Bird & Forest
Ugly Duckling Presse, $10 (paper)
The Best of My Love
Ugly Duckling Presse, $10 (paper)
Kelsey St. Press, $10 (paper)
Ugly Duckling Presse, $12 (paper)
Edge, $12.50 (paper)
Mad Science in Imperial City
Futurepoem, $14 (paper)
Telling the Future Off
Tougher Disquises, $14.95 (paper)
Identifying a central tenet governing American poetry today—at least of the innovative or “alternative” sort—is a hardscrabble affair, and I won’t pretend to be any good at it. At best one can say that it is “not just postmodernism anymore,” meaning that poets in active rebellion against the status quo of the major presses are doing a lot more than rupturing or reducing language to atomized bits, or engaging in polysemic play, or enlivening “elipticist” practices to ally their work with the major trends of latter-day Modernism. If anything, many innovative poets today are looking for new contracts with their readers, and many are investigating the possibilities of rhetoric: how to use language to be persuasive and argumentative or simply entertaining in manners that court light verse, autobiography, and even meta-fictional universes such as those of Donald Barthelme or Thomas Pynchon.
There may be several explanations for this turn, chief among them the Internet’s presence as a literary forum offering infinite varieties of language for use and manipulation. Also pertinent are the prevalence of activist thinking in a time of war, the higher level of formal education among today’s poets compared to that of the past’s misfits and social mavericks, and perhaps even a new interest in writing that, while exploratory, is not so alienating as to be merely fodder for college seminars. In fact many poets today are working through language in ways that move back and forth across the Modernist break, expanding their idioms to include antique strains that recall the Pre-Raphaelites, the Romantics, and the Enlightenment, thus experimenting with the old to estrange language and make it new. The following seven poets—some of whom complicate and enrich the term “American poet” by having been born and raised overseas—provide an overview of this shifting terrain.
A wonderful example of this innovative work is Brent Cunningham’s Bird & Forest, published in a beautiful, palpably non-mass-produced edition with letterpress covers. The tone is playfully highbrow and philosophical, with echoes throughout of Stevens’s “The Comedian as the Letter ‘C’” as well of the sober logician Paul Valeéry affected in his essays. But these poems are far from turgid, with Cunningham’s breezy sense of the paragraph borrowed from e-mail protocol rather than Proust (many paragraphs run no longer than a few sentences). The book’s first sequence, “The Orations of Trillius Petronius,” voiced by an imaginary retired Roman Senator, swerves between an absurdist comedy and something quite expansive and civic-minded. The combination makes one unsure if a line is in fact to be admired not for its beauty but for its bathos:
Dear friends, malicious enemies, and fellow Senators,
It might look easy to stand up here, sweep my arms out, lean against the banister, and pronounce certain truisms. But I assure you my legs are trembling.
Walking near the sea today, I noticed a series of flat gray ceilings, with white toppings, arranged in the sky. This isn’t lyricism, Senators. It’s exactly how I got to this rostrum.
. . .
As a young student on my way to class, I used to cross an austere park, with clean dirt paths and short iron fences. One morning, I saw a hanged man in one of those trees. This former citizen was wearing a black suit, a black tie, and a white shirt.
The words we use, Senators, are helpful and appropriate. But when a man dresses up to meet his own death, what do we have to say
Cunningham shares with Russell Edson a love for keeping his reader on edge; one is never sure from which direction a sentence is arriving, and once it gets there, its effect is strong but not obvious. Cunningham keeps shadowed the exact logic behind the workings of his painfully self-conscious senator’s mind, and since we are tossed in medias res—"That’s enough of trivialities,” begins the first oration—it ends up as a portrait of a man prone to repetition, confusion, and downright battiness. One might call this a portrait of an entire empire in decline, and a fitting testament to the absurdist aspects of our own politics.
Carol Mirakove’s Occupied is a different sort of testament to empire. As a sequence it is an ambitious mixture of rhetorical modes—documentary, Language-writing bricolage, political graffiti, and editorial, with a bit of punk irreverence to spice up its call to arms—but in fact Mirakove is after much more than a Carolyn Forché—like witnessing of recent events, bringing in material concerning the Vietnam War, Word War II, and the entire thrust of American imperialism:
I remember genocide in 1969 when HENRY KISSINGER led the campaign to bomb Cambodia and Laos, killing one million civilians in two countries
I remember racial profiling as SEVIS preys upon our brightest students—the blank frames, negatives exposed & discarded
I remember hypocrisy in 1996, when the U.S. government forcefully condemned CASTRO’s Committee for the Defense Solidarity Act . . . only to implement, 6 years later, JOHN ASHCROFT’s strikingly similar operation TIPS
they wanted Cuba to legalize political activity. they wanted Cuba to release political prisoners. they wanted Cuba to commit to fair elections. they wanted Cuba to dissolve.
so many game shows, so little time
Many will recognize “I Remember” as a takeoff on Joe Brainard’s classic New York School prose poem of the same title, and while Mirakove’s political subject matter clashes interestingly with the personal nature of Brainard’s reminiscences, this discordance also points to the riskiness of Mirakove’s approach—namely, that juggling too many sensitive references and not paying enough attention to their juxtaposition can lead to some questionable associations. A few lines after the excerpt above, she writes, “I remember wrongful captivity from 1942–1949, when the U.S. jailed 110,000 Japanese Americans” followed immediately by: “it is about oil.” In truth the last internment camp closed in 1948, and they had been cleared of Japanese-Americans in 1945 at the end of the war. Mirakove also notes in the eight pages of references that North Korea “does not sit on top of oil,” suggesting the United States has not yet attacked it for this reason, but she seems to imply here that Japan, or Japanese-Americans, somehow do. So much of the writing in this book is so good—the poetic turns, the humor, the texture of the sentences—that one wishes it were a bit more careful in its activism.
Eugene Ostashevsky’s Iterature goes out of its way not to be too careful, reveling in off-rhyme, visual rhyme, and any other method of linguistic play that might push the poet’s language to the border of nonsense—or worse, incompetence. Ostashevsky’s borscht-belt humor is predicated on the idea that you might just think this Romanian-born Russian poet just doesn’t know how to write English:
Then I found myself with no native tongue,
only two prosthetics to flap among
teeth & gums, or sitting below the palate
like in a cockpit two pilots.
Subtleties, like the slight inversion in the final line here, point to a subterranean non-English grammar informing his choices. Later, he writes:
In my head I heard melodies,
I deformed rhymes, misscanned syllables,
But I have no native language,
I can’t judge, I suspect I write garbage.
These poems, perhaps too in love with their minor status, resist growing cloying due to their disarming humor, moments of easy grace, concision, and occasionally rich, unsettling imagery:
A pair of testicles hanging from a tree
Looks at you melancholically.
Arranged chronologically, Iterature begins to explore more free forms of meter as the book continues, and some of the clumsy charm and sharp effects of the first half are thereby lost. Rather than sounding like a semi-drunk Alexander Pope, they are more like bluesy scat-rhymes. But Ostashevsky, like Charles Simic and Andrei Codrescu, provides a strong dose of a certain type of Central European sensibility. Not quite defeatist, he turns a wry, self-deprecating eye on everything and goes out of his way to dispel gravity.
Telling the Future Off, Stephanie Young’s entertaining, rambling debut, combines elements of autobiography with an unpredictable wit. At times seeming like a West Coast Frank O’Hara in his “meditation in an emergency” mode and at other times exerting the pop-cultural political glibness of a Jeff Derksen, Young is a fount of one-liners. Hapless desire seems to motor these exclamations, oddly combined with the sense of being the object of surveillance—she comments frequently on her “bad behavior”—as if a pocket spycam pursued her at all times:
Here is the story of when we lived so close that anything could be tossed into the Pacific from the end of the day. As promised, there were luncheons with food cut on the diagonal, into fours. Then dinner, and private parties, furniture no sooner taken from the box and established than we could suck the aquifer dry. This is what I blame the media for. In 23 years the station didn’t change. As for the first time, you appeared very new and bald beneath the velvet of the Chirstmas tree, the way it happened when they brought you home. Later, you got a bad permanent wave, don’t think I forgot. Finally I could never see you for the tulle. . . .
With their uniformly clipped pace and hectic thought processes—any notions of conventional syntax are easy prey to Young’s excitable mind—the poems seem to run into each other (tellingly, one poem is called “Can These Two Poems Be One?”), and the repetition of certain titling elements (“Today I Announce My Willingness to Allow Loving Experience Into My Life,” "Today I Pull the Curtain on My Unseen Audience,” “ Today I Trust My Emotions,” etc.) suggests a frantic, partly camped-up obsessiveness. Young has a fine ear, and she manages to keep the poems tight with an array of metrical and rhyming strategies. She can also pull out a genuinely enigmatic poem, such as “I Am a Resourceful Person,” which begs to be resolved much as it avoids catharsis:
When at my command the P.O. and our star crossed correspondence,
there’ll be no matching this for that, the Trojans to our latest epoch of delivery
I hate Cassandra
but that doesn’t mean I have to leave the mouse for you to stumble over.
That’s what I think of the future.
A solid wall of affirmation turns the covers down.
Maybe, as in the case of Happy Gilmore and his hockey, I am made
for other things. Other things made me, not the horses nor the holiday but
baking gently to myself out of the gate.
Telling the Future Off, by a poet well known in the blogosphere, has the feel of a loose serial autobiography, but Young brings an impressive music to its catalogue of imbalances.
The Best of My Love, a slim volume by Aaron Kiely, is the most understated of the books reviewed here. Its three pieces—“ Poem,” “Novel,” and “Untitled”— read as a response to trauma, its repetitions at once instilling a sense of obsessive return to the site of self-divorce and, mantra-like, suggestive of psychic protection against life’s vicissitudes. One might tag the book’s various calls to openness to the body and the other “Whitmanesque,” but Kiely is haunted by a sense of personal vacancy:
I don’t want to make plans for the body
I just want to be the body
I don’t want plans or thoughts unless they’re pure love
. . .
thoughts that separate people
eventually separate people
thoughts that don’t love the body
don’t let the body love
The verses are so artless that they risk seeming less like poetry than a mere sketch (Whitman was likewise accused). But the method really takes hold in the final section, called “Untitled”:
My dad was drunk. He was a sweet drunk. He had young girlfriends. Nineteen. He was thirty-five. Role models. Athol, Massachusetts. Apartments. Weekends. MTV beginning. Echo and the Bunnymen. “Just because your mother and stepfather fight doesn’t mean we fight.” She was nineteen. My dad taught me to play guitar. He was drunk. But that wasn’t a big deal. Athol, Massachusetts. Taught me to play guitar. They were on the bed with the door closed. I was twelve. In Gardner, she was in the bedroom, on the phone, nineteen, my dad, had gone out, I was twelve—twelve, nineteen, thirty-five—she was on the phone, talking to friends probably or her mom. She danced to John Cougar on the TV. “John Cougar’s on Solid Gold!” Nineteen-eighty-one. He told me she was smart. She was on his lap. Drunk. “Do you know how smart this girl is, Aaron?”
Like a scene out of an independent movie, Kiely’s poetry presents a study of suburban desperation and psychic violence made all the more powerful by the quietness of its terms. “Untitled” provides something of the key to the rest of the book, most notably the motive for Kiely’s will to grow up (the word “adult” gets fed into the cycle of his mantras), implying that adulthood will bring with it peace and affirmation. For all its bare emotion, it dodges with its concision the charge of indulgence; The Best of My Love is a refreshingly candid and readable book, though perhaps only entirely satisfying in this raw final entry.
Mark Wallace is the most accomplished poet of the present group: he has published several books in the ’90s, and has also co-edited two volumes of poetics that sought to re-affirm the idea of the avant-garde when it was facing the prospect of having some of its leading lights absorbed into the academy. Haze, like most of his projects, is ambitious: a mixture of short prose essays—by turns autobiographical, expository, and declamatory—and poems that often continue the themes of the essays. Probably the most salient feature of his work is the degree to which Wallace attempts to think through the idea of being an experimental American poet of the left, a mental circuit in which abstractions often overrun the stage:
I read Pound’s dictum “make it new” ironically. Innovation in poetic forms continues to be of great value in a society that attempts to fix and control modes not only of writing but of living. But it is also true that the new is fraught with contradictions, and is easily co-opted by the forces of capitalism and imperialism, which are both interested in extending themselves into the terrain of the new in order to expand its resources and control. The new may or may not challenge dominant social assumptions. I find the new useful to the extent that it challenges assumptions, but only with the ironic awareness that the challenge itself is just as likely to be co-optable as challenging.
What evidence supports the claim that “capitalism and imperialism” want to “extend themselves into the terrain of the new” even as far as poetic forms go? And is the new really the most powerful force in challenging social assumptions—doesn’t the old do a bit of that as well, not to mention contact with the cultural other that imperialism brought about and which has been hugely transformative in pluralizing society? Aren’t technological innovation, forced immigration, and homosexuality—all perennial phenomena—more challenging of “dominant social assumptions” than poetry? And what are these assumptions, anyway?
Haze is an important book in that it gives a cogent cross-section of a type of thinking at the tail end of the Language movement and its desire to be born into something else. Wallace could be our Matthew Arnold; he has carefully thought through many of these issues and is also trying to light a fire under his own rear to get the good work of poetry started in the coming age. Wallace suggests in “The Poetry of Destruction: A Tribute to A Season in Hell” that, unlike Rimbaud, he is too often on his best behavior:
What A Season in Hell reminds me of is my own timidity, in my poetry and my life, when I’m going about my business full of good intentions. It reminds me how I speak to myself, what I’ll let myself know or not. Don’t say too much, be careful. Repress my destructive urges, learn when it’s possible to differ politely. Argue poetics, programs, power, but never say anything that hurts. Work the context, know the names. Speak the necessary phrases. Smile and twist like a good professional. After all, I need to negotiate for resources so that those who administer them won’t be justified in starving me.
“Those who administer them” must be that very same society that “attempts to fix and control modes not only of writing but of living,” but one wonders if Wallace is describing a drama that he is witnessing or if his admitted lack of daring has him conjuring a larger frame of reference for his own creative and political quandaries.
Shanxing Wang’s Mad Science in Imperial City is a hallucinogenic exploration of the workings of a physical universe blessed with the symmetries of a Coke can being crushed over and over again, thrusting all stable Cartesian certainties into a mélange of crisscrossing coordinates. It is replete with institutes and concepts known better by their acronyms (PVD is Physical Voice Deposition, for example), emotional situations described by gummed-up mathematical formulas, and ping-pong games that take on the importance of myth. The tone is self-consciously futuristic, but in the way that Wong Kar-Wei’s film 2046 used quaint science fiction to explore that peculiar brand of melancholy that China today—an alienating, dehumanizing tsunami of hyper-construction and opaque politics—seems to instill. Imaginary conversations between a “he” and a “she” occur, but any chance of the warmth achieved by two people in the full flush of identity is subsumed under the strange quantum goulash of Wang’s presumed story: life just doesn’t seem possible for more than a few choice seconds at a time in this highly complex, but highly schematized, blueprint for a city:
So that after two months with Sophia in daily email chats, at dinners on Telenet Ave, and Kurosawa films at the Art Museum, unable to sort out the intention of sort of, I was again eating alone on the Korean table in the Ion House, when Shane turned to me and seemingly walked in my direction, blowing on his way the fervent English horn with black Irish coffee, kissing the wailing guitar of the drunken king of Spain, and I was less and less assured about the true position of his intention as he walked faster and faster to my table of kimchi of xylophone in the far corner, rubbing elbows with spaghetti-stuffed yodeling beasts from Italy, paying no respect to the Norwegian queen and songs of wild strawberries, unhearing the Ghanian chant of grilled chicken. . . .
Strange I’ve met neither K nor X in the Ion House. Not strange because K or Potassium is located so far apart at the other end of the periodic table across the vast valley of transition metals while X does not appear at all, because X was never fond of Chemistry and its pungent empirical smell.
Writing like this makes magic realism seem tame, even pandering, and Mad Science is full of such set pieces, though isolated, more philosophical non sequiturs abound, and not without dangling the hope of it all being finally ordered. If for no other reason than its beautiful, energetic rhythms and manic inventiveness, Mad Science in Imperial City deserves the attention it has been receiving. That it was written by a native Chinese ex-professor of engineering at Rutgers makes it seem all the more remarkable, like a brilliant gem dropped through the keyhole from an alternate universe. I almost don’t trust it.
“He do the Police in different voices,” says Dickens’s Betty Hidgen, admiring the animated way that Sloppy reads the newspaper aloud in Our Mutual Friend. Made famous as the working title of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, this sentence has become Modernist shorthand for the claim that a text features a plurality of speakers and viewpoints or an interplay of linguistic registers. While few poets possess the cornucopia of voices Eliot did, innovative American poetry as a whole might be said to have been doing the police in different voices of late, sometimes harking backward in order to advance. This is also reflective of larger trends in the arts—the faux-naif super-8 features of Guy Maddin, the return of figurative painting to the top galleries, the retro-fit fashions and the fetishization of analog recording endemic in “indie rock”—all of which point to a dissatisfaction with the idea of a singular, technologically determined “new” to which we all must adhere, and to a desire for a new contract with the audience. Proselytes for new-media art might be the exception, but even in that field, artists such as jodi.org and Corey Archangel call upon the aesthetics of early computing (the first Atari systems, the pre-Netscape Internet) to show there is no “now” now, and that, without effort, most of us have absorbed the language of today’s art without opening a single critical study. This has been a great boon to poets who are dying to have fun and are employing compelling rhetorical affect—even personae (in Pound’s sense)—as an otherness to engage and provoke.