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Nick Sturm on some chapbooks

Luke Bloomfield, The Duffel Bag


Factory Hollow Press



Luke Bloomfield’s poems in The Duffel Bag use words as if they were little machines rigged for error, each one talking to itself in the dark corner of its own logic, all of them sparking towards the absurd. In “When I Go 2 Paris,” he writes, “When I go to Paris / it is like Paris,” and this is not absurd, but rather the most accurate simile one can imagine, because what is Paris really “like”? “Like,” that inadequate note of comparison, reveals itself to be a kind of humorous ontological stand-in, and we’re left only with the substance of the language – the word “Paris,” a little semantic party, endlessly signifying itself, alive in our mouths. Indeed, Bloomfield, particularly in the litany, crawls inside words and shakes them loose from their associations, making music and charming the reader into his odd, arresting systems. The title poem, “The Duffel Bag,” does just that:


            You climbed inside the duffel bag.

            I climbed inside after you

            and then we were both inside

            the duffel bag, which was bigger

            than a big bee hive.


Later, after moving into the duffel bag


            The pictures sagged

            for the walls were saggy

            and we swam in the in-ground pool

            in the duffel bag,

            which was like a rock

            we built our cathedral on

            in the duffel bag,

            smaller than a copse of trees.


Taking full advantage of the silliness of the word “duffel bag,” Bloomfield follows the word into it’s own world, infusing it with an emotional immediacy via a mix of the mundane and the wild, not to mention a bent logic that is as incongruous as it is romantically simple. Scale is continually a surprise. Redundancy makes wires spark. Semantics becomes a kind of candy. These poems are obsessive and delightful and tender. They make me feel weird and human, which is a wonderful gift.




Emily Pettit, How


Octopus Books



The titles of the poems in Emily Pettit’s How, “How to Stop Laughing When You Laugh at Inappropriate Times,” “How to Carefully Consider Interstellar Space Travel,” dress themselves up in an air of utility, but when the poems open up what confronts you is more circus than toolbox. From “How to Know the Worth of What”:


            One must be an eye moving rapidly. A dance hall.

            An electric train. A clever collision. I am knee high

            to a duck, so this is a full-fledged challenge.

            I walked far in the snow. Some more ghost bread please.

            Oh what a declaration! What a hat with no head!


Continually turning and unbalancing expectations, these poems are a reckless mixture of declarative absurdity, understated chaos, and tender, sometimes terrifying profundity. Imagine using a Cornell box as a telephone and you have a poem by Emily Pettit. From “How to be Responsible”:


            ….You are asked to accept

            the fantastic. It’s so fantastic.

            Accept it. Someone says, Emotions

            don’t have brains. And someone is right.


What we know, and how we know what we know, according to these poems, isn’t communicable through the supposedly coherent language suggested by the conceit “how to…,” but rather through a storm of associations and errors that liberate us from the dullness of properly functioning systems. Indeed, to feel and to be is not so simple. From “How to Start a Fire Without Sticks”:


                                                …Pretend you are

            a medium to large marine mammal. I will be

            a fly on the wall dressed as a person, a person who

            has complicated ideas about what constitutes a wall.


It is a fun game when one’s cognitive architecture is dipped in the empathy and charm of such lines. How is full of such moments, confidently challenging the utility of the “real” and “feasible” in favor of a poetry that regards the imagination, in all of its juxtapositions and loops, as its feral center.





James Gendron, Money Poems


Poor Claudia



James Gendron’s Money Poems is exactly what it says it is, poems about money, and it’s also an investigation and critique of our ideas of consumption, control, debt, class, greed, beauty, value, desire, violence, artificiality, happiness, and the absolute. And most of the poems are rather short, with short lines. And to be able to touch so many large subjects in so short a collection, and to do it as intelligently as Gendron does here, is neither common nor easy. The first poem, “Toolbox,” sets the tone and trajectory of the rest of the collection:


            To clean the dirty water: more water.

            Our low, rough voices drift

            over the shacks of millionaires. Nobody


            is going to tell us what to do.

            And here comes nobody now.


What does it mean when one’s economic and cultural experiences are continually diluted for the sake of another’s power, and what does it mean when one finally expresses their repressed voice, reimagines objective worth, acts on an passionate desire for change, and makes liberating ultimatums towards an amorphous, monolithic bureaucracy, all the while awakening to the realization that one’s future is not controlled by the whims of the powerful, but by direct action and courageous individual responsibility? I don’t know. Maybe this poem has nothing to do with that question, but it makes me consider it, and with the movements taking shape around the country right now, poems such as these embody a voice of intelligence and resistance that feels absolutely necessary. These poems call into question an entire system of values, humorously and terrifyingly juxtaposing the language and structures of economics with images and statements that dismantle popular ideas of identity and worth. In it’s entirety, “Weather”:


            Air is finely ground money.

            Spontaneous fortunes gather in the sky.


            The sky is speckled with motionless

            burning airplanes.


The hyperbole of the opening metaphor followed by the romantic-turned-horrifying image of the second couplet raises a gauntlet of issues from the fantasy of immaterial privatization to the cultural obsession with the threat of terrorism. But what’s more important is that Gendron doesn’t let these ideas weigh these poems down into ideology. Rather, they remain open, amorphous, and opposed to simplification. Consider the absurd profundity of “My Boss,” the ontological and existential issues at stake:


            I’ve cut my boss in half.


            He lies before me,

            and beside me.


            I still don’t know anything!


And that’s the pleasure of Money Poems: a self-conscious authenticity that articulates a disenfranchisement with contemporary values without falling into the trap of “knowing” that too often dilutes poetry willing to confront such issues. This is a very unique collection of poems. It might just be your new little red book.



John Deming, 8 Poems


Eye For An Iris Press



John Deming’s limited edition chapbook, 8 Poems, is an artifact of a life immersed in poetry, and more particularity, poetry in New York. Deming channels the influences of major poets such as John Ashbery and Allen Ginsberg while weaving his own tenuous emotional fabric into a speaker whose desperation and resistance embody the mayhem of making art in a city that is as much a place as an idea. Indeed, the first poem, “Cold Pockets of Remembrance,” takes it title from Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” with lines from Ashbery appearing throughout the poem, rerouting and furthering his influence. It is a testament to Deming’s skill that these poems resist being simply derivative. One of the most affecting moments in this first poem is a cataloguing of the struggle of the urban poet.


            The city poets are trying to find jobs

            They are grading papers on the subway

            Wearing bowties and serving smoking dishes to Newark mayors

            Communicating loving ironies

            Moving in lateral shifts around Brooklyn

            Writing in or out of their party voices

            Flying in planes to Denver

            Sleeping heads in hands on subways

            Moving to Boston to teach at a community college

            Cresting in panic attacks


All of this amounts to, later in the poem, “Living one life which can’t possibly be true,” and it is this kind of devotion and delight that makes these poems so singular. Also, there is an uncommon amount of formal and emotional range here that results in no two poems being alike, and it is exactly this heterogeneity that holds 8 Poems together, like New York itself. From a narrative poem recounting a drink with Paul Violi to an unpunctuated sonnet that begins in the syntactical storm of “snow pulls it pulls unlocks itself / darkly into itself coursing everyone sees,” Deming maintains a voice that is as disorienting as it is intimate, establishing a world founded on risk, juxtaposition, and invention. “I will not attach emotions // To things that I cannot control,” he writes in “Addiction Song,” and this is a kind of bravery that breathes through all of these poems, pushing the reader further inside until one arrives to the core, that mysterious, frightening “it.” “It answers everything. It answers everything,” Deming writes, which, beautifully, is no answer at all.



Erika Jo Brown, What a Lark!


Further Adventures


Erika Jo Brown’s poems frolic and sing with an unpretentious contemporary Romanticism that smilingly sutures bike rides to buy organic dates with an earnest desire to comprehend the ontological questions that tear at our emotional completeness. “What’s Remarkable is How the Mundane Sticks” gets at the core of what these poems dream about, asking


            What is the function of

            memory? What is beauty?

            As in, could one become

            inured to azure shores?           


Desire, hope, belief, celebration, beauty: these are the concepts that persist through Brown’s poems, making for a kind of large, bird-like heart, a thing that beats and doesn’t die and is amazing because it is a mystery. Really, these poems are interested in having a good time, and more importantly, in being in awe of just how great that is. “Let us go / back to ringing descriptions of the unknowable” she writes in “Space,” and it’s this longing for all the confusion of the incomprehensible largeness of being, brought into the body, that makes these poems so warm and properly incorrect. From “Here is Where Our Desires and Reality Diverge”:







This is wry bravado paired with a tangible desire for passionate human connection, and though how we communicate isn’t going to be easy, the result will be something between reckless joy and a pleasant aching. And what’s more pleasing? Or necessary? These poems show that as long as we respond affirmatively to the world, despite the numbing burden of information and its resistance to bewilderment, there is hope: “I say yes in many modulations and / I’d like to try each one out / on you until your answer is / also yes” (from “Let Us Assume We Are Each Other’s Best Mail Order Bridges”). “Something delicious and really tiny is going to happen,” Brown writes in “Adumbration,” and it is exactly this charm and optimism that makes these poems, though only a handful, so doggedly endearing. 


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