As the title of Li-Young Lee's new volume suggests, Book of My Nights is a series of night songs. While some dream experiences can be dislocating, Li-Young Lee's visionary experience here is of the cyclical nature of the world and of the common elements of human experience. With a voice that moves in and out of the surreal, Lee brings us to a country of "spring's pure parable, the turning / in every turning thing, fruit and flower, / jar, spindle and story." Loss, through time, experience, death—is met by recovery, through memory, story, and voice. And the redemptive quality of stories and songs throughout the volume gives the poems a prayer-like tenor. With a sophisticated lack of irony unusual to contemporary American poetry, Lee is able to speak directly of and name big issues: not only family and family love, but also God, eternity, heaven. The volume's urgency is made manifest not through broken syntax or heightened vocabulary, but through the earnestness and intimacy of its address. "Li-Young, don't feel lonely / when you look up," Lee tells himself in "Night Mirror," with a candor and earnestness that invites the reader into the poem. Full of questions, the volume locates selfhood at the liminal ground between dusk and dawn, parents and children, memories and lived experience. The volume, as it tries to place the self, is full of specific memories and particular things—"mother's linen pressed and stored," "the apple tree," "hyacinths"—that at the same time assume universal, symbolic meaning. Thus, a poem entitled "The Eternal Son," which begins, "Someone's thinking about his mother tonight," leaves the identity of the someone sufficiently open to include, at once, God, the self, and the reader, any "son / of a parent who hardly sleeps, // the sleepless father of his own / restless child."
—Nadia Herman Colburn
The bone phone was a 70s gadget similar to headphones for the ribcage:
it fed music through the body rather than the ears, perhaps not unlike
the poems in Humanophone, Janet Holmes's third book. Heeding
Pound's injunction to "make it new," Holmes, a former technologist,
weds technology to art, bringing together such vanguard music makers
as Raymond Scott and Harry Partch, music-making machines such as the
Theremin and moog, and compositional principles such as "just intonation,"
not only as subjects, but as part of her poetic. While Holmes revitalizes
old methods of making music manifest "in [the] mind's ear" (the sonnet,
the villanelle, syllabics), her pursuit of new methodology invigorates
and vibrates throughout the book, as in "Celebration on the Planet Mars,"
in which bandleader Scott "directs the trumpeter / to dunk his bell
in a bucket, playing the water, / the anodized pail" when "there's no
sound / close to the one he needs." The "humanophone" of the title—an
instrument of humans, each singing a single note—was invented
by George Ives, father to Charles. Two sections of the book's title
poem are written for five- and three-note humanophones. Columns separate
syllables across five, then three voices: "Don't // pay // too / much
// attention // to the // sounds. // If you // do, // you // may //
miss // the // mu- // sic." The reader must in some sense read, imagine,
perform these sections, becoming audience and instrument. "Partch Stations,"
the long sequence ending the book, integrates elements from the late
Partch's biography (he was homeless for seven years), citations from
his books and interviews (including one with Women's Wear Daily),
and a multitude of relevant digressions on sound in English music and
in Chinese poetry-in-translation, and on fate and geomancy, to name
a few. Throughout Humanophone, Holmes continues to develop her
always musical sense of the multiple voices within the writer, and proves
herself to be, as Partch said of himself, "a profound traditionalist,
but of an unusual sort."
In "We Drove Some Chevys," Marcum quips that his friend's "Camaro ran nearly on machismo / alone." The same could be said of this debut collection. Billed as "tense, challenging lyrics" that exhibit "danger" and "formal invention," the poems in Cue Lazarus are marred by dependence on an overstated masculine concept of "cool" and too many thinly veiled substitute phalluses, mostly in the form of rolled tobacco. The speaker spends most of the book smoking ("pass / a stolen cigarette," "October smoked a long cigar," "cigarettes / held out car windows," "A cigarette kiss in the desert," "Smoke / cigarette after cigarette," "give the beggar a cigarette," "Enjoying the last cigarette"—promise it's the last!—"smoking a cigarette," "light a smoke"…) and too much time thinking ("I'm thinking of the Pacific islands," "I think of my country," "I think of my best friend," "I also think of my favorite uncle"). Part of Camino del Sol's Latina and Latino Literary Series, Marcum's book doesn't impress the way other 'minority coming of age' books do, such as Junot Díaz's Drown and Achy Obejas's We came all the way from Cuba so you could dress like this? These are both works of fiction, but Cue Lazarus probably should have been too. Most of the poems could be fleshed out nicely into prose; there isn't much evidence of "formal invention" other than an unrhymed, unmetered "sonnet" (i.e., a poem that contains fourteen lines) and some decent quatrains in the title poem. "Cue Lazarus" is a touching account of (ostensibly) the author and a dying friend (revisited later in "The Art of Dying"), and the book's most forceful piece: "Can you go to Tom's grave today /and mandate him back to this life? / Should you cue him from the wing / like a stage direction?" Although the Cue Lazarus fails to live up to its brilliant title and strong beginning, there's enough skill here to permit a resuscitation, if not all-out resurrection, in the author's second.
Astronaut firmly situates Brian Henry among the constellation of those who are, "raising not hell, / but the stakes." Stretching the limits of American poetry's all-too-often banal orbit around solipsism on the one hand, and the decorous flash which trumps the human element of much "innovative" work on the other, this well-wrought debut collection is illuminated by the "light that brings / the human to every empty thing," while eschewing the drive "to traverse the barren plain," where "the notion of common accomplishment / wanes in porchlight." The stakes for Henry are planted solidly within the formal tradition, yet so elegantly and carefully—and herein lies the real success—that for the duration of each poem one is easily unaware of what particular form has been adopted, appropriated, or updated, as in "The Investigator Speaks Of The Investigation," a triptych of sorts which lapses into a final crescendo of terza rima: "I will finger the skeletal structure / of their tales, however laconic. / Will lean until they fracture. // Will charge past the rhetoric / to the kernel, the centre. / The static will be electric." One encounters the pantoum, the ghazal, the sonnet, even a moment of alliterative verse, all the while being lulled into each poem's masterful and sometimes syncopated metrical construction ("the glottal stops of waves on rocks / recall another tongue"). But far from adhering to the tenets of New Formalism, Henry consistently turns everything upside-down with his ironic wit and willingness to transverse "the curve of it all," where "the trajectory / captured for us the moment, / not transcendent, not epiphanic, / but not earthly either, and clear vision." Astronaut offers a solid and exemplary poetic world, one constructed somewhere between transcendence and realism, where, "Were it not for the rule against it, / the house would break into song."
—Noah E. Gordon
From the terse triadic-syllabic playfulness of his first book, The Lost Pilot, to the deathly serious, absurd pseudo-narratives of his recent Memoirs of a Hawk, James Tate—rather than inhabiting one poetic landscape—has continually redefined the notion of what a poem can do, of where it can go. This book, from Michigan's Poets on Poetry series, serves as a back-seat driver of sorts, reprinting interviews, essays, short fiction, and journal entries that follow Tate's own poetic travellings. "For my own sake," Tate explains, "it's been quite necessary from the beginning to try to renew myself by slightly changing directions or pursuing avenues that I'm not comfortable with—just to keep myself honest, keep myself fresh, and keep myself off-guard." Humor has always been central to Tate's work; he has that rare ability to make us laugh and realize that our laughter is indeed frightening. "There's an intuitive logic to the dialectic between comedy and seriousness," Tate makes clear, and it's a logic he's more than happy to expose, as he does by announcing in a discussion on influence, "In preparation for this panel I read the first eleven pages of The Anxiety of Influence." The book's title piece, a long, seemingly autobiographical story, offers not only a context for Tate's "The Lost Pilot," but also a rare glimpse of the man for whom the "I" is an ego-less construction, adhering to Rimbaud's infamous statement, "Je est un autre." The Beckett-like micro-story, "What It Is," contains, perhaps, the key to all of Tate's work—surprise with both language and one's self: "At least you didn't wholly reveal yourself, I said. I didn't have the slightest idea what I meant when I said that. So I repeated it in a slightly revised version: At least you didn't totally reveal yourself, I said, still perplexed, but also fascinated."
—Noah E. Gordon
"Words are what sticks to the real," writes Spicer in a letter to the dead Lorca, "They are as valuable in themselves as rope with nothing to be tied to." Akin to Spicer's Language, Peter Gizzi's fourth book, Artificial Heart, is a palimpsestic rendering of the real whose code, he suggests, is one of de- and reformations, a trickster's code. Thus words and "their straying comrades" are always pushing at what is in flux without having to be tied to it. Many of these poems have the quality of open air studies in which the aim is not to form objects, but rather to suggest a feeling for them, for "the space / where the lines are not." "Things seen in the glass," are invoked in "Zero Elegy," "but nothing permanent"—the eye sees anyhow, and what will not show tells as though it were written where no one can read it: "It does not pronounce itself." This impermanence is frequently achieved through a layered vocal fabric, one that eschews transparency and rationalized narrative for heteroclitic structures unafraid "to err, to wander / wonder, to drift" and, to use a painter's term, to "scumble"—to work a layer of paint over a lower layer of varying color or tone without obliterating it. In Gizzi's hands, the displacements of meaning that arise from metonymy, the blanks "everyone is a witness to once in a while," become a disclosure, a voice singing "the background / of everything the foreground blurs." The tonalities, persuasive innovations—erasures, mirrorings, ravelings-out—and sheer formal dexterity of this book are thoroughly delightful and enviable. Although Gizzi's styles might seem difficult or obfuscated to some readers, they demand—like the car radio at which Cocteau's Orphée takes dictation ("It's this station I want")—to be tuned in.
The most striking aspect of Cort Day's debut collection, The Chime, is its "form": each poem consists of ten lines, yet shuns consistent syllabics, metrics, or rhyme. Inspired by his contemporary Geoffrey Nutter (A Summer Evening), Day's ten-liners demonstrate form's ability to aggravate the individual imagination and fracture conventional sense. This structure, which remains fixed throughout the book, gives Day a surprising level of flexibility; it manages to liberate even as it constricts. Given that liberty, however, some lines seem merely gesture, as if meant to highlight the habitual and arbitrary aspects of language ("Buy cormorant low. Sell cormorant high"), and at times The Chime suggests a machine with moving parts that itself remain static. The progression from line to line is often disjunctive, and none of these poems attempts to shoulder anything like a plot or argument: "The loose hounds course inward to the zero / landscape, zero forest, sun-hot zephyr…," but they never actually arrive anywhere. The poems occur in some otherworld, with the poet as both an Everyman and Nobody: "I only get ten minutes in this mask. /…/ They say my brain's a real throwback. / I'm learning to juggle my addictions. / Today I let the blood out of a dog." The disjunctiveness of Day's style eases the pressure of constructing an alternate world, whether of imagination or language or fiction, but that puts enormous pressure on language itself to keep the poems from sinking. There's something claustrophobic about Day's self-imposed limits—despairing because so purposefully contained, an econo-speak in which each line represents ten percent of the poem—and everything in this book is made strange, if not sterilized, by the poet's alien perspective: sex, love, religion, economics, and nature are all approached as if from another planet. Though complex and resonant, The Chime seems less a complete work than the first installment in a career decidedly worth watching.
Neither as appealingly
innovative as Paul Muldoon, as piously earnest as Seamus Heaney, nor
as lyrically gracefully as Michael Longley, Thomas Kinsella's place
in the pantheon of Irish poets is conflicted and uncertain. Kinsella
was internationally lauded, loved and anthologized for his early lyrics,
whose taut architecture struggled against the dissipating forces of
solitude, dissatisfaction, and the presentiment of death's draw. But
in 1972, galvanized by the events of Bloody Sunday, Kinsella seemed
to throw it all away. He "came to conscience on that lip of dread" and
his acknowledgment of the darkness tainting his heritage fractured any
simple relationship to the English lyric tradition. Kinsella's sonnet
days were over and while critics still lauded him, the American reading
public was less fond of his subsequent productions: dark, broken forms
exploring the periodic resurgence of ancient furies. Citizen of the
World and Littlebody circle the same ground with a far lighter
tread, designed to tempt readers driven away by his recent work. The
playing field is still what Kinsella has called the "dual tradition,"—the
multiple linguistic and cultural influences bequeathed to the Irish
writer and complicated by the near disappearance of his native tongue.
Wielding a broken language, the poet writes a broken landscape, marked
by conquest, recalcitrant infertility, and sectarian violence. But it
is far more evident here that while Kinsella can doubt with the best
of them, he retains the hope that "gesture[s] of peace / around the
congregation" will be a balm to old scars. Well-known for his translations
of the Irish mythic cycles, Kinsella has nonetheless resisted the allure
of both the revivalist's halcyon past and the myth of sacrificial rebirth.
He knows the price paid for each vision and his Mother Ireland is demanding,
but protean. In Citizen's long sequence ("Theme and Variations"),
she metamorphoses from a vociferous serpent whose "livid skin / whisper[s]
her needs" to a demanding child with "little fingers everywhere," to
a near-nude descending a staircase, her head "thrown back in ecstasy."
The aging courtesan's "elderly thigh" has the same allure as the "pale
height" of the insatiable virgin, yet the final word is not submission
but the offer of debate as a unifying force: "we will dispute together."
The bodies akimbo in Nude Memoir stitch together a world where the nude can ponder fates within the confines of a landscape's frame, a sculpture's curve, and the gaze of the nude back onto the nude. The various incarnations throughout the text—Judy, Madeleine, Diana, and others—remain one step removed from their own (and the audience's) grasp precisely because of their proximity on the page: Where does one begin to hold onto the nude? And then: How to pull close "The nude nude"? Moriarty's book-length poem in prose and verse—an amalgam of characters, muses, and models excavating their existence within the nude tradition—is built on the remnants of loss, "Grim whimsy," quotation, and an occasional burst of carnality that remains just long enough to trigger the thought of something onanistic. These nudes don't recline; they are fueled by the necessity to make, and by the very fact that they themselves were made in various states of inspiration and awe. "The need to build a house or movie around the meaning is the haunting" that resides at the core of various riddles in the text, as the nudes ponder out that "need," situated somewhere between galleries and bedrooms in the Bay area and Philadelphia. This is a multiply-reflexive world, where the created object, not the original subject, is able to step away from itself (the finished act of its creation) and then begin the dissection. The reader is likewise drawn in through the noir eyeholes of these characters. Desire fades into a fog, and resurfaces with added levels of confusion. Language circles, and focus shifts to a new set of perceptions and axioms: "We are not physical machines but an unstable series of symbiotic agreements. She was killed by a false agreement. Tricked. Something in her burst."
Rooms Are Never Finished
Anthologies that focus
on a particular form all too often share a basic shortcoming: instead
of gathering the best poems that happen to employ the given scheme,
the collection becomes a look-what-I-can-do contest, each poet struggling
against the next to be more extravagant or irreverent and still fulfill
the assignment. This is largely the case with Ravishing DisUnities:
Real Ghazals in English, where many pieces are more successful as
models than as poems. But while there are few poems here that are likely
to stay with us long after the reading—Craig Arnold and Paul Muldoon
offer noteworthy exceptions—this anthology seems to have another
project in mind: to bring together a wide range of poets, local and
foreign, living and dead, in celebration of a form that the editor,
himself a master of the ghazal, believes to have suffered at the hands
of its would-be anglophone practitioners. When Agha Shahid Ali succumbed
to brain cancer in December, we lost a poet of exceptional acuity and
formal grace whose own poems would have greatly enhanced the current
offering. Yet Ali's presence here is not limited to his polemical introduction
and brief closing note—a how-to on putting together the ghazal's
odd combination of repetition and disjunction—since the editor
emerges as the teacher, guide, and friend at the center of this gathering.
Indeed, several of these poets address Ali directly, as Ellen Bryant
Voigt does when she asks, "Whose ghost is it, Shahid, feeds my grief
dream?" Some readers will certainly be turned off by this muted solipsism,
the sense that Ali has enveloped himself within and "feeds" this rangy
conversation, but this is precisely what makes this project so surprising:
without including any of his own poems, Ali's anthology succeeds as
a highly personal convocation. If we don't mind wading through some
undazzling work, this book offers us the pleasure of eavesdropping on
an unusual, lyrical, and often lively exchange.
Winner of the 2001 Yale Younger Poets competition—judged by W. S. Merwin, who provides a forward—Maurice Manning's first book of poems offers an imaginative menagerie of scenes as perceived by Lawrence Booth, the fictitious central figure who creates a chimerical alternate existence to hold his reality's discomforts at bay. Booth's visions lift away from and fall back to reality, mirroring the flight of the "long-winged Hawke" (and of the imagination) in the book's epigraph, a passage from Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. At times, Booth's "bright thoughts fall, canceled out by the dull memory / of calamity and the spreading indifference of the world," but rather than despair, "he cried / out against The Very Heavy Vector which creates / the terrible pattern of falling apart; he was determined to look for The Mighty Force Which Pushes Back." Booth, an ingenuous iconoclast, relies on escapism and dissembling to transform the alienation and suffering that suffuse his hard southern home into an idyllic dream-world cushioned with love and natural beauty. "Dramatis Personae" introduces Booth's supporting cast of characters, including Black Damon, "the pastoral comrade"; Red Dog, "the sure-fire antidote to the devil"; Missionary Woman, "the peek-a-boo / bright star on the western horizon"; and Mad Daddy, "the man with the shotgun full of history" aimed at "Lawrence Booth, the bull's eye boy." Disarming artlessness underscores the source of Booth's visions and tethers them to reality. Astute social commentary tempers the book's emotional weight with incisive humor, as when "they" ostracize Booth because "he stopped saying the word me, / he refused to watch TV, / and he had the cold audacity / to believe his generation was lost by its own accord." Manning crafts a nuanced microcosm rich with symbolism, vivid imagery, and emotional truth—juxtaposing the real and the ideal as perceived by a character who "needs no earthly reward for his pains / but this, when his heart becomes a book / of hours, and the day becomes its own vessel, / unmoored."
Emily Wilson's first book of poems, The Keep, answers to the challenge of the human/natural/divine trinity in Louise Glück's The Wild Iris. Many of the meditations here (such as those in the sequence "Radical Field") are distinctly Glückian; but rather than querying the divine and the human, the parts of Wilson's natural world instead question the rest of nature, the voices mirroring back the truth of perspective. No reed, no grass, no leaf finds any absolute authority unless it's the sound of the wind, or the relentless promise of the seasons: "Someone must know what is called for / to be mortal, / to go up close. // The point of return is? / The trend is / toward / branches." Wilson unearths humanness in these fields, having thrown her own voice into the wilderness and inscribed the echo, as true to the source in its reverberations as a fractal in its endless regenerations, at once fully mutated and essentially the same. Where there are people, they act like flora: "The implicate system / you live in or that which is / all the while here unrenders / itself, a civility / of capture and let run. / You are wondrous / in a fundament of greens. / Unknown but you are." They also stretch themselves into fauna ("Like a night stork, I snipped and plucked…"), or, when they can't be animals, they will at least be measured against them: "You are not here. Below / not borne by branches. You are not that bird, / so rigged as to catapult free / as if I'd the will you would change me." Wilson's vocabulary is direct and clear, yet often quietly polysemous. Words like "tern" and "gilt" are not puns in her hands; they do not, like jokes, surprise, but unfold before the reader gently, an aurality nearly unspoken. The Keep is pure, and that is not to say that it is simple. As a pure mineral can be striated with itself, this book shows the endless intricacy and nuance of the elemental.
All conferences should reach a conclusion as enlightened as the final line of Stacy Doris's latest book: "I am beyond describing; undetermined." This isn't a mere act of evasion, nor is it the hackneyed product of a hackneyed line of logic. Leading up to it is an actual (almost) one-hundred-page conference of voices, genres, and literary forms, all employed in a quest for answers to the question: What is existence? The characters "Dad = Dad, all varieties + all Yiddish folk songs" and "Me," for instance, cradle their penises and hop around while pursuing the means for living in a "bad and messy place and time," and the "Baby-girl commandante Flea" advises them to "wash your hands of living and become an action figure." The book delights in its own hopping and spiraling towards the eternally indefinite, but an intricate balancing of hilarity with profundity is doubtless the epicenter of the book's importance and charm. Among the voices invoked is that of Philip Gourevitch, whose brilliant essays chronicling the Rwandan genocide are an appropriate influence for a work ostensibly concerned with the nature of human existence. In Conference, the "Voice of Genocidal Logic" asks, "can something exist if you can't imagine it?" Gourevitch, when faced with the hard, yet unimaginable, evidence of genocide, asks this same confounding question. The Lark in Conference takes an active role in confounding "reality" herself: "When the Lark's father died / she couldn't dig him a grave / because the Earth wasn't made /…/ What did she do instead? / She buried him in her head." Both Doris and Gourevitch maintain, via different routes, that the line between reality and illusion is illusory, for better or worse. But to live in the world, boundaries are necessary, or so the Hutu people believed when ordered by their leaders to kill Tutsis. Perhaps it would be better, then, to try to live by this riddle from Conference: "Where's separation / When in Existence / There's none? (None meaning only me, only one)?"
"Between seeing and being," Paul Hoover writes, "the voiced object rises, // a make-believe project / that's barely even an object." Throughout Rehearsal in Black, the distance from subject to object makes for a dramatic tension, "being" trying to find itself (by "seeing") in the outside world: "rummaging // through your eyes / for outside things." As Hoover's astute, often wry intelligence explicitly works through this troubling gap, we find ourselves in William Carlos Williams territory. And indeed, Hoover moves through these "rooms of words" with Williams-like agility, picking through "the cultural debris" looking for structure, but never at the expense of the particular: "lifting the god / of structure / to the dragonfly's eye." For Hoover, the materials are the creative act, setting in motion forces of being and perception: "Degas painted those portraits of himself…. // [where] what we see is solid as a face / retaining prior sight." As the face of "Degas" looks at the face in the mirror, it's reproduced on canvas, where we later see it. Hoover's "I" bounces around in ways you don't map, just live in: "minding the eye we paint." The effort is to join "I" to "I" into a "we" in impossible conditions, where "We are // what we aren't" (think, "Je est un autre"). Here, the distance from one to an other is not crossed; it's collapsed. Thus, Hoover's "we are under flood" recalls Stein's "Difference is spreading." As distinctions extend, they may swell to dissolve difference itself. "Where are // we now," he asks, "in habit // or in / stance?" As Hoover tracks our shifting subjectivities, he looks for us in what we do ("in habit"), in attitude ("in stance"), and in moments of collapse, as when the physical space of "in stance" becomes "instance," a fleeting example, a step in time.
Fogel's second collection has been long in coming (two of the poems here appeared in Best American Poetry anthologies over a decade ago), and the complex interactions between these poems suggest the time was well spent. "[A]ll printed / matter have / errors, obvious or no," the title poem declares, and "these are their / most significant moments, / not to be tampered with." The rest of the volume sets out to prove that dictum, invoking misprints and failed corrections as emblems for how people think and how the world makes of itself a kind of accidental sense. Such a motif proves particularly compelling when Fogel portrays multiplicity as a type of ambiguity, as in "Janus," where "One face sees this world, one sees that. / Semi-infinite means 'extending to infinity / In one direction only.'" Or, when he presents a narrative that builds theme upon theme, refusing to sacrifice any single one, as in "BW," where the pathetic Brat's "parents 'happen to be' Jewish / Like the universe 'happens to' exist." Or when, in "A Stone Corral," Fogel demonstrates his power to cut through the asphyxiation of postmodern irony and disjunction to a dark, moving take on mankind in the natural world: "The women from the arts community here / Complain to me about brutality / To animals, and look ill, and look on." Many of the poems attend to the "errors" inevitable in a polyglot society, particularly at the interactions between Yiddish and English. Unfortunately, many such poems treat the motif of "error" as a mere shtick; "Words Intercepted By Numbers," for example, does nothing but faithfully demonstrate its title, and "Dictionary Jazz" idly pairs words beginning with "J" and "D," respectively—to little purpose. Such trivialities, while common in this book, do not eclipse Fogel's overall wit and frequent insight, or his occasional dives into lyrics both brilliant and sad.
—James Matthew Wilson