1. These short bits were in Chronogram.
Georganna Millman, Set Theory, Finishing Line Press, $12.00.
Georganna Millman’s Set Theory proves less abstract than the title and the glyphs on the cover might suggest. In fact her poems quickly establish an elegiac confidential domestic tone (“I will tell you everything.”) that focuses on mortality most of all (“one misfire behind the eyes/ a migraine’s clutch rush of regret.”). Time is processed here through nature: “trapped fingerling trout” or a dead coyote in the snow. Her work is rooted in the region (with poems on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and Utsayantha) and in everyday life including connubial bliss (too little sung) “Slick rapture – I am full of anticipation.” From her Catskills window she sees “a shock of fresh blood” in a snowstorm whose flakes seem no less than “lovers in free-fall.”
Lee Gould, Weeds, Finishing Line Press, $12.00.
In title at least more democratic than Leaves of Grass, Lee Gould’s Weeds remains capable of a certain prophetic ambition. Though the author can indulge dreams and even whimsy, there is generally an edge to the fantasy (as in the screams of the female mountain lion in “The Basics” or the “Mermaid” that Goldie, who used to play “gin rummy with Uncle Harry” became). “Rope Burn” is incandescent with eroticism and “Routine Check-Up, Age 13” greets puberty with a vision of “skinny dipping every night/ in phosphorescent lakes.” But death is a more prominent theme in this collection: “We become at last food, God, for you.” The volume concludes with “Song of Songs,” in which, if death is not quite transcended by love, it is subdued for the moment.
Frank Boyer, Jumping Out of my Skin: Poems and Microfictions, ed, by William Wilson, The Doppelganger Press, $8.00
Jumping Out of my Skin preserves poems Frank Boyer wrote half a lifetime ago when his life was unsettled, as the title suggests, but he was in synch with much of America then, and many will understand the cross-country jaunts recalled here: “misty farms, each lit by a single bulb, spin by like asteroids.” Invoking Kerouac and Jimi Hendrix, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, he portrays the Southwest (“the Rio Grande/ glimpsed through rust-colored brush”) and a hallucinatory NYC (“subway steps slick with blood”) as he moves toward “a fate we cannot guess.” Romance is redemptive but elusive. At its best: “She touched his hand. Their wounds were healed.” But love can be more ambiguous: she “curls up around my heart/ digs in her claws,/ and makes herself at home.”
Steve Clorfeine, While I Was Dancing, Codhill Press, $18.00. (art by Christoph Zihlmann)
Steve Clorfeine’s While I Was Dancing is based on free-writing texts generated when the author and a partner practiced “moving and writing”: eyes closed, one would move while the other observed; then, both would write. Perhaps the most direct transcription of the process is the first poem in which the dance makes everything possible in a triumph of symbolic gesture: “Victory to fingertips/ (their willingness to fill the air).” The remaining poems range in reference from Buddha to Cracow and an old age home and in style from the lyric to the gnomic: “how we face each other/ how we face ourselves/ begin again.” The book includes a suite of neo-Expressionist etchings by Christoph Zihlmann that nicely complement the poems. May there be more such fruitful juxtapositions of words and visual art!
Fire Exit, Robert Kelly, Black Widow Press, $19.95
Bard professor Robert Kelly, author of sixty-some books, once wrote “Language is astrology indoors,” and Fire Exit, a novel-length group of linked lyrics, reads sometimes like conjuring or incantation. One poem says, “the words come in like crows to wake us,” and awakening may range from gnomic pronouncement to arresting image to exquisite enigma. The flexible three line stanzas are strewn over the pages like flower petals or constellations. Attentive and off-hand graceful, the language is redemptive. In a single poem he moves from subatomic particles to apocatastasis to erotic images to “scissor up the Visa card and rest in peace/death is the opposite of cash/the mortgage that you can pay off never.”
Winter Crows, Barry Sternlieb, Codhill Press, $16.00
The title of this winner of the 2008 Codhill Press Poetry Chapbook Competition might lead readers to think of Ted Hughes or perhaps Van Gogh, but in fact Barry Sternlieb’s crows appear neither as the metamorphosing mythic crow of the British poet nor as ominous birds over a dark wheatfield. Such a painting of crows can be a sublime masterpiece, but for Sternlieb there is revelation beyond art and the senses. He includes a few sweet erotic pieces, but he is attracted as well to the perfection of vacuity. For him the crows, even when “hounded” by wind in one poem, are an emblem of beauty’s survival.
The King, Patricia Wolff, W. W. Norton & Co., $24.95
In The King, a collection of poems on pregnancy and motherhood, Patricia Wolff avoids preconceptions and conventions and provides the reader with on-the-money sketches of maternal moods cast in focused colloquial language that takes, at times, surprising turns. Her chiseled language handles ugliness or anxiety with aplomb. Instead of sentimentality or neo-mythic goddess-worship, the reader finds the startling title “I am on drugs” in which the persona declares her “irresponsibility,” saying the coming child’s life (like our own) will be “a test.” In another piece Wolff says “having had children” is what Buddhists call suffering. That suffering, of course, is nothing other than life.
Hurricane Hymn, H. R. Stoneback, Codhill Press, $20.00.
With the first poem on the flooding of New Orleans, the reader is tossed into the hurricane’s maelstrom which in Stoneback’s rendering includes an unsettling variety of voices. His unashamedly ornate rhetoric runs a broad gamut of tone, rich with music and passion. Prior to joining the professoriat, he collaborated with Jerry Jeff Walker and played with Dylan at Gerde’s Folk City, and this background is evident not only in references to Fats Domino and Hank Williams, but in the poet’s highly accessible engagement. One poem’s title links the Fisher King with Delta Recon, and the language throughout runs smoothly from recondite to colloquial.
2. This has not yet been published.
Welcome to the Museum of Cattle, Jane Ormerod, Three Rooms Press: NYC, 2012. $15.00
Jane Ormerod’s new book from Three Rooms Press Welcome to the Museum of Cattle is an effervescent syphon of words, bubbling over with sound collisions, found phrases, imagist fragments, and urgent unanswerable questions. Anyone with a weakness for words and a fondness for seeing them knock into each other, releasing unexpected associations and emotions, would relish this museum. Its exhibits may not strike the visitor as orderly or predictable, but they regularly feature a truly disarming level of energy. The verses spread across the page like an uncontrollable spill, like fireworks with a mind of their own, like a stream of flood-water taking new territory, like a new science just being uncovered.
Language here is incantatory, self-supporting, fueled by some dynamo within to turn (as consciousness does) from one detail to another, leaving the forebrain always a bit behind in attempting to account for the gaps. Though she specializes in the discontinuous, Ormerod also regularly employs repetition to simultaneously familiarize and defamiliarize the phrase in a manner reminiscent of Gertrude Stein (and with the same fondness for simple diction and the concrete).
“Lying Sideways, Eyes Closed, Rain,” the opening poem, which might at first seem to be stream-of-consciousness, turns out to be more like bricolage or Snyder’s riprap, with one element placed next to another. One finds little compressed riffs within a line (“That man and her of him ago and long I do I do”), repeated motifs (such as the emphatic “Hup!” and “Joist!”. The diction ranges from children’s story (the melodic sounds of “There is a scarf for little horse. etc.”) to floating portmanteaus like “nosewipe pipesmoke” to questioning (“Where? Whence? Whence?”) Dramas unfold in the turning questions and exclamations, concluding in exhilaration as the author invites the reader to share a “tree frog moment.”
Indeed, jouissance emerges repeatedly like Zephyr in this stormy and ever-changing environment. In “Call Me a Cabernet Sauvignon,” neutral coded instructions (“STOP,” “YIELD,” “WET PAINT” are mixed with images of busy trade and low-key impressions (“Prettyprettypretty”), enthusiastic outbursts (“Fertility of travelers! Ranger Lynne!”), and indeterminate series: “Polytechnicals Moggies in limbo Hopscotching experts.” (For this last, it doesn’t even help to know, as Americans may not, that a moggie is a cat.) The piece moves, though, to offer in the end a magic hope: “Divulge the first color you remember./ Maybe we will then all become happy.”
In “The Second Rebecca” Ormerod evokes Maurier and Hitchcock’s nervousness, the vulnerability of ignorance, and the perverse impulses of the ego seeking a “perfect tree” and a “postcard perfect Monte Carlo” while finding only scattered impressions and questions. But she does lay claim on the gem-like name of supporting player Lumsden Hare which strikes the reader as clumsy and yet perfect, a poem in itself. Settling for such satisfaction, she can conclude by analogy “There is no shame in the faltering surprise of your life.”
The same haven in which lived experience is reclaimed by art is most dramatically proclaimed in “Breathless Around Roadworks,” which declares of our imperfect vision, in spite of a full recognition of the frustration of persona and reader alike, that “This may be the only face of human and irrepressible joy.”
“Or Indeed Any Alcohol” ends on a similar rising note, in a linnet’s song (has the bird wandered here from medieval lyric?) which triggers a rising crescendo of “release,” and the purge of clean-burning alcohol which one might imagine purging doubt.
In “The Young and Innocent Ride Again” identity is barely containable and each alternative seems as glorious as the next.
Are you gold, a drunk, a listener, a wanton bitch?
A crowbat, an orphan? Are you the law?
A large bee on the shoulder of your enemy? A prize hog’s tale?
Are you over a port barrel
That feels like a keg of dynamite?
Will you ride again?
Reading Welcome to the Museum of Cattle, I thought of Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck’s volume of similarly exploded poetry Fantastic Prayers. For its reissue, Huelsenbeck responded to those who took his texts to be random, aimed primarily at the destruction of conventional norms of beauty. He meant, he said, to exercise “constructive will in the world.” This activity of art-making, he went on, “lends wings to the course of the stars despite all the fallen angels.”
Ormerod might shrink from such puffed language, as she does possess the ironic mirror of our belated age. In “Within This Progression, Warmth” she expresses her ambition with modest precision: “This is the few of the something somewhat better/ than the something not so much.” An allusion to an earlier bricoleuse Marianne Moore (“a wealth of fiddle”) precedes a wordlist with extraordinary ebullience (“ . . .dislocated shoulders, jerkins, jerseys/ kilts, mayonnaise, char girls, charming girls . . .”).
And, just as the reader is convinced that all tones have been included in the varied procession of the Museum’s poems, wonder of wonders, at the book’s end, one is surprised once more as a reverent silence descends and the space on the page, like the space beyond the page, is dedicated, as it would be even without these words, to Ultimate Reality: “God/God/God/Welcome to the Museum of Cattle.”
3. This appeared in Home Planet News.
The Potential for Poetry. Eric Greinke. Rockford (Michigan): Presa Press, 2011. $11.95
Theory and ideology are often derided as abstruse, artificial, and altogether too French, but in fact every writer, on the conscious level or beneath, works on the basis of a set of more or less coherent presuppositions, an aesthetic theory. Few artists issue manifestoes any longer, and most pay scant attention to their conceptual foundations, so, while theoretical speculation has flourished in universities in recent decades, it receives virtually no attention in “non-professional” literary circles. Eric Greinke is a rare example of a small press poet who has followed in the tradition of Sydney, Shelley, and Pound by addressing the question of what poetry is all about.
Greinke will be known to those familiar with the small press scene, including readers of HPN. He is the author of something like sixteen books, most recently Wild Strawberries and Traveling Music, including a Selected Poems volume in 2005. What is unusual is his work as a man of letters, publishing reviews, translations (of Rimbaud), and speculation about literature itself. The provocative pieces reprinted in The Potential for Poetry first appeared in little magazines (including this one), and they well deserve this second life in a collection.
Greinke discloses his general orientation clearly. As a Midwestern small press poet who pursued an MSW instead of literary studies in graduate school, he identifies with the avant-garde, the outsiders, and outlaws. Thus, in “The Small Press Movement,” he calls for mutual support rather than competition, an inclusivity he calls in another essay “The New Eclecticism.” The division appears as a class hierarchy in several essays, including his piece on the poet laureate in which he suggests that Donald Hall’s values, traditional and even conservative were perhaps “beaten into his head at Harvard” while Greinke, the rebel, “went to a state college.”
However that may be, for my money, Greinke gets a good deal right. His discussion of the competing claims in recent poetry of an “inner-directed” group -- Bly/ Dickinson/Yeats – and a more “outer-oriented” Berrigan/Whitman/Pound group is useful. I agree with his statement that the poetic text is distinguished by “compressed multi-levels of meaning.”
The title essay “The Potential for Poetry” is ambitious enough to address the purpose of poetry which for Greinke is to “expand consciousness,” through the discovery of “new ideas” in new arrangements of words. Though he does allow, almost parenthetically, for the value of art in simply transmitting received ideas, for him the Romantic goal of novelty is more significant. According to Greinke, the “primary purpose” of poetry is “exposing the unknown, forming alternate ways of perceiving our reality, and advancing human awareness.” He provides a varied list of possible techniques to “make it new,” many of which have been favorite gambits of the avant-garde for the last hundred years: rule-breaking in general, collaborations, multiple personae, and the like.
In search of such new insights, he pursues what he, in another passage, calls the “the ‘Aha’ of revelation or confirmation.” His attitude is unapologetic: “Poetry is subversive to rigid, stagnant ways of being.” “Why should poetry tell us what we already know? Prose already does that.” This and his surrealist assumptions lead him to praise “intuitive,” “sub-conscious,” and “unconscious” thinking which to him is “divergent.” (One might object that archetypes by definition cannot be individual, but rather are universally shared. Are the dreams of which Breton made so much in the first surrealist manifesto likely to admit the individual to a realm of idiosyncratic improvisatory genius or to a timeless collective of wise Jungian ancestors? Or is the difference only in the decoding?)
Greinke accepts literary value as inexplicable: “Taste is personal . . . One loves it and the other hates it. Is it the person or the song?” The question can, however, be productively investigated by using his own insight that literary value is constructed in the consumption of the work. According to his formulation, “A poem doesn’t happen on a page. The reader is the poet.” Thus the interaction can be analyzed in terms of the level of the reader’s competence and the richness of the writer’s exposition.
His test case (which he warns the readers is protected by a level or two of irony) using his own poem “Life” seeks to establish clear bases for the work’s value through traditional explication, but retreats eventually into a less convincing claim that the reader’s evaluation of his poems is dependent on agreement with his theme. “The poem is great, if you also believe that life is great.” He insists on this point: he is entitled, he says, to call the poem great “if I also have the right to see life as great.” So would any poems asserting the “greatness” of life be also “great”? Would a poem claiming life is not great necessarily fail? And he concludes by backing into mystery at the end: “[The poem is great] Or not. It depends on the reader as all poems ultimately do.”
At risk of being identified with the reactionary camp (though I, too, went to state schools, which I regarded then and now as among the nation’s best), I found some of Greinke’s statements careless. For instance, early poetry being oral, there can be no evidence for his assertion that it is the oldest art. It is absurd to say that prose “came as a product of printing.” (What of Herodotus, the Norse sagas, and Chuang Tzu?) He says that “upper crust poets rarely stand the test of time,” (Chaucer? Milton? Will Eliot fade?). It seems to me the idea of the artist as counter-cultural is hardly over two hundred years old. And the man tosses the accusation of fascism far too freely: a poetry Nazi is one who likes accessible verse or a teacher who doesn’t know about prose poetry. And if that weren’t sufficient, he calls these opponents “chicken” as well!
But I bother to quibble only because he has so much that is substantial to say. Every page set me to thinking and reacting. His ideas are clearly bound to his own practice, and yet he is capable of sufficient generalization to aim right at the heart of literature. What are we doing and why? He has come up with his own answers based on a lifetime in the trenches of the art and his testimony is valuable, if not the last word.
In the interest on continuing the exchange of views, and really as a salute to Greinke and an invitation to others to contribute in future, let me set down a few of my own assumptions here. Poetry and other art use the most densely meaningful of codes; subjectivities are all we have of truth, and poetry uses figures of speech and thought to deliver them more precisely than any other verbal technology. Poetry can express an entire worldview (and, for my money, upsetting and affirming expectations are equally important, indeed complementary functions). Among the ends of the aesthetic text as opposed to the non-aesthetic (a more useful distinction than poetry and prose) are pleasure, investigation of the mysteries, exploitation of ambiguity, generation of new ideas and expressions, foregrounding of the irrational, the intuitive, the appetitive, specifically all the subconscious drives to their true place in the total picture of human consciousness.
Can poetry instruct? Only aesthetically, in suggesting that certain stances toward the facts of existence become us better than others. It would take divination to bring one closer to Truth, and the words of poets are the most accurate oracles to which most moderns have access. If art is play with style, surely Greinke is correct when he says “Anything goes . . .The real issue is how well a thing goes.” To evaluate how well it goes, one must see how much happens, and at what psychic depth when people consume the work.
4. This also appeared in Home Planet News.
Eros Descending. Edward Butscher. Amagansett: Amagansett Press, 2010. $15.
Poetry is distinguished from other discourses by its ability to deal with mysteries, things like love, death, and Ultimate Reality. For these topics which can never be “emptied out,” art has been the investigative medium from the earliest times. Who, after all, seeking knowledge of death, would consult a medical book, or look into psychology research to learn about love, or turn to a theologian for final questions? Edward Butscher, in his valedictory collection Eros Descending, addresses these themes (especially the first two) head on with eyes wide open in sinewy, musical, clear-imaged poetry.
These poems are death’s jest-book done anew interlarded with favorite sites from the Kama Sutra. Like the old Greeks he laments “flesh knobbed by cancer,” and finally “the dry turd of my own death” while celebrating art, the flesh, memory, and the ephemeral delights that remain. The old man’s theme of “Dust to Dust” (the title of a piece in the book’s center), in placed among reminiscences of early sexual experiences, visions of “women scudding home in melon/swells and escalating mini skirts,” and a delightful “Ode to Cunnilingus.” Those seeking a cosmic connection may or may not think they have found it when Butscher likens the big bang that started it all to “a sailor’s itch,” a “scab divine,” a back-room fuck that “triggered the first dung-fall/of grace into lesser beauty.”
Butscher, who holds a Ph. D. and wrote significant critical books on Sylvia Plath and Conrad Aiken (but spent most of his career teaching in New York City high schools) brings a high erudition to his play of signifiers. He is willing to include notes and tags from Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and – bless him! – Catullus and Ovid, and his verse is dense and deeply figured. Highly conscious of melody, Butscher is particularly adept at managing assonance and alliteration. With his concentration on the transformations of birth and death and melody, he can sound like Dylan Thomas:
No basket baby ever cried in its crab
Arms or fled with wind-wailing seeds
From their reluctant release
Learned data mixes with memory flashes and bits from old daily newspapers in the author’s notes to his poems which fill, in fact, the last third of the volume. There is some self-indulgence, perhaps, in the divagations of this discursive prose. The author gives permission for the reader to skip the section, but I enjoyed it, not so much as explication of the texts but as a series of new if dependent works. Still, one’s reading of certain poems is enriched by this miscellaneous material, a mélange of depictions of family members, celebrities of the past, evocation of other writers, some of whom, such as Simon Perchik and fellow schoolteacher David Ignatow, the author knew, and a variety of other information. Apart from literary links and anecdotes about Butscher’s aunties, the notes always provide a background wash for the work’s themes: stories of brutal poaching, a Turkish earthquake, or a suicide, for instance, resonating with the theme of thanatoskelly.
Admitting that an erotic reverie may end in farts and the “Rime on the Ancient Lecher” can only be bathetic (“Wetness, wetness everywhere”), love still survives in this volume, though it may manifest in a poem or a dream:
The Tahiti dream
Is the sole dose of god aging allows.
Even the fantasy image alone still evokes reaction from his “half-limp penis as it rises in adolescent glee.” Thus in imagination one may obtain the grace of the dead boy who had (in a poem at any rate) “picked his nose/ and felt pure as a flute.” At that moment “a Grecian urn cradles love’s ashes” and the “sudden green upsurge” can console itself and live on to further generations in the face of mortality.
Poetry in general is the thickest semiotic form —the most meaning per signifier, and Butscher is a master of compression, using poetry’s toolbox to delineate ambiguities and contradictions, including that central play between life and sex and love and the world on the one hand and illness, aging, decay, and death on the other. He ties the dialectic knot tightly.
we cannot comb
old screams from her skull
or escape the adhesive lair
between her scissor thighs