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


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.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Léirmheas de/Review of Ní Ghríofa

Cnuasach gearr dátheangach is ea Dordéan, do Chroí / A Hummingbird, your Heart (Smithereens Press, 2014) le Doireann Ní Ghríofa.  Is cosúil go bhfuil na dánta seo scríofa as Gaeilge i dtús báire agus ansin aistrithe ag an údar féin.  Is suimiúil an rud é nach ionann na bunleaganacha agus na haistriúcháin (sé sin le rá, thar na difríochtaí a bheadh ann in aon aistriúchán ar bith).  Mar shampla, sa teidealdhán, níl sé follasach sa leagan Béarla cé hé an duine a “sleep[s] in a tangled nest of wires” in “a plastic box” — cé gur cosúil go bhfuil an té sin san ospidéal.  Tá sí, lena croí mar dhordéan meafarach, idir beatha agus bás.  Duine aosta, b’fhéidir.  Ach sa leagan Gaeilge, is léir láithreach gur leanbh í: “An bhfanfaidh do dhordéan linn, a leanbh bán?”  Ceist mhór a tharraingíonn an léitheoir isteach.

As the poems in this collection appear to be loosely linked, it is clear that, unfortunately, the hummingbird, e.g. this baby’s heart, does in fact “seek the freedom of the skies.”  In the poem immediately following the above (“Swallows”), the speaker describes herself in the aftermath of this horrible event: “Stretched and stitched, / I lie empty, raw, alone / in the cold corridor of the hospital,” hope disappearing like swallows at sunset.  Thus, it quickly becomes known that death and grief are the overarching themes of this collection.  The poems in it rely heavily on metaphor (especially those of birds) and simile, as the speaker seeks solace in folklore (“Solace”) and poetry and art itself.  There is for example a short homage to Frida Kahlo, who lay “between life and death / . . . in her sickbed.”

Dán suntasach é “Crann” ina bhfuil an cainteoir amuigh sa bhforaois, tite in éadóchas, mar chineál Shuibhne Gealt: “Maisím mé féin le réalta reatha / idir ghéaga garbha.  Sáim mo chuid fréamhacha / i gcré na hóiche, súim súilíní drúchta.”  Sa bpíosa seo, tá gairis fuaime chun tosaigh — uaim agus comhfhuaim ghutaí.  De bharr nádúr na teangan, tá seo níos follasaí sa Ghaeilge, cé go ndéantar iarracht garmheastachán de a chruthú trí mheán an Bhéarla.  Agus éiriónn le Ní Ghríofa sa dá theanga, sa dán seo agus ar fud an leabhair.

Her attention to poetic craft is further emphasized in “Hagfish,” which is almost something like a short manifesto.  Here, she likens poets — female poets in particular — to “ancient snake sisters of the Delphic Sybil” and depicts them
devour[ing] rotting remains,
we scavenge on the strange,
stripping morsels of consonants
from crumbling corpses.
Again, soundplay is the fore, and this is a good example of it in an English version, where usually the Irish lends itself to this just slightly more readily.  Dordéan, do Chroí / A Hummingbird, your Heart ends with the short poem “Grandmother,” where death and new life meet (“Now I stand at your funeral, / newborn nestled into my neck”), and despite the gloomy circumstances there is some sense of hope realized after all.

Is file crógach tréitheach í Ní Ghríofa, agus is féidir an cnuasach iomlán seo a léamh ag an nasc thíos.

This collection can be read in its entirety, for free, here:

Thursday, May 01, 2014

David Stone, The Crystal Prism

Cover art: Guido Vermeulen

David Stone’s new collection The Crystal Prism is published by Giant Steps Press. I wrote the Preface, which I reproduce below in hopes that it will spur you to consider buying the book itself:


A new book from David Stone is a notable event. Stone’s poetry is anomalous. He is “experimental” in style but cannot be classified with any particular faction of the present avant-garde. In fact, his work is eminently accessible in that it often resembles straightforward prose. There is a subject, a verb, an object — the suggestion of some narrative. This is deceiving. Like in Samuel Beckett, the narrative never really quite happens. The false satisfaction of “closure” fails to come about. Stone’s art is realist in technique, in its construction, like Dalí’s paintings are realist in technique. It is the elements that Stone, like Dalí, renders, the unexpected juxtapositions he creates in his work, that lead to cognitive strangeness. Suddenly we notice that this is nowhere close to prose; it is always poetry (the short, enjambed lines should have given this away in the first place!), but poetry of a heretofore unimagined sort.

The Crystal Prism combines aspects of myth and history in a contemporary context. The Minotaur, Pegasus, Anubis are all here. What do they signify? Often death, or the ways that people deal with death, or the ways in which they seek to access the other world. But this is not some Romantic recapitulation of the old myths.  These are figures transported to twentieth- and twenty-first-century landscapes ravaged by war and thus transformed. Time and culture are blurred. A desolate Chicago in “Transportation” (and throughout this collection) at times bears a resemblance to Nazi concentration camps or Soviet gulags. A pterodactyl (an extinct species) in “Travelers” flies from Russia to New York City tenements, retracing the journey of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. In poems like “The Jazz Mind” and “The Crystal Band,” the personage who listens to “jazz” (which oddly emphasizes woodwinds and xylophones and at times alludes to “the Danube”) seems actually to inhabit a dream-like land of the dead.

This is highly political poetry. It is (among other things) about the ways in which oppressors destroy culture and human feeling in order to impose their own rule. In “The Prism,” there are “Ordinary citizens arrested / in public places” — not very much different from what is happening today, if we observe the recent goings-on in Zuccotti Park, Taksim Park, Tahrir Square, etc. “The Kaliningrad Depository” highlights an analogous dynamic in the history of that city, which as a spoil of war was transformed from a center of culture into a toxic waste-infested fortress of unlivable concrete blocks. The poem “The Jackal” begins with the ominous lines, “In the shelled library. . . .” Stone in The Crystal Prism (and for that matter in all of his work) reflects the psychological position of the oppressed, but resists oppression by positing the values of art and knowledge. For example, in “The Vision of the Dunes,” though “capital ISMS,” a “chemical processing plant,” and a Holocaust survivor’s tattooed number all suggest the threat of ugliness and death, “The transposited earth / felt the fire / of Rothko’s huge, black canvas.” Now feel the fire of poetry.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Summer Poetry Workshop

I will be teaching an 8-week online poetry workshop this summer (beginning June) through Duquesne University. It is open to anyone anywhere (for a reasonable fee). Please consider enrolling in this non-credit course.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Poetry Reading, April 13

This coming Sunday, April 13th, I will be reading some poetry at Amazing Books in downtown Pittsburgh.  Also reading are Kevin Finn, Renée Alberts, and if we’re lucky there will be a rare appearance by Che Elias.  It starts at 2pm, and it’s free.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Radio Tribute to Baraka

Shortly after Amiri Baraka’s death, the poet Keith Gaustad, who does a weekly radio show, had me call in to read a couple Baraka poems (on January 9th). The whole show is a nice tribute. I come on around the 33:30 minute mark and really get going around 38:30. There’s interesting distortion on the line, probably ’cause of my phone.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Alan Jude Moore at Poetry International

Alan Jude Moore
An interesting and almost encyclopedia-like poetry site is Poetry International (or Poetry International Rotterdam), reflecting its place of origin), which gathers the work of poets, by country, along with brief but serious introductory essays on each.  I was asked to write one on the contemporary Irish poet Alan Jude Moore, who I know (and who also publishes with Salmon Poetry who have published me), and it is now online here:

Some of Moore’s poems are linked on the right-hand side of the page.  As a teaser (hopefully), here is the ending of my piece on Moore:

“The cultural work that Moore has performed, and his four collections to date, testify to the diversity that now exists in Irish poetry and to Moore himself as one of the more original and exciting poets of twenty-first-century Ireland.”

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Blackbird #11

Text & postcard by Guy Beining in Blackbird 11

I have a few poems in the new issue 11 of Blackbird, the long-running journal of poetry, visual poetry, and mail art edited by David Stone at the Blackbird Institute in Baltimore. Other contributors include Eric Basso, Christine Tarantino, David-Baptiste Chirot, Cheryl Penn, Simon Perchik, Gloria del Vecchio, Guido Vermeulen, and many others. For information and purchases, one may contact David Stone at PO Box 16235, Baltimore, MD, 21210, USA.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Review: Jeffrey Hecker, Instructions for the Orgy

Jeffrey Hecker’s Instructions for the Orgy (Sunnyoutside, 2013) is a short chapbook of ten poems. [Spoiler alert:] They turn on a joke — with each succeeding arrival, the orgy is revealed as increasingly shambolic. The first to the orgy (the titles of the poems are “Instructions for the First to the Orgy,” “Instructions for the Second to the Orgy,” etc.) is advised to “Delouse the loving space,” for instance. To the sixth, it is remarked, “I can’t believe you’re the sixth male of six arrivals.” By the seventh, though, hopes are raised somewhat:
Separating spouses Reed and Pam
just walked in with a line of braided
Wiccan women who I think might all be
related. They brought their own maypole
to grind on, Whitsun-wedding style.
But satisfaction is quickly deferred. In the eighth, one couple has paired off together in the bathroom, while masturbation is suggested for the rest. By the ninth, the speaker is reduced to random thoughts about Google Maps, and the tenth and final arrival is merely asked to sign a ledger, which oddly dates back to the 1920s.

I’m not sure there is any “deeper” meaning to this, but Hecker’s conversational, satiric tone is engaging, and the desultory, sometimes slightly surreal elements of the series remind me a little bit of Samuel Beckett. The last poem ends, “Sign / who you are, 20XX, or why should anybody remember?” Perhaps the futility of ego and desire, then, is the theme, if meaning there must be. In any case, this is a worthwhile little volume, nicely printed and sewn by Sunnyoutside. Hecker is one to keep an eye out for, this a taster for further work perhaps.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review of Billy Ramsell

My review of The Architect’s Dream of Winter (Dedalus Press, 2013) by Billy Ramsell is up at the Burning Bush 2 site, here:

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Baraka lives!

Baraka (R) w/ John Coltrane (L)
Baraka lives.

On the occasion of his recent death—

He was in many ways the poet I most admired.  Not always agreed with, though at many times I did, but admired as a poet.  His form, his aesthetic, his numerous changes and new directions.  I mean the fact that he continued to change, to revise his views and his poetics as his life continued onward.

My own poetry is influenced by him in many ways: Ancestor Worship is partly my self-conscious “cultural nationalist” statement, even though I already knew that Baraka himself had long ago moved beyond cultural nationalism.  The fact that even before his cultural nationalist period he had a period called his “transitional” period, and after it yet another — that awareness allowed me that freedom in a way.  To see the good things in it and reject the bad.  And to know that I would eventually move beyond it even if I didn’t know what that would be.

But it is not just in theme or in stance, or the evolution of stance.  His form was and is also an integral part of it, for me too.  As Baraka said in an interview with another great poet, Kalamu ya Salaam, “What became clear to me is that if you adopt a certain form that form is going to push you into certain content because the form is not just the form, the form itself is content. There is content in form and in your choice of form . . . . the shaping itself is a choice and that choice is ideological. In other words, it’s not just form.”  I don’t know if this is always true, and it’s not even really original to Baraka, but it’s something I have thought about a lot. 

When the publisher of my latest collection (Future Blues, Salmon Poetry, 2012) asked me for some back-cover material for the book, what I sent was actually based on the blurb from Baraka’s (then Jones’s) The Dead Lecturer, which is probably my overall favorite single unitary collection by him.  At many times I have wanted to write an “Homage to Amiri Baraka,” but then I wondered how would that be significantly different from what I’ve already done in a number of poems I’ve written, called that or not.

A friend of mine, Allen Kirkpatrick, who moved to Manhattan in the early 1960s to become a poet, and later became an underground filmmaker, told me a story of his early days as a poet living in the Lower East Side (I being a kid who came later).  He said that one day or morning he woke up and looked out his window down onto the street — Ave. A or B, something like that — and below him by his doorstep were LeRoi Jones and Allen Ginsberg having a conversation.  “Boy,” he said, “that’s when I knew I was really in the right place. . .”

I have a print of an ink and marker drawing by Baraka that says, “Don’t ever / Be sad enough / Not to believe / in whatever / makes / you / Beautiful”.

I didn’t know Baraka, but I met him once after an AWP reading, February 2008 in New York.  I was just some random person to him.  But he shook my hand and signed a book for me: “For Michael / Unity + Struggle / Am- Baraka / 2/1/08”.  His hand was soft and warm.  But that could’ve been anybody.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Murray & McCardle, Smithereens chapbooks

Christine Murray’s Three Red Things (Smithereens Press, 2013), readable here:

is a 20-page chapbook lush in language. Its opening passage sets the tone:

Roadlake rushes to pours
its pools onto the pathways.
Mercury-mirrors dot them
imaging the trees’ dark sway.

This is not a simple scene. In fact, it is actually driven more by alliteration — r-r, p-p-p, m-m, d-d — than its imagistic aspects. The image itself is partially mirrored, and Murray is intently aware that she is indeed engaged in the act of “imaging” in the poem. Moreover, the verb form is deliberately skewed in the first line — shouldn’t it be “rushes to pour” instead of “rushes to pours”? Clearly, this is not merely about a leisurely drive on a country road, but also about poetry and modes of expression. Oh, and what about the portmanteau of “roadlake”? In eight letters we have the whole idea of a body of water flooding itself onto what humans had wished to be circumscribed as separate from nature. And what about “Mercury”? This too could be laden with meaning.

You can perform this kind of textual analysis all through Murray’s work with equally fruitful outcomes. One section I particularly like is “reed songs I-IV,” set at Trá an Dóilín in the Conamara town of An Cheathrú Rua. Trá an Dóilín is a coral beach that is often also covered in maerl (reddish seaweed/algae). A beautiful spot. Here, the colors of the beach in one section merge into the colors of a horse in another:
She had tumbled down the stone walls in flight
in frenzy
the men caught her

amongst the strife the orange flame

the yellow strife
the white

white grey and cream : her
mane and tail is against the wall
There are so many ways to read this; it suggests something about oppression, specifically in the gendering of those involved. Also running through it are themes relating to the muse in poetry, music (“your double-flute’s song”), the Famine, and the “noise” of mannered civilization.

Perhaps reminiscent in theme (not form) of Carol Ann Duffy’s “Standing Female Nude,” “The Zeiss” reiterates Murray’s feminist stance in its turning of the tables on “the male gaze,” the Zeiss being a brand of medical lenses:
the primitive Zeiss dilated
with the mathematical implements of your pornographies : meters,

[. . .]

all these rotated in your skull-disc, and I
spread wide as cut-fruit onto a plate-fallen

and captured you.
I wondered which of your screens I was playing on?
“Playing on” as in being screened, but more so in the way that the poet “plays on” the features of language, wordplay. It is the speaker who accordingly seizes power in this scenario.

The title poem, “Three Red Things,” is noteworthy for its employment of crisp imagist details as a platform over which to assert a more personal, subjective position in the world. The speaker is located up against a tree: “its roots are moving beneath my feet / I am afraid it will tear up from the / soil’s hungry drinking as” — and that’s it. As what? Do we need to know? No, we don’t. Murray’s poetry doesn’t owe us tidy answers. We’ve got the “soil’s hungry drinking as” and it’s a great phrase and a great ending just as it is.

Another recent Smithereens Press chapbook is Aodán McCardle’s LllOovVee (2013), readable here:

McCardle’s bio note explains that he “practices improvisational Performance Writing, making particular use of the physical body of writing,” and this work is indeed emphasized as a kind of performance. I can see it. I like that McCardle has actually incorporated a number of his notebook pages, reproduced photographically, that play alongside and against the typeset sections. His handwriting sometimes spells out readable words and other times devolves into a kind of scribble, but with the trace of the physical movement of the pen paramount. It is a record, a graphing of instantaneity never to be repeated.

Having thus preserved it through the wonders of technology, McCardle adds other layers. For example, a handwritten column of the repeated word “now” is juxtaposed with a column of the repeated typeset word “then.” Simple, that, yes. But it is only one small part of a process of repetition with variation and stripping down of words in order to reveal something about the ways in which and the reasons why we utilize language. The chapbook begins with a long typeset passage that wrangles with questions such as

the disgust of egotism
the nothing of writing
the something of writing
the alternative of writing
[. . .]
writing as other than
to make a line
Given the nature of the form LllOovVee takes, it is something that should really be engaged with on its own terms, as the full effect is not captured in this review. But I will say that one possible answer to the questions set out above seems to be located in the title itself, a transcription of a common English-language word that McCardle has sloppily scribbled and strewn across several notebook pages with increasingly emphatic flourishes. It demands to be experienced as much as analyzed.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Jennifer Tamayo’s Poems Are the Only Real Bodies

Jennifer Tamayo’s Poems Are the Only Real Bodies (Bloof Books, 2013) is a chapbook-length long poem framed as a series of paratactic letters (“e-pistols”) addressed to Harriet Tubman. I’ve read it about three times now and I really like it. It takes a couple readings, though, for its internal logic, or anti-logic, to begin to take hold. On first reading, the overarching metaphor — the poem/body equivalence — seemed heavy-handed: can poetry, language, really be so corporal; isn’t this something of a conceit? But with further readings, I started to feel that in many ways, yes it can, and that what initially seemed heavy-handed was exactly the point. The metaphor is exaggerated, reiterated in numerous different forms, almost to the point of baroqueness (in the dictionary sense of the baroque as “characterized by grotesqueness, extravagance, complexity, or flamboyance”). As Tamayo writes at the very start of the poem, “Please know that when I place these arms on you, dear reader, we both corrupt with pleasure. The guttural guh guh guh guh! of // what it means to experience the letter”.

Tamayo’s poetry is sensual, happily overwrought and “corrupt”; her poetry involves a connection between people (writer and reader, or poet and subject); and in its sometimes orgiastic intensity, it can paradoxically reduce expression to an almost wordless, guttural “guh.” She writes, “One of my poem’s fingers creeps in to my asshole. / & everything is there.”  And later:


my clit perks and waves to the sun!

it thinks it to be its own reflection

and it looks up the word ENTITLED

At your memorial, I dangle from your big hand like a metaphor: I’m the slobbery noodle.

The way out of this, Hurryet, is through language but I can’t stop narrating, guh, it feels so good.

There is so much here, much more than this review is able to take on. Tamayo’s work deserves further, article-length criticism/analysis than I can give at present. She engages with issues of race and gender, of course, but also of oppression and liberation more broadly, of history and subjectivity, of the role of art and language, and of how these issues might be centered on or expressed through the body. PATORB also seems to be kind of a manifesto in which Tamayo inserts herself, her own art, into these contexts. A page in the book is a photo of the poet literally “dangl[ing]” like a “slobbery noodle” from the right hand of the Harriet Tubman statue in Harlem — Tamayo’s own body has become the metaphor here. Superimposed on her hindquarters are the words “THE SENTENCE” (as I wrote earlier, the metaphor is exaggerated, blatant, reiterated in many different ways throughout the book, and this is just one of them). This technique of combining photograph and text is reminiscent of the visual artist Barbara Kruger, who the poet explicitly references, thus overtly tying her project to a particular comrade-in-arms (so to speak).

It further helps to see Tamayo’s work in the light of that of Harryette Mullen, another contemporary poet who is intensely enamored of wordplay and the materiality of language. Fittingly, Mullen comes in as a riff on the name Harriet, and the page that acts as the Mullen tribute is laden with double-entendre:

This is really hystorical

because when I said I was writing about guns everybody winced
because I forgot to mention they were just my metaphors.

I do believe the poet can act like a terrorist
with a guh guh guh guh!

Here the “guh” is transformed from an expression of the ecstatic inexpressible into the sound of gunshots. It is worth remembering that Harriet Tubman was no pacifist, having allied herself with the anti-slavery militant John Brown and later, during the Civil War, leading an armed raid into Confederate territory to free hundreds of slaves. Two pages later, Tamayo writes, “Moses [NB: a sobriquet for Tubman], // Language is a type-o-trash & I’m uncertain about the concept of nonviolence // as in, these letters are all arms”. Her epistles to Tubman are elsewhere rendered “e-pistols.” In case the NSA is looking in, however (“YOUR ART CONTROLS YOU BY DEFINING YOUR REALITY,” Tamayo writes, “THEY DISCOUNT YOUR EXPERIENCES AND REPLACE IT WITH THEIR TRUTH AND REALITY WHICH IS ACTUALLY A LIE”), she clearly is not advocating any kind of literal violence in this day and age; rather, she is interested in the capacity of language, poetry, and art to strenuously oppose the aforementioned forces of oppression that still face us all, their capacity to act as metaphorical “weapons.”

Tamayo foregrounds the contestedness of everything that her poem takes up, just as the Tubman statue itself is contested. Poems Are the Only Real Bodies is rich and (as they say in reviews) rewards repeated readings. It is heavy (in a good way) and almost goopy in its style (in a good way). The published chapbook is quite the material “body” itself, 7” x 7” square, machine-sewn at the edges with orange thread rather than having a fold-over spine, graphically appealing with bold orange and pink printed ink as a cover motif. It appears that it is now sold out (though available as a free ebook, here). Given the theme/s of this poem, it would be great if the hard copy version were to be made available again in the future.  In any case, Bloof Books is putting out some great work and is a press well worth supporting. PATORB is a remarkable example of what Bloof publishes and especially of what Tamayo is capable of. I look forward to more from her.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Scully & Mills, Smithereens chapbooks

Maurice Scully’s latest work is RAIN, a chapbook/pamphlet published by Smithereens Press earlier this year and readable for free in online form here:

A quick search of the blog in front of you will reveal that I have written quite a bit about Scully already, and what I like about this one is I suppose what I like about most of his work — its capacity for being both imagistic and kinetic at the same time, or, its simulacra of both.  By imagistic, I mean concise description and something more, Pound’s “intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” like, “a small cracked / black & white / photo from / the 50s // popped out of / a book on / yr desk”.  By kinetic, I mean the way this poem traces the movement of thought with sudden leaps or jump cuts, to new and perhaps contrasting images.  After the photo, there is suddenly a series of visions of nature, possibly ranging through time.  A “quiet cell / in the woods / berries birdsong / rootlets” recalls the ascetic life of a mediaeval Irish monk in a beehive hut.  A short ways on there is this curious scene: “this must / be that / beautiful / little quick // feathered / animal / feeding by / the // wave-edge” — yeah, the reader might think, you mean a bird.  But what makes this passage is the off-kilter way it is rendered — it “must be” this thing that is denoted by its description rather than its name.

As always with Scully, the way/s in which we use language are under question, or if not that, are at least foregrounded in the construction of the poem.  Much could be made of Scully’s line breaks and use of enjambment, for example.  And after the sequence above, suddenly he cuts to an image of a “book / opened / on a / table”, which is a scene perhaps of the very writer’s desk.  This breaks the frame of the poem, as does the gesture toward concrete poetry (where the vertical-bar keyboard characters placed along a right margin mimic the falling of raindrops).  Scully also discusses the genesis of the poem in a series of notes, further allowing the reader behind the veil.  As he himself points out, though, this may be “subjective & unnecessary to know in the first place other than to give the reader some idea of how the thing was put together.”  RAIN is successful on its own as a poem that is engaged in celebrating life, perception, and the creation of the self through art.

Another recent Smithereens chapbook is Billy Mills’s from Pensato: More Words for Voices, readable here:

(I should disclose that Mills recently reviewed a book of mine, but I have been reading and enjoying his work long before that ever happened.)

In a way similarly to Scully, from Pensato is closely tuned to the small sensory moments and images that make up a life as it is lived and the world as it is in the process of continual change.  These are a series of snippets segueing into each other over the course of 22 pages, sometimes just a handful of lines each, crisp and at times haiku-like.  Here is one: “a snatch of air / freezes / on the lip // crisp & almost / sweet”.  Where an autobiographical presence clearly inhabits Scully’s work, this is less apparent in Mills’s, where there the strategy is to deemphasise the personality of the poet as much as possible, in favor of the natural world.  Yet, subtly, we see the speaker here in the evaluative adjective “sweet.”  Further, the following poem, though grounded in flower imagery, could be read as a personal metaphor of human relationships in the face of ephemerality: “petals fold / against / each other // held delicate / tension / & weave // a fragile durability / that holds”.  What also “weaves” us together here is poetry itself — beyond the metaphor, the astute reader is drawn to the slant or near-rhyme of “fold,” “held,” “holds,” the soft-‘e’ assonance of “held,” delicate,” “tension,” and the hard-‘e’ assonance of “each,” and “weave.”

It is also interesting to me how Mills connects nature and the human subconsciousness (dream) through poetry.  On page 13: “persist & sing / the least need / most // an image is / that leads / sleep goes // first then this / who dreams would / keep so” — yes! for the poet we persist through our art (“sing”) and, through images (in poetry) and dreams, also, live; in other words the inner life is connected both to the way we position ourselves in the outside, natural world and to the production of our art.  Here is a slight reworking of the same idea, on page 19: “& sleep once / & dream / easily // & let the light / erase / the edge of things // drift / purposeful & / clear”.  The consciousness, the clarity, that is provided by an artistic perception of reality allows us to live life in a particular way.  For Mills (and for myself) it is to “drift purposeful and clear” — the seeming contradiction between drifting and purpose being obviously resolved in this particular aesthetic stance.  As Mills writes a couple of pages on, this stance allows the world to be both “explicable & strange”.  His from Pensato is, in this regard, it seems to me, a kind of personal manifesto despite its impersonal framing.