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

Read more

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

Read more


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


Read more


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

Read more