Sunday, January 25, 2015

Leora Fridman, Obvious Metals

Leora Fridman’s Obvious Metals (Projective Industries, 2014) is at certain points an homage to and/or inspired by the contemporary experimental poet Carrie Lorig, being dedicated to and deriving many of its individual titles from her.  The “Poem for Carrie Lorig” provides both the title of Fridman’s overarching collection and acts as something of a personal manifesto:
stalk the most main street
uninterested in pacing or
what this town has to offer
in graceful rust. No one
wants me, Carrie, in the way
I want the slick street.
Anyone wants me, Carrie —
anyone wants the obvious
metals I know.
The reader wonders about the nature of this relationship — do they even really know each other?  Is this more to do with poetic influence?  Without conducting a bunch of research, we’re not sure.  And, at least in terms of the experience of reading these poems, it doesn’t really matter.

There is much in Obvious Metals that is ambiguous and ambivalent, and that is I think part of its charm.  Most of the poems herein rely on an emphatic “I” voice, a speaker who purports to assert the first person, but who at the same time never really reveals much about herself.  Aside from the declaration that she is “mean / to strange men” (“Proving a Bird”) or that “I can lie / this easily // and so / can live” (“A Body in Distress”) or that “I aspire / to find you / welcome” (“Attempts at Spirits”), this is largely a poetry of purposeful obfuscation.  At times, Fridman verges on outright surrealism/dadaism, as for example in “Dyad”:
the boy down in front
was in trouble for real

the salt shaker had
become the orient

had an awkward roomy
alibi all crust
Yet, in an oblique manner, Fridman also makes arguments about what it’s like to live in this world, in a society, where real connection is difficult and one is left seeking protection “on a grey / street”, metaphorically asserting oneself a bird “play[ing] lamely // at the feet / of the sun” (“Proving a Bird” again).  Or, one emulates a bear, storing up fat for hibernation.  Yet this same bear also acts on a communal level and “delivers / on a promise // when it tells its friends / where food” (“What’s Fatty”).

For that matter, let’s look at those lines from “Attempts at Spirits” again.  “I aspire / to find you / welcome” on one level suggests the speaker’s hesitance about her relationship with someone or other.  In other words, the person addressed is seemingly not or not yet fully welcome.  But Fridman’s use of enjambment here also allows a slightly different reading.  “I aspire” gets its own line, emphasizing a sense of hopefulness in the situation.  Read together, the phrase “I aspire to find you” certainly lends weight to this idea.  Then, the fact that the single word “welcome” gets a line to itself actually implies that the addressee is in fact quite welcome in her company.  Taken together, we might read this passage something like, “I am open to connecting with (finding) you — welcome!”

The physical rendering of Fridman’s words on the page is thus to fore, and in that regard she might be seen as a contemporary practitioner of Objectivism, whose foremost figures (Zukofsky, Oppen, Niedecker, et al.) at times exhibited similarly oblique qualities, also similarly often resolved with repeated readings.  And though I haven’t read Carrie Lorig as extensively as I perhaps should (some pieces online), it seems that she herself works in a similar mode and so makes an apt dedicatee here.  Dense at first, Obvious Metals gives pleasure in its density, in its unexpected suggestion(s), its eschewal of obviousness.  As Fridman herself concludes in the book’s final poem, “Take the Call,” “can any explanation / dispel” — the answer, I suppose, is just take the call and see what happens. . .

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

James Williamson, Re-Licked

James Williamson, Re-Licked

I don’t write a lot of record reviews these days, focusing mostly on poetry, but when something Stooges-related like this comes out I kind of have to.  So, James Williamson, Stooges second guitarist from late 1970 through 1971 and sole guitarist through the second phase of the band’s incarnation (as Iggy and the Stooges, 1972-74, playing on and co-writing their important third LP Raw Power), has released an album titled Re-Licked, remaking some of their later songs that never made it to an official album (but eventually surfaced on numerous bootlegs of live and rehearsal recordings).  Iggy Pop does not appear, and instead Williamson has enlisted a number of guest singers.

As someone who is very familiar with the bootlegs of these tunes and who doesn’t care all that much about their supposedly bad sound quality, Williamson was always going to have to a lot to live up to: the original Iggy and the Stooges in their raw, primal glory.  I’ve spent many hours listening to these songs and know them as well as any of the other Stooges material.  So, when I initially played this record, I thought it sounded a tiny bit tame in comparison.  However, with repeated listenings it has grown on me a lot, and I have to say that Re-Licked is overall quite a success, probably even better than the 2013 Iggy and the Stooges Ready to Die album.

My favorite song here is “Head On,” with Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys on vocals, and it’s no accident that this is the lead-off track.  I more or less stopped following Biafra’s career a while ago, although I always liked the first few DKs records, but he sounds great here and the uniqueness of his yodel-like voice adds a lot, and this is one of the most up and energetic pieces on the whole album.

Now, to “Open Up and Bleed,” which I know from reading various interviews is James’s own favorite on this album (which he repeats on the “making of” DVD that’s included), and particularly because of Carolyn Wonderland’s singing — but sorry to say I can’t share his enthusiasm for the vocal performance here.  It’s a subjective thing, but to me she sounds a bit too refined, a bit too practiced in a kind of mainstream FM-radio “blues” style of singing.  It’s not that she’s bad per se, quite the opposite, just that it doesn’t feel authentic to me.  So this is one instance where Iggy was really missed.  (I hope James isn’t mad; I know, from social media, that he tends to read these reviews.).  And, for whatever reason, the heavy, speeded-up part at the end of the song is dispensed with in this version.

Track three is “Scene of the Crime” with Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream on vocals, the song originally being recorded in the Stooges’ pre-Raw Power rehearsals in 1972.  I was kind of surprised to see songs from this period here (as they were previously studio-recorded and already had something tantamount to an official release), but this is a very good, faithful-to-the-original rendition.

“She Creatures of the Hollywood Hills” was one of my favorites from their bootlegs, and in those versions really intense and usually pretty freeform.  Williamson’s guitar on at least one version I can think of was especially loud and violent-sounding.  On this alternatively imagined version, with Ariel Pink, the electric piano and horn section are to the fore (there is no guitar solo, but instead a great tenor sax solo by Steve Mackay), but it makes for an absorbing song nonetheless, with kind of a percussion-y voodoo feel.  Ariel Pink does a straight-up Iggy impression, and it works.  “She Creatures” was written by the late Ron Asheton, and at one point Ariel Pink seems to say, “C’mon Ron” — just like Iggy did on “No Fun” — as kind of a tribute?  A nice gesture.

“Til the End of the Night” was another surprise inclusion, simply because of its rarity.  The song was never performed live that I know of, appearing only on one rehearsal tape.  It’s a slow, pretty ballad (perhaps recalling Iggy’s Doors influence), which I always liked in its original form, and though Alison Mosshart isn’t quite my favorite singer (again just subjective taste, but I do think she comes on especially in the choruses), it’s a pleasant listen here.  Williamson’s solo sounds almost exactly the same as it does on the original.  As with “Open Up and Bleed,” the fast, heavy ending section is omitted in this version.

“I Got a Right” is such a classic that it would be hard to live up to the original, but Lisa Kekaula from The BellRays does a nice job with it.  I liked her work with the BellRays and their punk/soul fusion a lot, and it was good thinking of James to get her in for this project.  Whether “I Got a Right” needs a horn section, though, is another question altogether (well, it’s not the worst thing in the world).  Kekaula especially shines on “Heavy Liquid” (a bonus track appearing later on the CD part of this package), a somewhat lesser-trodden Stooges tune where comparisons to the original are less necessary.  That song leans toward the bluesy or even southern-rock(!) end of the late-period Stooges’ sound, not quite representative of what they were really about, but still a good song.  I recently read a review in which someone suggested of this version that it’s what Led Zeppelin would have sounded like if they had horns, which struck me as kind of funny since I never would have uttered the Stooges in the same breath as Led Zep (Zeppelin is one of my all-time most hated bands), but I can kind of hear it.  Despite that, a solid performance, and this time the horns work well.

The inclusion of “Pinpoint Eyes” was a further surprise, because I always thought it was just a sort of random jam thing the Stooges played during a practice session, just a two-chord blues over which Iggy improvised some drug-themed lyrics, and I didn’t even think it was intended to be a real song.  But here it is, with Joe Cardamone of The Icarus Line (who I’d never heard of until now) doing his own Iggy impression (with a tiny bit of Mick Jagger tossed in for good measure) — not bad, though maybe tries too hard to come across as ultra-sleazy.  I guess the nature of the song calls for this, however.

“Wild Love,” rendered as a duet between Mark Lanegan and Alison Mosshart, is one of the standouts of Re-Licked (though again it took me a while to get into Mosshart’s style), with Williamson’s heavy guitar riff dominating.  The liner notes by Jack Boulware suggest that this song “should have been the centerpiece of a post-Raw Power album,” which again surprised me (surprises all over the place on this record).  I would’ve thought “Rubber Leg” or “Head On” would’ve been the anchor to the putative album (fulfilling the “Search and Destroy” / “Raw Power” role, with “Open Up and Bleed” being the album’s “Gimme Danger”).  But Boulware must get this straight from Williamson, so I guess we live and learn.

There are two versions of “Rubber Leg” on Re-Licked, one sung by Ron Young from Little Caesar and the other bonus version by J.G. Thirlwell (who I’m more familiar with as Jim Foetus).  I’m partial to the latter, as Thirwell’s vocal style is a bit more extreme and original (note: where songs are duplicated, the instrumental tracks seem to be the same, with the vocals simply dubbed over).  In any case, this was always one of my favorite later Stooges songs, with a particularly Stonesy vibe, which comes across here.  For me, definitely one of Williamson’s best moments, and, with “Head On,” the highlight of the album.  (Incidentally, the main riff in “Rubber Leg” has the same chord progression as that of “Wild Love,” just in a different key, speeded up, and accented slightly differently; anyone else who’s familiar with these tunes ever notice that?)

“I’m Sick of You” (with Mario Cuomo from The Orwells, another band I was unfamiliar with) is another faithfully rendered 1972 song.  Cuomo’s voice is so Jim Morrison-inflected on this track that the whole first half of it began to remind me of “The Crystal Ship,” something I’d never noticed in listening to the original Iggy version.  But kind of cool.  Williamson’s guitar in the middle section of the song is blazing, like in the original.

Then there are the bonus tracks appearing only on CD (which is included with the vinyl, a nice touch).  “Gimme Some Skin” features Caroline Wonderland again — well, see above.  There are two versions of “Cock in My Pocket,” one with Nicke Andersson of The Hellacopters, who’s good, but I prefer the Gary Floyd version as I was always a fan of The Dicks (get their Kill From the Heart album if you don’t already have it), and Floyd’s Austin-punk/blues singing is especially great on this, one of the album’s standouts in fact.  I’ve already discussed “Heavy Liquid” and the alternate “Rubber Leg,” which leaves “Wet My Bed” (with The Richmond Sluts), a sleazoid Chuck Berry-esque tune that the Stooges performed live at least a couple of times.  It’s done quite well here, a real cool listening experience.

All of the players, of which James Williamson and Steve Mackay (sax) are the only actual Stooges left, rise to the occasion and give it their all.  The instrumental tracks are split between two different rhythm sections, one being Mike Watt (who should sort of be a considered a Stooge at this point too) and Toby Dammit, the other being Simone Marie Butler (of Primal Scream) and Michael Urbano.  Gregg Foreman (keyboardist with Cat Power) appears on most of the songs and, in the documentary DVD, rocks a period Keith Richards/Rod Stewart/James Williamson shag haircut.

Williamson of course is the central figure, the linchpin — not only is it his project, but with only two exceptions, he wrote the music to all of these songs, and his playing throughout the album is impeccable.  At times I miss the rawness of the Raw Power-era sound (though often he still attains it), and because of that the album took a couple listens to grow on me; but Williamson’s greatness as a rock’n’roll guitarist certainly cannot be ignored.  I’ve always thought of him in the same category with Keith Richards, Johnny Thunders, Wayne Kramer, Fred Smith, Sterling Morrison, Lou Reed, and of course Ron Asheton, the guitarists who defined the proto-punk rock sound.  And though this is not an original Stooges album (due to the short-sightedness of their management and record label back in 1973/74), Re-Licked reminds us also that Williamson’s songwriting (as well as his playing) is some of the best in rock’n’roll, of any period, of all time.

Some further observations about the composition of the album.  A handful of other late-period Stooges songs are not included, “Johanna” and “I Got Nothing” being the most obvious omissions — but then, these have already had an official release on the Kill City album, so it makes sense.  “Rich Bitch,” which appears on Metallic K.O., does not make it to Re-Licked (perhaps the sexist lyrics had something to do with it?).  “Born in a Trailer,” on the Till the End of the Night bootleg, is also left off, but that seems just to have been a kind of a jam on a riff and was never fully fleshed out.  There’s another such track out there titled “Hey Baby” (on the My Girl Hates My Heroin bootleg) where James plays a Stones-influenced riff, Ron Asheton and Scott Thurston join in, and Iggy improvises some lyrics — but again it’s not a fully fledged song.  There’s no “Jesus Loves the Stooges.”  A track called “Rock Action,” provenance unknown, but bearing a passing resemblance to “Open Up and Bleed,” included on an EP called Siamese Dogs, similarly does not make the cut (I’m not even sure when or with whom that one was recorded).  None of the 1971-lineup songs (aside from “I Got a Right”).

So, what would a Raw Power follow-up album, recorded in 1973, really have looked like?  Re-Licked gives a strong hint of it, but the 14 or so songs included here would have had to be trimmed down to, say, ten at most.  It’s hard to know what songs they would’ve gone with in the end, and much of it would’ve been up to Iggy, who had no part in the Re-Licked project.  All of the pre-Raw Power songs would have been out, for sure.  “Cock in My Pocket” would probably have to have been left out because of its dirty lyrics; ditto “Wet My Bed.”  On the other hand, given how much of a staple “Cock in My Pocket” was to their live set, perhaps they would’ve re-titled it and changed a couple lyrics.  Given that Iggy and James kept “Johanna” and “I Got Nothing” through to the post-Stooges Kill City sessions, these would definitely have been on the album.  “Open Up and Bleed” is a definite.  “Rubber Leg” and “Head On” you would think as well, and given Boulware’s liner notes comment about “Wild Love,” that one too.  Since they played “Heavy Liquid” a lot live, I guess that one would get in, and possibly a version of “She Creatures” too.  And, given how practiced and thought-through “Till the End of the Night” was even back on the 1973 practice tape, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it too probably would have been included.  So the album might have looked something like this:

Side One:
Head On
Rubber Leg
Open Up and Bleed
Wild Love
She Creatures of the Hollywood Hills

Side Two:
Cock in My Pocket (probably with a new title?)
Johanna
I Got Nothing
Heavy Liquid
Till the End of the Night

Suggested title for this album that, sadly, never was: Open Up and Bleed; released (in a parallel reality) on Columbia Records, 1974.

[For those of you interested in this sort of thing, I wrote a poem about the similarly non-existent Stooges third album on Elektra (1971) in my collection Future Blues, available here.]

Williamson w/the Stooges, 1974

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Michael McAloran, The Zero Eye

Michael McAloran’s The Zero Eye (Oneiros Books, 2014) is poetry at possibly its most extreme in terms of disjunctiveness of language and the violence of its themes and vision. Certain influences suggest themselves — Lautréamont, Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, the pessimism and some of the techniques of Beckett. Writer of the introduction to the book, Aad de Gids, adds Malcom Lowry and Céline to the list. But McAloran takes these possible influences to their limits and adds in further doses of apocalyptic terror, paranoia, and desperation. 

The Zero Eye is the poetic equivalent of early Einstürzende Neubauten. Here is a sample of McAloran’s writing, from a section called “the hang(ed) light”: “. . .detritus collapse/ wrung light of all that ever was/ spoke no no not sung neither/ claim or not/ a broken jaw of acrid tears/ sedimentary skull lights/ ache without speech/ from a gouge of absent colourings/ ache without sound/ . . .” This is a panorama of destruction, modeling in words the struggle to represent what apparently cannot even be really represented or fully transmitted — there is the sense in these lines of the futility of expression and the horror of human beings’ isolation from each other.

Compared to Rimbaud, the personality of the speaker, the I, is less apparent, but there is the titular “eye” in certain pieces here, which acts as a sort of symbol or stand-in (I think) for the speaker or at least the vision of the poet. It is at once “the roving eye” (one that is “clear” and “wishful” as well as “bleeding” and “silenced,” “roving in the darkness of I”) and “the zero eye” (far more negative, “voidal,” “obsolete,” a “nullity”). Ultimately this book seems an expression of both a sort of personal pain and the process of interrogating (and I think here of “interrogation” not only in the academic sense of problematizing an idea, but also metaphorically say a jail-cell interrogation, the aggression and harshness of that) the language which always seems unable to encompass it — McAloran ends with the realization or paradoxical assertion that “this is not [even] a text. . .” The Zero Eye is not for the faint of heart and requires a certain kind of readerly discipline. But it has a visceral effect and is unlike just about anything anyone is writing today.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Paige Taggart, The Ice Poems


photo by Jes Shimek (http://www.jesleestudios.com/), from the DoubleCross Press site
Paige Taggart’s The Ice Poems (DoubleCross Press, 2012) is a sharply constructed little chapbook with letterpress covers that sparkle subtly, imitating the quality of ice itself. The physical package (designed by Jeff Peterson) is a fitting complement to a quite excellent series of poems by Taggart, poems which often subvert syntactical expectations to dazzling, sometimes dizzying, effect. Initially dense and hard to penetrate, these untitled pieces soon shine through with a little bit of work on the reader’s part (at least, that’s how it was for me). They are never literal but succeed by layering themes and ideas throughout the course of the series, relying on repetition and juxtaposition to make their meaning(s).

Once I got into Taggart’s method — about halfway through my first reading of it — the poems really began to come across for me, and I then immediately went back and reread the whole thing. When poems are able to give you that intangible inward buzz via their own inherent aesthetic effects, just by reading the words themselves on the page, you know there’s something worthwhile going on. This was one of my favorite sections:
offensive myth in chronological order
can’t take baby wait
outside a twine ball unwinds down the sidewalk
ancestry is hereditary

the bridge is tied under the water // in rain snow melted on sidewalk showing nothing had come before // backwards becoming undone // by the none other than escape
So what does it mean? Does there even have to be easily identifiable meaning all the time? I don’t think so, but again I can see themes here — in the case of this excerpt, of the influence of the past on our individual lives, of families, of disconnection, of personal transformation. I like the sudden, brief static image (“in rain snow melted on sidewalk”) amid poems that overwhelmingly function kinetically. By this I mean that it’s the quality of the language itself, its disruptions, and at times outright oddness that seem to move these poems forward — rather than basing them on Poundian snapshots — and so when one such snapshot does appear, it stands out effectively.

Though we would probably call this poetry “avant-garde” in some way, I think Taggart works less in the tradition that leads from Pound to Language Poetry (though her language-play does occasionally recall something of Stein), and instead gestures toward the methods of Dadaism and Surrealism. For example, the line “we have an inside of another us” suggests a cut-up of something like “we have another inside of us” (though of course I’m speculating here), while “the face of the mountain lapped up my mind into a whirlpool // birds outside crystallized into imaginary migrations // an eggshell in times of my mouth grew weary // an egg in the snow // . . .” puts me in mind of Joyce Mansour or Charles Henri Ford, more so than of, say, Susan Howe (which is not a value judgment; I love Susan Howe).

One difference between what Taggart does and what Language Poetry typically does, is that emotional resonances are very much to the fore in Taggart’s writing, and the “lyric I,” if obscured, remains very much present. In a recent online interview, she said of another poem of hers,
This particular poem was written with extreme clarity and written all in one sitting from beginning to end and it was all TRUTH > memory forming thought to gain better clarity about the present . . . sometimes I write in pursuit of pure language, love, and want to impact my emotions into a vessel that can ride like a philosophical seahorse, and this was definably that kind of moment.
I think something similar is going on in The Ice Poems, where emotions are suggested in mystifying metaphors and weird veers of thought and grammar: “I fell entirely through the ice // swim and sank into invisible patterns / pulled from inside my memory bed // it was thick // it was crowded with me” — yes, this is good stuff.

But perhaps my impulse always to contextualize or situate a work in a tradition is unnecessary. It is also enough to see Taggart’s work as engaging on its own terms, or as part of its own scene — Taggart is prominent among a particular group of poets based in New York City, specifically Brooklyn, and maybe in some way she reflects the zeitgeist of that informal circle (and I wholeheartedly affirm the idea of groups of poet-friends). In any case, as someone who is not part of the same social group but who comes at Taggart’s work as an interested reader and poet, I’ll end by simply saying that The Ice Poems appealed to my own particular tastes, and for whatever it’s worth I very much recommend them.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Reading at Duquesne Univ. 12/4

I will be reading poetry, along with fiction writer and poet Karen Lillis, for Duquesne University’s Coffee House Reading Series on Thursday, Dec. 4, at 7 p.m. in the Barnes & Noble Café (ground floor of the Power Center).
Duquesne’s media services did a little story on us, here.  If you’re in Pgh, I’ll see you at the reading.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Poem in Spiral Orb

My poem “Homage to Muriel Rukeyser” appears [here] at the online journal Spiral Orb, issue 9. This journal is particularly interesting for its intertextual and eco-poetic aspects. Spiral Orb describes itself this way:

How systems (a poem-system, an eco-system, a human-construct-system like a state or a country, a solar-system, a web-system, a circulatory system, etc.) organize themselves (and are organized) is of great interest. This systems focus may be considered a permaculture poetics. The lyric cross-pollinates the experimental.

Sections (words, phrases, lines) of each poem published in Spiral Orb are embedded with hyperlinks to other poems in Spiral Orb. A composite poem including a fragment from each piece in Spiral Orb serves as the entry piece and table of contents. Hence, Spiral Orb is an experiment in juxtaposition, interrelationships, and intertextuality. Each poem stands on its own, but is also illuminated by its links. Anticipate the poems making contact with one another in an odd and perfect manner.

Aside from myself, this issue includes work from Maleea Acker, Amy Ash & Callista Buchen, Stephen Collis, Dina El Dessouky, Betsy Fagin, Barbara Henning, Elizabeth Kelley Bowman, Lucia LoTempio, Paige Menton, Sabine Miller, Jessica Reed, Chris Turnbull, Linda Umans, Erin Renee Wahl, Steve Willey, and Sarah Ann Winn.

My thanks to editor Eric Magrane.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Two Early Poems

Two early poems of mine appear at an online journal called Walking Is Still Honest [here]. The poems are “Black Flag” (on the band of that name) and “American Cities,” and they were first published in a book that Six Gallery Press put out back in 2003, called The Lakes of Coma.

This whole page of poets, edited by John Thomas Menesini, is good!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Craig Bernier Book Launch, 11/8

Ill be warming up the crowd for Craig Bernier’s book launch.  If you’re in Pittsburgh on November 8, please come out — Craig is a really good prose-fiction writer.
Here’s the official wording:

Celebrate the launch of Craig Bernier’s award winning collection of short fiction Your Life Idyllic (Black Lawrence Press) with a reading and party at East End BookExchange, Pittsburgh, November 8th, 2014, 7-9 pm. Special guest readers Heather McNaugher and Michael S. Begnal.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Poem in The Otter

My poem “Homage to Haniel Long” appears [here] in the current (October-November 2014) issue of The Otter (an arm of Overpass Books).

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Goodby, The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Poetry

I know I’m tooting my own horn here, but I just recently realized that John Goodby’s chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Poetry gets into my time in Ireland and editing of The Burning Bush journal, for example: “. . .Begnal, shaped by Beat, African-American, and New York School poetry, had arrived in Ireland in the late 1990s and was shocked by the staidness of its poetic culture. . .” (626).  I’ve always admired Goodby’s study Irish Poetry since 1950: From Stillness into History (2000), so it’s an honor to be part of this more recent work.

The Oxford book is rather expensive, but probably worth it.  The relevant page is also on Google Books, here.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Two James Liddy Books

A little late, but I just realized that two James Liddy books I have a connection with were highlighted by Syracuse University Press for Pride Month (June) — Honeysuckle,Honeyjuice: A Tribute to James Liddy, an anthology that I edited; and I Only Know That I Love Strength in My Friends and Greatness, a poetry collection of Liddy’s that I wrote the Afterword for. Both published by Arlen House and distributed by Syracuse UP.

Friday, August 22, 2014

On Seamus Heaney

A few days ago I linked an article by Kevin Kiely, on Seamus Heaney (here), on social media.  I quickly realized that not a lot of people like Kiely’s criticism these days.  I had not actually read much from Kiely in recent years, but remembered him as the editor of the poetry page at the magazine Books Ireland, where he published me in the late 1990s. Apparently since then he has annoyed many.  (Here is one reaction, by Patrick Cotter.)

That said, my accompanying comment to my posting of the link was this: “While I have thought Heaney is/was very good at what he did at times, I have to say, I agree with a lot of this. And I stand by that.  Not all of the Kiely piece is fair — e.g. lines like “He became everybody’s favourite, famous Séamus. Everyséamus” and “Heaney’s wife Marie Heaney, née Devlin sister of Barry Devlin of Horslips, ensured an easy entrée to RTÉ’s arts programming,” and I’ve seen some accuse him (Kiely) of sour grapes.  I can’t say what his motivation in writing the article was, but it appears to fit a recent pattern.  But when he notes that “The preoccupation with bogs was all-enveloping as [Heaney] turned to bog corpses, skeletons and bones — all safely distancing him from the sectarian Troubles whose heinous burials of course find no resonance in Heaney.  At base, Heaney is a poet of nostalgia for home, hearth, turf fire, hen-house and bicycle,” I have to agree.  Actually, I would say that there is perhaps resonance with issues of the Troubles in some of the bog-body poems, but always designed in a quiet, oblique way, so as to upset no one’s sensibilities.

Many like this about Heaney, of course, his bog and farm metaphors, and that is fine, but it’s not something that especially appeals to me, all in all.  And the latter point (At base, Heaney is a poet of nostalgia for home, hearth, turf fire. . .”), whatever you might think of Kiely, is little different than the one I made early on as editor of The Burning Bush (circa 1999), and other commentators made in the same journal.  I might have been partly motivated by youthful (or at least still somewhat youthful) brashness, but also it’s also not that far away from Thomas Kinsella’s scathing comment in The Dual Tradition (1995): “Heaney has dealt with some experiences of growing up Catholic in a Protestant Unionist Six Counties.  The impression is of carefulness, fulfilling the established expectations — as one might expect from a member of the underprivileged class managing a successful exit.”  For me, Kinsella was always a much sharper, more intense poet.

However, I mean what I said about Heaney being often undeniably being very, very good, whether one agrees with his stance or politics or not.  And my understanding is that he was a wonderful and affable person.  And I certainly have no wish to speak ill of the dead.  But there can ultimately be no sacred cows in poetry.  Every poet’s body of work is going to be up for criticism, alive or dead (and that is if we’re lucky).  And at the same time, every reviewer is liable to have his or her own ethos/credibility queried, as Kiely’s deserves to be.  So I guess I am saying that while I can’t speak for Kiely, some of his points are worth considering in this particular instance; they are not even especially new.

I revert to what the poet James Liddy wrote of Heaney in his collection I Only Know That I Love Strength in My Friends and Greatness (Arlen House, 2003), while both were still alive:


. . . I look askance at Irish contemporaries, I slap the current laureate’s wrist for his reservations, “waywardness and eccentric beliefs”. What is missing from Seamus: he learned from everyone except Yeats, the teacher of religious studies. No Sutras or Gospels up his sleeves, Seamus can be a dull writer. Waywardness in muse-pursuit cannot be eccentric, look at the punk spray on Pegasus’s wing. Those astral marshals, Yeats and Wilde, blitzed us for ever, punks not the Dublin tinsel crowd in the paddock.

The quote “waywardness and eccentric beliefs” comes from Heaney’s essay on Yeats in his prose book Preoccupations (1980).  Heaney there defends Yeats as an artist, but what Liddy notes above is Heaney’s distance from Yeats, admiring Yeats yet still characterizing him as “wayward and eccentric.”  Liddy suggests that being wayward and eccentric is in fact the basic condition of the artist, a condition that Heaney himself does not seem to approach. 

I’m not here going to judge whether anyone is or is not a true artist, but on a subjective level I am more sympathetic to Liddy’s bohemian (“muse-pursuit,” “punk”) vision of art, and Kinsella’s form and Republicanism.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Shannon Ward, Blood Creek

A 24-page chapbook, Shannon Camlin Ward’s Blood Creek (Longleaf Press, 2013) is a strong debut collection of poems with often intense subject matter and images.  I will say that I am friends with the author, and went to school with her, so I don’t claim to be objective — but I like that intensity, for example in “Her New Father”:

When he looks at her, his retinas flash
the peculiar flame of the predatory eye caught in the beams
of headlights in tall grass by a country road
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

One day soon, she’ll steal his truck,
rip the poems from his lips, drive South.

It’s interesting that in this poem, the step-father, a seemingly despised figure, nonetheless speaks in poetry, which the speaker will co-opt for her own purposes as artist.

The collection’s opener, “Directions,” an imperative-mood prose-poem, functions both as an ars poetica and a road narrative through the underside of America.  Molestation and abuse recur as themes throughout, or hints of these at least, but the speakers in Ward’s poems never wallow in victimhood but rather seem to gain the upper hand in their particular situations through sheer perseverance, ingenuity, and strength.

The ekphrastic/tribute poem to the Mexican American artist Carlos Almaraz yokes Ward’s work to his ecstatic, urban “dizziness” and suggests a new phase of development.  Wherever this poet goes next, her taut lines — often long lines — and skill for finding the precise, necessary word will undoubtedly stand her in good stead.  In the meantime, you would not go wrong to pick up Blood Creek.  Along with its vigorous poems, it’s a very nicely produced little volume.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Poem in Cobalt Baseball Issue

My poem “At the Grave of Josh Gibson” is included in Cobalt’s 2014 Baseball Issue. The whole issue can be read or downloaded as a PDF, here:

Monday, July 14, 2014

Spectrism

Reading the history of 20th-century poetry, especially of avant-garde poetry, one naturally tends to hear a lot about Ezra Pound and Imagism, and his involvement with the slightly later (and slightly cockamamie) movement Vorticism. There is also Marinetti’s Futurism, and perhaps Chorism even gets a mention once in a while — but few write or talk much about Spectrism anymore. However, the Spectrists were a major force beginning in 1916 with the publication of their anthology Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments, by the movement’s originators Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish. This volume, comprising a manifesto and poems, is available in its entirety online, here:


Soon after it appeared, a third poet, Elijah Hay, joined the Spectrist ranks and the three contributed further work to a special “Spectric School” issue (Jan. 1917) of the little magazine Others, edited by Alfred Kreymborg, also available in its entirety online, at the Modernist Journals Project, here:


This is an excerpt from the Spectric manifesto, signed by Anne Knish, but with contributions from Morgan:
An explanation of the term “Spectric” will indicate something of the nature of the technique which it describes. “Spectric” has, in this connection, three separate but closely related meanings. In the first place, it speaks, to the mind, of that process of diffraction by which are disarticulated the several colored and other rays of which light is composed. It indicates our feeling that the theme of a poem is to be regarded as a prism, upon which the colorless white light of infinite existence falls and is broken up into glowing, beautiful, and intelligible hues. In its second sense, the term Spectric relates to the reflex vibrations of physical sight, and suggests the luminous appearance which is seen after exposure of the eye to intense light, and, by analogy, the after-colors of the poet’s initial vision. In its third sense, Spectric connotes the overtones, adumbrations, or spectres which for the poet haunt all objects both of the seen and the unseen world,— those shadowy projections, sometimes grotesque, which, hovering around the real, give to the real its full ideal significance and its poetic worth.
One will note the clear difference between these ideas and Imagism, with its dictum of “Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective,” etc. Consciously working against such direct treatment, Knish explains that “If the Spectrist wishes to describe a landscape, he will not attempt a map, but will put down those winged emotions, those fantastic analogies, which the real scene awakens in his own mind.

Here is an example of a Spectrist poem, Morgan’s “Opus 41”:
Spectres came dancing up the wind,
Trailing down the long grass,
Shooting high, undisciplined,
To join the sun and see you pass. . .
The colors of the pointed glass.

Under a willow-maze you went
Unsaddened . . . But a violet beam
Fell on the white face, backward bent,
Of a body in a stream.

Into the sun you came again,
With sun-red light your feet were shod. . .
And round you stood a ring of feathered men
With naked arms acknowledging a god.

Indigo-birds, and squirrels on a tree
And orioles flashed in and out. . .
The yellow outline of Eurydice
Waited for Orpheus in a black redoubt.

With a beaded fern you waved away a gnat. . .
And maidens, hung with vivid beads of green,
One of them bearing in her arms an orange cat,
Held palms about a queen.

Then you were lost to sight
And locking trees became the clouds of you,
Till you emerged, the moon upon your shoulder, and the night
Bloomed blue.
(It should be said that while Morgan often utilizes rhyme, the others, Knish and Hay, tend toward free verse.)

Spectrism “officially” ended in 1918, with the little matter of it being a “hoax.” It turned out that Emanuel Morgan was the poet Witter Bynner, that Knish was Arthur Davison Ficke, and that Hay was Majorie Allen Seiffert — all three well-known poets in the early modernist period. But whatever about that, I personally think (for what it’s worth) that there is much in Spectrism that is useful, and it would be interesting to see what other contemporary poets could do with it.

Incidentally, like Pound, Witter Bynner translated Li Po and other Tang-dynasty Chinese poets. Here is Bynner on a trip to Japan in 1917, during the height of the Spectrist ferment:

Friday, June 20, 2014

Books & Shovels

The poet Jeremiah Walton, founder of Nostrovia! Poetry, is starting Books & Shovels, a nonprofit traveling bookstore and publisher, to be launched at the 2014 NYC Poetry Festival (Governor’s Island, July 26-27).  He and other poets will be living out of the Books & Shovels vehicle as they travel, starting in NYC, and following the east coast of the U.S. south.  From there, they intend to head along the south coast towards the west coast, organizing open mics, distributing books and broadsides, and bringing poetry to the masses.

It sounds like a great idea to me, and they’ll also have a couple of my books, I think.

To get things going, Walton has an Indie-Go-Go campaign which you can donate to.  Part of the mission statement there reads, “Books & Shovels is a nonprofit traveling bookstore and publisher.  We distribute street books, chapbooks, paintings, graffiti, cds, records, zines, anything that exhibits passion and creativity.  We are Passion Activists that believe living is more valuable than just making a living.  We mesh grass roots promotions, such as street performing, street art, and D.I.Y. open mics, with opportunities of the 21st century; blogging, internet poetry, and ezines.  Backing this project will help broaden the artistic community, promote passionate living, and encourage dreaming.  This will make a difference in the lives of all people, not just artists.”

The link is here:

Sunday, June 15, 2014

“Uptown 2”

As I am told that Wake: Great Lakes Thought & Culture will soon go off-line, I am posting the webpage for my poem “Uptown 2” (part of a longer Pittsburgh series titled “The Muddy Banks”) here now so that it remains available.  Part of this piece (the second half of the poem, beginning with the line “I bring news”) is my translation of an anonymous 9th-century Irish (Gaelic) poem beginning “Scél lemm duib. . .”

“Uptown 2” was originally published by Wake: Great Lakes Thought & Culture, a publication of Grand Valley State University, on January 14, 2013.  As of this posting date, it is still online at this URL: 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Review of Michael Flatt, Absent Receiver

Michael Flatt’s Absent Receiver (Springgun Press, 2013) is an intriguing long poem series, coming to 70 pages or so (including the couple pages of notes, which read almost like poem snippets themselves).  Alternating between crisp moments of imaged insight and surrealistic word-play, Flatt’s work limns contemporary life deeply felt.  Rather than attempt to directly describe, he anatomizes the method of perception through language.  For example, on page 8 (there are no individual titles for pieces within the collection), he writes,


until it has a name
it cannot be your reference point.
until a fractal grace leaves its trace
as water slips over a rock
smoke will inlay its message. . . .

I suppose at this point it is no longer revelatory to note that language is a medium and that we approach the world through its distorted lens, etc.  But I like the particular ways in which Flatt renders this notion, as in the quoted passage with its natural metaphors of water, rock, and smoke, and that “smoke” encodes a “message.”

At times, Flatt’s unexpected ways of presenting the ordinary can simply amaze: “grass,” he writes on p. 25, “is the earth on / green fire,” then reiterates/elaborates, “if you get down to it, it is. // with your hands down in it, it is.”  Other times, his exuberance is evident in the joie de vivre he clearly has for words, or therefore I suppose I should call it a joie des mots (incidentally, Flatt himself occasionally lapses into French and more than once references Apollinaire).  On p. 33 he creates a kind of acrostic out of the word “motherfucker” and gives us a palindrome on p. 43.  This is a poet who really seems to feel both his life and his medium, and wants us to too.  What more can we say to that than thanks for your work?

Formally, there are a number of things going on in this book.  I see something of Zukofsky here from time to time, in the aspects I’ve described above but also in small details like Flatt’s depiction of a neon sign — here “BOWLING / BOWLING / BOWLING” (with the alternating bold text simulating the sign’s flashing), which recalls the concretist version of the railroad-crossing sign in Zukofsky’s “4 Other Countries.”  The use of biographical material transmuted into avant-garde form reminds me a little of Bernadette Mayer.  On the page, the sort of center spine that runs through Absent Receiver like an axis, dividing parts of poems left and right, recalls a not-infrequent practice of CA Conrad (and what is Conrad really about if not, like Flatt, exuberance?).  But Flatt’s work does not come across as derivative — it is exemplary of its own moment and context.

And, one thing I think is particularly unique about this work is that it looks to rock music as an organizing principle.  We have seen poets do something similar with jazz (e.g., Baraka, Sanchez, Madhabuti), but not many that I know of have done this with rock (or punk; Flatt’s bio tells us that he has been the singer of a neo-hardcore band).  (I admit here that I have likewise incorporated rock/punk form into my own writing at times, which perhaps partly accounts for my especial interest in this.)  The book in fact begins with a mic-check (“check // check // check // check”) and there are pauses throughout for “(reverb)” or “(delay),” the features of guitars played through amplifiers.  Indeed, Flatt I think sees poetry as a kind of “amplification” of language — “the page is an amplifier / shaking the lamp beside my bed” (p. 47) — and on p. 50 he transliterates a particular style of guitar sound: “quote: // chugga chugga       chugga chugga. . . .”  Further metaphors of the mechanics of rock occur.  Flatt wants to create poetry that has the visceral effect of loud, electrified music and very often achieves this.

“[W]e’re sick of singing / the same song,” Flatt asserts as he builds toward the end of this collection (p. 55), and although he has antecedents, he sings a new one here.  Who hears it, though?  That is the big question implied in the book’s title, and on p. 65 he laments, “if signals were sent, // they weren’t received.”  Obliquely, this refers to romantic relationships (there are hints of this) or communication in general between people, and the static that is often involved.  But I think it also has to do with poetry as a form of communication.  Do we really know what anyone means by lines like “this swan’s down gown of a curtain / parting and I’m right back / inside the cricket’s womb” (p. 49)?  Maybe, or if not literally, then on other levels — of feeling and instinct.