Attention Span 2011 | Tim Peterson (Trace)
Samuel Ace & Maureen Seaton | Stealth | Chax | 2011
Part call-and-response song, part double-entendre submarine expedition, part utopian lyrical slippage dance-off, this marvelous book performs my favorite kind of collaboration, the kind where it becomes impossible to determine who wrote which lines. Although espionage is a major theme here (we see its pervasive influence in Stealth’s complex and sometimes confounding Rube Goldberg economy of vessels and tropes), it’s possible that the frequent melding of two voices that occurs in this book is equally a function of trust. Having been a fan of Samuel Ace’s work for many years, I think I recognize here his ongoing interest in non sequitur, in the leaps between perceptions and the way in which these leaps evoke the act of listing. I also think maybe I recognize Ace’s penchant for articulating in language queer, liminal, confounding, sometimes even portentious bodily experiences for which we don’t have an easy linguistic shorthand (who wrote “What happened to my legs? They seem so / rabid, furious, relentless”?). The playfulness of these lines can sneak up on you obliquely (“Hardly anyone / saw them coming”), and under their dialogue we can hear a range of emotions at work: sadness, bemusement, anger, exasperation, yearning, ambivalence, and love. Perhaps my favorite aspect of this book: the notes section at the end, “Epilogue,” in which references are elucidated, is followed by a “Sources to Epilogue” section which contains notes to the notes.
Mina Pam Dick | Delinquent | Futurepoem | 2009
The incredible gender-busting writer of some of my favorite poems in the past few years, Mina Pam Dick brings a formidable knowledge of philosophy into play with prose riffing and with poetry’s penchant for non sequitur, employing both in a truly new mode that allows us to understand how gender and identification function from the boundary between inside and outside utterance. Pam and her alter egos Traver, Hildebrand, et al understand trans in the original liberatory sense of a blurry zone, and the philosophical stand up comedy here is necessarily also embodied, talking about real things, as it gracefully runs the full gamut of possible affects. On the one hand, Pam had me at “Robert Redford looked really sexy in Downhill Racer. I wanted to fuck him or be him,” but even this is counterbalanced by injunctions such as “Love the ones who might disdain you” or taking it further on a social level, “they say I squander equanimity. Yet much is left, although all is already written.” This poet who boasts of having debuted “as Don Giovanni or Faust or a split-second Antigone” also revises Whitman’s democratic promise of inhabiting all positions or embodying all possibilities in a kind of surprised, persnickety, exasperated running commentary that signifies on so many levels it makes your head spin: “Meanwhile, meanwhile! Can I finally momentarily contain everything? If so, why? If not, why not? Hey, why shouldn’t I?”
Elaine Equi | Click and Clone | Coffee House | 2011
Elaine Equi’s poems evoke two situations simultaneously: that of a good friend confiding in you (especially confiding something blunt or off-color), and that of a stand-up comic telling jokes on stage. The alchemy of these two overlapping scenarios produces a voice slightly estranged from its own speaker in advance, a kind of blurted archness that inspires everyone listening to new heights of explosive giddiness: “Warning: these poems may cause / Headaches, hives, hard-ons in women, / Vomiting, vagueness, / Feelings of camaraderie where none exists.” Equi’s improvisations on the theme of lipstick in one poem expand upon this speaker’s predicament “Yes, that’s my mouth. I recognize it, but I’m speaking a peculiar staccato dialect of roofs piled closely together along a river.” Whether she’s exploring the acts of projection involved in the usual techniques of lyric poetry (“The waitress murdered somebody. Even now, she looks guiltily / over her shoulder as she wipes the silverware clean”) or whether she’s having tea with a “lecherous troll” and admits “I hated the taste, but enjoyed playing chicken with the troll, / letting my eye sweep his dirty corner without grazing him,” Equi’s smart poems are entrancing, entertaining, and endlessly surprising. Sometimes she’s playing with paradoxes of avant-garde and progressive thinking and the exhaustion or bankruptcy of their tropes (“I try my / best to deplete / Our planet’s resources, / But even so, can’t gain the attention / Of higher-ups who spectacularly / And regularly waste whole cities”) and sometimes she’s just being memorably silly (“See you womorrow — / or maybe Satyrday?”), but there’s always a hair-trigger attention to how the poem is constructed, how it springs open and shut, and a willingness to be playful. Sure our desires may be a reproducible gesture, but life goes on, and it doesn’t mean we can’t have fun.
Paolo Javier | The Feeling is Actual | Marsh Hawk | October 2011
How many different writers can you be in one book; how many different modes can you explore? Tour-de-force The Feeling is Actual sets a new renaissance man record. But no dilettantishness here; Javier pulls it all off with the touch of a virtuoso: poetry comics, plays, film narration, ambivalent dramatic monologues, signage translation bloopers, and erotically ambient vispo here all explore a consistent set of thematic concerns. This post-post-post book goes beyond discourses of appropriation, beyond empathy, the constitutive stereotypes of filipino or caucasian identity, postcolonial aporias, or even Brechtian alienation. In the process it creates a kind of affective experience that I understand as urgent, cognitively provocative sensation but don’t have the language for yet; in other words…(yes, the title—you guessed it!). Of course, the book has its recognizable set of revolving tropes, the selection of which signifies certain associations: the knife-edge complexity of Bill Murray’s affect, the hunters chasing after the elusive wild Bigfoot, Batman (as hero and epithet), and a whole other set of connections hovering around conmen who potentially cruise the streets of Florida looking for an angry google. But you gotta grow new serotonin receptors and read it yourself to see what I’m talking about.
Vincent Katz & Yasmil Raymond, curators | Dia Readings in Contemporary Poetry | Dia: Chelsea | Fall 2010-present
One of the most vital reading series in New York during the past year. Not only was there a sense of freshness and energy about every pairing (young and old, established and upcoming, and unexpected); there was also a combination of sensitivity and incisiveness in Vincent’s very perceptive introductions that almost always taught me something new. Readers in the past year’s series included: Eileen Myles & Stacy Szymaszek, John Giorno & Taylor Brady, Charles Bernstein & myself, John Ashbery & Paolo Javier, Ann Lauterbach & Paul Foster Johnson, Michael Lally & Brenda Iijima. The upcoming series in fall of 2011 features Anselm Berrigan & John Godfrey, Rae Armantrout & Lisa Jarnot, Alice Notley & Brenda Coultas, Jennifer Moxley & Tony Towle.
Wayne Koestenbaum | Humiliation | Picador | 2011
Koestenbaum’s latest is profoundly unsettling in all the best ways. It discovers, light years ahead of any available it’s-good-to-be-bad posturing, a way to speak about a “monstrous” topic that typically “erodes the voice that tries to lay siege to its complexities.” A series of meditations on humiliation as an “engine,” this book explores what it means to be humiliated, to humiliate, and to observe humiliation, navigating that troubled triad from the perspective of an observer who is fatigued, “tired, as any human must be, after a life spent avoiding humiliation and yet standing near its flame, enjoying the sparks, the heat, the paradoxical illumination.” Something about the way he positions his witnessing continually makes us aware of the act of writing, not just as material but as something which disturbingly doubles back upon the writer, a scene of humiliation in itself: “Writing, I occupy a humiliated position: the voice on trial. When someone speaks, or writes, that person’s voice is held captive by the laws of language, and by the demands of its listener.” Koestenbaum’s speaker this time around is consequently a fort-da lurker, sometimes affable sometimes pretty sinister, expertly splicing together any number of rhetorical positions which might include Virgil leading us through Dante’s Hell, Blake’s furtive wandering through each chartered street, Baudelaire’s pungent disgust, Barthes’ conversational gusto, or Sontag’s shocked imperiousness. But he is also an expert at putting the reader on the spot, inviting us to join him in the voyeurism, sometimes teasingly scolding us as “virtuous reader.” Also constantly implicating us is Koestenbaum’s masterful sense of comic timing: “The Buddha’s first noble truth was humiliation. (I haven’t yet met the Buddha, though I’ve sent out an invitation.” He combines a Frankfurt School gravitas with a penchant for gossip and dishiness about the lurid details: eating feces, imagining Jeffrey Dahmer and the Marquis de Sade on Craigslist, small penis ridicule, bathroom solicitations, concentration camps, being hit with a cream pie, Michael Jackson, and many other topics too difficult and disturbing to talk about here; you need to read this book to experience them for yourself. Perhaps most moving is the way Koestenbaum reports the visceral bodily effects of the emotion: “a shivering, nearly physiological sensation of inner reversal. The mind becomes Siberia and Hades, simultaneously: hot, cold. And the body, too, suddenly must host climactic opposites. Turned into naught, I feel all the blood drain from my body; I burn and freeze at the same time.” One of this book’s stunning accomplishments is the way that it subverts available vocabularies of zero-sum or binary thinking (high/low, hot/cold, great/humble) as a way of getting at something more inchoate, terrifying, and immediate, something central to our experience but something we are too embarrassed to talk about: “the apprehension of a singular prey: the detection of a whimpering beast inside each of us, a beast whose cries are micropitches, too faint for regular notation.” But rather than providing an escape, Koestenbaum gives us endless hovering, the stuckness of eternal return, in a predicament simultaneously painful, pleasurable, and fraught with difficulties. Once we start reading, we can’t look away.
Sueyeun Juliette Lee | Underground National | Factory School | 2010
The title of Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s electric, luminous, ominously lyrical book Underground National is two adjectives which alter one another and which correspondingly act as preface to a noun that is yet to arrive. This expectant stance or act of imagining has something to do with an idea of Korea and what it might be, neither divided between punditry stances of north and south and nor pledging allegiance to “the origins of a national boundary—a stain.” For Lee in this book, the frame of “the nation” contributes to a kind of undiagnosed illness that afflicts its citizens, and the book diagnoses the symptoms or effects of this. On the one hand Lee shows how our documentary attempts to access the reality of Korea and understand it are interrupted by the static and white noise of discursive frameworks, here figured by assemblages of extraneous language from the internet: “Your request is being processed… / Roh Moo-hyu, Former South Korean President, Kills Himself / dig Share this on Facebook Huffpost – Rob Moo-hyun, Former / South Korean President, Kills Himself stumble reddit del.icio.us / ShareThis RSS / KWANG-TAE KIM | May 22, 2009 11:59 PM EST | AP / Compare other versions.” On the other hand, there is also an attempt to understand from a interior perspective how the effects of ideology are part of the body, internally felt yet extending beyond the body’s bounds: “A cross. Kite. My link to the sky, pinned up into wafting blueness there. Grafted together, folded like a paper coat, a hidden oath like a never worn, golden ring. Wait—I thought this was the beginning of my skin.” As these two quotes demonstrate, the book uses a number of very different writing strategies, with some sections composed mostly of appropriated texts and other sections featuring Lee’s amazingly microtonal, stunned, expansive prose poetry. The poems in this book continually leap across the gap between national ideology and social interactions, as well as the gaps between people: “I love you when I slap your hand. / You love me when I reach and fail.” Such gaps are also momentarily bridged by asking provocative questions such as “would they fight if there were an unforeseen rebellion?” and “Should I emigrate if the opportunity arises.” Not a call for unification per se (the author or one of her sources reports with a diffident, dry irony how “There has also been a ‘united Korean anthem’ created by blending the melodies of the two nations’ anthems seamlessly, used by some to promote Korean re-unification”), the book’s more valuable function seems to be straining to hear other (more disturbing or more hopeful) unwritten anthems, a potentially holistic understanding of alternate structures, a study that can’t be pursued in the light of day.
Filip Marinovich | And if You Don’t Go Crazy I’ll Meet You Here Tomorrow | Ugly Duckling | 2011
The title of Filip Marinovich’s new book makes a cameo appearance within the text as the second half of something spoken to him by a teacher of Zen Buddhism: “Who am I now Who am I now Who am I now / keep asking yourself that / and if you don’t go crazy / see you again here tomorrow.” It is an Emersonian question, and Marinovich’s struggle to be accurate to and aware of himself at each moment of writing, as a way of paradoxically transcending himself, usefully figures the Time-Being of Dogen’s Uji as a kind of homespun pragmatist generosity. Marinovich’s address to the reader doubles and subverts this relationship between teacher and student as he generously teaches us what he knows by modeling what he doesn’t know, through playfulness, spontaneous improvisatory energy, and at times unabashed goofiness. His refrains have a kind of gleeful, mad chutzpa, evoking alternately the innocence of a children’s rhyme, the pathos of stuckness, and short attention span theatre: “you thought you dissolved / the Soviet Union / the Soviet Union is dissolving in you / a time-release pill / washed down with a white and black Russian / Prince Washington / China is Fortinbras / Curtain / asbestos / Trotsky wakes and signs the Capitol hull with an icepick / plucked from his inkwell skull / was he killed in his sleep / who murders sleep / what do you grip in your sleep / a throw pillow / on a wake-up pill / the bill comes I can’t pay it.” We feel the direct energy of mark-marking here, as in drawing. But the messiness and speed also display tremendous knowledge of technique as well as wide and broad reading: this is writing with an abundance of structure. The rubik’s cube permutations, the personal grammar of nicknames, and the mannerist flourishes suggest either that catechresis is the name of the game or that Marinovich’s brilliant mind could be two steps ahead of his pen. His talent for precision comes through in “Self-portrait at Storm King Art Center,” a poem which consists entirely of the following: “This map / makes an ineffective / and / fabulously flapping / sun hat.” The WCW-like attention and the preposterous and wonderful uselessness of this image gets at a central theme of the poems in this book: they are something which has been ridiculously repurposed for something else, a poem derived from a life for example, or suffering transmuted into joy, or a living metaphor resurrected from the dead tissue of Nietzsche’s coins that have lost their value. This inventiveness produces too many memorable lines to count, as when he asks “Why raise panic when / so much is steak” or finds hilarious gratitude in the circular logic of alienation: “Thank you for losing me in the crowd like that / otherwise I never would have taken a crowd bath.” Filip Marinovich wakes us up.
Pattie McCarthy | Table Alphabetical of Hard Words | Apogee | 2010
Never before have I been so entranced with the mechanics of grammar and etymology as when reading Pattie McCarthy’s ingenious Table Alphabetical of Hard Words. This riveting book uses the dictionary as governing trope and discourse, unfolding from there a multitude of structures and writing processes. Each of the ten sections is an individual “project” inspired by (and partially appropriated from) its own group of texts. So for example, the first section “askew” borrows from The Examinations of Anne Askew and Andrzej Szcypiorski’s Self-Portrait with Woman, proceeding to fill in the spaces between with a kind of improvised mortar made of stuff mixed together from etymological handbooks, dictionaries, and McCarthy’s own incisive, highly aware writing (“the sinews and the strings and the spaces between”). One thing McCarthy accomplishes here is to discover new ways of relating Jackson Mac Low’s old dance partners “source text” and “seed text.” This would ordinarily lead us to think about the trope of being written or being spoken (as opposed to speaking or writing). What McCarthy brings to fore is the ways in which we are spoken and written by etymology. But the form of these poems highlights something else too, the idea that the Dictionary itself has a rhetoric, and a set of implied speech acts that go along with that rhetoric. When McCarthy writes the following, we can hear in these lines a kind of attenuation that gives these utterances the urgency of a manifesto: “joint & several, mine / an askew— / as nauger begat auger thus endeth / the first examynacyon / askey looking aside / asuint or awry / assay proofe or a triall.” When manifesto language posits things, it performs an action halfway between two states: a present state of describing things as they are, and a conjuring of a future thing that has not yet materialized. These poems are enacting a note-taking of possibilities. When McCarthy evokes narratives of people or experiences, they grab us with their immediacy but they are quickly turned inside-out, as when she writes “the boy was badly bronzed. He fell / into the sea, badly. Bronzed he. / (see bell metal— also fig. applied to a loud / ringing voice) & in this way one / learns not how to fly heavy but to swim, / also heavy. [that if gold ruste, what shall / iren do?]” Here the etymological digressions keep becoming the main point, and narrative keeps flipping back and forth, rabbit-duck style, between something that tugs at your heart strings and merely another instance of the rhetoric of the dictionary, a function of etymology. McCarthy gives us textuality superimposed upon textuality—the dictionary as writing practice, connective tissue, and urgent call all at once. It’s really something to think about.
tc tolbert | Territories of Folding | kore | 2011
Smart, sensitive, enthusiastic trans poet tc tolbert’s brilliant debut is without doubt the widest book of poetry I have ever encountered. Once you open it, it’s triple-wide, designed to unfold in two halves from a center portion that acts as a kind of “bridge” between the two halves (do you see an allegory coming your way?). I’m unsure whether the book was designed to fit the long serial poem or the poem designed to fit the book, but I suspect the former is the case because tolbert’s text has such a unusual, utopian, and at times difficult, body. The incredibly long lines that stretch across the pages, sometimes in stanza form, productively and creatively distort grammar to make language capable of saying new things. They tease us with the possibility of syntactic subordination that one ordinarily hears in “voiced” poetry, but they smuggle in a kind of disruptive, delightfully surprising parataxis through interruption and erasure: “In a body no longer possible still a when. Please, still a when, please gently. Least lately, double saunter, through the rest.” The way tc uses commas and punctuation as musical notation, it’s possible to hear Gertrude Stein and Beverly Dahlen among the influences peeking through the blinds. But unlike either of those writers, this is very much an open field poetics, a kind of dance in which nothing about the spacing of the poem or the way it proceeds can be taken for granted; you need to order yourself a copy of the book to see these acrobatics in action. One thing I can get across in this brief review format though (Tolbert is making me aware of my own body as a critic now) is his ability to inhabit sensitively different affective modes while being alert to the different possible layers of metaphor produced by, and producing, intimacy that might arise at any given moment: “When I wash dishes, I fill up the largest bowl with water,, soap, and silverware. I place this large bowl in the chest of the sink. Notice the rule of nonrecollection. It is paramount to the myth of the sink.” Tolbert’s wisdom here lies in being aware of what’s happening on five levels at once, and of how linguistic form generates content, an exploration which also involves not accepting the myth or the narrative from an outside source. In tolbert’s conception, one can be trans and have a past, one’s poem can have a simultaneously material and morphing body, and one’s generous address to a “you” can make that direct connection as it takes you by surprise with its candor: “You will never believe I am eating edamame.” Tolbert’s poetry helps us to grow, to question, and to embrace, all at the same open time.
Mark Weiss | As Landscape | Chax | 2010
As Landscape, the long-awaited new book of poems from noted translator and publisher Mark Weiss, is full of memorable details and mysterious pleasures. Alternately mischievous and majestic, serene and disorienting, these poems make observations of details that each last for just a moment, following rapidly upon one another. The unit of thought is the stanza, which Weiss builds in chains reminiscent of renga, though he has a certain fondness for the individual line as stanza: “…Salty flower // The poor at the gates. // On the empty canal a gull. / a snake. // Holds up her veil. // Pried / like a clam / from its solitude. // Even the process invisible.” Yet the leaps here are larger and more disjunctive than renga, and there is something else going on as the lines fade in and out: the stanzas seem attached behind the scenes by mysterious threads, and the poems beckon us to project, participate, and share in the spaces between observations, which never quite resolve themselves. Another available influence for the way these gaps function is Weiss’ experience as a filmmaker; take one of his films such as “They’ve All Gone Away,” in the collection at MoMA, as an example. It’s not exactly jump-cutting, but Weiss’ own version of organic form seems indebted to an awareness of the associations that develop when one scene fades into the next, under the influence of a particular emotion or theme. In the last section of the book, Weiss provides a “provisional poetics” statement emphasizing the importance to his work of the processual, noting that for him writing is a bit like being possessed. In this statement he explains the gaps in the poems as in one sense the result of partial seizures he suffered at a certain point in his life and the antispasmodics he took to treat them, after which he found himself only able to write in short bursts. This experience made him aware of the extent to which the physiology of the writer influences the resulting poem. Yet I think there’s also a very eloquent and careful, and very conscious, examination of grace and gracefulness in these poems, and a cultivation of the quality as well, as in one short untitled poem the entirety of which reads “A gull / shakes one foot / then the other / scratches its neck / and resumes its dignity.” At other moments, his distinctive sense of humor comes through in the juxtaposition of such imagery with sardonic cultural observations: “All you can eat. // In the midst of great happiness / listen to the voice inside you crying / ‘desist, desist.’ // Swan-luminous night.” The surprising, complex, and heartbreaking rhyme here says it all.
More Tim Peterson (Trace) here.