Posted February 1, 2011
The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands :: The Cloud Corporation :: The Demon at Agi Bridge :: Outtakes :: We Know What We Are :: There is Something Inside, It Wants to Get Out :: Climate Reply :: When You Say One Thing But Mean Your Mother :: 60 Textos :: There is Another Poem, In Which the News is Erased and Rewritten :: Cloud of Ink
Poetry by Nick Flynn
Graywolf Press, February 2011
Hardcover: 104pp; $22.00
Review by Caleb Tankersley
Well worth the wait his many fans have endured, Nick Flynn’s first collection since 2002—The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands—reasserts his reputation as a champion of contemporary American poetry. As the book tackles leading-edge themes such as torture, bodily release, and moral ambiguity by drawing from expansive media and world culture, you begin to realize that these are not your grandpa’s self-referential, literary canon poems. Flynn is influenced by poetry of the past (most notably with the repetition of Whitman’s “oh captain, my captain”), but he also draws from movies, music (I caught Arcade Fire and Britney Spears; I’m sure there’s more), and world events. The strong and subtle messages concerning the Iraq War and the torturing of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other instances lend an uncomfortably gritty realism to the collection; I doubt any reader will be able to finish “seven testimonies (redacted)” and the accompanying notes without shuddering; I couldn’t. I also couldn’t remember the last time a collection of poetry made me shudder.
But topical subjects and clever lines are easy enough. What sets Nick Flynn and The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands apart are the shear number of clever lines—in true Flynn style—and the structural cohesion that brings the emotion of these tortured bodies and souls to the threshold of the reader, appealing to the universal human experience. I’ve never read a book of poetry that functions so well as a collection. I’d feel a twinge of pain to see any one of these poems anthologized; the collection itself is such a complete work, such a press of thematic follow-through, to read one line out of the context of the whole would be reading a shadow of the true work, a fraction of Flynn’s fulfilled ambition. Regrettably, this is how I must sample the works here.
Four companion poems—“fire,” “air,” “earth,” and “water”—appear throughout the book and focus on the torturing of prisoners. Each poem features its title element in the torture and metaphors to varying degrees, as in these lines from “fire”:
capt’n oh my captain this burning has become a body
capt’n oh my captain this child is ash
capt’n oh my captain my hands pass right through her
capt’n oh my captain I don’t know what it is I’m looking at
These sort of anchor poems follow soldiers who seem unsure of what they’re doing, appealing to the ambiguous captain for affirmation. There’s an underlying regret on the part of the soldiers, which these lines from “earth” exemplify:
that dream again, capt’n, as soon as my eyes
shut—the one where the car goes into a skid
& I can’t pull out, the one where I wipe my ass
but the paper never comes clean
The elemental musings of the torturers is interwoven with poems that play between confinement and release, the imagery relying heavily on birds and cages. The poem “hello birdy” opens with:
paint a hungry bird
paint its cage black
paint a tunnel scraped out with a spoon
The resulting collection is a tragic portrait of the United States, of the physical, emotional, and spiritual casualties this last decade of war has wreaked on Iraq and ourselves. I wouldn’t characterize it as hopeful, but I will say The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands is the most skilled and poignant collection of war poetry I have ever read. Finishing the collection, one can see the full breadth of Flynn’s vision, the layers touched by injustice, from a nation down to a single broken spirit. The ending lines of “self-exam (my body is a cage)” best capture this haunting impression:
we think hungry
children live in our bellies, clutching their empty
bowls as the food rains
down, we sometimes think we are those
hungry children, we think
we can think anything & it won’t
matter, we think we can think cut out her tongue,
then ask her to sing
Poetry by Timothy Donnelly
Wave Books, September 2010
Paperback: 147pp; $16.00
Review by Alissa Fleck
With impressively unconventional language, Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation explores the inextricable conflict accompanying the acquisition of knowledge and the act of thinking. Many of the book’s poems read like the experience of peering into the mind of someone who spends extensive periods of time alone, musing on the philosophy of the everyday. Donnelly’s speaker often expresses a desire for passiveness—to be removed from the process of thought altogether—or demonstrates an attempt to rationalize spiritual thought and themes with his bleaker version of reality. The poet takes the language and ideas of the spiritual for a fresh spin, even rewriting certain biblical stories to fit with a more modern perspective of commerce and industry. In “Chapter for Breathing Air Among the Waters,” Donnelly epitomizes this prevailing uncertainty of knowledge:
but caught up in what thinking
tries to conceal:
made of clouds, an anchorage
in sinking down where to know
is to feel knowledge dissolving
into particles of pause, the many
Throughout the collection, there is a resistance to the tenuousness of thought—the foundation of knowledge is as fragile as the clouds in the sky, which appear to have substance, but represent instead an elaborate illusion. Thinking is what we do to avoid what might happen when we stop.
In Donnelly’s poems, there is often a deep chasm between the self and others, best exemplified perhaps by a poem where objects take on life more than most humans in the book, and the speaker relates to their makers in this fashion. The notion of an inherent chasm and the related struggle is prevalent throughout these poems. Wisdom, spirituality, and existence—among other overarching themes—are consistently at odds. “Intellectual activity / removes us briefly from the swelter of existence,” Donnelly writes in “No Diary,” emphasizing the mundaneness of existence, a poem which goes on to decry the inability to place intrinsic value on simply being. In this sense, the poet often fuses the philosophical with the commercialized, a notion which is depicted in the book’s title. The collection’s title explicitly depicts a corporatizing of that which is most impossible to render commercial.
Continuing with the idea of a struggle Donnelly writes, “even though I have come / through long experiment to abhor being / nothing terrifies me more than the prospect of it stopped.” These lines exemplify the speaker’s attitude about a sort of limbo of existence—the equal but opposing terrors of thinking/existing and ceasing to exist. This constant push and pull of life and conscious thought is demonstrated in the recurrent image of trying to breathe underwater, a struggle characteristic of many of Donnelly’s poems.
At times lonely and fatalistic in tone, this collection exudes its fair share of humor as well. Many of Donnelly’s poems are strikingly clever and well-executed, despite occasional wordiness (a laborious run-on enjambed across several line breaks here or there), heavy-handedness, or esotericism. While Donnelly’s speaker is wont to lay the blueprints for a dystopian society, decry the inherent fleetingness of irretrievable memories, or, in one of the collection’s most remarkable poems, openly mock the superficiality of the placating powers of religion, the collection does not allow itself to indulge too much in its own pessimism, complicating certain presumptions with well-placed and intelligent allusion or historical reference. The Cloud Corporation is not a book to be read lightly, as the poet puts a lot of faith in the reader. Donnelly should also be applauded for his collection’s formal qualities and variations. Overall, The Cloud Corporation is a very impressive and intelligent collection, which must be approached with the proper care and attention for maximum appreciation.
And Other Japanese Tales
Edited by Haruo Shirane
Translated from the Japanese by Burton Watson
Columbia University Press, December 2010
Paperback: 160pp; $22.50
Review by Patricia Contino
The telling is in the writing. This is evident on every page of The Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales, a collection of early and medieval Japanese “spoken stories” known as setsuwa. The anonymous chroniclers of these tales not only succeed as The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Charles W. Chesnutt did in preserving narrative, but (thanks to translator Burton Watson) in capturing their entertainment value.
Editor Haruo Shirane selected 38 examples from thousands of surviving setsuwa. As he states in his Introduction and notes accompanying each story, Demon at Agi Bridge is for either classroom or personal use. While volumes containing “Introduction” and “classroom” are not usually associated with pleasure reading, in this instance they both add to appreciating the text. Those seduced by The Tale of Genji, gasped at the twists and turns in Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short stories (the most famous being Rashomon), or acquainted with Murakami’s vanishing ladies will recognize that these early narrative gems are the foundation of Japanese literature. For those who are not, Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales are—to use an old-fashioned western phrase—ripping good yarns.
Setsuwa encompass rich and poor, royalty and commoner, human and animal, living and dead. They offer practical advice for living a meaningful life under the Buddhist principles of karma (cause and effect) or reincarnation (rebirth in another body). These unknown setsuwa authors took great care in describing physical detail and behavior. They were also exceptionally good at creating an atmosphere and building suspense. Hence, the basics retained from setsuwa’s oral beginnings are never dull.
This imaginative moralizing is best seen in the ghost stories. Within them both sexes are examined with equal zeal. In “On Receiving the Immediate Penalty of an Evil Death for Collecting Debts in an Unreasonable Manner and with High Interest” (yes, the titles are succinct and dryly humorous), a rich woman pays for a lifetime of greed:
On the evening of the seventh day, she came back to life, the lid of her coffin opening of its own accord. Peering into the coffin, the observers were confronted by an unbearable stench. From the waist up, she had already turned into an ox, with horns four inches long growing out of her forehead. Her arms had become the forefeet of an ox; the nails on her hands had split and turned into an ox’s hooves. From the waist down, she remained in human form. She had no use for rice and fed on grass, and after she chewed her cud. She was naked and without clothes and lay in her filth.
Then, it is apparent to all that an arrogant youth taunting of a supernatural being will end badly in the book’s title story, which goes by the full name “How the Demon at Agi Bridge in Ōmi Provence Ate Somebody”:
As the man turned to look back, he could see the demon’s face, vermillion in color and round like a sitting mat, and its single eye. It had three hands, with claws like knives five inches long. Its body was bluish-green in color, and its eye was amber. Its hair was in a tangle, like a bramble bush, and just looking as it turned one’s heart cold, an unspeakable horror. But because he kept praying to Kannon (“the Lord who regards all”) as he raced along, the young man was able to reach safety in a place where other humans were about. At that time, the demon said, “Very well – but sometime we’ll meet again!” and with that vanished from sight.
Many of the stories in this collection end with the phrase, “This, then, is how the story has been handed down” or some similar declaration of authenticity. Fortunately, non-Japanese readers are now able to read and discover setsuwa for themselves.
Poetry by Charles Wright
Sarabande Books, November 2010
Paperback: 64pp; $16.95
Review by Renee Emerson
Outtakes: Sestets is the second artist/poet collaboration published by Sarabande Books. This book pairs a collection of Charles Wright’s unpublished sestets with images by artist Eric Appleby. The first word that comes to mind when reading this book is texture—in both the texture of landscape in Wright’s sestets and the close-up, abstract textures in Appleby’s images. The artwork works perfectly with the poetry—each are focused, minute, observations of shadow and light, life and death.
Wright’s sestets, like much of his earlier work, muse about death, the afterlife, and spirituality. In the first poem of the collection, “Posterity,” Wright claims, “one tries, like a new jacket, one’s absence on for size.” The absence, death, is alluded to again in “In the Beginning was the Word, in the End was the Word,” where Wright recounts his friend’s belief that “all the people will be in hell” and adds, “I know he’s right.” His outlook on death and the afterlife is grim, believing that “immortality’s for others, always for others” in “Looking Out the West-Facing Window” and, in “I’ll Plant My Feet on Higher Ground,” “the end, as sure as hell is, / is waiting for us,” though he prays, in “Little Prayer,” that “hell is no certainty.” The poems have a sense of foreboding, of pacing the floor, perhaps impatiently waiting the uncertain death that looms on the horizon.
Several of the poems, though void of the hope that the Bible proclaims, contain biblical references, with the stories of the disciple Thomas and Cain. Wright does not approach this as a believer but as an interested observer, sometimes borrowing the language of the King James Bible for his poems, such as in “I Know It Sounds Strange, But It Sounds Right To Me”: “virtue is like unto water” and “the virtuous does not know itself as virtuous.”
The poems also reveal Wright questioning his career as a poet. In “I Know It Sounds Strange,” the poem concludes with the line, “The great writer does not write.” In the following poem, “Autumn Thoughts, On the Night of Strand’s Book Party in New York City,” he questions himself: “I’ve written commentaries on the wind and moon for all these years. / And what kind of enterprise is that?” Another doubt surfaces at the end of “Lesson from Long Ago,” where “someone once said that writers abhor a worldly success.”
While I did find myself wishing, at times, for more explanation of the images—perhaps a title, or reference—the stark black and white, uncertainty of the artwork enhanced the reading of Wright’s sestets. The sestets are not as focused on nature as earlier work though they still carry on the spiritual themes, and this visually enticing book’s close observation leaves the reader with questions about death and the afterlife—questions that they should be asking.
Fiction by Mary Hamilton
Rose Metal Press, July 2010
Chapbook: 36pp; $12.00
Review by Alex Myers
Winner of the Rose Metal Fourth Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest, We Know What We Are is packed full of thirteen micro-fictions. Sometimes stories, sometimes beautiful word play, this collection is a stunning amalgam of brevity and depth.
Language—elegant but never distancing diction—lies at the heart of each piece. Hamilton makes every sentence compelling, even when the ultimate meaning is hard to pin down: “In a past life I was a streetlight. In a past life I lost my hand in a bet. I was a long stretch of road.” These lines, like so many in this chapbook, are suggestive and intriguing; they possess, as Dinty W. Moore notes in the introduction, “a stark urgency.” Even when story was elusive, lines such as these kept me reading, sparking ideas and associations.
As I read, lines kept stopping me short, as in the piece “Hey There Stranger, Come On Over and Hold My Hand,” which is mostly a sequence of “I am” statements. Instead of becoming repetitive, each sentence opens up new possibilities: “I am the missed belt loop”; “I am your director’s chair with your name on the back.” There’s nothing tricky about this writing, yet it is stunning and fresh.
Perhaps I am biased towards an old-fashioned narrative line, but my favorite piece in this chapbook is “We Know What We Are.” This story traces out the life of conjoined twins, Janna and the first person narrator, who experience Halloween as the one day when they aren’t treated as freaks, when, as one twin says, there is “no one punching me in the face to see if Janna could feel it.” My second favorite was the other (mostly) traditional narrative: “Me and Theodore Dress Up Like Eskimos While We Roast Chestnuts on a Hotplate.” But even in these pieces with plot, the quirkiness rules: the main character in this story is defined by “his ability to unlace and remove his right shoe using the big toe of his left foot.”
Several themes recur in this collection. One is that four of the thirteen selections are odes to Bull Shannon, the character from the TV series Night Court. As bizarre as this may seem, it works, allowing Hamilton to explore another aspect of body—body as object, body as self, body as other—which is certainly one of the central themes of the chapbook. Many of the pieces deal, somewhat disturbingly, with self-mutilation, though even here, beauty of a sort is found, as in the story “She has an ache.” As the main character works through intense pain, she eventually decides that “If she could, she would cut her body open…and she would crawl inside and make of herself a tent. A fleshy igloo.” Any author who can use language so beautifully as to make the disgusting lyrical is a master. (I admit, I am a squeamish reader, so others may not find the text as gory as I did.)
Weighing in at just 36 pages, We Know What We Are won’t take very long to read, but the images and ideas will linger for quite a while. This is prose that lurks and nudges, that haunts the reader in the most pleasant way.
Fiction by Madeline McDonnell
Rescue Press, December 2010
Paperback: 79pp; $10.00
Review by Tessa Mellas
Most story collections pilfer their titles from a story within the book. But doesn’t that seem like favoritism, inaccurate representation, a sign that the stories are engaged in aggressive sibling rivalry rather than uniting in one cosmic birthing of art? Madeline McDonnell seems to think so. The title of her slim collection of three stories, There Is Something Inside, It Wants to Get Out, not only refuses to engage in thievery. The title voices the thing that holds these sister stories together, identifies the common emotional core between them, an undercurrent of desperation linked to inhabiting female skin. Each story’s protagonist struggles with a winged angst that flaps around inside her body, signaling a disturbance in her ability to enact her feminine self.
Wednesday, the protagonist of the first story, “Wife,” has several problems: her name, her bland academic fiancé Ben, her dissatisfaction with her PhD program, her inability to orgasm, her unhealthy attachment to her feminist mother’s expectations, ideology, and love. Wednesday’s mother says that marriage is legalized rape. Yet Wednesday wants to be a wife and mother, and when she sees a mother holding a newborn in a mini-mart, she thinks, “Someday Wednesday would have babies. She would swaddle them in pastel waffle-weaves, align them in the linen closet. She would take them out when she was lonely. She would never be lonely again.” This is a surreal way of thinking, illogical and childish, a sign that her mother and academia have stunted her growth. Wednesday is intellectually advanced, but intellectual ways of being—disciplined, structured, dryly analytic—have made her a permanent child, submissive and obedient to scholarly institutions, a creature trained for thinking, who feels no physical or sexual pleasure, and relies on memories of cuddling with her mother instead.
The trauma of existing in this impossible state leads to a breakdown, which McDonnell paints again in surrealist tones. Here, Wednesday remembers a Dalí exhibit from a museum in Spain:
she sees Dalí’s dresser women now, normal but for drawers in their stomachs. In the museum, Wednesday had wished for drawers of her own […] If she had drawers, she thought then, she would lift her shirt and open them. She would throw forks and knives and coffee saucers and grapefruit spoons at the melty paintings, and at the warped oblong windows, at the chattering Catalan children on a field trip. And at Ben, who was up ahead again, nodding solemnly at a wall.
This strange fantasy enacts a rebellion against both femininity and feminism, against husbands, children, and intellectual institutions. Wednesday uses items of domestication as weaponry, withdraws them from her body to stop their ceaseless rattling noise. This is a story steeped in intellect. Yet, it is beautiful, honest, and raw, warning of the danger in erring too far in the opposite direction of traditional female roles and creating a sterile, emotionless life.
The desperation of the second story “Physical Education” sounds in the same key as “Wife,” but takes on different problems and themes. In it, fifteen-year-old Mary struggles with gym class and cancer. After she undergoes surgery and chemo, her father attends gym to make sure she’s not overexerting herself. He ends up taking over, first coaching from the sidelines, then appearing in workout clothes and setting up tournaments between teams for which he is a key player. Mary feels obliterated. The cancer has turned her into a bald martyr whose father participates more easily in adolescence than she does. She withdraws and embraces her illness. Symptoms and procedures become lovers. Mary’s surgery is a one-night stand. Her IV, which she wheels around, whose hand she holds, is her rebound lover. At night, she lies in bed with her tumor and listens to it breathe. She says, “There are hummingbirds in my stomach. Nausea, nausea, I was once so lonely, but now there is you.” Illness eases her loneliness and give her an ethereal frailty that thrills her morbid obsessions. This wrenching story comments more on the isolation of girlhood than on a child’s experience with cancer. How empty one must feel to mourn so despairingly a tumor that’s receding and giving back one’s health.
The third story in the collection “Trouble” finishes the trio by looping back to the theme of motherhood. Here, Lucy, newly pregnant, develops an addiction to crashing cars. Like the book’s other protagonists, Lucy has an uncomfortable angst pitted deep in her stomach, seeded by the kind of trauma women sometimes cannot escape. I won’t give more of the final story away than that, but will leave you with these breathtaking lines that close the book: “If she shuts her eyes she’ll break. Through streetlight, through birdsong, through telephone lines; through leaves like babies’ hands waving. If she wants to get there—where the air is wild and quiet and private as any ocean—all she has to do is keep them closed.” There are a bounty of passages in this book that achieve this beauty. It may be a thin volume physically, but in content and aesthetics McDonnell’s collection is rich.
Poetry by Trey Moody
New Michigan Press, November 2010
Chapbook: 27pp; $9.00
Review by Gina Myers
Trey Moody opens his chapbook Climate Reply with a quote from Francis Ponge’s “The Crate” (translated by Margaret Guiton): “Halfway between cage (cage) and cachot (prison cell) the French language has cageot, a simple openwork container for transporting fruits that sicken at the least hint of suffocation.” This idea of something in between, the slight removal or separation—but also the space for breath—pervades the poems that follow, as do the ideas of sickening and suffocation, in this collection that feels markedly Mid-Western, with its open land, its expansive and threatening skies, and its inability to shake its ghosts.
Each poem in this collection is tightly controlled, each word full of purpose. These well-crafted poems make effective use of strange and delicate imagery, as seen in the opening of the first poem “What We First Said”: “The tiniest oak tree / in the tiniest room— / as we feel our eyes, our greedy joints / unhinge and root.” Throughout the collection the familiar becomes unfamiliar and a certain derangement of the senses occurs as we think of eyes unhinging or a boy waking up at night “to smell his room singing / in a familiar voice” (from “The Book of Flattened Hands”). “This Forest Isn’t a Room” also makes the familiar strange:
You cannot remember what your body does
but you believe your body’s not a tree, a tree not a body.
Shake with cold like you shake with cold.
they shake their leaves like walls in the wind.
There is a strong sense of foreboding in these poems. In “The Book of Flattened Hands,” we’re told of a story where “something violent / happens to a lamb” and after a number of years “the house swallowed the house / and digested each and every lamp within it.” The same poem instructs, “listen to the size of your existence,” which gets at human insignificance in relation to nature or the world at large. Later we’re told, “The landscape’s there to remind us / of our failures,” and elsewhere in this short collection the sky is “a soundless face” and listening pleases “the violence of our ears.”
Throughout the collection, the language is direct; there is a straight forward matter-of-factness to the poems. The speaker seems to be weighed down by the burden of generations and is someone who is haunted by the past, someone who feels the past as a strong presence in his present life. The longest poem in this chapbook is made up of ten numbered sections, with parts one through four appearing early on, parts five through seven toward the middle, and the final parts, eight through ten, appearing toward the end. Titled “Dear Ghosts,” the poem addresses these various presences. In this poem too, we see the liminal—the ambiguous space between, sometimes literal as in a window fogged by breath, to which the speaker says, “If I was outside, / I’d read your backward name again and again.” The sections of “Dear Ghosts” illustrate various encounters with seemingly otherworldly presences. Moody writes, “Add this / to the list. When I open the fridge // in the middle of the night, I can hear / you thinking behind me.”
Occasionally the separation that occurs leads to confusion and misunderstanding as in the poem “A Feather Protruding From the Mouth,” where the separation of windows, heavy curtains, and walls creates ambiguity:
Through the wall, our “hand” might’ve been “land,”
“sand,” or “band.” But it was all of these.
At the same moment you sneezed, a bird,
or something else with feathers, flew into the window.
Of course we didn’t see it,
so our “flew” could’ve been “blue,” “glue,” or “God.”
One of the standout poems in the collection is the title poem, which uses sound, rhyme, and repetition in a way that the other poems don’t. Its repetition of the word “weather” also leads to misreadings of “whether”: “Weather as if to repeat. Weather to read a name. / As if to ask a question, weather to strip the mane, // to feed the cats, to sleep. Go inside, weather to weep.”
Climate Reply makes for a quick read, but these are poems that are definitely worth revisiting to familiarize yourself with their strangeness, to slip fully into their world.
Poetry by Melissa Broder
Ampersand Books, February 2010
Paperback: 88pp; $13.95
Review by Michael Flatt
Melissa Broder’s When You Say One Thing But Mean Your Mother is a collection of narrative portraits, most of them less than flattering. The speaker in this collection is nothing if not critical. Of the woman with suburban ideals, who “should be left to rot in her / dream car with a frozen Jenny Craig / glazed salmon.” Of an aging camp counselor, a “hippie phenomenon / but she is more crow’s feet than feathers.” Of middle-aged men wearing unhip t-shirts, “age 35, attempt / one last punch at design-y-ness.”
Broder’s best moments come, not surprisingly, when the speaker turns this critical eye upon herself, when she includes herself among the condemned, as in “Round the Bend.” “It’s safe on this side to talk about crazy / like a war going on in some other country. // At home each of us brushes against it. / Jon takes blue pills. I’ve got grey and pink.” Here, the speaker recognizes her tendency to criticize without always stepping back to consider her own flaws. And “Where Is Your Vampire” illumines the hatred pointed out at the world as fueled by the residue of an adolescent self-hatred:
In gym I scrape my knee but tear
nothing, a fresh blood bruise pooling
under wool stockings
like hickeys. A thought precedes
the wretched feeling: Send me
somebody undead to bless
this walrus body. On the bus
I stab a five-pointed star
into my arm with Bic ink
and a sewing needle. Doesn’t
In poems like “We Will Find Ourselves Hating a Blonde Stranger,” the speaker of these poems hates not a blonde at all, but her own Jewishness and her upper-middle class background:
What is expected of us but to stay sane?
Plenty of things. Abstain from honey-baked ham,
Nantucket, seersucker, Volkswagen.
Bloody Marys, Laura Ashley, turning
the other cheek and the non-Ivy League.
Yet, many of the poems here seem to be self-consciously compensating for this well-to-do background. “The Cost of Acquiring a Franchise Man” imagines an ambitious young woman faking orgasms for the meth-producing manager of a fast food chain. “Just Like Teach for America” chooses as its target a filmmaker who attempts to understand the urban experience through submersion and ends up being forced into fellatio by a junkie named Lurch. While these poems add a certain grit to the collection, it is a superficial one at best, a classist one at worst.
Another unfortunate possibility of these poems is that they reinforce consumerism, both through form and content. The poems are shaped as imagistic narrative lyrics. This form is immediately consumable; the pop song of poetry. Also, the characters here are defined by what they buy: Starbucks, IKEA, Robitussin, Aqua Net (twice), Sony and Oakley are just a few of the brand names used in the course of characterizing her subjects.
While one can imagine these brands are named in an attempt to lampoon our contemporary symbolic system—our attempts to be a certain kind of people by buying certain products—what these characterizations accomplish is the opposite of that goal. An adulterer is superficial for owning a Sony Hi-Def television. A fast food manager is lower class for having a bowl cut from Hair Barn. This speaker reinforces our brand-name values while claiming a bird’s eye vantage of culture, more aware than the subjects she chooses to critique that they are what they buy.
The titles in this collection say a lot. There are poems that provide an incisive critique of some of our baser impulses (i.e. “Your Mother Is Dying and I Want Details”) but they are overwhelmed by superficial musings (i.e. “Adult Onset Acne”), petty missives (“Dear Aging Anarchist”) and judgmental observations of consumer culture that end up commenting as strongly on the speaker as the subject (“Is it Organic?”). The title of the collection itself reveals a certain presumption, that the speaker knows what you mean better than you do. Had this collection been titled, When I Say One Thing But Mean My Mother it might have been on the path to being more revealing of human nature.
Poetry by Sarah Riggs
Ugly Duckling Presse, November 2010
Paper: 50pp; $14.00
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
An enticing not-quite chapbook, not-quite book, compact little poems in aqua blue ink on smooth ivory stock; lovely deep blue covers with reverse type silver print. When design matters, it matters. So it matters to have this lovely design.
You can read these poems as a part of a long series, as individual little gems of ideas, or as both. When size matters, it matters. So these little poems matter. They begin with that very concern, what will happen to these small poems with big aspirations:
Where will these
lines go if I
send them to
you? I may send
them between your ribs
They end in text-messaged cyberspace: “from a blue Nokia / to a silver Samsung.” I wish I could say I am as compelled by these texts’ conclusion as I am by their beginnings (and even by their middles: “Spontaneous is another word.”). But, I am disappointed, I confess, in this final little poem. I so preferred their (almost) anti-conclusion, the penultimate “texto”: “Our messages barely / walk but they fly.”
Nonetheless, I appreciate the poet’s capacity for understatement: “A constant sort of / waiting for / something. This is / about to change”; “Sometimes to be sure / of the room I am in / I sit down to write / to you”; “Can we go out of the / world together, even if / we did not come in / together?” I identify with her desire to capture the world in verse: “Am I not / enough with the world / that I want to write / it, too?” And I think she has captured the most human of all experiences in a few smartly chosen words: “I often wonder if I am invisible.”
This is an exquisite little book. “We douse our hopes / with sleep. Is this why / our dreams keep on / sleeping even after / the alarm?” the poet asks. Wake up and read 60 Textos.
Poetry by Zachary Harris
New Michigan Press, December 2010
Chapbook: 41pp; $9.00
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Full disclosure: I am partial to New Michigan Press chapbooks (they published one of mine). More full disclosure: I am favorably inclined to Ander Monson’s (New Michigan publisher) designs (I worked with him on the design of my chapbook and he is an attentive and respectful designer, as well as publisher). Full disclosure: I still find it odd that “New Michigan” is now in Arizona! (But, that’s where Ander Monson has been for the last few years, teaching in Tucson) And, finally: one of the things I really admire about Monson’s work as a publisher (not to mention his stamina and persistence and his own very successful writing) is his generous editorial vision; he likes a lot of different work and he supports artists with very different tendencies, styles, and preoccupations.
This little chapbook is solemn, serious, intense. Harris lets us know from the get-go that he questions everything, including his sense of self: “In the age of malformed tools / I was mistaken to think I was a man,” he begins. He moves immediately to “Musical Theater,” which is “a shattering approximation of reality.” History has shown men to be “prone to disaster,” and the poet identifies with this trajectory: “It is easy to visit defeat up on me.” The natural world, too, is deeply disturbing: the sea is “a dark window.” Art (the work of poet James Wright) brings death to life (“crow life, how small and murderous”) and enlivens our deathly impulses (“However, this death is not to be / of the body.”) We are destined to be confused about our own identities (“But there is only one man. He / knows about himself. He knows that he does not know / himself.”). And we cannot escape fear, desperation, exhaustion: “Irrational thought is a currency in the age of fear…One’s breathing may become a labor…One could go this way: desperate for the borders of that country,” Harris writes in a prose poem titled “Panic.”
The chapbook includes a series of 12 short prose poems recounting a family story titled “Piss Clams: An Unnatural History” (piss clams are a kind of soft-shell clam found on the North Shore of Long Island). And this little book ends with “Gospels,” a poem in three parts, the third section of which is a single line that is also the chapbook’s title. “Gospels” is lyrical, imaginative, and satisfying. This is a strangely sad and sadly strange little book. It would be terribly sad were it not for the fact that it succeeds in its sadness.
Poetry by L.S. Klatt
University of Iowa Press, March 2011
Paperback: 84pp; $17.00
Review by C.J. Opperthauser
Fellow Michigander L.S. Klatt's newest collection of poems, Cloud of Ink, showcases his abilities with words and his enormous arsenal of them. Without a doubt, my favorite thing about this collection is the surprising diction that shows up in every poem. Given a poem's topic and Klatt's writing style, one can never know what string of exciting and beautiful words might come next. In “Nocturnal Movements of the Porcupine,” we see this in action:
The spiny pigskin flinches.
Winged seeds land on the curvature
like a football
& on these quills they quiesce.
The silly yet accurate comparison of a porcupine to a football also serves to illustrate Klatt's remarkable, subtle sense of humor present throughout the collection. He also is able to be an intellectual conversationalist, while still constructing memorable imagery, as in “Affliction”:
I am painting this house with water,
dipping my brush
in clarity, & if I told you the house
is an aquarium
& if I told you the house
is buoyant, would you see
Though the collection is a bit random and scatterbrained, one theme I picked up is that of life being taken too seriously too often. This is illustrated and brought to the surface via the strange mix of Klatt's superb vocabulary and a focus on the mundane, like painting a house with water or, as in “Transit of the Beautiful,” the never-ending fight against the presence of cockroaches. The poems are stern and serious on the surface but lighthearted and skeptical in substance, which, with Klatt's impressive and surprising diction use, makes for an exciting read.