Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Poem in the City Paper

I have a poem in the Pittsburgh City Paper titled “Uptown, Pittsburgh,” which you can read here.

Shannon Ward review of Future Blues

My friend Shannon Ward has reviewed Future Blues at her blog (November 26, 2012):

Here is the text:

Michael S. Begnal’s Future Blues

One of the pleasures of the writing life is getting to know the other people who gravitate toward that sphere. Writers are fun. They spend prolonged periods holed up with their creations, and then (with the exception of your Dickinsons and Salingers) they emerge from their caves into the bigger world, usually feeling somewhere between mildly disoriented and bat-shit stir-crazy. Excellent company, by my standards.

Among the other great pleasures are getting to watch a friend’s work evolve, to hear the voice in its varied contexts, and to notice the patina building over time. It’s such a long process that (for me, at least) it’s hard to envision the finished form. So I had no idea how delighted I would be when I opened my mail and found my friend Mike Begnal’s poetry collection, Future Blues, right there in my hands—so many of the loose pages we had pored over a few years ago in workshop all bound up in a beautiful, proper book:
Reading these poems feels a little like watching footage of fish in the deep ocean: their forms have evolved for purposes logical—particular to their terrain—but a little mystic somehow too. The images float by strangely, yet there is a sensibility in the negative space between them as well as between the lines and stanzas:
nothing will  be okay
nothing remains pristine for long
stretched out in a dark bed,
the spectacular lights of death
all this terror,
the flying humanoids in the air for real,
the sinister people who want
to come back from the past,
a leafless time
that wind shook.
(“Blues for Tomorrow,” 13-22)
The form and content are raveled together artfully here. The poem’s stanzas hover much like the flying humanoids, in some places vaguely threatening my ability to navigate the current of the page, yet never drowning me in it entirely. Although Begnal steers toward an abstract place, when I arrive, I get the sense that I have been there before, lying sleepless in that room, antagonized by those ghosts. The metaphor triggers an unsettled feeling a little like déjà vu, but the resulting tension is appropriate and complementary to the concept.

These poems not only reckon with the dead, but also commune with them. An informal ode called “Samhain,” for instance, pays tribute to those dead who “are there, in a word or line/ you thought was your own,/ and walk among us to/ night” (30-34). In this poem, Begnal is particularly conscientious of the line, as evidenced by the break between “to” and “night,” suggesting both toward our own demise and tonight, as in on Samhain (the Gaelic festival which begat Halloween.)

The central concept is broader in scope, though, and extends to the idea that we invoke the dead by simply speaking, so many of our words weighed down as they are with history. Fittingly, the poem is dedicated to Mongán, a seventh-century Irish chieftain whose namesake is a semi-divine figure from Gaelic literature. Such ghosts rustle through the lines, and in the introductory stanza especially, the rift between words reflects the rift between worlds:
for all the dead who have spoke before
me        spoke for all the dead who have before
spoke       for all the dead who have before
dead       for all who have spoke before the
I trust in language always.
This is a poetry that makes room for its ghosts. The intentionally muddled syntax of the worried line leaves an impression of language as an inheritance, something that (as those of us who teach freshman composition know all too well) sometimes comes in jumbled variations and barely decipherable waves. Just when the syntax pushes my patience toward its limits though, I am soothed and surprised by that single, simple line, “I trust in language always.”

Friday, November 23, 2012

Future Blues reviewed at Eyewear

There’s a very nice review of Future Blues now up on the Eyewear blog (posted 23 November 2012):

Here is the text:

Jessica Mayhew reviews
by Michael S. Begnal

Beginning at the end of this collection, Michael Begnal notes the poet’s refusal “to fix ourselves/ in time or ink” (‘Manifesto’), and this would serve just as well as an epigram to Future Blues. This is a collection aware of the fragility and harshness of time and language, and a refusal to be rooted in the stasis of either. Begnal’s poetry is fluid and immediate, and his use of textual play allows it to slip from being pinned to the formal.
In ‘Primates,’ Begnal explores the “conception of the word/ HUMAN.” This poem examines a photograph of a group of chimpanzees, comparing it to an early-morning glimpse of the self in a mirror, “a face so secretly and fiercely familiar,” which readers will be able to wryly identify with. However, this poem also goes much deeper than the “3:10 A.M” stunned and squinting eyes, and the knowing nudges of aging; the parallels drawn between poem and chimp highlight the “iron light of sentience,” the harshness of knowledge.

Begnal excels at finding just the right words to root a sentence. ‘Primates’ opens with the line, “His eyes intimate knowledge, this chimpanzee,” the deliberate choice of “intimate” suggesting both an ancestral closeness and the implication of communication, and from this, the poem works around suggestion. The poet guesses – the chimp “maybe the poet of his tribe,” and the speaker’s own “sapience” is “unknown.” This disturbance to the ability of language to express meaning builds to the final stanza:

tomorrow I will kill the poachers
                /I will murder the colonists
                /I will cut down the loggers
                /I will exterminate all the brutes  (‘Primates’)

What seemingly begins as a threatening wish to protect the chimpanzees of the first stanza begins to splinter, reflected in the use of the forward slashes, building to the Heart of Darkness climax. However, in Begnal’s poem there is no Marlow to act as editor and tear off the postscript. The speaker becomes a Kurtz-like figure, and the violent ambiguity of “brutes,” leads the reader back to deeper concerns of role of language as communication.

Darkness and language surface again in ‘Dithyramb.’ The pattern of the urban/ rural couplets are broken when:

...I enter the poem
and am immediately strong-armed
into a dark garage
where there are no shining mirrors,
no strains of deathless song...  (‘Dithyramb’)

The entry of the speaker disrupts the flow of the poem, and yet seems to begin the dithyramb, which is a wild hymn to the ancient Greek god Dionysus. Begnal attacks the urge to define:

they claim they can define
everyone, that I’m this or that,
a maker of cloudy cadence...  (‘Dithyramb’)

An urge which he ultimately defies, setting the poet alone in the urban/rural landscape:

and I’m out along the leaves,
olive-green under the
streetlight lampglow   (‘Dithyramb’)

Begnal uses the juxtaposition of the rural imagery against the streetlights to create a hallucinogenic rebellion which both harks back to the ancient poetic tradition and places it firmly in the contemporary.

The theme of the poet existing outside of the established order is revisited in ‘In an Unknown City, It Seemed.’ There is a distinct modernist atmosphere to the poem, not in form but in content. The poet becomes a flâneur-like figure, roaming through a disorientating city. Temporality is disrupted:

in this part of the city
were buildings
when you looked at them closer
were constructed of Mayan ruins…  (‘In an Unknown City, It Seemed’)

This sense of timeless isolation is shattered when the speaker of the poem encounters another figure. There is a sense of threat at the end of the poem, when another man emerges to see the speaker, “like a priest.”

One of the strong points of this collection is the shift of tone between poems. In ‘The Fluctuations,’ Begnal observes, “death & loss in your twisted black guts like shit,/ in the stark stochastic scald.” This sits alongside ‘At the Cliff,’ where death/ time sits in contrast, “time wilts and willows,/ residue builds sweet on the tongue.” Here, the softer assonance gives a much gentler impression of time ebbing and flowing, rather than the harsh sounds of the former. Throughout Future Blues, Begnal consistently compliments the themes of his poems with a studied ear to the sounds they make, which is apt for a collection at least partly inspired by music. This attention to the aural is particularly effective in ‘Bettie Page.’ The classic monochromatic pin-up image is created in the third stanza:

black her hair
and pale white skin,
the classic black/white
“raven” “porcelain”   (‘Bettie Page’)

The sound echoing through “black/classic,” and the half-rhyme of “skin/ porcelain” draws the reader into a poem which centres heavily on the notion of darkness, not just in colour (or lack of), but also in tone. This builds to the final proper stanza, in which decay is emphasised through consonance, and the final rhyme acts as an evocation of the pin-up herself:

and clay collects in the cracks below the window
and the furniture begins to show its age –
Bettie Page,
            Bettie Page,
                        Bettie Page  (‘Bettie Page’)

“Sexless” is scored through in this poem, an ironic nod to the epigram from Bettie Page, “I had less sex activity those seven years in New York than I had any other time in my life.” Begnal’s use of typography and textual play works well throughout the collection. In Dead Rabbits, he introduces coloured print with the word “red,” emphasising the visceral nature of the poem. An image of a horn is added to Horn, further breaking the text and bringing a visual element to a poem focusing on sound. This typographic play could be used more often to bring more of an impact.

Future Blues ends with a ‘Manifesto,’ summing up the poet’s intents and beliefs. This collection flits between deaths – death of the body, death of language, death of the self – and in this movement is the escape of expression. In ‘Manifesto,’ Begnal writes, “for death is stasis/ and poetry moves everywhere.” This collection looks to a mythic past, even as it passes through the present. In this poem, as in the others, there is a lack of concluding full stops, which serves to emphasise Future Blues as a continuous, supple body of poetry. 

Jessica Mayhew is a British poet, and reviews regularly for Eyewear.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Avant-Post on Goodreads

This by way of Litteraria Pragensia Books in Prague:

“As part of LPB’s tenth anniversary, we’re making a wide range of titles from our backlist available online via Goodreads, for you to download or read for free. Check out Avant-Post: The Avant-Garde under “Post-” Conditions, featuring Johanna Drucker, Michael S. Begnal, Lisa Jarnot, Ann Vickery, Christian Bök, Robert Archambeau, Mairéad Byrne, R.M. Berry, Trey Strecker, Keston Sutherland, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Robert Sheppard, Bonita Rhoads, Vadim Erent, Laurent Milesi, Esther Milne...”

My chapter in this book, “The Ancients Have Returned among Us,” is a study of recent Irish poetry, particularly its “experimental” strands.