Attention Span 2012 | Keith Tuma
Ted Greenwald | Clearview / LIE | United Artists | 2011
A lively memoir about growing up in Queens, ending with remarks about Greenwald’s 1962 trip to Mexico and California and the poetry scene in New York as he first knew it. Expressway glimpses of schooldays and the neighborhood—Greenwald’s memory for names and places is impressive. Pet parakeets, lots of books and movies (e.g., Mickey Rooney in Speedball), stocking the cigarette machines. Early in the book Hitler is a regular presence: “twigs and brush over the antholes, call them Hitler houses, light them up, burn them and ants down.” Presented as if told at the local diner over espresso or lunch, with “Anyway” a conversational pivot and the occasional “Later” to exit a memory. Greenwald’s syntax crackles demotic: “Look upon me as your proverbial native speaker of American english, and what the speaker says, is it, right now!” Sure. “Can’t make it new, make it fresh.” Okay then. “Back in a jif.” We’ll be waiting. “Right off the bat, obvious.” Yep.
Jenny Sampirisi | Croak | Coach House | 2011
The note on the back refers to “a frog-and-girl opera in three parts, played out like a YouTube mashup of mid-century cartoons set to a contemporary pop song.” The acknowledgments list sources including Aristophanes, Beckett, Warner Bros., and The Field Guide to Malformations of Frogs and Toads with Radiographic Interpretations. Characters include The Narrators, Frog One and Frog Zero, Girl Zero, Girl 00010111, and eventually Frogirls. The writing also mutates and “never levels off into a settled shape” (Anselm Berrigan). The prose (it is mostly prose) is spirited (“Ribbit for her pleasure”) but not only comic: “What if love is not wide enough and the future is many walls breaching?” “The Narrators” put it bluntly: “The Girls are not all right / The Frogs are not / all / right.” The plot is announced at the beginning (“Part Three wherein they die”). The Girls get the last word: “So it is that we’ve failed then.”
We spoke the chemicals into mud and into water until they came looking for the source and climbed back into our mouths. In through the fingernails and the throat. Coarse songs. We forgot names and places. Whole classes of objects disappeared.
That’s from near the end. And here’s the very end of Christina Rossetti’s “A Frog’s Fate,” another entry in the frog canon:
The mangled Frog abides incog,
The uninteresting actual frog:
The hypothetic frog alone
Is the one frog we dwell upon.
Points to Sampirisi for dwelling upon all frogs.
Norman Finkelstein | Inside the Ghost Factory | Marsh Hawk | 2012
One poem and several images owe to Tom Every’s roadside sculpture park in Wisconsin, where the Forevertron with its “visionary combination of whimsy and sublimity” (Finkelstein) seems to have prompted a turn in Finkelstein’s work, or anyway he describes Dr. Evertron’s work as “a primal gesture of artistic rebirth, a literal rebuilding of the artist’s soul out of castoff industrial detritus and salvaged materials of modern life.” The poems animate a series of speakers; we get to watch them blow smoke and air: “I have been in love and I have been in the / airport and I have been to London to visit / the Queen. I have thought about her both dressed // and undressed.” Many poems introduce a second voice, a ghost in their machine, separated visually by a line and glossing and sometimes undermining a first, in the way that the final line of Herbert’s “The Collar” reframes the rest of that poem. One poem refers to “My chutzpadik muse,” addressing said muse in “the rustle // of [its] travelwear after a long day.” The speaker of this same poem claims that he “wouldn’t / exchange my mimetic desire for all the visiting / professorships in China.” The second voice in the poem echoes The Waste Land: “Nothing again nothing.” I hear a little of Eliot’s Prufrock in several of Finkelstein’s speakers, and perhaps a hint of Lewis Carroll too. Here’s a line I never expected to find in a Finkelstein poem: “I got Bambi in the smoker.”
Benjamin Friedlander | One Hundred Etudes | Edge | 2012
It takes nerve to rewrite Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” without parodying it, and Friedlander does that here: “Faces // In a crowd, / Heavy with light. / Their saturated colors // Thicken, weigh reality // down.” Not all but many of the remarkable poems in this series comment on the Pound-Williams-Zukofsky-Niedecker-Eigner-Silliman tradition in American poetry, demonstrating a critical if also broadly sympathetic understanding of its accomplishments. There is the sense, I suppose, that we have come to the end of it. One of the book’s longer poems is an alphabet for Silliman, and there are poems dedicated to Eigner, Bob Perelman, Nick Lawrence, David Levi Strauss, Charles Bernstein, Kenneth Goldsmith, Rod Smith, Alice Notley, Elaine Scarry, and Hannah Arendt, among other poets and intellectuals, and to family too. To compose poetry is to condense, Pound’s slogan insisted, but in this case it is to condense not in order to press out image but rather a pointed, well-turned discourse, as in the aphorism. Rae Armantrout’s blurb points to the book’s production, which runs the poems together in “a twisting cascade composed of sayings you almost recognize.” We won’t need the theory of the avant-garde much longer after Friedlander’s “Avant Garde”: “It plunks like / A quarter in / A wishing well, // That isn’t a / Well, but a / Still fountain in // A busy museum, / Where change collects / A penny for // Your thoughts.” Friedlander’s poem for Pound is called “Money”: “The embalmed / Face of our // Founding father, sounding / The depths of / His grass-colored // Grave, forever alarmed / That his farewell / Address is reduced // To a ‘keep / the change.’” One of the delights of these small poems is the rhyming that motors many of them.
Neil Pattison, Reitha Pattison, Luke Roberts, eds. | Certain Prose of The English Intelligencer | Mountain | 2012
The poetry circular or “worksheet” that was The English Intelligencer has long had a legendary status among scholars of British poetry. Only a few libraries have anything approaching full runs of it. Not least among the contributions of this book is sorting the mess of its mimeographs to make a readable selection, and Neil Pattison’s fine introduction also usefully contextualizes the worksheet’s project and discourse with reference to the recent history of modernist poetry in Britain. The prose by J. H. Prynne, Peter Riley, Andrew Crozier, John Hall, Elaine Feinstein, Barry MacSweeney, and others included does not represent all of the prose published in the worksheet: “numerous short fictions and other imaginative prose or prosoid works…are omitted.” No poems are republished; these are mostly though not entirely otherwise available. There is something lost in not including the poems, as they were sometimes continuous with the prose, but it would have meant a bigger and more expensive book. The English Intelligencer was a lousy name, Prynne wrote early on, calling it “the most shrivelled proposition in the whole drooping matter” and perhaps anticipating the way it would suggest for many parochial concerns. Pattison traces the title to a 17th Century journal while making the case for the continuing value of the discourse represented.
Ian Brinton, ed. | An Andrew Crozier Reader | Carcanet | 2012
A selection from the work of the late English poet, critic, and scholar Andrew Crozier. The Veil Poem, Pleats, High Zero, and, near the end, “Free Running Bitch” struck me this time through as poetry of lasting value (All Where Each Is, published by Allardyce, Barnett, collects Crozier’s poetry up through 1985). I found the verse notation of Pleats especially moving. Brinton includes Crozier’s most important essays (an influential essay on the Movement concludes the volume) and intercuts the poems with excerpts from letters by and interviews with Crozier and letters or notes about Crozier’s poetry by J. H. Prynne, Douglas Oliver, Iain Sinclair, and others. Together with Brinton’s remarks and correspondence with Crozier this makes for a book that allows consideration of the history of Crozier’s writing, though in a 2006 note to Brinton discussing an early review that he had published Crozier writes “It sometimes seems to me that my ideas have hardly moved on from that review.” The humility of this is a consistent characteristic of the poetry, described for the Allardyce, Barnett edition as featuring an “everyday or undistinguished subject matter… investigating wider issues of thought and language” and the world not as “imagined” but “discovered.” Brinton’s book includes photographs, one of them of Crozier with Carl Rakosi in Cambridge. It also includes images of several of the postcards sent by Jeff Morsman to Richard Downing and forwarded to Crozier; these were one occasion for The Veil Poem. This selection should bring new readers to Crozier’s work.
J. H. Prynne | Kazoo Dreamboats or, On What There Is | Critical Documents | 2011
Prynne rewrites Parmenides with help from Condensed Matter Field Theory, Van der Waals Forces: A Handbook for Biologists, Chemists, Engineers, and Physicists, Mao Zedong’s “On Contradiction,” Alban Berg’s lecture on his opera Wozzeck, and remarks on “the original cremation pyre” in an essay by Richard Bradley on “The Land, the Sky and the Scottish Stone Circle,” to name only some of what is engaged here. These and other “reference cues” are listed; they include a YouTube video of the Chinese rock star Cui Jian. Prynne dedicates the book to “the Jinling Patriots.” Presented as an ecstatic dream vision, Langland’s “fayre feld ful of folk” become, at least in part, energy fields, Prynne’s headlong sentences and paragraphs are a cure for contemporary dropsy, which is to say that the rumbling force of this writing impresses. As a description of “what is” the theoretical physics and other science inscribed points to “internal contradiction in every single thing,” “continuous jostlings of positive and negative charges,” “simple growth in plant and animals” as “chiefly the result of their internal contradictions” rather than “external causes.” “What there is” includes not only condensed matter field theory but also politics, and conventions of “explanation.” It is hard to extract passages from Kazoo Dreamboats, since even the four “rules” it proposes (e.g., “Rule One: people with top pay are rubbish”) are thickly embedded, but here is an excerpt from near the end, before citation of the passage concerning the cremation pyre:
These things I saw in the field clear enough sometime in
pleasaunt joy of season, and winter as well was no objection
yet much was done by violence as often in danger from spirit
and self-ruin not change but damage how could any man not know
this in himself, harm done to womankind by stupidity of appetite.
Greed in the field infolded as star bedding and seed countenance
continued there, the central banks welded to reserves in well
self-interest or how else bond for bond and be what they do.
Tom Raworth | Got On | © _© Press | 2011
Wikipedia says that the word “apophenia” was “coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad, who defined it as the ‘unmotivated seeing of connections’ accompanied by a ‘specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness.’” In Got On it might be rendered as “pop hen”:
rivets of instance
exception as possibility
smaller in the world
to have so little
moon mirror reflection
wonders to perform
give objects memory
The other 2011 Raworth publication (from Infolio) is called Incomprehensible Things, which is the way some speak of poetry, in the movies for instance. Incomprehensible things are “cognitively impenetrable,” another phrase in Got On. One nevertheless follows these little bursts of phrases down the page: “fuck the friendly image / seen from destruction / and decay” is the first of it (or the first after the baby blue cover and treated images of Pasolini at Gramsci’s gravesite) and “absent from now and here” the last.
Mairéad Byrne | Lucky | little red leaves | 2011
What “A Heap of Snow” in the back of a red pickup has to do with the pyramids. How the centipede differs from the laptop. This could be mistaken for light verse except it’s prose. Together with Feng Sun Chen’s Blud from Spork, Raworth’s Got On (which owes to Ian Heames), and Clutch by Richard Owens (published by the Vigilance Society; see the images at Craig Dworkin’s Eclipse site) Lucky is one of the chapbooks published this year with a design worth celebrating. Its cover is “lovingly sewn using recycled textile remnants” (http://www.textileseries.com/the-shelf/2011-titles/lucky-by-mairead-byrne/). Illustrations by Abigail Lingford.
Fanny Howe | Come and See | Graywolf | 2011
In her review of Richard Kearney’s Anatheism: Returning to God after God, Howe describes the “anatheist moment” as “one of creative ‘not knowing’ signifying a break with former sureties and inviting the forging of new meanings from the most ancient of wisdoms and the most basic of everyday epiphanies.” Howe’s interest in Kearney’s book will make sense to readers of Come and See. These are poems that know that hope exists even where there is little reason for it, poems sustained by activism such as that witnessed on an Irish ship “heading to Gaza” whose passengers are not so “discolored by / depressive German philosophy” as the poet is “discolored by the recent past.” It took me a little time to settle into the prosaic rhythm of the poetry—the book concludes with prose about Ilona Karmel—but it now seems to me essential to the quiet determination and power of Howe’s writing here. One ongoing concern in the poems is “children / and their acts of resistance.” Some lines from “The Interpreter’:
If all the elements are logical
But one that will never fit in
And stays apart from the whole system
Without a name of a slot,
What will it be?
It will be a question:
“Is he coming today?”
“No. Go back to sleep.”
Okay. Those are ten books that held my attention this year, and since it turns out that there were more than eleven in the category of recent poetry alone I’ll cheat and mention a few more without saying much about them: David Lloyd, Arc and Sill (Shearsman, 2012), post-objectivist and other poems from our best critic of Irish writing; Justin Katko, The Death of Pringle (Veer 2011; flim forum 2012), verse opera (with CD) in the category of “Nobody has done anything like this”; Francesca Lisette, Teen (Mountain 2012), hi zero odes and a casebook of “anger and autonomy” in the dense, impacted style that some of the best new British poetry employs; Colleen Hind & Pocahontas Mildew, We Are Real: A History (Critical Documents, 2012), poems and prose in response to recent events in London up through the riots; Sean Bonney, The Commons (Openned Press 2011); Rosa Alcalá, Undocumentaries (Shearsman 2010); Dana Ward, This Can’t Be Life (Edge 2012); Tyrone Williams, Howell (Atelos 2011); Marjorie Welish, In the Futurity Lounge / Asylum for Indeterminacy (Coffee House 2012); Daniel Tiffany, Privado (Action Books 2010); Rodrigo Toscano, Deck of Deeds (Counterpath 2012), and …
Keith Tuma’s most recent book is On Leave: A Book of Anecdotes (Salt 2011). He teaches at Miami University, where he directs the Miami University Press.