Mudfish, a journal founded by Jill Hoffman in 1984, marries poetry and art in a spellbinding series of verve and verse. For a quick and accessible view of the art in full color, the Mudfish website has an exquisite introduction to a moving collection of drawings, paintings, and photographs included in this volume. The poetry is likewise compelling and contains this year’s contest winners, as selected by Mark Doty. But for the poetry in its entirety, you may have to schlep it to a Barnes & Noble, where select stores feature the journal—see the website for participating locations.
The volume is so well-edited that one has difficulty celebrating any particular poet out of the entire collection, but I want to provide analysis for certain dog-eared poems that spoke to me. Althea Rose Schelling’s poem “Bukowski” succeeds in referencing William Faulkner, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Charles Bukowski in an eerie, four-stanza tribute that shatters the typical referential form. For example, she begins with a twinge of mercy:
I find him crumpled at his desk:
the sunken, swollen drunk,
the levitating genius.
Face lined with ennui
and all the ugly little things.
Then, in a lovely, damning arc, she concludes:
I tell him he can be my
I will call him Hank.
I will never tell him he is
as good as Faulkner.
I tell him he will never be as good as
And you should really buy the volume just for what lies in between those stanzas. It is as close to the marrow as certain images from Chuck Palahniuk, a radical departure from the Romantic subject matter in poetry, refreshing.
David M. Harris’s poem “A Polemic vs. Time” is unofficially surreal and has the kind of web of language that manipulates your imagination. And because it tests realities, you see a glimpse of the journal’s heritage that includes such fine poets as John Ashbery. Take these lines from Harris, for example:
I was a minute away from not knowing what time it was.
Like a door slam mistaken for a pistol shot,
Like a hubcap careening through misaligned headlight beams,
Like the Cheshire Cat smile of a suddenly red light,
I grow adept at description
Though it is clearly idealizing that must be stopped.
And then the poet seizes the most beautiful of all: “I stay up late to avoid dreaming of white clarinets, / To interpret the sound of my own bones cracking.” They are great lines to remember and resurrect as something else. In other words, his diction is powerful and inviting (“interpret”)—it mutates in memory like a kind of sand palace overwritten by the tide.
Angelo Nikolopoulos’s “Take the Body Out” (second place winner of the Mudfish Poetry Prize) starts out with an incredible conjunction: “But I love the body.” And he takes it from there with endless invention and discipline. An advertisement in a New York stylists’ magazine reads: “Chocolate [dye/hue] this rich doesn’t come in a box; you can’t get the supernatural from the supermarket.” Mudfish contains no supermarket poetry, and in Nikolopoulos it is supernatural. Take this stanza to consider: “I love the body / bookended by introduction and conclusion.” Then: “I loved his body even it its absence.” Then: consequences of love and the body. It transcends everything.
People have been arguing about poetry for about seventy-five years now, in a different tense than that of the 5,000 years of arguments about poetry that had come before it. Mudfish is a compelling resurrection; you can read it on the D train or between stoplights in Hoover, Alabama: each poem is chiseled in its own way and strong enough in and of itself to keep you going.