I didn’t write a poem this month. All month I didn’t. Sure, I may have come up with a few lines, re: the game I play with myself to keep myself going [see: Entropy, question 6], but nothing substantial. Nothing I will likely go anywhere with.
I feel good about this. The month was marked by two distinct poles: the joy of spending a week and a half in a place I will refer to as “poetry heaven” and exactly one week and two days ago my mother dying. I feel I will have a hard time writing about that business for some time to come.
What I did do this month: read. Just this afternoon I finished The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. It had been a while since I’d read “The Waste Land.” All through grad school “The Waste Land” was referenced and while I would nod and smile with the rest of my compatriots, I had little recollection of the poem, other than that famous first line and some vague impression of water drip-dropping at some point. I knew what it was, how it fit into the modernist cannon, and the relation to / assistance in fathering by Pound, but I couldn’t say I “knew” it well like everyone else seemed to. So when I found a used copy (hard cover) of the annotated version for $12 at Magus some months ago, I grabbed it, planning on an April read.
What I didn’t plan on then was the thought that emerged in the first few months of 2014 when I realized I wasn’t writing, wasn’t planning to write, and didn’t really mind this hiatus, was—while others across America were spinning themselves into a-poem-a-day—to read as much poetry as I possibly could during April, the cruelest / poetry month.
It seemed a worthy expedition to finish the day-job every day and then set off into the world of other people’s words every afternoon, only pausing for hunger, the longest walks, and the occasional bout of slaying with Buffy Summers. (Okay, a lot of slaying with Buffy Summers.)
In general I read a lot. A lot more than the average person, more even than most avid readers. A lot of what I read is contemporary, of the most recent decade, often stuff that has just come out. So as not to alienate myself in the literary world, or so as not to bog myself down in criticism over enjoyment/love (the primary function of my relationship to literature), while I tend to make notes for myself, I don’t tend to write for the public about my experience of a book unless I love it. Though I do write the occasional review. Partly in an effort to surmount the worry that I don’t know enough, will never know enough, I am making strides towards exposing myself with the barest of comments.
I read 49 books in April. In quick brush strokes, I hope to go over that list. Anyone willing or wanting to speak further on any of the things I “brush” over, well, you know how to find me. You’ve gotten this far.
Acquired at the SPD table at AWP for ten dollars. Ten dollars! (Plus I got a tote.) The book is huge, hard cover. And while I feel fairly new to this poetry thing, it is a book I had heard referenced many times. [And recently spoken of more eloquently than you will get here, by Stephen Burt in The New Yorker.]
I started Ark (actually in the last days of March) while on Alki beach with PJD and her puppy, reading out loud. And this was the best way to go. I read a third of it this way in an afternoon, while eating mandarin oranges and watching ferries. What struck me—other than its intensely thick sonic qualities (what will always thrill me first)—was the use of white space and poem’s slipping starkly down the center of the page. Generally centered is not a mode I like to see (it speaks to me of juvenilia), but Ark like some stab of cosmic (and sonic) light benefits from this placement visually at the center of things.
Here is a sample
ARK 99, Arches XXXIII
Aship, reel in fountainhead
enclosure of roses
skies indigo, gold moon
end, point of beginning
of old, apotheosis
chandelier fond du lac
cross (mortal) hid boundary
compass beyond confines
music of the spheres solved,
mosaic of Cosmos
snowflakes lit darkest sea,
bowsprit the deeps
bound white antipodes
such conflagration of souls
Dawn in Erewhon,
“Omphalos triumphant”? Tell me that isn’t something you were tempted to say at least a couple times. In Ark, while I may not understand all references and I may be at a loss sometimes (often) for anything resembling narrative, I am taking enough (so much!) enjoyment from the sounds that I really don’t care what it’s about. That said, I also trust that the book (as a whole, and individual poems) is undoubtably doing things. That should I return to it with a quest for understanding that I would be rewarded with a complex and sometimes(?), mostly(?) solvable puzzle.
(from Goerges Melies's Le Voyage dans le Lune)
I read with Gregory Robinson at AWP. The Ricochet / Gold Line / Rose Metal / Boston Review reading at the Freehold Theater. Kathleen Rooney had told me how wonderful the book was as I paged through a copy of it at the RMP table of the book fair. Of course she did, she’s just published it. But she geeked out even more than usual and this made me especially interested to read it. I made up my mind then to purchase the book at the reading (so long as I liked what I heard) and get Mr. Robinson to sign it. Sadly, Mr. Robinson left the building before I got a chance to have him sign it.
The book is a complicated, creative look at silent film. Prose poems. Images also: title stills. Towards the end of the book there is also (in poems) lots of talk about title writers and the movement from silent, no text to silent with text to talkies. Most interesting were the subtle comments on our lives as translated through these films, which we, as readers, have probably not even seen (I believe of all the films referenced I had seen exactly one). A favorite poem from AMLTM:
THE GENERAL (1926)
Speeding steam-powered, the question of collision is not if but when and how the well am I going to fix this one.
There are two loves in my life, train A and train B, careening towards each other across continents. If it were not for their constant promise of disaster and repair, I do not know why I would bother to wake. I miss them when they are gone, these trains without brakes, without plans, and ultimately without rails. There is a joy in crisis, the possibility of being useful, noticed.
There were two
Loves in his life
The elation of near misses,
where planet and asteroid, single prop and mountain, the car, the driver on his cell, the ball, the child who chases it where the world bends at the brink of their union, and the two veer and slide past, each overwhelmed by their perfect proximity.
I have a big black blank book into which I transcribe quotes from the books I read, things I might (and often do) need later. In March I read Melissa Febos’s Whip Smart and recorded this quote: “Maybe if I wanted to enjoy the exhilarations of a life lived in multiplicity, I had to endure the rare, excruciating juxtaposition.” (167)
Related, yes. And only two books apart in my reading lineup. This isn’t particularly strange though, as I am apt to record any moment that reads true to me of two of anything running parallel, speaking / influencing in the ways they rub together.
I picked this up at the Ahsahta Press table at AWP for the sounds and how those sounds became bolder within moments of absence/gaps in syntax. And it did not disappoint.
I found the lack of punctuation, when coupled with irregular syntax to be a bit difficult in working through the poems out loud. Sometimes I didn’t know what my mouth was supposed to be doing, where the stresses and pauses were supposed to be. This stuttering seemed appropriate/intentional to the work though. Favorite poems: “Shake the Bear Funny Name” and “My Daughter La Chola Near Sonnet.”
MY DAUGHTER LA CHOLA NEAR SONNET
call to me the one among your names
that opens beneath you intimate
as your next thought cymballing on the shore
arranging all those grains of sand
mica in the mosaic of the bank’s portico
all your lived and storied coordinates
that you are young
that you are blank
in the air in the cluster of antenna
the remaining Barton men make of themselves riding back
the yellow fire hills of California
slip between understandings name
the single ridge of bell bronze that tins out the wind
Not poetry! What! I was so impressed by what Lucy Rosenthal read at the Black Lawrence Press reading at AWP. The sentences so carefully crafted. So many moments that stun with precision. I read this in one afternoon in my living room. The only disappointment to me was the handling of male bisexuality in the book, especially considering that while so much is examined/detailed, we don’t see anything of what Rae feels about learning that her father had male lovers, or that her boyfriend does. The coincidence of this—or that it is common—is not addressed, it just is.
What are we to believe about it! Did Ted take advantage of Simeon! Why is everyone ending up in mental hospitals for loving men! Did Ted’s wife leave because he had male lovers? So much is put on Georgina’s leaving, that it seems odd the question is never asked once we know more about Ted.
Also, the first chapter takes place in Rae’s childhood, a flashback. This doesn’t seem necessary, the details could have been threaded in more cleanly, less jarringly to the rest of the “present” past tense. I still maintain that this is a beautiful book. Though there are some things I would change content-wise, the writing is really stellar, really controlled in the best of ways.
Hands-down the best book I’ve read this year. “Eco-poetry” from a writer who seems to be more activist than poet. It has some qualities that the Maruk book had which gave me trouble, but here it didn’t give me trouble. Brenda Hillman’s introduction to Clarke’s book describes this as “its overlapping forms reanimate the lyric by asking it to accommodate a sound-based, non-smooth music.”
Unlike La Chola, Lines the Quarry’s non-smooth rarely tripped me up. Perhaps it was that there was more punctuation, so that the syntax—stress and pause—did not have to be interpreted, but could just be what it was in known disjunction. Much of Pittsburgh and surrounds here as well. The blue-collar Pittsburgh I remember. A few favorite moments:
"Silence accretes a chrysalis inside which the pupa of 'self' kicks on. Eyes, wings, a tail of sorts. The embryo's mother jumps off a high dive, doesn't know what's growing. They had different goals: she wanted to be the baby, he wanted to be the baby. Still how to explain: the toddler left in the puddle 'til dark, the overheating car crashed in order to cool it." (p 46)
"Box of streamers that turn out after all to be snakes. It is difficult to have sex, even with someone you love. The perpetrator becomes your beloved’s & later your face. “Ask her if anything happened.” To talk about intimate, sad or embarrassing things, simply make lists: time lime grime crime." (p 27)
Perhaps I should take a moment to explain, if I haven’t already said it, that I read all poetry out loud. Even in public in will read out loud quietly to myself. I have to. So when I say LTQ did not trip me up, I mean I did not stumble out loud over Clarke’s words.
If you only read one book off this list, read Robin Clarke.
6. Purgatory – RaulZurita, trans. Anna Deeny (University of California Press, 2009)
Raul Zurita was an engineering student arrested on the morning of Pinochet’s coup (11 Sept. 1973), detained and tortured. “I had to learn to speak again from total wreckage, almost from madness, so that I could still say something to someone.”
A kind of post-modern Dante’s Inferno, collage-like book, some visual, some diagram, several different poetic styles. The Desert of Atacama section was my least favorite section, but perhaps only because the word Atacama was repeated so many times and I was reading it out loud.
I arrived to housesit on the peninsula early in the morning of April 5th. Though I had plans to spend the day on the beach, I spent the day perusing the bookshelves of the house, pulling volume after volume out, riffling through pages, reading a poem here and there, reading blurbs and bios and bits of introductions, and beginning to plan my week of reading. With so much to choose from (including one entire room lined with bookshelves head-high, which were filled entirely with poetry and stack upon stack upon stack on top of shelves and stacked in front of the bookshelves themselves) I wanted to be sure I decided upon the books most vital to my current poetry needs and read those first of all. Zurita was the first book I chose—before planning—perhaps because I had realized I was in some kind of heaven and so made myself step back momentarily to purgatory. I read this book while pacing the fourth floor of the house, which, while unfinished was cathedral-like, with skylights, a ping-pong table, and dozens and dozens of dead flies.
7. Viper Rum – Mary Karr (New Directions, 1998)
I did not like this book. I feel Mary Karr can handle this information if she, upon Google alert or some other force, finds herself in this post. Plus, I feel she is better known (and better skilled) with non-fiction. And in fact I picked up this book because the prior house-sitter (longtime friend and fellow poet) had left it lying about and asked me what I thought about Karr’s thoughts on “decoration” as presented in the essay “Against Decoration” that ends the book.
From that essay: “That’s how I often feel about much of today’s popular work. The poet concentrates so fixatedly on the poem’s minute needlework that he or she fails to notice—like a blind man with the elephant in the old fable—that the work involves only one square inch of a tapestry draped across an enormous beast, and that the beast is moving.”
She goes on to talk about the 1. absence of emotion, 2. lack of clarity in contemporary work that has too much decoration, which she explains as “ornate diction that seeks to elevate mundane experience rather than clarify a remarkable one.”
While I agreed with her on several points, and think quirkyclever naval-gazing might be the death of me with regards to contemporary poetry, I think sound is a different thing. Without going too detailed into a response to her essay, I will say that sometimes mundane experiences should be made remarkable, that sound is capable sans narrative “meaning” to elicit great feeling and knowledge, and that clarity is not always all it’s cracked up to be. The problem I had with Karr’s poems was that they were so clear and so specific to “remarkable” experience that I could find myself in them nowhere. They were simply describing events as she saw them. That’s fine, but I go to poetry for the universal, for a poet to transmit an idea or an experience in a way I can enter. I go for the gaps I can find and insert myself into. And almost all of her poems were closed to me.
Anyway, it was interesting that the best argument against her essay was found so clearly in her poems. I did get the feeling that I’d love to sit in a room and argue these points affectionately with her for a couple of hours, books strewn in front of us.
"inspired and inhabited by the title character of Nabokov's novel Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, who was the lifelong love of her half brother, Van."
I had another one of those moments feeling like I will never ever know all of the everything of poetry that’s out there. I had never heard of Zarin, it’s Knopf(!), published just 4 years ago, and I really loved the sonic qualities (for instance “Bone-spur, stirrup of veins” – a bold alliterative/assonant jab-cross combo starts the book) and the way the vocabulary of the book grows specific and reiterative in a way siblings or any other intimate pair might build a language.
From “Late Poem”:
and we would keep warm by bickering
and falling into bed perpetually and
entirely unsafely as all the best things are
—your skin and my breath on it.
9. Gnomic Verses – Robert Creeley (Zasterle Press, 1991)
And then I discovered the shelf with the chapbooks. From then part of my focus in What To Read was to read things I might not easily come across again. Of course Creeley is everywhere and many of these poems can be found in various collected. I am always drawn to him as the very first poet I found useful towards generating my own work. This is not to say I was emulating him or that I could have in any way. It's just to say that in reading his work out loud I realized I could make my inner voice (the poet) start speaking; from there it is all about recording whatever it is that being says and then reworking it. I love a chiasmus.
Driving to the expected
Place in mind in
Place in mind in
Driving to the expected
Which leads me to the next book, which oddly had one also…
fill up their “free
time” with television
More TVs than people
More TVs than people
time with television
fill up their free
Okay, so this maybe ties Lines the Quarry for the best book I’ve read all year. The only thing Clarke’s book has that this one doesn’t is a heavy dose (not heavy hand) of politics/activism. Science & Steepleflower is a wild mixture of forms, discrete from section to section (six sections in all), that results in a manuscript that can’t help but feel rather epic and enduring. Some of the vocabulary is so erudite it’s recondite, but beautiful: their use driven by someone with a clear love of sound and language and an understanding that that is just. the. perfect. word. I read this one aloud, while I had company at poetry heaven and often had cause to pause and say “I have no idea how to pronounce this word” while then proceeding to stumble through it.
The poems are economic and erotic, intelligent in vocabulary and syntax, while being playful in sound and image. And also one (“Landscape With a Man Being Killed By a Snake”) contains the most unexpected dildo I’ve ever found in a poem: “Vaguely, wetting the dildo in her mouth / A quel remir contral lums de la lampa / They went on sleeping in the same bed”
Sally Mann photograph on the cover: the image out of focus looks like a torso brightly lit in a very dark room.
12. Dark Seasons – Georg Trakl, trans. Robin Skelton (Broken Jaw Press, 1994)
I wasn’t greatly impressed and kept no notes. I mostly picked this one up because I read (and loved) Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl when researching a presentation on expanded modes of translation. I was also having a rather sad evening when I read Dark Seasons and it was late, so it’s probable that for these reasons little sunk in.
13. Chromosomy – Layli Long Soldier (Q Ave Press, 2010)
"XXY, take them as your own. Come. Help care for them, she says. But it won’t last. A woman with children. A one-bedroom apartment, chips on the couch, chips on the counter, apple juice. It comes with children’s chips and the juice. The smell of children, the smell you live in. With chips on the couch"
I had heard of Malachi Black because I stay tuned with what local press Copper Canyon is doing (not just because they publish one of my very favorite poets, C.D. Wright, who I also talk about here and are publishing the new, LONG-AWAITED BY ME, book by Richard Siken); CCP is putting out what I believe is Black’s first full-length later this year.
Quarantine is crown of sonnets to the possibility of God (based on the Liturgy of the Hours).
I have known you as an opening
of curtains as a light blurts through
the sky. But this is afternoon
and afternoon is not the time
to hunt you with the hot globe
of a human eye. So I fluster
like a crooked broom in rounds
within the living room, and try
to lift an ear to you. I try.
I cut myself into a cave for you.
To be a trilling blindness
in the infinite vibration
of your murmuring July,
I cut myself into a cave for you.
I am pretty sure Malachi Black will be a force for some time. I look forward to reading Storm Toward Morning this Fall.
15. Prose Poems – Pierre Reverdy, trans. Ron Padgett (Black Square Editions & The Brooklyn Rail, 2007)
Simple syntax. Conversational. Lonely seemed the prevailing mood. Occasional second person leads one to believe it could all be direct address to that second person. Simplicity / straightforwardness contribute to, or rather, actually engender, a bit of spookiness / foreboding. In that the poems were grounded much more in narrative than in sound, I didn’t love this book. But I am glad I gained more familiarity with his work and a greater understanding for how it relates to the major art movements of the first half of the twentieth century. This book would be very useful in teaching prose poetry and flash fiction.
Too great a shame called attention to my face. I got rid of those cumbersome rags and I wait.
You wait too, but I no longer know what for. Provided that something happens. All the eyes light up at the windows, all the jealousy of our rivals has moved back to the thresholds of the doors. Nevertheless if nothing was going to happen.
Right now I am moving between two sidewalks, I am alone with the wind that accompanies me and mocks me. How to run away somewhere else except at night.
But the table and the lamp are there waiting for me and the rest is dead of rage under the door.
16. The Absent Father in Dumbo – Charles Bernstein (1990)
I had never even heard of this one. Most of it felt like lesser/adolescent work. By that I don’t mean adolescent in the career of a poet, but rather the work of a teenage boy. Much hyperbole, adjectival hysteria, and strange flourishes that maximize the abstract and cause some anxiety in this reader. So that when a poem is good and says something I can parse it is a beacon.
Note the difference between these (and one directly follows the other in the chap). I will leave it to you to decide which one made sense to me and which one didn’t.
EXTERNAL MARKET CONSTRAINTS
No advance is known in the mines
of the heart. As lingering precludes
delay—the saltwork of Abyss
frozen in idled splendor: Recant
what is shorn of hopelessness.
Mingled like the trainless track
that bounds its limits by
mark and never seeks
an end. I knew a boy
called John or Jane
until he faded, who
all do, in loops. A
color lacking shadow, the mood
its stain, but even chance
worked measure to
eviscerated hold. That much for all
to see—I try for less but
spell the blame that cedars
tempt and splint again.
AUTONOMY IS JEOPARDY
I hate artifice. All these
contraptions so many barriers
against what otherwise can’t
be contested, so much seeming
sameness in a jello of
squirms. Poetry scares me. I
mean its virtual (or ventriloquized)
anonymity—no protection, no
bulwark to accompany its pervasive
purposivelessness, its accretive
acceleration into what may or
may not swell. Eyes demand
counting, the nowhere seen everywhere
behaved voicelessness everyone is clawing
to get a piece of. Shudder
all you want it won’t
make it come any faster
last any longer: the pump
that cannot be dumped.
This book is both a poetic work, a collage work (of personal/family life, cultural information, history and historical documents, and political considerations), and part of a larger history and larger project (Unincorporated Territories) that charts the colonization of Guam. This book is better even than I understand. I am so glad it’s with Omnidawn and that they just released the next installment (which I’m going to pick up this weekend).
[bos: voice: teach me
to read the currents (21)
only our bodies are flammable (93)
we belong to what we lose (126)
18. Lake Superior – Lorine Niedecker (Wave Books, 2013)
This book is an interesting project. Starts with Niedecker’s long poem (“Lake Superior”), followed by Niedecker’s journal of a road trip through Lake Superior Country (very engaging) from which you can glean the details and themes that went into the poem and get something of a glimpse in how she works as a poet, then there’s Douglas Crase’s essay on the Evolutional Sublime in Niedecker (interesting and engaging, but as criticism seemed a bit out of place in the volume), letters between Niedecker and Cid Corman (to this reader actually the highlight of the book), and then some other stuff that was less interesting / less related for me: some Basho, part of a guide Niedecker wrote about Wisconsin, “On a Monument to the Pigeon” by Aldo Leopold, and some writings by early settlers of the Lake Superior area (Pierre Radisson and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft).
I suppose if I redefine or lessen my rigid concept of What Makes A Book, I can feel a little easier about (and even embrace!) the hodge podge project of Lake Superior.
“Based on Niedecker’s example, I would sooner argue that ‘leaving out’ is the freedom you fight for when you can no longer bear the received deceit of the sentence, the connectives and prepositions that accumulate with the weight of irredeemably inaccurate history.” —Douglas Crase “Niedecker and the Evolutional Sublime”
“Strange—we are always inhabiting more than one realm of existence—but they all fit in if the art is right.” —Lorine Niedecker in a letter to Cid Corman
…there’s that theme again.
19. Sea Ice – Stephen Berg (The Cummington Press, 1988)
This one was a find. Hard cover chapbook, beautiful object in and of itself. And the project of the book and poems were magnificent. In sum they were a retelling of Eskimo songs. For instance:
Orpingalik’s My Breath
I have to sing
a song about myself
sick since autumn
stretched out in bed
weak as a child
I’m so sad
I wish my woman
lived with another man
in the house of someone
who’d protect her a man
hard and strong as winter ice
once I could track down anything
white bear caribou seal I can still see
myself on foot beating the men in kayaks
the white bear threw me down but I stabbed it
the seal I thought got away I hooked it
now dawn after dawn rolls by
and I’m still sick
the lamp’s cold
I’m so sad I
wish she’d go away
to a better man
so weak I can’t even
get up out of bed
who knows what can happen to a man
I lie here drained unable to rise
remembering how I beat everyone
to this kill or that
and they all stood there
no oil for the lamp
only my memories are strong
I think that’s all I can do tonight. I wanted to get this all quickly into one post, but I’m finding it hard to encapsulate each book in just a handful of lines.
Installment #2 coming soon…