Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"ARK" by Katie Ford

Katie Ford offers up a genuinely poignant poem in the aftermath of the New Orleans floods in her newest collection, Colosseum, from Graywolf Press (2008). “Ark” is an example of how quickly a good poem can take its reader on an intellectual and emotional journey. Ms. Ford’s use of “we” and “us” creates an intimacy and a shared responsibility for looking at the world in this way.


We love stories of flood and the few
told to prepare in advance by their god.
In that story, the saved are
always us, meaning:
whoever holds the book.

I’m reminded of these lines from Czeslaw Milosz’s Preface to A Treatise on Poetry: “One clear stanza can take more weight / Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose.”

Friday, June 12, 2009


While on a week-long trip to Humboldt County along the northern coast of California, I brought along with me a book of nature meditations that I thought might restore my desire to apprehend nature as it is captured on the page in the poem. Sue Sinclair’s Breaker is a book that is long on rapturous imagery and interesting metaphor. Her work is curious and intoxicating in the way it relentlessly takes on markers in the landscape and reflects on them. What it finds in them is that nature is a reflecting pool. Sinclair wrestles with the philosophical implications of simultaneously being in the world and thinking about it.


And overhead, the birds:
chips of bone in the sky, remnants,
fact of the world’s brokenness.

You look up, asking to be forgiven for a crime
you’re still trying to locate. You know it’s out there,
stare toward the edge of the marsh, the welt of bright water
shrinking before your eyes. A sky of pre-worldly clarity
only confirms your guilt, an inherent misalignment
that keeps you from knowing even a fraction
of what you see.

You cross the heat-ridden ground, the sweet brittle scent
of sage rising underfoot. So easy to pretend a single word
will occur to you, and that it will do all the good
anyone could hope. The earth is parched and lonely,
relies on dignity to protect it. Each thing hanging
by the thread of itself. Bleating crickets. Rustle of dry stalks.
The silence pushes you toward yourself:
it’s time to walk deep into the heart of what troubles you

Sometimes what is found is not so pleasant, just like in nature. Sometimes the discovery is troubling. One discovers one’s own deficiencies. It’s a cheap form of therapy. A hike into the woods and a tall conifer can be your analyst.

Many of the poems take a single subject and try to guess at the self through the subject. There is a poem about a pelican that issues thoughts on a vanquished will and the fear of the body and soul separating. A poem about a clearing speaks of a dark tunnel in things that we want to feel. Etc.

Sinclair is very much concerned with a mysterious undercurrent running through all of the subjects she focuses on, even through all of nature itself. It seems to be her self-appointed task to find that hidden vein in all that teems in the great outdoors. She explores this theme in many of the pieces, at times making it feel as though she is seeing all the way through to the back of the head of the animal she is gazing at.

Most of the poems work from “set pieces”. The author frames a scene and then thoroughly explores the intricacies of the scene the way one might observe a photograph by one of the Magnum photographers and look for the detailed elements that might explain more thoroughly what is going on . . . and more importantly, what is going on outside of the frame that is unseen. For this reason, it is no surprise that several of her pieces work off of photographs — Nan Goldin, Edward Weston. In these she explores the world within the snapshot. She gazes long and hard, thinking about them, then, in classic introspective philosophical manner, thinking about thinking about them. More often than not, she does manage to find a strain of the numinous — a Gaian animism.

As often as she does find some mysterious hidden otherworld behind this one that is visible, an elsewhere that beckons like a lost childhood. The speaker seems to long to place herself in that elsewhere “refusing all the blandishments” (as the book’s jacket blurb nicely puts it) of the scene the speaker is witnessing.

In Breaker Sinclair searches for the magic in a place (the way a fantasizing child might). In “Falling from a Great Height” Sinclair suggests that the desire to displace oneself is rooted in the way children want to displace themselves into the world of adults and adults want to go the other direction. The other realm is always luring us away.

Falling From a Great Height

A hardened, varnished afternoon.
Gulls pick at dumpsters
as boys ferry their basketball back and forth
over the centerline, stewards of the court.
Heat pours off the tarmac; they play deeply,
soulfully, until the day lopes off to the western
horizon and the game loses its appeal.

They go inside as darkness trembles
over the neighbourhood like an alcoholic’s hand.
A car passes; the sound of its engine wraps our minds
in its cocoon. We close our eyes, forget at last
what we’re made of and sink into the elsewhere
that cast its invisible shadow all day.
Heat drifts from room to room
not wanting to disturb anyone.

The garbage rots leisurely in the dumpster,
its rich odour attracting raccoons. Inside,
children and adults dream of changing places,
long for each other in the dark.

The world piles up its details as Sinclair antrhopomorphizes it to the point of animism. That “longing for each other in the dark” at the end of the piece is one of the inexplicable essential elements in Sinclair’s universe that defies any further definition. Other readers have noted a sense of brokenness in Breaker that invokes this sense of longing for the other (indeed Sinclair even refers to this occasionally and suggests it in the title). I also got this sense to a certain extent throughout the book. But what prevailed for me was the interest in the mysterious other not the disappointment that a prolonged connection could not be forged with it. Her aim at the mysterious soul of a place and its objects is remarkably true so I never felt like the speaker was overly self-consciousness of her missing that longed-for realm. Yet the speaker is insistent on the partition between the perceived world and its barely distinguishable flip side where mystery lingers.

So why does a poet insist on staring at the soul of a place? This is a fundamental existential question that I would have liked to see Sinclair engage with more fully. I wanted to know if there was some reason other than naked desire that she would send herself out into the landscape to hunt down its inner pulses of spirit. Why this obsession with the unknown/unseen lurking at the edge of her field of vision. Is this the kind of dance she does with a monstrous god when they decide to get it on?

Perhaps the answer to why the poet insists on staring into the beckoning abyss is that she finds it to be a way to be rescued by sleep. In the last piece in the book, “Asleep”, Sinclair’s speaker is tired of the world and sleep appears to be her only way of granting herself a vacation from it.


A wasp-like hum in the room,
the something-going-on that passes for silence
in these quarters, for we want to believe in silence,
that our repose leaves nothing behind, empties all the chambers,
takes the present into our dreams with us and leaves
a void that works like acid on all that was.
Car headlights on the wall mean nothing,
the cramped, ungrowing furniture, nothing,
the church spires, tired bells, nothing.
They are but the residue of the day, less than echoes,
the last creaking stair on the way out of perception.
We have come to an agreement: tired of the world
in its inalienable unlikeness, we will give up coaxing it out.
So the night darkens, the curtain drifts
out the window, the very lateness of the hour ceases.
We sleep side-by-side with eternity, and never touch.

The failure to connect at the end here again belies the anxiety of the speaker about prolonged contact with the ineffable, but what underscores this anxiety is the fatigue the speaker has with the visible world and the “residue of the day.” Sleep is the only thing that can rescue such a fatigued warrior of the philosophical assault on one’s own presence in the world. But even in this sleep, however, there is also distance. In this case, it is specifically with eternity, but there is also the hint of sleep without touch. I’ve never been good at falling asleep within the clutches of someone else. I suspect I’d be a very poor dog. Sinclair’s speaker apparently would be too.

The one aspect of the book that I find extremely heartening about Breaker is that it does not flinch in its discussion of philosophy in the poems. It does not wish to entertain as much as edify, prolong the great battle with a meaningful existence. This is what renders it, I suppose, as particularly Canadian. Canadian poets have not sacrificed their souls to the entertainment gods as much as American poets have, who understand that they better keep their readers lighthearted and lubricated with fun. The philosophical burdens that Sinclair bears are seen as an American excess or perhaps just bad form, some endeavor that losers take on when they aren’t up to moving fast enough. In America it’s do (see “JUST DO IT”) not be. But there is a third option to the age-old contest between doing and being, between stereotypical Americanism and stereotypical Canadianism. This third option is what Sinclair is poised to capitalize on when facing the mysterious, ineffable shadow world — do. be. learn.

Friday, June 5, 2009


The Next Country is a travel book of poems, but it is not the typical kind of travel fare. It travels in two directions simultaneously. It chronicles the observations and experiences of a speaker moving through post-Pinochet Chile as it runs a parallel journey into the interior of the speaker, sorting out past relationships and one’s emotional landscape.

As journeys go, they are both rather sedate journeys, marked by close attention, tenderly deliberate. This is why I initially had trouble entering into the book. I guess I expect most journeys to be madcap, footloose adventures — one of those buddy pictures into the turbulent soul. But these journeys employ careful steps. They attempt to be less wild American than chronicler of a foreign culture where it pays to be careful of what you say for fear you don’t become one of the desaparecido the next time you visit. My expectation for such a journey might be to plumb the depths of the language and cultural idiosyncrasy to produce a kind of Oswald de Andrade-like Pau-Brasil, but Novey’s speaker is content to watch and calibrate the people that she sees moving through their lives. It’s a trip with a sociologist and spiritual seeker more than it is a philologist’s whirlwind tour of the libraries. Novey’s speaker seems to be watching, watching . . . ever vigilant. I imagine sitting next to her in a bus on its way to the Pantanal and saying, “Jesus Christ, would you say something?” as she continues to study the faces.

When I first picked up the book, I was in the middle of a very busy month, but now that I have slowed down for the summer months, I have come back to The Next Country and have begun to tease out the subtleties.

The book begins with “East of Here” and beckons the reader to travel with its last line: “there is a road if you want to go.” So, we hop on. The rest of the first section sets off poems like “The Wailers in Estadio Nacional” where the speaker is watching Ziggy Marley’s band play in Santiago’s largest soccer stadium against poems that detail relationships with family members — mothers, fathers, sisters. The one theme of travel to a foreign country is matched with the theme of traveling to the unexplored land of the familial. In the following piece, one gets a taste of Novey’s world of relationships:

For My Sister, Driving Away

From a picture, no one guesses
the relation until I explain

about our fathers: one black
and one white. Then everyone finds

a resemblance: your cheekbones,
they say. No. it’s your jawline.

Or maybe the eyebrows.
When I think story, I start

with the mother, but maybe
I’ve been telling it backward.

Where the water streamed
swiftest over the rocks, our mother

rolled up her pants, waded in.
Swaying, bell-like, almost willing

her fall, she called for us
and we laughed at her.

Is it possible to have a mother
pitching toward the water,

and alongside that falling
a margin of happiness?

Outside a Cineplex, I spotted a woman
in an ill-fitting dress. She was in line,

but only half-so. People milled
around her, her face like a town

along the Hudson — a mix of prison
and wilderness. I wondered

if she had children, if when they spoke
it was like unstitching

that ill-fitting dress
covering her body, if even then

their talk was a whisper, a sort of scissor
scraping the skin.

“her face like a town along the Hudson — a mix of prison and wilderness”? Wow. I’ve known quite a few people like that, but my empathy has never risen up to provide that level of description. Novey’s speaker is a superior empath. The sister is also briefly mentioned in “Stranger” (“Definition of a Stranger” here) as wilder, so we get the sense that the sister invoked is an actual sister.

Later on in the first section Novey uses a piece called “Trans-“ to suggest a kind of crossing over. The poem uses various different suffixes (-late, -gress, -mogrify, -form, -scend) as section headings. At the end, Novey writes: the whole of a life fits in a coconut / and you can whittle out the slivers / of its immaculate inner meat.

She begins to do just this in the wonderful “Into the Atacama” where once again the reader is placed in the foreign country. The speaker melds with all the personages on the bus — “We . . . became presidents. We became lovers” — and one gets the sense that the speaker’s empathy is spilling out onto everyone, rendering in full her desire to be an everywoman.

There is more traveling in section II, a brief stop in Tikal. Then as the section ensues, there is a shift back to the familial again. There is a delicious piece entitled “The Candidate” which explores the consequences of a woman’s honesty being challenged.

Section III begins with a tribute to Brazilian fiction writer Clarice Lispector with “A Maça No Escuro[The Apple in the Dark]” also the title of one of Lispector’s books. In this poem we begin to see the transformation of the “sister”. One careful sister stays home and is forced to listen to the libertine sister’s untamed ways. In this piece, though, is where I finally got the sense that the “sister” is the stand-in for “the other” in the foreign culture, and this sent a ripple effect throughout the first two sections, all the way back to “Definition of a Stranger.” For me, this piece acts as the pivot in the book for the reader to understand the symbolic significance of the sister/daughter, and it establishes the basic architecture of the book.

A strange little prose-like piece follows that maps the sister/sister dyad onto the mother/daughter relationship. I believe it is Novey’s intention here to reiterate the similarity of female experience, the sisterhood that connects one woman to another despite background and cultural baggage.

Two Women in a Barn

It happens that a mother becomes parchment
and rolls up gradually around the fictions
of her children. That she becomes an almond
softening in the pockets of cotton garments.
Sleeps with her glasses on in her daughter’s house
and vanishes in the morning. That she’s coerced
her grown child into feeding her blind horse, watching it
list oddly in the small paddock. It happens
that a daughter becomes a bottle, filling with twigs
and crinkled bits of leaves. That she likes to glint
in the water the way a glass bottle will.

With the sisterhood comes a disfigurement as well, a turning into glass bottle full of throwaway items . . . yet that glass bottle is given to moments of brilliance as well if we are quick enough to catch it glinting on the surface of the water.

Section IV, the final section, builds on the mother/daughter relationship at the end of section III and starts with several pieces that invoke the theme of dissociated children whose roots have been cut away from them, leaving them to become unmoored.

These lost children become Pinochet’s desaparecidos in “The End of Augusto” where the speaker, removed from Chile, notes the general’s death as a kind of siren echoing on the inside and ready to be uttered.

Moving further into section IV, an octopus , “washed up and gull-pecked,” arrives next, cast out from the brutality of the sea. A painted gourd turns up as a symbol of everything and suggests a certain sense of laissez-faire. A field serves as the metaphor for what one moves through, a country, its history, a family, a marriage, a life.

We see the restless associative movement in this last section where the subjects of the poem are crab-walking into each other. Everything is moving sideways and conflating until distinguishing lines can no longer be drawn. We arrive at the all-encompassing. This is the magnanimous heart, Whitman’s leftover pulse, traveling as it were over Latin America. One almost immediately asks whether Neruda can be very far off.

This is not to say that the associative movement is as frenetic as with the surrealists. It's leaps are not dashes across the riprap in the stream, not sure of where the next footfall will be, improvising. Novey will collect herself on a foothold and figure out where she is going to place her next footfall. Whose approach is more adventurous? They are both crossing the stream. Novey's approach illustrates an understading of what Brazilian singer Rita Lee describes as to chega mais.

Many of Novey’s poems find their objective correlative in objects that are removed from the actual subject she wants to broach. Several of the poems in the final section work this way. Moreover, quite a few over the course of the book use this strategy of the slant, the glancing. If one is not set to the proper tempo, one might miss the the glints, the connections. Yet, what is most assuredly the case is that Novey’s associative movement does provide the reader with a deep image effect. As she herself puts it in “Scenes from Moving Vehicles, IV”:

The sun sinks, its pink rim
dims tangerine — storied light,
where the reckoning comes in.

In The Next Country Idra Novey exemplifies a quiet identification with the everyman, not an exclamatory one. For those of you who come to Novey after Whitman, you might have difficulty understanding her notion of the group hug and how it differs from Whitman’s smothering exuberance. Novey’s embrace is more of a short, firm, passionate clasp (or perhaps a very subtle goose), one that provides bursts of that storied light.

Monday, June 1, 2009


My friend June and I love Paint Your Wagon, the 1969 mining-camp musical that starred two of my childhood movie-heroes, Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood, and introduced my eleven-year-old imagination to the mystery of Jean Seberg. My nostalgia goes even further. At Gilliland Junior High, my buddy Carlos and I mumbled out a duet from the film in music class. Looking at our feet, we sang, “I was born under a wandering star,” figuring if Lee had the cojones to sing it in public, well, we did, too.

Paint Your Wagon
was shot on location in Pine Valley, Oregon, the hometown of one of June’s and my mutual friends, the late Bill Baird. Bill’s brother was actually on-set as an adviser. Everett was a master of the pioneer art of driving a team of oxen. Bill told us Everett was caught on film driving a team himself. Unfortunately, June and I waited too long to watch the movie with Bill so we had to use our imaginations a bit to identify his big brother.

Right about now you’re probably wondering: how does Paint Your Wagon relate to Mary Oliver? Well, if you’ve seen the movie, you might remember the scene in which Clint sings, “I talk to the trees,” as he ambles through a summer-lit pine forest, pining for Jean Seberg. As for talking to the trees, he laments, "but they don’t listen me." In Ms. Oliver's poem, “When I Am Among the Trees,” not only do they listen, they speak.

I came across this poem in Thirst (Beacon Press 2006) during a break from reading an anthology of contemporary poems that were challenging my abilities as a reader. Simply put, I was exhausted by them. How refreshing it was to read a poem by someone who has been listening so carefully to the world, who is willing to make herself vulnerable by sharing what she's heard, and who can write so well.

I hope you enjoy this poem as much as I did, and you, too, can “go easy” in this world—if only for a moment.

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, "Stay awhile."
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, "It's simple," they say,
"and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine."

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

FENCE 10th ANNIVERSARY READING—AWP Chicago [Feb. 14, 2009]

Rodrigo Toscano reads "Clock, Deck and Movement" [5:59]

Eleni Sikelianos reads "Who thinking on Her Legs (Manifesto)" [2:20]

Eleni Sikelianos reads "Essay: History's Tree (Early Greece)" [1:00]

Prageeta Sharma reads "Value" [2:00]

Prageeta Sharma reads "Deliverance" [1:58]

Kristin Prevallet reads "Dream of Financial Ruin" [3:55]

Geoffrey O' Brien reads "Cascade" [0:37]

K. Silem Mohammad reads "Unobstructed and 4 Sonnets" [6:26]

Brenda Hillman reads "Wind Treaties" [0:51]

Brenda Hillman reads "Styrofoam Cup" [0:29]

Brenda Hillman reads "Sediments of Santa Monica" [1:22]

Duriel Harris reads "Short" [3:32]

Dawn Lundy Martin reads "Religion Song" [4:41]

Thomas Devaney reads "They're Fighting in Atlantic City in Atlantic City" [5:25]

Amy Catanzano reads "Chromatica" and "Notes on the Enclosure of Fields" [2:41]

Rae Armantrout reads "Currency," "In time," "Previews," "Hey," "Anchor," "Procedures" and "Number" [6:19]

Cathy Wagner reads "She May" [1:43]

Cathy Wagner reads "Well in The Chasm of Your Faith Opportunity Tree Why Don't You Crampon Up" [0:51]

Cathy Wagner reads "Song" [1:38]

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

After Her Stroke, Our Family Remembers the HurricaneAround the

After Her Stroke, Our Family Remembers the Hurricane
Around the table, she blinks her response
to our questions and listens to the noise
the rest of us make, nodding her head
until someone forgets and pauses halfway
through the story: Tell us what happened next.
Through the window, this year's tobacco
is just visible behind the barn.
The room is bright and everything silent,
even the break of the crop's stalks in the wind.
Someone else picks up where the last
left off, and another interrupts to tell it
better, the afternoon losing itself to rain
that has just set in. She turns away
from us to face the windows, my uncle
visible beneath the thunder as he collects
damaged leaves. When she thinks no one
is watching, her hands rise to the neck
and I see her fingers trace the throat,
the outline where the voice once belonged.

-- Kerri French

Saturday, April 25, 2009

WRITERS CORPS: Anthology Reading

Chad Sweeney reads "The Piano Teacher" [1:59]

Jeffrey McDaniel reads "Day 4305" [4:58]

Elissa Perry reads "Becoming Darla" [8:01]

Maiana Minahal reads "Ordinary" [1:12]

Maiana Minahal reads "You Bring Out the Filipina in Me" [1:56]

Thomas Centolella reads "Transparency" [1:57]

Thomas Centolella reads "Dojo" [2:29] Text of "Dojo"

Monday, April 13, 2009

POETRY MAGAZINE READING: Not the Usual Suspects Feb. 12, 2009 at AWP

Craig Arnold reads "Incubus" [7:10] Text of "Incubus"

Ange Mlinko reads "Year Round" [0:57] Text of "Year Round"

Jacob Saenz reads "Sweeping the States" [1: 32] Text of Sweeping the States

Ange Mlinko reads "Gallimaufry" [1:37]

A. E. Stallings reads "Triolet on a Line Apocryphally Attributed to Martin Luther" [1:04] Text of "Triolet ona Line Apocryphally Attributed to Martin Luther"

A. E. Stallings reads On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in Arcadia [3:11] Text of "On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in Arcadia"

Monday, April 6, 2009


Nancy Krygowski reads "Still Wet" [2:52]

Nancy Krygowski reads "I Get Happy Wen I Shudder" [1:55]

Nancy Krygowski reads "Velocity" [2:40]

Afaa Michael Weaver reads "Beginnings" [0:51]

Afaa Michael Weaver reads "Working of Miracles" [1:46]

Afaa Michael Weaver reads "Interpretation of Tongues" [1:22]

Friday, March 27, 2009


D. A. Powell reads "Chronic" [6:40]

Katie Ford reads "Colosseum Theater" [2:04]

Katie Ford reads "Flee" [1:28]

Eula Biss reads "Time and Distance Overcome" [13:11]

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Dobby Gibson reads "Vertical Hold" [1:41]

Dobby Gibson reads "Mercy" [1:33]

Dobby Gibson reads "Fortune" [1:47]

Matt Hart reads "Revolutions per Minute" [1:59]

Matt Hart reads "History Lesson" [4:58]

Matt Hart and Dobby Gibson reads their e-renga "Late Make-Up Years and Decline" [1:18]

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Idra Novey reads "Second Snow" [0:44]

Idra Novey reads "A History in Six Couplets" [0:29]

Idra Novey reads "The Experiment" [0:46]

Bill Rasmovicz reads "The Moon" [2:40]

Bill Rasmovicz reads "Clear Smoke" [1:03]

Carey Salerno reads "Boss" [1:36]

Carey Salerno reads "Shelter" [0:35]

Lia Purpura reads from "King Baby" [4:56]

Frank Giampietro reads "Death By My Son" [1:20]

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Elise Partridge’s Chameleon Hours (Anansi Press, 2008)

Elise Partridge’s fans are many, but they don’t always agree about her sensibility. Her editor, Ken Babstock, calls her “a technical wizard for whom thinking and feeling are not separate activities.” An equally admiring Stephen Burt, on the other hand, sees in her “a careful thinker's yearning for abandon.” Rosanna Warren applauds her “coolly surprising intelligence,” whereas Robert Pinsky (quoting “In the Barn,” a very strong poem he claims is in Partridge’s new book, but which I couldn’t find in the copy I got from Anansi Press—perhaps there’s a different edition out there someplace) calls her “ardent” and “compassionate.” Could it be that Partridge really is all of these incompatible things: a truly unified, zen-like presence and a hungry heart? A “hawk-like observer” (in Babstock’s phrase) and a healing empath? Perhaps, as her book’s title suggests, Partridge is a chameleon, taking on new colors as she pleases, and striving to be all poetic things to all poetic people.

The problem with this view, however, is that Partridge’s new book (as she has noted in a recent interview with Jared Bland in The Walrus:) revolves around an experience that not everyone (or every poet) has had: a bout with cancer. Indeed, the best two poems of the book (especially the “Chemo Side Effects” pair about vision and memory loss) tackle this experience more or less directly, with an implicit courage and unsentimental frankness that is wholly admirable. Partridge’s poetry comes alive most vividly when she fears losing the gifts of observation it has afforded her: “So many small things I still want to see: / sheen of my nephew’s corner eyelash, / snowflake circuitry, fleas’ thighs, / nebulae flocking in my husband’s iris, / the peaks and valleys of each mustard seed.” These observations are not uniformly breathtaking, but they have a good deal of restrained beauty, and we know what is at stake in them. Yet the book as a whole refuses to coalesce around this potentially powerful emotional center. Its four-part structure seems arbitrary; it may well constitute a chronology of sorts, but it is hardly a narrative, and the tense attention to detail that enriches many of the cancer-themed poems seems like an empty reflex in other contexts.

Part of the problem is that Partridge’s work is often far too obviously imitative. She is often cited as a disciple of Elizabeth Bishop, though that is perhaps a fate that inevitably befalls any female poet with formalist tendencies. Personally, I didn’t find Bishop’s influence as suffocating as that of D.H. Lawrence. Compare, for instance, Lawrence’s poem “Man and Bat,” with Partridge’s poem “Depends on the Angle.” I have never read a poem by a respected poet that reads quite so blandly like another, far more famous poem. Lawrence’s poem is too long to quote comfortably in full, but I’ll take some representative passages:

When I went into my room, at mid-morning,
Why? ... a bird!

A bird
Flying round the room in insane circles.

In insane circles!
... A bat!

A disgusting bat
At mid-morning! . . .

Out! Go out!

Round and round and round
With a twitchy, nervous, intolerable flight,
And a neurasthenic lunge,
And an impure frenzy…

Again he swerved into the window bay
And I ran forward, to frighten him forth.
But he rose, and from a terror worse than me he flew past me
Back into my room, and round, round, round in my room
Clutch, cleave, stagger,
Dropping about the air
Getting tired…

I also realised ....
It was the light of day which he could not enter,
Any more than I could enter the white-hot door of a blast-furnace.

He could not plunge into the daylight that streamed at the window.
It was asking too much of his nature.

Worse even than the hideous terror of me with my handkerchief
Saying: Out, go out! ...
Was the horror of white daylight in the window!...

He squatted there like something unclean.
No, he must not squat, nor hang, obscene, in my room!...
Hastily, I shook him out of the window…

And now, at evening, as he flickers over the river
Dipping with petty triumphant flight, and tittering over the sun's departure,
I believe he chirps, pipistrello, seeing me here on this terrace writing:
There he sits, the long loud one!
But I am greater than he ...
I escaped him....

Below is Partridge’s poem, which reproduces many of Lawrence’s effects quite faithfully, right down to the switch over to the bat’s point of view at the end:

Woke to find a brown lump
hunched on the curtain rod,
three-inch peeled gap
in the screen—
Malevolent blot,
blighting my daisied lace—
some sleep-of-reason monster
cruising for changes of scene.

Aimed to whap him out.
At first he tried to squeeze
sideways; then dove
through the glaring room
eave, corner, sill, sill, eave—
while some red-eyed, ghost-white monster
shrieked after him. Chucked a broom.

As a Lawrence admirer, I must note that Partridge’s ending also borrows from his even more famous poem “Snake,” where a prudish speaker also throws a stick at a fleeing animal. Here is a chameleon hour that reads more like plagiarist’s playtime.

If this were an isolated incident of borrowed inspiration, that would be one thing, but it is not. Nothing else is quite so egregious as “Depends on the Angle,” but echoes of Lawrence, Sylvia Plath, G.H. Hopkins (perhaps via Margaret Avison) and Robert Frost permeate this book until I feel like I am standing at the end of a very long hallway, listening to the vestiges of a very civilized, very well-read, but ultimately pointless conversation. In this echo chamber, small verbal tics loom large: Partridge’s habit of doubling up her onomatopoeic verbs (“flags flap-flapped,” “bellbuoys chiming-chime,” and its variant “buoy-bells ting-tinging”) is rather lazy, and her repeated use of the obscure, if deliciously archaic-sounding architectural term “narthex” (a word-lover’s word for the entrance of a church) is distracting and somewhat troubling. Do the words Partridge is using mean anything to her beyond themselves? If so, it is hard to see it.

That is not to say that there are no fine or arresting passages in Chameleon Hours. The Hopkinsian line “Earthward, staggering, reaching, reeled, thirteen” came at me delightfully, inevitably and yet out of nowhere, to rhyme with “trampoline.” A line from “Cancer Surgery” was also charged with startling, urgent vividness: “Chest a gauzy snowpatch, itchy with tape.” Despite a general queasiness, I found myself wanting more of these reeling, itching bodies to ground Partridge’s flights of fancy (she sometimes amuses herself by comparing herself to a bird, which is her right, of course, given her last name). Although bodily reticence can be a welcome reprieve from the blood- balls-and-guts of many contemporary poets, Partridge seems to take this retiring stance too far.

So I suppose I side with those who see Partridge as a small-scale perfectionist, an inhabitant of a private ivory tower. I like her willingness to play around with forms: the opening poem, “First Death” is written in flexible, unobtrusive (and even a bit prosaic) blank verse, and rhymes crop up now and then with agreeable yet surprising frequency. As a poet who loves to equivocate with rhyme and meter myself, I understand her ambivalence, and enjoy her opportunistic exploitation of sound effects. Yet what Jacqueline Osherow has called Partridge’s “flawless ear” can sometimes seem a bit tinny. Questions like “will our Möbius affections / start to grate?” are neither bracingly rugged nor plausibly smooth, and their abstraction heightens their awkwardness. The opening lines from the same poem (the sad but sadly uncompelling “Childless”) will make the point even clearer:

Helices snapped like crepe-paper streamers,
our DNA ladder
sways with frayed ends, an idle last rung.
No filaments spiraling us to the future…

Forced conceits of this type mar more than a few of the poems. The lines about the speaker’s husband in the same poem are also representative of the vague, purely gestural nature of human relationships in this book:

Your blue eyes in a rounder mien,
that three-generations’ compounded patience
that makes your stalwart pulse andante—
how I wanted that seeded, perennial.

Here a ceremony of what must have been genuine personal grief is drowned in what I can only call Yeats-and-water.

Of course, I feel awful saying all of this about a poet who has survived an encounter with cancer and who has chosen to share part of the experience with us. As someone who has just published a book of poems about his infant daughter, I came to this book ready to make all sorts of allowances for emotional special pleading, over-the-top gory details, blissful self-delusions, apocalyptic/ecstatic ranting, and self-pity. I found none of these, which worries me, in a way. One might say that Partridge is too conscientious and unworldly an aesthete to bother with the slog and tremor of disease, yet her literary manners are not without flaws. She does not refrain from minor didactic touches that seem at odds with her self-created status as an observer of reality. The feminism that underlies the quietly effective “Miss Peters” becomes snide and facile in “As I Was Saying”: “Slit open his mattress, insert two stinking trout, / tip last week’s beer over his speakers / and light out.” Her warning to “lost boys” in “World War II Watchtower” is more vapid than vatic: “don’t bivouac here… your open eyes aren’t freckled with Omaha sand; / you’re not the great-uncle bobbing at Juno.” I’m tempted to reply, “Yeah, so what? Neither are you.” In any event, to descend from the emotional heights of reading about chemotherapy to this lecturing tone is bathetic. I wish Partridge had managed to sustain the seriousness and dignity she shows in the best poems in this book, but I suspect that this would be beyond most poets’ powers. Maybe in cancer she simply encountered something that was more powerful, more visceral, more evocative than her poetry could handle. Most of us will suffer this fate eventually, but for her to suffer it so plainly and so meekly in this book is disappointing.

Review written by Brad Buchanan

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

49th PARALLEL READING—Canadian Authors reading at AWP [Feb. 14, 2009]

Chris Hutchinson reads excerpts from "Cross Sections" [6:41]

Carolyn Smart reads excerpts "Written on the Flesh" [Myra Hindley] [9:30]

Adam Sol reads excerpts from Jeremiah, Ohio [7:09]

Sina Queyras reads an excerpt from Expressway [2:26]

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Ralph Angel reads "Blackout" [1:22]

Ralph Angel reads "Untitled" [2:10]

Rae Armantrout reads "Fit" [0:46]

Rae Armantrout reads "Scumble" [0:37]

Rae Armantrout reads "Unbidden" [0:38]

Rae Armantrout reads "Simple" [0:42]

Mary Jo Bang reads "Mystery at Manor Close" [2:00]

Mary Jo Bang reads "Man and Woman" [3:02]

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


In Starsdown a reader will experience some of the densest work this side of a black hole. The poems that Bernes writes/constructs swirl and accumulate matter like a tornado sucking up anything of value manufactured in the 21st Century. It is one part witness, one part commentary, and ten parts whirling stimuli found at your local Wal-Mart Mega Mart. The effect is like having language spit out by a salad shooter:

In the shakeout, comes pesticide, comes polyester.
Chewing gum, detergent, mustard gas precursor.
Heart valves, condoms, contact lenses, synthetic thought. [“Tar Pits”]

In his hyper-driven collection of digital detritus and electronic age ephemera, Bernes uses language that is visionary, daring, and ultimately condemnatory. The eyes and ears and life that has put together the assemblage that is Starsdown seems to be both addicted to the pleasures of a capital-intensive society as well disgusted by its excesses.

This is much the same feeling I get when I visit my brother, Dante’s, basement in Chicago. Dante is the owner of an original Altair back in the 70’s back when most were still wondering how their FM radios worked. Since that time Dante has accumulated various kinds of electronic devices and gadgets of every imaginable stripe and color. He has a collection of cut-off power cords that are draped over a light fixture hanging from the ceiling, one (maybe more!) for every year of his life. While some might look at this as a pathetic attempt to horde useless material for a reason almost assuredly to escape the minds of most modern humans, I tend to look at this odd collection (and several dozen others like it in his basement), as an expression of extreme hope. My brother is hopeful that there are enough appliances out there with faulty power cords that all of these “parts” will be needed for resuscitation of dead bread makers or waffle irons or computer drives.

Bernes’s Starsdown makes me think that there also can be no sound reason to collect all these word-bits on the page in order to construct a vision of a hyper-digitized LA, perhaps a post-industrial-apocalyptic LA given the good number of images that suggest severe decay. As striking as the juxtapositions are and as attentive an eye as there is present, the barrage can oppress after a while; however, like with my brother’s basement (which is very hard to move around in and get to the washer and dryer) there is a certain grandeur and spectacle to the whole massive undertaking. Fortunately, for most readers, Bernes’s book will most assuredly take up less space than my brother’s stuff, and the book is quite the value when measured against a lifetime of collecting spare electronic parts and gadgetry. However, the question remains whether it will serve as well in case of economic collapse. I am quite certain that my brother will be able to barter his way out of any situation should we be staring down the barrel of a full-scale economic and financial collapse. It is much harder to barter with words rather than their referents.

But Bernes at times wants to be the reader’s guide to such a collapse. The stranded and disconnected items strewn throughout the book serve as guideposts in a land where readily-determined sense has stopped production. This reflects what some might refer to a constructivist impulse, that impulse which constructs a world out of words rather than just represents/misrepresents an accessible manifestation of reality as per mimesis. However, Bernes’s eye collects so much debris, and he hears so much in the airwaves that it is hard to imagine how Bernes’s construction could exist without his accumulationist impulse. Also, because it is hard to imagine what kind of new machinery could be built without using the spare parts of the language, it is hard to imagine how any kind of constructivist endeavor could be undertaken without some kind of accumulationist impulse.

Of course, I doubt whether it is part of Bernes’s grand plan to deliver any absolute glimpse of the future degraded LA. The book wants to be the sounding board for a reader to derive his/her own vision of LA’s next incarnation. It forces a reader to tinker, to synthesize thoughts out of a bucket of screws, hardware, electrical tape and a massive coil of solder.

The darting back and forth from various different language sets (and I cannot recall a book of contemporary American poetry whose diction is so varied) does produce what Stephen Burt’s review of Starsdown calls “[Bernes’s] jumpy, almost ADD poems.” However, what Burt fails to realize here with Bernes is that the two D’s in ADD stand in for “drift” and “détournement.” These may be terms plucked from the Situationist Bible, but they are definitely in play in Starsdown. The drift in the book is an exceptionally difficult one to pull off with any authority. This is not the casual drift across a group of tourists on the other side of a city street, glancing at what seems to be out of place and wryly commenting on it. No this kind of drift entails a much more concerted looking. It stares intensely at the labels on everything and then disengages them through a few hot, short lingual bursts. This is where the détournement comes in. By referring to so much of the baggage that we carry around on a day-to-day basis as part of the experience of contemporary city dwellers, and then distoriting so much of it through the techniques of rapid jump cuts and juxtapositions, nearly every stanza in Starsdown is disorienting, decontextualizing. It becomes the sole burden of the reader to place himself/herself within the mix without fear of also becoming folded in by the language taffy machine Bernes employs. So, Bernes uses the language of our contemporary moment to unhinge the reader from his/her experience with it. The total effect is like wearing freshly laundered clothes after one has previously worn clothes through a month’s worth of LA grime. Bernes freshens the power spots in the language.

I can’t remember a recent book where one reads lines just for the sheer pleasure of what will be invoked, what will be fastened together in the next daring phrase, the next measure, the next run of sixteenths. The music is complicated though. A reader should be warned that making it through Starsdown while deriving the most pleasure requires a well-practiced reader, one whose sight-reading skills are well honed.

Many lines conspire with rhythms that are easy to trip over. There are short staccato bursts and inverted melodic phrases — near perfect renderings of the previous passage except for the slip of a single syllable. I enjoy the musical performance of Bernes on the page, but I must admit that I suffer a bit of note fatigue upon extended reading. Living with the book as I have for the past several months, I find its presence most comforting when I need to remind myself to be more daring with my language. It’s probably not the right companion though if one wants to trot out a nice well-behaved narrative. Starsdown doesn’t aspire to that kind of project. Yet there are unmistakable moments of near-narrative thrust, for example, in the following piece that resembles a creation myth:

Desiderata on a Desert Island

Each island marks the limits of the sight,
Each prisoner the center of a prism, thousand-
Faced, wherein the vision of others

Drowns in confounded distances. This
Is our city, our archipelago of sprawl,
On self-love built: one long block out, as on

A ring of reef, the repeated, bleeding gazes
Founder and collapse, sun-bald, like waves
Under the overambitious topweight of a forward push.

The horizon is a second skin, seeing
Sheathed by being, swallowed whole.
It kings us eye for I. It brings what

Flings us far near, an myopia, a fat
Cataract where the ocean ours over
The edge into threshing, blent serrations, scales.

Retinal flotsam, rods and cones
Wash ashore—eyechart letters, blurs
That form no common language. We must

Build then with lack a private
Shack, a charm for the sharks, a diction
Wholly homegrown. We were allowed to bring

One word each. We were allowed to choose.
My sister, protectless now, and lost, picked
Justice. I hear her hear here, sometimes, in the waves

Just this, just this, the beach each day
Levelled in the steady bevel of the tides,
Its hall of mirrors. An old friend, in front of us

At the all-night processing center,
Whispered verdant to the guards. She must
Live then with, for scenery, the names of trees and flowers

She’s never seen, garden overgrown with unknowing.
Impossible to gauge the time it takes
To pen these notes with only the empty

Amphitheater of the ocean, with only subtle
Inflections to distinguish one thought
From another, blue from green, gulls from pelicans,

Where exactly and how the water becomes
Symbol of a common, consanguinous solitude.
Is that love? God? Justice? What I feel

Seems to name the others farther and more pure.
Inarticulable difference, loves without object.
Sometimes the palm, grown so familiar, so commonplace,

Disappears in the empty-scented tradewinds,
Winnowed by excessive adoration.
My glyph’s desiderata, a stiff wind or wand of wishes

Which no longer refer to any world I can recall.
In name alone. A hive, a Latin hum
Of what’s not here and never was.

And in this way Los Angeles is made.

Embeddded in this poem is the following credo: “We must / Build then with lack a private / Shack, a charm for the sharks, a diction / Wholly homegrown.” This can’t be too far from Bernes’s ars poetica. The reason I have gravitated to this piece over many of the other fine ones in the book is probably because I am drawn to the orderedness of the piece vis–à-vis the rather wild diction (though the varied invocation is somewhat more subdued here than elsewhere in the book). The tercets and capitalized word at the beginning of each line suggest older English verse. This tension between the archaic and the birth of the most postmodern of cities (Los Angeles) is appealing if only a reminder of the constraints of the old forms that creak at the seams trying to constrain the diction. So much of the book is futuristic/contemporary critical that “Desiderata” is a quaint reminder that cities are built upon the past (as any good Marxist knows).

The “I” that appears in Starsdown almost always appears as a contrivance. That seems appropriate for the kind of book that it is. As a reader one can feel the experienced eye bobbing through the cultural flotsam, but that experience is not borne as an individuated persona through which we see the world of the poem. What makes Bernes’s constructivist project all the more appealing in Starsdown is the total collaboration with the culture Bernes pursues. Thus, the constructed language in the book feels like it has developed through some sort of seismic pressure of the culture itself and is not the work of a dazzling linguistic inventor (even though we know that behind the curtain is Bernes himself masterfully assembling and rewriting and rescoring his symphony of the La-that-is-now and the LA-that-is-to-come.

At times I wonder if the I that appears isn’t so transparent that Bernes should just remove his name from the book altogether and put on the cover the author as a particular period of time, arguably the contemporary but not necessarily.

Though Starsdown is as supercharged a linguistic fantasy as I have seen and could imagine, I wonder if it does not share some of the same pitfalls as my brother’s house. In my brother’s house, what was once contained to the basement has slowly crept up through the rest of the house. I had not visited him in Chicago for nearly twelve years since I had been living on the West Coast. This month I arrived to find that the manageable mess he had constructed in the basement had migrated through the rest of the house. The living room was piled high with old electronic components that once served some important function but now had surpassed middle age and had their printed circuit boards hanging out. There was an industrial size garbage bag full of plastic peanuts awaiting their time of disembarkment should the eBay gods shine down on my brother’s house one day. Even the bathroom was supplied with various electronic thingamabobs. Open a cabinet for a towel and three battery-operated conveniences fall on your foot.

In short, the sprawl is contagious. It overtakes a house the way it overtakes a city, a city like LA. Perhaps this is Bernes’s purpose to effect a textual expression of the city as subject. However, all I know is that if one tries to live in my brother’s house for more than three days then certain synapses begin to fail. You wake up in the middle of the night and fear you are beginning to become a clutterer, that a massive stack of plastic storage boxes will fall down on you in the night and perhaps steal your virginity, again!

With Starsdown Bernes’s language presses down into the neuronal interstices and begins to wear away at the very fabric that holds everything together.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Quick Fix: Sudden Fiction written by Ana Maria Shua and translated by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan

Quick Fix: Sudden Fiction
Ana Maria Shua. Translated by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan
White Pine Press

Quick Fix: Sudden Fiction plays home to four of Argentina-born Ana Maria Shua’s fiction collections. These whirlwind fictions are so intoxicating that readers will find themselves rereading a piece half a dozen times before moving on to the next. Readers have to stay on their toes if they hope to keep up with this writer’s winking prose. These sudden fictions, as Shua calls them, take on faerie tales, perceptions of reality, and familiar stories and give them nice injection of sass, feminism, and snark. Here, the sudden fictions ask the reader to take a new look at old stories.

Shua’s work pokes holes through former patriarchal visions of women. The work in this collection retells the stories or takes a stab at redefining such women as geisha and Sleeping Beauty. In “#176,” Shua allows the Sleeping Beauty to take control of this sleep, to use it as a weapon to secure her freedom. Shua writes:

“Sleeping Beauty slept for one hundred years. She took one year to stretch after her prince’s passionate kiss. She took two years to get dressed and five to eat breakfast. Her royal husband put up with all this without complaining until that dreaded moment when, after fourteen years of lunch, it was time for a nap.”

When the princess wakes, she takes her time and grabs control of her waking hours. The sleep that “protected” her in the past is the sleep her husband grows to fear. Here, Shua shows the reader that such modes of control backfire. This Sleeping Beauty will take as long as she wants to dress and have lunch, and she will then return to sleep rather than lead a life of servitude.

The Geisha section is full of sly commentary on men and their objectification of women. The world of geishas has notoriously been a world where women serve men. Shua roasts the men who participate in such a culture. She takes on “neat freak” who takes forever to remove his clothes only to ask for a different woman, and in “Sophistication” Shua shows the hypocrisy and irony of the sex industry when a man asks for “the services of his own wife.” The poem takes on the sex industry and cracks its shell to show its most ridiculous parts.

In one of the more moving sections of the geisha-focused poems, Shua examines the idea behind a man's "dream girl." Shua writes in "The Girl Who It Not Here":

"None is more successful than The Girl Who Is Not Here. Although still young, many years of dedicated practice have allowed her to perfect the very subtle art of absence. Those who request her end up settling for another, whom they possess with indifference, trying to imagine that they hold in their arms the best, the only, The Girl Who Is Not Here.”

It’s poems like this that startle the reader and causes him or her to sit up straight and consider the world. Here, the man can never be satisfied by what is there. He is always looking for something else, something unattainable. Shua paints fantasy as absence, as the unattainable.

The strongest of Shua’s sudden fictions are those that take well-known characters and situations and spin them to create new tales. Instead of work that warns women or seeks to keep women locked away, Shua gives women their power back.. These fictions are shadows of the original or inverse or continuation of what once was. Shua rewrites history in #84:

“The real value of Scheherazade’s tales did not rest on their intrigue, but rather just the opposite, on their hypnotic monotony. Thanks to her extremely boring stories, she was the only of the sultan’s many wives who succeeded in making him fall asleep each night. Sheltered from the tortures of insomnia, the sultan rewarded Scheherazade with the greatest of all prizes: her own life. The stories of that collection, which is known as The Arabian Nights, and which, truth be told, are not totally lacking in interest, were created many years later by the sultan’s little sister, the beautiful Dunyazard, to entertain her royal nieces and nephews.”

Shua is well aware of the way history has treated women, and in this piece, she takes back history and reinvents it in favor of women. The sultan is shown to be a fool: one who sleeps when timeless stories are spun right before him. The women become the writers of the classics; the women become the people to pass these stories on to teach one another. This piece and others in the collection ask the reader to reconsider the canon, its authors, and the way history has been written.

There are times where the idea behind the sudden fictions seems to overshadow the actual language used to convey them. This could be the result of translation, or it could be that Shua wants her points to come across bluntly and clearly. The effect is sometimes a preachy or bluntness that seems too loudly chuckle at its intelligence. Though the idea is interesting, “To Each His Own” is almost too loud and too proud of its metaphors. The sly wink that has been present throughout the anthology is momentarily replaced by a lard thigh-slapping guffaw. In this sudden fiction, Shua plays on the animalistic side of the sex industry when describing vampire clients. Shua writes: “For sweet-toothed vampires: fat, listless, diabetic women with Modigliani necks….” The implications are clear: the men are sucking the life from women to fulfill their desires. The metaphor is almost too easy or loud for the collection. To refer to men who objectify women as blood-suckers seems not only as if it has been done before, but seems as if it’s been done so often that it’s become a cliché.

Shua’s writing is crisp, and her voice is loud. This writer doesn’t shy away from difficult decisions. The core Shua’s work is to provide women the chance to speak and the chance to take back their lives and stories. What would the world be like if our fairy tales were as sharp and women-centered as these pieces? It’s easy to picture a new reality by the end of the anthology, a world full of humor lined with barbed wire, a world where women make their way to the table. This is Shua’s greatest joke: these pieces are neither fictions nor sudden. Irony of ironies, it’s plain to see that nothing in this anthology can be solved or seen as a quick fix: not the fictions, not the extensive histories behind these fictions, and certainly not the revision of history.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

KIM ADDONIZIO—Feb. 4, 2009 at Bistro 33 in Davis, California

Kim Addonizio reads "The Matter" [3:39]

Kim Addonizio reads "Muse" [1:04]

Kim Addonizio plays "In New Jerusalem" [2:15]

Kim Addonizio plays a Deford Bailey Medley [2:25]

Thursday, February 5, 2009


Kathryn Cowles’s Eleanor, Eleanor, Not Your Real Name is a book in which a good deal of effort is made to carve out a space for a person who does not exist. Or does she? The main concept guiding the book is whether the imagined Eleanor (who emerges little bit by little bit over the course of the book as an imagined character rather than a real person whom the author is addressing) is not the same as the author herself. The question that lingers is whether Eleanor is the author’s alter-ego or not. The details of Eleanor’s life are so closely observed and confidently enumerated that one assumes an intimacy between the author and Eleanor that hints at the lack of distance between the two.

About Eleanor

1) was small and is still for all I know
2) the wart under her lip looked like a beauty mark
3) was a beauty ad still is for all I know
4) a beauty with a limp
5) was always dusted with dirt; during a stint at a bakery it was flour
6) could climb trees well; her smallness was an asset
7) one leg nearly always broken
8) broken or with a limp
9) brown hair
10) at leant one of her bones came from a donor
11) legs unshaven, like trees in the wild
12) could ride her bicycle downhill when her leg was broken, but not back up
13) not a swimmer, but able to swim; superior floater
14) on Sundays we would float down on a mossweedy stream and when churchgoers walked by, we’d duck under the water and breathe through reeds
15) they could still see us, of course; that was not the point
16) was a knitter, scarves and hats
17) one summer we planted a purple petunia behind some bushes in memory of our favorite swingset, removed for safety; we watered the petunia at night in secret until someone found it and pulled it up as a weed
18) green eyes, greeeennnn, with extra eeeeees and nnnnns, slivers-of-triangle iris her strongest muscle of all
19) needless to say
20) was allergic to cashews; craved cashews
21) was a painter and is still for all I know
22) purchased thrift-store paintings just to paint over the canvases
23) sometimes all white or all red or all green
24) was not really called Eleanor
25) that part’s mine

Preceding by several years the current Facebook craze of listing 25 random things about oneself, Eleanor is treated to an eerily bio-like exposé here. The knowledge of detail about Eleanor’s life spans quite a bit of time. The author has known Eleanor through many life instances, activities and preferences. Already from this poem that appears early in the book one is assuming that the author has practically lived inside of Eleanor’s pocket.

The tension between author and Eleanor is continued on the next page in a poem entitled “Eleanor is Generous” that begins “She gives me a Catholic upbringing. She gives me a father who couldn’t read and a grandmother with hard candies stuffed in her bosom. She gives me a toy truck.”

The equation between Eleanor and the author-speaker is established here. Eleanor is physically and psychically present. The lists of items about Eleanor lengthen, and one begins to see the I is an other held at arms length yet lovingly observed.

The following poem “Letter To Reuben #3” reveals the following information: “Some things I remember that you don’t.” This sets up the expectation that there is not an exact equivalence between speaker and Eleanor. One is teased back into the notion that Eleanor is a third party, perhaps a real person whom the speaker knows exceptionally well.

In following poems we learn that Eleanor is a “painter of portraits,” laying another scrim on the game of identity tag we are watching. Who is it? Are we watching a portrait being painted? A self-portrait? The instability of the self that is Eleanor is writ large.

The biographical details keep coming about Eleanor and Kathryn (which we can presumably map on to the author . . . or can we?). There is Paul and Andy, a former friend/lover to Kathryn/Eleanor. Brian is the husband of Kathryn. We learn the speaker is not herself . . . that she is “the same yourself.” As a reader, one feels trapped inside a soap opera that is trying to be a lot like the movie Syriana with its many different personas and personages interacting with each other. However, unlike the movie, the strands of self are never completely sorted. One must persevere as reader with the uneasy feeling that a conclusion will not be wrung out of the book as it weaves its labyrinth of persona and projection, split personality and hard identity.

This is either annoying as a reader or a great liberation. For some readers I suspect that the inability to pin down who is who will frustrate the way it frustrated my wife when she watched Syriana. After 45 minutes she decided that the task of washing the dishes was more urgent and certainly more comprehensible.

For me, the thing that made the book most compelling during this game of pin-the-tail-on-the-author is how Cowles racks up personal detail to portray the sense of a life lived. The experiential is magnified and submitted to the thrills of the kaleidoscope. One is not sure how the pattern will change with each poem in the sequence.

However, as its strength, the details (in many poems just flat out listed) make for an interesting display, a racking up of mileage points in the body of another. However, as singular units the poems are not particularly exciting to read on the level of language used. Many read as laundry lists of self or to-do lists for the newly inhabited persona.

At times I found it discouraging how poems would end with another detail instead of trying to bring the speaker to a more reflective place about the nature and condition of being within the hall of mirrors that is the self. Of course, it is quite fashionable to resist making the big statement, the philosophical entreaty which might provide some distance on the self that has been created. Cowles’s depiction of self seems to say: just give me the stuff of self, the mounds of experience, and I’ll sort it out later when I have time.

Over the course of the book, though entertained as I was, I began to long for a more canny speaker that was self-aware of the predicament and willing to risk commentary on it, to attempt a psychological review. Perhaps to do so would have meant the game was up, that a centered self had been identified and pinned down. Eleanor and her many manifestations, however, do not wish to be pinned down. The game is to be played until the final buzzer.

The poems work within the concept of the book, but standing alone, they do not make much of an impact. [In fact, only two of the poems appeared in literary journals . . . this could be a result of Cowles’s not sending them out]. I can’t remember one particular piece in my readings that struck me as the poem that a reader could step back and say “That was the quintessential poem in the book in the way it summed up all the rest.” Each poem is an integral part of the overall effect. This is why the book hangs together so well. Each poem seems crafted to further the central idea of a slippery persona that may or may not be the author herself

As I think about the flatness of language and the accumulation of detail in the poems, I wonder if this strategy (if it is a strategy) has the effect of not making any of the poems “identifiable” in the same way that neither Eleanor/Kathryn in the poems is clearly distinguishable from each other.

Cowles very successfully chooses different modes by which to approach the concept of the slippery Eleanor. At the end of section 1 Cowles employs and interview with Eleanor in which the interviewer lobs a question at Eleanor that she is supposed to answer with full candor. The Eleanor character is not up to the task. She purposefully evades the sincere answer, then at the end arrives at the mock conclusion that “you can learn a lot about a person by asking.” Of course, the aim of the poem is to illustrate that she is not sincere about this claim either.

As events unfurl during the course of the book, Cowles takes great effort to level all events to the same level of impact. None has any greater impact than any other. In “Poem with Real Historic Event at its End” she says “Here is my historic event: One of my hairs got stuck to your shoe.” Later she confesses that this historic event wasn’t so historic. Finally, the poem ends on the note of the death of a famous person. The speaker realizes, “I never had to hang around my house with him dead before.” One can almost hear Mike Myers in the background saying “No big whoop.”

So, Cowles has killed off the singular psychology and the historical event . . . or at least brought them out onto the field of play.

The very next poem after “Poem with Real Historic Event at its End” finds the poem “Requiem in Five Parts” which is dedicated to Paul Cowles. Is this a family member? one wonders. The poem is delivered in first person and there is no winking at another voice in this poem. It is told with an affection for the dead man. The speaker effects some lovely details about this man before his funeral, but the final parting comment on the poem is about how the speaker’s will to see him flags because she assumes he had died heavy. While the word heavy here is loaded down by several valences, it is hard not to read this at face value as another attempt to reduce the life down to biographical detail found on a driver’s license: height, weight, eye color. The other meaning of heavy suggests that his life was one full of pain and burdens carried. The superficiality that pivots with heartfelt empathy on this use of “heavy” draws one back to the notion that there is duplicity in a single word.

The multiplier effect continues in Section 3 of the book. The title of the poem “Telling Eleanor from Eleanor” suggests that finally the author will reveal the real historical truth about the identities of Eleanor. The subtitle even states this explicitly.

in which the author describes how, though she has not seen them in the same room together, she knows they are not the same person.

The author, of course, like a good trickster, does not describe this at all. She makes comparisons between two Eleanors which enhance the confusion. Again she turns to equivocation; this time with the word “them.” One is left to wonder who the them is referring to. The two Eleanors? the father of Eleanor? Cowles is letting the conundrum hang out there, reveling in the lack of definition.

A sample page from a dictionary then intrudes on the next page of the book masquerading as “poem” with the definitions of the words Elamite, elán, elapsed time, elastic, elasticized, elect, electric. Through this juxtaposition Cowles raises the prospect of words having as multiple and slippery definitions as people. Eleanor, Eleanor is definitely rich with different media representations. Despite its adherence to largely experience in the content of the poems, the forms and strategies she employs inform the reader that she is savvy about how the structure of texts impacts experience, how one’s life becomes mediatized by the page.

The leveling of events in the book roots itself in a touch of graphomania. The speaker/author is aware of this in “No Name #3”

A handful of decimated raspberries
and I am writing it down again all of it
I can and you are peeling
oranges in the kitchen

And on the eighth day god said: Everything shall be reported. Cowles is aware of this tendency, and she seems to champion it from the perspective of a generation that understands every bit of information is weighed the same as every other bit of information. In the digital age everything has the same value as information as any other information.

Is this a tip of the hat to Kenny Goldsmith?

What seems psychologically false about this is that with experience one tends to value certain experiences over others. One selects on the basis of their curiosity, their emotional impact. Then one goes to sleep at night and the counters are reset. Still, certain experiences leak through to the next day, to the next week, the next year. Enough of them leak through and you have the semblance of a “self.” Perhaps this explains why the self has become so diffuse, so dissipated in Eleanor, Eleanor. In the absence of giving priority to events, in selecting out for some value, the self withers on the vine.

Without insight can the health of the self ever be improved? Consider:

Poem containing a line from a song

Let’s say I broke up my heart again. Let’s
say it’s my own idiot fault. Let’s say that
although it was my heart, when it broke, I
felt it in my stomach, like when I see a
snake, and that it lasted for half an hour, and
that I saw it coming.

Let’s say I got stitches in my side again for
the first time in months when I was running
the next day, like leftover slivers stuck on
m insides, let’s say, it’s the aftershake that
wrecks the weakened sidewalk hours later.
Not the earthquake.

I saw the Northern Lights for the first time
from an airplane flying over an ocean, green
and cold and cold and moving arbitrarily.
Brian was asleep.

Aurora Borealis, the icy sky at night

That’s right.
That’s it exactly.

The last line seems to agree with Neil Young and not with any of Young’s pithy insights in his song but with just a bit of his description. This is what a poem delivers, description? Clearly Cowles is expressing a fatigue with insight. In this world a thing is exactly what it seems. A cigar is just a cigar, of course, except when it isn’t, like with Eleanor. Is Cowles deliberately hinting at this tension with this strategy?

Section 4 of the book becomes much more lyrical. An unaffected I begins to appear in full form. There is even a heartfelt poem to Uncle Paul entitled “Wake” which provides a little more back story to the man who was grieved previously in “Requiem in Five Parts.” The tone is much more nostalgic here. The speaker seems much more codified. The scenes remain intact without intrusions from the contemplation of Eleanor. But right after that piece Eleanor does intrude again in “El El El Eleanor”:


Eleanor is a stutter I keep spitting her
Ella el Elenea N nn nor either or
everything I say

The alter-ego as stutter. Persona is speech impediment. Given the penchant for flippancy from Cowles, we can hardly believe this is a serious declaration. And so we move on.

Section 5 of the book is the conclusion to the drama of whether Eleanor is who the author says she is or whether the author can continue the ruse that she is wholly other than distinctly real. Will ephemeral Eleanor materialize in the back of a pickup headed towards the Mexican border wearing another woman’s boots and clothes? Confused yet? Stay tuned. You are beginning to enter entirely into this book’s aesthetic.

The soap opera aspect of the book continues. Brian, whom the speaker was married to earlier in the book gives way to Geoff, who is clearly the new love interest in the speaker’s life. Meanwhile, Eleanor is sighted with a body. She is beginning to materialize again as she had in the 1st section, not just a phantom lingering in the margins. The speaker is writing postcards to her as Eleanor ambles off in a distant land (is that New York City?). We are told that the speaker and Eleanor are two ships that passing the night at the very end of the book:

today some signs you left
on my porch chair
a hair a page from the Bible
the core of an apple
and you threw dandelions into my yard
next time stay longer at least just until I come back please don’t go.

So it is unresolved, this specter of Eleanor.

The first time I read the book I was confident in my reading that Cowles had signaled a congruence between herself as author and Eleanor, but on 2nd reading I’m not sure that Cowles, in her insistence in distancing herself from Eleanor at the end, isn’t positing her as a real entity whose imagined form holds sway in the material world. The immaterial, like language, is made manifest as concrete entity. It constructs reality, even a persona or two . . . maybe one for a friend if you’re feeling generous. This is the constructivist view of language as opposed to the evidentiary view of language that has language specifically relating to the tangible world. While arguably both views are important and mutually reinforcing, it has been suggested that the constructivist notion of language should enjoy primacy as the main part of the poet’s concern. Some suggest that perhaps the constructivist approach should be the exclusive domain of the poet. Poesis should prevail over mimesis. To dwell in such an outlook for too long, it seems, is to risk the physical health of the poet. A solely linguistic construction simply doesn’t have enough fiber, and then later on in the day, you’ll see that avoiding the dictates of the tangible is what causes so many poets to fare poorly in a fistfight.

More pointedly, in the case of Eleanor, Eleanor the elaborate construction of Eleanor that Cowles has endeavored to create is alluring in how it attempts to carve out a place for the imaginary alongside the ordinary pots and pans and potted plants. My questions is whether it does so at the expense of how selves apparently function in most functional adults. Are there not many stable points in the construction of the self that allow for one to get through the day? I think I’d get pretty confused at the grocery store if I thought Eleanor was going to tag along and interrupt my thoughts, to appear and disappear, as it were. In the end I wonder if this notion of alter-ego/constructed persona in continual flux has veracity.

I’d venture that Cowles is not trying to leave the reader with some big gestalt at the end about what the experience of the whole book was about. This would probably strike her as beside the point, perhaps even absurd.

Cowles, who might be watching (or is it just my construction of Cowles who is watching?) steps back and says, “Dude. You missed the whole point. Just relax and enjoy the book. Let your thoughts flow into it, into the moment. You don’t have to fake an intellectual orgasm for me.”

But if no intellectual orgasm, what then is the use of all this foreplay?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

THE POP YEARS IS OVER; HERE COMES CHINA. Joshua Clover reading at Bistro 33—1/21/09

"The pop years is over; here comes China" was my favorite line of the night when Joshua Clover read at the terrific series of readings that Andy Jones is putting together at the Bistro 33 in Davis, California. through primarily using Facebook, Andy has managed to get out the word to the town, its students and others in the surrounding area to meet for a 9:00PM poetry reading that, on Jan. 21 at least, lasted well after 11:00 after all the open mic readers were done. Roughly 140 people were in attendance. Yes, I will write it again in case you think that it is a typo. 140 people were in attendance to watch Joshua Clover read.

Joshua Clover reads "Stop It with your Strategies" [1:41]

Joshua Clover narrates a story about a library [8:56]

Joshua Clover reads "Return to Work at the Wonder Factory". This is a monumental piece with Clover describing his 4-year involvement with thinking about the poem and the financial crisis in the intro. [13:44]

Brad Henderson reads "Western Movies" as part of his neo-cowboyism series. [1:13]