Wednesday, December 17, 2008


“In a world ruled by the logic of the marketplace, or in Communist countries by state planning, poetry is an activity that brings no return whatsoever. Its products are scarcely salable and very nearly useless (except as propaganda in dictatorships and totalitarian ideocracies). To the modern mind, even though it will not admit this to itself, poetry is energy, time, and talent turned into superfluous objects. Yet against all odds, poetry circulates and is read. Rejecting the marketplace, costing almost nothing at all, it goes from mouth to mouth, like air and water.”

These words, from Octazio Paz’s essay, “The Other Voice” (collected in The Other Voice: Essays on Modern Poetry, First Harvest, 1990), ring truer every time I read them. I quote them frequently. Each time I ask myself if it’s appropriate to quote them yet again. The answer is always: now more than ever.

This time, “The Other Voice” came to mind in Richard and Rachel Hansen’s midtown bookstore, The Book Collector. I’d dropped by during yesterday’s rainy mid-afternoon to buy a copy of Danyen Powell’s new chapbook, Blue Sky Flies Out, recently released from Rattlesnake Press. I asked Mr. Hansen how the release reading went last week and he beamed with enthusiasm. An enthusiasm widely shared since Kathy Kieth launched this chapbook series with the release of Danyen’s Anvil in 2004. Blue Sky Flies Out is number 45 in Rattlesnake Press’s Rattlechap series.

Danyen (Dan when we’re quaffing a pint) facilitates the Sacramento Poetry Center’s Tuesday night writers group. He’s been at it for over a decade, and writing poetry since he was a very young man. I’ve enjoyed seeing some of his poems in the early stages of their development, so the opportunity to read a new collection of his poems in final form is a real delight. Which brings me back to Mr. Paz’s essay.

“Its value and usefulness cannot be measured; a man rich in poetry may be a beggar. Nor can poems be hoarded: they must be voiced. A great mystery: the poem contains poetry only if it doesn’t keep it; the poetry must be given, shared, poured out like the wine from a bottle and water from a pitcher. All the arts, painting and sculpture in particular, being forms, are things; they can be kept, sold, and used as objects of financial speculation. Poetry, too, is a thing, but a thing that amounts to almost nothing: it is made of words, it is a puff of air that takes up no room in a space.”

While the poem itself may not take up room in a space, Mr. Hansen said it was a full-house the night of Danyen’s reading. Which is not uncommon. Sacramento poets turn out in enthusiastic numbers for Rattlechap releases. As do the foothills poets Ms. Kieth publishes. This was the case last month when my go-to writing partner, Moira Magneson, and Wendy Patrice Williams read from their newest collections. It is a personal pleasure to see my own Rattlechap displayed beside theirs at the Book Collector; beside those written by other friends and colleagues, including my teachers.

These Rattlechaps, and their associated release readings, are local treasures. Treasures that are aptly described by a quote Ms. Keith posted on her website, from the essay "In Praise of the Humble Chapbook," by Vive Griffith (Poet's Market, 2004): “They can be held easily in the hand, tucked graciously into a bag, slipped safely into a pocket. They can be read in one sitting. They are inexpensive to produce and purchase, and thus provide a perfect means for getting more new poetry into the world.”

In many ways, Rattlechaps are an example of the environmental community’s admonition to “think globally, act locally.” Grassroots, or bottom-up, labors like these are how we sustain what we value. I’ll leave the last word to Mr. Paz, whose essay is more relevant to our immediate times than he may have imagined.

“I argued, before, that if a new form of political thought were to emerge, the influence of poetry would be indirect: reminding us of certain buried realities, restoring them to life, presenting them. And confronted with the question of the survival of the human species on a poisoned and devastated planet, poetry can respond in no other way. Its influence must be indirect: intimating, suggesting, inspiring. Not logically demonstrating, but showing.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


The Butterfly’s Burden
Mahmoud Darwish. Tr. Fady Joudah

Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry is as crucial a gift to his people and the Arab world as Wole Soyinka’s is to Nigeria or Derek Walcott’s is to the West Indies, yet he is not as well known in the US as his former contemporaries are. For these reasons, and more, this translation by Fady Joudah acts as a conduit inviting the reader of English to take a journey into the consciousness and history of the Arab and Palestinian people—but as with every major poet, it is a gift to also participate in the poem offered up as mirror to humanity, a reflection counter to the intransigent realities of myth, identity, exile, love, loss and language—realities all too often passively accepted. This mirror resists, for example, the West’s conjecture about Syria and reflects it as “…Damascus: / [where] speech returns to its origins.” Though this offering is Darwish’s, it has been made possible by Joudah, and so we must take up the offer, history demands it; but it is ultimately the reader’s journey, for “the land expands as much as your dream’s measure.” And the rewards, as one might expect from a major poet, are not merely those of an innovative aesthetic, or an evocative line, or even some sage bits of wisdom, but language as a force for shifting paradigms.

Yes, one is welcome to take pleasure from the raw canvas: “…she lifts her dress off her calf cloud by cloud;” or, from the poem “Like a mysterious Incident” delight in the surprise of language: “When poetry is obstinate I sketch / a few traps on the rocks to hunt the grouse”—or even become startled by the self-deprecating tone from A State of Siege:

This rhyme was not
necessary, not for melody
or for the economy of pain
it is additional
like flies at the dining table

But surely the poet is there to light the way to something beyond the force of his craft; his lexicon is large, it contains with it, for example, the brilliance of “anemones,” “lapis,” “Jahili poetry,” the subtle execution of tropes: conceit, absence, persona and metonymy, as well as offering a dialectic about myth, war, identity, language and love. How to get one’s head around the scope of Darwish’s work is its own Odyssey, but Joudah has been diligent enough for the reader to get more than just an approximation, but the ability to discern from his artistic rendering, the natural progression and relation it poses to other works of Darwish’s oeuvre.

The author’s rich metaphors, use of enjambment and the fluidity of his style, one imagines, would make it difficult to translate from the Arabic. Yet, it is testament to Darwish and his translator that the “twinning” of metaphor and cadence, of “prose and poetry” of “experience and exile” are consistently and accurately presented throughout the three volumes of this book, so that the reader can trace the newly rendered English lexicon backwards and forwards along its cyclical path. The reader also has the benefit of gauging and comparing the physical structure of the translations in their original Arabic side by side with the English translation. Throughout these three volumes, in particular, Don’t Apologize for What You’ve Done, the themes are presented from slightly different positions in a more discursive line, and as an aggregation of specific treatments where the reader is asked to intuit the whole. Though discrepancies in diction and rhythm might arise, this is the nature of translation; and yet, Joudah must be commended because, with the aid of his poet’s ear, he has not yielded to caprice, but rather been sincere in his effort to understanding Darwish’s lexicon complete.

Regretfully, this reviewer must stop short before adequately delving into any of Darwish’s poems, but the journey remains: to Syria, or Andalus, Egypt or Tunisia, in discussion with the poet, the soldier or the lover, from “your “I” to your else / and your vision to your steps”—a place for the necessary imagination. Wherever these poems begin or end, they are also a celebration of “longing,” the first longing of Sumer—“that inexplicable longing / that makes a thing into a specter, and / makes a specter into a thing.” And we are thankful for it and for Darwish’s continual orbiting.

Reviewed by Zaid Shlah

Note: The Sacramento Poetry Center will be hosting a public memorial reading for the late poet Mahmoud Darwish at 6:00 PM on Sun. Oct. 5. Anyone is welcome to read works by Darwish or material related to his life as a writer. This reading is part of an international effort to organize readings in tribute to the life and work of Darwish. This international effort has been spearheaded by Ulrich Schreiber of the The Berlin Literature Festival.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


My first question about Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy is whether it represents grief as obsession or obsessive grief. The persistent attention that Bang pays to her subject—the death of a child, a son— is impressive, but after a while I started to wonder if it wasn’t a little macabre. All that energy that was expended by Bang to recreate the son image by image, memory by memory was undoubtedly a tender and thoughtful effort on her part, but it also felt a little bit like entering Borges’s “The Circular Ruins” with the dreamed image slowly being dreamed until it came alive. Very otherworldly.

I can imagine some readers being put off by the obliqueness of the speaker in Bang’s Elegy. After all, we are very rarely put in touch with a straightforward depiction of what happens. The reader pieces together most of the details of the situation from the glancing blows the speaker deals to its subject in poem after poem.

With this technique of erosion, Bang seems to be commenting on the slow dissipation of grief over time, how if one befriends it and doesn’t fight it, then it becomes a companion to while away the empty hours. This is an interesting notion; however, I can’t say that my brief episodes with grief have worked that way. The loss presses itself very urgently in the moments directly afterwards. Then there seems to be a point of activation where the grief evaporates very quickly (often life’s other pressing matters begin to wear on the lingering grief).

Then again, I might just not be doing grief right. One of my brothers accused me of not grieving enough when my mother died.

I thought mom would probably understand my “callous” behavior.

So, for me, this lingering in grief and biting off a bit more to chew on poem after poem seemed a death by a thousand cuts. It didn’t map on to my experience. But of course, it doesn’t delegitimize Bang’s experience or even her depiction of said experience. To me this experience of another’s grief is the most fascinating part of the book. I find myself gawking at Bang’s odd emotional striptease, discarding layer after layer of memory and image.

The fairly opaque language (Bang’s poems are rarely straightforward depictions of experienced scenes) can be viewed in one of two ways. One perspective might be that Bang doesn’t allow her speaker to co-exist in the same space as its subject, the lost child. It is not experience rendered with any interest in heartfelt anecdote. It finds its subject in more of the details and the detritus. Bang’s speaker is not regaling the good times and the bad times. One might wonder how one is able to hold such stories at a distance, why one, a mother, would be reluctant to depict the relationship with the son in such way. It is suggestive of fracture, strain, disconnection.

However, another perspective onElegy might be that it is actually one of Bang’s most open and accessible texts. In earlier work she seems very wedded to verbal and language play as seen in 2000 from Jacket 12 . . . and probably a holdover from her days as editor of Boston Review. There is still a good bit of sleight of hand in Elegy and at least one reader has confided in me that the verbal play is irritating. But in Elegy the turns always lead to a further definition of the subject of the book. In previous work those turns would always take one to the far ends of the universe. The wilder turn always seemed better.

I found there to be some beautiful moments, despite the rather rambunctious Heather McHugh-inspired machinations of her language. In fact, my favorite piece in the book was one that McHugh chose for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2007:

The Opening

Open the door and look in.
Everything is in place.
The flickering heart
The owlet eyes are locked on.
A serpentine hair hangs over an ear.
A hand comes up to touch it.
A rhythmic hum runs ahead of the wave.
Someone turns her head
And hopes, no, lopes across the lawn.

Open the door and look in.
The black magic cat is clawing the sofa.
The midnight lamp is loosing some light.
Someone is getting undressed.
Her pajamas are pressed
And she’s getting into a bed of flowers.
Ophelia is lying in the bog in the park,
A moment’s orphan in the afterdark.
Sing me a song, Pet, I beg of you.

Open the door and look in.
The Vivian Girls are reading the books
Their countenances were cut from.
It’s like a mirror. The parent and the penguin
Child. Two men with two suitcases.
The hand mirror making its lake
Last as long as it can.
The self looking the depth
Of Wallace Stevens’ wife on the dime.

Open the door and look in.
A murder, some mayhem, the night
News. A cloak on a hook in a closet.
There’s no rug on the floor and the wood
Feels warm. There may have been an arson.
Mistakenly Released Suspect Still Missing
In Dogville or Dogtown or the Down-and-out
Sorry state of things now. Listen,
Brenda Lee is singing, I’m sorry.

Open the door and look in. Look
Down the page to the footnote. To the fine print.
To the FedEx box on the bedside and
The floral print jammies that are jarring
Against the previous-era paper on the wall.
Some ice-cream topper Jimmies
To top off the night. Red Yellow Blue White.
The deer-leg lamp, says Jessica, really does work
And with that, she twirls the shade like a top.

Open the door and look in.
A pin under the bed.
A dust layer on the desk top.
The minutia and the microbe, the fear of failing
To ward off the inevitable, It will be done.
Whatever the It is. The static of darkness,
The dissolve of the moment.
The mouse crawls out of its house,
Remembers where it last ate a grub.

Open the door, Mother, and look in.
The babies in their boxes are sleeping like beetles
In ladybug red, each with a Santa hat.
They’re all at the border of risk,
All about to vanish into the past
Of the unvarnished after.
A longer word for gone. Girl.
Boy. Girl. Boy. Girl. Boy.
If we turn out the lights, they will keep.

Open the door and look in.
In her pajamas, she looks thin.
Pale skin, short nails, hail on the rooftop
And window glass. January is ant dark
Every morning and early in the late afternoon.
With a gloom aspect like a seascape
That was smoke damaged above a fire grate.
The wrapped-mummy mood mutes
The emo that spins like a Catherine Wheel.

Open the door and look back.
Over your shoulder. A peach-cheek
Love bird on a cage roost
Is swinging back and forth.
He’s nature, but he also seems nervous.
The traffic din music comes floating in.
He’s nature, but he also seems nervous.
Sing us a song, Pet, and he does. He sings of arson
In Alexandria, of Helen of Tragic of Troy.

Despite urging the reader to play at Peeping Tom, to check in on the room where the one who is lost had stayed and has now been replaced by a woman in floral print jammies, this somewhat transgressive act of voyeurism feels permissible. Bang allows her speaker to comment on Bang’s own(?) condition as the woman in the floral print jammies, the mother whose meditations on the vicissitudes of human personality have her (also) peering in on the child shortly after it is born where it is poised at the border of risk (in so many more ways than one).

The risk that is alluded to throughout the book is the aggressively aberrant behavior (with respect to drug addiction and anti-social behavior) of the son (presumably that of 37-year-old-at-the-time-of-passing Michael Donner Van Hook — to whom the book is dedicated) that is hinted at by Bang.

One is never transported into a full-on account of the details of the son’s demise, and it is curious to me to see how Bang chooses the details around the life, the detritus of a life to stand in for that drama. You can tell she doesn’t write for television. If the same subject matter were touched on by television scriptwriters, we’d have action, action, action, followed by drama, drama, drama. I suppose this is what happens when you put twenty-somethings in charge of the depiction of tragedy.

Thankfully, Bang is much more seasoned and given to repose— a luxury these days, I guess.

Her discipline to the subject of her grief is the most fascinating aspect of the book for me. With the months as our tour guides, Bang takes the reader on a journey through her grief, quietly dipping into the past days and memories of the son, taking up just enough detail to sustain her for the next ritual act of writing about her grief. I kept asking myself whether this masochism was necessary. Finally, I concluded that for Bang it was. For me, probably not.

However, Bang also labors to make these poetic reflections [part oddly-turned phrase, part peculiarly-enjambed line, part alliteration-and-rhyme casserole) a work of art. This is a difficult task. One can appear to be exploitative. Yet as sensitively-attuned as I am to the gimmick or the crutch that one’s artistic efforts can be pinned to, I didn’t find those notions creeping into my head. Bang’s pain and care of attention were palpable, not an affectation in service of “art.” [Of course, I’m easily fooled by Hollywood films into thinking that what I’m seeing is genuine.] Yet, the sheer scope of the project seems to favor an interpretation of Bang’s efforts as lovingly rendered, not exploitative. The book’s theme at that point appears to be dedication, devotion . . . without doting, a difficult line to straddle, especially for a mother.

Another reader I talked to about this book observed that Bang seems to cycle through four of the five stages of grief as outlined by Elisabeth K├╝bler –Ross in On Death and Dying. 1. Denial 2. Anger 3. Bargaining 4. Depression 5. Acceptance. This reader commented that she saw Bang as cycling through the first four stages without ever quite arriving at acceptance. This failure to reach acceptance left the speaker’s grief unfinished, something that this reader saw as the possible future consequence for Bang. This story of the son would continue to haunt, continue to linger without any real acceptance, without any closure. Perhaps Bang hints at this openness to her grief in her language. Her poems resist closure and the delivery of platitude.

In “A Sonata for Four Hands” that initiates us into this grief space, Bang longs for the face in the photograph, then at the end juxtaposes it against the ornamentation on the morgue door. The two are synonymous. That kind of quirky association permeates Elegy and Bang’s work in general. In a sense it is, I hope, one of the things we come to poetry for, for the singular associations that a poet can bring to bear, the equivalences between the plethora of objects in a world of things. Is that beauty too? It just might be, Dorothy. It just might be. Or at least one of its distant cousins.

For those readers who might wish to have a poem’s subject more clearly delineated, Bang will seem a tad bit jittery (to crib from Tony Hoagland), and as a result, I suspect, such a reader will find such “jittery grief” off-putting. Or is it enlivening? Is Bang’s mind alive in her grief? Should we expect a more moribund treatment of the subject, a mind that stays within the parameters of just the subject, without diversion? What kind of grief would that be? What kind of voyeurs would we be to look in on that?

In “Where Once” the dead son is invoked but is immediately placed back in the world. Very often Bang employs this technique to animate the dead. It is the dead “as if”. Such a move on her part signals to me a great sense of personal regret for things turning out the way they have. Bang walks right up to the edge of accepting responsibility for fate, which, if she did, might signal a particularly unproductive space to dwell in. But I find this undercurrent of unnamed self-blame to be acutely present at certain times in the book. One almost wishes to console the speaker except for the speaker’s equally vehement resistance to being a sink for consolation.

That Bang can measure and balance these tensions consistently throughout the book is a testimony to her skill and experience as a poet. For many who have followed Bang’s wilder poems in the past, the tonal and technical shift in Elegy will be a curiosity. However, as one makes one’s way in the book, sees the subject matter at hand, one will understand this shift. In fact, it should deepen one’s respect for Bang as a practitioner. Her more obvious craftedness in this collection is done in deference to the emotional landscape of grief. Rightly, the extraneous and carefree diversion in much of the earlier work would seem out of place, like she is trivializing her pain too much, avoiding it for the sake of her own and her reader’s enjoyment.

In ”The Role of Elegy” Bang also raises the question of what social function grief serves. She seems to say that it is tragedy all dressed up, sorrow with a certain styling. But she goes further in commenting that once all of that veneer is stripped away, what remains is the compulsion to tell. In her this is a compulsion . . . one that will finally end up in the telling and retelling of the same story about a loved one until others around you know the story by heart? The “transient distraction of ink on cloth that one scrubs and scrubs” could be seen as her description of her poetic project in this book. Each poem is a caption on ridiculous events, and rehearsing these events reminds everyone what the purpose of elegy is. I Bang, an elegy’s role is simply to be.

There are plenty of other complications of tone and subject matter in Elegy if this more-stripped-down (in terms of the line) version of Bang displeases. As for me, I found it very interesting to see what happened when the generous line and imagination of Bang’s past work got toned down, became compressed by grief.

With still one more parent to go (not to mention two kids (heaven forbid, I should outlive them) Bang’s Elegy gives me hope I can get it right the next time and adopt a more circumspect tone.

Other poems from Elegy

Monday, August 25, 2008


I have often mused aloud in this space why many American academics have taken a dislike to the surrealist aesthetic. There are many reasons why this has become the norm rather than the exception. Some include a disdain for the kind of surrealism that propels progressive rock bands to forge their names, the great disdain for a pop adaptation of an once-challenging aesthetic movement; another is that so much of the time surrealism’s distance from reality is off-putting. The way things are is quite interesting too. Boilerplate surrealism tends to overvalue the realm of the purely imaginary without paying homage to the fact that it is imagined.

Bill Rasmovicz’s The World In Place of Itself is an acknowledgment of that distance within surrealism, yet there is a very real intent to root the otherworldliness in direct experience. The images are grounded. In this way they represent more of the Eastern European branch of surrealism rather than the French and Spanish versions. The feel is similar to the great anthology of pre- and post-war Serbian poetry edited by Charles Simic The Horse Has Six Legs. There is even a Na Zdravje thrown in for added authentic flavor in the poem “Assimilation.”

This is not the surrealism of Dali and Tanguy painting their distortions of space. Nor is it the surrealism of Magritte-like logical absurdity. Rasmovicz’s poetry is where folk painting meets the development of a more complicated context, a world of things that is so unique it must be represented as directly experienced. It’s rendering of the world is the same as the odd juxtapositions of a man whose personal collection of objects contains a little bit of everything. An American attic surrealism. In Rasmovicz’s case, that little bit of everything is his collection of language and things in the world represented by that language.

But he has updated the old world Slavic style to include the furniture of a contemporary American life. No one would expect Popa to invoke “a desolate factory yard consecrated by bullet casings and chemical spill.” or “The evenings smell of tar, methane,” and “graffiti where no one can reach, someone scouring the dumpster with the instrumentation reserved for picking a lock.” The unexpected modern intrusions are usually of a gritty nature, one that can easily be contained within the largely old world feel. These modern intrusions are kept to a minimum, and more often than not Rasmovicz invokes more time-honored objects into his collection of featured language.

The effect is what happens when Transylvania and the suburbs of New Jersey merge. This can be quite a mess if these are forced. In general, this is another objection raised by academics to surrealism. In the worst hands it can be brutally forced. This is the greatest pleasure in reading Rasmovicz. Never does it feel forced. The imagery is propelled with a great ease. It seems to emanate from the slow burn of visual experience instead of the mind’s quick crucible of melded language. Despite the fantastic images, the poems feel lived in. The world is filtered through all of Rasmovicz’s sensory mechanisms. It is not quickly assembled to create an arcane object for others to gawk at.

In the title poem, Rasmovicz creates a scene where the presence of human longing seems miraculous, just the hope for a kind of desire appears as a marvel among the rather grim imagery. This is a world that seems on the verge of falling apart or becoming exposed to bacterial decay. One can almost feel the sepia tones creeping along the skin as you read.

The World In Place of Itself

The pressure coiled in my ears, I’d wake:
only trampled grass outside where the hoists and pulleys
were dragged away.

A steepletop prodded the sky to bursting,
though somehow the air was filled again with air.
The light at once arriving and having

always been, these were mornings after which the crows
had their long conversations with the dead
and silence could not be heard for its breaking.

At 8:00 a.m., a man floated by on the scent of his newspaper’s
promise and perils.
I could hardly believe the scaffolding of my bones

would hold, how my blood seized
and began again, seamless. Neighbors spoke shruggingly
and if there was talk of love

there was talk of war. Leaves taunted the wind
for more wind, and the sea, gnawed free of the moon,
flapped at the listless shore, resolute with going nowhere.

While through to each follicle,
the sensation: not desire, but a desire for desire,
and hardly even that.

So is Rasmovicz’s world one that can be inhabited only by depressives who wonder where hope and wonder went in the world? Certainly it is a world that seems to be punctuated by solitary investigations, but there is such beauty and care taken in crafting the images of this world that one senses a distinct joy in its presence despite some initially-perceived dreariness. It is a world carved out of some rich, dark hard wood. It is something that is hard to get through, but if one does, a thing of beauty arises at the end.

In ”Ars Metaphysica” a magical persists, a world that enjoys its own distinct alchemy of tire smoke and moon-eyes and soul-possessing wolves. But from the very first line we see that the landscape is one that exists in the head. It is imagined. This is another rhetorical move that separates Rasmovicz from boilerplate surrealism. The surrealist ethos is to posit a world that is beyond the naturally occurring one, or a world that happens in the interstices of the naturally occurring one. Rasmovicz, however, is not keen to this delusion. He, more realistically, posits his world as an imagined one. The author’s (and presumably the reader’s) consciousness serves as the filter between the naturally-occurring one and the imagined one. Rasmovicz is honest about his imagination’s machinations.

This would provide an insight to the title of the book. The world In place of itself suggests that while you were sleeping Rasmovicz decided to rearrange the furniture of the real world, free substituting one image with any other image that occurs. Of course, the nd result of this is that the furniture of one’s consciousness as it perceives that dar other world is also rearranged. In this way, Rasmovicz restores the classic mission of the surrealists (and he is more honest about this process) with his title.

It seems to me that the alteration of consciousness is an aesthetic aim of the surrealists that too often is neglected by them. The image play of many surrealists seems an affectation (another reason why many academics hate surrealists).

Rasmovicz’s world also exhibits a certain transparency. In ”On Becoming Light” the speaker’s hand transforms into light and then flies away like a bird. All of this suggests Rasmovicz’s world lost substantiality. Things seemed to pulse toward the brightness but now that seems hopeless. Even the shopworn notion of love is what is killing the speaker and the occupants of Rasmovicz’s world. The only form of redemption is the inexplicable magic of the place. To the extent one can rely on the magic of the natural world penetrating one’s body, then one can be all right in Rasmovicz’s world.

Rasmovicz’s experience and training as a pharmacist might provide some explanation as to why he has sought this dark world as refuge in his book. Often it is with the scripted understanding of the world via chemistry and biology that one seeks to take refuge in a more magical realm. I often found myself longing for more wonder as I made my way through my scientific training. The diagrams and equations made for a kind of unsettling certainty and confidence about the clockwork of the natural world. The majesty is often lost. Often it is poetry’s place to reseed the majesty, the unknown so that it can flourish again outside of human understanding.

One might also speculate amusingly that Rasmovicz’s knowledge of pharmacy has opened the doors of perception into his dark world. But oh how jaded I have become. Pharmaceuticals are not magic!

But with the remorse felt for the loss of the unknown, there is also a supplemental social concern, a desire for the unknown other.


Because of his limp I noticed him approaching,
a blister from too-tight shoes,
the bulk of his frame coerced into women’s attire.
His hair was sort of a landscape-of-Mars orange.

and his makeup, fermenting honeydew.
As a woman he wasn’t convincing. Not the gender
was the issue, but it looked painful,
and his struggle, mythic: man against himself,

his gaze fixed to where the sole of his shoe was loose
and stuttering now at the sidewalk.
Heat was rising from the pavement, the humidity
bearing down. He looked up, he gravity of my eyes

drawing his. I looked away—
how can the body feel so much
unlike itself as to believe it is someone else?
Who is it we should have been all along

and what part of our nature is in fact transmutable?
The cars were floating by like clouds.
The clouds, diminishing in the pink light of an August
almost gone. But given that we were all

what we may not have had in mind, who amongst us
hasn’t sought refuge outside themselves from
the heart’s inclement weather?
Should I say hello? The arc of his posture was a wave

about to break. And who was I to think he was
someone other than himself?
At that moment we passed each other, my voice
a stone in my throat, my throat collapsing into itself.

How do I acquire sympathy for the world,
an understanding of what it is to be you, when
the only way to know you is to be you?
I turned to look; he was small in the distance.

In the artifice of my body, I was small.
The pink light was gray. The sound of the cars, gray.
An almost criminal silence.
Then, sadness: I was afraid for us both.

Again the baseline motion for the piece is an all-pervasive sadness. Everything boils down to a longed-for perfect sympathy that can’t be achieved. There are seemingly a lot of very high expectations placed on this world, an after-effect of Rasmovicz ‘s inhabiting a scientific world where everything glimmers with the patina of being perfectly explained, perfectly functional. Falling short of the presumed optimal goal leaves fear and sadness to dominate.

What does this mean to have a filter of consciousness that provides a frothy world with more that is ephemeral than what is hard, substantial able to emit joy? Is this signaling a basic distrust of consciousness to provide for that which is ultimately satisfying? Is the filter of consciousness an object worn down by the visible world? Rasmovicz seems to distrust any notion that such a filter is capable of supplying anything other than its gothic charm. But perhaps this assumed weight is what allows the reader to take Rasmovicz’s world seriously as an objet d’art.

Despite the weight of what feels like a world borne out of hanging around in Europe’s great cathedrals, the craft and attentive care paid to the specific images wrought are more than ample reward for reading this book. If you love great imagery, then this book will surely not disappoint.

If, however, you are looking for a book that informs one about one’s contemporary historical moment in America, then one may need to look elsewhere unless one presumes that Rasmovicz is positing the US as a rather sad and ineffectual place, a place with its spiritual core barely intact.

The time and place are more reminiscent of Yugoslavia or the Czech Republic with the war’s aftermath lingering in the fabric of everything. Indeed, Rasmovicz invokes a war in lines from “Resumption”, such as “No one recognized the bars over their windows or the stains of war.” This could be read as a nod in the direction of the current predicament in Iraq, especially in the closing lines: “A man threw seed to his chickens like it was holy water, / while springing up from the dirt all around me / like tiny islands, the Roman empire.

Mostly, though, The World in Place of Itself is interested in looking at the emotional qualities of a world whose objects have been unmoored from their traditional contexts. The result is remorse for the lost world, it seems, as well as an acknowledgment for the dark beauty of the created world.

In ”The Accordion” (the version on this site is slightly misspelled and edited from the version that appears in the book) the afterlife has stolen away too, a relic. Everything that could possibly bring meaning has been bombed out. But by what? One has a tendency to ask. Perhaps it isn’t too far to read many of these poems as commentary on American spiritual malaise.

In “Manifest Destiny” Rasmovicz is speaking with more of a directness to an America than he is in nearly every other piece in the book.

<Manifest Destiny

Waking up, my eyes crumbled bricks,
my breathing labored from traipsing all night through

the catacombs of sleep. There were wars going on.
You could see it in the lay of their faces.

Dogs coursed through the streets with their own agenda.
Clothes flagged the alleyways. I too was trying to forget

who I was or wasn’t; my focus, the blister forming between
my toes from new sandals, where one might obtain

a cappuccino. Hansom boats lined the pier,
and tourists with new tans brandishing cameras, waiting

for the perfect subtropical sunset. Gardens were
strategically planted at the intersections, palms imported,

buildings painted adamant shades of pink and yellow.
There was at least the ambiance of someone trying.

Still, how could one help but wonder what the sea was
muttering behind the afternoon’s hazy sheen?

which receded, wave after truckling wave on the rocks,
and everyone so painfully absorbed in their own role:

the trees, bathers floating on their backs and cars
revving by; all of them, bawdy actors. Stand-ins merely

to make manifest the mind’s perambulations,
as even the merest absence is less than can be imagined.

What a besieged place. Is this America? The title seems to suggest so. The end result from so much longing, so much pushing outward, pushing west is absence. Even the absence is less, though, than the absence the mind can supply.

The mind’s perambulations are blessing the absence. They supply the absence. All knowing is lost. Is this the final frontier of despair? Perhaps in America as we begin to imagine our loss, we will also inhabit it in the naturally-occurring world.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved this book, but before you read it you should be prepared to get your inoculations against despair and loss. Don’t expect the mind to come and bail you out. In Rasmovicz’s world, the mind is what is stirring up all the trouble in the first place. The World in Place of Itself is world-weary and seeking respite in the darkness of an elsewhere, a yesteryear, an emotionally-barren plane of existence.

But if you keep coming back to The Horse Has Six Legs as I find myself doing in times of trouble, frustration with this world, and existential crisis, Bill Rasmovicz’s The World in Place of Itself is an indispensable volume.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Nora is only three years old but she knows a good poem when she hears one. Especially one that was written for her—that was inspired by her very being. The poem was written by her father, Brad Buchanan, and is titled, “The Bubblegum Baby.”

The Bubblegum Baby

Her cheeks are so full
of themselves, they blow
up to such succulent shapes,
so pink and palpably delicate,
packed with a truculent
sweetness that bursts
when her breath tears its shell,
that we must choose
not to chew her too hard;
meanwhile she gives us
such jowls for our kisses
that it’s deliciously possible
to forget there are any
bones in her at all,
though she gums her own fist
and finds there are limits
to malleability, even in girls.

Brad says, Nora can recite parts of this poem—with prompting. If she gets excited, though, she cuts to the ending. She doesn’t know the difference between “succulent” and “truculent,” and pronounces each her own way, and she loves to say “malleable.” Based on this report, I’d say she’s a true connoisseur of poetry and language. She “gets it.”

Last week, Brad read “The Bubblegum Baby” and other poems at the Book Collector in Sacramento’s Midtown. The reading celebrated the release of Brad’s second book-length collection of poems, Swimming the Mirror. This collection is inspired by Nora, including the prenatal idea of Nora, and is published by Roan Press. Which was the other reason for celebration.

Swimming the Mirror
is the first offering from Roan Press, a small literary press established by Brad and his wife, Kate Washington. Roan Press aims to fill a niche in Sacramento’s vibrant literary community by publishing book-length collections of poetry, as well as fiction, essays, and memoir (contact info: Roan Press, P.O. Box 160406, Sacramento, CA or by email to

The entire event was a real delight. Not only does Brad write good poems, he reads them well, too. He was expressive, emotive, and engaging. There were several poems he didn’t read, though. Poems, he said, “that make me weep openly.” But he did read another of Nora’s favorites before the night was over. A poem, he said, “she gets.” Nora calls it “Eyelashes.” Short for “Her First News of Eyelashes.”

Her First News of Eyelashes

are like brushes
on the outside
of your skin.

They comb the air
before it gets in
close enough
to form a tear.

So if you’re ever
very sad
because a good
friend isn’t there,
just blink your eyes
as fast as you can.

All the breezes
will pass by
without a single sigh,
so pure
that you won’t cry
unless you stare.

Several years ago, my niece invited me to be her third-grade class’s “guest poet.” It was a real challenge to find poems to read and talk about—with a roomful of exceptionally bright kids—that would lend themselves to a basic discussion of poetics, and engage both children and adults. I wish I had “Eyelashes” with me that day.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


“I do not lend books to friends. I do not want to lose
my friends, nor my books. E. W.”

Being a book lover, I understood the hand-written sign photographer Edward Weston posted on the bookshelf over his roll-top desk. I was downright curmudgeonly, too, when it came to lending books—yet I managed to lose a book and a friend along the way. The book was Zorba the Greek. My friend (yeah, that’s you, Rich) simply couldn’t comprehend that the hardback edition I’d received as a gift was anything more than just another book. I remember watching both the book and the friend drive away toward Salt Lake City and wondering if I’d ever see either one of them again.

My attitude toward book-lending was adjusted when I met a genuinely generous man named Tom McCord. I met Tom at his home on a rural acreage in the Pine Creek Valley, Halfway, Oregon. He and his wife Nancy were childhood friends of my friend, Bill Baird.

The summer before Bill died, Bill’s son Larry and I took him back to his childhood home for a visit. Larry told me these three friends were a real delight to be around. They were that and more. When they got back together, in their early 90s and in various states of health, they were still the kids they were in the 1920s. Sparkly-eyed high-schoolers.

Tom had an extensive library of World War II books. He served in the artillery and fought at the Battle of the Bulge and beyond. Brutal experiences that made me ache to think about what that fine person endured. Nancy told stories of Army wives following their husbands from base to base during their stateside training. She told of towing a thirty-foot trailer behind their Pontiac, newborn in the front seat, toddler scrambling around in the back. These women established trailer camps to avoid the price gouging opportunistic landlords inflicted on their migrant families. It was a part of the war that people don’t want to talk about, Nancy said. I promised I’d come back and write their story down.

But let’s get back to Tom’s library. Tom had a semi-formal lending system based on index cards and he said that anyone who came to visit left with a book. I couldn’t imagine going back to California with someone else’s book, so I declined as politely as possible. Before we drove away, Tom asked once again if I was sure I didn’t want to borrow a book. “That way,” he said, “I know you’ll come back to visit.” Tom and Nancy died before I had the chance to return to Halfway. How I wish I had borrowed a book and made that trip back.

For more about Halfway and that trip, see my March 2006 posting, "Remembering Halfway, Oregon & Richard Hugo."

Saturday, June 14, 2008


Mom and Dad

Gentle readers, feel your naked belly button where
you were tied to your mother. Kneel and thank
her for your jubilant but woebegone life. Don’t
for a moment think of the mood of your parents
when you were conceived which so vitally affects
your destiny. You have no control over that and
it’s unprofitable to wonder if they were pissed
off or drunk, bored, watching television news,
listening to country music, or hopefully out in
the orchard grass feeling the crunch of wind-
fall apples under their frantic bodies.

I love this poem. It makes me smile. In his gentle way, Jim Harrison engages his “gentle readers” and asks us to touch ourselves—our “naked belly button,” of all things. The intimacy of that directive sets the tone for a series of intimate musings about the moment of our conceptions.

Harrison’s casually-confident voice puts forward, as a statement of fact, that our parents’ mood at the moment of conception “so vitally affects / your destiny.” It’s the kind of statement I enjoy dismissing then chewing over for while. What if it were so? What if my destiny was shaped in that moment? That would explain a lot.

“Mom and Dad” is full of delightful contradictions, too. “Don’t / for a moment think about the mood of your parents,” he says, before we go on to thinking about their mood. He tells us “it’s unprofitable to wonder” while we wonder. Then goes so far as to hope they were “out in / the orchard grass feeling the crunch of wind- / fall apples under their frantic bodies.” How wonderful to wish that for one’s parents.

I am one of the lucky sons whose parents still love each other after fifty years of marriage. Not that it’s been easy. On my tenth wedding anniversary my mother said, “Now you can imagine what it takes to make fifty.” No small feat. Accomplished in part, Harrison’s poem makes me willing to muse, because they still feel the crunch of windfall apples.

“Mom and Dad” can be found in Saving Daylight, Harrison’s tenth collection of poems. It’s from Copper Canyon Press and worth reading from cover to cover.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Noulipian Analects

In their recent anthology, The Noulipian Analects, Christine Wertheim and Matias Viegner offer a diverse selection of critical and creative work reflecting the influence of Oulipo poetics on writers outside of France. Although I originally became interested in reading the book because it included poetry by writers like Christian Bok, Tan Lin, and Bernadette Meyer, I found the criticism just as compelling as Bok’s “nihilistic witticisms” and “flirts with philistinism.” Often exploring the role of gender in shaping the Oulipo canon, the essays in this anthology suggest new possibilities for diversifying and democratizing the constraint-based writing available to readers, an approach that proves thought-provoking throughout.

The essays in The Noulipian Analects that explore possible explanations for the dearth of women involved in Oulipo writing are particularly impressive. By looking at both the writings that are published and the dynamic maintained in classroom settings, works by Julianna Spahr, Stephanie Young, and the editors themselves prove provocative in their discussions of the ways constraint-based writing is frequently presented by male writers. An essay entitled “‘& and’ and ‘foulipo’” by Spahr and Young is a good example this trend. They write, for example:

We did feel this wok that uses constaint was ielevant, not to men no to women. We did not want to dismiss it. When we liked this wok by men we saw the eteat into constaint as an attempt by men to avoid pepetuating bourgeois piviledge, to make fun of the omantic nacississtic tadition, of all that tadition of fomalism. But at othe moments wi ween’t so sue that this was eally a feminist, antiacist self-investigation…It was often as if they wee using these techniques as a sot of dominance itual in the classroom, that at the women’s college whee we taught (although the gaduate pogram admitted both men and women) was aleady somewhat of a gende loaded space. (8)

While using constraints themselves, Spahr and Young present a complex vision of experimental writing that suggests the oulipo tradition remains at once subversive and patriarchal. Raising significant questions about the ways gender politics encourage and/or stifle art, “‘& and’ and ‘foulipo’” offers goals for the Oulipo community to strive for in the twenty-first century. Like many of the literary essays in The Noulipian Analects, this piece by Spahr and Young assesses and critiques while acknowledging the possibilities for activism via the tradition of constraint-based writing.

Other essays in the anthology treat such diverse themes as electronic writing, “‘Axioms’ of Oulipian,” the option of revealing or not revealing constraint to the reader, and new media writing. Although the book presents a wide range of ideas pertaining to constraint-based writing, the theme of new directions for Oulipo writing continues to resurface, raising questions about the types of writing that belong or don’t belong in the canon. I enjoyed Brian Kim Stefans’ essay, “Electronic Writing (or Privileging Language),” which discusses both the shortcomings and the opportunities offered by this medium, evaluating whether or not it really should be classified as poetry. He writes:

I’d also like to argue that in much electronic writing…language is being used to solve a formal problem in the artistic project—often to make the experience more concrete or to found out a metaphor—and the electronic elements of the project have not come around in order to solve a problem in the literary effort. Which is to say: digital art quite often needs poetry more than poetry needs digital art, though one would think in the field of electronic writing the latter should be more true. (61)

By implying that in poetry, language should take priority over the visual, Brian Kim Stefans presents a vision of experimental writing as being grounded in the techniques of traditional poetry. While acknowledging the potential for avante-garde literature to subvert such conventions, he also suggests that there’s a limit to what aspects of more traditional poetry can be abandoned altogether. Just as other essays in the collection delineate new possibilities for Oulipo writing and other experimental endeavors, Stefans’ essay and others strike a cautionary note in pursuing them.

All points considered, the Noulipian Analects is a diverse and provocative read, ideal for experimental writers and scholars alike. Five stars.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


I remember a graduate seminar at the University of Minnesota for Professor Bruce Lincoln’s discourse analysis class. Lincoln was a tough-minded, straight talkin’ son of a gun, and he would quickly disabuse you of any notion you might have that was even the slightest bit fluffy. But he was willing to take on all comers despite their area of expertise. For the final project of the class we assembled at this home and listened to various students give a talk or presentation. One woman from the theater department began her project that I believe had something loosely to do with the notion of the construction of identity. She sat down with an array of greasepaints and a mirror. She proceeded to apply one layer of paint to another, going through the changes of several different hues, until her face was very dark. Then she continued to reverse the darkening by lightening her face with many more applied layers of paint, each time dabbing on a little bit more until the hue of her face had lightened considerably. This process continued for some 30 or 40 minutes while the rest of us patiently watched her apply make-up to herself. Certainly we had gotten the gist of it after 5, but it was interminable. We all agreed that what she was doing may have been art, but we weren’t sure whether it was something we could ever tolerate watching again.

So it is with Thylias Moss in Tokyo Butter. The amount of infinitesimal detail from the lived life of the speaker (presumably Moss herself) and Deidre (or is it Deirdre), a dead cousin, offered up in the space of the book is mind-numbing. I haven’t experienced such a blankness of mind since I read Geraldine Kim’s Povel, another book that nodded toward the great concept but whose execution of it left me baffled. Tokyo Butter is no Povel, thankfully. Moss is much more generous, and occasionally, when she departs from chronicling every last angstrom traversed in her life, she provides some interesting forays into other materials, not the least of which is the work of Utamaro and the method by which Paul Tessier devised his surgical techniques on the skull.

These bits are swirled together with so much other ephemera that they are lost in the shuffle. When Moss does focus on them, it is for just a brief moment and then they are gone. Sometimes they reappear later in another context. Often they do not. All of the info-bits dumped into her long lines serve to illustrate the concept and theory behind her work, something she calls Limited Fork Poetics. From the back of the book (though you can read the entire thesis [“A Generalized Mapping of Limited Fork Poetics as of May 2006”]) she writes:

Limited Fork Poetics (LFP) believes that Poetry is a complex adaptive system, and because of that, page is unrestricted, and means “location of the poem.” Some poems will inhabit places for which there is not yet means of detection or interpretation. A dynamic poem is event, occurs in time, and in its totality includes all versions, all thought that the person encountering a form of the poem supplies—this can be a reader (who remakes the poem through interacting with it)or what is considered the primary maker (poet) of the poem. A dynamic poem is a system of poetry, so (shifting) interactions between the subsystems (all that the poem contains) is essential to making (mutable) meanings. A dynamic poem hosts interacting language systems(including sonic, aural, and visual forms besides/in addition to/instead of text). The activity of interacting systems takes place on all scales immediately. The landscape of a single poem can include multiple areas of constituents of the poem taking shape in multiple forms (including sonic, aural, and visual forms besides/ in addition to/ instead of text) simultaneously, in varying degrees of stability (forms of accessibility/incoherence). There is no definitive beginning or ending. A portion (or portions) of a poem is joined, is left in progress. Interactions at a given time help determine the observable stability or instability (and the perceived direction[s] of the activity). Metaphor is a tool of navigation that can enable instantaneous access to other event locations on any scale—akin to navigating wormholes. The journeys to and from what is considered the same metaphorical events may not be identical.

Amid the extensive pomo jargon and barrage of theoretical language, I derive the notion that Moss’s poems are supposed to be complex adaptive systems, which are inherently limitless and open to multitudes of artistic maneuvers (“the page is unrestricted”) and multitudes of interpretations. In short, the poem is the be-all and end-all of anything the poet or reader desires. However, my great concern is that in inscribing this space for free association and scripting, if it is determining anything at all. Certainly as I read large portions of Tokyo Butter and feel my mind go numb from the excess, I sense there is nothing to be determined. Perhaps this quavering vagueness is the feeling I am supposed to be having, but if it is, I wonder why this is the desired outcome for a reader.

Now I know that Moss is only invoking the term complex adaptive system in a very metaphorical manner and does not wish to be taken literally that her project is trying to create the equivalent of a complex adaptive system in poetry, but I wonder why this scientific terminology is invoked unless there is going to be some attempt to come to terms with and understand the real discipline that surrounds systems theory. Is this attachment to scientific language just an affectation?

For instance, it would have been useful to address some of the interesting qualities of complex systems such as what is noted in Duncan Watts’s excellent book for the lay reader Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age which discusses systems theory and complex adaptive systems with respect to economics and sociology. Towards the end of the book Watts provides this overview of some of his insights about networks:

claiming that everything is a small-world network or a scale-free network not only oversimplifies the truth but does so in a way that can mislead one to think that the same set of characteristics is relevant to every problem. If we want to understand the connected age in any more than a superficial manner, we need to recognize that different classes of networked systems require us to explore different sets of network properties. In some cases it may be sufficient to know simply that a network contains a short path connecting any pair of individuals, or that some individuals are many times connected better than others. But in other cases, what may matter is whether or not the short paths can be found by the individuals themselves. Perhaps it may be important that in addition to being connected by short paths, individuals are also embedded in locally reinforcing clusters, or that they are into so embedded. Sometimes the existence of individual identity may be critical to understanding a network’s properties, and at other times it may not be. Being highly connected may be of great use in some circumstances and of little consequence in others—it may even be counterproductive, leading to failures or exacerbating failures that occur naturally. Just like the taxonomy of life, a useful taxonomy of networks will enable one to unify many different systems and distinguish between them.

I fear that, as a system, what Moss has constructed in Tokyo Butter is neither complex nor adaptive. The result is more like a random graph, a system of nodes randomly connected together without respect for distance and likelihood of connectivity, rather than as small clustered groups tied together by a few overarching connections which is most often the characteristic of a complex adaptive system.

I could go on and question whether the “Limited Fork” has anything to do with bifurcation theory, but I know I would be taking what Moss offers in her theoretical speech way too literally. Though I must admit that bifurcation theory could be readily associated with the phase transition of a complex adaptive system. However, with Moss her Limited Fork poetics is, if anything, hardly very limited at all.

Moss does not make apologies for not recognizing boundaries. She sees her work as not recognizing any limitations because in putting up a limit in one’s work, one is privileging certain material that is included in the poem over other material that does not get in. Her project is a radical flattening of all material so that the most quotidian and droll information is not positioned any differently than “poetic language” that is immediately recognizable as such. It is a project of radical inclusion. It does this in order to avoid excluding anything. However, one person’s exclusion is another person’s selection. We all have preferences, and it is impossible to say that any work doesn’t have “symptoms.” isn’t symptomatic of certain things that draw our attention as opposed to others that don’t. I would go as far to say that all informational scanning has an aspect of selection associated with it. I do not randomly search for info when I jump on the net. It would take too long for me to come across something that might resonate with me, and I don’t have that much time on the earth to sift through all the info. Poetry, it seems to me, relies on some kind of selective attention for the reader to engage and trust the voice. Otherwise, one might get the same experience from a poem as one does by randomly clicking on hyperlinks, the flarfist’s game. I suspect that this kind of experience is not what poetry readers are looking for. But perhaps it is the experience of the radically distracted, those in perpetual need of being thrilled. Maybe this is who Moss is writing for, and she suffers only from a bit of a marketing problem by appealing to the more dull-witted poetry reader.

I might also offer the observation that Moss, like Geraldine Kim of Povel is not part of the WASP mainstream that is the dominant culture in the US, a dominant culture that puts up many roadblocks (read as “limitations”) to those who are not viewed as part of that mainstream. Both writers want to include everything in their work with particular emphasis on the minutiae of everyday life.. Is this a symptom of having so many limitations placed upon them that they may want to so radically unshackle themselves?

Without any limitations at all about what is included, readers must come to terms with the fact that any rendering of a life and its informational byproducts is on the same plain as any other. Anything that is collected is equal to anything else, perhaps even equal, by implication, to that which is not collected.

The effect is almost like one who is drunk on information, falling in love with it for the first time. So there is a great rush to include everything that is found like a beginning composition student just beginning to flush with excitement after discovering ProQuest or the Project Muse scholarly databases. What is even more pernicious is the fact that Moss dresses this up in a conceptual framework that justifies the practice. All is done in the name of a complex adaptive system that can adapt to any information thrown into it and, churned, (like butter, to use a much maligned metaphor of Moss’s in the book) will be integrated and functional. I felt like I was reading flarf at the paragraph level. Unlike flarf where short words and phrases were juxtaposed with other short words and phrases to produce an amusing word salad (wasn’t the point of flarf always irony?), Moss incorporates much larger blocks of information. Often this occurs without much metaphorical or thematic value being added. It is simple information dump offered in the name of poetry and expression. All of it goes to reaffirm what has become my growing suspicion: what goes on in the privacy of a person’s home is between her and her search engine.

But apart from this theoretical quibbling (though it is interesting to note how Moss, reminiscent of the best of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement, has dressed up her poems in a poetics that is potentially more enticing than her poetic output), I should try to say something about the poems themselves.

The central poem in the collection is “Deidre: A Search Engine.” This piece is an assemblage put together with the help of Google, something that Moss seems to refer to as a Google odyssey [so much for complex adaptive system; the main metaphor for this piece is “the trip”]. The “system” (assemblage) that Moss puts together is of a string of info-bits connected at the terminal ends to each other with the theme of the missing cousin Deirdre folded into the loose structure for the purpose of some semblance of coherence, a kind of hierarchical node that many parts of the system immediately relate back to.

One important aspect of the poem that makes it seem more like trip than system is the glaring absence of any kind of prolonged connection (except that of the Deirdre variety) between elements (read nodes) at the beginning part of the poem to those at the end. Apparently, all connections that tie in the superstructure of the poem must run through Dierdre. This, as I have mentioned before, is not a quality of a complex adaptive system. Complex adaptive systems generally employ more connection between sub-nodes. They do not all connect back to the primary node. Such a system architecture is inefficient. The basic architecture for this piece is of the thread with a few connectors to the main theme (main node) of the missing Deirdre.

Another manner in which the poems and book fail to serve as complex adaptive systems through their structure is if we consider the notion of node failure. Often within systems, if a particular node fails, then a cascade effect will occur which will eventually make the system shut down. An example of this might be with the electrical grid. If an important node goes down within the electrical grid, the excess capacity is pushed onto another part of the network and thus makes it more susceptible to failure. And if this second connection in the grid goes down, then even that much more capacity will have to be transferred.

Let us look at how the poem “Diedre: A Search Engine” is structured. [Pardon my crude Photoshopping.]

If one agrees that this is how the poem is structured, with the main node of “Deirdre” being the point of connection for all of the subsystems of the poem, then what would happen if that main node would be knocked out? I would argue that system failure would be inevitable. There is no considerable linking between the lower orders of the system.

I will quote from John H. Miller and Scott Page’s book on Princeton University Press Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life

The behavior of many complex systems emerges from the activities of lower-level components.

Ostensibly, What Moss has created is a linear system with one hierarchical node.

This poem and Tokyo Butter as a whole lacks this kind of linking between subsystems (with the possible exception of the many references to flowers sprinkled within the poems . . . however these are usually just brief mentions and do not serve as any kind of prolonged attraction within the system of the poem). I can certainly imagine what a poem that might have more subsystem connections would look like, but with that kind of poem it would be difficult to talk of what it is about though I think most readers would be able to discern that a number of attractors were resonating with each other in interesting ways (and not in random ways).

On the other hand with a complex adaptive system:

Each of the subnodes has a considerable number of connections to other subnodes, which are, in turn, minimally connected to other sub-sub-nodes.

But, by indulging in a little bit of mathematics, we can begin to speak of how these systems operate.

According to Stuart Kauffman in The Origins of Order there are two important variables to consider:

N=the number of nodes within the system
K=the average number of inputs to each node in the system

When K=N (a situation where every node in the system is connected to every other node) this is a completely random system (in other words, a random graph). These systems are highly chaotic.

However, as the value for K approaches 2, the system undergoes a phase transition from being a disordered regime to being an ordered regime; in other words, order begins to crystallize. These systems are poised nearr the chaotic regime and are ones which possess the most ability to adapt (self-organize) yet are still fairly robust and stable. They are ones which closely resemble those of natural biological systems. They abide at the edge of chaos.

The system I have drawn above utilizes 20 nodes; therefore, N=20

There are 44 inputs to these 20 nodes; therefore, K=2.2. This system is slightly into the chaotic regime, but it is approaching the K=2 range that Kauffman mentions.

Also, quite puzzling to me is the manner of the connection in this assemblage. Many of the connections forged are quite random (Florence Nightingale—Florence, Alabama), (blue nightingale, blue tongue, blue mouth, blue tattoo, methylene blue, etc), (“Snow often articulates as feathery as implications of her name,” “the living snow,” “The best historic attempts to photograph snowflakes . . .”). It is almost as though one could have focused on any other noun or verb in the text and built up connections to other texts based on those nouns or verbs. For that matter, Moss might have focused on adverbs or articles. Though perhaps I am dense, I don’t very readily see how the various connections relate to each other with any semantic force. The connections between the items in the poems are done with no apparent interest in making anything other than surface connections. The main aesthetic value that Moss is going after in this approach seems to be raggedness (as one can glean from the aforementioned “A Generalized Mapping of Limited Fork Poetics as of May 2006.”

The structures formed by complex adaptive systems, even when they occur within bounded or regular spaces, tend toward manifestation (especially over time) of irregularities and unpredictable details (a kind of raggedness) possible
within the limits of the boundaries (that are [or become, for some interval of
time] generally fixed though not infallible or immutable or without signs of
wear, signs of consequences of existing) of dynamic events. Clouds, and trees
with their bifurcating root and branch systems at either end of a comparatively
linear trunk, are both examples of complex adaptive systems and products of
complex adaptive systems. Clouds tend to form within the boundaries of clouds
though the precise details of each cloud formation as it appears at various times
from various angles are not predictable. The same is true of the human body and
of most natural objects and natural systems.

This aesthetic of raggedness (in bold above) is prevalent and may go a ways to explain Moss’s lack of restraint. Some of the moves she makes can be seen as either endearingly idiosyncratic or outright embarrassing. Here is a section from “Deidre: A Search Engine” on page 95 right after one of her riffs on butter, where she ends that section with “These are cures in alternative medicine. / This is the way it should go. Butter residencies / in apothecaries”:

In under an hour, a man with one leg,
the best way to single him out of the crowd doing this,
carved an entire butter army

and then there was a contest to defeat it, and it was defeated,
and an entire army was in one stomach. The carver had carved
no weapons for his army. Every soldier
was a general soldier, nondescript

—necessary for the time constraint, the detail an hour could hold.

              They had no mouths.

Where he pushed in with fingernails, resulted at best in chins.

              They had no mouths.

In the end, he went home successful
until daybreak

              when the yellow flooded

        so thoroughly even his spirit

        was back in the butter

        so he took a bath.

I am at a loss to accurately decipher the tone of this offering. I am not sure if some of these lines are meant to be funny or not, like “he was back in the butter / so he took a bath.”Or is this just a documentation of the minutiae of a life? Is the whole butter army supposed to be taken at face value or is this a brief humorous jaunt? I’m sure the reader-response theorist will jump up and say—make of it what you want. [Note: I don’t think the reader-response theorist really wants me to do that for fear I might deface the page, write over lines, cross out large sections.] Similarly, on page 94 Moss writes “The vow of poverty taken on by yeast, / single cells in the budding Order Saccaromyces. / Yeast priests.” I’m pretty sure that this is supposed to be humorous rather than just a flight of fancy, and I hope that I am the only one who has to pause a moment to decipher the tone of that statement. But there are many other instances where Moss’s wordplay makes me uneasy about whether I should snicker or marvel at her linguistic play, her verbal agility. I am often caught in these similar moments when I read Heather McHugh. McHugh is a great biofeedback poet. I read her when I need to tell if I’m having a good time or not.

I am also curious why the spelling in the title “Diedre” does not correspond to the rest of the book where the spelling is “Deirdre.” Only one reference in the poem seems to speak to this:

[at various times, goat has translated as ghost, ghost as goat
          and continued after the error was exposed
          for the sake of poetry,
          for the beauty of leaks,
for the conquest possible only through translation]:

The main justification seems to be that this kind of variance can be exercised in the name of poetry. I guess I am supposed to be left wondering, and for that, I will be a better person for letting this question linger. Or perhaps the proofreader’s eyes glazed over.

I have looked at Moss’s earlier work from Slave Moth and The Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler, and in it she appears to show more restraint than she has in Tokyo Butter. I am able to derive more sustenance from those efforts. Perhaps I should stop trying to eat poems and just be inside them.

There is a good deal of exciting research that comes up from a variety of sources. During the course of reading Tokyo Butter I have learned terms like williwaw and druse, vitiligo and arowanas. These multi-syllabic gems are impressive. I have used williwaw to impress the mail carrier and the neighbor’s exterminator already. At this molecular, if not sub-atomic level, Moss delivers. But just as often Moss will torture many of the words/subjects she uses by making them undergo fantastical transformations. A good example of this is in “The Culture of Snowmen” where the snowmen seem, like the majority of Moss’s oeuvre, to have no limits. This is the delimited snowman, atomized, then put back together. With all of this fantastical morphing, the metaphor of the snowman (to stand in for human men?) becomes unstable. Again, the raggedness.

There are times when her selection seems right on, like in this passage in “The Magnificent Culture of Myopia”

our whole house of sons, drums,
saxophones, keyboards, replicas of hippos, and canaries
are now beneficiaries of peaches, heirs of fuzz,
scant fur of beginner mold about to bless
bread with blue beards

Other times, I find myself wading through my exasperation at the verbal flourishes:

and my presence     which must be dealt with     gets churned into
the meaning of what occurs there.
Assumptions butter the mind         or coat it so that
what it doesn’t want can’t easily get through: butter barrier
greased pig thinking         but once on your skin
butter can feel like your own secretion, your own rich oil:
bounty ooze     crown melt  —if only there was toast
in the picture, deli buns, biscuits, croissants, beignets
more obvious reasons to lay it on thickly, but sticks of butter
come architect-ready to build a house, plantation columns
and nothing is easier to sculpt
than pale butter skin all the way through, bone-free, dull knives
glide renewed,       resuscitated: ghee glee.

Come to think of it, the exasperation occurs at a ratio nearly 5 to 1 with respect to those times I am imagistically or sonically satisfied. What is wrong with me? Let’s see. Butter is churned. It butters the mind and puts a protective barrier over it so that nothing can penetrate. This is similar to the secretion of the sebaceous gland. Then toast is introduced (and other delicious bakery items). Then the butter is used as building blocks, which quickly transforms us back to the notion of butter as skin.

All of this one in one stanza. One stanza in a poem that lingers for four pages, offering us more of the same along the way. God help us if Moss ever develops a penchant for rhyme as she does for metaphor. The result would put Dr. Seuss to shame.

Also with her venture into Limited Fork Poetics, Moss has begun to put together multimedia presentations of her work. This page at Limited Fork provides a collection of this work. One of the pieces that is posted thereThe Culture of Funnel Cake [mp3] is taken from Tokyo Butter. Moss’s son, Ansted, provides the background keyboard and Moss proceeds to half-sing/half-chant every line. The recording does not extend to reflect the entire 9 page poem. This self-described elliptical offering seems to meander in phase space between the abscissa of women who wait too long to realize their fertility and the ordinate of the dominant state of living things.

While Moss provides an interesting direction with her POAMs [products of the act of making—read as “improvised ad hoc pieces”] that fuse spoken/chanted word, manipulated images and ethereal keyboard soundtrack, I find that these “systems” also tend to make my mind drift for their bricolage approach to making videos. However, because she is one of the few poets out there willing to venture into the videopoem world in academia, she should be entitled to carve out her trace in a world where conventions are minimal. She seems to embrace the “go for it” spirit with these efforts. Sometimes, though, like with her poems, the presentations seem overly long. For example, I challenge anyone to listen to [The Song of Iota] with anything like full attentiveness.

With so much of the videopoem seeming like it owes a credit to the 30-second spot, I can’t help wondering if there aren’t lessons to be learned from the advertising industry for videopoem makers. Moss decidedly undermines all of that by diffusing the attention of the watcher. Her videopoems seem to be the antithesis of locating power squarely at the center of the presentation. [Yet it is curious how many of Moss’s videopoems feature images of herself.] She seems unconcerned if we get the tag line. She uses the language of “interacting language systems” to describe the multi-layered vocalizations. Another word for this might be cacophony. The effect of simultaneity is achieved. Again, though, I question the “interaction” of the utterances. Often there seems to be a talking-at-cross-purposes that is going on. I suppose this brings us back to Moss’s prevailing aesthetic of raggedness.

The raggedness defines the POAM, and it defies the description of poem as a consumable. I guess I can’t help wanting the poem as it is performed to be something that is ultimately reflective of experience, something where a person can say “this is what happened”rather than the poem as happening itself. I never understood rave culture either. But strangely enough, I have found the work of the Situationists to be interesting grist for the mill . . . perhaps because the cultural critique was sharpened in their presentations. Too often I get the feeling that Moss’s POAMs are advertisements for herself or the technology she uses. Or both.

Perhaps I am stubbornly boneheaded in my thinking that a poem is a “speech act,” one which reflects a community of speech acts and tries to place itself within that community by connecting to the history of those speech acts. I’m sure that puts me firmly within the grasp of tradition in the eyes of someone like Moss, but I don’t really feel like a traditionalist.

It is interesting to me that the types of inflection Moss uses in her videopoems are that of a somewhat melodic chant and a voice-in-slow-motion when she wants to underscore words for their weight. There is no throwing of one’s voice or snarkiness or any other kind of affect in her voice. In this manner, the renditions of her poems seem disconnected with the community of speech acts that I mentioned above. I suspect, though, that these observations of mine would be met with a rejoinder that poems are not “acted, “ but spoken. I would like to welcome anyone who makes such a rejoinder to go see a poetry slam. There is where poetry meets drama. The spectacle is upon one there, but I, usually, am not there. However, I am advocating for a larger vocabulary of vocal presentation than melodic chant/song and straight spoken “reading” voice.

As I look back onto what I have written about Tokyo Butter, I realize that I have been fairly harsh in my comments and criticisms. I wish also to applaud Moss’s individual spirit that makes her go it her own way. She deserves credit for acting on her vision for the possibilities of what a poem could be or should be. She trusts her own imagination in ways that few dare to emulate. Certainly I am not as daring. I don’t want to seem as if I don’t get her brave new world. But perhaps I don’t. Perhaps my resistance to her work is also because I have spent so much time thinking about how the ideas of those who are pioneering the new science of networks relate to contemporary poetry. I think it is important that if one invokes those ideas, even in the process of making them one’s own, one is responsible for upholding the integrity of those ideas and really coming to understand them, not just appropriating them for the sake of artistic expression. For me, poetic license doesn’t extend that far.

Like everything else, treading on another’s territory, in this case the intellectual territory of network science, is more bearable if it is done with some appreciation for what is there and what has been established. If not, then such appropriation looks more like a wildly exploitative move. Or worse yet, a dalliance. A whim that that fails to take the efforts of others into consideration.

POSTSCRIPT: "The Unbuttered Subculture of Cindy Birdsong" from Tokyo Butter. One of my favorite pieces in the book though I'm still not sure about the tone of "unspecified backup bird" and "shrunken heads don't need a redundant trip to the gallows" and "atomic and subatomic groupies." Perhaps I've just had a bad week and my sense of humor has been compromised. I love that radation-altered sunflower with the open head though.

Interview with Thylias Moss at Lily. "a study of the limits of precision at the limits of precision"?

"Dan, I lack a proper mindset. That is why precision is my goal. I have a mindset of awareness of simultaneous active zones of interactions visible differently through each lens used." I'm not sure what this means, how "precision" and "diferently visualized active zones"are related but I think it helps me contextualize a good bit of her output in Tokyo Butter

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Skirt Full of Black by Sun Yung Shin

Skirt Full of Black. Sun Yung Shin. Coffee House Press.

What happens in a world where language fails us? Sun Yung Shin’s poetry collection, Skirt Full of Black, fills in the gaps between language and between the past and present by crafting poems that dip from many pots. Shin’s eye is a critical one: This poet is definitely conscious of the social ramifications of not only her poems but also of different cultures’ practices, the news, traditions, and faerie tales. The poems in this collection are like a collage: there are different voices, material, and subject matter. What unites the pieces of these poems is their critical gaze: nothing escape’s this poet’s eye. The world seems open for the taking and for examination.

From the beginning, Shin’s intentions are loud and clear: the first poem, “Macro-Altaic,” takes on assimilation and “the color of death, Western clothing.” This poem maps the collection’s journey, and its attempts to make sense of what is lost between languages and what is lost at the cost of assimilation. In this first poem, Shin writes: “Date on the red book from Korea, year prior to birth, folk tales, year of gestation, folk tales, year a maternal body with double interior.” Time is marked in Korea’s color – red – and the past is referenced, as is the feminine and its misrepresentation. Shin’s work in this collection is focused around the “double interior” of language: Through a collage of perspective, the poems address what is missing, neglected, and/or oppressed.

And yet, with all the differences between English and Korean, there are still boundaries. In the collection’s first poem, Shin addresses this: “…not easy to draw boundaries in any language between what is a word and what is not a word and Korean is no exception.” What is and what is not are two dichotomies that exist in each language. This idea aligns to what is implied about each culture’s treatment of women: they are told what they can and can not be. She writes in “Flower I, Stamen and Pollen”:

Even the knot of her shadow reckoned him starlet, sparrow, hummingbird.

Her youngest older brother. His devotion was positively medieval.
Sanctified. Gilt. He had made a deaf rope of roots and her mute mouth

stained abundant with the prophecy of berries. A replica of paradise. Their

mother’s womb he scraped clean. Red-empty-red. Her favorite lineage.

Women are protected only to be used as a vessel, for their womb. The poem is as gruesome in its imagery as Grimm faerie tales. However, instead of the old faerie tales that were used to warn women against leaving or disobeying their parents or husbands, this faerie tale is a feminist response to a life of oppression, a life of control.

The major accomplishment of this poetry collection is the collection’s fifth section, “Vestibulary.” Here, Shin takes the Korean language (hangul and the old Romanization) and creates poems inspired by the traditional meanings, sounds, and associations of this language. Language is notoriously biased, notoriously linked to the patriarchy (historically made for men by men), but Shin takes this language on and gives each character, a story, a new life.

Women and their ethnicity are recurring subject matters: Shin gives women their voices and throws a spotlight on the generalizations of ethnic groups. Sometimes these spotlights seem to drown out their subjects. Like someone screaming from a rooftop, the reader can sometimes nod their head with frustration and mouth, “I get it; I get it.” Shin is at her best when she attacks subjects in a creative fashion and through metaphor.

It is in this section that Shin that her politics and poetics learn how to work off of one another make sweet music together. It is here where the collection’s ideas come together and coalesce. “Vestibulary” is a true accomplishment: part dictionary, part critique, part association, and a blending of perspective and culture, this piece of the collection is strong because it touches on many things at once. Here, Korean culture can meet Western culture. Here, what can not be explained by one language can be explained through their combination.

The pieces of “Vestibulary” touch not only on the literally meaning of the Korean language but also its look. Many of the poems take on the shape or allude to the shape of the Korean characters. For example, “kiyek,” is a poem based on a Korean character that looks very much like an upside-down “L” (and looks something like this: ┐). Here, Shin writes:

stained raw your lover’s knee,


scythe, raw grain;

late, wet harvest;

half-chair in silhouette.

The poem’s language alludes not only to Korean culture and the tug-of-war relationship between English and Korean (i.e. “the half-chair in silhouette”), but the poem’s spacing and line-length links strongly to the character’s look: its shape and the thickness of its line.

Forever in limbo, Shin makes sense of the world through purposeful collision. English and Korean come together without losing their individuality. That’s not to say that this collection doesn’t explore the multitude of issues involved when two cultures not only compete for standing but oppress its members. The poems in this piece are loud with their discussion of

What one language can express, another can not, and Shin asks for more language, another language to speak for things that are unspeakable. In “Half the Business,” she writes:

We should all have two languages, one of our childhood, and one of our
God, let those two be the same.
No more songs about bureaucrats, armies, a confetti of human hair.

Shin asks for a language that can shrug off the confines of the patriarchy, a history of misogyny. Additionally, Shin seems tired of what has been said again and again in the same languages. The poem continues with “Every woman a scholar dissecting her own body, eating her own words / until the end of words.” Here, language again is linked to the oppression of women. To study language, to be scholar, one must “eat her own words,” one must see the limits of language. This love-hate relationship is one that is key to the poems in this collection, key to Shin’s plight. A poet may love language, but as a woman, language is as oppressive as anything else in the world. As someone balancing two languages – Korean and English – the struggle is even more complex.

Shin’s poetry collection is a revolving door of perspective. Like a skilled juggler, Shin flips the coins again and again to peer in on the reflections, the differences and the similarities. What is a poet to do when language fails her gender, her ethnicity? This poet takes the languages that have failed in the past and combines them. The resulting collage of perspective and language tackles its subject matter head on. Though the subject matter of these poems is loud and ablaze with a critical eye, the poems do not lack in sound play or form. Shin marries her poetics and politics, and the resulting poems will challenge a reader’s ear and assumptions. Language may have its limitations or its issues, but it is capable of redemption.

You can grab a copy of the book here and here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Who remembers the ditto machine? On Saturday, I listened to San Francisco’s Susan Terris read her wonderful poems about the ditto and other bygone machines. Machines that were the envy of their time. Then on Sunday, I read an interview with Robert Hass, in which he talked about the mimeograph, and about how changes in technology have changed our ability to access poetry.

He said, “The difference I'm aware of is that young poets and would-be poets, through the Internet, have immediate access to a whole range of possibilities they didn't before. When I was a kid in San Francisco, I could find my way to City Lights Bookstore and mimeograph poetry magazines. If you were growing up in Worcester, Mass., you were out of luck.”

Hearing Ms. Terris and reading Mr. Hass over the weekend prompted me to reread a recent interview with Cantara Christopher on Monday. The interview is timely and provocative and may be of interest to readers of the Great American Pinup. Her small press provides an example of the changing landscape of publishing and how technology is “increasing our range of possibilities.”

Here’s a quick sketch. Ms. Christopher co-founded Cantarabooks and the literary magazine Cantaraville with Michael Matheny. When they found themselves at loggerheads with the mainstream publishing world, they decided to strike out on their own. The result is an innovative blend of the new and the old publishing paradigms. Ebooks, paperbacks, and a literary magazine that is only available as a pdf file. Here’s how she described their venture to David Herrle in the Sutbletea interview.

“From the outset we decided not to operate like the more established small presses. Recent innovations in technology had created a New Paradigm, a new book world where it was possible for anyone at all to be published by for less than ten dollars; where an enterprising author could self-publish her novel, aggressively market it and make the New York Times bestseller list, like M.J. Rose with Lip Service; where a farsighted publishing company could make its fortune selling instantly downloadable ebooks of erotic fiction to women in the Midwest, like Ellora’s Cave. If anyone can write and publish a book, why publish under someone else’s imprint?”

Ms. Christopher answers her own question.

“The missing element has been editorial presence: the opportunity to collaborate with disinterested professionals possessing the skills to help shape and clarify a work; to gain prestige by being published by professionals with high standards of excellence. To participate in the eons-old Literary Dialogue, in other words. Until about twenty years ago, before the age of bottom-line gatekeepers, an author could submit directly to St. Martin’s or other independent press in the certainty that someone there would at least seriously read and consider his work. When the foreign conglomerates started buying up our country’s largest publishing houses and mandating them to concentrate foremost on profits, we were robbed of the aesthetic guidance those houses had traditionally provided.”

If you’d like to read more, follow the link to the complete interview.

And follow the link below to read my 2006 review of Stephen Gyllenhaal’s Claptrap: Notes from Hollywood, from Cantarabooks.

As for the “tiny fists” in the title of this posting, it refers to Cantarabooks’ motto: “Beating Our Tiny Fists on the Big Hairy Chests of the Corporate Literary World.” Check them out at