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.