders, and who cares anyway? The world of this poem—decrepit, perfumed, and mayonnaisey—conspires to keep such a depleted life living, with its wrong-headed science of “biogerontology” and cryogenic creepiness. Perhaps one way of confronting the world is not to care so much about its judgments. So what if the old man’s grossness wins out and Lemon succumbs to his body’s frailty? Well, that’s fine with him, too.

And so Lemon’s poems in Fancy Beasts are small acts of resistance to something gone inexplicably wrong. There’s no sincere attempt to work out a bargain or resolve the problem, as Farnsworth would. In the face of The World, Lemon’s poems seem to suggest, the best repair is attitude. It’s a pitched battle played cool, and it’s exciting to watch effortlessness take the role of David against the Goliath of our civilization. “One must gird the loins / When approaching // Considerateness—that little / Gnashing beast. It might not // Cost much, but the way I see it, / We really know nothing about // Each other. Civilized schmivilized.” There is no contending here with the thatch of real experience; rather, there’s a self assuring itself—no, not assuring, “girding” itself—against the sallies of What Is. “The most troubling thing is everything,” begins “Tick Tick Tick.” “It’s all happening / At the same time. Interpreting dreams while watching Let’s Make / A Deal. Eating tofurkey & Cherry Garcia while practicing / Yoga.” And so on. The poem itself becomes the path of resistance to the maelstrom of our junky pastiche of American life. Without the poem, we feel, Lemon would be lost.

One of this book’s most powerful undercurrents is a daring, Cid Corman-like minimalism. For all of Lemon’s garrulousness and cheek, an intensity of focus runs through it all. The second section of the book is, in fact, a series of thirteen tiny lyrics, and it functions as an eye in the hurricane. In some ways, these stripped down, spare and bare needles of language are the book’s life-force, providing a core of mandarin quietude:

The cat
Fur—

I collect
It in old

Spaghetti
Jars. She will

Never die.

The perverse museum of cat fur in jars is charged with affect, a magical gesture rebuffing the tide of death.

The art
Of contemplation

Escapes me.
I’d rather

Be a missile
Filled
With Honey.

The opposition is entrancing. Of course, it’s power, sexuality, experience, and sweetness rather than reflection. This is poetry of attitude rather than contemplation. Perhaps, Lemon’s poems suggest, that’s all one needs.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

COLLECTED POEMS: Gustaf Sobin

Edited by Esther Sobin, Andrew Joron, Andrew Zawacki, and Edward Foster
Talisman House ($27.95)

by Lucas Klein

Time was when moving to Europe for an American poet was a good career move. But the era of the Moderns and their romance of the self-imposed exile had ended by the time Gustaf Sobin—whose lifework in poetry is newly celebrated in his Collected Poems—moved to Provence to apprentice himself to René Char in 1963, where he remained until his death in 2005. While Sobin found affinity with Char, isolating himself from an American poetic community of growing importance may have nearly erased him from existence. As a result, his work appears at first socially adrift, with few obvious American forebears or associates.

The recent salvo of Sobin publications serves to redress some of that, primarily through directing attention at Sobin’s work itself. But while Counterpath Press’s single-volume issue of Sobin’s translation of Char’s The Brittle Age and Returning Upland offers details for understanding the relationship between Sobin’s writing and Char’s, and his essays—in Luminous Debris (University of California Press, 1999),Aura (Counterpath, 2008), and Ladder of Shadows (University of California Press, 2009)—describe the archaeological grounding beneath his poetics, as a displaced American, his poetry nevertheless descends from, and remains within, dialogue with a longer tradition of postwar American poetics.

Specifically, Sobin’s Collected Poems shows him as a descendent of late Objectivism, having digested the George Oppen of “Of Being Numerous”—beginning, “There are things / We live among ‘and to see them / Is to know ourselves’”—and adding to it both Louis Zukofsky’s intricacy of sound and his sense that poetry must embody that “rested totality [which] may be called objectification—the apprehension satisfied completely as to the appearance of the art form as an object.” Consider “Isn’t That’s Almost,” from his first book Wind Chrysalid’s Rattle (1980), both as a meditation on being amidst surroundings and as an assertion of crafted object:

isn’t
that’s almost (its vastness, infinitesimal: a glint
in the voice’s      wondrous shadows).      isn’t

that dreams      itself: the translucent herd of its
kisses driven, ineluctable,      the

earth germinal driven      into the absence that      is.

But if Objectivism is about the object, Sobin’s poetry is often equally about its opposite, the negated. This places Sobin’s poetry not only after Objectivism, but after continental philosophy as well. In particular, his poetry derives from Heidegger, whom Sobin knew personally through Char, as well as—according to Andrew Joron’s and Andrew Zawacki’s contextualizing introduction—the “Lévinasian rejoinder to Heidegger.” The editors see philosophical investigations as “integral to Sobin’s poetics: the relation between Being and beings; the insistence on language as ontologically central . . . the fourfold gathering of earth, sky, mortals, and gods . . . the phenomenological play of appearance and concealment . . . and the fundamental human need to build and to dwell.” Such inquiries are indeed as evident in Wind Chrysalid’s Rattle as they are in Breaths’ Burials (1994) or Towards the Blanched Alphabets (1998) and In the Name of the Neither (2002). What these titles reveal is possibly what Michael Palmer was getting at in his back-cover blurb: Sobin’s way was to walk the “via negativa.” In other words, Sobin’s is a poïesis of paradox, about Being and the impossibility of describing silence in language, and he traces in his writing the demarcation between the yin and yang of presence and absence.

Perhaps because he only began publishing poetry at forty, Sobin emerged with his concerns and his style fully formed. The same meditations on poetry as

a wind      spindled to a stone
(“Seven Perseids”)

from early in his career remain in The Places as Preludes (2005), his final book:

who’s to

say that the
world doesn’t end in
some gratuitous gust of wind but in this, its
cherished
omission?
(“Prelude XV”)

And yet, the undeniable beauty of these passages, and of his writing in general, overrides any frustration at repetition or redundancy. But while the core of Sobin’s poetry is in page- or two-long poems, the ambitious reader (though slightly less ambitious than one who will read the entire collection, cover to cover) might want to look more closely at Sobin’s more ambitious poems. These begin with the propositions for poetry in “The Earth as Air: An Ars Poetica” (from The Earth as Air, 2005)—which also serves as an anchor for the reader alert to Sobin’s concept of poetry—showing

each thing
eithered to      another, the      this
whatevered to the
that, the

ark-

within-the-
lyre-      propellant:      wind
and white roses

wrapt in a      taught, vibratory weave.

and continue through the series of “Transparent Itineraries,” a nearly yearly updated poem-in-progress that takes the reader from

it’s the inference, not the inferred, that draws, seduces, abducts.
(“Transparent Itineraries: 1983”)

through

always an ‘elsewhere’ that isn’t, a ‘there’ that’s not, while, out of the very midst of the ‘here,’ an infallible instinct infallibly points.
(“Transparent Itineraries: 1996”)

to

that ‘here’ was still here, and world something other than the fast-fading imprint of something it never was.
(“Transparent Itineraries: 2002/2003”)

And in what strikes me as his greatest poem, “Late Bronze, Early Iron: A Journey Book” (from Towards the Blanched Alphabets, 1998), the ethereal ponderousness of Sobin’s poetics take root in the ethnographic contexts available otherwise only from his essays:

as you, in a science of your own, would trace, if you could, the envelopment of the verb—of language itself—in a similar set of constrictions. self-enclosures.

how, against the innate radiance (call it aura) of a polymorphous diffusion, language —as well—would undergo a near identical circumscription.

find itself slowly, inexorably locked within the fixed perimeters of the literal.

(breath itself as if monetized).

Especially in his shorter pieces, with shorter lines, Sobin’s style is one of interruption. With commas, hyphenations, and enjambment, he forces attention to the parts and particles, solid or hollow, that make up the words we know— “re- / member,” “with- / out,” “ab- / sence”—and our sense of being that comes from them. Even his seeming missteps are significant; he has a predilection for “very” as an adjective (“the very instant,” “its very effacement,” “the very air”), which at first might seem to controvert the precise economy of his expression, but with further thought seem more like “empty words” designated by ancient Chinese grammarians. These “empty words,” which serve a grammatical function but do not have any meaning per se, unlock something of Sobin’s sense of poetry: like all words, his use of “very” directs focus on something he believes not, in the end, to be there, the “being” crossed-out, the isn’t.

This isn’t may, alas, be what Sobin became, both by removing himself from the American poetic community and by dying before he could reclaim any rightful readership (Rachel Blau DuPlessis cited him in her entry on Neglectorinos). The paradox of the Collected Poems, of course, is that it collects the work of a poet whose work was to efface himself and the words that constitute his work. And yet in the book’s final section, presenting sixteen previously unseen poems written since the publication of his last volume, is what we may take to be Sobin’s final piece, and his final statement on language, poetry, and writing. The first line of “Written in White: An Exegesis” reads,

only written in white would the world, at last, become legible.

May this gathering, showing the totality of poetry Gustaf Sobin wrote in white, make him legible, as well.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

GURLESQUE: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics

edited by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg
Saturnalia Books ($20)

by Morgan Myers

Anthologies tend to be read as turning points in literary history—forward-looking declarations of something just beginning or backwards-looking canonizations of something just completed. Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg, the editors of Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics, seem to anticipate that Janus-faced quality of the literary anthology, and their twin introductions engage with it in self-conscious and often ambivalent ways. On the one hand, both work to present this anthology not as a closing gesture of codification but as a radical break. There’s the word new in the title; there’s Glenum’s insistence that the anthology is put forward “not . . . as a monument” but as “a portal, as the beginning of a conversation”; and there’s the characteristically hyperbolic rhetoric of the avant-garde that buzzes through Greenberg’s introduction, which promises that the Gurlesque is “just the apocalypse . . . just the second coming of a baby girl messiah.” On the other hand, there’s also an unusual quantity of historicization surrounding these revolutionary gestures, as if Glenum and Greenberg are self-consciously acknowledging their by-now familiar character. Both editors devote the majority of their essays to establishing a historical pedigree for the Gurlesque that stretches back through ’90s riot grrls, to 20th-century poets like Alice Notley, Sylvia Plath, and Gertrude Stein, to 19th-century burlesque theater, and finally to proposed ur-Gurlesque figures like Emily Dickinson or Shakespeare’s Ophelia.

A sympathetic reading might see this as a feminist reversal of Marinetti’s call to demolish the museums, a turn towards a matrilineal, diachronic community of artists against the phallocentric struggle to conquer the father; a less generous reading might see a somewhat academic investment in canon formation and legitimization. But neither of those readings would fully account for the way that Greenberg in particular extends the historicizing impulse into a kind of personal and cultural nostalgia, a nostalgia that seems at once of the avant-garde and for the avant-garde. When Greenberg first elaborated her sense of a Gurlesque aesthetic in 2002, she located the origins of the tendency in a ’70s feminist girlhood. Here (perhaps in part to accommodate the addition of younger poets) she emphasizes instead a ’90s riot grrl youth. But the nostalgia in her introduction reaches toward something much larger than riot grrl itself or any personal experience of it; it’s a nostalgia for an entire epistemology of the counterculture that may seem endangered by 21st-century technology. In Greenberg’s description, a Gurlesque life story is most recognizable by the stylized objects it leaves behind—mix tapes and zines, lipstick and fishnets, all the physical memorabilia that threaten to disappear in a culture linked through digital rather than personal interactions. In reaching back to an earlier iteration of the avant-garde, Greenberg appears to reach back to a past vision of the future—one defined by the handmade and the in-person rather than the global, virtual network.

The poetry picks up this orientation towards the material as a shifting marker of identity, but also complicates it. At times it is the poetry of post-feminist fashion statements and burlesque costume changes that the editors’ introductions might lead you to expect. In Nada Gordon’s “Porpo-Thang,” for example, the regalia of socialized femininity takes on a life of its own, producing something like a Flarf rewrite of Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar” starring a troupe of performing dolphins and their colorful lingerie:

The porpoises fling up their
orange underthings; swaying
in the wind, their heavy rotation
is brief and horrifying,

full of bright scrawls, of thin
and lacy garters.

But more of the poems—many more, in fact, than the introductions might suggest—veer instead towards what Glenum calls the “female grotesque,” poetry rooted less in the paraphernalia of identity than in the brute fact of the body. In much of Ariana Reines’s contribution, for example, it’s difficult to imagine the characters wearing clothing at all; they seem to exist naked and covered in some vague afterbirth, perpetual Adams and Eves who have reached sexual maturity without overcoming the violent confusion of being born:

Because of remembering where or what you are the ovum gasp and burst. First he spit on my asshole and then start in with a middle finger and then the cock slid in no sound come out, only a maw gaping, grind hard into ground. Voluminous bounty of minutes sensate and glowing shoot out.

Most of the anthology lies somewhere in between, like Chelsea Minnis’s mash of hot pants and sexualized violence, or Stacy Doris’s rewriting of De Sade by way of cartoonishly decadent coiffeurs. A few of the most potentially anthemic poems—like Brenda Shaughnessy’s “Your One Good Dress” or Dorothea Lasky’s “Boobs Are Real”—seem to merge the two perfectly, turning body parts and apparel equally into prostheses that support a defiant yet strangely ironic kind of feminist self-assertion. If there is a single stance that most characterizes the collection, it would be just this candid mixture of stridency and ambivalence—a kind of hanging up between the sometimes conflicting demands of individual expression and political liberation most directly expressed in Tina Brown Celona’s “Sunday Morning Cunt Poem”: “Some said it was a vicious swipe at feminism. Others said it was a vicious feminist swipe. It was the only word I knew.”

What also unifies the anthology is the way in which—whether from an excess of identifiable tokens (Gordon) or from their absence (Reines)—all of this turning toward the material produces not a grounding of identity but its dissolution. As Glenum puts it, “Gurlesque poets . . . assume there is no such thing as coherent identity. There is . . . only the performance of self.” This proposition is powerfully, consistently, and convincingly enacted by nearly all of the poetry here, and strikingly, it seems to be treated by most of the poets as a given more than a discovery. No wonder, then, that Greenberg might be nostalgic for an era when those provisionally assumed, purely performed identities left behind some material souvenir that could provide an illusion of continuity for a self looking back through the long lens of the anthologist. As an avowedly Gen X collection, Gurlesque is a statement not only about feminism or the avant-garde, but about the rewriting of those concepts in response to a particular historical moment, a moment in which 20th-century visions of the future may seem more past every day. Only time will tell if that response represents something closing, something just beginning, or—most likely—some of both.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

BANG DITTO

Amber Tamblyn
Manic D Press ($16)

by George Held

This is the second book of poetry by Amber Tamblyn, who is better known as an Emmy and Golden Globe nominated actress. Its title probably alludes to Pauline Kael’s collection of film reviews Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, shorthand for those Hollywood staples romance and crime. Tamblyn’s poems contain plenty of sex, but the violence is mostly emotional.

In “My Face,” a poem that wryly comments on her celebrity, Tamblyn also admits to having “no self esteem,” a plausible reason for the failure of her love affairs. One of her fine longer poems, “Strange,” recounts a romance that began in Los Angeles and extended to Denver, London, New England, New York City, the Catskills, and Japan before it fell apart due to her lover’s infidelity. Tamblyn’s figurative language makes her youthful love story exceptional: “we camped out in each other’s hair,” “out of my slip and into / my slit you slid,” “your shoulders began to close like hardcovers. / I could only read your spine.”

At its best, a Tamblyn poem combines elements of personal discovery and word play. In “Face Off,” for example, she creates a bedroom scene as though it’s a rehearsal, with a script lying on the bed to provide lines for the speaker and her boyfriend. They “face off” over their relationship while she takes her actor’s face off for a moment of potential intimacy. Admitting that she has played this role and read this script before, she says, “I know what comes next.”

Tamblyn can sound like a tough cookie on the one hand and a wounded woman-child on the other. Aware she’s both Hollywood royalty (her father is Russ Tamblyn and her godfathers include Dennis Hopper and Neil Young) and a poet with street experience, she treats herself with either irony or a compelling sincerity as the moment demands.

Bang Ditto ends with the prose piece “How My Papa Saved Christmas.” Here Tamblyn tells us that after she’d gotten a Tinkerbell tattoo at seventeen, a year after she had her nipples pierced, her mother, a self-proclaimed “woman of ‘Christian values,’” saw the “great Tinkerbellian monster she had created.” This sort of “Oxycontin oxymoron” shows Tamblyn on the edge between narcotic rebellion and linguistic flair. As long as she walks the high wire of a balancing act between victim and heroine, monster and fairy, her fans and readers will remain eager for more of her thrilling work.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

FIND THE GIRL

Lightsey Darst
Coffee House Press ($16)

by Alyssa Pelish

There is an expression, coined in a popular work of 1970s feminist lit crit, to describe the violence of reducing women to an aesthetic ideal: “killed into art.” It refers most pointedly to how such idealization deprives its subject of an existence outside the still life of the image, but the language also vividly acknowledges the female body as the enduring object of both real violence and aestheticization. Examples, of course, abound: Ovid’s rendition of how Dis carries off the nubile, flower-gathering Proserpina is textbook, as are all those photographic portraits of murdered child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey. Most recently, the popularity of the crime scene investigation as entertainment, with its lurid camera angles and lingering close-ups of slashed white flesh, unflinchingly presents this intersection of violence and aesthetics in the female body. This fetish of the minute particulars of happenstance and human anatomy, its distillation of a life into these particulars, becomes the dominant metaphor of Lightsey Darst’s debut collection of poetry, which is focused on the adolescent girl.

Darst’s book is called Find the Girl, and within the landscape of crime scene and female adolescence it surveys, the title suggests not only the view of investigator and aggrieved family, but that of the lurking predator and—poignantly—of the still inchoate figure of the girl herself, never fully realized before she disappeared. We hear all of these voices as Darst’s brief, often fragmented poems shift from one perspective to another. And fixated as each voice is on the adolescent girl, as subject and as aestheticized object, we are always at the crime scene. This crime scene, then, is eternal—one that Darst locates in myth and folktale, across history, and on the evening news. Some titles, such as “Young Gretel,” “Young Helen,” “JonBenét,” and “Kore” summon explicit figures. More often, though, Darst’s subjects are nameless but steeped in the cultural mythology that haunts them: “Beautiful as a plum, my girl—” one poem begins; “The woods are green, the path winds / through blackberries” begins another.

This is a mythology that can’t separate female adolescence from fear and danger, where “fertile” is inevitably followed by “in trouble,” so that the crime scene and the deep dark woods of fairy tale converge, and the cautionary tale of a Little Red Riding Hood easily becomes the site of an investigation. “Unlike an amateur, I can tell wolves from bones,” says the investigative voice of “[open & know].” “The thigh bone is a giveaway; the pelvis is better.” Precisely what marks these figures as girlish is what enchants the predator and dooms them, and what renders their remains identifiable. Similarly, Darst’s depiction of the fertile, vegetal imagery of female adolescence evokes both the woods of fairy tales and the sites of recovered bodies:

Let it be the ground that keeps bringing them
back to themselves—Virginia creeper

finding its way through sockets

It is in these moments of thematic confluence that Darst’s poems are strongest, as if she were uncovering the cruel symmetries of natural law.

One might imagine that, for a poet, to “find the girl” is to consider fully the variations on a theme, to animate it past its own cliché. Unfortunately, Darst’s efforts are least compelling when she has removed the girl from the uncanny imagery of the fairy tale crime scene. Ordinary settings, such as those of “[A few things I learned about sex]” and “not because I’m dirty not because I’m,” report the atrocities of everyday misogyny but fail to ground them in any kind of metaphor that would allow for the shock of rediscovery that the more successful poems do. “They separated us for sex ed,” begins the former. “We asked about erections, not about pleasure.” Likewise, when Darst more overtly critiques this common mythology of fear and fetish, her eerie tone turns to tired rhetoric. The girl in “[House]” asks “why is it my part to allow / to have it in me / & open that store to others,” then acknowledges that “I am not a discoverer I am land that must be cleared.” Point taken, but we need to uncover it in the particulars of Darst’s fairytale crime scenes—not in such ordinary daylight.

As a collection, Find the Girl presents not a linear narrative, but fragments. Our knowledge of this darkly familiar world gathers in its accretion of voices, each recounting the same archetypal story from a slightly different perspective. These poems, composed of broken lines and interrupted voices, are glimpses into that larger story that the mythic span of the collection suggests. While the absence of any kind of rhythm can at times make the lines feel flat, the fragmentation of each small narrative is underscored and visually unmistakable. Darst uses broad caesuras and unevenly broken lines; italicized thought breaks into foregrounded voice, and the verse is cryptically strewn with asterisks, slashes, and brackets that suggest fissures and absences in the text. This fragmented technique effectively mimics the piecework of the investigator who can only ever partially reconstruct the crime from “inclination of goldenrod & sun’s apex / that afternoon” or “one strand of white-blonde hair / among these trays of numbered bones.” In this respect, we come to see the investigator as another version of the poet, who perpetually reassembles old stories out of her own experience. Our fascination with violence, then, comes to seem understandable:Find the Girl is as much about what gets killed into art as it is about making sense of the crime.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

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