Brian Johnson takes over as the editor of Sentence in this issue, and if his first issue at the helm is any indication, this journal won’t miss a beat with the change.
Sentence features more than sixty prose poems that are brief, beautiful and complex, often adding to the discussion of how far to stretch the ever-evolving boundaries of prose poetry through their own exploration.
In a genre that was born and lives within gray areas, Sentence continues to extend the definition of what the prose poem can be, flirting around the borders of free verse poetry nearly as often as it approaches flash fiction or the essay form. Despite the wide range of styles and content displayed in Sentence, its poems all share similar traits: they are poignant, often hauntingly so, and achingly complex on many levels. They are both open and distant, with meanings and images that often linger just beyond my reach, close enough to stay fresh in my mind long after I read the final sentence.
Sentence is diverse, inclusive of poetry that ranges from the blatant silliness of Charles Harper Webb’s “Wiener Dogs No More” (“If mixed drinks must bear poets’ names, let it be so. But wiener dogs? In yips like helium thunder, I say no”) to the linguistic playfulness of Michael Mlekoday’s “Minor Conversion, Kitchen Table” (“It’s a strange feeling, realizing you’ve been mispronouncing a word for your entire life”) to poems with a much more serious tone.
Somewhere in the middle of this spectrum is Sarah Blake’s “Dear Kanye,” one of several published or forthcoming poems by Blake dedicated to rapper Kanye West. Blake’s poem is a contrast, even within itself, torn between absurdity (“I can’t draw a parallel today between you and the branch I saw on the sidewalk”) and something deeper, a voice more sobering and deeply confessional. It is that voice that caps the poem with the line, “I realize some days I shouldn’t write about you.” It is this juxtaposition of the humorous and the disturbed, the way that it shows contrast even within itself that makes this poem stick with me.
On the opposite end are poems more assured in their identity but equally complex, the poems that echo hauntingly, just out of reach, like the voice over the radio in Karin Gottshall's “Rain”:
Goodbye God, whom I met under the awning. You’ll take the crosstown bus to the burnt-out factory. One long afternoon in the rain: sometimes I turn on the radio just to hear the disc jockey’s voice, just to hear him breathe.
Jie Tian’s “Chinese New Year in Illinois” also finds its strength in similar feelings of separation and displacement:
The lantern of childhood still burns my eyes. I pull out my own Sichuanese recipe book and begin to read. I read into night, past time and winter until I see wind-dried sausages lit by red pepper, blood angles glow on bare boughs. I read so attentively I could be study the composition of poetry or alchemy. There is no hunger like this, no such longing.
In the Sentence feature, “Abstraction and the Prose Poem,” guest editor Richard Deming looks for prose poetry that, rather than being defined by “short, compressed, narrative, often surrealist in nature,” stretches back to poets such as William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein, whose attention was guided by “word, phrase and thought rather than by story.”
Deming defines abstract by indicating that it is “difficult insofar as it subverts or counters expectations arising from conventions of grammar, rhetorical argument, and perhaps especially narrative,” but rather than placing the term opposite “concrete,” he hopes to have the dossier “serve as a conversation for abstraction and its place in prose poetry, rather than define.”
Much to my delight, the poems in this section lived up to Deming’s hopes—they are playfully explorative and teasingly clever; in short, not at all abstract in the stigmatizing way that I often find myself placing poems with that label.
Rod Padgett’s “Coffee Man” is abstract only in the way that it plays with syntax, cryptically altering words at the end of the poem that makes readers grasp at their meaning; we know it, and yet we don’t:
If I were to say quietly, “Good morning, dear, here is your coffee,” she would open her eyes and manage a groggy thank you. But when she realizes that I am standing there without coffee, I would forget which tense I’m waiting to lift from the jar with the red lid in the kitchen.
Similarly, Nancy Kuhl’s “Conflagration” links phrases together with unsaid words, the space between the lines that ties together the physical standoff between characters (“your growing impatience is a kind of promise until the space between us quivers like someone tripped a silent alarm”), the sense of fiery memory (“I remember the conflagration and your casual interest in the ashes. Near-silence before the blaze; crisp instant demanding heat”), and the effect that the two have when they are combined together (“Even wrecked, the boundaries mark something. I haven’t forgotten what your eyes can do”).
John Ashbery, already well known as master of indeterminacy, is both abstract and focused in “Homeless Heart.” Ashbery keys in on something cryptically familiar, a comment on craft and creation that is instinctually recognizable to me, yet still beyond my line of vision:
When I think of finishing the work, when I think of the finished work, a great sadness overtakes me, a sadness paradoxically like joy. The circumstances of doing put away, the being of it takes possession, like a tenant in a rented house. Where are you now, homeless heart?
In all, Sentence is a great read, though not necessarily an easy one. Its poems are as challenging to readers as they are to the very conventions on which they were created.