Attention Span 2012 | Patrick Pritchett
Ted Berrigan | “Red Shift” | Exact Change Yearbook 1, Ed. Peter Gizzi | 1995
Hungry for immortal verse? Try this. “When will I die? I will never die, I will live / To be 110, & I will never go away, & you will never escape from me / who am always & only a ghost … I slip softly into the air / The world’s furious song flows through my costume.” Recorded July 25, 1982, at the Naropa Institute.
Joseph Donahue | Dissolves | Talisman | 2012
Dissolves continues Donahue’s latest installment in the ongoing series Terra Lucida. Blending with euphonious precision the quotidian and the mystic, these poems draw on Sufi theophanies, Christian esotericism and the everyday to create a powerful, dreamlike rhythm, a tidal swaying on the surge and ebb of a continually dissolving logos as it maps and un-maps the labyrinth of gnosis. To some extent following John Taggart and Gustaf Sobin, Donahue (like Norman Finkelstein, Peter O’Leary, Hank Lazer, Lissa Wolsak, Leonard Schwartz, and others) is extending the range of experimental poetry into an idiom where the material signifier conveys both “the metaphysics of sound,” in Lazer’s phrase, and the point where “the transcendent life enters the world.” It is substantial music and it is utterly mesmerizing.
Norman Finkelstein | Track | Shearsman | 2012
The appearance of the collected Track, comprising three earlier books (Forest, Columns, Powers), is a major event. Finkelstein has, quite unobtrusively, been working on a poetic sequence that might be described as epic minimalism; its scope and sustained imaginative reach re-invigorate the spiritual lyric for our time in a distinctly late Objectivist mode. This mode concerns itself with close attention to the details of experience, yes, but broadens what that includes to take in the metaphysical as well as the physical. They are devotional in both the religious and the phenomenological senses of the word, but in Track this devotion is to what Finkelstein, in his afterword, calls a “discontinuity of presence,” the inexplicable strangeness which language leads us to, whose difference both calls us to our life and haunts us with the image of a fullness that is both nourishing and incomplete. “Or is life itself / that intermezzo / as much behind you / as before? // Music the wilderness / in which you wandered.” These poems float, yet are driven by a desire to “chant the orders of the world.” Restless with migration, yet utterly calm, they announce that presence is what is always still arriving.
Peter Gizzi | Threshold Songs | Wesleyan | 2011
Without question, my favorite book of the past year. Threshold Songs attends to the messiness of contingency with a grave and urgent nuance, a careful listening for where syntax can reach into affect. Reading these poems is like being overtaken by the uncanny feeling that, as Gizzi writes in “The Growing Edge,” “it’s Sunday in deep space.” To claim, as one reviewer does, that they foreclose discovery, is to deeply misread the cognitive work they do, which is undertaken as the pursuit of the limits of elegy and its weak messianic power to intervene. The short lines compress anguish into a flat plain voice, the syntax bending the argument with loss into something else. In poems like “True Discourse on Power” (“Because a sound a poor man / uttered / reached my ear I fell into song”), the real task Gizzi takes up is how we experience or undergo our categories for knowing, which are, finally, categories for tabulating and confronting loss. Death challenges epistemology at the most fundamental level. The result is a poetry of relentless, even excruciating, inquiry, tempered by a tenderness for what is broken or hurt or incomplete. A kind of nakedness emerges – a laying open after history that is at once anchored in the body and dispersed by spiritual longing, a desolate hunger for intimacy which is ratified by its own search.
Paul Naylor | Book of Changes | Shearsman | 2011
Based on the hexagrams of the I Ching and built upon an earlier chapbook from Quarry Press, Naylor’s book-length meditation begins in elegy then moves beyond that, reinventing the form by casting each of these amazingly compressed six-line poems as a divination, a gesture toward the future, the past, the other, and the echo carrying the word outside of itself and back. “what prevails once / the house comes down / is prevailing itself.” Forming a set of interlocking gateways, these poems pivot then re-pivot through loss, recollection, and emergence, articulating a new topography between the dead and the living, the moment and the moment’s possibilities.
Mark Scroggins | Torture Garden: Naked City Pastorelles | Cultural Society | 2011
There’s an extraordinary excitement coursing through these poems by Mark Scroggins. Electric with a kind of headlong internal enjambment & melodically stuttering parataxis (modernist spasms of ecstasy run face-first into moral entropy), they vibrate at a pitch where desire topples into the forbidden, the decayed, and the just plain nasty. Torture Garden takes its unsavory name from a book of the same title I’m not likely ever to read, Octave Mirabeau’s kinky, savage satire on fin de siècle ethics. Formally, though, the poems take their cue from Zukofsky’s magnificent 80 Flowers – using 7 lines per poem rather than 8. But they’re more than a gesture of homage from LZ’s biographer; these poems stand wildly and entirely on their own as late modernist vignettes of metropolitan shock, snarling with polyglot street-smarts.
Cole Swensen | Gravesend | California | 2012
“A face // is always a ghost.” Since Try and Such Rich Hours Swensen has been undertaking a series of taxonomies: catalogs of wonder that bear some resemblance to the curiosity cabinet, but are much more than that: maps of the haphazard designs we’ve made for the practice of living. With faint echoes of Alice Notley’s “White Phosphorous” Gravesend brings Swensen’s exquisite sense of rhythm and pitch to the subject of ghosts. Ghosts as actual ectoplasmic phenomena and ghosts as the traces of vanishing presence. These nuanced investigations into the paranormal, customs of naming, and how we remember our dead are sonorous and sweet and uncanny. “A ghost is a hearing is a calling … is an older man telling a story that is simply a story he lived.” The world is full of ghosts and the poem is a net for sifting them.
Keith Tuma | On Leave: A Book of Anecdotes | Salt | 2011
Keith Tuma’s deceptively titled genre-crossing book is more than a collection of random tales; it’s also a daybook, a meditation on the role of the anecdote in literary criticism, and some first rate readings of a wealth of great poems. It’s brilliant and impossible to put down. Besides recounting numerous anecdotes, delightful in themselves, about literary figures, Tuma provides a useful history of the genre and its study, while formulating a theory that tries to account for the vital role of the extra-literary in criticism. It’s less a method, though, than a style; Hugh Kenner figures as one of its great exemplars. The anecdote strand is counterpointed by two others. The second is an intermittent daybook of public and private events modeled after Hannah Weiner’s Weeks. Tuma’s peregrinations while on leave from Miami University, Ohio, form the third strand. In the course of recounting various visits to campus by poets like Trevor Joyce, or a hilarious trip to the house cum shrine of Carl Sandburg, the book also takes in the illness and death of Tuma’s mother, made all the more poignant by the way it’s folded in to the rest of the narrative as if to ask, what is anecdote, then, really?
John Wieners | 707 Scott Street | Sun & Moon | 1996
The full title of this magical little book is “The Journal of John Wieners Is To Be called 707 Scott Street for Billie Holiday 1959.” How it was published is a story in itself, recounted by Lewis Warsh and Fanny Howe in their prefaces. That we have it at all is thanks largely to the good offices of Peter Gizzi, who’d somehow got wind of it and urged Warsh to track it down. I no longer recall how I came to own my copy, but I treasure it. An impossible to summarize and utterly captivating combination of daily diary, reflections on mystical Arabic poetry, heroin, city life, the Grail, poet friends, the soul’s journey, and what, for lack of a more precise set of terms, might be called the State of Being John Wieners. There is a spiritual fearlessness to this book, an exploratory daring that is an invitation to join totally in the life of the imagination in all its power and mystery and weirdness. “In the green shadow of the lamplight absolute reality is all I am interested in, the light shining on the silver edge of these keys, the magic formation of the letters in rows upon the green field of paper…”
Raúl Zurita | Dreams for Kurosawa | arrow as aarow press | 2012
Zurita’s chapbook (in a handsome, handsewn binding) belongs to a very small genre of what might be called “posthumous poetics.” Its practitioners are few. Dickinson, of course, but also Rilke, Celan, and Beckett. In these harrowing and ecstatic poems dreams of dying and resurrection commingle promiscuously. Their presiding angel is Akira Kurosawa, whose own film, Dreams, allowed Zurita to imagine the possibility of a life after the brutal dictatorship of Pinochet, who seized power in Chile in 1973 through a CIA-backed coup. Moving with oneiric logic, these poems, translated with extraordinary care by Anna Deeny, are cinematic and fluid, a continuous montage of images culled from a childhood of deserts and waterfalls, life in the city and under the tyrant, and the liberating interior life that only the movies can give us which, like poetry, lets us live out a second life. We may die, but we can still be called back. “As I opened / my eyes my small body floated at the base of / the falls, and it wasn’t a dream Kurosawa because / I was dead and the waters were tearing me apart.” Dying is the central predicament of these poems. It occurs over and over as the poet revisits the scene of trauma. With a sense of lucent vertigo, Zurita writes as it were from the other side of consciousness, a place to which the living have been disjected, but which poetry stubbornly reclaims. It is a place endowed by language with faith in being’s persistence, which is not the afterlife at all, but the voice of the poem as it speaks from the flow of logos, lit by a mortal darkness.
Patrick Pritchett is the author of Burn, Antiphonal and Gnostic Frequencies. He has written widely on modernist and contemporary poetry, including essays on Ezra Pound, George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, Ronald Johnson, Michael Palmer and Rachel Blau DuPlessis. He is a Lecturer in the History and Literature Program at Harvard University and Visiting Lecturer in English at Amherst College.