Lynn Melnick, Landscape with Sex and Violence.

Portland, OR: YesYes, 2017. 112pp. $18

Reviewed by Cassandra Cleghorn

In every poem of Landscape with Sex and Violence, Lynn Melnick just about eats the mic, pressing it against her lips as she sings so as to boost the bass and rasp of each lyric. The book’s scene is LA punk and grunge, beginning with the epigraph drawn from Hole’s “Asking for It,” and spilling into alleyways in which “it’s the ’80s / and we’re all wearing a whole lot of electric pink,” the poet “lit by Hollywood in a decalescent dress.” As advertised, sex and violence are the order of the day. The book spins out its “choke of triggers,” laying down riff upon riff of blood, bruise, splatter and harm, as the poet takes us through the boulevards and backstreets of her California past. “Consider this canvas of central valley splendor / dull as the usual set of sucker punches—his distinctive // suggestion for a rainy day,” begins the title poem; “I couldn’t splay my sentences // damp into dark. I tried to detonate my body / differently than he did.” In diction and delivery, Melnick stakes a claim to a lineage of powerhouse women rockers: as much Patti Smith and Exene Cervenka as Courtney Love.

In the book’s first pages Melnick heads off the charge of confessionalism: “I am going to confess this once // and then I am going to confess it again // in different ways I won’t admit to but never mind”; and, later, “I’ve gotten to this point where I am just going to tell everyone // everything / that’s ever been done to my face.” Even the upgraded critical discourse of “postconfessionalism” is insufficient to Melnick’s Landscape. Yes, Melnick tells all with a frankness that recalls the tradition: “I left for a spell, I left for // a spell and was cuffed and gagged / and let go. I’ve never told anyone that.” A few lines later she adds: “So I’ll share // with you my most recent fat lip, how / the new red I bought covers it // pretty good.” But, having made her reader squirm under the pressure of being named her sole confessor (a twisted version of the intimacy effect of a platinum hit that seems to speak to each of us alone), Melnick pins us in a tighter place: “How it hurts when you / kiss me and I don’t dare look // up—there’s no end to this—chemtrails / the world destroying itself.” The poem ends with this abrupt pan upward, to the ominous skywriting that the poet cannot let herself look at and yet is able to describe, leaving the reader holding the smoking gun of unwanted complicity.

Having read generations of forthright, personal poetry, we are used to seeing poets in positions and scenarios we cannot easily unsee (e.g. the widely circulated photo of Love’s stripped-naked body forcibly groped and assaulted by a mob of fans, the image that moved the singer to write “Asking for It”). We are used to deflecting a poem’s second-person address, certain that Plath’s line, “the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you,” refers not to us personally, but to that “Daddy” over there. Faced with brutal revelation, we as readers seek the familiar, if awkward, third point from which we may overhear, without entering into, the poem’s proper dyad. However keenly I feel for Sexton’s young daughter, having been made privy to her mother’s regrets, I am not that child. This distinction is what allows us to be moved by the poet’s candor, and by the imagined effects of that confession upon the one who should be hearing it.

What’s shocking about Melnick’s book, and what takes it out of the space of the conventionally confessional, is its positioning of the reader as the poet’s male assailant. She taunts us: “I think you should grip your dick through your jeans and ask me // if I can handle it because you know I can, right?” And again: “screw me sideways right here on the sidewalk / like you said you might like to screw me,” and “whistle so loud at my fat ass / that I jump like a stray rodent.” Asking, “Why am I walking away from you? Why am I here on the sidewalk?” she answers, simply, devastatingly, “I’m yours.” Strains of Whitman’s great poem “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand” are almost audible: “Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you, /…Or if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing, / Where I may feel the throbs of your heart or rest upon your hip.” Take me, says Whitman to his reader, I’m yours. But the poisonous gas of rape culture, catalyzed by the accumulating fragments of Melnick’s history as victim of assault and rape (“holding all my blood in vials on my lap”), makes violence, not seduction, the key term and transforms the compact between writer and reader accordingly. When the reader is made bystander to scenes such as the one wherein a man ties the poet to a fencepost, or another in which a man “shoves [her] face / into the flatbed then punts [her] / when he’s filled [her],” the reader’s choices are severely narrowed. Organizations such as RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) tell us that bystanders may intervene to change outcomes, but there is no “stepping in” for the reader; the violence to which we are made witness in this book is always already after the fact. In such a context, reading becomes an act of muted listening, building in the reader a rising sense of powerlessness to do anything other than stand by. We may not have asked for it, and yet we must take it.

At the end of the book, the poet returns to the idea of confession, simultaneously fulfilling and refusing the promise she herself had broached:

and, while you are probably waiting for confession
because you think that’s what I’ve been doing here all along

this is not a story of how my body was first held down
before I’d even hit double digits

on a dingy carpet whose fibers are still
on my tongue, whose burn to my cheek I didn’t even notice

amid the more traumatic injuries

The cumulative experience harrows and dizzies. I received the book during the first days of the #MeToo Movement, in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s exposure as Hollywood’s most aggressive sexual predator (as of October 30th, sixty women had stepped forward to share their stories of assault and rape). Numbed by thousands of tweets and testimonials, I approached the book warily. Melnick’s poems subsumed the media stream and swept me to higher ground. In their temporal reach—back to the poet’s youth (“I was smut. / The rest was burnished”), and forward to “the story of how I got to live”—the poems accumulated to let me see behind the gropers and rapists, into the very system that grooms and protects them at all levels of our society. Melnick’s achievement is the crafting of a clarion voice that keeps me reading what I both want and desperately do not want to read, cutting through every scene with language that works by turns as razor wire and lifeline.

Another, unlikely epigraph from Jared Farmer’s Trees in Paradise: A California History shares the page with Courtney Love’s lyric: “…there is no such thing as an innocent landscape.” Farmer tells the decidedly nonparadisial history of the Golden State through an account of the importation, exploitation, and mismanagement of its four most identifiable trees: redwoods, eucalyptus, citruses, and palms. In an interview, Melnick has said that Farmer’s book inspired her own project: to represent her own body and personal history as intertwined with “this dangerous, messed-up, haphazard landscape,” which encompasses both her home state of the 80s and 90s, and the US of Trump et alia. The landscapes that emerge from Melnick’s poems are not mere metaphors. Concrete, pavement, “(tarmac, blacktop, lonesome),” “the neon of a floozy motel,” and the “post-industrial particulate” of “the spiky city” come to feel every bit as natural—that is, as necessary—as the floral species of those southwestern biomes that ground these poems: greasewood, cranesbill, “Doomful orange garden!” Palms appear in the book’s final, fragile oasis: “(I almost forgot to tell you) // I lived // in a desert / where palms are signposts of water, not the want of it.” In counterpoint to the book’s primary story of violence and survival threads the motif of California’s tenuous resilience.

The most important implications of Melnick’s book follow from the poet’s ability to sensitize us to the longue durée of our toxic moment. As victims, allies, assailants, and bystanders, we are with this landscape—not simply in it or on it—and each of us has a hand in its destruction and its rebuilding. “I’ve been trying to plant a palm in every garden / I slink through,” Melnick writes. In her singular, sly way, Melnick names and tends to her own pain and anger so as to bring us as readers into the slow poem-by-poem regeneration of our common culture. Holding us to the act of witnessing her subversive repair—as we hold her book now in hand—Melnick makes us party to her radical intervention.

February 2018

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FLARF: An Anthology of Flarf.

Edited by Drew Gardner, Nada Gordon, Sharon Mesmer, K. Silem Mohammad and Gary Sullivan.
Washington, DC: Edge Books, 2017. 288pp. $36

Reviewed by Jasper Bernes

Flarf was and is many things—a movement, a method, a friend group, an in-joke, an email list. But mostly Flarf was a product of a keenly-felt transitional moment, when the various institutions that glued American poetry together were soaked in the solvent fluids of emergent social media. Poetry, and discourse about it, was no longer beholden to the moderating temporality of the print journal, the gatekeeping of the university MFA program, or the fierce tribalism of the city-based avant-garde scene. I remember finding it remarkable that my new online friend of the time, Anne Boyer, could win so many readers, admirers, and friends merely by the strength of her blog. For someone like me, stuck in a remote town and fresh out of an MFA program determined to insulate me from everything interesting in the world of poetry, these blogs and email lists were an essential part of my education.

This was, in other words, a Golden Age of amateurism, before blogs and bloggers were gobbled up by Facebook and Twitter or domesticated by professional websites and institutions. Frequently composed from content found on the user-driven sites of the early internet, Flarf channels these amateur energies, but not in a simply celebratory way. The Flarf creation story that Gary Sullivan tells involves his bad feelings upon discovering that his grandfather had been hustled by the scam site, which awards prizes to everyone and anyone in order to sell them bound anthologies of prizewinners. In response Sullivan writes the worst and most offensive poem possible and submits it to the site, in order to test if there is any lower bound to their aesthetic judgment. (There isn’t; he’s also given a prize.) Flarf is born when Sullivan convinces others on the subpoetics email list to submit their terrible and offensive poems to the site. Far from a celebration of this new age of amateurism, Sullivan’s initial move seems to be an attempt to preserve aesthetic judgment, to ridicule and parody the sheer awfulness of the poems recognized by

Sullivan’s oft-circulated account of how Flarf was born shouldn’t be the last word, since other Flarfists would display a different attitude to the masses whose language they reworked. But one of the few disappointing aspects of the anthology that Edge has released is that it provides no context for understanding the work of the twenty-four poets included therein. I do not think Flarf is so self-evident and so well-understood a phenomenon that an anthology can dispense with a contextualizing introduction or some sort of prose supplement. Flarf was born out of that heady “blogosphere” and dozens if not hundreds of posts and mini-essays, both affirmative and critical, were written about it. While it will surprise no one if the editors dread a return to such debates, few contemporary readers are battle-scarred in this way, and they would benefit from some historical and political contextualization.

The age of amateurism was also a period when the US government was in the process of killing hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sullivan’s submission to occurred in 2001, right after the dot-com bust and right before the launch of the war on terror and the modern surveillance state. Fifteen years on, the power of these poems resides in their ability to capture the goofy enthusiasm of early Web 2.0 in such a way that you can hear the bombs in the background. This was also an age of relative political powerlessness, at least by comparison with what comes after the economic crisis of 2008. The anti-war movement was massive but also massively weak, and more or less evaporated after the invasion of Iraq. Liberalism dominated the terms of resistance and what liberalism meant, more or less, was a politics of irony, despite a brief epidemic of post-9/11 think pieces declaring a new age of sincerity. Encasing the blood and viscera of the bad news in a sausage skin of satire, Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report captured the spirit of the times. The ironic politics of Flarf shares something with these contemporary expressions. Seminal Flarf poems like K. Silem Mohammad’s “Mars Need Terrorists” and Drew Gardner’s “Chicks Dig War,” for example, scour the internet for repulsive views that they might ridicule, intermixing them with the porny, spammy, chatty wordspew of the general online environment. The latter poem is composed in large part of language taken from Matthew Fitzgerald’s Sex-Ploytation: How Women Use Their Bodies to Exploit Money from Men, a predecessor to the pickup artist and men’s rights groups that led the charge of Gamergate and, later, formed the misogynist core of the alt-right. Gardner splices the language together expertly, exposing the bizarre dream logic at the core of the new misogyny, and does so in such a way that you’re never unclear what the point is.

Flarf satire can be used to powerful effect, but in other instances it goes astray. One of the problems is that Flarf often displays a simplistic red state vs. blue state conception of political division, animated by a fear that, in the language of another Gardner poem, “soon we’ll all be praying to John Denver / if we don’t allow right-wing poor people to feel happy ALL the time.” Sullivan is explicit about this connection in his Flarf origin story. As he notes, “the flarf ‘voice’ in my head was that of my father, a transplanted Southerner who likes to pontificate, and who has a lot of opinions that kind of horrify me.” This sort of “flarf voice” is fairly prevalent among the poems collected here. Without putting too fine of a point on it, many of the dramatic monologues from language found on the internet express, through ventriloquized irony, middle-class contempt for poor (or rural or uneducated) whites. Mixed in with that contempt is an unmistakable enjoyment in saying the unsayable, experimenting with language and viewpoints deemed off-limits by middle-class liberal standards. Sullivan is explicit about this as well. He found the norms of the listserv where he first experimented with Flarf too “P.C.” and “began using ‘flarf’…as a way of keeping [his] own tendencies toward repression” at bay. Eventually, Sullivan and others created the derepressive space of the Flarflist, where they could share their own experiments with socially toxic materials without fear of censure.

We have here, in miniature, an allegory of internet discourse. On the one hand, the politically correct discursive norms of a certain social media space; on the other hand, the troll who would violate them. This scene has played out in countless ways in the decade and a half since Flarf emerged. The troll will tell you that they have no avowed commitment to the content of their challenges. Their interventions are purely a question of form—the offensive content is therapeutic, or it’s there to prove a point about free speech, to attack the sanctimony and self-righteousness of the politically correct. In the Trump era, however, when the trolls show up with knives and guns, such claims have little ground to stand on.

Flarf is not merely a troll poetics. There are other tendencies, as a reading of the anthology will make clear. In some hands, Flarf seems a variant of documentary poetics, an attempt to sound the depths of nascent digital cultures, providing a cross-sectional study of worlds heretofore understood as separate. In the best Flarf, there is an infectious, lexicographic joy at the weird wondrousness of contemporary English. Jordan Davis captures it nicely: “‘What I love about chat rooms / Is that they’re already halfway to poetry.’” This is a sincere rather than condescending celebration of amateur culture. One cannot read K. Silem Mohammad’s poems without catching some of that joy. A poem like “‘The swans come hither in great numbers’” moves from Lucretius to chat room to spam to porn to literary criticism in the space of a few couplets. The poem seems likely to have been written via “Google Sculpting”—that is, collaged from search results generated by an improbable combination of terms. One of these terms is certainly “swan” and the poem serves as a rather remarkable survey of the fate of that bird as symbol, marking our distance from Mallarmé’s swan frozen in lake ice.

in our culture many people choose to use pairs of swans
to create an undetectable total mind-controlled slave

filled with a sinister creative brutality unleashed to sleep till bedtime
they began to vomit blood and rolled up their eyes

swan districts are an abomination! go the tigers
reflux superstructures whimper outserved intrepid gynarchy

unattended braintrust-plugging minuses won a Nutrisystem contract
stupid-brain rollercoaster mouths asserted “Africa podium hut”

dissonant biharmonic cream-puff underwear-freak bangers
mentally uncovered integral zebra-cellist-messiah dining halls

amazing feats of animal husbandry wherein I poked Mom in the ribs

For Mallarmé, the swan (le cygne) was a sign (le signe) that had become ossified by convention. But for Mohammad it’s less sign than signal, a vehicle for a deluge of associational content. The other search term is probably “vomit” and we might think of this poem as turning the swan inside out, emptying its insides, rather than freezing it in the clear lake of lyric.

Stronger, perhaps, than the documentary impulse though often intermixed with it is a tendency for the Flarf poem to become dramatic monologue. This is clear in Sullivan’s account of the Flarf voice, where he both desires to speak in and yet is horrified by the voice of the other. Not all Flarfologues are animated by the same urges, however, and in the hands of a writer such as Katie Degentesh, the dramatic monologue becomes a powerful tool for documentary exploration. Many of the poems included in the anthology derive from her excellent book The Anger Scale, which used the questions from a personality test (the MMPI) as search strings, and then created monologues from the results. The effect is compelling, and strikingly different from other Flarf poems, in part because Degentesh works hard to make these poems and their speakers internally coherent. The seams and fissures in the poems therefore stand out all the more clearly. We are able to see how the poems originate in contradictory social materials and processes. Degentesh’s poems say something significant about character and personality in the age of social media. Just as the questions of the MMPI call into being certain speakers and dramatic monologues, so too do the algorithms that drive the content we see online, personalized for us through crude though effective forms of typecasting not so different from the MMPI. Degentesh’s poems reveal the people formed by these processes, but also their attempt to speak through the cracks in them. One of the most welcome aspects of this anthology is that it includes newer work by Degentesh from two separate sequences—one concerned with the sex lives of adolescents, and another with the viral properties of the hashtag—that continue the method begun with The Anger Scale. The poem, “My Friends Were Having Sex and I Wanted to Fit In,” for example, is a brilliant exploration of the awkward and uncomfortable nature of adolescent sexuality:

I started wearing bras when my mom told me that I could have sex.
Recently she has asked me repeatedly not to wear a bra, telling me
I am going to watch my loved ones suffer when I die

Everything gets twisted, but in a way that makes a strange sort of sense:

Sometimes I get jealous when this young girl calls and asks Bobby
to be the guy that everyone barely remembered
when the mostly white community met at the mall for caroling.

Flarf is adolescent, then, in the worst and best ways. It can be annoyingly puerile and sarcastic, or touchingly pimply and embarrassed. But adolescents grow up and there are, today, a number of writers who owe a great deal to Flarf. Some of the best poets of the younger generation associated with so-called conceptual poetry—I’m thinking of Trisha Low, Steven Zultanski, and Diana Hamilton—write poems that resemble Degentesh’s to no small degree. These are all writers who use what I would call “post-internet collage” to explore questions of character and characterization, if not dramatic monologue, in the contemporary moment.

Flarf and its spirit lives on everywhere, and perhaps nowhere more clearly than in meme culture. In its moment Flarf captured perfectly the goofy charm of the meme, those in-jokes so inward one doesn’t need to understand them. Take, for example, a poem like Rodney Koeneke’s “Pizza Kitty”:

Kitty Goes Postal—
wants pizza.
Kitty has hat & cape and looks
like a magician…

Observe kitty eating a slice of pizza.
“Eat some free pizza, Kitty!” YUM
(pizza man impatient at the door)

______will not use my ninja kitty paw strike
______naked on sofa with rapidly-cooling pizza
______monster clowns with KITTY FACES!

Meme culture is a politically polarized space, and as much as memes can be innocuous diversions emptied of all content, they are also vehicles for the politics of irony that Flarf and kindred forms explore. Memes emerge from same digital spaces as the troll, from message boards like 4chan that offer up a smorgasbord of ironized racism and sexism. The left has its memes, just as the left has its trolls, but it’s arguable that the meme depends on a structure of feeling that, in this day and age, complements the manners and methods of the far right. With the rise of Trump, troll culture found a raison d’être and a new discipline and organization, taking the streets adorned with the visual and verbal jargon of right-wing imageboards. Flarf emerged in a moment when a person might reasonably believe that satire could expose the absurdity of the powerful and organize outrage. Poems such as “Chicks Dig War” and TV shows such as The Colbert Report could deliver the news and mobilize feeling about it, and though resistance never amounted to much, such things might reasonably have been expected to lead to action rather than paralysis. Trump effectively puts an end to that. His actions and language outstrip even the most imaginative parody. He neutralizes all outrage and scandal by purposely courting it in advance. He is his own satire, the king of the trolls, and effectively puts an end to a left troll politics, not to mention a troll poetics. Flarf’s future lies elsewhere.

February 2018

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The Poetry of Jim Jarmusch: A Review of Paterson

Reviewed by Eric Powell

Poetry has been a consistent, and often humorous, element in the films of Jim Jarmusch. Think of Down by Law (1986), in which Roberto Benigni is infatuated with the poetry of Robert Frost and asks, with his thick Italian accent, “You like-a Bob Frost?” Or Dead Man (1995), in which Johnny Depp’s character is inexplicably named William Blake. Or Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), in which John Hurt somehow convincingly plays Christopher Marlowe as a vampire who has been alive for hundreds of years. But Jarmusch’s love of poetry comes to the fore in his latest film Paterson (2016), set in the New Jersey city of literary fame—the city of Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams (who of course features prominently in the film).

Paterson is pro forma Jarmusch in that almost nothing happens in the film. In place of a plot there is a diurnal filmic sequence that is repeated with minor variations: Paterson (Adam Driver, we’re never given a first name), a bus driver who writes poems, wakes up around 6:00 a.m., looks at his watch, kisses his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), has Cheerios for breakfast, walks to work, writes poems for a while before his shift begins, talks briefly with Donny (Rizwan Manji) who is his shift leader (or something like that), drives his public transport bus, takes a lunch break during which he writes more poetry, walks home, greets Laura—who is always engaged in some new artistic project—has dinner with her, walks their English bulldog Marvin (the winsome Nellie), stops in the local bar for a beer, goes home and goes to bed. This sequence is repeated for a full week, Monday through Sunday, with little development. It is emphatically quotidian, which is where Jarmusch started with his great early films Permanent Vacation (1980) and Stranger Than Paradise (1984).

As an artist of the quotidian, Jarmusch’s technique is minimalist; it reminds me of the music of Philip Glass or Steve Reich, the smallest of alterations in pattern resonating louder and louder over time and through repetition. His films are, in this sense, anti-filmic—or at least anti-Hollywood—eschewing narrative and the eye candy of constant action and special effects.

Another less commented upon aspect of Jarmusch’s postmodernism is his self-conscious play with genre. He’s been quietly ticking off the boxes of the major American film genres, but always twisting or subverting them: Down by Law is a jailbreak film, Dead Man a western, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) a gangster/samurai movie, Broken Flowers (2005) a mystery/road trip film, The Limits of Control (2009) a spy thriller/action film (with absolutely no action), Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) a vampire/stoner film. Paterson is no exception; it’s Jarmusch’s romantic comedy. It’s a story of the love of Paterson and Laura (the Petrarchan reference too obviously spelled out in the film itself); but it’s also about Jarmusch’s own love of poetry.

I was surprised on learning at the end of the film that the poems—uninspired plums-in-the-icebox-style Williams stuff—were written by a professional poet, Ron Padgett. I was grimacing throughout the film each time a poem was read, both because of the poetry itself, which I assumed must have been written by Jarmusch—or perhaps even Adam Driver—and also at the Hallmark-card-kitschy way in which the poems were presented on the screen. This, I thought with a pang, is exactly the kind of innocuous bullshit that people think that poetry is.

A friend justly pointed out the problematic class assumptions lurking beneath the poems, which are either sappy love poems or poems about objects directly in front of Paterson. No doubt Jarmusch and Padgett were going for Williams, but this is denatured Williams: “The Red Wheelbarrow,” for example, now mostly encountered in isolation in anthologies or the classroom, was incorporated into Spring and All, a work at least as formally innovative as The Waste Land. And “This Is Just to Say” was radical in a Duchampian ready-made fashion. Not so, the boring object poems in Paterson. No doubt unintended, the effect of the poems in the film is to suggest that this lowly bus driver is completely incapable of ideas or extended thought or reflection, despite shots meant to convey thought and reflection. Williams’s dictum “no ideas but in things,” is transformed here into: “No ideas. Things.”

The love story has its own troublesome aspects, with Paterson lovingly indulging in his stay-at-home wife’s dilettantish arts and crafts activities and dreams of fame and success, while he labors away at work and his poems. When Laura’s dog Marvin (spoiler alert—kind of) eats Paterson’s notebook that contains all of his poems, handwritten naturally, it feels too much like the old tale of the wife thwarting the great work of male genius.

The best parts of Paterson are the scenes in which Paterson is driving his bus route through the city, the conversations between passengers that he overhears, the unadorned poetry of daily life that emerges through the liminal space of transit. This is what Jarmusch shares with Williams: the rootedness of his films in a particular place. Each of his films is a kind of paean to a place and its unique life, colors, textures, and rhythms. It’s usually a city—New York (Permanent Vacation), New Orleans (Down by Law), Memphis (Mystery Train), Madrid (The Limits of Control), Detroit (Only Lovers Left Alive)—but sometimes a particular landscape—the wild west of Arizona (Dead Man) or upstate New York (Broken Flowers).

Paterson is not one of Jarmusch’s best films. His poetry lies elsewhere, in the painterly eye he brings to composing single frames; in the development of short sequences and their repetitions; in his ability to work within while ultimately transgressing the boundaries of genre; and in his ability to capture the soul of the place where he shoots.

February 2018

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Natalie Shapero, Hard Child.

Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2017. 96pp. $16

Reviewed by Christopher Spaide

If you named Natalie Shapero the funniest newish poet in America, you might not be wrong, but you would be doing her a disservice. Humor is only one of her tools, but it happens to be her most versatile—a fifty-function Swiss Army knife supplying her with tweezers, toothpicks, corkscrews, necessities for survival. The funny poets before her would recognize her non sequiturs, mishearings, toppling-over lists, the sort of brusque Plath-grade oversharing that elicits nervous, what-was-that laughter. They might appreciate the peanut gallery of interlocutors that pipe up throughout her poetry, descendants of George Herbert’s God and James Merrill’s Ouija board pen pals, their speech-balloon interjections rendered in SMALL CAPS: God, who built Shapero “for endings,” “never says anything but YOU HAD ONE JOB”; wondering what kind of dog she’d be, Shapero, or her id, blurts: “I WOULD BE A DEAD DOG, THAT’S WHAT KIND.”

Elsewhere, Shapero sounds like the closest American poetry has come in decades to stand-up, though what kind of comedian is she—a whittler of one-liners?

                                                   I’m in my thirties
and so already know every form of human
repugnance—only a child has anything there
to learn.

An observational comic, handing over anthropological jottings on our own baffling behavior?

After a bath or escape, the dog
stands newly without his collar
and everyone coos ohh aww he’s
, as though he weren’t
on full display before.

An absurdist who treats whimsy with a logician’s rigor?

Charged with attention always, who could not drift

to, say, how untried cowboys may find kissing
unduly burdensome, due to the hats?

Keeping all this together depends on a honed sense of comic timing and a sustained performance, sentence by sentence, of raising one expectation while unsettling two more. A typical Shapero poem, a ten-to-thirty-line routine, starts with a title that dices standard English into a riddling snippet (“Absence, That Which Never”; “Not Horses”; “Teacup This”), sets up one tone or tactic in her first sentence, and lands punch lines in every sentence that follows. “Outside Less”—another huh? of a title—is half conversational coasting, half hairpin turns:

I have been outside less, I have taken to saying,
in the days since my daughter was born
passive, as though it were somebody

else who bore her. And bore her, I also have
taken to saying, as though she were a hole.

Taken a sentence at a time, a Shapero poem seems just arrived at, an on-the-fly sequence linked by free association, false equivalency, and mock clarification: the unquenchable “hole” of her infant reminds Shapero of “a woodpecker” forcing “a gape in my neighbor’s / barn side,” which in turn elucidates Shapero’s infant daughter, that something made from nothing, as she “knocks, woodpecker-like, her searching mouth / into my breast.” Taken as a whole, however, the same poem seems precisely plotted, its parallels and reversals coming into focus—the “passive” birth matching the forcible boring-inward, the mother going “outside less” while feeling peculiarly inside-less, bored-into and boring, before and after her daughter’s birth. The poem never drops its chatty, swaggering composure, even when Shapero talks her way into dead ends: “But I don’t mean to say she / instills in my body an absence,” Shapero reassures us: “What nothing // assembles within me was already there.”

Shapero’s comedic chops were already sharpened in her 2013 debut No Object, a collection anxious with the influence of equally anxious comedians: one poem doubles down on Henny Youngman’s number-one one-liner (“just take / my wife seriously / take her”); another quotes verbatim all the smuggest dirty lines from Woody Allen’s Manhattan. In her new collection, Hard Child (which alludes to Annie Hall’s opening), the humor is less for our entertainment than for Shapero’s cold comfort, understanding everything too late: “All I have coming in this / world is a joke that hits me later.” Shapero’s topics are the same that agonize Allen, oldie-but-goodies for comedy and poetry alike: death, sex, war, Hitler, JFK’s assassination, the apocalypse, pretty much anything insurmountable and verboten from polite conversation. Like Allen, Shapero reserves her best smack talk for the God she half-believes in, spreading bad rumors in the hopes he’ll show up, fuming. Maybe he, she muses, is “like Houdini: / rumored withstanding of any assault, but / in fact it takes only a few well-delivered // blows and a week and He’s gone.” Rarely, reticently, Shapero subjects herself to the same scrutiny—her title poem admits, halfway through, “I was a hard child, by which / I mean I was callous from the start”—but she would rather tilt the surgical lighthead onto others. “I typically hate discussing the past,” that poem concludes, “and treasure the option, rarer and rarer, / to turn from it, as when K.’s twins / were born and one of them / nearly died—I don’t even remember which, / that’s how much they got better.”

The collection’s titular child could be Shapero herself, reluctantly compelled to look hard at a past that’s like one long, difficult childhood: suffering passively, inflicted-upon, irredeemably past but continuous with the present’s troubles. It’s also Shapero’s own child, whose birth gives Hard Child a structure (its two parts, unnamed, document two eras, Before Child and After Delivery) and a new theme that fits her style as snugly as a BabyBjörn. Parenting and its cultish entourage give Shapero—a poet nauseated by dogma, officialese, conventional wisdom—a gallery full of targets. Shapero does not wait longer than the opening poem to report: “I bought the bound ONE THOUSAND NAMES / FOR BABY, made two lists: one if she’s born breathing, // one if not. The second list was longer.” In Hard Child’s first part, the yet-to-be newborn strikes Shapero as yet another worthless fiction to riff on—she imagines dressing the baby, “due to be / born near Halloween,” as the Lindbergh Baby: “This costume / works the best if the baby / is nowhere to be found.” Hilariously, in the second half of the book, the baby stays just as unreal in life as she was before birth, becoming a novel prop in Shapero’s one-woman show. The hospital is complicit, “packing the baby into your arms, / saying avoid the dismal,” only to prescribe Shapero’s specialty, self-subtraction:

remember it’s normal
for the baby to lose weight

in the first days, then regain it, you can check by stepping

onto a home scale holding
the baby, then you just subtract
your body from the scene.

Mother, it turns out, is as much of a prop as her child, dependent on propping up and changing, treacherously ticking with life: “each of us // is a clock, all hammers and counting down.”

Intolerance for even trace amounts of sanctimony distinguishes Hard Child from the past decade’s outstanding collections of poetry on motherhood. Shapero is closer to the loopy Plath of “Metaphors,” one-upping her own caricatures of the pregnant or maternal body: Shapero, learning about an agglomeration of “a thousand small // fish, stuck together and sucking,” confesses that she too is “composed in haste and subject to uncoupling.” A list of Shapero’s ancestors would also include Emily Dickinson, going toe-to-toe with the universe, and John Berryman, with his volatile, meiotic Henry. The living poet whom Shapero recalls most often is Louise Glück, another poet of self-cancellation, formal constriction, and a deadpan that’s practically flatlining. Both poets write from within passivity and powerlessness, prey to everyone, even themselves. (“The great thing / is not having / a mind,” Glück once wrote, “Feelings: / oh, I have those; they / govern me.”) And in Glück, Shapero may have found a model for her disjointed free-verse line, with its unapologetic asymmetries and snapped-off enjambments. “Even a baby stares / longer at symmetrical / faces,” she acknowledges, “suggesting a preference / for pattern, a want // inborn.” But Shapero recognizes how formal perfection can gloss over: “what / if the baby is staring / instead in horror?”

The chief danger of Glück’s scraped-out style is portentousness, clanging hollowly; Shapero, so similar in technique and so opposed in temperament, risks swerving entirely into goofiness with no grit, punch lines that deliver quick laughs with easy ironies. A dozen poems in Hard Child end on a sentence with some form of the words “die,” “kill,” “pain,” or “take my life” (I counted); her least satisfying poem about death finishes with proverbs only a few cheesy degrees from slasher-film taglines: “Death is the worst // sort of lurker, the best sort of soldier of fortune. / It hardly ever refuses anyone’s offer.” In Shapero’s most memorable endings, her music gets impeccable—syntax winding up, meter evening out, perfect rhymes clicking into place—exactly when life starts to seem unfathomable. “Form, Save for My Own,” the poem with the horror-stricken babies, starts to funnel all that horror inward: “I revere all variants / of the human / form, save for my own.” It’s a quintessential Shapero predicament, one woman’s standstill against herself, and no one cuts anyone a break:

My mind has made
an enemy of my body;
it’s all I can do

not to quote Kissinger
on the Iran-Iraq


A poet who ends by rhyming “all I can do” with “LOSE ” knows there’s no way to win. Up on the scaffolding of her crystallized forms, keeping a wary comic distance, there may be a way out.

January 2018

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China Miéville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution.

London: Verso, 2017. 369 pp. $17.95

Reviewed by Alexander Billet

For anyone familiar with the work of China Miéville or the Russian Revolution, there is a question immediately posed by his new book October: The Story of the Russian Revolution: Why should Miéville, author of some of the most complex and vivid contemporary “weird fiction,” be a good candidate to write about the first successful communist revolution in history? The centenary of the Bolshevik seizure of power has of course brought out countless commentaries and dissections of the still-controversial event. Some are useful. Others are disgraceful hatchet jobs. Does there need to be another volume written on what took place in Russia one hundred years ago? What does this curator of the strange and uncanny have to tell us about it?

As it turns out, a great deal. And this is connected to the necessity of revisiting and retelling the story of the seizure of power that took place during the October Revolution. Miéville knows how to use off-kilter lights to illuminate those parts of existence elided by polite conversation. His best work reminds us of the power that exists in alterity: systems cast people into the past, yet these same people often contain an image of our future. Whereas a more traditional historian might describe a sequence of events, Miéville tarries with the moment and the event, mining its different dimensions and its possible outcomes as manifested in a place or a crowd.

The potential of the crowd is a prescient discussion, as ever-present as it is contentious. The refrain that America’s most disaffected and disgruntled are the ones who gave us President Donald Trump is a constant one. Miéville presents us with a markedly different kind of deplorable, however, and a sharply opposed vision of the future. He is a Marxist, and an unabashed one. As such, October is resolutely partisan in its sympathy for the Bolsheviks, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, the ragged soldiers, sailors, and workers who stormed the Winter Palace on October 26, 1917.

Miéville’s method is in both his wheelhouse and the title. As he writes in the introduction:

It is…a short introduction for those curious about an astonishing story, eager to be caught up in the revolution’s rhythms. Because here it is precisely as a story that I have tried to tell it. The year 1917 was an epic, a concatenation of adventures, hopes, betrayals, unlikely coincidences, war and intrigue; of bravery and cowardice and foolishness, farce, derring-do, tragedy; of epochal ambitions and change, of glaring lights, steel, shadows; of tracks and trains.

In other words, it is the creative intellect rather than the analytical that leads us here. This is not to say that Miéville plays fast and loose with the facts, or that there isn’t a rigorously researched reality being sketched for us. The book’s partisanship and willingness to take a side necessitate that the author regard the facts for what they are. Russian workers and peasants lived through both abject deprivation and violent flux. World War I was a depraved bloodbath that threw millions into a meat grinder. The Romanovs were pampered inepts completely detached from the real world and the liberal politicians who attempted to build a society after the tsar’s abdication. They were trying to stop a process they didn’t fully understand. No matter how they feel about the Revolution, all but the most dishonest historian would accept these as hard truths. But how does the truth evolve? How does one reality become another? Explaining this is where Miéville’s gifts as a storyteller are so important. Not in the sense of creating fiction, but rather in knowing that the dramatic also holds within it the stuff of social conflict and change.

Miéville starts his narrative in a unique way: by retelling the myth of how St. Petersburg (later Petrograd), the primary setting for October, was founded. In 1703, Peter the Great himself supposedly thrust his bayonet into the earth and yawped for there to be a city built on Zayachy Island. “This never happened,” the author writes. “Peter was not there.” There are distinct echoes here of Marshall Berman’s literary treatment of cities (St. Petersburg included) in his seminal All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. In such narratives, the city is a contradictory place: at once built from singular triumphalist myth and a multifaceted combination of different landscapes and timelines jockeying with each other. In October, however, St. Petersburg is more than setting; it is its own character, with different versions of itself emerging and taking over depending on which historic force seizes its streets and the form in which it does so.

The breadth and diversity of these forces—some of which emerged during or after the toppling of the tsar in February, others radically transformed and rearranged—are often dizzying. And Miéville, it appears, wants us to feel this dizziness, even if we are never overwhelmed by it. This is no Manichean tale of two sides grappling for a clean victory. Russia’s ruling cliques change face a handful of times throughout the book: the tsar abdicates and leaves a vacuum to be filled by parliamentary bodies pulled between reaction, liberalism, and social democracy of one kind or another. Hard-line military men step in and attempt to wrench control of the nation back into authoritarian hands, impatient with the dithering of compromisers.

On the other side is a restless subaltern that also straddles the divide between futurity and anachronism: a vast peasant majority often forced into squalid circumstances, and a proletarian minority working in some of the largest and most technologically advanced factories in the world. These were further composed of several variants of radical and socialist parties—Bolshevik, Menshevik (Left and Right as time progresses), Mezhraiontsy, Socialist Revolutionary (again parsed into Left and Right wings), and so on—whose ways forward conflicted as often as they dovetailed. When these classes instituted their own method of democratic decision making in the form of soviets, the parties became stages for competing visions and philosophies as conditions grow more and more dire.

What Miéville necessarily must experiment with here is a concept that has fascinated and stumped a great many writers and artists: that of the collective protagonist. It was, in fact, a method of storytelling whose contradictions were drawn into further relief by the Russian Revolution itself, spurring filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein to innovate the method of montage to conceive of “the people” as the narrative’s driving force. Like Eisenstein, Miéville is uninterested in telling the revolution as a tale of “great men” who magically amass throngs of people behind them in the shape of their historic vision. To him, this is not fundamentally where the story exists.

If this is evident anywhere, then it is in the sequences that feature the in/famous personification of Bolshevism: Lenin. It is impossible to talk about the Russian Revolution without him, and both proponents and detractors have granted him a central place in its events. While October does not deny for a second that he was crucial to shaping the path to working-class power, it also has no truck with images of either genius or master manipulator. Miéville is frank, several times throughout the book, about when Lenin was wrong, when he miscalculated, misjudged, or failed to win an argument with the membership of the Bolsheviks. He is also, along with the Bolsheviks, outpaced by events through dint of misjudgment or outright absence several times.

Such debates and arguments are a constant feature throughout the book, particularly within the Soviets (councils) of workers, soldiers, sailors, and peasants. Miéville’s care in connecting the arguments with the consequence of what was happening in the real world, however, saves them from becoming merely interminable chatter. Here is the scene that played out in April when Lenin arrived in Petrograd after months in exile, greeting a Soviet whose elected representatives were urging caution, arguing against the seizure of power and for the continuation of war:

When Lenin at last replied, it was not to the Soviet chair, nor to anyone from its delegation. He spoke instead to everyone else present, to the crowd – his ‘dear comrades, soldiers, sailors and workers’. The imperialist war, he roared, was the start of European civil war. The longed-for international revolution was imminent…. Ever the internationalist, he concluded with a stirring call to build from this first step: ‘Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!’ His Soviet hosts were stunned. They could only watch numbly as the crowds demanded a further speech.

It is the crowds that drive this scene, not Lenin. In this way Miéville reveals how, even within the historico-literary aegis of the collective, certain individuals and their ideas can become conduits for future events, both acted upon by them and in turn acting upon them. This is, after all, the story of a revolution struggling to make itself permanent. Illustrating such a dynamic requires mining the chaos for strands of order, of the common threads that tangle and cut from each other as factories strike, landlords’ homes are ransacked, and battalions revolt against their commanding officers.
Boosters of the revolution might shy from mentioning the violent and senseless crime that streamed into Petrograd life in the weeks leading up to the October Revolution. Miéville doesn’t. This is not, as one would expect were the author a detractor, a play at painting the revolution wholly as an act of depravity. Rather it is to drive home the fact that there was no going back to the old order. It could not hold, and the morbid symptoms (as Gramsci famously called them) were bound to appear. Much like the revolutionaries themselves, the author must find the hints of utopia in an increasingly dystopian sequence.
Seeing these differing realities, these different visions for the future balancing and pulling on each other, hits home the depth of the rupture taking place within Russian society and the possibility for that shift to go in any direction. “The standard of October declares that things changed once,” writes Miéville, “and they might do so again.” This image of history is necessarily one in which crowds become chimeras, transforming the trajectory of time between each singular moment’s pain and promise. It is a markedly different kind of historical event, a different kind of crowd, than the one that lifts the demagogy of right-wing populism on its shoulders. In the midst of overwhelming chaos, there is also the potential for something new to be conceived and invented.

January 2018

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Denise Duhamel, Scald.

Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017. 102pp. $15.95

Reviewed by Angela Sorby

Denise Duhamel’s Scald
deploys that casual-Friday
Duhamel diction so effortlessly

a reader might think heck,
I could write like that,
but then the dazzling leaps

and forms begin—
“Snake Pantoum,” “Conceptual Villanelle”—
and Duhamel’s sentences

don’t even break a sweat,
sailing on with her trademark mix
of irony, grrrl power, and low-key technical virtuosity,

like if Frank O’Hara, Carrie Brownstein,
and Elizabeth Bishop had a baby.
Scald recklessly excavates

the late twentieth century,
dedicating its three sections
to Shulamith Firestone, Andrea Dworkin,

and Mary Daly, a combo
that could be deadly (preachy, passé)
but is, in fact, great;

a poem like “Fornicating”
starts the Dworkin section
imagining “unmet desires”

and absurd anonymous hookups,
ultimately complicating Dworkin’s
infamous anti-het-sex stance

without scorning it. That’s key:
Duhamel asks her readers to picture
these now-dead women

as part of an evolving conversation.
Still, Duhamel’s hardcore
fans, who recall the witty immediacy

of the Barbie poems in Kinky (1997),
might prefer Scald when it tackles
the near–present tense,

as in “Extreme Villanelle,” which starts:
“Our drones, called Predator and Reaper, /
have killed at least four hundred civilians /

as they wiped out extremists,
life cheaper // in the Middle East.”
What, she asks, counts as extremist?

Us? Them? Labels are too easy.
In “How Deep It Goes”
Duhamel claims to hate the phrase

“having it both ways,” because “men
always have it both ways,”
but her poems are too concrete,

too embodied to resolve
into the political binaries of the 1970s
or 90s or now. Even when Duhamel

samples nonfictional texts
her words are not mirrors or lamps
but doors, opening both ways,

between actual and possible worlds.
In “On the Occasion of Typing My First
Email on a Brand-New Phone,”

Duhamel writes, “When I sign ‘Denise’ /
autocorrect suggests Denise Richards /
which makes my ex-husband Charlie Sheen…”

as if the wrong word could disrupt
a person’s whole self, as indeed it can.
When I type my name,

“Angela” autocorrects to “Angela Merkel,”
Chancellor of Germany,
but the error is fixable,

fortunately, since I’d prefer
to skip the Group of Seven summit,
and instead applaud Scald,

a book that displays Duhamel’s
signature verve while adding a layer
of retrospective melancholy,

as befits a poet at midlife,
especially one still reeling from Charlie Sheen’s
drug-fueled and insensitive behavior.

November 2017

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Bill Knott, I Am Flying into Myself: Selected Poems, 1960–2014. Edited by Thomas Lux.

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017. 214pp. $28

Reviewed by Andrew Osborn

Bill Knott made himself out to be a sad sack who compensated for his burlap psyche by donning intriguingly tailored hairshirts. He was also a hilarious, renegade kook, whose copious poems often catch fire from their frictions. As if taking cues from both Berryman’s Sonnets and The Dream Songs’ Henry after cutting his teeth on Surrealism in the late 1960s, Knott expressed his sense-of-self-as-schlimazel with increasing dexterity and wit to achieve an aesthetics of exquisite haplessness. I Am Flying into Myself, edited and introduced by Thomas Lux, offers a sanitized sampler of Knott’s life’s work. It returns to deserving circulation mostly the most refined poetry of a half-century corpus distinguished by crude flourishes. I Am Flying into Myself is especially valuable for its inclusion of brilliant poems composed during Knott’s final decade—that is, since 2004 when, allegedly with regret, he allowed Farrar, Straus and Giroux to publish The Unsubscriber.

That collection, his eleventh and best, displays Knott’s quirky combo of erudition, self-deprecation, and excess in its concluding section, “Poems After, ” which responds to works by an international array of artists and writers. His gloss on the title of “Transhendeculous, ” for example, is clever but also patently obsessive: “Trans(from poetry to music/from Pater to Mater)hendec(-asyllabics)ulous(ridic- of no-brow me to adumbrate the Great Pate). ” Among homages to Borges, Bashō, and Braque, “transversions ” of Trakl, as well as allusive addresses to Alfonsina Storni, José Lezama Lima, and Magritte, Knott reverses the vectors of surveillance in “Archaic Torso of Apollo ” to devise his own sonnet, “Sureties. ” According to Rilke’s sublime logic, the lack of ocular points of origin distributes and magnifies the moral insistence of the god’s gaze: “You must change your life. ” Knott irreverently figures the truncated sculpture’s self-containment after “A tortoise that has retracted everything / Into its obdurate lair. ” Then, imagining “you ” as an assailant who seeks to further vandalize the artwork, he declares that only by assuming the artwork’s divine indifference to human mutability may one attract its notice:

You dance like wallpaper thawing its father
And still you lack that proof-in-all, that aloof
Olympian ennui, the sniper’s prize.

As long as change is your life it will shun you.
No shot will shut your target torso.

The poem’s coup de grâce depends upon the reader’s recognition of that last line as not a reassurance but a threat. To Knott’ s way of thinking—held over from what prompted him to title his second small-press collection Auto-Necrophilia—we are willing Semeles, eager to be offed in trade for proof of an eternal being’ s attention.

I can’t account for this excerpt’s opening simile, but I can say that it’s typical of the zany risks—sudden swan dives, or cannonballs, into the deep end of Dada—that distinguish even Knott’s later poetry from that of pretty much every other postwar American. Knott debuted in the Nixon era as an angry, lovelorn surrealist whose most compelling poems’ brevity preempted others’ enervating lack of follow-through. What distinguishes the gems among his mature poems of the 1980s onward is their fusing of keen, metaphysically extended conceits with demotic language, lowbrow concerns, deliberate figural imprecisions, and flights of inexplicable fancy. The subtitle of Knott’s first volume, The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans (1968), pays impish homage to the French surrealist poet Robert Desnos’s Corps et biens (Body and Goods) (1930). With its refinement, however, Knott’s lyric craft increasingly resembled that of Salvador Dalí’s painting Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (1936). Whereas photo-realists depicting layered architectural angles or art brut painters of slovenly scenes create little tension between form and content and thereby risk having their artistry ignored, Dalí’s exacting presentations of fictive grotesques bring new images into the world even as they heighten appreciation for his technical mastery. Knott’s structured abjectness arrests our notice similarly.

Knott’s revision of Rilke also evades the allegory in the original of the poet’s fraught inwardness. Among Boston’s literary circles especially, Knott was famous—or infamous—for a diffidence that could burst from all the borders of itself like a supernova of paranoid belligerence. Almost everyone who supported him emotionally or artistically—say, by publishing his poems—got burned. I’m thankful that the anecdotes of annoyed but friendly and admiring fellow poets, a lover, and preternaturally forgiving editors which Steven Huff assembled in Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet (Tiger Bark Press, 2017), relieve me of any incentive to let critical focus founder among such stories here. Even so, citing some biographical details and autobiographical poems may help account for the morbid, misanthropic lyric persona we find elsewhere. In I Am Flying into Myself the go-to poems on this score are “The Day After My Father’s Death, ” “Christmas at the Orphanage, ” and “The Closet, ” an elegy for his mother. She died in childbirth when Bill, according to Lux, was seven; three years later Mr. Knott, a butcher, drank poison. By then young Bill was already being bullied in an Illinois orphanage; from there, he was sent to a state mental hospital for some months, lived on an uncle’s farm for a couple of years, then joined the Army and stood guard at Fort Knox until he was honorably discharged at twenty. Around that time he lost track, forever, of his younger sister.

Originally published in Becos (1983) but omitted from collections since, “The Closet ” is raw and disconcerting, aptly claustrophobic. (Editor Jonathan Galassi singles out the elegy as a motivating factor in his signing the small-press poet with Random House two decades before he again reached out to Knott, this time from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Recalling his mother’s closet, a personal space nearly emptied “after the hospital happened, ” Knott adopts the present tense to submerge readers in a toxic gumbo of his bereft childhood self’s saccharine pathos and the adult poet’s embittering knowledge. “Three blackwire hangers ” remain, like

Amiable scalpels though they just as well would be

Themselves, in basements, glovelessly scraping uteri
But, here, pure, transfigured heavenward, they’re
Birds, whose wingspans expand by excluding me. Their
Range is enlarged by loss….

The poem concludes with haunting predictions vowed with the benefit of hindsight: he will dream of “obstetrical / Personnel [who] kneel proud, congratulatory, cooing / And oohing and hold the dead infant up to the dead / Woman’s face as if for approval. ” Having pulled the avian hangers from their imagined perches, the poet-to-be “shall find room enough here // By excluding myself; by excluding myself, I’ll grow. ”

Such abnegation is Knott’s master trope, an unshakable pun on his name. Whether range-enlargement or growth reliably follow from it is doubtful. Knott’s capacity to undermine himself was great. But some of the reagents that mixed so caustically in life made gold in the poet’s crucible. The title poem of The Unsubscriber, reprinted in I Am Flying into Myself, suggests that Knott eventually outgrew the logic of growth by self-exclusion; the so-called outsider poet calls himself out as reluctant to exclude himself by revoking a “de facto ” membership. He has remained in that “vain solipsistic sect, ” that “lyric league ” of youthful naïfs well past his naïve youth. That’s what the lyric endeavor is about, after all: keeping faith in the world as one knows it through a child’s original, sensuous experience, holding out against its translation into fungible concepts. While most grown-ups lack patience with self-discovery’s inefficiencies, Knott stoically acknowledges, with the critical neutrality of second-person self-address, his paying of dues without apparent reward. He is not an unsubscriber because he has let his subscriptions lapse or refused to belong to any club that would admit him; he is unwilling to under-write, to make too little of anything.

That said, Knott’s evocative density—his affinity for knots as well as nots—amounts to his making a lot of few words. At 45 lines, “The Closet ” is among this posthumous volume’s longest poems. Having initially made a name for himself—or for his pseudonym, Saint Geraud—on the strength of aphoristic poems as brief as a single line, Knott never really mastered long-form momentum. Some readers may crank more than once through the adolescent, “pornocoiled ” fantasies indulgently recalled in the 77-line sentence that is “Mrs. Frye and the Pencilsharpener. ” Fewer will want to trudge twice through the 106 fricative-fretted couplets to which “Overnight Freeze, ” formerly published as one succinct quatrain, has overgrown. The tensions that animate Knott’s “great mismatchings ” are more readily felt when set forth in shorter forms like the single ottava rima stanza of “Night Thought, ” wherein pajamas (“floppy statues of ourselves ”) are said to caricature our bodies as the dreams we have while wearing pajamas caricature rational day-thoughts. Less comically exacting—indeed, floppier—than those of Byron’s Don Juan, the octave’s polysyllabic rhymes (pajamas–unserious–posthumousness) diminish its would-be monumentality, burlesquing the form; the concluding couplet commends such slackness, as it “mimics the decay / that will fit us so comfortably someday. ” Knott’s craftiness rewards this kind of reading, attuned to prosodic minutiae, but it’s nearly impossible to sustain across discursive sweeps.

Fortunately, over a third of the 152 poems in I Am Flying into Myself are what Knott called quatorzains, taut fourteen-line poems that range from the one-word-per-line “Quickie ” (which likens poetry to “sex / on / quicksand ”) to the only slightly less skinny “To Myself ” (which likens poetry to a magic carpet so long as you are “willing / to pull that rug out // from under / your own / feet, daily ”) to more conventional sonnets of strictly rhymed decasyllabic lines. When the American Poetry Project’s American Sonnets: An Anthology appeared a decade ago, it was disappointing to find that the chronological cutoff narrowly excluded Knott because, with Frederick Tuckerman, Frost, Cummings, Millay, and Berryman, he is truly among the nation’s most inventive and nuanced masters of that not-so-fixed form. Like “Night Thought, ” “The Sculpture (To —— ) ” exemplifies Knott’s brand of the burlesque; apparently composed after Becos but in time to be included in both of Knott’s 1989 books, the sonnet endangers the bounded shapeliness of sculpture and sonnetry by suspending formality at the local scale of diction and syntax. One might have thought that sequences like “Molding fast all the voids the gaps that lay ” and “we were told to kiss hug hug harder ” would be improved by the addition of commas, or that phrases like “some sort of glop ” and “state-of-the-art polymer ” were anathema to lyric. With Gertrude Stein he wants the lack of such punctuation to innervate our engagement, so that we feel those voids and gaps, that hardening hug. Insofar as the thwarting of grammar registers initially as negative, it ends up only securing the idea that salient negativity—including the space that remains between embracing lovers—represents what their love overcomes:

We stood there fused more ways than lovers know
Before the sculptor tore us away
Forced us to look at what had made us so whole.

This pajama-and-polymer-glop poetics may be appreciated fully only by engaging a full poem. “The Consolations of Sociobiology, ” a timely response to E. O. Wilson’s controversial tome on the “New Synthesis ” of behavioral psychology and evolutionary science, exemplifies Knott’s mid-career shenanigans as well as the star-crossed fortunes of his then default persona. One of the sonnet’s pleasures is the puzzle regarding its antecedent scenario.

Those scars rooted me. Stigmata stalagmite
I sat at a drive-in and watched the stars
Through a narrow straw while the Coke in my lap went
Waterier and waterier. For days on end or

Nights no end I crawled on all fours or in
My case no fours to worship you: Amoeba Behemoth!

Although we can’t trace the provenance of the second, phatic epithet as we can the alliterative first, mapping “Stigmata ” to “scars ” and “stalagmite ” to “rooted, ” we can appreciate the latter as a grotesque expression of idolatry and a bit of phonetic fun: uh-mee-buh-buh-hee-muhth. Both epithets pair the small with the great. And certainly some low-budget, compensatory form of telescopy is underway with that straw, but to what end? Boethius’s early medieval De Consolatione Philosophiae begins with Lady Philosophy’s banishment of the poetic Muses, among whom the imprisoned author had “taken up melancholy measures. ” Knott not only updates Neoplatonism with sociobiology but also makes the latter’s spokesperson the would-be mate who rejects him, resulting in the stultifying scars.

—Then you explained your DNA calls for
Meaner genes than mine and since you are merely

So to speak its external expression etcet
Ergo among your lovers I’ll never be…
Ah that movie was so far away the stars melting

Made my thighs icy. I see: it’s not you
Who is not requiting me, it’s something in you
Over which you have no say says no to me.

Note Knott’s profligate dispersal of poetic Easter eggs: among them, a faux epiphanic “I see ” occasioned by its homophone icy even as this adjective qualifies the speaker’s spurned loins; also, the concluding chiasmus of “no say says no, ” which corroborates as significant the speaker’s self-correcting tic, heard earlier in the poem’s third sentence, whereby he twice flips the positive on to utter a negative no, rendering his hyperbole more pathetic without dampening it. He’s failing to thrive on the fitness landscape, and he knows it. Sad. Donne rarefied the crude elements of eros with his prosodic ingenuity and ductile figures; Knott’s conceits are no less clever or complex, but he reverses the alchemy, undoing Donne with bathos.

Nothing about this poem’s core concern requires that it take place at the movies, however. Like that line about “wallpaper thawing its father ” in the Rilke revision, like Cy Twombly’s scrawlings, the signature on this sonnet is distinctively illegible. Knott seems to have recognized the potential for an apt analogy: eschatological justifications for perpetually deferring gratification are to the equivalent selfish-gene argument as the heavenly vault (overhead, with its stars) is to the silver screen (across the lot, with its stars) and as infinite night is to caramel syrup. Moreover, the discontent one feels despite efforts to adopt a new perspective—jailed in Ravenna, unrequited at the drive-in—is like the chill, in the one case, of astronomical voids and, in the other, of a soda equilibrating in one’s lap. The poet-speaker intuits that he need not foreground the prosaic play-by-play. By distorting proportions and relaxing syntax he implicates the complex analogy within the sonnet’s texture, where it abides like a watermark. There’s even something about the repeated adjective waterier—its admixture of ordinariness and rarity, its nod to a lapsing, its insipid double-/Ər/—that lets Knott use it to mark this mode of making suggestive mistakes about scale as his own.

Louis Zukofsky drew from the calculus to define his poetics: “An integral / Lower limit speech / Upper limit music. ” Knott’s version would be this:



And that’s not because, with Auden, he projects some prudish Time that spies from the shadows, interrupting lovers’ fun. Knott’s antipathy to established norms was such that, although he’d readily allude to Pater’s famed claim about art’s aspirations, he’d also then spurn music as a satisfactory goal. His yearnings are erotic, not melodic. Similarly, “speech ” is too plainspoken and hygienic to be his lower limit. Imagining lip-readers who move their lips as effectively captivated in a process “less translation than transference ”—he has in mind, I think, the physicality of reading lyric poetry—Knott writes of “even a cough, a kiss ” as “enunciations / which paraphrase the space which runs // through all speech though all tongues try / to gun that gap by perusing, musing / mere coherence. ” Given the syntactical complexity of this fragment, it’s evident that he wants us to read and reread, working out the sense in our mouths. He’s acutely aware that articulation—“mere coherence ”—often misses its mark. But even as language fails to convey certain nuances of intent, its sounds avail a sensuous surplus. As he implicitly argues in another of his stand-by sonnets “Depressionism, ” bombs sometimes fall shy of their targets, but by eschewing specific aims, the poet may fruitfully repurpose inconvenient craters. He may make gardens of depressions.

By remaining true to Knott’s habit of arranging the new and recirculated poems in any given collection randomly, Lux similarly obscures the chronology of the poems included in I Am Flying into Myself. Even so, by comparing out-of-print books, vanity editions, and the hundreds of PDF collections freely available at, one may estimate many poems’ dates of composition. One who goes to that trouble finds that Knott did grow, poetically, by excluding much of his former free-radical malaise from the poems that first appeared in either The Unsubscriber or this new selection. Few would remain unmoved by the panicked staccato that modulates to febrile pining in “The Closet ”—“I’ve fled / At ambush, tag, age: six, must I face this, can // I have my hide-and-seek hole back now please, the / Clothes, the thicket of shoes, where is it? ”—but it’s good, after hacking head-down through decades of thicket, to find a glade. “First Sight, ” for example, wends among a short series of speculations with unusual calm. It initially appears to be about summer but more truly concerns the misattribution of vagueness and the desire to sustain an aesthetic condition that Borges called, in a phrase later recommended by Ashbery as a key to his own early aims, the “imminence of a revelation. ” Knott’s analogous phrase is the sonnet’s ninth line: “a hesitation at the threshold of itself. ” Summer’s apparent haze is occasioned by the screen-mesh on the doors through which we open our prospects to it. To open the winged pages of I Am Flying into Myself upon new poems that either avoid the first-person singular altogether or divest it of its former rancor and passive aggressions is a revelation.

“Windowbeam, ” a quatorzain of seven couplets, provides an opportunity to appreciate what crucially has altered because it retains Knott’s misanthropy. An opening series of epithets reminiscent of George Herbert’s “Prayer (I) ” expands into Manichaean moralizing. Intrigued by a ray of daylight’s vulnerability to pervasion even as it invades a room, Knott asks the “sunstripe penetrant, ” “what made your phalanx fail: why can’t // its gallant-greaved angels’-armor / avert our dirt…? ” He answers that humanity, and thus the domestic space this side of the pane, is not only corrupt but incorrigibly corrupting: “each mote of us / holds abject thought that blots with dust // your gold-shed greatness. ” The former impulse toward self-censure persists but the inclusive pronoun shares any shame across a universal community, and the Hopkinsian exuberance of medial sound-play buoys the mood.

“Wishing Well, ” which attained its final five-quatrain form in the second half of 2010, is another of the most deftly realized new poems in I Am Flying into Myself. Here, again, Knott holds in check the emotional miasmas that formerly accrued to his use of first person. Tossing a coin in a well, one pays not for a wish, he suggests, but for the privilege “to smash apart that calm // gleaming ” surface and thus introduce to a static situation that other kind of change. One trades the coin for a “claim / on the future ” in which something new will happen. One buys time. Halfway through, Knott pivots from wish to the slant-rhymed guess, effectively reorienting the poem’s unknowable dimension from the temporal (“the future ”) to the vertical (“a depth I can only guess ”). If wishing is already a secular dilution of prayer, then a guess is that much more so, and yet the mathematical sublime resurrects transcendental considerations. The poem concludes in interrogative paradox even as it introduces the promise of a new exchange: of worldly lucre for solar luxury.

And even if it reaches that far,
plummeting through the rich
rings of its sinking to reach
a bottomlessness whose core

is death’s perhaps deepest ore,
there where the end gathers
will my silver ever bring me
any of the gold it shatters?

As it plumbs the narrow well of itself, the poem amasses sonic riches—the /Iŋ/s of plummeting–rings–sinking, the slippery sibilance of bottomlessness’s double suffix, the reverb of there–where and silver–ever—and accrues other interest. Even if little of the sun’s gold emerges as a return on Knott’s down-paid coin, however, I see such poems as gleaming yields on his lifetime investment; he made malleability valuable under the grotesque’s imprint and now remints it with a fairer face.

But my favorite poem in the volume may be “Merry-No-Round, ” a quatorzain of couplets that was also in The Unsubscriber. In I Am Flying into Myself, however, Lux has placed it immediately following a newer sonnet circa 2009, “There’s the Rub. ” In this Shakespearean context, “Merry-No-Round ” may be read as a telegraphic variation on Ariel’s progressive releases from incorporation in a blasted pine and from indenture as a minion entertainer to true freedom among the lighter elements. But it’s unencumbered by The Tempest; it isn’t an importantly allusive poem at all. Curiously, with Knott’s earlier raging and lusting, with the plaints of self-pity and slapstick profanity, much of his former allusiveness has flown as well. As the title suggests, the central image is a carousel’s:

The wooden horses
are tired of their courses

and plead from head to hoof
to be fed to a stove—

In leaping lunging flames
they’d rise again, flared manes

snapping like chains behind them.
The smoke would not blind them

As do these children’s hands:
Beyond our cruel commands

The fire will free them then
as once the artisan when

out of the tree they
were nagged to this neigh.

If writing poetry is like sculpting, then writing poetry as Knott does is like nagging neighs from knotty wood. To figure artistry as nagging is typical Knotty bathos: it is recuperated by the wit involved in deriving the pejorative verb for verbal action (nagged) from a pejorative synonym of the noun horse, nag, which probably derives from the onomatopoetic neigh. In “Wishing Well, ” certain rhythmic and syntactic flourishes—the fluctuations between seven and eight syllables, between three and four accents per line, and the anastrophe of “whether such a small as this / sacrifice is worth one wish ”— endowed with fluency a structure that had no correlative in its essentially static scene. Here, the mostly perfect rhymes secure couplets that close a bit earlier or later than one expects because the erratic rhythm conveys the muscular leaping and lunging and snapping of chains.

Literary history won’t care—or shouldn’t care—that Knott was often ornery. In the short poem “Worse, ” he presents himself as impoverished and ungenerous: “All my life I had nothing, / but worse than that, / I wouldn’t share it. ” But his thousand-some freely available poems give the lie to both claims and, at any rate, are no longer his to dispose. I Am Flying into Myself arrives as a huge gift, in large part because Lux and Galassi have pulled Knott’s magic rugs out from under him, seized their invisible reins, and steered the process of canonizing a selection of them away from Saint Geraud’s sometimes stupid and raunchy apostasies. I am grateful to have first encountered Knott in his no-holds-barred Outremer (1989), whose bill of lading alone—with titles like “(Castration Envy #21) Does the Swordswallower Shit Plowshares? ” and “No Androgyne Is an Archipelago ”—repaid the embarkation fare and ensuing seasickness. But I’m far more grateful to have found further evidence in I Am Flying into Myself that, later in life, Knott snapped some of the chains that had bound him to carousels that weren’t going anywhere. The artisan that Knott became nagged his nays into freely unpredictable holding patterns, living forms that answer to his suggestive title “Rigor Vitus. ” May they endure. May they never go up in smoke.

November 2017

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Solmaz Sharif, Look.

Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2016. 112pp. $16.

Blunt Research Group, The Work-Shy.

Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2016. 160pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Ingrid Becker

Browsing through a photo-album, making a long distance call, receiving a letter or a visitor, heading home, complaining about work, picking someone up at the airport, using a paper and a pencil, having sex, having a family, having a state, having a language, having a name; these “daily, daily things,” as Solmaz Sharif puts it at one point in Look, are privileges tightly controlled and distributed by political, legal, and cultural institutions whose power is maintained by specific grammars, protocols, processes. And by textual sites like the US Defense Department’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, a source that Sharif, an immigrant of Iranian descent, draws on, disrupts, repurposes, and tangles up with the experience of the minoritized bodies it encodes, targets, and kills. The re-appropriation of found language is at once a method and a subject for the poems, which explore the circulation of meaning through military chains of command, mass cultural channels, family histories, and who-knows-where as it comes to us, the readers.

Sharif begins by defining a zone of combat whose borders she goes on to flaunt, to redraw: “Look—(*) In mine warfare, a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence.” The poems are mined from an admixture of official and personal accounts of human experience in such a way that this “mine circuit” calls up questions of self-ownership and the relation of a self to the influences that may shape it. Read in the context of formal play, of poetry’s capacity to relieve words from the burden of everyday usage, the “sanctioned twoness” of reference illustrated by mine/mine is something to take pleasure in. But it creeps eerily, urgently, through the realities that matter to Look, highlighting the double standards that undergird forms of disenfranchisement and aggression against people from the Middle East, of Muslim faith, and of color in today’s political climate.

The longer history of biopolitical control and its ties to white supremacy is taken up in The Work-Shy, Blunt Research Group’s investigation into early twentieth-century eugenics initiatives in and outside the US. Like Look, the book falls in with contemporary trends in poetries of citation, documentation, and witness, in which the political and ethical stakes of using found language are often heightened by a focus on representing those deprived of the right to—or the instruments necessary for—their own self-representation. Attempting at once to acknowledge the historical violence embedded in its archive and to avoid its reproduction, the members of Blunt Research Group enforce a constraint: they will only use language from the records they uncover. Their choice to remain anonymous as they rearrange what they call “loan words” raises important questions for the entire field of citational and conceptual poetics—which includes word-borrowers of many stripes—about sources, sourcelessness, and what sorts of realities inhere in projects of linguistic remediation.

“The names are real.” So says the Blunt Research Group in the preface to “Lost Privilege Company,” the first of three sections in The Work-Shy. Frances, Cornelius, Josephine, Dorito, Edward, Pedro—they emerge, ghostly yet bearing intense gravity, from the cabinets of the Eugenics Records Office, in which their case notes are filed with those of twenty-thousand other American youths who were detained in reformatories, workhouses, and asylums, deemed unfit to procreate and surgically sterilized over the first half of the twentieth century. We meet them suspended in atmospheric, grayed-out print as the poems transcribe, translate, and assemble textual fragments and images in a “gesture seeking permission to listen.” The structure is straightforward, progressive, a careful and serious loosening of stories—Carl’s, Wilhelm’s, Jacqueline’s, Hyacinth’s—from the reductive strictures of institutional frameworks. “Lost Privilege Company” is primarily composed from the notes of “fieldworkers” at California’s Whittier State School; set in italics, the voices of “wards” bubble up, pleading for recognition—“i’m here”—only to be dismissed and pathologized, derided as “depraved,” “profane,” “obscene,” or “immoral,” attributed to a “cold-blooded schemer,” a “High Grade Moron,” or a “great big over-sexed boy,” as symptoms of “mania,” “lachrymose excitability” (crying), or the “onset of incorrigibility.” The gazes of Victor R, Edward Leiva, or Leonard H, which reach out from intermittent photographic portraits, convey none of these proclivities to antisocial behavior. Instead, these images are marked by the racialized, criminalizing conventions of the mug shot—brown and black skin, numbered plates bridging the lapels of jackets, profile shots peeking from strategically placed mirrors.

The photographs, even more so than the case notes, highlight the historical fact of the silence imposed on their subjects. Keeping in mind the fine line between inviting and coercing them to speak, The Work Shy’s middle section pauses to reflect on methodology. The series of meditations that comprise “The Book of Listening” (the absence of the visual field is striking here) bear out important “distinctions between listening, overhearing, and eavesdropping” in a search for kinds of writerly and readerly attention that, as the poems move forward, can “satisfy an aversion to theatricality.” “CREEDMOORBLANCA” gathers the “infidel language” of inmates from additional archives: Nazi institutes in Heidelberg and Breitenau, the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in New York, and the Pacific Colony for the Feebleminded. As if the fieldworkers were away from the premises, an in-group’s private idiom develops, registered in the proliferation of such words and phrases as “trikadero,” “exactology,” “jiggered up,” “crooked it off’n him,” “societologically,” and “Ish gebibble!” The free-floating lines and tentative spacing of the early poems give way to more internally regular, stanza-like forms that vary page by page and name by name, so that individual voices seem to be solidifying, accruing particular rhythms and vocabularies. Similarly, the portraits yield to a wider range of images, some of which capture the creative output of inmates themselves; once displayed as examples of “degenerate art,” they are recontextualized here not as symptoms of illness but as traces of subjectivity. Sewn dresses and doodled curves are scrawled over with what might be handwriting exercises, or diary entries. Often barely legible, graphite impressions softened by time, the words are hard to make out.

The most attentive and tender gestures of recognition manifest in such moments of strained or distanced receiving. Take the words that seem to give voice to an inmate called Jules, over which we may stumble, and dwell, in the realized incongruity between the seen and the heard:

Ive lost tutch with mye selph
Ide bee blyged iff yoo
cood spair a pockit hanker cheer for Jools


mye syst her througher alms
surround mye nekk Yore syst
hearse herb itch Getcher sell foam

The personal testimony begins to wiggle out of the straightjackets of spelling rules, articulating experience in its own terms—Jules has not a self but a “selph,” not a sister but a “syst her,” whose arms become the “alms” of embrace. The poem deftly refuses to figure this fragile, unconventional correspondence between sound and sign as a result of illness, as a cyst, instead lavishing in the phenomenological aspects of phonetics that make it possible to imagine the “lost tutch,” the stolen intimacies, of a displaced and confined child.

Yet it is difficult not to sense the skilled hand of the assemblers in this moment of brief catharsis. Is this reconstructed scene as real as the names of inmates? How much room for invention does an anonymous listening gesture permit? Despite the Blunt Research Group’s sensitivities, the suggestion of homecoming in “Getcher sell foam” feels too easy, even false, especially when read alongside the ways Sharif manages such gestures in Look, which circles around and reaches toward reunions with loved ones but never touches, never arrives. Perhaps my feeling has something to do with the contemporaneity of Look’s subject matter, or the fact that it can lean on a pseudo-autobiographical foundation lacking in The Work-Shy’s anonymous authorship. Then again, Sharif’s “I” is profoundly un- or up-rooted, epistolary but redacted, circulating in anti-Muslim stereotypes and speaking “like the world listens”—because, for those under NSA surveillance, it does. This of course raises the issue of anonymity as a privilege. It also brings me to a subtle but crucial insight offered in Look: the institutional “mine warfare” that seeks to control the expressions, movements, and representations of particular individuals is enabled all the time by abstract, anonymous mediations and remediations of found language and images.

That’s because, as Look makes visible, the military’s organizing logics saturate and animate the “daily, daily” verbal-visual mass media discourses that at turns erase and spectacularize the suffering of marginalized bodies. Take one of the book’s first poems, which redefines a military term by way of an image:

a body running

Glaring out from an otherwise blank page, “BATTLEFIELD ILLUMINATION” does a kind of captioning, naming a scene that is at once shocking and familiar, recognizable, out of a movie; and in movies the people on fire are rarely the good guys. Heroes make appearances, too: for instance, when, “At the WWII memorial, FDR thanks women / for sacrificing their sons / and their nylons. ” The zeugma’s equation of human beings with stockings draws attention to the incongruities between defense discourse, heartwarming media moments and precarious realities that, as Sharif emphasizes, are in practice easy to gloss over. She makes a similar move in “DESIRED APPRECIATION,” as a White House PR photo-shoot morphs into its obverse, a scene of interrogation and torture that supposedly also informs the public sense of security: “the nation must administer / A bit of hope…. Must muss up / some kid’s hair and let him loose / Around the Oval Office. click click could be cameras / Or the teeth of handcuffs closing to fix / The arms overhead.” Elsewhere, poems consisting entirely of captions—“Soldier, Home Early, Surprises His Wife in Chick-fil-A,” or “A young soldier (pictured above) the son of an imam, brother to six, is among the latest casualties in the military campaign of Susangerd”—intensify our sense of the precarious relation between a given reality and its unanchored, unattributed signage.

There are no photographs in Look, no possibility for ogling; figuring the un-pictured, the poems enact a kind of ekphrasis. This is another strategy, an unrelenting one, to “satisfy” The Work-Shy’s “aversion to theatricality,” as an epigraph from Susan Sontag near the center of book suggests: “Like guns and cars, cameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive.” The apparatus of visual culture referenced in Look—cameras, shutters, lenses, albums, stages, and film reels abound—is charged with producing a sort of pornographic “CONTINUOUS STRIP IMAGERY” that frames people as objects rather than subjects. As the sequence moves toward an imagined meeting with a deceased uncle, and as institutionalized forms of representation penetrate even the most private spaces—“The enlarged ID photo above her mantel,” Sharif writes, “means I can know Amoo, / my dear COLLATERAL DAMAGE, // as only a state or a school might do”—we sense how thoroughly imprisoned we are by the many-layered conventions by which we might encounter ourselves and each other. Meanwhile we can catch glimpses, as in a description of a camera rolling on Sharif’s father, “his hair

black as mine is now, I’m four and in Alabama, I see him
between odd jobs in different states,
and on the video our friend shows baba a picture
of me and asks how do you feel when you see Solmaz?
and baba saying turn the camera off then
turn off the camera and then
can you please look away I don’t want you to see my baba cry

Struggling to escape the confines of “PERCEPTION MANAGEMENT” is a laborious, confusing, and painful process. We can’t dress in camouflage, steal the keys, and release wards/words, as, for this reviewer, Blunt Research Group seems to. Circulation, anonymous or not, has its own strictures; within them, Sharif’s look lingers like “a film projection caught / in theater dust.”

November 2017

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Nathaniel Mackey, Late Arcade.

New York: New Directions, 2017. 191pp. $16.95

Reviewed by Paul Jaussen

For over three decades, Nathaniel Mackey has been composing a serial fiction that measures the resonance between music and language. In these works music sounds language, while language expands upon music’s capacity to signify, each serving the other in what Mackey calls a “syncretistic salt,” a “mix in which adverse traditions relativize one another, relate while applying a grain of salt to one another.” Each of the novels in the series—Bedouin Hornbook (1986), Djbot Baghostus’s Run (1993), Atet A. D. (2001), Bass Cathedral (2008), and now Late Arcade (2017)—constitutes a movement in an ongoing work titled From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. The novels follow the life of the fictional jazz sextet Molimo m’Atet through the epistles of the horn player N., who writes regularly to an interlocutor he calls only “Angel of Dust.” The letters relate the story of the band as both an artistic and personal collective, narrating practice sessions, gigs, compositions, conversations, and various romantic encounters.

Simultaneously quotidian and meditative, N.’s letters are an ideal platform for the concerns that animate Mackey’s expansive oeuvre. In addition to the novels Mackey has published sixteen books or chapbooks of poetry, including Splay Anthem (2006), a work that united his ongoing twinned serial poems, “mu” and Song of the Andoumboulou. He has authored two books of criticism, edited the journal Hambone, and hosted the long-running jazz and global music radio program Tanganyika Strut. In much of this work Mackey engages what he calls “black music,” here primarily jazz but applied broadly to incorporate a whole range of African, diasporic, and hybrid traditions, from flamenco to reggae. Black music articulates black life as history itself, conceived of as a series of ruptures, displacements, uncertainties, and accidents, to which one can respond only by way of improvisatory composition. Accident is not form here so much as it requires or provokes form in the many avatars that appear throughout Mackey’s works, whether musical, literary, or visual. By continually rearticulating these elements into an accumulative whole, From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate has become a major work of experimental and philosophical fiction, propelled not by plot but by the movement of sound-concepts. Composed in a language that is attuned to its own materiality as both aural and semantic resonance, Mackey’s novels comprise an ongoing meditation on black cultural production writ large.

For Mackey, black music as cry or wail articulates lost sociality, while black music as repetition or improvisation presses toward alternative futures. Repetition is always a revision, a restatement of earlier work that acknowledges the past yet casts it in a different key. Late Arcade revises the concerns of the previous novels—sound, performativity, the political ontology of music—to bring out an expanded sense of time as loss, whether personal, cultural, or ecological. Time as both loss and repetition is signaled from the outset: the novel opens with a letter dated September 14, 1983, when N.’s bandmate Djamilaa comes to practice with a new piece entitled “Sekhet Aaru Struff.” This creation is, in fact, a repetition, an allusion to N.’s own earlier composition “Sekhet Aaru Strut.” In the musical world of Molimo m’Atet, each work is already a remake, restlessly continuing toward another articulation, strut becoming struff on the way to Sekhet-Aaru, a heavenly reed field in Egyptian mythology. The novel thus plants us firmly in the early 1980s, but also in ancient Egypt or some other heaven, as well as the evolving oeuvre of Molimo m’Atet and, indeed, of Mackey’s own writing. Messianic promises, such as they are, emerge fitfully through musical and epistolary repetition, in those folds of time that the novel enacts.

The folding of time often produces ontological uncertainty in Mackey’s writing, as characters and speakers move between worlds, at times accompanied by mythical or syncretistic companions. Early in Late Arcade, the band is haunted by the return of their most persistent companions, the floating text “balloons” that first appeared in Atet A. D. as a textual, performative accompaniment to Molimo m’Atet. At once comic book dialogue balloon, bubble, and captured breath, the balloons are a productive wedge, what the band refers to elsewhere in the series as “an opportune prodigal opening” between sound and sense. A similar ontological crossing occurs in a series of dateless letters by Dredj, an alter ego who appears when N. suffers a trance-inducing “attack” from the cowrie shells embedded in his skull. One attack leaves Dredj playing his horn at the bottom of the ocean, staring up at the flamenco singer Lole Montoya’s “metathetic morning boat” that “bulged with voices, some stowaway, some aboveboard.” Are those voices enslaved persons on the Middle Passage or perhaps adrift refugees? We can’t know. The passage speaks to multiple possibilities, including those still to come; Dredj’s musical accompaniment testifies to the unfinished business of the displaced.

We might consider the ocean itself to be one of those refugees, a castaway fractured by the pollution of modernity, a global reality that will undoubtedly lead to even more human suffering on the part of the poor and vulnerable. While the ocean as the ambivalent geography of diaspora has been a recurring theme for Mackey, Late Arcade extends these concerns in new ecological directions. Shortly after his cowrie shell attack, N. composes “Fossil Flow,” a musical piece inspired by the “massive” oil spills of 1983, another day in the life of the Anthropocene. The spill is an ambivalent return of the repressed, proof that, ecologically and socially speaking, the past is not entirely past. N. glosses the spill as “the distant past (prehistoric apocalypse, collapse or catastrophe) achieving fluidity, the oxymoronic play between fossil and flow of such dimension as to put the present at risk.” The spill is a disaster, yes, but also a sign of transhistorical entanglement, a story still being told: “It’s as though it were the dinosaurs and the mastodons’ revenge, prehistory’s grudge against…preservation or containment, fossil solidity, an entropic brief against past and present keeping their places.”

This muddling of past and present usefully illustrates the productive lag between compositional and narrative time that Mackey often exploits. For such fossil flows may strike our ears more paradoxically and apocalyptically now, in 2017, than they did in 1983. We are overhearing N., years in the past, inevitably speaking of our present, articulating a future both yet to come and already here. In another passage, N. compares time passing to the experience of re-listening to Miles Davis’s “Autumn Leaves,” where the trumpeter generates an “off-to-the-side reticence or recoil I can’t help hearing as recondite presence and manifest absence’s mix or mating dance.” Similarly, the present moment of any re-listening always evokes the accumulative absences of one’s past: “I can imagine listening to this track thirty or forty years from now and still finding it fresh, the advent of my own autumnal prospect lending it all the more relevance and resonance, a time-capsule bubble or balloon loaded with decades of what won’t tell itself but does, caption after caption donned and auditioned only to be cast off.” We cannot help but hear Mackey speaking through N. in this passage, the author in his seventieth year writing as a younger man thirty-four years in the past. The text is not quite an oil spill, but certainly a geology, as time becomes a palimpsest, uniting musician and audience, author and reader.

While palimpsestic time can be an occasion for mourning, it can also afford hope. In both his poetry and prose, Mackey insistently opens resonant spaces between tragedy and transcendence, forcing us to think them simultaneously. In the face of time’s multiplying field, improvisatory repetition can approach an aspirational heaven, what N. elsewhere dubs “No-Show Sunday.” In Late Arcade that heaven appears in many guises, but particularly as erotic love. As Jeanne Heuving has argued in The Transmutation of Love and Avant-Garde Poetics, Mackey is a contemporary poet for whom love offers an experiential extension of the self, an ekstasis into the world. Lovers are metamorphic in his work; they change names, couple with dream selves, and, muse-like, occasion new compositions. Love’s promised heaven, however, never avoids risk. In the longest letter of the book, N. describes Molimo m’Atet’s performance at a birthday party, an invited gig the band approaches with trepidation, uncertain that their music is appropriate for the occasion. Aunt Nancy, another member of the band, encourages them to stay true to their fractured vision, calling them to “darken festivity or strike a note of dark festivity.” N. reads Aunt Nancy’s provocation as a “dread, gnostic note,” one that insists on “birth as an issue of misconception, conception itself as an issue of misconception, dubious arrival into a miscreant world.” The band’s performance of errant conception provokes the return of the balloons, this time bearing a confession of pain as the road to love and self-discovery. “I tore myself to be whole,” one balloon reads, “tore myself to possess myself.” Mackey’s is an erotics of accident, where the fragmented, suffering body is reclaimed as historically constitutive of the subject, particularly the racialized and disinherited subject of black history. That subject is always belated, if not actually late, an embodied testimony against modernity and its misplaced promises.

As it turns out, the risk of No-Show Sunday—it may appear, or it may not, it may be nothing more than a fanciful promise—echoes the dilemmas of love, particularly “the millenarian, great-gettin’-up-Sunday collective love we all so badly want.” As the affair between band members Penguin and Drennette heats up in the final letters of Late Arcade, their relationship produces not transcendence but loss, as love is constantly provoked by what it can never actually achieve. Love’s tragedy also characterizes beauty as its aesthetic proxy. Lambert, another band member, suggests that beauty, continually withdrawing from us and beyond our grasp, “hawks the intangible,” a street-side huckster of transcendent promise. Beauty testifies to and affirms the inadequacy of the material world, emerging from the world in its appearing but always eluding final grasp. Through beauty, we thus learn a surprising lesson about history as struggle, as dislocated, enslaved, or segregated being: it is always not-here.

Which is not to say, exactly, that it is nowhere or never. Love’s “late ark, love’s late arcade, love’s last arcade perhaps” leaves N. imagining a similarly displaced heaven, precipitated by no less than the balloons as captured breath or airy substance. In the novel’s final pages the band stops Los Angeles traffic by initiating an impromptu parade with B’Loon (another avatar of the balloons), a march that recalls the second line in the New Orleans funeral tradition. As the parade swells, a social being created simply by the willingness of its participants, so does B’Loon, growing into a giant unfinished figure that towers above the crowd. Sustained by this breath, B’Loon takes flight, floating up into the clouds and gradually becoming invisible, leaving the arrested crowd to watch a now-empty sky. The band and audience together strain for the unseen, looking hard after a leave-taking that could just as easily be an advent.

As a balloon floating into absence, No-Show Sunday is a fragile thing, a thread of hope that makes a tiny opening into time. Mackey’s achievement in From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate has been to articulate that opening, again and again, through ongoing literary innovation and an attunement to human contingency. We could, following N., call this opening the “sound of the future perfect,” a tense and tone that can only be imagined and pursued yet never grasped. In the future perfect, departure is also an initiation, no matter how belated. B’Loon’s disappearance, leaving a small collective beyond itself, signals that such departures and arrivals are not simply aesthetic, but also social, political, and cosmological. Sound and sense are inescapably in time, no matter how little of that time may seem to remain. Mackey’s novels have been teaching us this truth all along. But, as Late Arcade demonstrates, the lesson bears repeating.

October 2017

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Yates McKee, Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition.

Brooklyn: Verso, 2016. 296pp. $26.95

Reviewed by Kristin Gecan

The civil war died down but there were still his patients with pains from their phantom limbs. There was still the occasional unrest.

—Cathy Park Hong

“The American Revolution of 1776,” Walt Whitman wrote forty years after that war, “was simply a great strike, successful for its immediate object—but whether a real success judged by…the long-striking balance of Time, yet remains to be settled.” We’ll need more than five years to evaluate Occupy’s lasting effects, but Yates McKee’s Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition helpfully starts the record on Occupy and its influence. With Strike Art, McKee has begun to make the case, if nothing else, that Occupy was, indeed, a great strike—one much larger than the original events surrounding #OccupyWallStreet.

Strike Art will serve as a valuable primary text for future historians. Because McKee himself participated in Occupy, current readers and future writers benefit from his own involvement in, and his own perspectives on, the movement. “I myself have been a participant in many of the projects detailed here,” McKee notifies readers in his introduction, “which colors my perspective.” An inherent quality in participant-observation, this “colored perspective” is something to keep in mind as Strike Art is both history and analysis. As Barry Schwabsky has written in his recent book A Perpetual Guest, “a subjective response from a participant”—like that of McKee’s—“would lack the sense of spectatorial distance essential to criticism; and an objective account would not be criticism but reportage.” McKee’s insider status cannot help but color both his criticism and his reportage.

Having been removed from Occupy central—as I was, and as future historians will be—has its benefits. Though much of Occupy (particularly McKee’s Occupy), happened physically in New York and other cities, it was clear to me, from Chicago, that the most active of the Occupy activists were part of the creative class—that is, “students, organizers, artists, writers, designers, programmers, and other ‘creative workers’”—people who believed art, whether manifested through images, words, performance, or some combination, can make something happen. Because I saw that the role of artists in Occupy was pivotal, it’s hard for me to believe, as McKee writes, that it was “a little known fact.” McKee’s mistake here, I think, is a result of his insider role in Occupy, and it comes with the territory of writing such a recent history from the front lines. Doing so is a bold undertaking, since most of us have our own memories of Occupy with which we can’t help but compare McKee’s account.

Where McKee must know better, regardless of his insider status, is when he states that “Occupy involved the emergence of ‘the artist as organizer.’” Artists and poets have organized numerous and notable movements in the past—examples include but are not limited to F. T. Marinetti in Fascist Italy, Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts Movement in the U.S., even the “radical art workers of the Paris Commune” that McKee refers to on the next page.

For Occupy, there is no equivalent F. T. Marinetti or Amiri Baraka, no one founder, no charismatic poet-artist-leader, no genius movement architect, no communications mastermind—at least not as identified in the pages of Strike Art. But then who called everyone to Zuccotti Park? And who wrote those memorable words: “We are the 99%”?

Could Occupy truly have been led by the 99%? McKee’s answer, I think, would be yes. But he shows instead of tells.

Chronicling the makings of the Occupy movement, McKee shows how nonprofits like Creative Time, artist networks like Art and Revolution, magazines like Tidal, and exhibitions like Democracy in America made Occupy possible. In McKee’s account, Occupy grew out of a particular moment in the established art world, one in which the passive viewer of art was making way for the active participant. This was, to be fair, “an outcome of a cultural shift that’s been a long time in the making,” as Schwabsky has put it. (At least as long ago as the nineteenth century—the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé acknowledged that “modern audiences seek to participate in the creative process.”) According to McKee, audience involvement heightened in summer 2011, to the extent that it could be “diagnosed” by art critic Claire Bishop. As McKee notes, Bishop showed that recent “discourses took artistic participation as a prefiguration of direct democratic participation.” Thus, involved Occupy audiences were participating in the American democratic process as a result of engaging in the specific creative process of Occupy.

Participation in the creative process changes traditional artist-viewer roles. Experiencing art is no longer top-down—an artist makes art, another regards it. Instead, increasingly, viewers become part of the art or the art experience, bringing their own backgrounds and interpretations. Works are incomplete without audience participation. In the case of Occupy, no one at the top instilled rules and regulations for how the Occupy brand was used. Instead, according to Strike Art, a “common set of languages, principles, and practices were developed” (italics mine).

McKee uses passive construction to either avoid naming the source of the Occupy identity (negating hierarchies, and avoiding naming that charismatic leader I seek), or to suggest that common practices were developed on a group level. With Occupy, another mode of collective life was not only imagined, it was practiced. Structures that were being redeveloped during and leading up to this time made it possible for the entire movement to happen in such a way—for people who otherwise would have been passive bystanders to become participants in the movement, for the existing structures, particularly of the art world, to be subverted, and to bring that subversion to bear within the structure of the movement so that it might influence the structures of society at large.

McKee maintains that Occupy was not “an unstructured free-for-all,” but he doesn’t select any individuals as responsible for Occupy’s communications and brand. (Some movement organizers, however, such as Judith Butler, are named.) He never refers to Occupy’s identity, or uses any communications lingo—brand, slogan, or the like. They are part of marketing-speak—taboo in academia, they might seem out of place in McKee’s art historical analysis, or even in the pages of a journal such as this. But it’s worth considering Occupy conceptually as a brand. Because if the Occupy movement was successful, insofar as we all now remember it, understanding how it was made memorable would teach us a lesson in the art of movement-making.

Occupy’s brand was true to participants’ beliefs, values, and concerns: that a fraction of the population was living at the expense of the much greater majority, that American citizens must defend the health of our democracy, and that doing so would require rectifying systemic issues. Because the Occupy brand was created by the participants themselves (though McKee doesn’t state so outright), it was authentic. This, at least in part, is why the Occupy campaign was so memorable. It was a brand not created by marketers for a target audience, but an identity that all Occupy participants helped to shape and extend via the “populist figure of the 99%, the form of the general assembly, the embodied technology of the People’s Microphone, the aesthetics of cardboard signage, and the tent encampment with its infrastructures of mutual aid,” all of which were manifestations of the Occupy brand.

When we see Occupy as a brand, rather than as a collectivist utopia, we can see it as a movement whose success was due to its inclusiveness. As a brand, as a movement, Occupy found a way to unite people by focusing on dissatisfaction with the 1%, and by speaking clearly to the other 99%.

“We are the 99%” was plastered across New York City, at least the one we saw in the media. Yes, “we” was overrepresented by the creative class, but by setting “everyone off against the common enemy of Wall Street” with a memorable slogan, Occupy assured audiences and onlookers, passersby and passive viewers of the movement that yes, you are one of us, part of our community. This too was key to Occupy’s success. This rhetoric is why we remember Occupy: clear, resonant messages and images, culminating in a powerful brand, one whose strength derived from empowering its community, from transforming an “audience” into participants and collaborators. This message is why I would suggest that the movement was successful in its “immediate object,” as Whitman put it—that is, successful in getting our attention, not necessarily in making identifiable, measurable change.

The fact that Occupy is a moment in our collective American memory accounts for something of the movement’s success. I’d like to learn more about how and why Occupy succeeded in getting our attention, trace the root of its memorable communications strategy and brand, and identify the people or person responsible for it; but such information is not included in Strike Art, because, it would appear, such a hero does not exist. This is part of the genius of the movement: it was generated communally. It thus defies easy summary, a clear sequence of events. It also defies, in McKee’s terms, being measured by “success”:

My own approach to Occupy in this book, however, finds a closer affinity with those thinkers who have approached it not in terms of a predetermined metric of success relative to which Occupy would be found lacking, but rather in terms of the unknown possibilities and impassioned energies it unleashed for the present. 

The sentiment is akin to another I’d read on the outcomes of Occupy, outside of the confines of McKee’s book. It’s attributed to the author of the line that I’d been trying to trace, the reason, perhaps, I picked up McKee’s book in the first place. I wanted to know who the author of the line “We are the 99%” was—it’s a line that became central to the Occupy movement, one that has since codified the mood of multitudes, and originally came from a Tumblr which first started publishing submissions on September 8, 2011. It’s a unifying statement, one that evokes the Occupy moment but also outlives it, a statement I think Americans alive in 2011 will forever remember, one that was invoked over and over in the 2016 election cycle. And it’s a line attributed to a man named only as Chris, someone we might make the hero of the movement, if only he had a last name. He’s quoted in an October 7, 2011 post on Mother Jones:

The important thing is to go as far as we can for as long as we can, and to try as hard as we can. Because that means the next time someone else is going to try harder. And then, someone else will try harder than that. Until, eventually, we win.

Winning, of course—that would mean success. But then that same sentiment—the one that shrugs off success in any measurable terms—was struck, yet again, when I traced the father of the Occupy brand (according to the New York Times). Though he went unnamed in Strike Art, in the press Kalle Lasn was often referred to as the founder of the movement, the source of its brand. Lasn defined Occupy’s success for the New Republic: “They have been successful in launching a heavy duty conversation in America about the state of America…. It doesn’t get any better than that.” Meaning, by starting the conversation, Occupy (or they, nota bene) had in a sense already won.

Lasn is the editor of Adbusters, a magazine published in Canada and widely distributed in the U.S. Lasn is notably absent from Strike Art, though McKee does mention Adbusters. The magazine’s contribution, according to McKee, was in providing “the foundational meme of Occupy,” an image released on July 2, 2011 which McKee describes this way:

A ballerina stands atop the sculpture [Charging Bull, a mascot for the finance industry] in an arabesque pose, her lithe, linear figure playing off against the lumbering bronze corpus of the bull. In the background, hordes of gas-masked militants surge forward toward the viewer through clouds of teargas. At the top of the image, at the apex of the ballerina’s pose, we read “What is Our One Demand?” At the bottom, against the cobblestones of Bowling Green: #OCCUPYWALLSTREET SEPTEMBER 17TH. BRING TENT.

It’s as though they were all working together. Lasn sent the invitation, “Chris” set the anthem, McKee wrote this book. For Schwabsky’s part, we might say, it’s part of a larger, longer-running picture. One where creatively, together, we get the Union back into shape—one where democracy wins? Let Whitman have both the first and last word: “I can conceive of no better service in the United States, henceforth, by democrats of through and heart-felt faith, than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”

September 2017

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Anthony Madrid, Try Never.

Texas: Canarium Books, 2017. 53pp. $14.00

Reviewed by Joshua Weiner

There’s a clever-cleverness in contemporary American poetry that keeps alive older verse traditions, straddles generations, and seems very much a boy thing—Frederick Seidel, Paul Muldoon, Michael Robbins, and Adam Fitzgerald come quickly to mind. But my money’s on Anthony Madrid. He’s no one-trick pony; his talent is a dark horse he trains bareback in moonlight. He keeps close company with the Ancients.

In 2012 Madrid’s first book, I Am Your Slave Now Do As I Say (Canarium Books), joined an impressive company of debuts, one that included Robbins, Eduardo Corral, and Patricia Lockwood. His was a stunner, a book comprised of sixty-five ghazals that, by turns, adhere to some basics of the classical Persian form and utterly thwart any expectation of pedantically fulfilling it. The poems dazzle and boggle with their allusive range, crazy metaphors, bold outrageous associative leaps, and rhetorical flair—they’re wired, fired, decked out, gone, and not waiting for you to catch up. More than anything, I was stunned by the energy, effortlessly on tap, of a poet breaking out behind the persona of “Madrud,” his invented Persian alter ego, who made us think again about the meaning of the phrase “command performance”—only he was both player and prince. The ghazal had presented Madrid with the formal opportunities to say anything and everything; the inherent internal autonomy of the ghazal’s couplets, together with the elements (for Madrid) of occasional refrain and occasional rhyme, created the perfect tension between free agency and patterned expectation, disjunction and conjunction, mad clowning around and lightly-worn erudition.

The ghazal is a leaping kind of poem just as the sonnet likes to make arguments: each has generic elements and conventions—specific formal technologies—that poets use in order to do certain kinds of things. A poet can take great delight in repurposing them, but they also provide a tradition of voicings to adapt, bend, distort, and play around with. While the ghazal’s couplets were, for Madrid, a perfect form of implied logic with loose parameters, I heard him exhausting its potentials as he practiced it. What would he do next?

What he hit on is the Welsh englyn, a formally complicated stanza that requires a much tighter coil than the ghazal, but which also intensifies Madrid’s love of propulsion. Madrid only ever takes what he needs from a tradition. In the case of the Welsh englyn, which is also a tradition of variations, Madrid’s own take on it, or his take from it, perfectly suits: a formal elastic tension, like a rubber band stretched back from your thumb and aimed at your best friend’s face. Here are the opening verses to “Stepping Crow,” an example of Madrid’s variation on the tercet form of the englyn stanza:

Stepping crow. Moon at half mast.
Dawn horse, horse, blanket and mule.
The fool knows something you don’t.

Stepping crow. Both feet in the boat.
Books stacked up, and nowhere to store ‘em.
Decorum is spontaneous order.

Stepping crow. Gone north of the Border.
Magic in motion and magic at rest.
Only divest, no need to announce it.

Stepping crow. Locked in from the outset.
Feet in the boat and we’re already rowing.
I don’t like thinking, I like already knowing.

With so much happening at the level of pure form, the technical aspects would be tedious to parse. But if you think of the way Celtic designs carry curving lines from one quadrant of the visual field to another while maintaining qualities of symmetry and balanced value, tracing exquisitely detailed involutions and mandala-like circularities, then you’ll have some sense of Madrid’s analogous acoustic embroideries. Consider, for example, that the final sound in a tercet’s second line rhymes with one of the opening sounds in the third line, and the final sound in the third line of a tercet end-rhymes with the first line of the next one. Except where it doesn’t; except where the poet feints in one direction and then delivers in another. If he drops the ball over there, he retrieves it over here—but it never stops bouncing, it’s in continual play, so you hardly notice what’s happening. Additionally, with the set repetition of the opening phrase in each tercet, and the division of the first and second line into two grammatical parts by way of caesura, Madrid maxes out his opportunities for different kinds of conjunction and disjunction: the second phrase of each tercet’s first line sounds like it’s elaborating on the repeated first phrase, but it’s not always clear how; the second line seems like it’s adding objects and ideas to the picture; and the third seems to extend to a kind of meta-comment on everything that’s preceded, sometimes on the act of poetry itself. But, again, there’s a leap; the logical connection is implied, not stated.

What holds it together? Two essential elements of poetry that, when in balanced interplay, generate much of the pleasure that we take in the art: energy and rule. Energy, in Madrid’s poems, comes from disjunction, the leap in logic; but it also comes from rhythm, which, in these poems, is predominantly anapestic (da-da-DAH)—that galloping sound. Rule, in his poems, comes from rhyme and measure, but rhyme is not only a quality of rule; it also generates something like cognitive energy by holding ideationally unrelated things in suspended acoustic relation. Madrid understands that energy and rule are qualities best exercised in tension, and he’s become a master at it. The poems move like tight syllogisms, but they speak in rapid tongues. The rhymes of these poems, and their rhythms—common to light verse, satire, and some balladry—would be cloying were they running under sentimentalities, received notions, automatic feelings, or other notional comforts. But Madrid uses such elements to formally stage something fresh, a poetic intelligence making new moves and new shapes while keeping audible the verbal history of these deeper sounds.

It may seem as if I’m explaining how a joke works. Such explanations, however entertaining to poetry nerds, are never very funny to the crowd—and Madrid’s new poems have a lot in common with the way jokes work. But the key to Madrid is his obsession with rhyme, its sounds and its logic. Much more than a technical matter, much more than the correspondence between like and unlike sounds, rhyme is its own circuit in the pleasure center of the brain, and Madrid feels how the poetry mind is wired to it. He’s composing out of his own pleasure center, and his aim is to light up yours. It’s not an expression of a formalism; his poems don’t establish positions we associate with poetics these days. And they want to do more than just swing. “Only divest, no need to announce it.” “Decorum is spontaneous order.” “You close the circuit, find out what it’s worth.” “I know it, but I don’t know it.” “Functioning bronze is expected to sparkle.” “If you say it’s obvious, it’s never.” “I wish it were true that the best is best cheap / But the best is better expensive.” These are all final moves in stanzas from different poems, and indicate an important aspect of Madrid’s ambition: he’s not just joking around, he’s interpreting his experience, coming to conclusions, and finding surprising forms of expression for his ideas.

Here are the opening verses to “Mixed-Up Moon,” an example of Madrid’s variation on the englyn quatrain:

Mixed-up moon. Prop open the book.
Now and forever, you nip it in the bud.
I allow the heart does not make the blood,
Nor the human being the book.

Mixed-up moon. I don’t have to look.
Que no quiero ver that talked-up perfection.
It’s no use trying to rub out your reflection
From a piece of polished brass.

Mixed-up moon. I’ll take that as a yes.
I’ll take it ouside, out of ‘shot of the mourners.
I think you’ll agree it’s time we cut corners. We’ll cut
So many corners, the thing becomes a sphere.

Mixed-up moon. Insincere, insincere.
Thomas à Kempis and Francis Xavier.
The Better Book says that good behavior
Is the privilege, not the duty, of the good.

As with the tercet, there’s plotted internal rhyming and rhyming across the stanza boundary, but the quatrains also contain a rhyming couplet in the middle. This correspondence, this central drawing together, throws into greater relief the contrast with the stanza’s last line, which is consistently a kind of wild veering into prose. The effect is brightly comical, as the third line, in verse, runs into the prose of line four; the cross-stanza end rhyme steadies it with a kind of acoustic ballast. It’s like watching a great clown balletically perform a fall that, rather than ending a physical movement, tumbles upward into a new part of the dance.

Madrid appears to have brought together two kinds of poetry that could never have been combined without him (no one before him has been insane enough to try): limericks and wisdom literature. It’s as if the poet of the Ramayana wrote like Edward Lear (another of Madrid’s passions). I cannot think of anything weirder. But it’s fetching as all get out. It puts him squarely in the cultural moment of recombinant originality.

I hear disguised personal material in the poems, such as Madrid’s recent move to Texas; and inside jokes, such as his editor, Nick Twemlow, showing up in a line as Count Dracula; or the buried allusion to Stevens (“Nor the human being the book”). Key final lines of stanzas in one poem float over to perform the same role in another poem. This works in the same way as what stand-up comics call a tagline: when they bring back a joke from an earlier bit, but in a new narrative context. Audiences love it because it disrupts the assumption that each joke is its own isolated discrete form, and helps create a highly artificial world that also feels natural—after all, aspects of our lives bleed into each other.

This wide-ranging allusiveness and self-referentiality builds in the penultimate poem (“Poor little poem, nobody likes you,” says the poet), and culminates in the title poem, saved for last, which opens so winningly:

Last thing in the book. I trembled and shook.
A half hour down and a half hour do.
Sapphire, sapphire, I don’t know who,—
And when will I ever do that again?

Try never. Try this is the end. This is
The thing they don’t know about magic. It’s
Just not in its nature to work every time;
If it worked every time, it’d be physics.

And he’s right, it doesn’t work every time. If there’s a dud here, it’s the long prose lines of “Maxim 2,” which can’t counteract how the earworms of his englyns, in thirty-eight pages of anapestic rhyming, have naturalized our hearing—I find it impossible to make the shift. But little matter. And whether or not we want to hold him to it—never again!—or beg him to stop, Madrid is a few steps ahead of us, saying goodbye to all that: his first book of poetry, his doctoral dissertation, and even, we think, the book we’re reading:

Yeah, try never. The charm’s wound up.
The top of the tree is the end of the climb.
Now Do What I Say and The Warrant for Rhyme
Have done what they could and, one last time,
I say to you all, in a whisper: Try never.

This last poem, self-reflective and self-reflexive, is like a grand finale, where all the prosodic pyrotechnics on display in the book come to a heady climax; your brain feels a little bit like what happens to it when you watch the final scene of Spamalot or Blazing Saddles. But just as it makes its ultimate moves, which are very big, the poem brings the voice down to a whisper. That’s consummate showmanship of a kind we rarely encounter anymore in today’s poetry. It’s serious business, and all play.

September 2017

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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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