Attention Span 2012 | Rodney Koeneke
David Abel | Float | Chax | 2012
A testament to the virtues of the longue durée, Float hauls up poems from the jetsam of our inattentions, returning quoted, found and procedurally generated language to a recursive economy of reading, writing, thinking, re-reading, and perceiving. The book’s opening section, Conduction, merges twenty-six quotations from twenty-four writers with pithy, daybook-sized reflections that affirm erasure, exegesis and poesis as facets of the same creative act:
Thinking about writing about having read what I wrote at some long-past moment—and not having access now to what was implied and (crucially) then adjacent—a ‘link,’ the loss of which transforms the actual function of the artifact that remains.
That function—collecting something like a self from the mind’s adventures in text across time—drives the book’s other sections: Orbus Pictus, inspired by Comenius’s instructional picture-books for children, another genre in which words and world blur, and Times of Day, which funnels the attention, like in a zazen “sitting,” to single words and the slow changes they undergo in clusters. “My medium,” writes Abel, “is: traffic/congestion/sprawl/etcetera”—his gift is for registering their instants as “a passing wave, in its limitless demonstrations.”
Judith Goldman | l.b.; or, catenaries | Krupskaya | 2011
Lyrical Ballads (the “l.b.” of the title) was always a kind of experimental provocation. Could the ballad—repetitive, anonymous, artless, folk—accommodate the condensed, consciously crafted interiority of the Romantic lyric? Jasper Johns’ Catenary series of the aughts, with its loose cords hung slack before the canvas, equally challenged the standard split between artful and extraneous, with flaccidity, overload, droop, and excess held up against the sharp angular space of the picture plane, that arena for painting’s traditional display of self-reflexive refinement and mastery.
Goldman’s poems extend both projects to embrace the language and subjectivities of our socially mediated, market-tested, content-provided, customer-serviced, tech-drunk steroidal political moment. Pointed puns (“oinkos,” “Ragged individualism”), portmanteaus (“spaghettoed”), epigraphs from Agamben to Woolf, thinky endnotes, learned allusions, strategic archaisms, and close attention to the line and its musical drive mark the writing as an instance of poetic play and display; “ow ow my hamstring!,” “Get Heart Smart,” “Fuck you lookin’ at?”, “Burger King friended me,” “Trying not to drunk text you,” “I LIVE ON ILLEGAL/EMPLOYMENT AND SHIT JOBS,” “And how you like me now” sound an entirely different linguistic register, the public speech of tweets and comment boxes, that giant, corporately archived 140-character-a-line ballad we’re all obsessively texting together.
The energy in Goldman’s work comes from her insistence on grafting the one kind of language onto the other as if there were no difference to acknowledge. “I’d liefer Peer-/to-peer,” “Whoso listserv, I’ll host,” or “I have seen the slain rise, their faces slosh” smoosh the vulgate up against Norton Anthology poeticity in a way that makes each newly accountable to the other, switching out hierarchical grids for dialectical curves, po-mo detachment for the “tenacity of sentiment, subjectivity, and voice” in the teeth of all that’s out to break it down.
John Beer | The Waste Land and Other Poems | Canarium | 2010
The title and cover set my shields on high for another bout with conceptual irony, but Beer’s Waste Land is neither a writing-through nor a winking critique of Eliot’s. Instead the gesture, in a book that foregrounds attitude and gesture over concept or procedure, blends an old-world Continental elegance with a contemporary feeling for absurdist juxtaposition, like “ a septet of cardinals/lunching at the Rainforest Café.” Feuerbach’s Das Wesen des Christenthums turns into “Christian Thumbways”; Uma Thurman and Marcel Carné meet through core branding at Lancôme; philosophical theses nest in a “big bowl of pasta overturned on the floor”; and “the disgraced King of Pop” shares air with a lit Gitane.
What Beer lifts from Eliot is a reserved and slightly formal dramatic persona that hints at muffled emotional depths just under the mask, the old themes of love and death and identity dressed up as color experiments or dreamy travel narratives. The result is more bemused than despairing, more cinematic than apocalyptic, maybe finally more Stevens than Eliot, but no less urgent for that in its push to its own Busby Berkeley shantih.
Brent Cunningham | Journey to the Sun | Atelos | 2012
To get a sun, you need “the scientific meeting/of divergent gasses,” but also an “Inquirist” to point up and name it and shout “falla!” Cunningham’s journey’s propelled by that dialectic—the cognitive jumps between suns outer and inner, “PEDANTRY” and “SELF-PLEASURE,” “the summing mind” and “the having mind,” tabulation and apperception, Truth and “sparkling humors,” Formality and Soul. Philosophically it’s a gleefully bumpy ride, since the Cosmiverse keeps leaking into the apprehending mind from which it’s meant to be distinct, a microcosm of the history of Western philosophy. Poetically though it turns out you can, in fact, walk on the sun, so long as your captain keeps up the nutty Russian Futurist shouting, which is also a kind of whistling past the graveyard, since suns and poets both finally have to die. By the end, the CAPS and exclamation marks reveal themselves as aspects of a skewed but knowing pathos, as poet and Poetry steadily divest themselves of the fiction that “the Imagining Force” might ever reach Truth and stop Time, admiring “its great frozen monosyllable” which, except in the temporary insanity of the poem, refuses to ever submit to our systems and freeze.
Cynthia Sailers | Lady of Leisure | Cy Press | 2011
Fans of Lake Systems will recognize the tension between luscious surface and dark undertow in Lady of Leisure, which evokes gendered Victorian otium but also the rich family of “paraphilias” that went out with the 19th century—abulia, glove paralysis, handkerchief fetishes, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s freeing mania, Dora’s “hysterical choking,” etc. Sailers picks out traces of these vanished repressions in Barthes quotes and Bergman films, Lacanian theory and Zizekian tirades, to make poems that themselves carry traces of the stories suppressed to make their lines:
I find the refineries of Europe monstrous.
We are finding ourselves boys with interior lakes.
I had my palm read and was told what I wanted to buy: an audience
Anyway, something was penetrating my space under the lanes.
We lost our initial budget to find out who we are.
Our new behavior is urban. Our new behavior is derived.
‘The ruinous winds’ (Oppen) seduce me into menial jobs.
I’m fulfilling a capitalist ethic: making the best of things.
It’s the charged field of antinomies between rigor and leisure, repression and spontaneity, love and perversion, the thinking self and its delirium for the other that Sailers’s special “image repertoire” exposes and, in a weirdly therapeutic way, condones. The Talk at the end knits together Sailers’s training in psychoanalysis, struggle for time for her creative process, and deep cinephilia to make a beautiful case for the proposition “that free association and play are vital and essential activities to creativity,” not the privileged time-wasters that analysis and poetry are both often taken to be.
Julian Talamantez Brolaski | Advice for Lovers | City Lights | 2012
Brolaski’s distressed and gilded englyssche can go “Hellespontine onna Trojan sibyl” but knows how “to be a common man in a dent truck.” It also knows that form’s for feigning, feigning fucking, and “to feign—not to fuck a form, Arnault/Is making shoddy deals.” Don’t let the four-letter fun fool you, though; the advice here is really how “to hold a thorny thing tenderly,” salt mixed with sweet in “surly chivalry,” and how to swoon without forgetting that “Love poetry is about knowing your references.” In the “sweet science of bruising,” Brolaski’s Einstein, test sheep, prof and champ: “Honey my prowess I take as it comes.”
Brandon Brown | The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus | Krupskaya | 2011
Brown’s Catullus is an experiment in translation, really an intervention to save translation from the academic taxidermists who empty, re-stuff, and try to fix the classics into their original positions. His method “resists the binary of fidelity and treason which haunts the apprehension of the activity called translation” by “[acknowledging] the fact of detour” as “the preceding writing is absorbed by the body of the translator in the act of reading.”
That’s about all the theory you’ll need to get into the funhouse, where commentary, exegesis, autobiography, prosody, etymology, somatic exercises, homophonic ear jazz, celebrity sightings, letters to and collaborations from the coterie, urbane academese and a brilliantly charged vernacular become mirrors for Brown to watch himself perform Catullus in, the centuries squashed and stretched till you can’t tell one’s lovebird from the other’s, his crumbling republic from ours.
When’s the last time a book this important was also so hard to put down? Brandon, this will embarrass you, but surely not since Zukofsky, or Rodefer’s Villon, maybe not since “the two thousand years that slipped between Catullus writing Sparrow and me writing The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus.”
Dana Ward | This Can’t Be Life | Edge | 2012
“Brittle as cinders”: That’s a phrase I recently came across in Rodefer’s VILLON and instantly applied to Ward’s This Can’t Be Life, which I’ve been tangled in the glittery hoops of all year. Three sections of the book—Roseland, The Squeakquel, and 2010’s totally bravura Typing ‘Wild Speech’—appeared earlier as chapbooks, so if you’re a friend or fan of Dana’s (the self-exposure and conversational address of his work blurs the line between the two) there are some welcome anchor points.
The beautiful surface of the writing in the chapbooks—his fearlessness about aiming to be beautiful—extends throughout the full-length collection. Ward’s image hoard is one of gold, silver, fluidity, liquefaction, summer, twilight, glitter, carousels, and slumber, a floating world of affect and glamour grounded firmly in an everyday life full of friends, partners, jobs, conversations, emails, smoke breaks, and political desires, and annealed with a sharp, subtly tragic sense of the darkness the aesthetic holds at bay.
What comes clearer reading the chapbooks together, interleaved with the other poems/prose/letters/journal entries (more blurring), are the delicate structures of inquiry and concern that Ward builds up over time. His writings divigate, pivot, carom, swerve, volute, twist, and loop from topic to topic—from “twilight’s newer gears” to “Speaking of Twilight, the movie I mean, have you seen it?”—in a way that feels casual, conversational, improvisatory, even slapdash, but that gradually grows, within and across poems, into cindery armatures that threaten to collapse any instant, poetry into prose, idea into aside, thought into reverie, plan into décor, until, with a final set of twists, you’re surprised with a completed poem, the ends closed up into a perfect lemniscate.
Ward seems deeply aware of his own process—“O the badly managed metaphors are everywhere!”—and inures you to it with a disarming abjection, revealing his “gynecomastadons” or fumbling ways with sushi or moments of artistic humiliation in a manner that’s affecting and generous, but also central to his poetic: “the language of daily life drenched in intimate affect which itself is soaked in unchecked mediation.” Consider the twist in that—affect spun with mediation—or take it a little straighter:
I couldn’t tell you any other fucking way.
Juliana Spahr | Well Then There Now | Black Sparrow | 2011
WTTN yokes together a decade’s worth of Spahr’s shorter works, linked by the locales (complete with street address and ZIP code) in which they were written. The structure implies a thesis about place, and about the concomitant experiences of displacing and being displaced, but when I went to extract it to write this, I found less a thesis than a process: a process of trying to be placed, to create a sense of place in places where one is, or was, but doesn’t entirely belong.
Spahr’s process involves snapping pictures, walking streets, researching histories, taking ethnobotany courses, pushing writing back and forth through translation machines, producing lists and catalogues, but above all thinking, which may be the book’s home gerund, as in: “As I am always walking on Dole Street, I am always thinking about Dole Street,” or “I was thinking about a story I had heard about a French grandfather,” or “I was trying to think about______,” in which “think” isn’t the gerund but “trying” is, and “trying to think” is maybe the better home phrase for Spahr’s writing anyway.
What attracts me most in the work is how it performs thinking at the level of syntax, building up larger, complex patterns of repetition from relatively simple and straightforward phrasal units, a technique which owes something to Stein but reminds me even more vividly of the way Minimalist composers restrict and recycle their tones. Because thinking for Spahr primarily involves connecting—this here to that there, the body to a landscape, the present to a past, things included to things excluded—grammar itself, which sets rules for connecting, takes on a heightened ethical dimension in her writing, so that ecosystem and language system and biosystem and social system all finally stand in for one another, or are seen to be parts of one another, just as “Some of we are all eating grapes” expands to include “Some of we are all together in the grapes.”
A paradox in Spahr’s writing for me is that as direct and inclusive as the mode of address is, I don’t finally feel a part of her “we,” except in the most general terms (which may be exactly the point) of having a red blood cell count or breathing or belonging to the set of beings included in a statement as broad as: “We are in this world.” What I sense instead in the work is a powerful mind thinking through serious questions in a unique and highly personal way, with the thinking, or the moral imperative of trying to think, being theme, virtue, and obstacle all at once:
I wanted to end this piece with a scene of metaphoric group sex where all the participants were place names, but the minute I attempted to do this I got bogged down in questions of which places would penetrate and which places would be penetrated.
Bill Luoma | Some Math | Kenning | 2011
I forgot you could have fun like this with poetry anymore; percussive, sound-driven, slant-rhymed and metered, Dr. Seussical, project-free, pre-Sincere word bliss. When I was in school pants (and Luoma’s writing takes me back to a time when writing was fresh like that), we did a project where you colored a sheet in rainbow crayons, then colored it black, then scratched in designs with a pin, the colors showing through against the black wherever the lines moved. Luoma’s poems have that kind of underlay, the background hues of the techy-mathy end of the late capitalist spectrum, and the algorithmically driven search results for war and celebrity and war, doodled over with lines and allusions and skewed directions all his own.
The phantom limb of system, present in the echoes of poetic meter, has a point to make about structure, too, or maybe just points to structure, naming its name at the moments we think we’re most random and free, like the shots in the target on the cover: each hole the sign of individual effort, but taken together, a measure of precision and accuracy whose patterns stand out only in the systemic, depersonalized whole.
Jordan Davis | POD: Poems on Demand | Greying Ghost | 2011
This chapbook-sized soil sample of Davis’s recent work makes me long to see the whole range. My favorite effect in these poems is ‘the swoop,’ where Davis has you moving pleasurably in one register—quotidian, casual, urbane and absurd (“I passed the hamburger stand/With five dollars in my pocket”; “A half a saxophone/In the paint tray/With the chalk and/An inverted limousine”)—then drops from the sky for the kill. The sting usually comes in the form of a deflation, indicating the poem’s affective weight by what it seems to shrug off. Take, for instance:
Sensible to have it under lock and key,
Or baby-latch at least.
In botany, known as pollarding.
Yes, very clever.
Can reverse suddenly.
Scribble, scribble, scribble,
Eh, Mr. Gibbon?
In fact, Jesus like Marlowe
Was capable of insult.
Remind me again
Why I care?
It was that last couplet that got me; looping back to see why reveals the poem’s careful prep for its final zip. Marianne Moore-esque opening line, which amplifies the title like so many of Moore’s do, and puts us (like the later Gibbon name-check) somewhere in the 18th-century zone of instructive ‘manners and mores’ verse: the realm of measured self-control (baby latch, not Yale lock) and capital-lettered Virtues and Vices: “Ridicule,” “Sensible,” etc.
“Pollarding” is pruning, so Ridicule—the poet’s of others, or others’ of the poet?—must aim to do that, cut down to size. Is it beneficial, or harmful? Helps some trees anyway. The agent of ridicule’s called out as “very clever” (perhaps by the ridiculed?) in that coyly dismissive, eye-rolling way we have with ‘clever’ in the vernacular. Clever for comparing Ridicule to pollarding, lending it a corrective power it lacks? And who’s being clever? Is this Ridiculed talking to Ridiculer, or Devil and Angel on the poet’s own shoulders, urging him in turn to lock it down and let ’er rip?
“Its polarity”—Ridicule’s—“Can reverse suddenly,” presumably making the ridiculer look ridiculous. “Scribble, scribble, scribble” is George III’s brother’s idiot response to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—ever heard of the idiot? So one for the Angel, plus sticks and stones, etc. But now here’s the Ridiculed, opening another sluice: words do hurt, why shake it off and pretend they don’t, with victims like Jesus and Marlowe for precedent?
The Rabbi Gone Wild and Elizabethan bad boy lift the poem out of its sensible 18th-century frame and hold it over an abyss deeper than these short, witty, densely allusive lines care to explore, hence the violent snap of the pullback: “Remind me again/Why I care”? Okay: it’s because you care a lot about the interpersonal ethics of ridicule, and about the feelings it provokes that threaten to destroy the poem’s frame, Poetry’s frame. And the “you” by now, if you’ve followed along this closely, is really ‘me,’ or better, ‘we’: poet and reader in a kind of compact to acknowledge and resist Ridicule’s affect and power.
It’d be fun to do this for other poems—the fire of Buddha’s Fire Sermon pared down to a day at the beach in “Toothpaste Kids Sunburn,” or the universe dropping a tart “Good for you” on the poet in the magnificently titled “Chanting Monotonously,” or the feelingful but masterfully subdued “Everywhere you hear/Nature say ‘Oh’” that closes “Hello Thank You.” But Steve—and you, gentle Reader—would surely cut me off if I keep going, so check the rest for yourself & see if Davis really is our flarfy New York School Swift.
Rodney Koeneke is the author of Musee Mechanique (BlazeVOX, 2006) and Rouge State (Pavement Saw, 2003). Cy Press published Rules for Drinking Forties, a chapbook, in 2009; OMG! published another, Names of the Hits (of Diane Warren), in 2010. Work in 2011-2012 appeared in Aufgabe, BOTH BOTH, Mrs. Maybe, The Nation, and The Poetry Project Newsletter, as well as at Small Press Traffic’s Poets Theater, in collaboration with George Albon. He lives in Portland, Ore.