Attention Span 2010 – Michael S. Hennessey
CAConrad and Frank Sherlock | The City Real and Imagined: Philadelphia Poems | Factory School | 2010
I make no secret of the fact that I’m more or less constantly homesick for my hometown, and so having that city so faithfully rendered by two of my favorite poets (and two of my favorite people) is a true pleasure. It’s not just the broad vistas, the idiosyncratic details, the full sensory overload that I love here, but also the dialogic texture, the way the grain of each strong voice plays off of one another. I feel a full, Whitmanesque sense of camaraderie in The City Real and Imagined—the strong, time-tested friendship between two great minds—and their shared love for the city they call home.
John Giorno | Subduing Demons in America: Selected Poems 1962-2007 | Soft Skull | 2008
For the past year or so I’ve been working on a critical essay on John Giorno (for an anthology Routledge is putting out in early 2011), and while my focus there is primarily on Giorno Poetry Systems’ various technological innovations—from the early Electronic Sensory Poetry Environments through Dial-A-Poem to the record releases (which, obviously, have a great influence on the work I do at PennSound)—I was very happy to reconnect with Giorno’s written work, particularly his stunning early appropriative poetry, which is well represented here. Editor Marcus Boon has done a tremendous job assembling a lengthy and detailed testament to Giorno’s writing life, and his thoughtful biographic introduction gives readers a solid foundation with which to approach the work.
Félix Fénéon, trans. by Luc Sante | Novels in Three Lines | NYRB | 2007
I found this by accident on the clearance shelves, drawn in by the distinctive NYRB design and a description intriguing enough to convince me it was worth two dollars. In this case, two dollars buys you a stunning mosaic of life in France circa 1906 delivered through a thousand or so über-brief news items Fénéon wrote for Le Matin’s “Nouvelles en Trois Lignes” column. Aside from echoes of Reznikoff (Sante cites Testimony in his intro, however his early poems of the street also have a similar resonance), I felt something reminiscent of Joe Brainard’s I Remember or certain catalogue pieces by Perec: a certain pleasant lull as the language rushes over you, counteracted here by the visceral content itself. Life is truly nasty, brutish and short, as evidenced by the constant presence of death (whether murder, suicide, accident or old age) and the living don’t get off much easier: strikers are pummeled, alms stolen, mayors fired for displaying the crucifix. The media-driven fetishization of violence feels downright contemporary, however Fénéon’s deft use of language—building anticipation through fruitful deferral and displaying a wicked sense of humor—keeps the proceedings from becoming a shallow horror show.
Aaron Kunin | The Sore Throat & Other Poems | Fence | 2010
Sometimes text and setting go together too well. By lucky happenstance, I brought The Sore Throat along as reading material for a dinnertime flight, and the claustrophobic and overheated puddlejumper became the perfect place to read the book cover to cover, its restricted vocabulary and dizzying recursivity greatly augmented by the stale air and a dull headache. It’s hard to imagine reading the book under other circumstances, and I keep my boarding pass tucked tight between its pages as a memento. Kunin finds great emotion in machine language; he draws us in and guides us along, toys with our expectations, surprises us with a simple word’s glittering multiple facets.
David Sheppard | On Some Faraway Beach: the Life and Times of Brian Eno | Orion | 2009
While it’s not likely to dethrone my all-time favorite music bio, David Bowman’s marvelous This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of Talking Heads in the Twentieth Century (a book that it seems I reread in fits and spurts at least once a year), On Some Faraway Beach shares many of the characteristics that make that volume so appealing: primarily an engaging, novelistic approach to the narrative, a skillful weaving together of myriad voices and sources, and rich contextualization that firmly situates Eno and his work within their historical milieu. Sheppard makes all the right decisions in terms of scope and detail, particularly in regards to including copious technical discussion of Eno’s compositional and production work, and he wisely chooses to speed through the last two decades or so, devoting most of the book to Eno’s collaborations with Roxy Music, Robert Fripp, David Bowie, Devo, Talking Heads, and, of course, his highly-influential early solo output. This book got me through the bleak expanse of early January and I was genuinely disappointed to come to the end.
Ben Lerner | Mean Free Path | Copper Canyon | 2010
Following Ben Lerner’s development over the course of his first three books reminds me of the true joy one feels watching a preternaturally-talented young baseball player—say, for example, Chase Utley—come into his own, and Mean Free Path certainly fulfills the promise of his earlier output. In theory, every book contains instructions for its own consumption, but I’ve rarely been so happily conscious of a text’s gentle nurturing, especially as its dense early obfuscation gives way to an increasing momentum and energy as pages fly by and scattered clues come together. I had the pleasure of teaching this book at the end of the spring term, and watching my students, who’d cut their teeth on Rae Armantrout, Harryette Mullen, Bill Berkson and Adrienne Rich (among others), work their way through Lerner’s intricate poetic geometry, stitching together storylines and motifs, was a marvelous experience.
Maggie Nelson | Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions | Iowa | 2007 and Bluets | Wave | 2009
I have Cathy Wagner to thank for my long-overdue introduction to Maggie Nelson: she recommended the poet’s wonderful critical volume on the New York School to my partner at dinner one night, and Jennifer made a Christmas present of it. Through MLA bleakness and tiring holiday travel, it was a charming and insightful companion (and as Cathy promised, much like Sheppard’s Eno bio, it reads like a great novel), and my interest was sufficiently piqued to move on to her poetry. As for Bluets, it’s very likely my favorite book of the year—a breathtakingly ambitious work that crosses genres and disciplines as it explores its enigmatically ambiguous topic, the color blue and all its implications. Flipping what turned out to be the last page and finding nothing else produced a physical sensation of loss, deep in the pit of my stomach, that I’m not soon to forget.
Ara Shirinyan | Your Country Is Great | Futurepoem | 2008
Like any great piece of conceptual art, Your Country Is Great instantly fills you with regret for not having been clever enough to come up with so simple, yet powerful an idea. For all the endearing cosmopolitan heterogeneity here, what surprises me is the somewhat consistent voice that emerges—Shirinyan’s authorial selectivity, perhaps, but it’s also the din of internet chatter that surrounds us constantly, and from which his Google-driven compositions are hewn, warts and all. What I love most, particularly for the way they serve as brief and necessary pauses as the work unfolds, are the Brautigan-esque poems that consist of titles alone, and yet these are also the book’s saddest moments: nobody had anything great to say about Burkina Faso or Equitorial Guinea?