POEMS: Gavin Adair • Claire Becker • Daniel Becker • Julia Cohen • Simon DeDeo • Eric Elliott • Charley Foster • Noah Eli Gordon • Eryn Green • Timothy Green • Matt Hart • MC Hyland • Becca Klaver • Robert Krut • Brad Liening • Chris Martin • Lauren McCollum • David Sewell • Lori Shine • Peter Jay Shippy • Brenda Sieczkowski • Leigh Stein • Chris Tonelli
Artist’s Portfolio: Fumiko Amano
ESSAYS & REVIEWS: David Saffo on Charles Olson & Antonio Damasio • Gina Myers on some chapbooks • Jen Tynes on some chapbooks • Matt Dube on Gabrielle Bell • Monica McFawn on Rachel M Simon • Timothy Bradford on Paige Ackerson-Kiely • Tom Dvorske on Adam Clay • Zackary Sholem Berger on Sean Thomas Dougherty
Entries in 6. Reviews (7)
when you awake
Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2006
Diane Ward’s chapbook when you awake is comprised of fifteen prose sections set in a conversational tone. The speaker is telling a story, explaining, giving instructions to the reader/listener. The poem opens: “well, it’s not just passion fading now. watch the images, the long line of ourselves, wait.” The reader is very much a part of this piece, a part of the “we,” the “you” instructed to “get your fur up.”
As someone associated with Language Poetry, it is not a surprise that there is a preoccupation with language, its implications, constructions, limitations, and ownership throughout the piece. Ward writes: “we are caravans, taught to stand behind who’s in front, hierarchical lines, we made them.” And later: “natural world as shadows of ownership. whose hummingbird? allen’s hummingbird, rivoli’s hummingbird, anna’s hummingbird and the morning dove as in long-anticipated loneliness, shutdown, not as a new day.” In the second prose block the question arises: “what if the language doesn’t do it anymore, if atom means that which cannot be split.”
This is a text that examines what it means to be alive now, a text/speaker that is conscious of the intersection of the personal with the social and political. One of the concerns throughout the piece is environmental, specifically the destruction of natural resources through human abuse and the problems created when humans view the natural world as something to be dominated and owned: “the connected uses of human are shifting, creating narrative or a mass migration of our stuff. don’t the ones with the most stuff do better. or is it don’t do better. if they get stuff it will be better.”
When faced with pollution/chemical smells in the air and plants growing slowly and less successfully, when faced with ideas of death and problems of the outer world at large, Ward acknowledges the tendency of people to escape into themselves : “insufficient desire to be laid in the grave, so we tried routinely to email, eat, care for the past found in shady places, behind bushes.” The physicality of the blocks on the page, the references to borders, frames and “thinking framed thoughts of ourselves,” all seem to be a movement inward. However, the piece concludes with what appears to be a movement out, a possible awakening. Floating away from an empty thought bubble, the poem ends with the action: “to burst.”
Octopus Books, 2006
Genya Turovskaya’s chapbook The Tides is comprised of three long poems. Mostly set in a timeless era of harbors and life at sea, the poems are given a more contemporary context with the mention of cell phone ring tones and men walking on the moon. Turovskaya’s influences are varied, as the poems are not interested in borders or schools. The first poem, “Pax,” opens in a very language-y way and then becomes more lyric. The lyric includes dreams and surreal images: “those first birds / were birthed // viscous & moist // from the black egg / I squatted down / and laid.” “Pax” goes on to experience a sort of derangement of the senses: “my clothes do not love me back // nor my shoes / embrace me”. Romanticism is also present in the collection with traditional romantic themes and characters: “the emissaries are sailors on the sea, are tramps on dry land” (from “Anchorage”).
There is an appealing strangeness to the poems—the reader is largely unable to predict where the poems will go from one section to the next. In “Pax,” the poem almost comes to a pause at the end—stuck on the idea of beginning again, using heavy repetition even when the speaker claims “I will not repeat.” The second poem, “Anchorage,” shifts from more vague ideas to end on a strange solid image:
we made it out of the fog
swimming to shore with a bag
of winter oranges
lights tinkled around its body
and its eyes
In “Pax,” Turovskaya asks: “do you approach / recede // the battering tide”. Her collection The Tides is not so much interested in battering or brutality but creates a sense of back and forth, an adventure at sea, the sense of a tumultuous inner-state. The Tides is a wonderful little collection full of rich poetry, a promising debut from Turovskaya.
Phylum Press, 2004
Dan Featherston’s chapbook United States is a minimalist poem in fifty parts. The book opens with two epigraphs: Walt Whitman’s “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” and Robert Duncan’s “What / if lilacs in this dooryard bloomd ?” One would expect the following poem to be overtly about the United States, either the history or politics. However, what follows in the opening sections are brief imagistic poems that could be almost anywhere: first, an image of hands warming around a fire in a trash can; second, “Hanged man / dangled down / through high / blue quietude / & noon”; third, a hibiscus flower shriveling inward. The associations of these images—poverty, violence/death, and natural beauty—are continual themes throughout the poem.
The sections are independent of each other and focus on different things, ranging from subtle to blunt in subject. There are straight forward lyrics, nature poems, poems focused on sound and word play, early Creeley-esque poems (“as if / & as / we can”), etc. Some sections have their own titles which sometimes serve as the setup for the poem’s punchline, or create a sort of call and response. Section 31 is titled “Legalese tautology” and “material / evidence” is the entirety of what follows. In 33, “Conspiracy theory of wind”: “Each nation unconsciously acts out the secret drama of its flag”, the poem takes a more unexpected path from the title. In 30, “Infinite Justice,” the title serves as a point of departure:
There are numerous effective images throughout the piece, from concise nature pieces to pieces more overtly political: from section 25, “Moon walk”: “Red white blue flag / flutters falsely free // Exorbitant cold war tree”. In 7, nature and human interference mix: “River raised one / drop the junked / car sunk under”. In 23, “Photograph of a Hiroshima watch,” the poem whites out:
What time it was
what time it is
when skin is
a shadow past
Chapbooks can sometimes be hard to find, especially when they date back a few years. As for this chapbook, there is good news; in 2005, Featherston had a full-length collection, also called United States, released from Heretical Texts.
Fewer & Further Press, 2006
Aaron Tieger’s chapbook February consists of minimal lyric poems with concise language and sharp images. The first poem is dated 2/1/05 and the last poem in the collection is 3/1/05. In between are titled and untitled pieces that are not marked by date. Whether or not the poems were written daily over the course of the month, they recall A.R. Ammons’ daily poem project/journal Tape for the Turn of the Year both in spirit and in form—Tieger’s short lines could also fit on adding machine tape.
It is hard also not to think of Schuyler’s poem “February” written at 5pm on the day before March 1st: “It’s a day like any other.” Many of Tieger’s poems act almost as diary entries or recordings of the day’s events, as in the opening poem:
Waking early from
dreams of waking early
through blinds sky
slight violet brighter
than last week
cats all over
your face on
in a month
can’t get back
Despite the sparse language, the poems are full of images and actions, populated by the people Tieger knows (“Chris Rizzo Valentine ”), not to mention the cats, references to the weather, and recollections of the past. In “Two Cafés,” Tieger recalls “a view / no longer there”, and later: “Memories float / down streets / of missing signs…..Cafés / disappear / every few years.” There is also a great attention to sound, like in this untitled piece:
Sweet violet dog violet pansies pansy
blue violet yellow white cream violets
Love lies bleeding
love in idleness
Call me to you
meet me in the entry
Jack jump up and kiss me
kiss her in the buttery
Bird’s eye bullweed
February is a nice little collection of Tieger’s poems displayed beautifully in a clean and narrow design from Fewer & Further Press.
The Knife-Grasses by Julie Doxsee
Octopus Books, 2007
The first five lines of this chapbook-length poem create an interesting lens through which to read the rest of the book:
Here are the
right in the
Short, double-spaced lines create a sharp lyric, an attentive lullaby that is both charming and warped. The voice in the early half of this poem seems child-like in the sense that it seems low to the ground, intimate with its details and very much shaped by the sensual experience. The details are harsh and/or rough: “cigarettes soak &/ heads lift to bruise,” “your skull/ bloats as it cracks a little open,” “the bent-up nail pried/ halfway out of pine/ siding from the/ rotten doghouse.” The descriptive and lyrical experience seems synonymous with the narrative identity; the world is “dumped right in the cochlea.” Implied in the title seems to be some sort of preposition – in, of, from “the knifegrasses.” Awareness of subjectivity and perspective evolves. Page 9 reads, in its entirety, “I have a pile of logs/ and nothing to compare its shape to.”
In the later pages of the book, there seems to be more distance and division between the person and the environment, but there is still a kind of synesthesia, and a fluidity between noun and verb. “The animal/ sperms from a/ tree perch” and “Ears half-/ swallow.” The animals referenced in the poem become smaller and less exotic (from buffalo and kangaroo to cats and dogs) but more present and explored. How do cross-eyed dogs and catwalks shape the line?
The second person address in some of these later pages takes on the imperative tone, and the instructions given seem to rearrange the place. The speaker is able to rearrange it. The Knife Grasses seems concerned always with identifying the valuable, recognizing the impermanent; these later pages seem interested in making decisions based on this knowledge. The language, exacting, sensual, and complex, illustrates both the limits and expansions of the intimate space, the side yard and the under-spoken.
The Second Is Thirst by Jane Gregory
Cannibal Chapbook Series, 2007
The “idea” is both damnation and salvation in these poems. Most read as monologues to familiar, specific others, and the conversation is sharply funny, darkly inventive, suggesting maybe that the most vital and prominent invention comes out of the necessity of despair, loss. In the first poem, “Dear Diary, What I Like About You Is How Accurately Your Symptoms Follow Your Disease,” Gregory writes,
For now, let logic
be the engine that tears off the plane you’re on
and rips open the psych ward in the hospital
Peter hanged in.
The complicated relationship The Second Is Thirst describes between idea and reality, hope and understanding, life and death is mirrored sometimes in the syntax of lines which convolute, retract or redivide, enjamb. All its practical plans, like most, are haunted. “The Little One, Inside the Brain,” a poem about one-third into the book, discusses making a homonculus. “The Idea Being” quivers between discontent with the living, breathing world and a truly mournful sense of missing-ness. About the dead and the dead-to-be, these poems seem to make time fuzzy, to move not with ease but with the required energy, back and forth.
Many of Gregory’s poems use long or prose lines and, along with their theatrical sense of “agenda,” suggest intersection with the essay. In attempting to tell us what we really need to know, they tell us, honestly, this: “Eventually we settled on rescue. This required a sign/ and therefore more rocks. The point is to write this out for you, and pitch it/ as the holiest kind of nonsense so that you will take me there and scare me,/ and then show me home.”
32 Pedals & 47 Stops by Sandy Florian
Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2007
Florian begins 32 Pedals & 47 Stops with an epigraph from William Faulkner: “Only when the clock stops does time come to life.” The pages that follow read like a series of flash fiction or prose poems, theatrical observations that shift between the personal and the impersonal, creating an effective jar—a jarringness, but also a holding space—that continues to catch the reader by surprise:
A Russian man dressed in an old coat with a curly collar stands in the cramped living room of a two-room flat. His wife, dressed in a torn, polyester, black dress, sits on the couch in front of a coffee table in the same two-room flat. The coffee table is round. The coffee table is scratched. The coffee table wobbles on four unstable legs. Upon the coffee table, a photograph lies face-up among some old albums. Blemished by fingerprints of somebody’s grubby hands, the photograph reveals an image of a boy who draws wonderful birds with human hands and feet.
The prose sometimes reads like stage directions that grow wonky and idiosyncratic, a spy journal that telescopes inward, a literary spin-out. A presence or character named “The Moment” also jars: from the center of these parts of prose, The Moment encases the scene, a frame after the fact, a skeleton that becomes a shell that cracks. The relationship between creation and destruction is often explored in these moments and stories. Narratives explore how pairs (siblings, couples, literal and figurative twins) mirror and dismantle one another. The story of a wedding develops through the later part of the book and ends the series with a breakdown of language that resonates the movement of 32 Pedals & 47 Stops:
Let Me Not.
To The Marriage of True Minds.
Love is Not Love.
Love is Not Love.
Review of Lucky, by Gabrielle Bell. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2006. $19.95 Hardcover. 112 pages
Two thousand seven looks like a transitional year for Gabrielle Bell: it’s been announced that she will no longer be a regular contributor to the comics quarterly MOME from Fantagraphics, but she was featured in a recent issue of the Drawn and Quarterly Showcase, the first comics of hers in color that I think I’ve seen. There’s this book, a handsome hardcover book that collects three issues of Lucky, the mini-comic she published in two thousand three and four, and she has plans to revive that series, or at least its title, as a new venue for her comics.
I really like Bell’s comics, and I’d put her near the front of an important movement in the field, the development of a more literary sensibility. I mean this as distinct from a more purely visual sense of comics, like those tied more to the world of visual arts, an approach championed by magazines like Kramer’s Ergot or some of the other anthologies and journals. Bell’s work, like cartoons by Megan Kelso, Allison Bechdel (especially in her luminous Fun Home), Lilli Carre, and others, seems at least as interested in the texture and quality of words and narratives as it does in developing a new purely visual language. It’s hard to know just what to make of this, or what role it has or will have in the increasing legitimacy of comics, since most of this interest comes from the literary world. But whatever it is, Bell has it—her cartooning isn’t crude, but it isn’t especially distinguished, either: her figures are recognizable from panel to panel, her design is serviceable and you’d never mistake one character for another. But as Lucky shows, she isn’t going to win any awards for design, either.
The longest narrative in Lucky is an episodic diary which makes up the first issue of the three mini-comics this book collects. In it, Bell records her struggles to become a better artist, one page of six panels each day (mostly). The results, to me at least, are like most journals or diaries; most people don’t have the kind of life you want to study all that closely, and Bell is no exception. Any interest you might have larger narrative movements of her life, though, will depend on your familiarity with, and interest in, twenty-something boho existence, as Bell struggles with oddball roommates and a sort-of non-committal boyfriend (they move into and out of each other’s apartments a couple times over the course of the stories; it’s clear Bell has some affection for him, though not especially clear why. The boyfriend Tom’s feelings are sometimes harder to figure). I found some of this material a little less-than-fresh, having lived through similar stories when I was that age. Bell comes across as a gal who isn’t super-confident and who isn’t always able to stand up for herself. She is rounded, vulnerable and exposed, and that can be electrifying, but sometimes my frustration with the characters indecision, her inertia and fear, her equanimity colored my feelings about her creator. The comic stories in the later issues of Lucky show some growth: Bell experiments, for example, with allowing her fantasies to run away with her, so that we aren’t as tied to the actual. She develops an authorial stand-in (or at least tells stories of a friend?) named Sadie, who is crazier, more direct than Bell feels comfortable being. There’s better work nearer the end of this book, but as kunstelroman, Lucky stops before we see Bell’s “mature” work.
To find the payoff for the hard work of artistic development Bell went through in these years and stories, you need to look at her work in other places, and for other companies. The work she’s done for MOME, and in anthologies (there’s a really nice Sadie story in the Hi-Horse Omnibus anthology, and an ambitious adaptation of a story by Saki in Orchid), shows her talent to much greater effect because the shaping of material is more present than it is here. A story like “Gabrielle the Third” (from MOME’s Winter 2007 issue) for example, manages to tweak panels for lyric effect, so that when the stories last panel runs along the width of the page, it sustains the moment like a held note, as Bell’s character takes a photograph to, well, sustain the moment. A story like “Mike’s Café” (from the MOME winter 2006 issue) counterpoints a phone dialogue with what else the speakers are doing while talking, with incisive, ironic results. This, in fact, might be Bell’s greatest strength as a writer, her ability to develop structural ironies where text plays against, undercuts and complicates, the images to which is it applied. I can’t think of anyone who does this kind of thing as well or as regularly as Bell does. It’s one of those styles of writing that requires at least equal confidence in writing and drawing to conceive of using your comics to tell stories in this way, and I don’t think, aside from the few writers mentioned above, there are many who have developed those skills.
As a document of the path that led her to reach this level of skill, Lucky is certainly a worthwhile book. But it seems strange that this is the collection of Bell’s work that is available in a hardcover edition, when many of her shorter but more ambitious (and I would argue, more successful) works are spread out in separate issues of anthologies where they are hidden among the work of other writes and artists. I really like Lucky, but I think it is in the next collection of her work that most people will discover the work that leads me to call Gabrielle Bell one of the best comic writers of this current generation. I hope that there’s enough promise here to compel readers to look for more in the new series she’s proposed using this old name.
Rachel M. Simon, Pavement Saw Press
There are many volumes of fine poetry where one could rip out the pages and toss them in the air—their coincidental arrangement upon landing would be no less effective than their arrangement in any book. Since poems are ultimately self-contained, the order in which they are arranged often evokes the practical arbitrariness of a lineup at the checkout. Each poem is simply waiting to be seen, and their connection to the poems before and after goes no further than tolerance. Reading such a book even mimics working at the checkout counter. Every poem stops briefly, offers up whatever it has, and moves on. The ultimate experience is simply a series of discrete experiences.
Rachel Simon’s Theory of Orange, however, is a thoughtfully arranged volume that benefits from being thoughtfully arranged. Though each poem works on its own—and was ostensibly written to be on its own—the poems together create a thematic and almost narrative arc. So strong was this impression that I felt like I needed to “keep my place” when I put the book down—a rare feeling for me when reading poetry.
Theory of Orange is still a book of poetry, and so the “story” is more abstract than a typical plotline. The book as a whole seems to be chronicling not a specific event, but instead a shifting sense of time. Early poems like “Improvisation” are so spontaneous that one could suspect that they quickly arrange themselves on the page just as you’re turning it. The style of these first poems is as effortless and perfectly timed as a quip, and their topics are equally of the moment. The first real conversation of a friendship, an epiphany on plane ride, a daydream—the subjects are tiny insular pinpricks on a timeline.
By the middle of the book, time becomes too fraught to blithely inhabit. As Simon’s poems begin to refer to tragedy and loss, the references to time become more loaded. The meaning of “Anxiety,” for instance, is all in the tense:
Soon I’ll take the empty boxes downPast perfect refers to something ongoing in the past that stopped in the past. Such a definition is tough to get one’s mind around in a grammar book, but in Simon’s poem it is completely apt. “Past perfect lives” is shorthand for the sense that our past is somehow a life apart from us—a birth, life, and death all on an abbreviated timeline.
and fill them again, trying
to discard all I have
that ties me to the modest trinkets
of my past perfect lives.
What’s fascinating about Theory of Orange is that the order of the poems gives these ideas the impulsion of a narrative. Beyond being just thematically tied, the poems’ arrangement shows how even abstract impressions—such as how we view time—can have a storyline and denouement of their own. For Simon, her poems reach a poignant climax in “Present Tense,” a poem that imagines the present-moment actions of someone deceased:
You’re cataloging what you knew
in your life as a gifted kid,
and what you’ve learned since omniscience.
Ironically, Simon’s speaker must step out of his or her present life to imagine a parallel present where the dead go about their business. The loss of innocence chronicled throughout the book comes not from the implied tragedy, but from the distancing effects of that tragedy on the present. Simon’s speakers early in the book behave as if suspended in an infinite moment of play, unmoored by any considerations of endings or beginnings. When the book ends, the momentary has become a mere way station from which to look backwards or away, a dot on a timeline seeing everything but itself.
Paige Ackerson-Kiely. In No One’s Land. Ahsahta Press, 2007. $16.00 paper. 75 pages.
Loneliness makes you strong. I’m thinking of George Orwell writing 1984 on the Scottish island of Jura, where deer outnumber people twenty-seven to one, Gregory Corso’s ode to loneliness, “Marriage,” and Tibetan Buddhist monks in three year, three month and three day solitary retreats. Deer, alcohol, questions of marriage, and meditations on death also appear in Paige Ackerson-Kiely’s debut poetry collection, In No One’s Land, and loneliness pervades and emboldens the voice there.
The book’s epigraph from the Finnish-Swedish poet Bertel Gripenberg, provided in Swedish and translated as “In no one’s land, with no one will I stay,” makes this agenda clear from the start. (In the author’s statement accompanying the book, Ackerson-Kiely mentions that these lines moved her so much she had them tattooed on her shoulder.)
Take the opening prose poem “Foreplay,” which begins, “You are sitting on the bed. The motel room is the color of / breastmilk, nutritive water rinsing the palate of you.” The poem then spins through a series of word-based associations that touch on paternal pride, a lion’s pride, “an unwound basket,” and wounds before arriving at the moment before the presumed lover’s arrival as the poem ends, “Any minute now someone will push his way through the door and announce something. Dinner is served. The surgery was a great success. I’m sorry ma’am, but you’ll have to come with me. Answer a few questions.” And so a poem that promises sexual activity leading to some sort of union instead delivers all of the complications and loneliness, even when with others, of the world.
Prose poems make up more than a third of this collection of forty-four poems and also represent some of the most intriguing and haunting work as Ackerson-Kiely benefits from the extra space into which her seemingly disparate themes can be slowly woven together. Especially luminous are “Instructional Lecture for a Liquor Store Clerk,” “On the Austerity of Autumn,” and “Greenland,” the latter a meditation on death via the story and photographs of an Inuit mother who kills her children in 1928 to end their suffering from starvation.
Even though more traditional line breaks and stanzas take away from the prose poem space Ackerson-Kiely uses so effectively, they sometimes serve to heighten the lush, nearly Romantic language she works against in the book, as in these lines from “Spring Thaw”: “I allow you to guess correctly. The confidence / you will gain will make speaking— / a tomcat sprays the dogwood—blooming.”
Another traditionally-lined poem, “Command of Material Goods,” reveals, in full contralto, the author’s Romantic streak checked by a contemporary sense of poetry and nature. In what could have become an overly miraculous moment, the speaker lies in a meadow with her body covered in birdseed. The birds never arrive as hoped for, and finally, the speaker’s shoes speak, “Stand up now please / you joyful, joyful thing.”
Ahsahta Press should be applauded for the classy production job that includes a minimalist but effective cover, translucent endpaper, slate gray section dividers, and handsome type selections, although the “[continued]” at the bottom of some two-page poems but strangely not others is a mistake. As far as the collection itself, winner of the 2006 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, the strongest poems are heaped in the second half, and at seventy-five pages, it could have been trimmed or at least rearranged a bit. But overall, Ackerson-Kiely and Ahsahta deliver a very worth-while read and companion for your own infinite and powerful loneliness.
Review of The Wash, by Adam Clay. West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor Press, 2006. Free Verse Editions. Jon Thompson (Ed). 66 pages.
Adam Clay’s first book The Wash sustains a hermetic tone in an elemental landscape that becomes increasingly palpable throughout the course of the book and with each rereading—so much so that what start out as quiet, contemplative poems occupying a cloistered but brightly lit architecture grow in boldness and volume as from the delicate song of a single thrush to the almost deafening scrawl of migrating blackbirds.
His poems reach into early romantic sensibility (one blurbist compares his work to John Clare’s) and for their occasional anachronistic spellings, one is left with the feeling of being very much a contemporary visitor bearing down on a romantic past that nonetheless pushes back with frightening force. If the “make the familiar strange” mantra still pervades our contemporary poetic sensibilities, then Clay has done something unique. He’s taken us into a past weltanschauung in such a way that it reveals to us the persistence of an imaginative perception, of a force and grammar as secret and as powerful as the Eleusinian mysteries.
Clay’s poems can overwhelm the reader with their precision and minuteness of detail that succeeds because it insists on referentiality. We may be called to attend to language as language, but never to the point where the poem and the imaginative apprehension of reality gets lost. In some respects, one sees a bit of Charles Simic’s work knocking around in the wood shed. While most of the book consists of short lyrics of delicate forcefulness and drowning, dreamlike textures, my two favorite poems are the longer sequences, “Notes on the Constraints of Architecture,” which reads like an idiosyncratic update on Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” and “Elegy for the Self-Portrait,” the penultimate poem in the book, which reinscribes the romantic gesture of self-expression and subjectivity as essentially a gesture that confronts the terrifying paradox that meaningful connection can only be found in oblivion. Because, after all, Clay’s poems are about relationships and only through complete, or near complete, dissolution of oneself into another (an other) can we connect on an “elemental” level as in the two-line poem “Elegy”:
I took cold water from the river in my hands, drank,
And looked down to see a rock black with the memory of my face.
And from “[Our Hands Sailing]”:
Of the faces seen drifting in the wake of our boat,
My Father’s stare is the deepest.
Clay’s lines never cease to surprise and to delight the reader with odd juxtapositions and strange music, demonstrated adequately enough by these lines from “Elegy for the Self-Portrait”:
Yes, the pianos are quiet, yet they remain
consistent even in their silence.
The consistent and ample use of white space throughout the collection reinforces this notion of music in silence, a kind of John Cage effect, that lends to the volume and force of what at first appears to be a kind of Faberge (bird) egg of a collection.
All that said, one needn’t worry. Yeats is still the last romantic. Clay just revisits romanticism and allows us to experience it in much the same way that I imagine those first readers of Blake, Shelley, and Clare might have experienced their work. And it’s a visit worth making.
Broken Hallelujahs. Boa Editions
Sean Thomas Dougherty has built a house and packed it full of “remember them” (to paraphrase a poem of his): room upon room of song, smell, death, and dance from the four corners and the mixed races of his family, and much else besides: from Jews to African-Americans to Poles. It is over the top, which means high-reaching. His forms are varied. The first section is prose poetry: Dougherty begins with the sentence (“a needle through your umbilical cord”), channels it through the voice of “broken graffiti […] pawnshop tickets […] locked puppets”, and introduces us to his mother’s grandparents (that’s a long umbilical cord!) who came from Budapest and the Ukraine, speaking Yiddish and Hungarian becoming broken English, strained through Dougherty’s sentences. “Canzone Sprayed with Graffiti” is a theme-and-variations: movement of and through the city (“A boy bends his body to the beat, pops his joints/ Into graffiti: Giotto reaching for an angel’s halo.” That’s the halo Dougherty’s reaching for, in this poem and throughout the book. There’s “light falling like Vermeer,” muscles like Michelangelo, a girl humming Beethoven’s Ninth. We get it: the city’s low dance is the high sublime. But this is too much, like being trapped in the European Art 1500-1850 wing of the art museum after closing time. So next, perhaps for lightness’s sake, is a charming sorbet of a poem, “Dear Pistachio”: “Lie down my shady lady-fern, my blue/bell, my/willow, my rapturous/rain-washed//radish.” His versatility saves him from preciousness.
The second section, “The Dark Soul of the Accordion,” eulogizes his grandfather, in a Dougherty way, that is - as if the soul were white light broken into multiple peoples by the prism of the poet’s eye. The spirit of Lorca (and Biggie Smalls, who appears later) mourns the Jew.
I’m tired but I have to move my feet. There’s plenty of music still to come. “Pas de Deux” is a couplet-catalog of dances, and this too is just one contrivance short of cutesy (“Do you Shinto on the roof/of a Pinto? Look spooky as you bless the Kabuki?”). Next is a form that Dougherty invented, the oberek. Soon after the reader is introduced to his father and that side of the family (“My Father’s Fro in the Mode of Romare Bearden,” one poem’s title calls out; now I know, after looking it up, that Bearden is a well-known painter of the Harlem Renaissance). There is “The Day Biggie Smalls Died,” but unlike O’Hara, Dougherty doesn’t stop breathing. (I don’t think he could, even for a second.) “Somewhere on Planet Earth” is another canzone, where hip-hop and bass and B-boys cradle and enliven the universe (“In the dream of the perfect headspin, the cosmos/is backed by a funky ass bass line, the comets/are double-helixing into Stradivarian strings” as the “B-boys uprock/and suicide flip”).
It’s a slim book but a large house. I’ll have to re-enter it many times before I manage to wander through every room. I’m just not used to this much music. I don’t dance much. Reading these poems is like standing in the middle of a dance floor, or next to Dougherty himself reading (rapping) these poems with musical accompaniment. I’ll have to re-tune my ears to soak up this symphony; that’s not a bad thing.