Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($20)
by Cindra Halm
The surprise is that Bill Knott's poetry still surprises. After ten previous "official" volumes and a slew of self-published, proletariat-style chapbooks, The Unsubscriber elicits illumination by shaking up our complacency. Some would say by shtick or by trick, and certainly we recognize Knott's methods: the sonnet's development into a complicated or contradictory unity; the short fragments of lyric flush, biting sarcasm, or wildly unlikely images; the exaltations or excoriations of love, war, and death. But also Knott operates by lick, as in a capriciously placed lover's tongue; a guitar virtuoso's digressive and mischievously gorgeous phrasing; even an adversary's deliberate bruising. Since 1968, when his first volume appeared, Knott has had, and still has, the uncanny ability to simultaneously comfort and upend.
The Unsubscriber is organized in four sections, two of which are titled only by numbers and allow the variety and nuances of the poems to make connections among themselves within the reader's own organizing principles. Here are the familiar pointed observations, sexual innuendoes, tender love renderings, brash identity denunciations, and ubiquitous autumnal elegies. Another section adds the descriptor "An Interlude of Short Poems," and showcases the author's trademark stark punches, gloriously highlighted in his debut volume, The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans, and generously peppered in subsequent books. Here, contained in one section, they have a tamer feel about them, especially in their all-titled, neatly arranged format; fans of the more scattershot, fragmentary work may miss happening upon solitary blips of intensity, especially for the way they show a mind's lightning glimmers and pick-pocketed exhalations.
The final section, "Poems After," presents primarily translations of, responses to, and meditations on the work of other poets, philosophers, and artists (Douglas Messerli's 1998 collection After memorably mined a similar vein). Though some of the poems in this section (and, indeed, in the whole volume) previously appeared in Knott's chapbooks, where an author's note claimed that "The order of the poems is random, neither thematic nor chronological," their intentional organization here is interesting; in addition to the "after" premise, the themes in this grouping are home, change, peace, words themselves, endings, beginnings. A contemporary reader can't help but resonate with the cultural echoes of "after" in the wake of Sept 11, 2001. In this section, the gestalt of the composition, along with contextualizing notes about people, ideas, and language, renders a musical, thought-provoking, deeply felt suite, one made stronger by the choice of proximity.
With the declaration in his chapbooks about the ordering of poems, along with their occasional listings of book contests his manuscripts failed to win and their engagement in the perceived illegitimacy of vanity printing to begin with, the state of contemporary publishing has long been one of Knott's main themes. What gets published and what doesn't, and why? What does the zeitgeist allow, control, and censor, in content and style? Whose book is it, anyway? (For more on this topic, see the Bill Knott interview in the Summer 2000 print issue of Rain Taxi.) These are important issues that further Knott's roles as literary participant, commentator, gadfly, and outsider. This rebel energy has always been part of his aesthetic and oeuvre; his ideas and language in poems are just as likely to offend as to delight. Strong and surprising assertions and images play among human relations, the Vietnam War, suicide, God, and more recently, the literary canon. In fact, the new book's title poem, though it speaks in generalities, could be implicitly critiquing the canon as insider's clique with these concluding lines: "No one loves that vain solipsistic sect / You'd never join, whose dues you've always paid." Notice too that the definitions of "subscribe," in addition to contracting to receive a periodical or service for payment, include signing one's name on a document and expressing concurrence or approval. Add the fact that the word comes from the Latin "under" and "to write," and The Unsubscriber becomes very resonant.
Bill Knott is our contemporary e.e. cummings, and just as kaleidoscopically prolific. His work continually makes us wonder: Is he ecstatic or caustic? Experimental or formal? Witty or crass? Which of his selves is real or contrived? Like cummings, he is brilliant at both micro and macro, slaying us with word choice and punctuation as well as with a cosmos of imagination in ideas. Here's an opening premise you might not have seen in a poem before (though it wouldn't be out of place in an O. Henry story):
We stole the rich couple's baby
and left our own infant with
a note demanding they raise our
child as if it were theirs and we
would do the same. Signed,
A Poor Couple.
His frequent use of "Poem" as a title (ten such entries in this volume alone)—a conscious choice different from "Untitled" or simply leaving a blank space—speaks to poetry itself as a theme consistent throughout his books. The Unsubscriber ultimately comes across as an old friend one hasn't seen in awhile: more experienced in years and scope, but punk as ever, still able to compel attention, and filled with the yearning for connection. As Knott writes in "Wrong," "I wish to be misunderstood; / that is, / to be understood from your perspective."
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004