Sunday, February 24, 2008

ANDER MONSON Caught LIVE in the middle of a very adult game

Ander Monson arrived at the UC Davis campus to audition for the role as main subject in a very adult game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. It was a game where you stand in front of a bunch of scrutinizing adults, stand still long enough so that each thumb tack jabbed into your rear end will make you bleed.

He performed this audition while reading a story about a couple’s obsession with a stove, or was it a range? The couple was trapped in an Extreme Makeover-like hell, from which there seemed no escaping. But the reading of that story was accompanied by a system crash which rendered the whole thing moot.

However, there were additional “injury” minutes tacked on to the end, where Monson had to field a stormy brew of inquiries, which, lucky for him, led to a series of amazing brain flips which we, up in the booth, are still referring to as “Spontaneous Essay With No Particular Authorship No.1” and “ “Spontaneous Essay with No Particular Authorship No.2”.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


So why has American surrealism taken a tumble in the eyes of American readers (particularly within academia) recently? This tradition championed by the likes of many notable French writers, Lorca and Alberti primarily among the Spaniards, Sachs and Trakl in German (to name just a few on the short list) has spread its tentacles throughout the world, boasting of adherents in many eras and nations.

I suppose the kind of juxtaposition of disjunctive-yet-strangely-associative imagery has found its own orthodoxy, right down to its sensibility seeping into the everyday pop song and band name. This kind of strangely associative (dare I say resonant) imagery was reminiscent of a kind of subconscious treatment of the world. Many of its adherents would look either fondly or negatively upon another’s work for the full commitment a poet might have to this subconscious ideal. A poet whose work seemed to be fully subsumed by dream might be afforded authenticity among surrealists. Ones whose work might embrace just some of its absurdist accents might be relegated as one of its more marginal constituents.

For the surrealists, the essential tension was between that of the world as it was experienced, mostly seen, the visualized world, and that of another world which was not seen but was somehow ever more present, present at a level which could be apprehended subconsciously. Perhaps more essentially, surrealism pitted the experienced world versus the subliminally perceived world.

This essential tension has been supplanted more recently by what seems to be the two immovable objects which some may claim have hardened into poetry “schools” today in American poetry. These two immovable objects are one’s direct experience of the world (primarily through the senses) and one’s experience of the world as it is brought to an individual through various different mediated forms. In short, direct experience vs. mediatized experience.

The category of mediatized experience is much broader in its critique of a fully observable and interactive physical world than the critique of the physical world that the surrealists advanced.

Those who understand the world primarily through its mediatized forms (ostensibly through reading — or, in effect, language — through moving image, through information dumps and news sources, to name just a few) inhabit a post-modernist world, and those poets who try to deal with the realities of this world tend to make their poems more and more like these sources, and in so doing, comment on what life is like in the highly mediatized 21st century. One essential question these poets tend to ask is what human life has become when it has become various kinds of sucking at these mediatized sources. They do this at the expense of asking what someone’s experience is who might be miliking a cow or scraping the remnants of food off of another person’s plate.

Another way of thinking of this dichotomy is through the categories of Ron Silliman, who tends to break the world of poetry down into two main groups: post-avants vs. the school of quietude. I will refrain from rehearsing these ideas again except to point out how the post-avants in their often hyper-disjunctive and perambulatory episodes seem to mimic the behavior of a person with a remote control and a Red Bull. In other words, all experience seems to be delivered from elsewhere and the poet is parsing his environment. On the other hand, the school of quietude seems to refer to those who have actually experienced the world in some tangible and physical way and the moment of quietude, the moment of reflection, if you will, is what the poem swirls around. That moment is the illusion (the post-avants might say) of an utterly comprehensible moment in one’s life that delivers a milligram of truth and insight about human experience in the physical world (something that seems to me to be not only relevant but also at times enjoyable).

While the dichotomy I refer to above is an arbitrary one, for one could easily enough break the poetry world down into other categories, there is a certain utility to these terms which Simon DeDeo over at Rhubarb is Susan has discussed in his “Opinions I hold About Poetry”

"post avant" and "school of quietude" are irritatingly useful terms, we all know what they mean, and given a room full of poetry books any three poets chosen at random could easily sort them into the two piles with little disagreement.

Or Eliot Weinberger in an interview in BOMB

Getting back to poetry, what’s surprising to me is that, with all these things in the world, American poets are mainly preoccupied with autobiographical anecdotes, or pomo ironic skating on the “surface” of language. Every man is an island in the sea of information.

I don’t dispute Simon’s and Eliot’s claims. I just can’t resist conflating their categories no matter how time tested they seem.

This brings me to Noah Eli Gordon, who if he isn’t a surrealist, he most assuredly is a post-surrealist, whatever that means. In his prize-winning book Novel Pictorial Noise Gordon navigates between the immediately experienced world and the mediatized one, asking:

Would you choose the event or the box from which it’s broadcast? A shadow mars the screen. Light blinds the owl

And we are off chasing down the margins of the natural world and the hungry mediatized one, presumably reflecting an image of the natural world that can be experienced.

Novel Pictorial Noise persists in setting up a tension between a fluid block of prose that moves in interesting thought patterns (almost always with a clever end rhyme at the end of the block) and a disarticulated erasure on the opposing page. While one is reading it, one gets the feeling that one is receiving the detritus of a post-apocalyptic English on the left hand side and on the right hand side a monologue of one of its frantic denizens poised at the tipping point before it slides into the abyss.

These monologues are the meeting place of (as the book title suggests) of the sheer novelty and invention of language, the image and sound. The delightful playspace that Gordon carves out as these three things converge make for an interesting read. The erasures I was not as taken with. I kept waiting and hoping for them to engage in some sort of cross-talk with their opposing pages, but any connection I made seemed forced and arbitrary. The erasures page is not commentary. It stands alone and challenges you to name what is missing. Or perhaps these are fragments of dilapidated language machine. In any case, as items to ponder they held my brief curiosity but were mostly just that, curiosities.

The monologues are where the “real” meat of the book lies. Whether you like the portrait of a mind moving a million miles an hour as it twists through the air like a bullet, one must find that the sheer energy that is felt rising out of these text assemblages is impressive. Many readers might find that this reckless speed is showy and unnecessarily risky. I found myself reliving moments of the car chase in The French Connection, my scrawny hide mounted right up there on the dashboard next to the rolling camera.

But sometimes the meditation is more involuted:

When the actual is transformed into its representation, representation becomes actualized, as though a net were cast not to catch whatever punctures its vicinity, but to make transparent the lapse of possession one proffers through the introduction, disappearance, and reappearance of an image whose architecture is such that in setting forth one is simultaneously building a synonym for backtracking, a barrier torn down, erected again in a slightly more ominous manner, the knowledge of instability orbiting, uncertain where to land, until one realizes that every action contains a kind of flag waving, a constituency worthy of saving.

[Note: the block nature of this prose poem has been sacrificed as well as the drop cap letter that starts the poem]. The old surrealist ploy of subverting the authority of the speaker is at work again here. The block prose and the drop cap lettering suggest that this could be some sort of encyclopedia entry from a turn-of-the-century tome.

The authority might be highly suspect except for the fact that if one stays with it long enough (lets face it: there’s an outside chance of this happening), one can derive some sort of commentary on what it is like to hold an image in one’s head and then recapture it. Certainly the piece is metatextual, setting up its own barriers that force the reader to backtrack. This kind of perversion of setting up text as object lesson seems like a noble gesture to the reader, not as coyness as some readers might submit. Or if you need the author’s intention to be stated a little more directly:

It is “the knowledge of instability orbiting, uncertain where to land.”

I can also imagine a reader who might see this kind of writing as a male fantasy of word play and thought play which is being substituted for other playthings no longer publicly allowed during the course of adult malehood.

I, however, as a male, resent this implication, for playing with words is its own distinct pleasure.

The other technique that comes to mind when reading the monologues is that of the cut-up. The shifting diction that Gordon employs suggests this technique, yet Gordon maintains a tautness and control that other practitioners of the cut-up might not opt for. Disjunction is often the theme that these writers underscore. To his credit, with Gordon I get more of the feel of insane lecture than I do of sampled text. I can get text samples from Google searches [enter: flarf].

I like how both Gordon and Ben Lerner use the prose poem as a container for very elaborate and labyrinthine thinking which might not be approved by the American Philosophical Association. This is magical thinking the way God intended it. Gordon writes, “I hold that thinking is an image of art.” Does he really mean here that the artifact is dead? Or does he mean that the thought process that goes into creating an art object is itself the object? Both possibilities are intriguing, but one might assume that his thought is the spectacle he is creating.

It is wild. It circles back. It leaps. It rolls over itself. It turns back and attacks. It sends a Hail Mary into the end zone. It habituates to the tall grass. It bites off and refuses to swallow. It darts and drifts, darts and drifts. It denotes and expects to forget the denotation. It’s hyperactive and it sighs. It creates surpluses and then mails them off to relatives for free. It slices. It dices. It even makes Julienne fries.

There should be no doubting it is part of the lineage that John Ashbery has spawned, and the argument you might be having with yourself while you are reading it is the same argument you had with yourself twenty years ago when you were reading Three Poems. Artifice and surface are clearly foregrounded. The act of reading [note: a mediatized experience] is of great concern as well. However, to return to my main point at the outset about the dichotomy between the mediatized and the actual experience, I get the sense in Gordon that among the surfaces he is creating and while he does his semiotic squirming, he is pointing to actual experience.

. . . A shadow mars the screen now that the night sky has dislodged a light snow. I think of the hunt I’ve no dog in, invert the thought to return to an heirloom of excess conjecture to the auctioneer’s kennel. The owl is asleep. The sunflower is asleep. Dogs are sleeping. Snow falls over my perpetual excuse, turning the narrative loose.

Here the object lesson is definitely “turning the narrative loose.” But there is a perfect pictorial logic in this series of images. Gordon is not referring to another world. He is referring to the physical world. Yet while he makes this reference, he is also talking about the technique of how the surface of the text has been assembled. We arrive at commentary on the mediatized life as well as the immediately experienced.

Crafting a line like “To annul a model of the universe one need only assemble it in reverse.” signals a spatial awareness which suggests intimate knowledge, perhaps such intimate knowledge that Gordon can point to its absurdities.

The question arises then: why does he point to its absurdities so often and not to its plainness, its comprehensible beauty? I think that this is a valid question that should be put to all surrealists. My own surrealist homunculus responds by saying that absurdities are the little knots of thought where if we pull on a loose end hard enough, something will miraculously break free. I still care about that something that breaks free. That is vital experience, wondrous. The rest sometimes feels like an exchange of commodities.

As Gordon surges forward in the book, he explores many more object lessons: generating the imperceptible fable, wearing the face of the inadvertent anti-sage, an assertion of descriptive speech where “one need only to climb a real tree to see the artifice rooted in the external world,” “the attribution of captions to an otherwise blank page,” sustained advance to capture interest, the uprooting of ornamentation, self-erasure. All of these strategies are played out for a while within the monologue blocks. They are contained within them. It’s like he is playing hopscotch on every page, but in each case employing slight permutations of the rules.

Towards the latter half of the book Gordon turns his attention to not so much the reading of text but the creation of music, another form of mediation, but quite different from the textual concerns he addresses earlier on in the book.

And yet, perhaps it is among the wavering bits of music, the clang of percussion cutting through any discernible melody, that rays of light bend the whole of landscape in some nameless seed growing over the course of several millennia into the hardened stuff of history, as one must, after all, master microscope as well as telescope, note as well as chord, the dynamics of solvency and subtle exchanges of the plant kingdom, in order to see not only the square mesh in front of one’s face but also the slant of the hills just beyond the screen door, the exterior’s decor.

Here sound and light wreak havoc on the natural world so that it becomes a mere copy of itself, artificial even in its reality. Gordon seems to imply that even the natural world has artifice embedded in it.

Cherry Creek Road is, of course, composed of concrete, another neorealist line on the abstract canvas of the earth.

The conflation of the real and the unreal until they are indiscernible entities exploits the postmodernist fetish for the surface as the breeding ground for what is most important. Plant language in one of these surfaces and watch it grow.

However, I am not interested in Noah Eli Gordon as a postmodernist. There are enough of those kind around for the word to grow a little bit flabby. I referred to him earlier as a post-surrealist.

Now here is what the post in post-surrealism means. Surrealism is no longer about the subconscious floating around in an image bath. The new surrealism is more structural in its approach. No longer does the subconscious mind do battle with the perceived world and rehash it as imagery. It also does battle with all the forms of information and “packaged” elements within its browsing window. All of those appropriated forms.

Gordon not only successfully navigates them, exploiting their diction along the way, he comments on how his language imitates them, parodies them. His object lessons buried in the blocks of prose are the key for how a reader is supposed to read them. They are the machine code that, once gleaned, tells the reader how that information should be processed. And the subconscious is riffing on all of this and barely allowing the hint of the machine code to bleed through to conscious awareness.

It’s an insidious thing he does.

This insidiousness might not be something that hits a good number of readers at gut level, but Gordon’s percolating self-consciousness and daredevil movements have a visceral impact on me. They evoke a sensibility that is hard to articulate. I might even hazard that such a sensibility is close to being an emotional state that I can almost come to terms with. Gordon isn’t just telling his readers what to feel the way an American film does, he allows the nebulous to creep in. Others who are surer about the emotions that they want to have via poetry may feel a bit cheated.

Gordon may insist (though maybe insist is too strong of a word) he is “veering toward rhetorical extremes by assigning each a human face.” Each human face he assigns is a reminder that there are emotional markers attached to all the data flow. All the data really does make us feel an intoxicating nausea, and that’s the closest way, that I can imagine, of describing the human reaction to the physical world as Breton envisioned it.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Review of Kevin Rabas's poetry collection, Bird's Horn & Other Poems

Rabas’s subject matter is a revolving door of topics: the poems in this collection explore everything from the jazz he swoons over to the particularities of love, writing, and family. The collection travels interesting territory: from jazz clubs in Kansas City to rural sculpture gardens and family anecdotes and a father’s rite of passage.

Legend is a common theme in this collection, and it extends from depictions of such icons as Charlie “Bird” Parker and family lore about “your father’s mother’s people." Rabas has reverence for the world’s quiet moments just as he holds a great love for the jazz alluded to in the collection’s title. In the title poem, Rabas writes:

Nights, I lent him my horn.
Afternoons, I wrapped my hands
around the horn Bird blew.
This was not unusual. Bird was often
without a horn. He’d blow into town, and everyone
would offer him one. He’d play anything.
Played a plastic saxophone, especially made,
just above the level of a toy in Toronto, I’m told.
They kept it. Put it in a museum.
Piece of plastic, played once, full of only
his spit. I didn’t learn a damn thing from him,
except to keep my hands
on my horn, keep my
hands on my horn
whatever horn I had.

This poem’s every twist and turn is highly controlled: one cannot deny its sly sense of humor circling the circumstances, skilled enjambment, and tornado-like shape? Rabas is well-aware of how legend is made – through repetition of story – and the artifacts, the toy-like sax Parker once touched, are met with the poet’s snark. The ending lines of this poem are like a hymn; the repetition in of sound and words is intoxicating. This is a poem to turn to when looking for Rabas’s collisions of sound and meaning: his sense of the line is keen, and what’s even keener is his sense of syncopation. Like Fulton’s fractal verse theory, the order of this poem is found in its disorder. The order in this poem is like whirlwind: one only ends the poem to begin it again.

The enjambment and repetition of “Love at Once” is like the best scatting and wailing of any blues song. Here, love revolves around the push-pull of expectation. Rabas begins the poem by writing,

She always found it easy to love,
and he found it hard to find love,
although there were few he did not
love. She gave everything at once,
and gave nothing until he knew
he could have everything
at once, until he knew he would not lose
everything at once, until he knew.

Again, Rabas uses repetition to pull the reader into the poem’s leaps. The yin yang pull of the poem’s partners is represented by the very structure of the poem. The connotations to a magnet are not accidental. There is a ripple-effect to these poems: we see the poetic lake and moments of change, but the change vibrates past the page, just as context shudders in the background.

If there’s a stutter to the collection, it’s when Rabas is too bogged down in context and story and when an image is too directly told: sometimes the charge of an idea or moment doesn’t translate and the music seems notched down for the sake of meaning. Is it fair to ask this skilled poet to forsake meaning for the grand leaps and crafty line work? Probably not: these images and stories mean something or this poet wouldn’t have made them timeless.

Rabas does find a balance between the jazz poems that focus on sound and the later narratives that focus on family, students, and fatherhood. His poem, “The Moon,” is able to reach past narrative or statement and tap into the music of his jazz poems. He writes:

Don’t wait until you’re under. Don’t wait
until they’ve dressed you in a gown
with a slit along your spine. Don’t wait.
They’ll white-wall you, plastic glove you,
breathe into you from a plastic mask, metal tank.
They’ll fill your arms, your chest, with tubes –
use long, spent, see-through tubes on you,
never roots, never stems, never
fingertips on your chest, nor lips.
That cold touch of coffin sides holds
beneath every wheel and every rail.

Everlasting day, say goodbye to night.
We’ve cut and sectioned our moon
and tied its pieces to our ceilings,
put the pale, big-bellied man on a rack
and split him, carted his parts
in every separate direction.
When we each keep a piece of him, he dims.
And we wonder why we can’t keep from staring
deep, deep into our TVs. We’re spot welding,
searching for another star. No, we’re
cooking our eyes with filament, lit wire.

Here, we have a poem that moves in and out of perspective. Here, we have Rabas’s trademark repetition and rat-a-tat-tatting pumping through a poem about life. The rhythm of this poem is controlled, and, like the other poems in this collection, there are grand leaps of logic and image. The piece begins with direct pleas to the reader, to the self, and to the world, as the poem progresses, the language grows more and more wild.

This is a poet to watch: his leaps of logic, use of line, and musical sensibilities are a breath of fresh air. Here, we have work that’s skilled without bowing to revision’s soul-sucking plague. Here, we have a poet who swings from poetry’s branches.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


The Fortunate Islands, Susan Kelly-DeWitt’s first full-length book, is glossed by a quote from Dava Sobel in reference to the Roman Egyptian mathematician, Ptolemy, who was “free to lay his prime meridian, the zero-degree longitude line, wherever he liked. He chose to run it through the Fortunate Islands…” With this kind of an epigraph, I had expected Kelly-DeWitt to expose her own longitudinal line in the guise of her spiritual philosophy, or the path that her life has wandered. The blurbs on the back cover of her book also presuppose issues of a tough childhood, father-issues, and a deeply impacted voice.

In the latter presupposition, Susan Kelly-DeWitt’s collection does not disappoint. Her language is wide-ranging and steeped in experience. The opening piece of the book suggests the cornucopious offerings to follow:

Question Mark Café

I’ve been sipping coffee in the dark café
which is my today-mind uncurtained: stark café.

The morning started crying for no apparent reason.
The dreads were circling, shark café.

How marooned I feel on this island of thought.
I’m reviving like a half-dead verb in the word café.

Name a word, any word. Soul could be the one you
choose. Go ahead, it’s okay, in the remarks café.

Who if I cried would hear me among the angelic
orders? (Rilke. The same old question mark café.)

Today I’m that torn moth lipping the jack-
in-the-pulpit of history, who’ll fly away: ghost café.

There is so much language to unpack here. The refrain word that terminates each couplet is modified over and over suggesting the multiplicity of mind in existence, indeed, of Kelly-DeWitt’s “today-mind uncurtained.” The third stanza also echoes the title of the book and established Kelly-DeWitt as a universal “marooned” speaker adrift on an “island of thought.” All of these foreshadowing events ground the text that follows in possibilities of un-exacted thought that stretches to the “angelic orders” and beyond. The “jack-in-the-pulpit” (a highly variable species) mentioned in the final line also connotes a sturdiness and/or variability to come.

The remainder of the first section, “Credo,” provides seemingly experiental pieces such as “Summer of Grandmothers,” which touches on “the way the dead always return when you need them the most;” in addition to more exploratory pieces like “The Trees” that explore ideas of religion, mysticism and death where:

…the souls of the dead

creep back to their graves
in the jungles of the faraway
in the absolutes of belief
or superstition…

Poems like these charge Kelly-DeWitt’s language with superstition and a strong belief in the supernatural where ghosts both act as counsel for the speakers in her poems, and romp in the backdrops of her landscapes.

To some, Kelly-DeWitt’s discussion of the soul, that most-personal, and tangentially sentimental poetic element, might seem overbearing, but the variation that she employs in her discussion of religion and the supernatural is constantly refreshing. In her poem, “Bypass,” she equates the breathing machine that keeps her husband alive to “God…” Still in other poems, Kelly-DeWitt’s language becomes mystical and is responsible for religious transformations of objects, as in “Egrets at Bolinas Lagoon” which accuses a quote of Van Gogh’s for the transformation of “birds that glowed like headlamps…into painters and poets.”

In, “Credo,” her final poem of the first section, Kelly-DeWitt posits her belief in the expectation of happenings. These happenings range from the mention of “the deeper grasses / we call love” to expectations of returning home, and observing nature at work and at rest. These types of broad expectations inform Kelly-DeWitt’s entire collection in various ways, but for the time being (at the completion of the first section), we are still left “marooned,” wondering where we are headed, or if we are ever getting anywhere at all.

“Whiskey Nights,” the name of the second section of Kelly-DeWitt’s collection, provides a solid backdrop for the variety of voice that she chooses to employ. Here is where we are finally introduced to “the child at the mercy of the loved, feared, drunken father made flesh by Roethke’s poem,” as Carole Simmons Ole points out in her blurb. It is apparent in this section of her book, that Kelly-DeWitt’s poetry is informed by the dizzying effects of her father’s whiskey breath; she is both intoxicated with her love for him, and by her fear of him.

In this more personal section, Kelly-DeWitt confronts her father as both an “angry man” as in “The Day Gandhi Died,” and a hummingbird as in “Sugar-Water.” The best reflection of Kelly-DeWitt’s confused attitude towards her father shows itself in her poem “Cold Sweat.”

Cold Sweat

Last night
I woke up
cold, in bed
next to you.

The hair
at the nape
of my neck
was wet.

my spirit
was weeping
into my pillow.

my father,
dead now

came sailing
down the river
one last time

and I ran
to greet him
through the wet

Here we are presented with a speaker who is both frightened and excited about the prospect of seeing her father, even if only her father’s spirit-body. Using this type of multiplicity of attitude towards a subject-matter is an echo of (indeed, most-likely a reason for) the admittedly pluralistic credo that Kelly-DeWitt lays out in the first section of the book.

Her third section, “Inventing Anna,” continues with Kelly-DeWitt’s personal exposé, but is more firmly established in the realms of feminism and the strength of women. Kelly-DeWitt focuses a good portion of the second section on experiences of pioneer women and difficulties in mothering and being mothered, but most in-line with the themes of the rest of the book seem to be Kelly-DeWitt’s emphasis of a stronger form of language. In her poem “Roller Derby, 1954,” the speaker is both in awe of the strength and the “unabashed toughness in women,” reflecting on her own female role-models as “docile, / genteel— their voices like silk / bandages over the wound of talk.”

All of this discussion of language and toughness in women is justified just in the fact that it so nicely highlights Kelly-DeWitt’s interpretations of the powers of language. Where she sees so many women being “docile” and “genteel,” Kelly-DeWitt is unafraid to make her language grunt and gasp just like the women at the roller derby. However, this third section of the book seemed disjunctive when compared to the previous two sections of the book. The last two sections of the book also take the overall experience of the collection in a new direction, so I wonder if this third section doesn’t represent some sort of transition or hinge from the first two sections to the last two sections.

In section four (“Red Hills and Bone”) and section five (“The Fortunate Islands”), Kelly-DeWitt leaves the single-voiced speaker of the first two sections and transitions to a speaker who is deeply concerned with the idea of the individual soul and the second-self. The first poem of the fourth section immediately establishes this duality:


This morning when I searched the mirror
I found someone so vastly unfamiliar
that I recognized myself

as that other who has passed
her whole life inside my body,
the one who set-up house

like a small, worried, spider
at my birth. I found traces of her
torn webs under my eyes,

her busy scratchings at the corners
of my mouth. Later, when I sipped
my coffee from a warm mug,

I knew I tasted the full, bitter flavor
with her lips, her tongue.

Here the image of the mirrored self becomes dark and worrisome. In fact, this idea of duality becomes an obsession, perhaps one that is understandable to someone marooned in her own thoughts (as we are told in the very first poem of the book). This second-self brings darker imagery into the collection in poems like “Crows at Evening,” and “Storm Brewing,” that seem to focus on the question of mortality and the travel of the soul after life, of where our second-selves go when they lose their flesh-laden companions.

The fourth section is book-ended by a poem that asks these very questions: “How Will My Soul Get Free?” Is Kelly-DeWitt creating a map for her soul with this book? I think that is a probable conjecture. Not only does she outline her soul’s history in the beginning sections of the book, but she provides her soul with an ideal of language which it can communicate with. If other souls are allowed to roam freely betwixt the pages of the book, then why not hers? The only question still left unsolved, then, has to do with the epigraph that I mentioned so long ago, and which we have yet to fully comprehend in the larger overarching scheme of the piece.

The final section of the book is by far the most fragmented, sampling widely from many of the ideas discussed in previous sections. However, there is a sense of closure towards the end of the section when Kelly-DeWitt begins dealing with artistic interpretation and how that effects the second-self. In “If You Want To Know,” Kelly-DeWitt’s interpretation of what it means to have a second-self is most clearly defined in the final lines of the piece:

…You must imagine the two
white carnations as spirits, children

she would have had, twin palindromes;
that the red one tossed down so casually
spells out with tempera the name of her
equal, her vivid love.

Here, the red carnation (that is, the one instilled with life) is engrossed in the act of describing its equal in words which it “spells out.” Looking back over Kelly-DeWitt’s book shows careful exercise in spelling out vivid loves, experiences, and second-selves; she pays constant homage to the experience that has brought her where she is, and that allows her to spell out her vivid loves in such strong, unyielding language.

This second-selfliness finally blossoms in full form with connection to the epigraph. Susan Kelly-DeWitt’s collection, though fragmented in sections, provides a metaphor of the human body with one perfect prime meridian splaying the self on some undiscovered plain into two “twin palindromes,” equals. “The Fortunate Islands,” the final poem in the collection, extends Kelly-DeWitt’s sense of self into a larger context, describing where she draws her “zero-line;” suggesting that her physical and mental self represent the point of orientation for her world (indeed, the point of orientation from which we all view our worlds). She becomes the prime meridian wherever she is, and is therefore constantly left with binary oppositions where she goes, she can go forward from her zero-line or back, she “can cross the wooden bridge / in either direction” (from “The Fortunate Islands”).

What Susan Kelly-DeWitt provides for us as readers is a map for our own souls. She tells us that we are all “fortunate islands,” for we all choose where our zero-line intersects with the world. She is not only providing a map for her own second-self, but for all second-selves to learn to interpret their pasts, the language that they used, and the feelings that they encountered, allowing those experiences to come into being as robust and multi-faceted “islands of thought” where we are all constantly “marooned,” but also left in good company with our own vivid loves.

— Jordan Reynolds

In The Fortunate Islands Susan Kelly-DeWitt writes as though she has seen ghosts, and she has. She has seen the ghosts of her own life carry her from the starkness of a difficult childhood with a father whose troubles with alcohol left their deep imprint on to the woman she has become, one whose credoes about spirit, work, dedication to art have placed her “in the deeper grasses / we call love.”

Kelly-DeWitt writes careful, studied poems where the things she invokes seem to throb with significance. Those looking for more surface in the rendering of a life need look elsewhere. There is an abundance of natural imagery — hummingbirds, mountains, crows, a snail, egrets, rivers — but most frequently there are flowers which acknowledge Kelly-Dewitt’s lifelong passion for gardening and other “thrills”of the botanical life. Most of the scenes are quiet ones — ripe for contemplation. Domestic scenes proliferate throughout the book and offer their blossoms of truth, sometimes beauty, sometimes something a little more brutal.

The “Credoes” section of the book provides many poems that travel through Kelly-DeWitt’s country of belief. The two greatest of these are belief in wonder, the puzzling out of a life, and the belief in love as the ultimate redemption. Arguably these two beliefs could be the cornerstones of spirituality. The puzzlement and wonder is never drawn out so capable as it is in the opening poem “Question Mark Cafe.”

Question Mark Café

I’ve been sipping coffee in the dark dafé
which is my today-mind uncurtained: stark café.

The morning started crying for no apparent reason.
The dreads were circling, shark café.

How marooned I feel on this island of thought.
I’m reviving like a half-dead verb in the word café.

Name a word, any word. Soul could be the one you
choose. Go ahead, it’s okay, in the last remarks café.

Who if I cried would hear me among the angelic
(Rilke. the same old question mark café.)

Today I’m that torn moth lipping the jack-
in-the-pulpit of history, who’ll fly away: ghost café.

The opening questions it puts forth are then answered throughout the book. However, the main question seems to be how one can find respite in a frequently dreadful world. For Kelly-DeWitt, her prime meridian, her zero line is the great fortune she has been afforded, which has made her path leading away from a bittersweet past more bearable, a path made possible by her dedication to those less fortunate (like the prisoners who frequently appear) and to her art.

The second section of the book entitled “Whiskey Nights” finds its thematic ground in the impact that the lives of men have made on her, particularly her father. Kelly-DeWitt paints a portrait of him as a troubled military man whose respect for order did not necessarily carry over into his private life. We see him in the throes of his military glory, ignorant of his future troubles. We see him as a fugitive from himself, engaged in all sorts of erratic behavior, including leading his family away from the house under the cover of night.

In the “Inventing Anna” section Kelly-DeWitt examines the impact that women have had on her life. However, her mother and other family matrons must share time with other women — women in a painting class, mail order brides, roller derby queens, a woman found dead on the side of the interstate. In all of these women, Kelly-DeWitt signals the femal project of invention, how it can sometimes successfully transform, how sometimes it can leave a woman with a “puzzled ghost still wearing / it’s unfamiliar posture, its veil of brutal perfume” or as someone who “will be lost to oblivion and childhood fever three years / later, but the lover striking out across the plains / to meet his luck.” The stories of these women parallel Kelly-DeWitt’s own transformation, her shift from child of fear to woman of hope.

Her passage between these two is also marked by a movement from an “invention” phase to a phase where she becomes more rooted, and for a western poet, naturally, the thing that imposes itself on her inventions is the land, the geography, a sense of place. In the 4th section, “Red Hills and Bone,” Kelly-DeWitt enters at “fifty one,” where “this morning when I searched the mirror / I found someone so vastly unfamiliar / that I recognized myself / as that other who has passed / her whole life inside my body.” The long path to feeling familiar with one’s skin has set in. The landscape announces itself of both forgiving and unforgiving from luminescent trail across the river” to “ the day’s interior darkness” and “the ultimate harshness of a man trapped by his own anger which leaves him alone like a vestigial bone.” One can see how this title piece for the section was abstracted from a Georgia O’ Keefe painting. Finally, the gauntlet that Kelly-DeWitt has to run through geography and nature provides her with the impetus to ask her how her soul can get free.

We are treated to a glimpse of her response to that question in the last section of The Fortunate Islands. She appears to find it as she stares “through the portals of memory” and her homage to love. But this love is not entirely a garden of earthly delights. It is also “graves / covered over in haste / /by the side of the road — victims of the overland journey. Love for Kelly-DeWitt is also the devotion to the life of the aesthetic. Kelly-Dewitt invokes Givanna Garzoni, a 17th-century artist-spinster who “willed a considerable / sum of money and all her possessions / to the Academy of Saint Luke.” It is Garzoni’s “vivid love” that carries the poem to its conclusion. Garzoni’s dedication to her art mirrors Kelly-Dewitt’s. their art is their salvation, their reason for being, their redemption from that which challenges the soul. It is the tool whereby
Kelly-DeWitt’s “past seems far away.” Besides Garzoni the spinster we also see Dickinson whose poems give solace to presumably the young Kelly-DeWitt caught amid scenes of family tension where lives bubble over due to circumstances not meshing with expectations.

Living the life of the aesthetic as Kelly-Dewitt has done in Sacramento, a still largely agrarian town, is more like living the life of the ascetic. She has not given up much, though, in the intensity of her images and the transmitted feel of the objects in her world, each with its subtle weight. Her precise images and highly wrought phrases are suffused with a quiet dignity. One wonders, though, if a faster life lived in a faster realm would have produced as much depth. Still, in The Fortunate Islands she explores how gender, nature and art arc through a life and effect beauty, truth, and love. This might not be the most radical thesis, but it has legs. It broadcasts its own comfortable power. One might want to take it along to a place that “feels right” and read it, or like myself, you might take it along with you the next trip you make to New York.

— Victor Schnickelfritz