Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Closing the Door, You Leave the World Behind: Genevieve Kaplan’s “In The Ice House”

Saturday, September 17th, 2011

Genevieve Kaplan’s “In the Ice House” won the 2009 To The Lighthouse Prize, awarded yearly by the A Room Of Her Own Foundation to the best poetry manuscript by a woman. (Tangent for one second: I confess I’m not sure why there need to be women-only poetry prizes, considering the vast majority of people who write poetry, read poetry, enter poetry prizes, and apply to MFA programs in this country are currently women. I realize women are a marginalized demographic in other fields, but they already dominate in this one without any help—so thinking women need an artificial boost in poetry is kind of like thinking Jewish people need an artificial boost in stand-up comedy. Case in point: the most recent issue of Poets & Writers, with a feature article about the “MFA Nation,” has a cover photo that shows almost exclusively women, with no apparent explanation or sense that this is unusual.)

I can still see five dudes in the back! Quick, someone endow a prize they can't enter!

When I received Kaplan’s book, I was optimistic for two reasons. One, it’s the only recent volume of poetry I can think of besides my own that has a photo of a sexy woman on the cover (this may not sound unusual as far as other types of book are concerned, but the norm in poetry is for the cover art to be some sort of incomprehensible collage, and so the same sort of sexy-girl cover that would be pedestrian in other genres seems refreshingly unpretentious on a book of poetry). And two, “The Ice House” was once upon a time the nickname of my apartment in Iowa City, as it was always stocked with Icehouse beer and the bong was always filled with crushed ice. Kaplan was a year behind me in the program and I don’t remember her ever hanging out in the Ice House, but I thought perhaps the legend had persisted. If Kaplan wanted to associate herself with me, I was prepared to be gracious about it—certainly more gracious than certain people were about the fact that I use ampersands.

I should have expected it, as ampersands have been cursed ever since Krist Novoselic’s self-induced face-bassing at the 1992 VMAs.

But it turns out the book just contains a surprisingly high number of poems about ice. About a quarter of the poems are entitled simply “The Ice Storm,” and another quarter are entitled simply “The Landscape,” so before you even get past the table of contents you know that Kaplan is doing some sort of thing. I realize that’s a bit vague, but if you’re used to academic poetry you know exactly the kind of thing I mean. It’s hard to explain, but suffice to say it’s unlikely that a book laid out that way will contain formalism or car chases.

The first poem looks like this:

1. Cruelty in the new west, like cruelty
in the old, begins at home (with the) misuse
of lightbulbs, wedding rings, microwaves. There’s no
telling.

       County lines shift over time but we’re
not so fragile. Quaint enough we’re allowed
to be a part of it. Facing the musty window (fingerprints, creases,
barbarism)—how many miss it?

2. The mirror in my mouth, I hope, won’t betray a thing.

3. There’s a danger in beauty, a net in the sea, a kit in the sky, a bird in the tree.

Okay, I like this poem. The beginning reminds me of the opening of Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas,” which I won’t quote, so you know you’re reading a smart blog that expects you to know it already and can feel all proud of yourself. As strings of objects go, I think “lightbulbs, wedding rings, microwaves” is a good one (maybe could have subbed out “lightbulbs,” since lightbulbs and microwaves are both appliancey and microwaves is better, but whatever). I think “there’s no / telling” is a great hard break and stop-short surprise, like expecting there to be one more step after you’ve reached the floor. And I think the last line is a fine mix of bold and reticent, and I like the surprise of a childlike rhyme at the end of a sparse, grownuppy poem.

But why the numbered sections in a short poem that would feel very much like one thing without them? Why the parentheses? (I have an odd relationship with parentheses: contemporary poets toss them around like confetti in theory-influenced poems, but Byron uses them to set off his tangential wisecracks within his hilariously long sentences, so if someone tells me a book of poetry has lots of parentheses in it, I’m probably going to either really like it or really not.) Why even the “cruelty” opening a poem that immediately stops feeling like it has anything to do with cruelty? All this seems, frankly, like stuff someone adds who has written a perfectly good poem but knows it’s being sent to a prize and thinks “I’d better academic it up a little bit.” A sharp move pragmatically, perhaps, but it’s too bad. I like this poem, but ditch the numbers, the parentheses, and the easy politics of vague shout-outs to “cruelty” and “barbarism” and I love it.

The next run of poems feels a bit like Bishop (whom I get, but don’t love), with their household objects and precious precision: “night goes on / unencountered / by the spatula, not squelched by a murmur”… “Inside the glass a pressed / leaf. / Like counting to zero”… And as with Bishop, this is, to me, nice but not great. I see why it takes talent to do, but don’t know what I’m supposed to feel. I’ve hung out with Genevieve Kaplan a few times, and in person she’s funny and bold. So why aren’t these poems? Because umpresumtpive whispers are how you win a poetry prize for women? Okay, but what is the point of a prize designed to augment women’s voices if a woman has to whisper to win it?

The reason, it becomes clear, for having multiple poems called “The Ice Storm,” “The Landscape,” etc., is that none of those poems is exactly a poem by itself. They all feel like sections of a longer poem. Williams’s red wheelbarrow is all well and good, but as I see it, we only needed one poem like that, and that was it. And Stevens realized you need at least thirteen of those things—one way of looking at a blackbird wouldn’t be a poem; it would just be looking at a blackbird, which nobody needs a poem’s help to do.

I don’t think I’m simply faulting Kaplan for writing poetry that isn’t my kind of poetry. On the contrary, I can sometimes feel that these poems would like to be doing something a bit more exciting. Take this one:

Begin By Counting Sheep, White Buds On The Plant As They Appear

Small, white flowers will appear and so we wait for them.
The sky is calm today, the air watchful.

It’s nobody’s business at all, they say.
We’ll keep silent what we want.

I’ve gotten rid of my old messages,
My old love letters flying through the air.

The road is never quiet.
It doesn’t matter no one stops by.

I think I would like something gaudy.

The second I turn away—
The moment I sit back down I must get up again.

I must sit down again.

The wind comes, there is never a time
We don’t hear the cars brushing past, the pushing air.

And you are tired. The upholstery comes up easily
In my hands, there is so much to replace.

There is no way to flaunt any of it.
It all comes in a run and I remember everything.

I know how this poem feels, because I would also like something gaudy. At least, more than I would like this. I get that it is a poem about not saying anything, but is it so passé to think poems that say something are more interesting than poems that don’t? Yes, I’ve been to grad school and heard people say things like “utterance is impossible.” You know what happened next? The people who say things like “utterance is impossible” read some of their poems and I fell asleep. Then when I woke up, those people had tenure. That was a good joke on me, but the fact is, there are actually a bunch of really cool ways to flaunt any of it if you just try a little. Fine, I get that “silence” is political. But why, as poets, do we have to make symbolic silence our problem, when all of the other art forms are free to be enjoyable? Nobody gives women directors a special prize for making movies where nothing happens as a political statement. Alright, maybe they do at some weird festival, but there is also such a thing as real movies, whereas all poetry has at this point is the weird festival. Yes, there’s also slam, but I don’t own a White Sox hat, and even if I did I wouldn’t wear it sideways.

I don’t dislike the above poem. I like it okay. I would just like it a lot more if it said and did the stuff it’s about not saying and doing instead of being about not saying or doing it. I don’t mean to pick on Kaplan. Lots of poetry pulls this move, and Kaplan’s book is better than many of them. But why does so much poetry pull this move?! If we’re silenced out there in the big mean rest of the world, and then create a space where it’s just us listening to one another, why continue to be silent as a gesture even when nobody’s here to make us? That’s like going all the way home to smoke weed in your apartment because you don’t want to get busted smoking on the street, but then when you get to your apartment you put a sign in the window that says “We’re smoking weed in here.”

There are a bunch of lines in these poems that have wit and guts and that made me jealous—“Hey, young love, I query, over here” for example, or “If anyone dares to go out, it is you, / the fantastic one. A glowing system to be admired”—but the rest of the book, and even the other parts of the poems in which they appear, seem to be apologizing for them. Why? The academic monkey on Kaplan’s back seems to be making her think she has to make up for every line with real blood in its veins by writing ten lifeless so-whats like “It is never the heat that remains” or “Float and lie and weave and have / no other contact than the wind” (that last one is an entire poem, by the way). These aren’t “bad” lines in the same way that a freshman’s posturing suicide-and-cigarettes bullshit is bad lines—in fact, they may have the opposite problem of being too fine and too mature. But the fact remains that when I think about them, they don’t mean anything. At least the posturing freshman is trying to excite people. But in our frantic escape from him, contemporary poets have started writing lines that are indistinguishable from someone who hates contemporary poetry making fun of it. Maybe I’m alone here, but I regard becoming indistinguishable from parody as a problem, and a rather big one.

I could, I suppose, have shrugged my shoulders here and simply echoed Abraham Lincoln’s immortal assessment “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” But I chose not to, because I believe that deep down, nobody actually likes this sort of thing, including the (many, many) people who are choosing to write it. Honestly half the poems in this book are three or four lines long and about a bird not doing anything. Granted, they are impeccably described birds-not-doing-anything, but what is the point of impeccably describing something utterly boring?

Now THIS bird is doing something!

To be fair, here is a poem I really like:

Last Night, You Said, Wait Here

So that’s the danger, my day, and that’s my night and my tree.
Because what’s in the house, behind this tree? My measured
pace as I walk the sidewalk, leave the station, pack in hand.

So to be here, in the nighttime, not the daylight, admitting
there’s very little to be done, noticing that rain
will not fall here, tonight (but hoping), asking for nothing
but a piece of the next world, and where are the words for that?
Hold on, you said, wait wait. It was never,
will never be, the first time.

This is a charming poem, with lines in it I will remember. In another book, it would be one of the little ones that creep up on you. But in the context of “In The Ice House,” it can legitimately be described as action-packed. The presence of an actual human being who actually feels something is such a rarity here that it comes across as a fireworks display. So once and for all, why are we doing this to ourselves? I have every confidence that if Genevieve Kaplan wanted to write a book of poems that I would call awesome, she could do so. But she is choosing not to, and so are the majority of people who are currently writing poetry.

That’s it. I hereby order Genevieve Kaplan to put at least one poem in her second book about getting into a knife fight at a taxi-dance bar. If she wants there to be an ice-covered branch in the bar, fine, but somebody had better get stabbed. She probably should have saved the sexy naked-woman cover for that book.

You know, it didn’t occur to me at first, but the sexy naked woman on the cover of Kaplan’s book has her eyes closed. Isn’t that just like contemporary poetry? You go to all the trouble of getting naked, and then don’t even look at yourself. Probably because academia told you that looking at yourself is impossible. And maybe looking at all of yourself is. But that doesn’t mean you can’t see enough interesting parts to make it worth opening your eyes.

Oh Say Can You Twee? : Heather Christle’s “The Difficult Farm”

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

Heather Christle

If The Difficult Farm were a human girl, it would have bangs and roller skates and carry a lunchbox as a purse. But that’s not to say that this book is hipstery. It doesn’t come off as hipstery in the slightest. It’s just twee—you know, “aggressively cute.” But I say that in neither an insulting nor a dismissive way. In fact, I think it is a strike against other MTV-Generation poetry that it has so far not succeeded in being quite this balls-to-the-wall twee. Twee has been a defining attribute of the Other Arts for the past decade, and poetry has been out of the loop. At least, until now, because The Difficult Farm is as twee as a remake of Juno in which every part is played by one of the Ditty Bops. It’s like the unholy love child of Zooey Deschanel and a LOLcat. Why is this a compliment again? Because The Difficult Farm is one of the only contemporary books of poetry I’ve read that feels like the time it is from, to the same extent that music and movies do.

I’d like to try it again. You give me
your native handbag collection, and I will give you
my lilac soap. Later we can get carried away
and perhaps even employ a tombola. I will not,
I cannot remain in charge of prizes. Please,
you must look quickly at our fellow citizens
and tell me, do they not seem unwell? I feel so
concerned.
        —from “Pale Lemon Square”

You could show these poems in 20 years to someone who has never seen them before, and they would be like, “Wow, these poems feel like that time in the late Aughties and early Teenies when everybody wore those glasses and every movie trailer had that one part from that Arcade Fire song that’s like Oohhh-OOHHH-Oh-OH-Oh-OH-OOOOHHHH.” But don’t worry—it’s not an ironic, calculated twee like the Progressive Insurance Girl. It’s more an organic, slightly unhinged twee like those Sony Ericsson commercials with Kristen Schaal.

It bears mentioning that I saw Ms. Christle read, at Bushwick’s Poetry Time series, before I ever read any of her work. I bought her book immediately and enthusiastically after the reading, which is rare for me (and no, it wasn’t because of Ms. Christle’s looks, although she probably thought it was, because someone probably told her that, so whoever told her that, thanks a lot, ASSHOLE). I bring up the reading for two reasons. One, in order to mention that Christle is a phenomenal reader, with possibly the best stage presence I’ve observed in a poet of my generation; it’s obvious that she has put a deal of thought not only into developing a vocal persona that suits the work, but even into the business of commanding a room and playing with and off of an audience, decidedly a rarity in living American poets (before one poem, she entreated the audience to stand and spin around for 30 seconds, as she felt the poem was best appreciated while dizzy). If you have the opportunity to see Heather Christle read, make it a top priority to do so, even if it requires travel.

The second reason I bring it up is that, as a result of experiencing the reading before the work on the page, I was powerless during The Difficult Farm not to hear the poems in Christle’s unforgettable stage voice. This was very much a good thing, but it begs the question: would I have enjoyed the book as much if I had never heard the poet read? I believe so, but as a point of honor I must admit that I can never know. I suppose it also begs the question of whether this is even a problem: if I like poems more because the poet is a good reader, then—provided that I feel no disappointment when left alone with the page, which I definitely did not in this case—why should anyone feel that this is problematic? I think the question makes us uncomfortable because it cuts to the heart of how we fancy poets distinguish ourselves not only from slam poets, but from more popular arts generally: one cannot be accused of sliding by on personality if one has no personality, so many contemporary poets simply get rid of their personalities—especially while reading, during which they. Just. Stare. Straight. Ahead. And. Talk. Like. This. Until. You. Want. To. Punch. Them. (I have addressed this before.) I must get back to discussing Christle’s book, but be aware that this question is only going to get louder. The internet, with its rich multimedia opportunities, is indisputably the friend of the rising generation of poets, and the stronger that friendship gets, the fainter the distinction between our words and our voices is going to become.

Readers of this blog are probably sick of hearing me say that people are influenced by Dean Young, but I tend to review poets of my generation who are good, and poets of my generation who are good tend to be influenced by Dean Young. Examine these lines from Christle’s “Variations on an Animal Kingdom”—

People love to come up to me and say
Hello, you enormous, vibrating bird,
but they are just confusing me
with my invention, an invention
I regret. Yesterday a whole tree
emptied itself at once and my garden
was large, sad and full of evidence.
You can do so many bad things
and it is so easy. It takes only
a little research and 90% perspiration.
It takes funding and love for the thrush.
People like to say that when I issue
apologies like this it only teaches
others how to modify birds
to their liking. I say very little
for the most part because I am
shaking and very hungry all the time.
It’s like there is an actual alarm clock
in my ribcage. It’s like an angry harp.

The difference, to me—and it is an important one—is that unlike Young, with his affinity for the French surrealists, Christle does not seem to be trying to subvert anything. As vibrant and fun as Young’s poems are, he is of the academic generation, and his corpus is inseparable from literary theory—this is, to his credit, largely because he looks down upon and mocks literary theory, but the fact remains. The rising generation of American poets seems largely to be characterized by having absorbed the dissociativeness and stark irony of the Academic Era, but jettisoned the self-important political origins and reprogrammed the robot as homo ludens. In short, fun is a priority for American poets under 40—especially, I am happy to say, the ladies, who are gleefully torching their gender’s association with 80s/90s academic humorlessness—and Christle is a fabulous example (Matthea Harvey is another). Mark my words: the poets of the MTV Generation who end up with their faces on the cover of the anthology are going to be the ones who put the most work into obliterating the art’s thralldom to inside-baseball post-structuralist tenure-battle nitpicking, and those who allow themselves to backslide into the dead marshes of Theory do so at the utmost peril to their legacies.

The overall tone of TDF is one of little-girl-lost imperiled earnestness tenuously constructed out of hilarious observations that upon closer inspection may not be hilarious and upon even closer inspection may not even be observations—it’s like if Christina Rosetti got extremely, extremely high.

Troll 2

                                      So is 'Troll 2'

At one point, while reading The Difficult Farm, I lost my place because I actually squealed and bounced up and down in my seat and clapped. I forget where. It may have been here:

The article said it helps to look for one thing,
as a way of accidentally discovering something else.
I picked bears. I was looking for bears.

I didn’t work. I mean,
All I ever got was bears.

The secretary at the elementary school
which had recently seceded
from the Governor Wentworth District
was a bear, and also a steamboat enthusiast.
        —from “The Avalanche Club”

The above, like any number of other poems in TDF, expertly walks the line between being an ironic appropriation of childlike attitudes and imagery in a complex poem for adults and being something that would, you have to admit, work perfectly well as an actual children’s poem if someone decided to give it to some actual children. This, I’ll point out again, is another compliment, as evidenced by the fact that the assessment applies equally to a goodly bulk of Wordsworth, Blake, Frost, Dickinson, Yeats, Roethke, and the Shakespeare of the Comedies and Romances, among others. All told, there have probably been fewer poets who would not consider it high praise to be informed that children would enjoy their work (Pope and Pound spring to mind, though I love them dear, as do any number of living poets, though I do not).

This is not to say that TDF is merely pleasant. Far from it. In fact, one of the chief advantages of a childlike (as distinct from childish) voice—especially in women poets—is that it allows you to express rage in a sympathetic fashion. Consider:

Democracy stinks. My classmates
elected the hamster. Teacher
doesn’t vote and can’t change
anything. Hamsters die all the time
for good reasons. Once I was
a hamster who loved waterparks
but nobody ever knew. Secrets
are also for presidents.
Teacher knows very little.
        —from “Five Poems for America”

The poems in TDF are allegorical but not, sexual but not, psychedelic but not, cutesy but not, and of course, about nature but not. How can a poetics be about nature when it has to spend all its time just figuring out what does or does not constitute nature in the world in keeps finding itself waking up in? And that’s how poems so indisputably fun locate their imperilment: this voice desperately wants to know what’s going on, and why it isn’t surprising anyone else. It’s been denatured out of everything save its own bright-girl-in-the-front-row wryness, like Lisa Simpson Through the Looking Glass. The only thing that keeps you from falling in love is the sneaking suspicion that once you do, the joke will be on you.

You should buy Heather Christle’s The Difficult Farm. It came out over a year ago but I’ve been writing this review for that long because I liked it so much that I couldn’t think of what to say. Then there was a thing with my computer and I lost the original review and had to start over. I can’t guarantee that the poems in it will make you feel better or that they are even intended to, but they will make you angry that you not only didn’t write them but can’t even figure out how to write poems like them after you’ve read them. They will make you say everyone wants to hold these poems but in a respectful way so maybe I should go around acting like these poems. They will make the things around you, buildings mostly, and ideas, easier to deal with, to bend; matter more and matter less. You should buy Heather Christle’s The Difficult Farm. It runs around proving that all sorts of things are surprising and a great time.

Everyone around Me Is a Total Stranger: James Shea’s “Star in the Eye”

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

Let me begin by saying that I am not 100% sure what James Shea is trying to do.  This is, natch, hardly a unique situation vis-à-vis holding a book of contemporary poetry in one’s hands.  I almost never know what the poet is trying to do, and I am someone who understands poetry for a living.  So my saying that I don’t get Star in the Eye (2008, winner of the Fence Modern Poets Series) is hardly an insult to Mr. Shea.  I suppose it’s not a compliment either, but here’s what is: I care about figuring it out.  And that part is unusual—with many contemporary books, I don’t just not get it; I also don’t care.  (With others still, I get it, but it sucks.)

Based on the fact that I seem to want to understand it, I will proceed from the optimistic assumption that Star in the Eye is not a book I don’t get, but rather a book that is about not getting things, which I understand perfectly.  (Yes, I know what the Fallacy of Imitative Form is, and I’m sure Shea does too, so let’s drop it, and anyway I’ve always thought that to be one of the stupider artistic fallacies, simply because you can’t argue with results, e.g., a bad movie that alienates the viewer because it is about alienation is bad, whereas a good movie that alienates the viewer because it is about alienation is good.)  Here is the first poem, which I like:

Turning and Running

The sun was backing away from me,
slowly, like one I have betrayed.
So I ran to the river to burn in it.
And they blocked the road with ambulances.

They gave me surgery on my mouth.
My eyes were packed with feathers,
and my whole face was painted flat.
An expert told me I was probably a joke.

There were at least four things
I should have said.  Do not step on the rug
with the live birds sewn into it.

It does a lot of things that lots of poems do, nowadays anyway, by which I mean that the speaker is sort-of imperiled, sort-of guilty, and sort-of kidding.  The good part about this poem is that it sets up the rest of the book very well, specifically the final phrases of the last two stanzas, which establish a) the question of whether Shea is kidding us, and b) the book’s propensity for giving genuinely valuable advice about things that make no sense.  The bad part about this poem is that the end is better than the rest of the poem put together.  This is, frankly, something that happens with fair regularity in Star in the Eye.  Here is perhaps the clearest example:

Idea of a Mutiny

The girls in groups
would not give me
their walkie-talkies.

I made a question
and brought it to the shore.

The only way I knew
how to get there was to think
I had gone too far
and to keep going.

The sea sort of gleeked on me.

Then I saw my dog
wake up last night—
Barking, defending everything
from everything else.

What’s wrong with a great ending?  Nothing.  And the rest of the poem certainly isn’t bad.  But when the end is so disproportionately good that it feels like a joke being played on the rest of the poem, something is off.  It’s like if instead of using it for “A Day in the Life,” the Beatles had appended a chaotic orchestral crescendo and final mushrooming E chord to, say, “Eight Days a Week.”

In summation, if one were to go through Star in the Eye and underline all their favorite lines, a preponderance of them would be closing couplets.  Is this a bad thing?  I have no idea.  But it is a thing I noticed.  It is worth mentioning, I suppose, because it is not usually characteristic of great poets, or great poems, that the best part is always at the end (to use the first example off the top of my head, the two closing lines of Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” are the best in the poem, but this is pretty much the only Yeats poem of which this is true).  It might be valuable to Mr. Shea to think about why this was the case this time around, and whether it was because of something he wants to keep doing or not.  Up to him.

Where is this coming from?  I have my theories.  I get James Tate vibes from Shea, and James Wright vibes as well, and both of these poets are more in the habit than are others of writing poems with Capital-E Endings.  But the best explanation is the thing that’s also kind of the whole point of the book, so sorry for not mentioning it yet: Shea’s (ironic? serious? he’s not sure, which I guess is fine?) obsession with haiku—not, of course, with the point-missing 5-7-5 definition we got in elementary school, but with the actual tradition of the Japanese masters.

I like the Japanese masters just fine (especially Kobayashi Issa, of whose work the above barking dog, or rather Shea’s gloss of it, reminds me, which may be why I like it so much), and I see what Shea feels he has to do with them.  Most importantly, I see (I think) how all this relates to the fact that I don’t get the book: there is (as I understand it) a superconcentrated conceal/reveal game at the heart of the haiku tradition.  All poetry, of course, plays with noumenon/phenomenon, but (the point of) haiku in this respect (is that it) is to “normal” (sorry) poetry in this respect as crack is to powder cocaine.  To read a (well done) haiku is to be slapped in the face by poetry—there is no process of experiencing it; it is of a moment, and it is impossible to say (or even think) “I am being slapped” until you already have been.

Shea is trying to spread this out over the amount of time it takes for a “normal” (sorry) poem to happen.   This, as I hope I have established by now, a) is admirable, and b) may or may not have worked.  It may even be the case that Shea knows that this does not—can not—work, and that the fact that it does not work is the point of the book, which strikes me as a) incredibly brave, and b) a little bit nuts, but what do I know?

There has been, of course, lots written about how Americans (well, Westerners, but especially Americans) can’t write haiku.  It’s unclear whether this is because our culture does, and hence our psyches do, not privilege the moment/season/image the way that some Asian cultures do, or simply because the darn things simply have to be (or, at least, originally have been) in Japanese, but in any case what’s on our plate here is nothing less than the “White Men Can’t Jump” of poetry.  (By that I meant the stereotype/quandary itself, and not Shea’s book specifically, but if you want to take it to refer to Shea’s book specifically I will not stop you.)

The first half (side one, if it were a record) of Star in the Eye ends with “The Riverbed,” a ten-page haiku and almost-haiku sequence about, well, the riverbed (it’s not just a clever name).  Unless it went over my head (beneath my feet?), this is exactly what it appears to be: James Shea writing completely unironic haiku about water and shapes and emptiness and potential and perception and—unironically, I will remind you once again—the Tao.  (I am aware that haiku are Japanese and Taoism is Chinese, but my expertise ends there, and so I have no sense of the extent to which there was/is commerce between the two traditions, but am sure Shea does.)  Taken at face value, the piece more-or-less succeeds: for whatever it’s worth, these are pretty good haiku that this white guy wrote in 2008.  Among my favorites:

Personal Riverbed

The water in that riverbed
Goes around that rock
Like a man
Who thinks he knows his wife.

…and…

Crossing the Riverbed

The duck
Plays with the river—
Knowing it could fly.

The collection ends with “Dream Trial,” another long sequence, this time of 29 (Shea’s age when he wrote it, maybe?  He was a bit over 30 when the book came out) still-sort-of-haikuish-but-not-actually haiku poems.  It is also quite good and, in light of Star in the Eye as a whole, is remarkable for two reasons.  Firstly, way more happens in it than in the rest of the book: rocks are hurled, animals are shot, gangs bust in, houses are burned down.  Secondly, “Dream Trial” seems to be a synthesis of what had heretofore been the two (very?) different types of poems that Star in the Eye contains.  There are bits of cutesy matter-of-fact alienation in the vein of Dean Young (who is always great, but whose back-cover blurb informed me of Shea’s poems that “their brevity is anathema to fragmentation,” which I am pretty sure did not help at all), e.g.:

She lives across the road from me,
where her family raises llamas.
I knew I was in for a real thrill.
Then my whole vacation got ruined
when I was held for ransom.
Suddenly a big thud happened in the rear.
Can you say heaven on earth?

…and bits of what appears once again to be life with the totally-not-kidding haiku goggles on, e.g.:

A rioter throws me a stone—
it is smooth in some places, puffed out in others.

I am sure it was.  As is (deliberately?) Star in the Eye.  I will wrap up by pointing out that “Dream Trial,” as the ending of the book, works a lot in relation to the book like the endings of the other poems in it do in relation to all their parts that aren’t the ends: it is the actual thing instead of the waiting for the thing, and as such, it is, if I may say so, better.  This may be presumptuous on my part, but then, if one gets the sense that the relationship between X and Y is that the whole point of X is leading up to Y, how can one not say that Y is better?  But here I may be speaking from exactly the kind of Western bells-and-whistles prejudice that James Shea has trained himself to shed and I have not.

James Shea’s Star in the Eye is James Shea’s Star in the Eye.  And yet, and yet…

Put My Thing Down, Flip It and Reverse It: Lucy Ives’s “Anamnesis”

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Lucy IvesMaybe the most important things I can say about Lucy Ives’s Anamnesis (winner of the 2008 Slope Editions Prize) are that it is the first full-length book of poetry I can remember reading in one sitting, one of the very few that made me cry, and the only by a poet of my generation that I’ve ever argued about with friends for twenty minutes in a bar.  There are many other things to add—about the ways in which the poetry behaves and why it might be that these ways work so well—but they are not the reasons you should buy the book (which you should).

As you might already know, Anamnesis is that poetry book everyone (relatively speaking) is talking about where the poems say Write and then something in quotation marks and then Cross this out and then something else and so on, e.g.:

You can write “Do you want to go together?”
Cross out “together,” write, “as a pair”
Cross out “pair,” write, “way of seeing if what we originally thought
….about the neighborhood is true”
Cross this out
Write, “The beech forest was not that beautiful, because I was
….embarrassed about other people there seeing me”
Say, “Why were you embarrassed?”
Cross out “embarrassed,” write, “feeling lonely”
Cross out “not that beautiful”
Write, “a place where people wrote names on the trees”
Say, “Who were they?”
Cross out “about,” write “for”

The idea that one must always read a poem twice is taken care of here, as you have to read each movement of a poem three times at least to read it even once.  Perforce, you don’t read through the poems so much as loop through them, gaining and sliding back and gaining again like the snail in the well in the riddle.  It’s a lovely effect, absolutely lovely, and I don’t go around calling things “lovely” every day.  Independently of anything the technique could be said to “mean,” I hope you’ll agree that the above excerpt is intensely pleasurable.  Speaking for myself, I additionally find it (and the poems in Anamnesis generally) genuinely beneficial in what you could call a meditative sense, and postulate that one’s favorite poems in Anamnesis, if kept handy, could actually stop a panic attack.  I can think of few compliments that cut more directly to the core of what it almost certainly is that poetry is supposed to be for.

But as for the technique, just to prove that I can address it as well as anyone, which is after all why most critics spend more time addressing it than they spend informing you that the poems are awesome, the first poem begins:

Suppose we write the sentence, “Paul had a very great mind”
Lateriweicanireturn,istrikeithroughitheiwordi“mind”iandiwritei“brain”
Lateriweimightiadd,ibeforeitheiwordi“had,”itheiwords,i“theiowneriof
….the restaurant”
We might add, “whose sign is in the shape of a sleeping deer”

So we start off echoing Camille Paglia’s observation about Emily Dickinson, i.e., that she always says “brain” instead of “mind” (as well as, if I’m right about this being deliberate, the Ben Franklin anecdote about the sign outside the hat store), the difference being that a mind is an intangible function of a brain, whereas a brain itself is a material blob of stuff that can be dropped on the floor and smushed.  Similarly, a poem (the effect) is an intangible function of a poem (a series of marks on a piece of paper).  What we are doing here is observing brain surgery, probably from the little tilty-windowed skybox from which TV has taught me such things are observed.

Another way of putting it is that we are in a poetic version of a Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) script.  And just like how during a Kaufman movie you begin to think after a while This is really cool but if the whole thing is like this it will get precious and annoying, you begin to worry the same thing here.  And also just like a Kaufman movie, Anamnesis is too smart for that mistake, and the thing you are afraid is going to get annoying becomes something just different enough to be even more awesome right at the perfect moment, without altogether becoming something else.

During the third section, in which poems begin to out themselves as being about the death of Ives’s father, the Writes and Cross this outs remain but recede, cropping up more as punctuating sucker punches than a constant device.  These middle sections—such a complete blindside after the reader was so secure of being in “OMG fun gamez with language” territory that I feel I should have begun this paragraph with ((SPOILER ALERT))—are so internal that it feels like one of those scenes in a movie where someone goes deaf, and yet manage to come off as not the least bit inside baseball, but rather so, so—how shall I put this?—generous.

Write, “You made good choices, good good choices”
And the love of teachers, well, that is like the green
….bower in a tale
Even they are not in place
Not for so long
Cross this out
The world just slips over itself and then what was isn’t
Recognizable but no longer to be known
And that transparent man at my shoulder
Carrying within him a lazy boat and all the
….colors

This generosity is possible because the literary device that shapes the book is, quite flatly, not a literary device at all but rather a way of making real life bearable by disguising it as a literary device, i.e., all that literary devices were ever supposed to be anyway.  Though people who labor under the misguided impression that this is a compliment will insist that Anamnesis is poetry about poetry, it is not.  And although the book is imagist and meditative—there is definite haiku vibe, which combined with the fragmentary architecture gives its longer poems the feel of renga composed among a court of one—neither is it simply about the experience of being alive, but more specific that that.  Once Anamnesis really gets cracked wide open, it feels as much as anything like a book about the Oughties.  Consider:

Write, “The woman was saddled with debt, on the bus”
Cross this out
Write, “It’s not enough simply to say the things”
They have to go in an order
Cross this out
Write, “That is the problem, in a world in which order is both present
….and not”

…and…

In being leaders, did they want to keep being leaders?
It’s a question like, in telling the story, did I want to
….keep on telling it?
What if it were to remain unfinished
Infinite, in this sense
Granted it’s only a very narrow sense
Cross this out

But the politics never displace the individual here.  Ives is writing not about our times but rather our generation’s experience of our times, leaving room for little gems like the following, one of the most efficient and memorable poems about the fear of aging I’ve ever seen:

Write, “There was a lamp lit in the room behind her”
Write, “The time is 11:15 in the morning and a sheet of
….wind before the window”
Cross this out
Write, “27 plus 5 is only 32”
Cross this out

In keeping with the theme of aging and the device of time, the book’s last two words—“older now”—of course continue being true.  And in keeping with the theme of death, until they’re not.

I’m not sure where poetry this remarkable comes from.  One of my friends in the bar said that Ives here reminds him of Marina Tsveteava, which is such a good observation that I won’t try to take credit for it myself.  My own initial reaction was that, particularly in the last half, Anamnesis reminds me of early Pound, which is odd, because I really like Anamnesis and I don’t particularly like early Pound.  But then I went back to early Pound afterwards and for some reason I like it now.  Weird.  I’ll also toss out that the book puts me very much in mind of Jane Siberry’s When I Was a Boy, the album she did in 1993 with Brian Eno (the one with “Temple” and “Calling All Angels” on it, although re the similar vibe to Ives I was thinking more of the tracks “Sail Across the Water” and “All the Candles in the World”).

If you’re thinking that this sounds like smoke and mirrors, and that all the anaphoric Writes and Cross this outs are merely a device tacked onto what are surely just series of disjointed epigrams that wouldn’t be any great shakes alone (as in, say, “America” by Allen Ginsberg, which actually is, to a great extent if not utterly, smoke and mirrors for exactly that reason), your skepticism is understandable—that’s how I would react to a project like this if I were hearing someone describe it instead of reading it for myself.  You’re right that it shouldn’t be as good as it is.  But it is.  The Writes and Cross this outs shouldn’t—certainly not by the last half of the book—be able to do as much work as they (evidently) do, but they do.  And in my experience, when I’m looking at something that, based on everything I think I know about poetry, shouldn’t add up to being much good, yet somehow ends up being brilliant, it means that what I’m looking at isn’t just brilliant, but genius.

Natch, this all runs the risk of being pigeonholed as “work about the process” (you know, the pro-cess, as pronounced in the ghost-robot voice), and while that’s there for people who want it, it also, as far as I’m concerned, totally doesn’t matter (how much it matters having been the subject of the twenty-minute argument in the bar now referenced several times).  As far as the Person Who Didn’t Go To Grad School Test goes, a person who didn’t go to grad school would still read these poems and go “Hey, this is cool” instead of “What the fuck is this shit?”, and that’s really all I need to say about the pro-cess.

Likewise, it will be impossible for anyone to write a review of Anamnesis without using the word erasure, and a good number will offer that the book is about how “utterance is impossible.”  I decline to take this route, for a few reasons.  One, the fact that you are holding in your hands a book of poetry that is real good means that, duh, utterance is actually not impossible.  And two, no critics (or at least far fewer of them) would be saying that if the book were by a man.  The “utterance is impossible” line is an (ahem) “compliment” we give to female/minority poets to signify that their work is morally acceptable, i.e., un-hegemonic, or whatever.  But I don’t see how it helps female/minority poets (or poetry in general) to act like any experimental thing they do is by design this weird Bartlebyish side-stage performance because they’ve figured out that poetry proper is either evil or doesn’t actually exist or both.  If a poem, of any nature, is good, then it is poetry proper, and the poems in Anamnesis are beyond good.  How the hell could one of the best books of poetry I’ve read in years constitute a protest against poetry?

I was being deliberately ignorant a moment ago: this line, of course, does help the poets about whom it is used because it provides their work a stepping stone to academic usefulness, i.e., visibility at all.  Saying “Hey these poems are really awesome don’t you enjoy reading them and oh btw they say cross this out a lot and the author happens to have a uterus but so what?” does not render a book useful to the fashionable pedagogy, but ignoring the first observation and making the last two the whole point does.  Probably we are all in agreement that poets should not compose with an assist to the fashionable pedagogy in mind—but after the composition comes the handling, and if all the handlers handle with assists to the fashionable pedagogy in mind, then incalculable amounts of damage to the art are done just the same.

Ives, I would certainly imagine, did not compose the poems in Anamnesis with anyone’s pedagogy in mind, but composed them purely to be awesome, and they are.  I shudder at what other reviews have done and will continue to do, but Ives herself must not be blamed for this.  She is a woman poet who had a cool new idea, and this means that most of the reviews are going to be annoying.  The only things Ives could have done to stop them would be to not be a woman or not have cool new ideas.  If you think the way that other people discuss her book is annoying, then the best thing for you to do is buy her awesome book, and then maybe people will start writing poetry reviews with you in mind instead of aiming them exclusively at annoying people.

So, to recap:  Lucy Ives’s Anamnesis blah blah blah “erasure” blah AND ALSO THE POEMS ARE REALLY BEAUTIFUL AND WILL BRING YOU, A HUMAN BEING WHO IS ALIVE, PHENOMENAL PLEASURE TO READ, EVEN IF YOU HAVE NOT BEEN TO SCHOOL FOR POETRY, AND ALSO CURE PANIC ATTACKS I THINK.

Guaranteed to Blow Your Mind: Karyna McGlynn’s “I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl”

Friday, March 19th, 2010

Karyna McGlynnThe epithet “eagerly anticipated” where poetry is concerned is often assigned but almost never true.  With Karyna McGlynn’s major-press debut I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl (Sarabande, winner of the 2008 Kathryn A. Morton Prize) it was, at least in my case.  McGlynn’s 2008 chapbook Alabama Steve was the only collection by a poet of my generation that I genuinely could not put down (if you’re having trouble imagining how that could possibly be the case with poetry, read it for yourself).  Where IHtGBt1994&KaG is concerned, Alabama Steve devotees expecting another volume of sex-drugs-and-pop-culture wisecracking from McGlynn will be disappointed—at least, in the same sense that Beatles fans expecting another album of radio-friendly power pop were “disappointed” by Rubber Soul.

In other words, everything you liked about McGlynn’s indie stuff is still here, plus.  The “plus” is, as implied by the title, a murder mystery of sorts: although not every poem “advances the plot” per se, the book is a narrative, at least in the way that Borges’s Garden of Forking Paths was a narrative.  McGlynn has more than one self here: a childhood version, and an adult version that, whether by growing backwards Merlin-style or time traveling Terminator-style, is hanging around to watch the former and, eventually, kill her—just as, one concludes, we all effectively “kill” the child we once were by growing up.  The first poem begins:

I wake up somewhere in Ohio.  Or, that’s how it smells—

There’s a phone in my hand.  I’m thirty years old.
No, the phone is thirty years old.  Its memory’s been erased.

I’m naked but for one of those hollowed scarves.
It keeps peeling off like a seedpod.

I’m afraid my sense will fall out,
get lost in the snow and make more of me.

The suddenly appearing somewhere else in time naked may be a deliberate Terminator nod, and if so it’s brave and hilarious, but since McGlynn’s pop references are far more subsumed here than they were in Alabama Steve, we can’t be sure.  And it’s hardly the last time we won’t be sure about something.  There is that section of a horror movie about a quarter ways in, where things have stopped being conspicuously normal but have not yet become horrifying—the stretch where close-ups of everyday objects linger too long while music starts and stops and then starts again more quietly.  McGlynn effectively establishes a textual version of this early on (even appropriating horror-film symbols, as in “A Red Tricycle in the Belly of the Pool,” one of the standout poems), and sustains it agonizingly well.  Hitchcock’s definition of suspense was, duh, you suspend something, and does she ever.  The ominousness is ominous of even more ominousness.  This being contemporary poetry, and in a book where futzing with chronology is half the point, there is not a payoff exactly—we go from something’s gonna jump out right to something has evidently already jumped out, and just what the hell jumped out and when and who it got is a matter for subsequent readings (which will occur, which is after all the bottom line).

Sometime in the Night a Naked Man Passes

the foot of my bed in a beekeeper’s mask
con permiso, he says, they like to lay eggs in my face
where are you going, I say
the women in my life, he says, stroking the bedpost
who let you in, I say
I watch for expressions in his belly, his cock
both curve out, back in, his even breathing
a bee enters my open window & lands on his thumb
I’m sorry, he says, I was just leaving
where were you going, I say
to finish what they started, he says

As in Alabama Steve, McGlynn is still being rained on by culture both pop and poetic.  But while Steve’s shout-outs were rapid-fire and comic-chaotic, like one of those Dylan songs about a goofy dream, IHtGBt1994&KaG is all about the tease.  In the above, the reader is doubly shocked by both the scene and by McGlynn’s ballsy borrowing of Plath’s nefarious beekeeper.  She knows she’s earned him, and keeps him around for the duration of the brief poem, neither she nor he doing much of anything.  It’s poems like this, incidentally, of which there are many (i.e., equally good and equally creepy), that have prompted other critics to interpret IHtGBt1994&KaG as an obliquely confessional book about abuse or molestation or whatever.  As many contemporary readers of poetry are so obsessed with victimhood that they think the leaves are being molested when the wind blows, this is not surprising—but I disagree.  The book is a psychosexual chiller, certainly, and McGlynn is starring, but also directing—she’s Hitchcock just as much as she’s his imperiled icy blonde, if not more so.  The abuse theorists are seeing less than half the picture.  IHtGBt1994&KaG is a whole horror movie in the head—because growing up is one—and as the head in question is McGlynn’s, she naturally plays every part: the doomed slut, the virginal Final Girl, the red herrings, and the killer h/im/er/self.

The trappings of girlhood are omnipresent and ironicized, in a very Liz-Phair-ish sort of way.  But as this is horror (Liz Scare?), said trappings are those of the girlhood occult: mirrors, Ouija, light-as-a-feather-stiff-as-a-board.  It’s a Slumber Party Massacre with only one guest.

But it’s not like this is some Joycean puzzle where you have to keep scrupulous track of symbols etc. to get anything out of the book.  There are plenty of radio-friendly standalones, e.g., how can you not love a book with this poem in it?:

“Would You Like Me to Walk Your Baby?”

I said to the couple on the airplane.
Don’t worry; I won’t drop him.  I’m a dancer;
I never drop anything.  Besides, I’m good with babies;
………………………………..I have big breasts and big eyes.
He’s just having a little altitude earache.  I’ll bounce him
on my huge breasts and sing something underneath my breath.
We’ll just take a little stroll down the aisle;
let you two get some shut-eye.
Sure, it’s narrow, but so am I.
………………………………..I have no hips to speak of.
Give me your baby, I said with my widening smile,
my enormous breasts, and my pointy pointy shoes.

Conversely, there are poems here that one must figure out how to read—as in literally, on the page, figure out how to read: in two columns, then three, then cross-hatched, tending to get more fragmented as the book progresses (as the, what, tear in the space-time continuum gets bigger?).  Some critics will be tempted to say that this is “vaginal” or some junk.  Whatevs.  Theory aside, these poems effectively heighten the trippy alienation at well-timed moments in the book’s progress.

They Shared Her on a Chicken White Sheet

and called her erin
winter……………………………who once was a soprano II
but moved to Minneapolis instead……………….in spite
…………………………………………….of her ankle tattoo
made a sound like filigree in fresh
powder…………………………..when they ratcheted her up
to their level and one boy said………………….you see this?
…………………………………………….and the other said
can it dance?  what with her whorl
of black…………………………..egg hair she’s ductile as a shoat
no sleigh of hoarfrost on the swiss…………….sloped roof
…………………………………………….and the sweetest
thing she wasn’t full
of parting shot…………………..and at least they still had her
pom socks to look forward to……………………that’s one thing
……………………………………………..about swing dancers

This is a formally experimental poem, and one of the best in the book.  It reads like Anne Sexton in a blender.  But it bears mentioning that, this one aside, the experimental poems in IHtGBt1994&KaG are less good than the less experimental ones—by which I simply mean that, in most cases, if I were showing the book to someone unfamiliar with McGlynn and they opened it to one of the chopped-up poems, I’d grab the book and say “No, not that one.”  But certainly, IHtGBt1994&KaG would not be IHtGBt1994&KaG without them, just as, say, The Unforgettable Fire would not be The Unforgettable Fire without the jams that swirl around the radio songs.  Karyna McGlynn has written a book of poems that is to be taken from start to finish like a concept album, and this is as impressive as it is risky.  Without all the opaque mindfucks, the book would be a less impressive achievement as a whole—but, on the other hand, it might contain even more individual poems that I really, really like.  But it was McGlynn’s call, and she made it.

On a similar note, the best poems in IHtGBt1994&KaG—“Amanda Hopper’s House,” “‘Would You Like Me to Walk Your Baby?’,” “They Shared Her on a Chicken White Sheet,” “We Both Dyed With Feria Starlet, I Couldn’t Dispossess a Girl,” “I Show Up Twelve Years Late For Curfew”—happen to be the ones that have the least to do with the overarching plot about achronological self-murder.  They explore the same emotional territory, but beyond that are simply excellent poems that happen to be in this book.  (This is not a flaw, just a technique—most of the songs on Sgt. Pepper don’t have anything identifiable to do with Sgt. Pepper, but who cares?)  At least, as far as I could tell.  For all I know, the fourth time around I’ll finally realize that these poems give away giant clues (or something).   In any case, I mention this in order to implore McGlynn to remember that, as hard as she can make blurbers cream themselves by experimenting, what she does best is write excellent stand-alone poems that are more-or-less comprehensible.  As many of my ten favorite Karyna McGlynn poems are in Alabama Steve as in IHtGBt1994&KaG, and any critic who doesn’t tell her the same is either afraid to say so, or has not read Alabama Steve, or is just a shithead.

This will continue to be an issue for McGlynn.  Having had some experience in the Slam scene in addition to her formidable academic resumé, and clearly someone who enjoys writing enjoyable poems, she has chops as a cackling pro-domme of pop, which at least to my way of thinking is a compliment.  But she is climbing the university ladder fast, and will face increased pressure (especially, sad to say, as an attractive woman) to distance herself from the pop fireworks and produce more work that will endear her to the Deludez & Fucktardi crowd.  She is said to be at work on a book-length poem for her follow-up, and I sincerely hope it is a fun book-length poem, as I feel it would be a mistake for a book by Karyna McGlynn not to be at least a little bit fun.  Too many poets who produced rockin’ first books in the late ‘90s and early ’00s bowed under academic pressure and crapped out subsequent volumes of passionless nonsense, and it would be a legitimate tragedy if McGlynn fell into the same darkness.  Especially since, if she sticks to her guns, she will likely wind up credited as one of the poets chiefly responsible for finally bringing the Academic Age to a most welcome end.

I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl is a deft and twisted little book about death, and it will reap academic accolades for its formal innovations, and anyone who has any sense about poetry will like it very much—but its author must not abandon the elements that made her indie stuff so dynamically alive.  As she has just plainly shown us, Karyna McGlynn has no trouble producing books that will please nonacademics and (reasonable) academics alike—but so far, her poems have always had to choose who to please more.  Someday she will produce a book where not only the book, but every poem in the book pleases both equally.  And that book will be one of the defining poetry collections of our generation.