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.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Master Tape, Vol. 2

In the early 1980s I was in a hardcore punk band called Wasted Talent. I was the drummer. Three of our songs appeared on a compilation album called The Master Tape, Vol. 2 (Affirmation Records, 1983). The vinyl double album can be heard in its entirety as a series of MP3s at the site of Killed By Death Records, here:

Sunday, October 27, 2013

For Lou Reed

Lou Reed died today (October 27, 2013). His art — his music and writing — has meant a great deal to me and influenced me as a person and a poet in innumerable ways. He was possibly the greatest songwriter of our time, at least in a certain vein, and his influence cannot even be fully measured yet — it goes on.

Below I give a section of my poem “Homage to Allen Kirkpatrick” (published in last year’s Future Blues) which responds to the work of underground New York filmmaker Kirkpatrick. The latter’s Adrenalin Devours the Blood includes footage of Lou from the 1974 or ’75 era, and so references to these make their way into the poem.

It’s all I can offer at present.



Adrenalin Devours the Blood:
the filmmaker holds up (again) the mirror to himself
reads yesterday’s paper
and the news may not be good
(a drinking contest left two friends dead),
            Manhattan approached
            with dread along the surface of the river

Kill Yr Sons/
Lou Reed iconic footage his poetry, gestures,
jerking motions like the the sound is dis-juncted,
a hand-held camera observes
gay pride parade black balloon leather boys
cops guns and the American flag,
boxing bout KO in the ring
and sleeping bums head on curb
under the belly of New York
secret filming of junkyards

O sadness of
first-thing-in-the-morning bars
old men’s whiskey and water shot glasses
dolorous light through translucent curtains,
bathroom urinals—

silhouetted against the color cathode test signal
the filmmaker examines strips of his film,
x-rays of the salacious/
            the blind beggar solicits change

the black hooker beautiful mounds of flesh
to strains of “Angel Baby” breasts hang
projected in shadow then lumined and brown
“it’s just like heaven, being here with you”
Allen visible in the hotel room mirror
just as I am visible in the writing of the poem
combs her hair in the mirror angel baby
as he films holding camera 16mm,
yes let us see the mechanics,
“ooh-hoo I love you” coarse black pubic hair

graffiti subway train cars
running up the screen 3-D style
have got up too in spray-paint

the transsexual classic American
70s housewife style heavy eye makeup & hair

(Allen again visible in the mirror,
a heavy hand)
street scene pimps, wigs in shop windows
XXX cinema Playmate Studio 25¢ booths
O sweet Lou in double exposure
light glints on guitar like flickering neon
gay parade glamour queen floats of America,

and the universe


Here is Reed’s “Kill Your Sons,” referenced in the poem:

 And here is another of Reed’s greatest works:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

On Josef Kaplan's Kill List

Doesn't feel good, does it?
Josef Kaplan’s Kill List, which has recently sparked a bit of controversy, is designed to make a point. Because a list of names coupled with economic statuses (limited to “rich” or “comfortable”) certainly isn’t a stylistic masterpiece. Joyelle McSweeney gives a reading that is appreciative of the poem’s formal strategies, and I can go along with it it, but on the other hand, once you come up with the concept, it’s a matter of copying and pasting, and there you go. It’s a conceptual poem — it is what it is in that regard.

But on the level of meaning, such as that is, is the notion that poets too are imbricated in the capitalist system in which we all live really so shocking? This should be obvious. Given the perplexed reaction to this book from some quarters, however, maybe it isn’t obvious for everybody. So, point taken; it’s a good reminder.

What defines “rich” or “comfortable,” though?  Clearly, Kaplan’s judgments are arbitrary. And what about the poets who truly are “poor” or “struggling”? — because they certainly exist too.  They are not on a kill list; only the relatively well-off are — the author thus positions himself as anti-bourgeois. So it’s not about poets per se so much as it is about class. Kaplan seems on one level to suggest that the middle and upper classes deserve to be offed. Obviously, this is tongue in cheek — he doesn’t literally believe this — and so there is a degree of parody of class warfare being iterated here, and probably a comment on “kill lists” in general, with reference to covert government operations in a time of war (something McSweeney also notes).

So, poets are part of the system, just like everybody is. And in the bigger picture, our conceptions of class and empire need to be continually questioned. Got it. Here’s the thing, though. You would think that anybody on this “list,” as affable and accepting and willing to take a joke as he or she may be, or as willing to be fodder for a valid rhetorical point, etc. — you would think that any person is going to resent being on a “kill list,” no matter how conceptual or satiric it’s supposed to be. I’m not on it of course, as I’m not on Kaplan’s radar, which is fine with me. But speaking as a living human being, I think anyone on anybody’s kill list, real or fake, is probably going to think, Fuck You.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

How/Why/What to Read Finnegans Wake

The Japanese James Joyce scholar Tatsuo Hamada has published a book on Finnegans Wake, titled How/Why/What to Read Finnegans Wake? (Abiko Literary Press, 2013, ISBN 9784900763098), partly based on selections from his now-defunct journal The Abiko Annual. The book includes a short interview with myself and work by many other, much more substantial Joyceans. An idiosyncratic but quite worthwhile book. Track it down if you can. Here is Abiko Literary Presss website:

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Review of Sarah Hayden's Exteroceptive

My review of Sarah Hayden's chapbook Exteroceptive (Wild Honey Press, 2013) is now up at the Burning Bush 2 site:

I really liked this poem series, and Wild Honey is a small press well worth your while.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Review: DJ Dolack, No Ser No

Greying Ghost is a really great chapbook press that uses real, old-school print techniques, and thus looks amazing. Nice paper on which you can sometimes feels the indentation of the type. There is texture in this kind of production. For DJ Dolack’s No Ser No, there is also black ink on black end-papers and a mysterious clipping from an early twentieth-century boating magazine stapled into the pages of this volume.

All well and good, you say, but does the poetry itself live up to that yellowed clipping? Yes indeed, and more. I ordered No Ser No kind of randomly — I wanted to support this press, and the Dolack chapbook looked the best to me of what was in print at the time (these are short runs and seem to go quickly — this one is numbered 150 copies). I’m glad I did. Dolack’s work is both surrealist and contemporary, both engaging and allusive, both New York and new mind.

This is not the kind of work whose meaning immediately jumps out at you, but it puts forward moods, works on the memory (even if the memories aren’t yours exactly), gives an idiosyncratic take on the modern world. The first poem, “Industries for the Blind of New York State,” opens, “Come from above / Are all in the trees” — an intriguing couplet. Syntactically, “come from above” is the subject of the sentence, which the verb “are” implies is plural somehow. “In the trees” sounds like the “industries” of the poem’s title, but perhaps that is coincidence. It is a conundrum, but the fact that it opens the collection seems to give it some weight. Clearly, Dolack expects the reader to do some work, or at least to proceed in a kind of Keatsian negative capability where rational meaning is not always a major concern.

“Where Our Data Live” segues into childhood memory with a speaker who this time draws some clear conclusions:

. . . people are no good.

Even as a child I had the feeling.
My grandfather tossing

a fresh nail gun cartridge
into the fire. Even then

I knew I wasn’t ready.

This is one of the more straightforward passages, including an arresting image. Perhaps my favorite poem in the collection, however, is “NYC Postcards (In Dollhouse Leather Jackets),” with its pleasant, O’Hara-esque evocation of Manhattan scenes and affirmation of life:

When You Are
In Love With The World

it fucking hangs out

The two of you
hang out And slowly. . .

I really like that idea, that you and the city can “fucking” hang out together, the city as an entity in itself, a friend. There is also something interesting about Dolack’s idiom and tone here — the voice sounds natural, similar perhaps to the way a certain American of the early twenty-first century, who is cool (of course I have my own definitions of what is cool now too), thinks and speaks. Refreshing to see it in poetry. And dig the capitalized words, providing emphasis: “When You Are In Love With The World.”

I’m not covering this whole collection (don’t want to ruin it all for you), even though it’s just 13 pages not including the old magazine clipping. But I also really liked the closer, “You Are the Most Difficult Kind of Happiness,” which plays around with space and typography. It is also in a sense the title poem, as it includes the lines “No serial number // no ser no.” This is a highly paratactic piece, so the relation of these lines to the rest is hard to get, at least initially. But there are associations to be had with the phrase “no serial number” — a kick against the cataloging and controlling of data in our world today, a rejection of the conformity and big-brother-type surveillance it implies? Maybe. In any case, Dolack’s poetry requires that the reader think critically and pay attention. “What’s worse?” he asks as the chapbook come to an end, “Bad eyes. // Now open them.” That is poetic advice good as any right now.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Review of Kimberly Campanello, Consent

My review of American expatriate poet Kimberly Campanello’s collection Consent (Doire Press, 2013) is online at The Burning Bush 2 site:

Friday, July 26, 2013

Future Blues reviewed at Tarpaulin Sky

My collection Future Blues is reviewed by Billy Mills at the site of Tarpaulin Sky: 

Mills is a fascinating poet himself, and I’m quite flattered by his essay. He picks up on some interesting themes, especially to do with the question of Irish “diasporic” poetry. There are a couple of minor points I think I could reply to, but this is really such a good review (feel free to post your thoughts below; I’d be interested to hear). And, my many thanks to Mills and TS.

Here is the full text, reproduced from the TS site:


Michael Begnal

Salmon Poetry/Dufour Editions Inc.
ISBN: 978-1-907056-90-1
5″x8″, 86 pp., pbk., 2013 $21.95

Reviewed by Billy Mills

In his 1986 introduction to The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, Thomas Kinsella introduced the term ‘dual tradition’ into the critical vocabulary of Irish verse, a concept he expanded upon in his 1995 book of that name. Kinsella was referring to the twin linguistic inheritance of the Irish writer, who could draw on both Gaelic literature dating back to the 6th century and English poetry from the time of the Anglo-Saxon scops.

Interesting and useful as Kinsella’s insights are, they do not exhaust the many, varied and often contradictory dualities that inhere in Irish poetry. Given the troubled history of conflict between the Catholic and Protestant traditions on the island of Ireland an outsider might imagine that one such division would be sectarian; however, our poetry seems to have avoided this particular schism. Indeed, the emergence since the 1950s of the so-called Northern poets as the dominant public face of Irish verse displays this absence of a religious rift quite neatly, with Catholic poets like Seamus Heaney being fitted into a constructed narrative that depends on Protestant forebears like Louis MacNeice and John Hewitt to lend credence to the idea of a Northern tradition. If anything, the North/South division is a far stronger duality than any religious one, and Kinsella’s own reputation has, I believe, suffered as a result of his being from the wrong side of the border and therefore not quite fitting into the accepted perception of what matters in recent Irish poetry.

Another form of the dual tradition, and one that again grows out of the unique circumstances of Irish history, is that which affects of the long and continuing stream of emigrants and the consequent growth of the Irish diaspora. There have always been writers who left Ireland for one reason or another and continued their careers abroad, Joyce, Beckett and Yeats being among the more noticeable examples. More recently there has been a growth of the number of writers who are returned emigrant or emigrants’ descendants; among the poets of this diaspora two of the most notable are Thomas Lynch and Michael Begnal.

Begnal was born in the States, has dual citizenship, lived in Ireland for a number of years, and has now returned ‘home’. During his time in Ireland he was deeply engaged in the literary life of the island, both through his work as a poet and as editor of The Burning Bush, one of the more adventurous of Ireland’s little magazines. His poetry, and especially the work collected in Future Blues, is infused with this particular version of the dual Irish tradition, both of whom are published by Salmon, Ireland’s most westerly dedicated poetry press.

There are three main groups of poems in the book. The first set comprises poems that celebrate popular culture, invariably American popular culture, through examinations of rock music, pinup girls and cinema. The most ambitious of these is the longish sequence called Homage to Allen Kirkpatrick. In this poem, Begnal captures the tone of 1970s art-house film and of the world it grew out of immaculately in passages like

rabbit eats TV-set close up on screen,
Pepsi Generation broken bottle knife fight
Black Panther molotov cocktails
glass dildo suicide pills commercial

the cavalcade of official limousines,
dignitaries at the inauguration
In For Ron Asheton, Begnal plays with language and with white space on the page to, on the one hand, mimic the simplicity and repetitive nature of The Stooges’ music and, on the other, to draw the reader gently into the mythologised world of popular culture, a myth without roots, one pole of the emigrant duality. In these poems Begnal produces some of the most technically interesting verse that you will read in any book published by any established Irish press in recent times.
                     volume    volume
          volume     volume     volume
                            no way,
          chord      chord        chord
                            chord        chord
The second sub-set of poems in the book deal explicitly with Irish history and legend. The poem Kells, for instance, celebrates those monks who created the illuminated manuscripts that helped preserve so much of Kinsella’s Gaelic strand of Irish literature. Another, Samhain, the Irish name for the harvest festival which, like Halloween, marked the line between autumn and winter, is dedicated to a semi-pagan 7th century chieftain Mongán. It opens:
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 before spoke

I trust language always
These ‘Irish’ poems are, on the whole, less technically adventurous than the American ones and this declaration of trust in language is somewhat at odds with the nervous exploration of the medium’s limitations in the Asheton poem quoted above. Begnal’s Gaelic trust even extends to publishing four poems in his adopted tongue, the last of which, Ollamh, ends with the line
agus mise i m’ollamh
On one level a straightforward claim, ‘I am a poet’, the specific weight of the Irish word brings other layers to the claim; an ollamh was more than a poet, he (and they were all men) was a master-poet, a learned man, one of the wise ones. Given Begnal’s claim to trust language, the reader is left with no option than to accept this claim at face value; it is one I cannot imagine his American self making.

At times, he writes with an awareness of this duality, as when in Dead Rabbits he weaves in the phrase ‘plastic paddy’ and a house where the 4th of July is celebrated and which contains one book, Kinsella’s translation of the Irish epic The Tain. Even the Kirkpatrick poem contains an image of ‘druidical Irish faces with sideburns’ as for a moment the world of Celtic myth intrudes on the world of American popular culture. Some of the other American poems also contain phrases that are clearly and self-consciously Hiberno-English. For the most part, though, it is as if Ireland had no popular culture, no Phil Lynott, and America no Coyote.

The third main strand running through the collection consists of poems that resolve this duality by simply ignoring it. These are primarily nature poems of one kind or another, with many of them being either being named for or featuring animals. Begnal displays both a respect for our animal neighbours and more than a little anger at the frequently appalling lack of neighbourliness in our treatment of them. This anger is often based in a sense of identification with the suffering animal; in Thylacine, for example, an image of the caged cat on film melds into one of the narrator in an unwanted relationship:
I am forced into this room,
through the door, her insoluble angers

 In Primates, the anger is more straightforwardly political and aimed both at the hunters whose actions threaten the very existence of our closest relatives and the poet/speaker’s well-intentioned but futile determination to ‘kill the poachers’, a resolution that is deferred until ‘tomorrow’. This anger finds fuller expression in the final poem in the book, Manifesto an extended piece of political didacticism that is, for this reader at least, the one bum note in the collection.

This one cavil aside, Future Blues is a fascinating book that foregrounds one of the main questions to confront younger Irish poets; what does it mean to self-identify as Irish in an increasingly globalised world and in a time when many of those poets will not live, or will only partly live, in Ireland itself? Begnal’s work exemplifies the duality that lies behind that question and also points towards some ways in which it might be resolved. Just as the resolution to Kinsella’s problem is that both language traditions are equally available, there is no reason why diaspora poets cannot be both Irish and not Irish and create identities for themselves out of both their ancestral and new traditions. If the work that results from the effort is all as interesting as Future Blues, then the journey will be worth following.

Billy Mills was born Dublin in 1954. After some years spent in Spain and the UK, he currently lives in Limerick. He is co-editor (with Catherine Walsh) of hardpressed Poetry. His Lares/Manes: Collected Poems was published by Shearsman in 2009. His work since then includes Imaginary Gardens (hardPressed poetry 2012), Loop Walks, a work for choir in nine parts (hardPressed poetry 2013) and the free e-book from Pensato (Smithereens Press 2013).

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Polish Hill Arts Fest, 7/21

Small Press Pittsburgh, organized by Karen Lillis, will have a small-press books table at the Polish Hill Arts Festival in Pittsburgh this Sunday, 7/21, 12pm-9pm.  Two of my books, Future Blues and Ancestor Worship, will be available there for cheap.  The location is the intersection of Brereton and Dobson, Polish Hill, Pittsburgh.  If you are around, stop by and help out a poet and the small press.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Avant-Post in Kindle Edition

The anthology Avant-Post: The Avant-Garde under “Post-” Conditions (Litteraria Pragensia, 2006), edited by Louis Armand, is now available in Kindle edition here. It includes my essay “The Ancients Have Returned among Us: Polaroids of 21st Century Irish Poetry” (in which I wade into various disputes and, hopefully, shed some light on aspects of recent Irish poetry).

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Justin Kishbaugh, For the Blue Flash

I know Justin Kishbaugh, and he’s published me in an anthology that he put out, so if you are worried about nepotism in the poetry world, then caveat emptor. On the other hand, I don’t say that I like something if I don’t. And I do like Kishbaugh’s For the Blue Flash (DAT Press, 2012). It’s a compact collection consisting of three terse ten-page poems and a brief three-pager tagged on as a coda for good measure — thus, 33 pages of stripped-down, imagistic short lines. Kishbaugh’s bio notes that he is a scholar of Pound and Imagism, and these influences are present.

However, Kishbaugh does not simply recapitulate a hundred-year-old zeitgeist. The first poem, titled “A Gun and a Girl,” takes up film noir and (according to one of the blurbs) Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. Here he applies imagist principles to moving pictures and subverts conventions of genre, playing on noir clichés. For example, section viii contains the lines,
       . . . a Pandora’s Box
of cinema and jukeboxes
she questions the limits
of language she whispers
words cannot capture
the truth is all love is not
open or honest as her eyes
Not only is the medium of film foregrounded, but so is the awareness of poetry as a medium; they are intermingled here. The enjambment and lack of punctuation lend extra layers of meaning in this regard — “she” “questions the limits” of cinema, but also of language. It is the “language she whispers,” but also “she whispers / words.” Further, we have the statement, “words cannot capture / the truth”; therefore, what really is “open or honest”? Love? “Her eyes”? Now we are back in a noir film scene. Skillfully accomplished.

The second piece is “Letters and Landscapes,” which begins with an imagist observation, “How the eye lingers / over that which it loves. . . .” Interestingly, the scene in question is then revealed to be a postcard of a painting, and so once again the subject is the mediation of the thing rather than the thing itself. The poem is also about the dynamics of a relationship and references the myth of Sappho’s suicide at Lefkada. Kishbaugh clearly likes working in an oblique mode and, astutely, avoids the confessional. We don’t really need to know who “he” and “she” are, or whether they are even based on “real” people, in order to appreciate the poem. The moon metaphor is a bit familiar, perhaps, but this too might be an intentional subversion of poetic convention. There is nice metaphorical language throughout this poem (not just of the moon), whatever the case.

“Animals and Air” instantiates a Buddhist theme, but there is also another couple, lovers who express themselves through elemental gestures or moments — water: “her eyes catch the flash / of two fish that swim” (maybe an obscure reference to Amy Lowell’s “Wind and Silver”?); air: “like a kite he floats”; fire: “foxes from the eight / provinces carry fire”; and earth: “On a bent birch / weighted with snow. . . .” This latter line comes from section x, of a cardinal who sits on the aforementioned birch, seemingly reminiscent of Wallace Stevens’s famous blackbird. I don’t want to read too much into it, but Kishbaugh’s scholarly interests open the door to this kind of thing. That said, he is certainly not aping his imagist forebears, but rather plays on them in interesting ways.

For the Blue Flash ends with “The Rule of Three,” the first two parts of which employ references to Scotch whisky, including a double-entendre about its “bouquet” (whisky, roses). It too is something of a love poem, this time wistful, forlorn. Section iii, the ending, reads in full:
Like a falcon
his eyes
the sun
and the moon
her eyes
for a moment
the ocean
between them
If I have any criticism it is of that very last line (“between them”), which seems to me unnecessary. But this is of course a subjective opinion from another poet. In all, Kishbaugh has produced a solid and intelligent first collection which impressed me with its acuity of perception and deft use of wordplay and sound devices.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Spencer Dew essay on Future Blues and Ancestor Worship

Spencer Dew has written a review/essay on Future Blues and Ancestor Worship for the online literary journal decomP (May 2013).  Here is the link:

Here also is the essay in full:

“out of your language”:
The Poetry of Michael S. Begnal

Spencer Dew

Two things that make Michael S. Begnal such an impressive poet are his range and the delicacy—the grace—with which he expresses that range, balancing erudition with freshness, distilling broad learning in a sound like a baby’s scream. Unlike some of his contemporaries, who case up their smarts in a vitrine, for display, Begnal’s skills drop with wisdom and humility. Indeed, there is, in these two collections, a voice one could easily mistake for a much older poet, and each of these books reads like a “selected volume,” in which the library poems and alleyway poems, the rainy-window poems and post-coital hotel poems are all artfully arranged to give a sense of the scope of a long career. But Begnal is young: he’s just that good. In Ancestor Worship (2007), a narrator visits Montparnasse Cemetery in a piece that bounds from sex to shit in two pages, from suicide to the yeasty immutability of crotch. As an act of worship, an offering of the vernacular: “Baudelaire’s grave / covered with green Métro tickets, / many-coloured flowers, / and a sketch—/ Beckett’s bare— / Sartre’s respectable—.” Because the “worship” imagined here is

not like the imagined
rituals of an old old age
before iron or bronze,
the metal of our mythology,
. . .
but the warm blood
that flows through to this age, dangerous and violence in veins
. . .
the right hook of history,
the slow arc of the punch,
the strange figure
on a modern city street
who burrows into your eye
and says, “Who’re you?”

In these poems of street wandering and port wine, one ancestor being worshiped sure seems to be Kerouac, in the best sense, of child-like wonder at the sounds, at the endlessly fascinating task of describing the world, “Grab the polaroid / and head down to where they spray graffiti / on brick walls / and piss in alleys” reads a poem in Future Blues (2012), the more recent collection, wherein a No Parking sign is as likely—along with “piles of pallets / & another broad wall of brick”—to constitute the subject of a poem, or the raw material out of which a poem, about the act and function of poetry-writing, is constructed. That on each of the pages of these two volumes Begnal makes us see something anew—a fresh perspective on delivery trucks as well as seasons and wine and weather and libraries full of previous writers, from Li Po to James Liddy—is their great success. Yet here, amidst “my songs all of lonesome” and reevaluations of surroundings—an ancient “stadium of white stone, / cracked blocks of sun” where men eat tacos and sneak pills “and the peanut vendors never come around”—the major themes of Begnal’s work are advanced, these being language as a product of a given context—not only a place, but a time, a particular moment on a particular street, be it Galway, Derry, San Francisco, or Madrid—and the sense that through language not only are voices of the dead, our ancestors, preserved, but that a community is established in and through such reading and reciting. “Ancestor Worship” is thus the active establishment of a community of voices the enduring presence of which is a defiance of time and death.

This is a sophisticated concept, that, on the one hand “There’s no present / just a continual becoming / past” on the page, in the text—there is only ever that which has always already been written—and, as a result, poetry thus offers collective “resistance to certain fixities.” Begnal is here informed not merely by study of things written in English, but by global travel and—too rare among Americans, whom he refers to, in a poem set in Prague as “too many shorts-wearers, / oblivious to their own / incongruity”—serious engagement with other languages. Most importantly, this mean Irish, in which Begnal writes.

Both books under consideration here have poems that, to a non-Irish reader, remain—as Begnal writes about French television—inaccessible. “I am denied,” he writes, straining “to penetrate the sound barrier / extracting random phrases but no coherent sentences.” Yet there is a lesson here: that these are words still living; that here is a poet assembling community from more than one culture. This dual sense for language—again, one thinks of Kerouac—grants Begnal a blessed ear, a sense for the entanglements of imagination and place, memory and words. Here are lines set in Madrid: “I don’t really speak Spanish / just know a few words / but I can fake it pretty good.” “Because I, in my American, think of Mexico / I think Juárez while wandering . . . thin uphill streets lined with cervecerías, / eat tortilla yum egg patata onion, / wandering, restaurants full of pigs, / plates of fried squid in windows.”

As one can travel with language, one can travel through language, as well: “The closest I can get / right now to Mexico / is Texicanos corn chips, / ‘manufactured’ (not baked) / in Coolock.” Or dig this fantasy, tinged again with what I take to be the inheritance of Kerouac, and Kerouac’s San Francisco: “‘cause just up the street / was my Mexican place, Burrito Salvadoreño, / and a hot married Salvadoreña // I always got hot peppers, / always got hot peppers, / left impressive tips, / but feared the imagery / of the black Latin moustache, / murderous, / vengeful husband.” In the same poem, Begnal warns that “deep in the Mission / it was even more dangerous / ‘cause you were / out of your language.”

It is refreshing and useful to read a young American poet so aware of that sense of being in and out of language, whose poetry acts to “celebrate all the dead in their graves” in their own contextual voices, even while he also rhapsodizes about 25 cent porn booths and the neon pulse of a city rippling through the night. I believe Begnal’s bilingual status grants him a rare gift; that while he can write of “Solitary room freak-outs nobody knows the panic of” he never confuses the subjective experiences of the self with the limits of the world, knowing, rather, that the world inhabited by the living, reading, poet is one in which—as he writes in “Samhain,” in Future Blues, one exists in concert with those who went before. We are a compilation of our ancestors.

Indeed, Begnal roots what he calls the “rebellion” of poetry in language’s disavowal of temporality, that the written word maintains an “ancient revolutionary movement / forever.” To “trust in language always” is thus to “trust in a world, in a flicker, / in an echo, / speak, and they are present . . . they are there, in a word or line / you thought was your own.” Forget the spook-show metaphysics of Halloween, where the dead wander for a day: Begnal is interested in poetry as a particular class of engagement with language—“the poem is an action among / the most human (and animal) of actions”—which, in this reading, becomes truly revolutionary, a defiance of time and death and a revolutionary catalyst for an ideal community, “different but together and equal, / agency and valency, / multi- Multi- MULTI-.” The fantastical “city City CITY” of Kerouac is here given a new gloss, one of ethical and political urgency. The dead speak, and these subjective flashes from beyond the grave contribute to what Begnal sees as a resistance not merely against “stasis” but also the status quo of the capitalist “market.”

Not that the author—like certain still-singing voices from the past—is not also “freaking out” about the unknowable concrete reality of his own death, but simply that life itself, as experience through language and manifest in the process of writing poetry, is always collective, always involves our ancestors, acknowledged or not. The Irish pieces here represent one form of acknowledgement, as do the many references—from Goya to Ferlinghetti—sprinkled throughout, and even the recognition that we are our own ancestors, that our own writing represents some voice speaking from a moment now past, lost. I “cannibalize myself,” the poet says, “I wrote days ago some of these lines.”

The particular roots of the written word, testifying to a past by continuing to speak, the community of poets assembled through veneration and continued engagement with the voices of our ancestors. That these themes are engaged in two books so fresh, so multi-faceted, smelling of assorted street cuisines, desire and fear, drunken ecstasy and philosophical consideration—that is more than impressive. These are remarkable books.