Abigail Lang and David Nowell Smith (eds.), Modernist Legacies: Trends and Faultlines in British Poetry Today.

New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 263pp. $99.00

Reviewed by Daniel Eltringham

Modernism is back, sort of. Modernist Legacies is part of a broader tendency towards the reevaluation of modernism’s continuing presence among the current generation of British poets who, looking back to an underground tradition in British experimental writing that has been largely ignored by the publishing industry and prize circuit since the 1950s, are making it new, again. What, then, does it mean for that double movement—going back to go forward—to be also a legacy? The editors of this helpfully wide-ranging collection of critical essays address the exclusionary cultural baggage of the modernist tag, aware of the “risk of egregious tradition-making” that closes down as well as opens up. The “trends and faultlines” this volume sets out to trace are the “traditions, genealogies, burdens, unresolved questions—in short, the legacies that modernism has cast, in order to take these legacies upon themselves as a spur to future practice.”

The book sets out, therefore, to address some of the power imbalances at work within experimental circles, which remain overwhelmingly well-educated and white, if arguably less male-dominated than in previous generations. In this sense it is in line with current critical tendencies: Andrea Brady’s essay for The Conversation, “The White Privilege of British Poetry Is Getting Worse” (October 2015); Sandeep Parmar’s essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK” (December 2015); and the Race and Poetry and Poetics in the UK (RAPAPUK) symposium in London (February 2016) all attest to a desire to assess and begin to reverse this long-prevailing wind. The argument that an anticolonial politics of dialect and accent is especially pertinent and localized within the British Isles, where class and the politics of voice are hopelessly striated and inextricable, is an important one, made obliquely or explicitly by several essays in this collection.

Part of the justification for using the genetic language of inheritance is that such a tradition is not self-evident or—at least not yet—self-reinforcing. In comparison with the North American experience, Lang and Nowell Smith write, assembling such a legacy is not straightforward; the dots cannot be easily joined between “dozens of strong poets and movements” as in the US. Instead, the connections are those forged between fugitive “outriders” such as Basil Bunting, W. S. Graham, and David Jones and the poets of the 1960s and 70s whose brief stints in charge of the mainstream organs that govern taste—the Poetry Society and Poetry Review—ended in a messy coup and decades of subsequent obsolescence. The first section of Modernist Legacies goes over this contested historical ground. Allen Fisher and Robert Hampson return to the transatlantic connection that catalyzed much experimental poetic practice in Britain from the early 1960s. Romana Huk, meanwhile, sees lying behind British poetry’s continual worrying at lyric’s political complicities and efficacies a need to let messy materiality into the form. That impulse, she suggests, comes at an often uncontrollable cost to subjective coherence, so that the lyric “I” is revealed as a fiction constituted all along by those material forces.

Of course, part of the vibrant, samizdat feel of British “innovative” or “Revival” work since the 1960s is owed to its pelagic presence, gliding below mainstream currents that, by and large, regarded modernism as an “historical aberration, thankfully now defunct.” In recent years, however, it has been breaking the surface: key figures from the British Poetry Revival, such as J. H. Prynne, Andrew Crozier, Tom Raworth, and Barry MacSweeney, have been published in collected formats by larger presses, and the academy—as this book and the conference that generated it attest—has been catching up. One of the main virtues of Modernist Legacies is that it widens the circle considerably beyond those more familiar names, with work (among others) on Jeff Hilson, Caroline Bergvall, Wendy Mulford, Geraldine Monk, Anthony Barnett, Sean Bonney, Peter Manson, Maggie O’ Sullivan, and Tom Leonard. It also shines light on such projects as the cassette series Balsam Flex, which Will Montgomery retrieves from the obscurity of archiving procedures that “have never been on a par with those for small press books and little magazines.”

In his own contribution Nowell Smith groups Monk, from Lancashire and now based in Sheffield, and the Glaswegian poet Leonard along with Anglophone Caribbean and black vernacular poetry from the UK. This is a powerful intersectional move that brings together the exclusions of class, geography, and race where they meet, in accent and the voice. Nowell Smith asks how “modernism” can be a useful term for thinking about traditions excluded from or peripheral to its central practices. Even those of the North American poets (Williams, Cummings, Moore) whose “distance from the rigidities of the British class system” allowed them to try out prosodic and rhythmic approaches “that might serve to articulate forms of experience incompatible with an iambic rise and fall” were still not really attuned to other marginalities beyond their own status as postcolonial writers. Nowell Smith quotes Caribbean poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s History of the Voice, which sees the pentameter’s persistence as a continued instantiation of ruling-class privilege that “carries with it a certain kind of experience” but falls short when called to account for the distinct environmental conditions of Caribbean life: if the pentameter is not attuned to the prosody of North American experience, neither is it “the experience of a hurricane.”

In UK black and vernacular poetries, too, Modernist Legacies comes up against the problem that, as Sarah R. Greaves puts it in her contribution on “Transcultural Hybridity,” the formal and aesthetic inheritance and impulse of modernism—to open the field and inhabit border zones—has mostly been transmitted in an institutional form “relayed by generations of academics” that is “narrow, exclusive, aesthetic.” The other side of that coin, as Sandeep Parmar recognized in her LA Review of Books essay, is that while poets such as Grace Nichols, Jean Binta Breeze, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah, and Patience Agbabi offer a politically necessary and compelling response to a largely white tradition, “their poetry does not usually incorporate language that is complex, difficult, or engaged in deconstructing meaning while communicating it via formal structures that extend beyond the binaries of social and racial identity too easily crystalized by the conventional lyric ‘I.’” Parmar’s criticism is bivalent: if the lyric “I” seems too bound to identity politics, then the modernist fragmentation of identity itself serves a specific institutional legacy that is usually constituted along lineaments of race and class. Her criticism is complicated, however, by explicitly political poetry that does make use of some elements of lyric voice, in service of Marxist and/or feminist commitments. Why should this recourse be open to some forms of commitment as redress for some exclusions and not others?

Modernist Legacies does not confront this vexed question head-on in terms of contemporary debates. (Indeed, the interventions cited earlier in this review either post-date the book’s publication or precede it by only a few months.) But it does offer compelling historical accounts of the development of politicized lyric in British poetry. Samuel Solomon and Luke Roberts both examine the strained political commitments of the 1970s and 80s in the poetry of Wendy Mulford and Barry MacSweeney, respectively. Mulford’s commitments to “Marxist-feminist organizing” and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament provided, Solomon writes, a “setting for her to think through the political relevance of personal experience, and to understand personal politics as part of an effort to transform society collectively,” but her writing pulls against and “outpaces” its Leftist affiliations. Mulford’s first full-length collection, Bravo to Girls and Heroes (1977), is for Solomon “an experiment with holding such commitments through and across the trials of lyric.” It reflects the influence of the contemporary Wages for Housework movement that took Marxism into the home, seeing both production and consumption as “implicated in reproductive politics,” while registering the ways “reproductive pleasure always bears the ambivalence of reproductive work”: “we like to live simply & we like to / eat well. that does not include children. / definitely. they exclude it.”

MacSweeney’s own relation to the Left was almost the obverse of the kind of careful feminist reworking of the lyric achieved by Mulford and Denise Riley. Roberts’s reading of his at times overtly masculine, picket-line work does glancingly address the “unexamined misogyny that would peak in his writings following the election of Thatcher,” a tendency partially redeemed by his late poetry, especially Pearl, which “shows his capacity for portraying and imagining a female voice and life.” Roberts’s focus, though, is on MacSweeney’s first book, The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of His Mother, published by Hutchinson in 1968. Roberts traces MacSweeney’s romanticizing affection for the Soviet Union and its first generation of Bolshevik revolutionary poets. Russian poetry and politics were useful to MacSweeney, Roberts notes insightfully, as a counterweight to the Olsonian, transatlantic lode of The English Intelligencer (1966–1968), a poetry worksheet in which much of the groundwork of the British late modernist poetics covered by this volume was done. MacSweeney revises Olson’s emphasis on “SPACE,” Roberts writes, substituting instead “Russia, the large LAND,” in an easterly gesture of political affiliation. This was a deliberate tack in the other direction and consciously against the westward movement prevalent among his Revival contemporaries, in a “schismatic attempt by the young poet to claim the exotic Soviets as accessories in a strategy of differentiation.”

Perhaps Roberts is not entirely fair to see MacSweeney’s eastward stance as only strategic, though. His poem “Brother Wolf” suggests that the felt connection with an idea of “LAND” was as much topographical as political:

There is so much land in Northumberland. The sea
Taught me to sing
              the river to hold my nose. When
it rains it rains glue.

In The Prelude the river Derwent gave Wordsworth a gentler schooling, having “blend[ed] his murmurs with my nurse’s song ” and “flowed along my dreams.” MacSweeney’s rougher treatment, on the other side of the Pennines, is part of the nonacademic, nonstandard English trajectory of North-East modernism, its languages and landscapes. In this light it would have been a boon for Modernist Legacies to have included a full-length essay on Bill Griffiths, whose “first encounters with North Eastern vernacular,” Nowell Smith comments, “were filtered through the poetry of Basil Bunting and studies in Anglo-Saxon,” but shifted from an “ethnographical and philological” interest in the region to a political solidarity with the marginalized industrial North East.

And if the pentameter is not the experience of a hurricane, neither is it even the experience of the Pennine Hills, the spinal column running from North Derbyshire to Scotland that links together Northern poets such as MacSweeney and Griffiths in a continuity of harsh fells and moorland. Also among these Northern poets is the Yorkshire-based Maggie O’ Sullivan, whose poem “Another Weather System,” Peter Middleton observes, contains “wild soundscapes” that occur in an “unnatural world of wild birds and animals, a world made strange and phantasmagoric, where words fail and bodies break only to re-form themselves,” very far from the acculturated worlds of meter and measure, whether the pentameter is broken or intact. O’ Sullivan’s singular deployments of “verbal energy” insist that “however much an object language might be, its state is changeable from solid to fluid to gas.” In this ambience of mutability, the modernist preoccupation with the ideology of “form” seems like such an indoor thing to worry about. For O’ Sullivan “language is an ecology, a habitat of lake, the air, or earth. The outside, living as well as inanimate, gentle and violent, enters language.”

Indeed, the nonhuman is the last of the exclusions Modernist Legacies redresses, and the one that receives the least critical attention. Another version of this book might read many of the poets discussed in these terms, with less focus on the social geography of urban centers and more on the signifying practices of world-making. Critical attention would then land on the linguistic porosity of reference and world, avoiding what Drew Milne calls so much concentration on “the fallacy of constitutive subjectivity” in “pre-theoretical and post-theoretical modalities of innocence and complicity.” In other words, worrying less about who you are and your complicity in how you came to be, and more about your language’s relation-making with the ineluctable signifying practices of nonhuman animals and the material world. Would that still be modernist? Not as a legacy, perhaps, but rather, as the epigraph of the 2015 edition of Prynne’s Poems directs us, “for the future,” and towards a sustainable relation with the nonhuman world. For such a poetics neither “modernist” nor “legacy” quite suffices.

July 2017

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Joseph Gordon Macleod, The Ecliptic.

Chicago: Flood Editions, 2016. 112pp. $15.95

Reviewed by Jose-Luis Moctezuma

In astrology the concept of personhood is a curious thing. Attached to the shifting valences of the stars, a person’s life suddenly has a terminal value: responsibility for the self lies determinedly in the weathers of social situation and personal circumstance, and free will is seemingly evacuated from the picture.

In the poetry of Joseph Gordon Macleod, personhood and astrology align at just the right degree of compositional value, producing a system of the self that is equally nebulous, equally predetermined. Macleod’s The Ecliptic, a “lost modernist classic” published in 1930, narrates what its editor Richard Owens describes as the development of “a single consciousness in twelve parts, each of which corresponds to one of twelve constellations in the Western zodiac.” A long poem written on the astrolabed fissures of a piecemealed mind, Macleod’s work reflects the modernist concern for fragmented consciousness and the dissolvable, irresolute aspects of personality. Indeed, Basil Bunting had approvingly sent it to Ezra Pound, and Pound encouraged T. S. Eliot to publish it at Faber & Faber; Virginia Woolf had been close to publishing it for Hogarth Press; and Louis Zukofsky, another player on the stage of refraction, demonstrated some admiration for Macleod’s brand.

Despite these associations, the poem is oddly anachronistic. Its hermeticism mixes high modernism’s elliptical difficulty and cultish formalism with late nineteenth-century Symbolism (think Arthur Symons translating the evocative knots of Stéphane Mallarmé). In his preface Macleod rationalizes the poem’s length by citing poetry’s need to rival the vogue for novels with a version of Pound’s “prose kinema”: prolonged narrative arcs undergirded by archetypal symbols. “All literature is born symbolic,” says Macleod, and the “symbol, being an idea, should be allowed to develop as ideas do,” across long stretches of “autobiographical indulgence.” Macleod approaches astrology with the Symbolists’ fervor for occult prognostication as a readymade for poetical association. He takes the astrological signs as dramatis personae, constructing a range of personhoods beginning in Aries and ending in Pisces. A powerful hermeneutic for personhood in The Ecliptic, astrology also leads Macleod into the obscurantism of horoscope riddles.
“Aries, or, The Ram,” the first part of the poem, exemplifies some of the sonic pyrotechnics Macleod excels in. We enter a vision of spring (Aries’s month is April):

Spring is anticipated honourable and fresh.
It comes. The frosts are gone. But impulsive purple and yellow
Yet are slaves to the ground. When time folds over again,
Dire in the midst of lilies adored the disciplinary lily
Hangs its head fulfilling the legal balances,
Not balances that embrace all, being all-comprehending;
But balances that exclude, being but compromise.
Sap rises. The hedgehog wakes.

Macleod tends to be highly alliterative in his verse, using sound patterns to evoke significant connections. In the fourth line above, “Dire” calls attention to the d sounds in “midst,” “adored,” and “disciplinary.” But in the midst of “disciplinary” there is also the counterpoint of the softer consonants in “lily” and “lilies.” The discipline in question here is that of the lily taming the harsher notes of d by spreading a silkier music of l sounds: “fulfilling,” “legal, ” and “balances.” Meanwhile, the participle of “adored” works in favor of either the undifferentiated lilies or the differentiated, and highly disciplinarian, lily. Macleod is ratcheting up his evocative powers: “adored” evokes two simultaneous figures or actions without specific corralling. Many of Macleod’s lines perform this equivocation, just as often in the diction as in the syntax. His ingenuity places much pressure on the prismatic effect of such words as “strabismus,” “tragomaschality,” “triforium,” “erythroglot,” and “metanairesis,” whose preciosity and difficulty add to the poem’s lyric drive. In his stellar moments Macleod exploits the aural capacity of these select words in companionship to generate novel forms of expression that evoke rather than affix poetic meaning.

In spite of its evocative ingenuity on the level of sound, The Ecliptic’s pretensions at narrative integrity are bogged down, sometimes unnecessarily, by the modernist prerogative for remixed Hellenisms. “Taurus, or, The Bull,” the second poem in the series, takes the “ceremony of the Bull murder at the Athenian Dipolia,” as Macleod notes, citing James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and gives it a neoclassical rendition:

‘Goodly Bull, come, Hero Dionysus,
To Elaeans’ shrine, a pure shrine, pounding
Oxhoof graced, Goodly Bull, O Goodly
Bull,’ so to herself hummed exiled Pyrrha
Pent in sorry school in ugly Scyros…

Pyrrha, we learn, is the young Achilles hiding out on the island of Skyros, dressed in drag and feigning womanhood, and spending his (her) time with the daughters of Lycomedes. Pyrrha’s relation, and equally Taurus’s relation, to Aries emerges here only through a collation of seasonal tropes. The figure of the finch in “Aries” is reworked here in the image of the goldfinch, each one denoting the springtide wake of replenishment. But the force of these transitions is diluted unnecessarily by the minutiae of ornamental language. The self that the poem strives to build up, sign by sign, is resultantly obfuscated by a clutter of antique Greek furniture and mythological commonplaces that don’t specify so much as disperse.

The next poem, “Gemini, or, The Twins,” is comprised of couplets that mimic the dual nature of the Gemini sign, while “Cancer, or, The Crab” is composed in the sidewinding manner of the crustacean:

How can I be hardened when the whole world is fluid?
O Aphroditê Pandêmos, your badgers rolling in the moonlit corn
Corn blue-bloom-covered carpeting the wind
Wind humming like distant rooks
Distant rooks busy like factory whirring metal
Whirring metallic starlings bizarre like cogwheels missing teeth

Despite the hardened exterior of the crab, its sideways motion gets mimicked in the fluid patterning of these lines. The end-word of each line flows into the opening phrase of the next: “moonlit corn” reappears as “corn blue-bloom-covered” (presumably huitlacoche, or “corn smut”), and so on, until whirring metal, now missing teeth, metamorphoses into starlings. In the midst of the crab’s motion “the Zodiac itself…dissolves like a sandcastle into acidity.” The disintegration is significant. Personhood, in Macleod’s argument, is of value when it is multiple; the crab’s failure at direct motion results from a hardened unchanging personality, one that cannot embrace the nebulous multiplicity of being a person dictated by the multifaceted Zodiac.

In the final poem of the series, “Pisces, or, The Fishes,” the hardened personhood of the crab is offset by the fluid personhood of the fish. Pisces, the Crab’s water-sign counterpart, offers “the poem of redintegration / To some souled, parallel epipedal crustacean.” Redintegration, or the restoration of the whole from the part, is the culmination of Macleod’s long poem: all the signs of the Zodiac are but stages in the becoming-whole of personhood. It takes a madeleine sometimes to jumpstart the constitution of an entire memory, leaving a novel in its wake; in Macleod’s case, it takes a vivid inhabitation of each of the houses and symbols of the Zodiac to establish individual consciousness, and the long poem is its embodiment. Macleod’s final lines leave a testament to this belief: “I use the stars as wisely as I can / With migrant man as faith to migrant man.” Macleod’s “migrant man” offers a useful caption to the incommensurability of personality in the face of astrological movement and planetary eclipses. What migrates above, migrates below.

The Ecliptic turned out to be eclipsed by its author’s own incommensurability, because personhood came to mean a lot of things for Macleod. Following the disappointment of his subsequent book of poems, Foray of Centaurs (1931–1932), whose baroque symbolism failed to find a publisher, Macleod turned to acting and the theater. Given the actor’s ability to change personhood, it’s appropriate that this became the chief passion of his life. Astrology, with all its chance happenings and fatalistic weather patterns, however, did not leave Macleod alone. Electrocuted while performing stage work, he had an epiphany and devoted himself to socialism and a life in politics, becoming chairman of the Huntingdonshire Divisional Labour Party and later a candidate for Parliament. Personhood shifted repeatedly for Macleod: at different stages of his life, he was a newsman and filmmaker, a literary critic, and a barrister. Most tellingly, he even adopted a pseudonym, Adam Drinan, and under that name composed and published poems with a Scottish nationalist verve, strikingly different from his earlier occultish verse. Indeed, Macleod embodied multiple personae throughout his life, and The Ecliptic may hold the key to all of their diverse motivations.

July 2017

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Hiromi Itō, Wild Grass on the Riverbank.

Translated by Jeffrey Angles.

Notre Dame, IN: Action Books, 2015. 103pp. $16

Reviewed by Zhou Sivan

Hiromi Itō is said to have called the English-language version of her narrative poem Wild Grass on the Riverbank, translated by Jeffrey Angles, a lost original of her Japanese text. “As I read out loud the English of the English translation,” says Itō, “I feel as if that is really my true voice, and I am caught up in the illusion that this is the way that I have been telling the story since the very beginning.”

A remarkable account of the textual prosthesis as the text’s origin, this story is also about the theme of atopy (placelessness) in Itō’s work, which has always reflected the author’s unusual position in the ecology of world literature and the transnational avant-garde. Itō is indeed a “shamaness of poetry,” keen in her ability to channel different voices and registers. Inspired by traditions ranging from Native American narrative verse to the medieval religious Japanese storytelling art of sekkyō-bushi, she also counts among her influences Allen Ginsberg, Miyazawa Kenji, Swedish poet Siv Cedering, and Austrian poet Georg Trakl. This transnational circulation of voices does not have a particular name, nor does it need to. It is embraced within the mythology of past voices that animates contemporary colloquial Japanese. Poised on survival, it is a resourceful “making do” in the manner of bricolage: it makes, as Michel de Certeau said, a “mobile organicity of the environment.” Itō’s comfort with atopic circulation also makes the best of a bad social reality. Like the anthropomorphism of the South American Verbena brasiliensis, which “stutters” in Wild Grass on the Riverbank with a “strong accent,” Itō’s own strange relationship to language captures the experience of migrants whose lack of English has, in Angles’s words, “condemned them to silence.”

Wild Grass on the Riverbank can be read as a simple allegory. A mother and her children shuttle back and forth between the landscapes of the riverbank and the wasteland—southern Japan (Kumamoto) and southern California, respectively—enacting what seems like a sexual drama between two fathers and a choice of two different lifestyles. The catch is that both places are equally grotesque, and that the father and the stepfather are both desiccated corpses come back to life occasionally, or seasonally: describing one of them, the child narrator tells us “the law of the plants had extended to this man who had been our father.” These men find themselves on the receiving end of the mother’s hatred: she snips off one of their penises and says, “leave it alone and it’ll grow again.” In place of impotent fathers, we get old men masturbating by the riverbank, looked over by the narrator and her siblings, and a dog whose “penis growing longer and longer…intertwined with mother.” Itō’s treatment of sexuality and motherhood is startling and dramatic, to say the least, and there is no telling what form reprieve may take.

Sometimes reprieve comes in the form of landscape, environment, or natural settings, though the idea of place ultimately provides no stable ground for Itō’s characters to orient themselves. The hot spring is more than benign and naturalistic; it cleanses and heals sicknesses, raises corpses from the dead, and conquers death:

Mother said, that hot spring
Will fix you up right away,
Soak yourself, open your pores, scrub your body, swell up,
It’ll heal your eczema, your blisters,
Your skin infections, your ringworm,
Your dermatitis, your infectious diseases,
Your atopy, your allergies,
Your corpses, your impending death, your having died, and even death in general

Jeffrey Angles’s choice of the word atopy refers here to the condition of hyperallergy, but it also indexes Itō’s fascination with the Greek concept of placelessness. Throughout Wild Grass on the Riverbank, not a single place is identified using a proper noun; “L. A.” is only sung in a Neil Young lyric. The only real place is memory, knowable exclusively through landmarks and monuments like the burial site of a “samurai-monk’s big camphor tree.” Often, sickness and being-out-of-place seem to collude, as in the figure of an old man sitting like a thicket of horseweed by the riverbank: “he had a mild case of dementia rather like Erigeron canandensis.” Physical and mental sicknesses take the form of forgetfulness of the present, not to mention the past—the result of having migrated from another place.

Whether present or not in the Japanese, the pun on the word atopy can be linked to Itō’s larger critique of common metaphors, especially in US immigration discourse, that cast immigrants as diseased people, animals, invasive plants, or even objects of war. As quickly as a human character is introduced as a weed, it transforms into something that cannot be “weeded out.” The result is a nightmarish and grievous landscape of corpses, like the two fathers, “[m]ultiplying, dying, coming back to life, and multiplying again.” Presumably, the boundaries between human, animal, and vegetable are what guarantee life, and when these boundaries break down, life becomes unsustainable. Dangerous and unpredictable is Itō’s monster-image of life: one moment the narrator finds succor and her own self-image in the weeds, and the next moment she and her friend, Alexa, are sexually assaulted by tendrils of the kudzu plant. When the narrator and her family are treated by state authorities as objects of war, in a story based on real newspaper reports, they are presented as animal-vegetable-human life forms: having returned from abroad, and found illegally squatting near a river, the father turns into a mummified corpse, the mother is detained as a suspect for murder, child negligence, and abuse, and the children are left defending their household with dogs and hunting rifles.

Sometimes being eaten alive by nature in this way is how Itō’s poem tropes the social and political process of “naturalization.” Assimilation, in other words, is cultural death. But when the word “naturalize” is broken down by the narrator, it’s shown to contain the character “return,” which could suggest nature’s resilience and resistance to the deadly forces of naturalization itself. Here the narrator tells how she learnt a plant name, Paspalum urvillei, from an old man who had moved to Japan just as the plant “came fifty years ago to the riverbanks of Japan”:

We looked it up in a plant book once, but it wasn’t there
I pointed at the grass with the white spikes of seed
He said, Paspalum urvillei
I said, why wasn’t it in the plant book?
He said, it was first discovered in 1958 in northern Kyūshū, so it’s only newly naturalized here, you know, the word “naturalize ” is written with the characters that mean “return” and “change,” that is what they call plants that have come from somewhere else and settled down
I said, I’ve seen that word in the plant book
He said, that’s right, that’s a word you’d be sure to see in plant books
He looked around with a happy expression and pointed, that’ s a naturalized plant too

As if to enact a “return” in its very telling, the narrative turns even further at this point toward the history of immigration to Japan:

The other plants are older,
Some of them came a hundred and fifty years ago when Japan opened up,
Some of them came after World War II,
But this one is different,
Paspalum urvillei is from South America,
It reached here about the time I was born,
We grew up together, the whole time, here on the riverbank,
But neither of us has ever gotten used to the place

The revelation that the plant has not been documented opens up the entire oral narrative to its current material form. Paspalum urvillei ’s missing entry in the narrator’s remembered plant book is later mended by its inclusion in a miniature plant glossary at the end of Itō’s book. That book exists precisely so that the narrator can heed the lesson to document her own absent history as a migrant. The poem becomes our narrator’s way of sorting through multiple identities: “Alexa was me / The wild grass was me / I was Alexa / I was the wild grass / We were exactly alike, just like Erigeron Canadensis and Conyza sumatrensis.” The scientific brevity of taxonomies cannot capture the complicated histories of a person, let alone a community. But recourse to the facticity of plant names is one way to come to terms with the painful event of diaspora.

Perhaps there is no definite place but in plant names. The immersion in a hot spring around the riverbank may cure one’s atopy, but there may also be some palliative significance in the placelessness of cultural entities that are held together only by the knowledge of names and immaterial histories. As in the old man and Paspalum urvillei, the separate yet sometimes coterminous tracks of human and plant migration suggest the ecocritical possibility of organizing human migratory patterns around the history of plant mobility. Yet towards the end of Wild Grass on the Riverbank, Itō makes clear that the characters’ anxieties from ceaseless movement come down to political constructs that cannot be easily naturalized: their legal residency statuses, or identities mediated by the state. In the fine distinction between having “flawless passports” and a “dirty spot on your passport,” there is the enormous difference between the emancipatory text of one’s own history and the state’s interpretation of that history. By the end of Wild Grass on the Riverbank, Itō has upended in turn the carnivalesque images of transmutable human and plant life, insisting that the problems of human immigration are ultimately larger than the metaphors of natural history.

July 2017

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Julie Carr and Jeffrey C. Robinson (eds.), Active Romanticism: The Radical Impulse in Nineteenth-Century and Contemporary Poetic Practice.

Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2015. 276pp. $39.95

Reviewed by Eric Powell

Active Romanticism is a collection of essays with a polemical intent, as the editors announce in their introduction. Decrying the “institutional Romanticism” of textbook anthologies, which they call “a system of exclusion and distortion,” Carr and Robinson offer instead “a claim for Romanticism as an enactment of an avant-garde and innovative poetry, a claim that links vitally a poetry of the past and a poetry rediscovering itself in a present at any stage of subsequent history. Our book insists, against the grain of established cultural expectations, upon Romantic continuities, recurrences, and proliferation.” I wonder if textbook anthologies might not be fairly innocuous windmills rather than the pernicious giants that Carr and Robinson seem to think them, but the reconception of Romanticism offered here is interesting and provocative for its rejection of a liberal-progressive narrative of literary history. Carr and Robinson counter liberal historicism with a Walter Benjamin–inspired philosophy of literary history in which crises “of democracy could be said to define a form of Romanticism that can spring up at any moment.”

The introduction is a quasi-manifesto, delineating four “premises” of active Romanticism, which I don’t have space to engage with here. They are interesting, tendentious, and written in the language that is appealing to contemporary academic Leftist(ish) poets and critics. The gist of it is that active Romanticism is inherently political, experimental, and, dammit, still alive. To show just how alive and kicking Romanticism is, the editors have gathered essays written mostly by contemporary poets. These poets are supposed to “bear witness to the effects of Romantic poetry and poetics on modern and contemporary innovative poetry.”

Unfortunately, I come away from the book with the impression that contemporary poets aren’t reading the Romantics very much or very well. Part of what has been radical—a word much prostituted in this book—about criticism of and scholarship on the Romantic period in the last fifty years is the recovery of, or renewed focus on, women poets, working-class poets, poets of color, colonized poets, and queer poets. Despite the editors’ commitment to this program, Active Romanticism is, generally speaking, regrettably canonical and Anglo-American in its focus; in this it is like the “institutional Romanticism” that Carr and Robinson decry. Here is a simple list of the Romantics given at least some degree of sustained attention in the book, essay by essay: Erasmus Darwin, Whitman, Thoreau, Keats, Emerson, Wordsworth, Wordsworth, Mary Robinson, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, Whitman, Coleridge, Whitman, Robert Burns, Wordsworth, Mary Shelley, Anna Barbauld, Coleridge, Percy Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Clare, Percy Shelley, Keats, Schlegel, Novalis. This poor state of affairs is made worse by the fact that Mary Shelley, Anna Barbauld, Mary Wollstonecraft, and John Clare are all concentrated in Judith Goldman’s excellent essay “Dysachrony: Temporalities and Their Discontents, in New and Old Romanticisms.” The worst offenders not only stick close to the canonical six British Romantics and their American equivalents, but also concern themselves almost solely with their greatest hits.

Dan Beachy-Quick’s essay “‘The Oracular Tree Acquiring’: On Romanticism as Radical Praxis,” is a case in point. After starting with some interesting and less well-known passages from Thoreau, he goes on to focus his attention on Wordsworth’s emotion recollected in tranquility and Keats’ negative capability, fluctuating between gross generalizations about Romanticism and gross generalizations about Poetry. The essay is full of claims that would amuse the average philosopher: “Romanticism claims poetry as that difficult art that shows us the condition we are in by making that amazed condition apparent. The cost of the gift is being included in the gift’s trap, and to fail is to both escape the maze and be lost in it.” When Beachy-Quick claims that “Romanticism claims” such and such, I claim that Beachy-Quick needs a large dose of Arthur Lovejoy’s classic critique of the ideological coherence of the word Romanticism itself. At his most inflated it seems as though Beachy-Quick fasted for seven days and then performed a séance to summon the spirit of Emerson to serve as his amanuensis. There is nothing radical here, and certainly no praxis.

When the essays do focus on more neglected figures, the results can be less than enlightening. Elizabeth Willis’s essay, “Bright Ellipses: The Botanic Garden, Meteoric Flowers, and Leaves of Grass,” for example, begins with Erasmus Darwin, a very interesting poet-scientist whose didactic poems written in eighteenth-century couplet style were quite popular, and exerted influence on more canonical poets such as Shelley. Willis seems to want to make Darwin sexy through a (now banal) deconstructive focus on paratextual material, but she only succeeds in affirming history’s conclusion that Darwin must be really boring if she has to resort to writing about the errata leaf and commonplace printing conventions like the leading words from one page to another. This focus leads to postmodern excesses beyond all bounds of indecency:

Typeset beneath the footnote, the word ‘Breathe’ is an interruption to the notational commentary on ‘The Swallow’ and is visually severed from what precedes and follows it within the central text. A page turn, like a line break, is literally a space to breathe. But here the turn also creates new grammatical alliances: ‘Linnaeus observes that the wood breathe.’ Indeed Darwin’s pages do breathe in the interstices between words and stanzas, and in 1791 they would have been made of previously breathing, plant-based materials.

Forgive me if I’m not buying it.

There are some sparkling exceptions to the book’s too-narrow canonical focus. As already mentioned, Judith Goldman’s essay exhibits a wide and deep knowledge of Romantic writing, admirably marshaled in a series of short but sharp reflections on time out of joint in various Romantic works. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, in her essay “Singing Schools and ‘Mental Equality’: An Essay in Three Parts,” offers a fascinating and historically valuable reading of the intersubjective poetic dialogue between Coleridge and Mary Robinson, showing that “dialogues between male and female poets were a lively mode of practice” in the Romantic period. Through a keen reading of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and Robinson’s “To the Poet Coleridge,” the latter a remarkable poetic response to the Coleridge poem (which Robinson read in manuscript), DuPlessis makes a lucid argument about the importance of “gendered tropes” and their power to “construct a powerful cultural legacy that must be acknowledged and faced.” Like several of the essayists in the volume, DuPlessis moves toward personal reflection at the end, but she does so in an admirable way, keyed closely to the historical fate of women writers like Mary Robinson.

Nigel Leask’s essay “‘A Spark o’ Nature’s Fire’: Robert Burns and the Vernacular Muse” is another high point. Leask reads Burns’s use of the Scots vernacular as a “challenge to the class-based imperative of ‘standard English’,” avoiding, at the same time, a reductive account by paying close attention to the “self-conscious artifice of his poetry.” Leask juxtaposes Burns with lesser-known Scottish precursors, contemporaries, and conflicted followers such as Allan Ramsay, Alexander Geddes, Hugh MacDiarmid, and Tom Leonard, weaving a rich and nuanced account of the changing valences of Scots dialect verse, especially as it intersected with class politics, from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.

Two of the essays collected here deserve notice as one-off performances. In “A Deeper, Older O: The Oral (Sex) Tradition (in Poetry),” Jennifer Moxley turns the apostrophic O of Romanticism from a figure of embarrassment, as Jonathan Culler has it, to a figure of “radical receptivity,” using oral sex as a master trope. It’s a fun read, but I’m a bit miffed. I won’t be able to read some of my favorite poems anymore—Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode, Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus—without thinking of blow jobs. (It could be worse, I guess.) For Moxley, fixated on double entendre, not death but (oral) sex is all metaphors. Moxley’s essay is smart, her adroitness in reading poems is obvious, and I’m sympathetic to her aims. But it gets a bit sophomoric at points, as when, in a footnote on the Intimations Ode, she intimates that “Wordsworth’s ‘Ye that pipe’ recalls the French slang term for blow job, faire la pipe.” Wink, nudge. I groaned a deep, long O, and not of pleasure.

Simon Jarvis’s essay, “Hyper-Pindaric: The Greater Irregular Lyric from Cowley to Keston Sutherland,” is a singularity here. But then, Simon Jarvis is a singularity among contemporary critics: simultaneously one of the best we have and perhaps the most idiosyncratic in his focus, his aims, and his commitments. Taking the long view on what M. H. Abrams famously denoted the Greater Romantic Lyric, Jarvis provocatively jump cuts from Abraham Cowley’s “The Resurrection” (1656) to Keston Sutherland’s Hot White Andy (2007), tying the form to the larger historical development and fate of the Pindaric ode. “The discussion of these two widely separated terminuses,” Jarvis writes, “prepares the ground for a future discussion of the great irregular ‘Romantic’ ode, not as an inexplicable outburst of native woodnotes, but as a critical instance in that series of deaths and resurrections of the Pindaric which has characterized the grand English lyric ever since Cowley’s reinvention.” Cleverly structuring his essay in the dialectical form of the ode itself—strophe (Cowley), antistrophe (Sutherland), and epode (historical synthesis)—Jarvis brings to bear the virtuosic attention to technique that has become his hallmark, arguing that the “nuts and bolts” of meter, rhyme, and rhythm “constitute an essential condition, not only of the poems’ versification, but also of their loftiest and most rarefied thoughts.” This commitment to technique, to counting the “small change,” coupled with his astonishing historical breadth, yields the kind of insights into the development of verse forms that is all too rare these days.

Not content to stop with this contribution to poetics and literary history, however, Jarvis also hopes to make “a small contribution to literary theory” by stepping into the contemporary debate on lyric. Jarvis doesn’t have any interest in adjudicating “the controverted question of exactly what lyric is,” arguing instead that the concept of ‘lyric’ should not be “deployed emphatically.” The argument feels tacked on in response to the notoriety that the new lyric studies has accrued lately, and I wish that Jarvis had developed the point further.

Finally, for a book that is supposed to be, as the subtitle has it, about The Radical Impulse in Nineteenth-Century and Contemporary Poetic Practice, I was surprised to find virtually nothing about nineteenth-century popular radicalism, despite the fact that the poetry and poetics of so many of the Romantic poets considered in the book were deeply imbricated with radicalism—whether in solidarity or reaction. For example, “The Mask of Anarchy”—Shelley’s outraged ballad written in response to the Peterloo massacre—was widely circulated by the Chartists, and, as Michael Demson has shown, found its way into the early labor movement in the US. As Paul Foot notes: “Gandhi quoted it when agitating among the South African Indians in the early part of this century. More recently it was translated and chanted during the students’ uprising at Tiananmen Square, Beijing.” That’s an example of the “radical impulse” in Romantic poetry, and poetry as radical praxis, active still in contemporary poetic practice. Politics in so much contemporary academic writing consists in merely fighting little semiotic skirmishes in the cul-de-sac of language. Those that are interested in carrying on the tradition of nineteenth-century radicalism and its political praxis should be diligent in calling out the entropic effects of the misappropriation of such terms. But if one disregards the subtitle and the introduction—or, better and more generously, considers them as prefatory not to the present book but to a future book that could, and probably should, exist—then what one is left with is a widely and wildly divergent grab-bag of essays by contemporary poets, mostly British and American, working through their own relation, or that of their contemporaries, to the Romantics, again mostly British and American. There’s much of value in that.

July 2017

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Kenneth Cox, The Art of Language: Selected Essays.

Edited with an introduction by Jenny Penberthy. Afterword by August Kleinzahler.
Chicago: Flood Editions, 2016. 328pp. $17.95

Reviewed by Michael Autrey

Kenneth Cox’s work is of that rare type one accepts with alacrity and begins with high hopes. And yet, to redeploy the opening of Cox’s assault on Geoffrey Hill, surely it cannot be denied that Kenneth Cox is very limited? Cox writes criticism as he claims Zukofsky wrote poetry: “as if you [have] read everything and no-one had ever written before. ” While this allows him space to offer remarkable readings, it also leads him to make irresponsible claims.
The Art of Language: Selected Essays hews closely to but also differs crucially from the contents of Cox’s Collected Studies in the Use of English, his only book, published by Agenda Editions in 2001. Cox’s Collected Studies consolidated his reputation—the more apt word might be cult—among a subset of experimental poets, the postwar descendants of Modernism in the UK. A glance at the table of contents identifies Cox’s milieu. Editor Jenny Penberthy’s introduction situates him. Cox, a decorated veteran of the Second World War, did not attend university, began publishing in the 1960s and then only in “little magazines,” notably William Cookson’s Agenda and later in Montemora, Maps, and Scripsi, among others. Cox wrote slowly, revised often, crucially changing his mind years, even decades, after offering his meticulous readings of poets’ use of language.

At his best Cox is careful, brilliant, and stylish. Often at his best, his painstaking attention to the works of his favorite authors must equal the pains they took making them. The most characteristic longer pieces are “Hugh MacDiarmid,” the three pieces on Bunting, and “Louis Zukofsky: Tribute to Mallarmé.” Among the shorter reviews, “Gael Turnbull,” “Roy Fisher,” and “August Kleinzahler” stand out. Discussing Bunting’s use of language Cox writes, “It seems the feel of living speech comes through only when the subtlest elements of movement and intonation come together in a meeting governed by rare and unpredictable conditions, such as those which govern the evanescent existence of the elementary particles.” This is beautifully said, and beautifully judged: the movement from “comes through” to “comes together” is as elegant as the rare concatenation it describes.

As often as there is beauty, care, and attention in Cox’s criticism, there is also ignorance, even silliness. He makes wild assertions and offers deeply suspect theories, their offensiveness not lessened by his occasional moue of lament. Here, in a piece about Wyndham Lewis, Cox observes: “Hard as it is to take, both the structure of ideas and the history of individuals show an undeniable line joining Mallarmé’s Tuesdays rue de Rome with Belsen and Auschwitz.” If only Cox had deigned to open John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), a book that looks into an abyss that Cox tries to leap in a sentence. In “Louis Zukofsky,” Cox goes well past the ridiculous too often found at the far side of the sublime: “The re-emergence of Jewish wisdom and Jewish intellect in the vernaculars of Europe is one of the glories of twentieth-century literature and a phenomenon in the long run more important than the re-establishment of the state of Israel.” Can anyone go with Cox beyond the conjunction “and” after “literature” in a generalization so grand it becomes meaningless? What prompts a writer justly renowned for his scrupulousness about matters of language to risk such claims about history?

Cox makes bizarre, sweeping statements about poetry, too, as kooky and spurious as Louise Glück’s claim in her essay “Against Sincerity” that “the great advantage of formal verse” is that “metrical variation provides a subtext. It does what we now rely on tone to do.” Glück’s “we” excludes. She makes the classic mistake, conflating personal technique and idiosyncratic means for historical necessity and inevitable ends. Compare with Cox, writing about Yeats: “Another constant feature, rhyming, is important. A tawdry ornament of no intrinsic value but great persuasive power Yeats came to rely on it as a means of fortifying his habit of rhetorical expression.” Cox, like Glück, uses criticism of style as a means to make—and enforce—taste and to write history. And from an otherwise careful examination of Roy Fisher, a poet who cannot receive too much attention: “The conventional norms of English versification have collapsed and no sensible person seeks to restore them, unless for occasional antiquarian purposes.” Cox’s sense of history pollutes astute readings even of poets he admires.

The editing of this work gives a curious impression of Cox’s evolution as a critic. Readers may get a mistaken impression that Cox despised the formalist, academic Geoffrey Hill and was happy to skewer Donald Davie, one of the few critics who praised him, but was never anything but judicious and respectful of his favorites. Penberthy writes, “We know that [Cox’s] final judgment of Zukofsky’s work, and indeed person, was damning. He chose to include his late reconsideration, completed in 2000, in his Collected Studies. It is uncharacteristically sour and tendentious, of a piece with other late-in-life cantankerous disparagements of writers such as Bunting and Allen Upward.” Instead, she includes the “brilliant essay Cox wrote [about Zukofsky] in 1979.” It seems unlikely that a writer as meticulous and as committed to revision as Cox didn’t mean what he ultimately concluded about one of the authors he had lived longest with. Reviewing Mark Scroggins’s biography of Zukofsky in the London Review of Books, August Kleinzahler, Cox’s literary executor, endorses Cox’s final assessment: “This is a harsh appraisal [of Zukofsky], and not in every instance justified, but I find it hard to argue with finally. ” Penberthy’s decision risks sanitizing a writer for the sake of broadening his appeal to an audience for which he never would have compromised.

Why omit Cox’s changes of mind about the authors he had read most closely, and include his demolition of Hill, which amounts to a full-blown mid-life disparagement? In Cox’s blinkered view Hill’s project is passé, and this makes him an inviting target. Ironically, in the final paragraph of his hatchet job, Cox perceives the direction Hill’s late work ultimately takes, an intuition few of Hill’s fans would have endorsed at the time he made it. The review’s final sentence reads: “The ingredients [of Mercian Hymns (1971)] are not everywhere equally blended and the thing as a whole may well be a bit of a lark but if so it only shows what Hill can do when he is borne aloof (as he has it in Tenebrae) less by high endeavour and more by high jinks.” After Canaan (1997), savage, satiric high jinks become Hill’s most productive mode, notably in Speech! Speech! (2000), the second volume of a trilogy (some call it his Commedia) that begins with The Triumph of Love (1998) and ends with The Orchards of Syon (2002). Cox deserves credit for his prescience, not for his vitriol.

This Selected Essays lives uncomfortably between the careful introduction and the hagiographic afterword that bookend the volume. While I quibble with Penberthy’s decisions I can take her at her word. I am expected to take Kleinzahler by his reputation, however, and Kleinzahler likes nothing so much as an unapologetic, angry man. His picture of Cox the polymath, retired from the BBC and living alone in a “book-laden, musty flat” is a lovely read: elderly neighbor ladies look in on him from time to time, the story culminating with the Visitation of Lady Natasha Spender. Kleinzahler’s role is that of a renegade magi in bemused attendance. But just as some portrait-painters always find their own features in their subjects, Kleinzahler’s afterword says as much about him as it does about his subject’s lifelong isolation. What Kleinzahler praises as “singularly unaccommodating” in Cox’s criticism sounds more like axe-grinding. When the introduction and the afterword are taken together, Cox comes into focus: brilliant but disappointed, unreconciled to his anonymity, his inability to play well with others counted a virtue only to others with the same lack, he fits a type too common to make an exception for, even in this case.

In her own portrait of Cox, Penberthy stresses his hostility to the academy, but it’s also possible that Cox preferred to strike from the corner that he painted himself into rather than come to terms with a wider world he believed must accept him on his own terms. Cox diagnoses his own problem in a letter quoted by Penberthy: “To a young writer hostile to a polyglot poet, Cox notes that this is ‘the kind of thing that happens when after long close study of a chosen author, you first come face to face with the fact that you and he are fundamentally unlike. The experience is a test of humanity as well as a test of taste.’” On the final page of his afterword, Kleinzahler excerpts a letter that he received from Cox in 2003: “All the same I have good news which cannot be doubted: William Cookson is dead.” Here Cox celebrates the death of the editor who did more than any other to make his work available, and this sentiment makes explicit what the essays suggest: Cox often failed his own test. As often as Cox surpasses the ordinary task of the critic, as often as he makes a lasting contribution to our understanding, he fouls the nest with the sort of nonsense he would never let his subjects get away with. Read him—and bring salt.

July 2017

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August Kleinzahler, Before Dawn on Bluff Road: Selected New Jersey Poems / Hollyhocks in the Fog: Selected San Francisco Poems

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017. 176pp. $25.00

Reviewed by Patrick Morrissey

August Kleinzahler is a double agent. His poems began appearing in the late 1970s and early 1980s in little avant-garde magazines such as Origin and Sulfur; today his collections are reviewed in The Guardian and The New York Times. He owns up to influences both high modernist (Basil Bunting, Ezra Pound) and countercultural (the New York School, the Beats, Thom Gunn), yet he writes in a lucid style that makes his work available to readers who live outside the institutions of poetry and higher education. He speaks one moment of Bartók, the next of gas stations and liquor stores. His poetry embraces both high culture and the culture of people living on the margins, and it does so as a matter of course. He is unabashedly erudite, yet he writes about poor people and poor places—the “other half” of American life—without condescension or romanticism. He is a rare sort of poet, one who is both aesthetically sophisticated and truly egalitarian.

Kleinzahler is also a man of divided geographic loyalties. Born in Jersey City in 1949, he has lived for much of his adult life in San Francisco while returning often to New Jersey both in person and in his imagination. His writing has long been organized according to an implicit bicoastal logic, but his new split volume of selected poems makes it explicit: on one side, we read Before Dawn on Bluff Road: Selected New Jersey Poems, and flipping to the other we read Hollyhocks in the Fog: Selected San Francisco Poems. These selections make a fine introduction to Kleinzahler’s large and various body of work, framing him definitively as what he has always been, which is a poet of place. He has written dramatic monologues, character sketches, historical panoramas, dream narratives, faux-classical epistles, elegiac songs, and verse essays on music history, to name just a few of his modes, but the locodescriptive is perhaps the one to which he returns most frequently, and the one in which he has written some of his finest poems. Yet while many poets of place are deeply rooted in one particular location—Roy Fisher in Birmingham (UK), for instance, or Lorine Niedecker on Blackhawk Island—for Kleinzahler, being a poet of place also means being a poet of transit.

By framing him as a poet of two places, Before Dawn on Bluff Road / Hollyhocks in the Fog also helps us locate him in the history of American poetry. When Kleinzahler writes about the places he knows and the people who inhabit them, he makes his inheritance of Walt Whitman and especially William Carlos Williams richly evident. In his combination of adventurousness and availability, the poet he most resembles is Williams, his fellow New Jerseyan. Both are poets of compact technical dexterity and of American speech—capable both of rapid, surprising swerves and of talking plainly to cats and dogs. And like Whitman and Williams, Kleinzahler is a democratic realist with a lyric gift, one who believes that ordinary people and things are suitable subjects for poetry. Yet where Whitman and Williams prized immediacy and planted their feet firmly on home terrain, Kleinzahler is a poet of both proximity and distance, writing from an airplane as often as from home. An American in the age of mobility and globalization, he writes in and of transit. His poetry is marked by a sense of doubleness—here and there, self and others, now and then—and a sense of how one place, person, or time might become or be haunted by another.

The poem “Snow in North Jersey,” which first appeared in the 1998 collection Green Sees Things in Waves, is a formal homage to Whitman, a rangy litany of ordinary people and locations—everyone and everyplace the snow falls upon—joined by anaphora and the accretion of simple conjunctions. Its homage to Williams is even more explicit: “and they’re calling for snow tonight and through tomorrow / an inch an hour over 9 Ridge Road and the old courthouse / and along the sluggish gray Passaic / as it empties itself into Newark Bay.” Kleinzahler names the doctor’s address and quickly sketches the itinerary of his Paterson, the long poem which followed the Passaic River over the Great Falls and out to sea. But while Williams’s approach to North Jersey is archaeological, excavating what he called “the elemental character of the place,” Kleinzahler’s is cinematic, panning with the weather across the region. The poem provides something like an extended aerial shot that zooms fluidly in and out:

Snow is falling along the Boulevard
and its little cemeteries hugged by transmission shops
and on the stone bear in the park
and the WWI monument, making a crust
on the soldier with his chinstrap and bayonet

Kleinzahler begins with a cartographer’s distance, yet a brief survey of the landscape quickly establishes a sense of temporal depth. The dead and the auto mechanics who survive them are intimate with one another, lovingly occupying the same turf. Then the time scale broadens to include world-historical events: in the finely rendered face of the WWI statue, a familiar representation of local boys who died abroad, North Jersey’s past is integrated into the global twentieth century. Kleinzahler continues by shifting scales again:

It’s blowing in from the west
over the low hills and meadowlands
swirling past the giant cracking stills
that flare all night along the Turnpike
It is with a terrible deliberateness
that Mr. Ruiz reaches into his back pocket
and counts out eighteen dollars and change for his lotto picks
while in the upstairs of a thousand duplexes
with the TV on, cancers tick   tick   tick
and the snow continues to fall and blanket
these crowded rows of frame and brick
with their heartbreaking porches and castellations
and the red ’68 Impala on blocks

In the space of a few lines, the poem sweeps back out to encompass a natural terrain overlaid by highways and oil refineries, then zooms into Mr. Ruiz’s pocket and the pathos of his careful count of bills and coins, a tiny hard-luck narrative. From there the poem expands and contracts at once, giving us the deadening endlessness of “a thousand duplexes” and the particularity of a single upstairs room lit blue by the TV. And then the most dramatic zoom yet, down to the cellular level, as Kleinzahler unsettlingly imagines cancer proliferating in thousands of bodies, the result perhaps of overexposure to petrochemicals, while they watch sitcoms or the evening news. Out on the wintry street again, Kleinzahler plays “castellations” off of “the red ’68 Impala,” achieving a sort of tragicomedy in the juxtaposition of a multisyllabic archaism with the name of a best-selling Chevy sedan, a jalopy decaying in front of run-down duplexes adorned by castle-like parapets. The shift of verbal registers and the sharp observation of socioeconomic class markers are both signature Kleinzahler.

Whitman sought a new poetry appropriate to what he believed was the infinite breadth of American democracy, and Williams wanted to find poetic form for the American idiom and the humble particulars of everyday life. Both held utopian hopes for their poems, believing that poetic innovation could bring readers into closer contact with the “reality” of their lives. Kleinzahler seeks a similarly capacious, realistic rendering of contemporary American life, but he is more doubtful about its transformative potential. “Snow in North Jersey” ends with this image:

It’s snowing on us all
and on a three-story fixer-upper off of Van Vorst Park
a young lawyer couple from Manhattan bought
where for no special reason in back of a closet
a thick, dusty volume from the ’30s sits open
with a broken spine and smelling of mildew
to a chapter called “Social Realism”

After an earnest note of Whitmanian solidarity—“It’s snowing on us all”—the poem takes an almost satirical turn. At first the joke seems to be about yuppies moving into the neighborhood, but then it turns on the poem itself. This faithful recording of an evening in North Jersey—its cemeteries, oil refineries, convenience store gamblers, junked cars, tumors, and dead poets—might end up as an example of an outdated art form in an old book. Its realism might become just another mildewed object of study or curiosity for the young college types who gentrify working-class streets. Yet the poet persists in his witnessing, and he does so without condescension, sentimentality, or pulled punches. The reality he depicts includes the possibility that bearing witness to what’s passing finally won’t matter much, but he writes it anyway, out of something like love for the world.

Kleinzahler’s lyric “Poetics,” first published in the 1985 collection Storm over Hackensack, is another poem of his native North Jersey, though here he works in the more compact, imagistic mode common to his early poems:

I have loved the air above ShopRite Liquors
on summer evenings
better than the Marin hills at dusk
lavender and gold
stretching miles to the sea.

At the junction, up from the synagogue
a weeknight, necessarily
and with my father—
a sale on German beer.

Air full of living dust:
bus exhaust, airborne grains of pizza crust
wounded crystals
appearing, disappearing
among streetlights and unsuccessful neon.

A few well-chosen words specify the landscape and let it expand in our imaginations. “ShopRite Liquors” names a package store of certain vintage, concerned not with refinement but with cost-effectiveness, its parking lot or curb lit by a familiar sort of sign. We can begin to construct a local economy. “Synagogue” offhandedly signals a certain religious and ethnic milieu, one that’s relatively comfortable here in Jersey. The temple’s proximity to the package store and the faint verbal echo of “ShopRite Liquors” in “synagogue” give us a wink: there’s as much family ritual in a beer run as there is in worship.

“Poetics” doubles this primary landscape with another more distant one—“the Marin hills at dusk”—to which, perhaps surprisingly, New Jersey compares favorably. Kleinzahler plays this surprise for humor, but the development of the first stanza’s transcontinental comparison also allows him simultaneously to expand the poem’s scale and to make its primary location seem all the more particular. The description of “lavender and gold / stretching miles to the sea” quickly transports us from neon-lit asphalt to sweeping grassy vistas bathed in late California sunlight. Yet by a slight shift in register, from the brassy particularity of “ShopRite Liquors” to the more ambrosial, generically “poetic” description of “lavender and gold,” Kleinzahler makes his beloved New Jersey pop. The second stanza narrows the scale again, cutting rapidly back to the poem’s kernel scene, a thumbnail narrative of the poet and his father. We zoom in on “living dust: / bus exhaust, airborne grains of pizza crust,” but this minute focus also enacts another kind of expansion, as the particulars of the scene—buses and pizza joints—become particulate matter suspended in the atmosphere, drifting into the evening lit by streetlights and neon. New Jersey’s polluted, pizza-dusted air is made to glimmer as preciously as a Marin breeze, but it also now evokes the “wounded” disappointment of the people who breathe it. The son has gone away and come home: he now knows the Marin hills, which are both beautiful and populated by rich people, but New Jersey remains constant and constantly unsuccessful. “I have loved the air above ShopRite Liquors” (emphasis mine): the present-perfect resonates with both praise and remembrance. The poet has lost yet still breathes the air outside ShopRite Liquors. If this poem is a statement of Kleinzahler’s poetics, he proposes that writing poetry is the composition—the putting together—of seemingly distinct times and places. It involves both love and disappointment.

The poem “San Francisco / New York,” which originally appeared in 1995’s Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow, inverts the orientation of “Poetics.” Now Kleinzahler is in San Francisco, his adopted hometown, thinking back toward the Northeast:

A red band of light stretches across the west,
low over the sea, as we say goodbye to our friend,
Saturday night, in the room he always keeps unlit
and head off to take in the avenues,
actually take them in, letting the gables,

bay windows and facades impress themselves,
the clay of our brows accepting the forms.
Darkness falls over the district’s slow life,
miles of pastel stucco canceled
with its arched doorways and second-floor businesses:

herbalists and accountants, jars
of depilatories. Such a strange calm, the days
already lengthening and asparagus
under two dollars a pound.
                                                   Is New York fierce?

With its image of evening light stretched across the sky and an announcement of setting out, the poem’s opening stanza might be a pastiche of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Once out the door, however, Kleinzahler quickly diverges from Eliot. While Eliot’s Prufrock projects etherized patients, tedious arguments, and feline forms upon the cityscape, drenching it in his pathos, Kleinzahler seeks not to project but to receive the impressions of the city around him, which he hopes will be quite physically pressed into his body. His San Francisco appears as an actual place, whereas Eliot’s city is a more generic representation of urban alienation, its “one-night cheap hotels” and “sawdust restaurants” functioning as atmospheric touches rather than particular locations. With the wonderful detail of the asparagus’s price, Kleinzahler signals a lived intimacy with this “district’s slow life,” his attention to its ordinary rhythms. As a true poet of real places, he is more Williams than Eliot.

“San Francisco / New York” is included in Hollyhocks in the Fog, but the thought of New York haunts the poem, threatening to take it over. We quickly realize that Kleinzahler walks alone, thinking of an absent companion. “Is New York fierce?” comes upon us with abrupt intensity, as the pang of another’s absence might suddenly seize a person. Is one alone in such moments or not? The poem’s pronouns briefly go wobbly:

The wind, I mean. I dream of you in the shadows,
hurt, whimpering. But it’s not like that, really,
is it? Lots of taxis and brittle fun.
We pass the shop of secondhand mystery novels
with its ferrety customers and proprietress

behind her desk, a swollen arachnid
surrounded by murder and the dried-out glue
of old paperback bindings.
What is more touching
than a used bookstore on Saturday night,

dowdy clientele haunting the aisles:
the girl with bad skin, the man with a tic,
the chronic ass at the counter giving his art speech?
How utterly provincial and doomed we feel
tonight with the streetcar appearing over the rise

and at our backs the moon full in the east,
lighting the slopes of Mount Diablo
and the charred eucalyptus in the Oakland hills.

As if to hurry past a moment of vulnerability, Kleinzahler turns to his gifts as a storyteller or local colorist, his knack for conjuring a place and its “types” in just a few words. Yet the comic sketch of the bookstore reveals his own identification with the shoppers, sliding right into his lament—“How utterly provincial and doomed we feel”—so that “we” momentarily unites the poet and these other lonely hearts “haunting” a Saturday night at the edge of America. The poet is one more “type”: the solitary middle-aged flaneur looking into shop windows. The sense of loneliness only grows more acute as the scene broadens with beautiful efficiency, the streetcar carrying in passengers from other districts and the city giving way to the wilderness at its edges.

New York comes back into view at the end of the poem, with Kleinzahler wondering whether his absent companion sees the same moon he sees:

Did you see it in the East 60s
or bother to look up for it downtown?
And where would you have found it,
shimmering over Bensonhurst, over Jackson Heights?
It fairly booms down on us tonight
with the sky so clear,
                                       and through us

as if these were ruins, as if we were ghosts.

The questions are about the moon, but they’re really asking something else: Are you thinking about me as I’m thinking about you? Here Kleinzahler risks becoming maudlin, and the poem seems almost to comment upon its wager. As sentiment crescendos, color and life drain away. The moonlight of the poem’s final sentence blanches these characters and their distinctive landscapes with audible force; its emotional power washes away the previously vivid particulars of place and person. Book shoppers, the poet, and his companion—the moon makes ghosts of them all. There is a sort of beauty in this ghostliness, but there is also something lost. Ghostliness, perhaps, is the risk of living between two places, and once we understand Kleinzahler as a poet of transit, we can feel a new urgency in his acute observations of place, as if his poetry’s alertness is what allows him to be present someplace real instead of lost no place at all.

Kleinzahler’s New Jersey poems tend to be more emotionally intense than his San Francisco poems—charged as they are with the presence of family, memories of youth, and the sensory data of his native habitat. But the San Francisco poems bring us into another sort of confidence, a mellower intimacy with the neighborhood: Silicon Valley kids coming home from work “solitary as widows or disgraced metaphysicians,” which days of the week one will find in the shops, which time of year the weather does what, and which composer the oboist upstairs prefers, all of it inflected by “foghorns / lowing like outsize beasts / shackled to cliffs at the mouth of the Bay.” In early poems like “Sunset in Chinatown” and recent work like the wonderful sequence “Summer Journal” or the title poem “Hollyhocks in the Fog,” Kleinzahler records the daily rhythms and sensations of his adopted hometown with wit and vividness. San Francisco seems to be the place where he finds it possible to make a life in the present. New Jersey is both more and less real to him. As he puts it in “Gray Light in May,” a homecoming poem published in Green Sees Things in Waves but not included in Before Dawn on Bluff Road, the “stereoscopic” light of New Jersey intensifies experience almost unbearably at times: “So much a part of me / So much of what is dearest / I can barely stand upright under the weight of it…How many years / For how many years / A stranger to my own heart.” This feeling of strangeness in the places we know best—of strangeness to ourselves—is likely familiar to many of us living in an age of geographic mobility and dislocation. In such an age, the poetry of August Kleinzahler helps us both to feel our strangeness and to make ourselves a bit more at home.

July 2017

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Fred Moten, The Little Edges

Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2014. 80pp. $22.95

Reviewed by Gerónimo Sarmiento Cruz

Fred Moten’s sixth collection of poetry, The Little Edges, begins by immersing the reader in the space of its intricate poetics. “that’s what rodney asked about, ” declares the first line of “fortrd.fortrn, ” the inaugural piece of the collection. “can you make what we already (do | you remember/how did the people) / have? ” Turning back the reader to revisit the past, the lines hover over historical fact, using insinuation to rarefy the fixedness of the LA riots. Granting the event a deeper profundity through the interplay of enjambment and parenthesis, the poem pushes us to ponder the appositional relation between making, doing, and having—to readdress the questions that Rodney King put forward. “here go a box with a lid on it, ” the poem later offers: “if you open it you can come into our world. ” Only this world offered not as some hermeneutic reward beyond the initial complexities, but rather as the same world already shared by poet and reader and enriched by its complexity.

To match their intricate syntax, the poems in The Little Edges are visually arranged on the page in elaborate configurations that Moten calls “shaped prose ”: open-field compositions that intercalate fragments of verse and prose with a prominent use of the page’s whiteness. Across the range of poetry collected here, which includes several occasional pieces, the through-line is a constant ludic interaction with the page’s surface. This is how The Little Edges expands Moten’s concern for poetry’s worlding capacities—by placing the reader in the liminal spaces of language and meaning, in the marginal positions suggested by the collection’s title.

At certain moments The Little Edges offers its poetic ambitions with distinct clarity. Take the poem “all, ” which begins with the straightforward statement, “this complex word is an experiment. All. ” Conferring a certain illocutionary force to the word, “all ” begins to frame a recurrent motive: the continual rehearsal of poetry’s evocative potential, materialized here precisely as the persistent exploration of the distinct and changing multiplicities that the word “all ” can summon in each poem and in each utterance. Moten’s “all, ” however, does not envision absolute totalities. Pointing to its own generic affinity with experimental writing, “all ” disregards the possible metaphysical connotations of the term and instead retrieves the contingency inherent to the act of experimentation. And experimentation, in Moten’s writing, is never far from improvisation and music. Less a synthesis than a playful roll call, “all ” evades coalescing into the uniformity of its title; instead it fragments this unity into the differential multiplicity that continual experimentation yields. Within “all ” there runs an irreducible sociality that reveals the experimenter as one among others: “we gathered all our little alls, our little nothings, and at // our sailing he had brought his little all for a venture, on a stylus. ”

It would be hard to overestimate Moten’s investment in collectivity. His poetics of the social is marked by a hyper-awareness of its always being (in) a social scene. His writing departs from a skeptical understanding of the poet as an isolated individual. This skepticism, coming from a poetry premised on the capacity to enact or flesh out social interactions, produces a felicitous effect on the reader. Moten’s approach starts from the premise of necessary human codependence: “as I am, I have what I already have, I’m yours. ” Such an approach brings Moten right back to the act of experimentation: it emerges from sustained scrutiny and meditation on the particular history and expressivity of jazz, where the commitment to codependence is cognate to the act of listening in general. This is the reason why the sociality of Moten’s poetry so often takes the form of a latent aurality that assumes not only listeners and interlocutors but also other contrapuntal voices and sounds beyond the purview of the text itself. The suggestive title “hand up to your ear ” captures this kind of scene, where sound is portrayed as haptic and corporeal, conducive to the very bodily contact that produces and preserves sociality itself: “Listen to the sound through one another’s skin. Preserve the sound / through membrane and water, to find our form in corresponding. ”

Rather than the canonical bard speaking to and for his audience, Moten puts himself in affinity with the jazz ensemble, with the musician among musicians. In “excerpts from european episode, ” the opening section of his series on pianist Jaki Byard (here deemed “a sociologist ”), Moten describes “the history of the soloist who is not one, of one in nothingness in cherry and / choir, ” which could very well describe Moten’s own poetic persona. As with “all, ” this poem builds up from a conceptual tension between poverty and excess, nothingness and self, dispelling any antithetical oppositions in favor of a mutual bond. The poem carries on by diffusing the figure of the soloist, letting openness predominate as the dominant figure: “the history of the soloist who is not one, of one in nothingness in cherry and // choir, of things in blossom in aperture, a stray horn through a crack in the wall, the narrows between the open // mouth of the wall, the decreasing permanence of the wall in open air. ” Moten’s lines often break out this way and display their kinship with projective verse, where the poem is allowed the liberty to meander and take precedence over the poet.

A similarly recurrent feature of The Little Edges is Moten’s propensity to namedrop. (In fact, the book’s dust jacket advertises an online reader that one supposes could help contextualize all these proper names. Unfortunately, it offers little more than what a meticulous online search could.) If at the sonorous level Moten’s poetry enacts the social scene of music, at the referential level it ramifies into multiple historical and cultural nodes. Counting the pieces whose titles incorporate proper names (“the gramsci monument, ” “mudede waters like josé muñificent. ”), along with the casual allusions to musicians (Morton Feldman, George Clinton, Cecil Taylor, Nancy Wilson) and the references to film and television (The Wire, Do The Right Thing), The Little Edges seems intent on laying down a map of its cultural and intellectual bearings.

One instance of this bricolage is “spanish tinge no. 1, ” also part of the series on Jaki Byard, which links the pianist with Ferdinand II of Aragon: “like maroon speed and iberian note blacking on the loosaphone, when ferdinand was thinking // of expansion, wondering where the surplus would come from, wondering what the surplus was, wary as all his // cups began to fade, the theory of itinerant note blacking and line worrying was celebrating a thousand years of / bursting from the writing of its practice like a star. ” As the poem’s syntax begins to trace the fast movement of the Spanish fleet, only to interrupt it with the appearance of Ferdinand and his static pondering over the finances of the Spanish empire, Moten stresses the contrast between the simultaneous thought of transatlantic expansion and the overarching motion of this still indeterminate practice. Belittled in its lower-case spelling and engulfed by the movement that precedes and follows it, the proper name cedes its individual primacy (or in this case its royal sovereignty) to the force of this centrifugal expansion. The fragment orbits around the colloquial and polysemous term “blacking, ” which is Moten’s way of evoking collective black experience through the tradition of Byard’s trade. Cohabitating the same poem, these referents open up a scene of historical and cultural friction that quickly turns political. Further on the poem declares defiantly: “the venereal nation under our // feet won’t even have kings for a day. ” No less central to Moten’s interests is how the poem’s figure of artistic creation, the bursting star, “was already there as something else from someplace else // always. ” Pointing to a certain immanence sustaining the poetic act, where poiesis approaches metamorphosis, Moten envisions art as a transhistorical practice that remains continuous beyond the discrepancies of its forms.

The meaning of this figure resonates strikingly with the recurrent lyricism of The Little Edges, which works like apostrophic address but differs in one crucial respect. Moten does not turn to the traditionally sanctioned repositories of poetic value but rather works through the lyric presence of African American vernacular: “when he ready to get up and do his thing, when he wants to get into it, man, it’s paramilitary // theory. ” Moten’s lyrical address, in a sense still complying with being overheard, stands as one of his most noticeable traits, yoking his theoretical sophistication to his musicality: “we pound plenty, baby, softened in our program, our transubstantial fade and crossfade bodies, baby. ” This is also where Moten’s political project takes its roots, in the articulation of an ageless tradition that finds its present in African American forms of sociality. As “the gramsci monument ” puts it: “projection’s just us that’s who we are that’s who // we be. we always be projecting. that’s all we have. / we project the outside that’s inside us. ” That is, Moten’s poetry strategically envisions a project in the literal sense, projecting into the future the surviving collective experience that connects past and present.

June 2017

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Lisa Robertson, 3 Summers

Toronto: Coach House Books, 2016. 120pp. $17.95

Reviewed by Sam Rowe

“4:16 in the afternoon in the summer of my 52nd year / I’m lying on the bed in the heat wondering about geometry.” Thus begins 3 Summers, Lisa Robertson’s new collection of speculative lyrics. From an almost neo-romantic placement of the poetic speaker in a concrete present, Robertson immediately passes to meditation on the most abstract of sciences. This conjunction of lived embodiment and geometry, corporeality and form, is the project of 3 Summers. Attending to the immanence of form within the body, this book is both a statement of materialism and a statement of corporeal aestheticism. Materialist polemic in whatever guise too often takes the form of a glum and predictable reductionism. Robertson charts a different path: she avows a militant materialism, but a materialism of the superficial, the dandiacal, and the profligately lovely. Robertson’s growing body of work amounts, arguably, to a quietly audacious defense of aestheticism, and 3 Summers continues this enterprise by turning to the human body. It regards human biology as suffused with errant form and luminous ornament.

The complexity of Robertson’s materialism may stem in part from her eclectic learning: Lucretius haunts the pages of 3 Summers, but so do Edmund Husserl, Karl Marx, and Émile Benveniste. The last of these is likely invoked in the book’s frequent meditations on pronouns, which for Benveniste are a semantic mechanism that draws bodies into the semiotic web of language. For Robertson, the relation of pronoun to body is, at times, one of deflection:

I have no problem with the feminine pronoun.I’m stupid against its animate insult, mewith my scaly feet, my rubbed thoraxmy vibrating wings, my periodicradiation, my repetitive chant and cunt

This strange becoming-insect imagines femininity as an embodied ensemble of periodicities and frictional surfaces. The feminine pronoun lands with a thud against such a body, describing it without being able to penetrate it. Elsewhere, however, the body eludes semiotic capture precisely through its permeability: “What if the body does not signify? / Its wee lost cluster / starts to fade / the skin opening to the moisture of the season / its immunity is landscape.  ” The “wee lost cluster  ” of the body is minor and vulnerable, but its very openness to the world provides a path of escape from reductive meaning. We might call this radical exfoliation.

Robertson is particularly interested in the mouth, the organ which conjoins the biological and the symbolic: “Because of the fact of the structure of the human mouth / the festival of idleness is speaking in signs through my body. / I do this because it’s valueless.  ” Language happens in the body but also remains in excess of biological function. It is a labor that produces the valueless and fills the oral cavity with a bacchanal of profligate sense. As it produces pleasure, so it produces politics: “And the enjoyable gland also / dribbles a politics / for its friend.  ” Politics is an endocrinal excretion, something that dribbles from body to body. The enjoyability of the oral gland thus allows it to open onto a commonly held world:

I made a mistake in languagethen the water maiden came

fizzy things were happening at the surface of my hipsa lectern-cum-scaffold propped my arms

something buzzed behind the iliac crestand my breasts ached at the tops of them where the ribs curved out

so that the language had no content, only connectiveswe speakers were the content

The exact nature of the experience reported here, perhaps one of embarrassment, recedes behind the ripples of sensation that it causes to flow through the body. A linguistic community comprised of relations rather than communications is mediated by these embodied vibrations and pressures.

Robertson’s insistence on the embodied quality of language, however, gives way to a more inscrutable assertion: “this is how the question of form opened to me / leaving behind the aristocracy of concepts.  ” Form is thus a principle of embodied relating to the world in excess of intellectual apprehension. Robertson develops the point exhaustively in “On Form, ” a poem of remarkably sustained lyric power:

the liver is a crown and it is a vesselit constitutes our life form is foldingthe full part is a vase the nostril iscartilage connecting mineral saltsthe root of the belly the palate acelestial dome a vault a sky…

This formalist account of the innards places the body in an analogical network with objects in the world. The correspondences established are organic but not therefore natural, and render the body as a repository of geometry, a life-form in the most literal sense possible. The claim, for example, that there is a sky in the interior of the mouth is not exactly a metaphor or a surreal image. Its correlation of the dome of the oral cavity with that of the firmament is purely figural (and not figurative). Embodied form is not function. It is anatomical but not physiological.

As an anatomical formalist, Robertson meditates with particular gusto on the endocrine system. She sings of toxins and hormones: “What I want to say is / I’ve been the transparent instrument of / certain chemicals and it’s excellent. ” As Robertson reports, the late poet Stacy Doris theorized that “hormone ” etymologically means “star-snot. ” This etymology invests the chemical substrate of subjectivity with a halo of cosmological radiance. The slimy substance of life, in 3 Summers, is shot through with an astral and unearthly light. The most austere materialism becomes difficult to distinguish from mysticism, and bodily sludge is transubstantiated into cosmic holy water: “nothing apart from the Gushing Abdicating Bilious Live Body // the pools of bile glistening on the floor of the operating theatre / beneath the heavenly blue lamps. ” According to such a materialism, there is no valid distinction between aesthetics and politics, “just the juiciness and joy of form / otherwise known as hormones… ”

Robertson becomes more explicit in her politics when she moves from bodies to what covers them: clothing. In “A Coat ” she responds to the first chapter of Marx’s Capital, where this garment exemplifies the general equivalence of objects in commodity exchange. The textile commodity, however, has form in addition to value, and as with the body its form resides in that which exceeds utility. Clothes ruffle, drape, and flow to constitute what Robertson, in an essay on the Value Village chain of thrift stores, has called the “dandiacal body. ” Drawing on a nineteenth-century tailor’s manual, Robertson enumerates the endless surface of such a body:

a waistcoat of white Marcella, single breasted with a stand-up collara blue dress coat with gilt buttons and velvet collara fancy under-vest with a blue under-vesta green dress coat with a fancy velvet vest and a blue under-vesta wide French braid down the front edges around the collar with five volutes of braid down each side of the breast

Clothiers were practicing materialists long before neo-Heideggerians made it cool. Robertson constructs a coat of many colors, an endlessly unfolding, profligately rich superficiality. Its fabric is a deep surface. If “A Coat ” wrests the commodified object out of capital flows and back into concrete materiality, then it does so via immersion in the textural and ornamental frivolity of this surface.

Robertson is all the more worth reading when both Darwinian and materialist reductionisms are on the march in aesthetic thought. The former asserts that a living body is a thoroughly and inescapably purposive object, the latter that such objects must be described as inert matter. Robertson accepts the materialist thesis, but quietly demurs from its most influential corollaries by describing bodies and the language they excrete as florid, intricate, and inefficacious. She attends to that in the body which is purposeless and therefore radiant, and calls it form. Hers is a dandiacal materialism that discerns a utopian dimension of freedom in the ornamental, the surficial, and the fabricated. She declares: “in the fashion-nature dialectic / I’ve positioned myself as the custodian of the inauthentic. ”

3 Summers closes with a manifesto for aesthetic inauthenticity in the form of a remarkable prose poem titled “Rose. ” The protagonist of this first-person narrative obtains the proverbial rose-colored glasses, and reports on her experience of wearing them. The fit is awkward at first, but the new, rosy world she inhabits grows on her (“the blackberries and prune plums did glow like purple diodes ”; “Each person who passed on the boulevards seemed gently inflamed with a precise gorgeousness ”). She happens to be reading Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, with its millenarian promise of a new human being living in a condition known as the Great Health. That is:

Our hidden organs seem to sparkle—the kidneys lift and flare a little; beneath the sternum the long vagus nerve decompresses and throbs like an intelligent tentacle; the body-wide, clear connective web called the fascia becomes a warm communicative medium. Bones feel less heavy.

This new body, suffused with vitality, thrives in the rose-tinted ether of unreality provided by the lenses. Robertson operates in outright defiance of the habitual slander on rose-colored glasses and other devices of aesthetic inauthenticity. The aesthetic, she claims, erects a new Health, a new embodied form of life, and does so precisely because of its artificiality. This is an uncompromisingly utopian idea, which is to say one bound for disappointment. But honest poets are generally utopians.

June 2017

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Kent Johnson, I Once Met: A Partial Memoir of the Poetry Field

West Brattleboro, VT: Longhouse Books, 2015. 176 pp. $18

Reviewed by Jeremy-Noel Tod

Chicago Review

Every poetic community knows “that guy.” He—and it is usually he—is the gadfly in the ointment, the satirist or critic who mocks the pretensions of the leading figures of the day. “That guy” is not so much an individual talent as a singular pain in the ass. In early eighteenth-century England, he also happened to be the era’s finest poet, Alexander Pope, who in The Dunciad and the spoof essay “Peri Bathous” laid mock-heroic waste to his contemporaries. Three centuries later, he is known to Internet sociology as a “troll,” lurking below the line as once below the bridge.

Kent Johnson, as this second expanded edition of his “partial memoir,” I Once Met, acknowledges, has long been “that guy” at the avant end of American poetry. Each short section is structured around the conceit of a remembered meeting in the “Poetry Field.” The fifth reads in full:

I once met Marjorie Perloff. This was at the MLA, though I can’t remember the city; it was long ago, I think it was D.C. She is a great critic and an extraordinarily generous person. Kent, this is Bob Perelman, said Marjorie. Bob, this is Kent Johnson. Oh, so you’re that guy, said Bob. What guy? I said.


The next section, which recalls meeting Allen Ginsberg, has the same don’t-hit-me punchline. It seems likely there has always been more than one reason why Johnson might be known—in words attributed to Perloff—as a “horrible troublemaker.” Perhaps the most notorious dates from the mid-1990s, when he presented the world with the poems of Araki Yasusada: a Japanese poet who, despite surviving the bombing of Hiroshima, did not, in fact, exist.

         Johnson has continued to be a rogue double agent in the poetry wars that have followed the Death of the Author. His archive-procedural masterpiece, A Question Mark above the Sun (Punch Press, 2010), proposed that Kenneth Koch was the real author of Frank O’Hara’s poem, “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island.” The first edition met with legal threats from unamused estates and appeared partly redacted. He also seems to have had at least a mouse-clicking hand in the Works and Days of the Fénéon Collective (Delete Press, 2010), an anonymous PDF which began as a blog devoted to scurrilous “Faits Divers de la Poésie Américaine de Brittanique,” such as the following parable of Conceptualism:

“Ouch!” cried the cunning oyster-eater, M. Goldsmith. “A pearl!” Someone at the next table bought it for 100 francs. It had cost 10 centimes at the dime store.

In 2009, Johnson produced his own edition of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day (2003)—a book comprising the typed-out text of an issue of The New York Times—by pasting on a new jacket bearing his name. Regular readers of

Chicago Review will know that Johnson has serious revolutionary beef with the political amnesia of such appropriative poetics, and its “desire to be legitimized by dominant institutions” (see “Card File, or: Why Communism Looks out of Their Eyes (50 Graphs on Conceptual Writing)” in the Winter 2015 issue).

         The frequently institutional vignettes of I Once Met continue Johnson’s favorite theme of the “Avant Garde in the Ivy League,” and play familiar games with the duck-rabbit of fact and invention (“poetic license,” he writes, has sometimes been employed in “a deepening of the genuine”). What is unexpected is how cumulatively moving the book is. The satirist, wrote Robert Graves, is a left-handed poet, and I Once Met is not so much a compilation of pasquinades as a series of “small and stillborn poem[s],” as Johnson calls the sweetly sincere note addressed to his son, Brooks Johnson.

         The remembered meeting in Cambridge, England with the “tremendous poet Stephen Rodefer” is particularly touching in its truth to the dysfunctional and noble reality of people getting together to hear each other read verse. Rodefer, who died last year, was undoubtedly “that guy” on the Cambridge poetry scene for many years. Johnson’s pen-portrait brings him right back: “Stephen Rodefer came over and said something like…is Eager Kent trying to suck up to you so he can make it in the avant-garde biz? He walked away, smirking, drink in hand, and I followed him down to the wine box.” Eager Kent threatens violence, but all is changed to tenderness by the story of a small boy who sits in on Rodefer’s reading (which rails, Johnson-like, against “the complicities and hypocrisies and treacheries of the post-avant”). The sight of this boy moves the poet to tears due to his resemblance—Johnson learns—to Rodefer’s own son, who drowned at the age of ten. The next day, that guy and that other guy are reconciled in “awkward small talk” by the wine box, walking “out into the courtyard together, where it was cool, in the evening air.”

         The elegaic refrain of the book is “life is strange.” Johnson’s feeling for lacrimae rerum is the secret of his power as a poet, which has often been hidden behind the slasher mask of his satire. His love-hate riffs on the New York School, for example, come down to the essentially poignant contrast between their romantic whimsy and some harder reality elsewhere. Thus the brief text here about having never met John Ashbery, which moves immediately sideways into melancholic parody (“Automobiles go by in the night”) and finally arrives at the image of “a cheap velvet painting…on half a wall, in some bombed out slum, on the outskirts of Beirut.”

         There is much more of such anti-imperialist bathos in Homage to the Last Avant-Garde (Shearsman, 2008), a collection that Johnson published in the UK. Here, his affection for the quixotic nerve of the New York poets also shines through, from the dedication “to the memory of Joe Brainard”—a witty acknowledgement of the model of Brainard’s I Remember (1970), a prose poem of life-trivia—to the final anecdote about the Zen Buddhist poet Philip Whalen, which plays a koan-like variation on Frank O’Hara’s notion that writing a poem is an alternative to picking up the telephone:

No, No, No, he growled, The last thing I’m going to do is write an essay on the relationship between Zen and poetry. I mean, what makes you think that either one even exists? I mean, give me a break. Goodbye. Click.

Johnson’s admirable work as a “militantly anti-racist” editor and translator of (real) non-American poetries is mentioned in passing here, along with his time as a volunteer literacy teacher for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua during the early 1980s. Ultimately, however, the book’s biggest target is Kent Johnson himself, whose vanities and failings are exposed in his clumsy, unremarkable memories of “just saying hello to…nice people,” retold in what he admits is “a somewhat antiquated and affected prose that appears to be, now that I look at it, a poor imitation of the writing of the dear friend of John Keats, Charles Lamb.” One repeated form of praise on the cadenced lips of his courteous manner is that so-and-so was a “true gentleman,” and this is indeed, among other things, a deeply homosocial account of contemporary American poetry—a fact that strikes Johnson about two-thirds through, and launches him into “a kind of strained apologia for great matters that oppress my mind.”

         At its best I Once Met is a work of profound self-critique which challenges the hypocrite lecteur to recognize that “gossip in poetry is…the beating heart of its habitus,” and that if we were all a little more like “that guy” in telling the truth about the frailty of virtue, poetry might paradoxically become a more civilized place. In his story about Peter Davis, Johnson rehearses some convoluted regrets about having spoken too harshly against the Best American Poetry as a culture-industry takeover of “the mysteries and divagations of anarchic, rhizomatic collective life.” True to the spirit of this vision, Johnson doesn’t try to reconcile the antagonism in his sign-off, but instead restates his dialectical attitude even more starkly: “The avant-garde is a rotting corpse. I hope this finds you well, Peter.”

         Johnson’s most recent project is a website called Dispatches from the Poetry Wars. During the Republican National Convention, there was a homepage post that began:

Shares in VHS Concept Industries rose slightly on news that Kenneth Goldmine and Vanessa Plot filed a $100,000,000 lawsuit against Donald and Melania Trump. The suit alleges that on July 19th Melania Trump appropriated without legal authorization Goldmine and Plot’s trademarked concept of replicating material related to African-American topics, texts, autopsies, and First Ladies…

Etc. It’s a neat structural satire. But it’s not as boldly counter-avant-garde—Confessional, even—as Johnson’s apparently true account of talking with Vanessa Place on the train from Princeton to Newark airport, which concludes:

I’m no less sceptical about the current version of Conceptual Poetry, no less sceptical at all. But I have to say that I came away, really, liking Vanessa Place quite a good bit, life is strange.

May 2017

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Robert Archambeau, The Kafka Sutra

Asheville: MadHat Press, 2015. 108 pp. $18.95

Reviewed by Piotr Gwiazda

Chicago Review

Robert Archambeau’s new book of poems The Kafka Sutra differs from his previous book Home and Variations (2004) in the degree to which it explores the possibilities of appropriation as a literary device. Appropriation, moreover, becomes a hermeneutic tool in Archambeau’s hands. A poet and a critic—the author of Laureates and Heretics (2010), The Poet Resigns (2013), and the forthcoming Making Nothing Happen—he employs it to compose his poems and to perform criticism on his textual sources. Entertaining and intelligent, The Kafka Sutra shows Archambeau’s in-depth engagement with this widespread, increasingly dominant poetic practice.

     The title sequence at first quite implausibly grafts several of Kafka’s enigmatic parables onto the subject matter of the Hindu classic Kama Sutra. Describing it elsewhere as “one of the odder things [he’s] done,” Archambeau promises, at least in theory, a merging of existential anxiety, sensual fulfillment, and didactic intent. The result is indeed odd, but not entirely foreign to anyone who has ever had the experience of reading creatively more than one book at a time. The sequence is also disarmingly playful and funny, as are the accompanying illustrations by Sarah Conner. Here is “Couriers,” quoted in its entirety:

He is offered the choice of becoming a husband or the lover of another man’s wife. Men being as they are, he wants to be a lover, as do all the others. Therefore there are only lovers hurrying around the world, near rabid with ardor and bearing their secret letters of desire. There being no husbands, though, there are no wives, so there is no one to receive their amorous messages. Secretly they would all like to put an end to this miserable way of life, but fear commitment.

As he exploits the comedic potential of the double parody, Archambeau makes a not-so-outlandish critical point: he reminds us that Kafka’s writings are pervaded by frustrated sexuality, while Vātsyāyana’s text, primarily known as a manual on the art and techniques of lovemaking, is also one of the world’s most comprehensive guides to a happy life.

     The section that follows, “Responses,” contains sixteen poems inspired or otherwise instigated by other sources, not always literary or written: the comic book character Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (later reinvented as a “punk rocker” by Joey Ramone); a photograph of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and Tony Defries; the design of US and Mexican flags; a typo in his friend’s email message (contextualized through a misprint in a poem by Thomas Nashe); the life and work of Archambeau’s teacher and mentor John Matthias; John Berryman’s poetry (who “taught / [his] teacher”); Milton’s neologisms; Albert Goldbarth’s Budget Travel through Space and Time; and the ancient Gnostic texts discovered in Egypt in 1945. These poems can be most readily called Archambeau’s own. Though prompted by other texts, they are linked to his personal experiences and relationships; in one instance, he quotes and ruminates on some words spoken by his five-year-old daughter. Formally elaborate, they project several authorial stances—anecdotal, excursive, dramatic, meditative. My favorites in this group are “Brightness Falls” and “Nag Hammadi: A Parable,” poems that speak at once casually and profoundly about global politics.

     The next two sections, “Two Procedures” and “Versions,” offer compositions made up completely of borrowed material. “Manifest Destinies, Black Rains” splices two prose passages, one from Anne C. Lynch’s nineteenth-century essay on Washington, DC, emphasizing US exceptionalism, the other from Masuji Ibuse’s 1965 novel about the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. As in most instances of documentary poetry, the choice of textual sources invites readers to draw their own conclusions. In a rhetorically significant maneuver, Archambeau shapes them into nine four-line stanzas, one per page, to make them resonate together with the white space around them:

A magnificent country’s principles of freedom,
completely razed to the ground.
Where they had once stood an arid waste
Scattered with broken tiles.

He follows this with “If Wronging You is Love,” a clever “conceptualist inversion” of a text by Felix Bernstein, itself containing allusions to Luther Ingram’s song and David Antin’s talk-poem “what am i doing here?” Another variation on appropriative poetics comes in the form of “free and loose” translations of French-language poems by Martinique’s Lucie Thésée and twin brothers Gabriel and Marcel Piqueray of Belgium. The product of a collaboration with Jean-Luc Garneau, these “versions” seem akin to mid-twentieth-century experiments like Jack Spicer’s renditions of Federico García Lorca and Robert Lowell’s “imitations” of various European poets. Even as he salvages these relatively obscure poets from the past, Archambeau hints at additional meanings of appropriation. Combining the strains of Surrealism and Négritude, Thésée adopts the persona of her island to express an attitude of protest, proving herself a worthy counterpart to Aimé Césaire. As for the Piqueray twins, the elusiveness of their verse can perhaps be explained by the fact that they did not believe in individual authorship and often published under pseudonyms.

     Archambeau concludes The Kafka Sutra with a prose “afterword” in which he reflects on the partisan nature of poetry criticism in the past several decades and his own resistance to polemic. If not exactly the key to his book, the essay comes close to being an explicit statement of Archambeau’s broader agenda, which is predicated on a relatively modest claim “merely to describe” poetic texts and phenomena as he sees them. As I noted earlier, he is not only a poet but also a prolific critic, editor, and blogger with a long-standing interest in the social contexts of poetry writing in the United States, as well as an English professor at Lake Forest College. The academic background comes across in the poems, with their numerous allusions and references, mostly to the Romantic, Victorian, and modernist poetry canon he presumably teaches. Like a good teacher, Archambeau shows us how literature is made: through the zany, delightfully dissonant title sequence, as well as his other “riffs on, remixes of, replies to, or deeply unfaithful translations of what others have written,” he illustrates how one text gives birth to another, how one reading generates another. The essay at the end suggests that, at least in his case, the creative faculty is never too far from the critical.

    Throughout his book, Archambeau also makes an argument about the personal side of writing and reading. What especially stands out to me is the way he pays homage to two individuals who have shaped him as a writer: his mentor Matthias, the addressee of “Working the Piano” (“it is your work // my books are all about”) and his father, a ceramic artist based at the University of Manitoba whose name he shares and who is the hidden subject of “La Bandera,” a poem ostensibly about differences between the US and Mexican flags. In the concluding essay, the younger Archambeau considers his father’s contempt for artistic grandstanding as a likely source of his own “neutral” temperament: “Most of our attitudes are absorbed from our environment without much conscious reflection on our part, and I imagine my distaste for battles about aesthetic recognition and campaigns against forms of art different from one’s own comes less from all those grad school hours reading Bourdieu and Adorno than from seeing my dad roll his eyes at the rhetoric and ambitious yearnings of his colleagues.” Even Archambeau’s biographical note at the end of the book is more than a typical list of publications and teaching appointments. Rather, it’s a graceful précis of his life at its midpoint, as it salutes both of his parents, recalls his beginnings as a poet in Canada and his formative study under Matthias at the University of Notre Dame, declares his fascination with appropriative poetics and his critical interest in the social position of poetry in the United States (he certainly knows his Bourdieu and Adorno).

     The Kafka Sutra is an accomplished book—thoughtfully put together, formally and linguistically adept, comfortable with a wide range of cultural idioms, responsive to world events. It is also a very personal book, expressing gratitude and love to those individuals who have enabled Archambeau’s career.

February 2017

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