Third Factory/Notes to Poetry

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Attention Span 2012 | Peter O’Leary

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Joseph Donahue | The Dissolves | Talisman | 2011

With this book and its prequel, Terra Lucida, Donahue joins the ranks of the inviolate holy in American poetry. Who else is writing with such audacity and uncanny ease? This sequence of poems, still ongoing, detonates in an unseen epicenter pendant in a mesocosm of lucid ground from which it undulates to us its mysteries, part visionary recital, part apocalyptic hunch, part immodest soothsaying. Words with power, page after page.

Chris Glomski | The Nineteenth Century | Cultural Society | 2011

The modesty of Glomski’s output—this is only his second full-length book—belies the total mastery of the craft his work displays. The title poem is a masterpiece, a lyric equivalent of an antique camera capturing its namesake zeitgeist, the platter of a phonograph cranking in the background as soundtrack. The line in these poems tenses and flexes through high speech and sung fluencies, always inventive click after click. The book concludes with a long poem, “The Archive of a Work-In-Progress” that belongs in the company of the great autobiographical collage poems, including O’Hara’s “Ode to Michael Goldberg(‘s Birth and Other Births)” and Creeley’s “Mazatlán: Sea.”

Michael Heller | This Constellation Is a Name | Nightboat | 2012

Heller’s book collects forty-five years of his poetry. What an amazing output! I once heard Heller give a reading in which he parsed out some of the literary references in a poem he was about to read. At the end of this preface, he shrugged, “What can I say? I’m a literary fellow.” Writing of Lurianic Kabbalah, the scholar Joseph Dan has said, “Everything is a metaphor for everything else.” A mystical world of near-permanent reflection. In Heller’s work we catch those flashes. As he has it in a title for a recent poem, “Commentary Is The Concept Of Order For The Spiritual World.”

Susan Howe | That This | New Directions | 2010

Among poets, Howe must surely be one of the greatest prose writers, in terms of impact, magnitude, and style. The essential integration of a kind of hybrid essay-memoir into her recent books has been, for me, one of the marvels of American poetry: I can’t separate her high-style, cryptic poetry from these haunting, bracingly intelligent prose-memoirs. That This begins with the “The Disappearance Approach,” a treatment of the death of Howe’s husband, the philosopher Peter H. Hare, and the family life and death of Jonathan Edwards. The centerpiece of the book, “Frolic Architecture,” expands where “Fragments of the Wedding Dress of Sarah Pierpont Edwards,” the last poem in Souls of the Labadie Tract, concluded: poems like archaeological radio static, hissing fragmentarily on the page.

Devin Johnston | Traveler | FSG | 2011

The last poem in the book, “The Rough Bounds,” begins: “I like the sort of track that passes / out of English altogether / as through the Bronze Age bowl / of Glen Moidart, its edges cracked / by forces flooding the drove road / with wee lochans.” These lines could serve as a Johnstonian ars poetica for what poetry can do – passing out of English altogether but not until it notices everything in its path and gathers an encompassing sense of its history. Johnston’s lyric subjectivity avoids the personal pronoun except when necessary; instead, his poems are like little fables written by Dickens and Neil Young—great characters with reverb, feedback, and static as needed. “Iona,” Johnston’s abecedarian version of the medieval Hiberno-Latin “Altus Prosator,” is an utter tour-de-force: “Sunlight beams across this beehive cell: / a socket for the skull, a hissing shell / or cochlea, inverted coracle, / it amplies the laughter of a gull. / This blank stone on which a blanket curled / has heard confession from a savage world.” Among my peers, he’s the poet from whose work I regularly learn the most.

The Kalevala, two vols., trans. by W. F. Kirby | Everyman’s | 1907
The Kalevala, trans. by Keith Bosley | Oxford | 1989

The Finnish national epic, compiled by the great folklorist and philologist (and district health officer) Elias Lönnrot in the first half of the nineteenth century from material he collected on visits to Karelia, which occupies the present-day borderland between eastern Finland and Russia. Stories and lore were gathered from the people then assembled and crafted into fifty coherent runes by Lönnrot, recording deeds of foray and theft, magic and battle, smithcraft and wizardry all conducted in the frosty North Country. The epic centers on the forging, theft, and battle for a mysterious object called the Sampo, a thing wrought with earth power, an object of coveted life force. Väinämoïnen, the wizard rune-lord, is said to have been a model for Gandalf. Lönnrot modeled his Finnish text on the trochaic tetrameter Goethe used in the second part of Faust. Encountering the poem not long after its appearance, Longfellow sought to create an indigenous American equivalent, and wrote The Song of Hiawatha using the same meter (and like the Finnish original foregoing rhyme). Kirby’s translation picks up Longfellow’s pulsations – I find it excellent if a little repetitive. Bosley’s translation is more open, though still very rhythmic, but oddly gives less of a sense of the original’s combined weirdness and stateliness than the Kirby. The whole is a kind of Orphic wonder trove in a land of spruce and birch, bears and giant pikes.

George R.R. Martin | The Song of Ice and Fire | Bantam | 1995-present

Two summers ago, I read four hundred pages into The Savage Detectives before admitting I found the book hopelessly horrible. Because of a class I was teaching, I had to re-read William Gibson’s superb novel Idoru, which I read in two great gulps and from which I felt instantly refreshed. Several students of mine over the years had pressed Martin’s fantasy series on me, the first volume of which, A Game of Thrones, is now the name of a lucrative soft-core HBO franchise. I decided I’d give it a try. I finished volume four of the series, A Feast for Crows, eight months and over four thousand pages later. A time of total, giddy immersion. Volume five, A Dance with Dragons, was published days after I left the country for five weeks last summer. I resisted the urge to acquire an electronic copy, fearing I wouldn’t do any of the writing I was hoping to do. Instead, I bought it the day after I returned, and nursed it for two months, knowing I’d be obliged, like all the rest of Martin’s fans, to wait for him to write the final two volumes of the series. And there’s risk at stake. As Martin has described himself, “I’m fat and old.” Not a formula for longevity. Whatever you’ve heard about these books is true, I’m guessing. Martin’s sense of plotting is outstanding, just as his love of lavish medieval detail is outlandish. The books are propelled by an obvious but nevertheless ingenious narrative device that never ceases to generate interest: all the chapters are written from the perspective of a rotating set of characters, some of them “good” and some of them not so good. As a result, incredible sympathies are generated page after page. I was speaking to a literary fiction writer I know who said simply, “I’m in awe of those books.” Hands down five of the best books I’ve ever read. Killer!

Michael O’Brien | Avenue | Flood | 2012

A perfect little book. To be read in an interval, between just about anything. Fifty-two psycho-emotional penetrations of the Vortex, transient images ideally captured. One of O’Brien’s special talents arises from his trust in the value of liminal states – the threshold of sleep, the moment of sudden awareness, the unexplainable richness of dreams, the street right when you step out onto it: these he translates into enviable, sometimes spooky moments, modest in conception (perhaps) but hard to let go of once encountered. “Before dawn the Anxieties / troop to her bed, / attend her waking, vie / with each other to / tell the worst news / / pictures developing / like a baby / in the dark”.

Alice Oswald | Memorial | Faber | 2011

A largely successful experiment by one of the poets of the British mainstream. The intelligence driving this poem feels foreign. (American poems are differently intelligent; or, more often, simply unintelligent.) In some senses, its companion is Logue’s War Music, which is all the action of Homer distilled. Memorial ingeniously inverts that prospect to record the names of all the dead in The Iliad with the scenes of their deaths. These scenes are intercut by the great Homeric similes, stripped of any reference, and repeated. The language is unpunctuated, attaining at times an incantatory aspect. The repetitions of the similes fail, I think, but not unfortunately. There are a lot of gripping moments in the poem – the great scything action of death draws the gaze always – but the memory of the poem, the idea propelling it, lingers longest.

Pam Rehm | The Larger Nature | Flood | 2011

A poet of subtlest intensities and unremitting substance. The aura of the work – this is her eighth collection—densifies with each new work. Here, the title is drawn from Duncan’s H.D. Book; the centerpiece, “The Depths of the World,” is ostensibly an erasure poem of Blake’s Milton—Rehm claims that much in the notes to the volume. But the truth is that it is an act of incisive reading and incitation—a form of ancestral, poetic dowsing, in which the audacity of Blake’s vision of Milton (entering his left foot) authorizes her own dazzling and rarefied encounter with her forebears, in a poetry of penetrating clarities. Her best book yet.

Lissa Wolsak | Squeezed Light | Station Hill | 2010

One of the hidden masters, a poet of great imaginative proprioception and kinesthesia. Titled a collected poems, the book is really three books of poetry—The Garcia Family Co-Mercy, Pen-chants, and A Defence of Being (in two sections, previously uncollected)—matched with a masterful prose manifesto (“An Heuristic Prolusion”) and some shorter, fugitive poems, concluded by a brief, revealing interview. Even as the poetry draws from some of the abstractive lyric traits of its era, Wolsak’s poetry feels singular, a kind of spiritual sonogram whose echoes Shelley would recognize. An essential book.


Additionally, I can mention these two books, about which I wrote extensive reviews:

Thomas Meyer | Kintsugi | Flood | 2011

Reviewed here.

Gustaf Sobin | Collected Poems | Talisman | 2010

Reviewed here.

Plus, these two books, the former for which I wrote an endorsement and the latter for which I am one of the dedicatees:

Whit Griffin | The Sixth Great Extinction | SkySill Books | 2012

Patrick Pritchett | Gnostic Frequencies | Spuyten Duyvil | 2011


Peter O’Leary has published three books of poetry: Watchfulness, Depth Theology, and Luminous Epinoia. In 2012, the Cultural Society will publish a new book, The Phosphorescence of Thought. As Ronald Johnson’s literary executor, he has edited several volumes of Johnson’s poetry, including The Shrubberies and Radi os. A new edition of Johnson’s masterpiece, ARK, is forthcoming in 2013 from Flood Editions. Recently, he also edited Is Music: Selected Poems by John Taggart. In 2002, his critical study, Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan & the Poetry of Illness, was published. He lives in Berwyn, Illinois and teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and for the Committee on Creative Writing at the University of Chicago. With John Tipton, he directs the small poetry press Verge Books.

This is Peter O’Leary’s first contribution to Attention Span. Return to 2012 directory.

Written by Steve Evans

November 2, 2012 at 3:57 pm

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