New & Noted
The Plot Genie, by Gillian Conoley, Omnidawn Press, Richmond, California, 2009, 135 pages, $14.95 paper.
Shadow Ball, New and Selected Poems, by Charles Harper Webb, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009, 145 pages, $16.95 paper.
And So, by Joel Brouwer, Four Way Books, New York, 2009, 82 pages, $15.95 paper.
We Don't Know We Don't Know, by Nick Lantz, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2010, 96 pages, $15.00 paper; winner of the Bread Loaf Conference Bakeless Prize, selected by Linda Gregerson.
Practical Water, by Brenda Hillman, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, 120 pages, 2009, $22.95 cloth; 2011, $14.95 paper; winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry.
"when they first handed me the dictionary, I thought it was a poem about everything."
(from "Dear E," page 34)
Gillian Conoley is the least linear of writers. That's part of the irony, fun, the puzzle-wisdom of her new book. The Plot Genie is the first of her books with a theme, first to be 'written through' in that sense. It centers on, as we are led to believe, is generated by, this mysterious, lightly touched on plot genie:
The genie tells you what happens and you listen,
as if in repay for the years the swarming locust has eaten.
The genie tells you what happens
and then along come still others to explain. If you still don't get it, the plot genie repeats.
(from "The Plot Genie," page 21)
There are some characters here, Miss Jane Sloan, Handsome Dead Man, Comedy Boy, Redhead, E, and R. And many, many things happen in an atmosphere that leans toward the noir, the louche:
…A relative had decided to jump a bail bond. Part of a body, or a portion of the spoils, was found in the possession of the subject. And Miss Jane Sloan went down. She went down the white road of aftermaths, no Titanic. She went down the alterations of, to the barely beyond, where everything was begging everything to come back to where we live. When Miss Jane Sloan closed her eyes she could feel slight neuronal embraces caving in, tuned to the vibration of other tormentresses. Whatever sulks there. The dust eliminated. Destiny is a world apart.
(ibid., page 22)
Two pages later in this same long title poem there's a page of lines radiating out in a circular pattern à la Charles Olson in The Maximus Poems. A world of stories radiating out from a center? Are we reading a book of stories begun again and again and never pursued? Certainly there's no continuing plot in these pages, no spun out interweave of plots. A book-length plot koan?
However we answer those questions—and we can throw in the possibility that Conoley is making fun of our fascination with plots, our need for sequential payoff—the butler did it—at last they're going to get it on—what matters in this book is the writing, the pure word by word, line by line flow, disjunct, range, swing and suggestion of it:
Tyger jumping across rooftops, the storylines played out
In shots of lights, silhouettes crosshatching
In dark windows, the fire-breathing lakes.
Tyger flying over couples in their birthday suits
And deathwear, sunbonnets, shrouds and towels,
Humans punching numbers with stubby fingers in scanned light,
Cashback, hello, wassup, a wail of train and forest parting, Tyger
In a smear of black and yellow stripes
Chasing above the naked, the goddamned and golden armed
Black revolvers out car windows
Tyger in the faint blue nightfalls
Streets scooped out in fearful
Liquefaction to the stripes, the better butter.
Conoley's writing is always smooth and light, no strain or presumption, no huffing and puffing. She plays easily with different ideas; for instance, pages 110 through 112 are whited out against a grey background as if erasures of letters. Page 114 uses different fonts, some of the lines crossing over others as if giving a nod to Susan Howe and her writing-over techniques. With the same ease she achieves a striking range of diction, of image and idea. Let's take a last look at another extended passage:
Redhead's desire was like a sunset
piercing her hands,
an afflicted casket of jewels,
but few could attend
that huntscape. A cipher in the sky. A cipher opened upon second mention.
A packed suitcase has such promise.
Trouble, o trouble, trouble,
Blurry Gesture of Countless Fingers
picked up the phone.
Handsome Dead Man heard
the crepitations of the fire,
and again the hurried beatings
of his own heart, as against a terrible
and lovely hush of all
(from "Solitude, Meet Deep," page 125)
The Plot Genie is a pleasure to read. And it's a pleasure to review. I can quote to my heart's content without any fear of giving away the ending.
To the room there. To the making room there. Unclassifiable.
The page emptying of E and R, the creek shoal shifting pebbles
in the glint of white spruce sun.
returning to its
(from "Channel," pages 116–117)
Charles Harper Webb is master of the comic poem:
My better poems scorn all comparisons that might induce cheap smirks.
They're chiseled words: perfect thought sculptures,
While this poem is—let's be frank—a literary whoopie cushion, or at best, a Big Mac with small Coke and fries.
If we must compare my better poems to food, they are meals worthy of Escoffier.
They don't hyperextend their elbows and throw out their backs straining for fresh imagery.
Details leap from them—sensual, specific—like sardines chased by yellowtail through turquoise seas.
This poem may do for an interlude of slit-skirt, push-up-bra, unh-unh-unh activity; but its edible panties make you wince.…
(from "I Have Much Better Poems than This")
That doesn't mean that all his poems are funny; they go the full range of moods, the full round of life that he reaches for, but comedy is his default, the key in which he writes. Here's the ending of "Comebacks":
…Isn't every song, poem,
novel, painting, snapshot of a friend, a plea? Johnny,
come back. Come back, cherry-red Datsun with candy-
striped canopy. Thirty-inch waist, come back. Bring more
of your Hershey kisses, Carla, to Oaks Drive-In,
Horror of Dracula receding as, in the back seat of Dad's
gray Ford, we settled down to feed. Wake me to oatmeal
and toast with cherry jam, my clothes laid out, my Tarzan
lunchbox packed—oh Mommy, Daddy, please. Come back.
Time, aging, death, those are, of course, some of poetry's central themes, but Webb goes for them through comedy, self-deprecation. And through his smart, telling details, the waist, the Tarzan lunchbox, his wise observation that art and photography are a form of "plea."
He is, almost diametrically opposite to Conoley, a writer of 'sequence', the story, the argument. His poems, like long, eloquent jokes, are the working out, the working through of an idea. They're like elaborate machines, the sequential twist and turn of cams and gears, the punch of pistons that power flashing bulbs, flags and whistles along the gifted gabby, lubricated way to where the bell rings, the doves take off, and we 'get it'. Conclusion. Wholeness. Which makes it very hard to convey their quality here in this space-challenged format.
So I'm going to do something virtually criminal—since the final goal is to get the reader to buy these books and read them in their entirety—I'm going to take one of my favorite poems in this book, also one of the longest, and cut it into several bleeding pieces to gesture, through dissection, at the living body of "Invocation to Allen as the Muse Euterpe." It begins:
Rise-up, Allen, and appear to me.
Wherever you are, with whatever muscled acolyte, appear barefoot, in flowing robes, playing your flute, lilacs and orchids in your hair.
Or come as Erato if you prefer, or Polyhymnia, or Orpheus's mom, Calliope.
Prance in leading a circus, if it pleases you.
Or walk in, professorial and dignified: asp the Establishment took to its heart.
Scream through a microphone, or whisper in my ear (no tongue, Al, please).
Come from the fifties, your best years, reeking of reefer and whiskey, gism and sweaty underwear.
Come help me celebrate my failings, to admit how much it hurts to be barely five-seven—I who dreamed of being six-foot-three.
With those lines Webb has introduced his protagonists, speaker and muse, and set up his premise, the pooling of their weaknesses into strength. He's writing in an imitation of Ginsberg's cantilevered, neo-Whitmanian line, and at this first cutoff he's just begun to establish the anaphora (Come…Come…Help me…) that Ginsberg used so powerfully in "Howl." What particularly attracts me to this poem, besides the musical flow of its rhetoric, is the honest, moving way he addresses human failings. So let's skip ahead to two of those sections:
Come from Columbia, freshly expelled.
Come with your mother, Naomi, whom you committed to Pilgrim State Hospital—who thought her husband and your buba were conspiring with Franco, Hitler, Roosevelt to kill her—whose lobotomy you authorized—whose funeral, which you did not attend, lacked enough males to have a Kaddish read, so that later you wrote "Kaddish" for her.
Help me admit that I abandoned my parents when they got too sick and old and floated out of their right minds—that I dumped them—Dad, then Mom—on my sister, and blamed my strenuous schedule, my happening life: teaching, doing therapy, re-marrying, and of course writing poetry.
Come rattling the Playboy interview where you sang the joys of buggery.
Give me machinegun bebop words, peyote psilocybin Nembutal jazz words to immortalize the way I cheated on my wife, made her hate her goodness and solidity by proving they weren't enough for me.
The ending of the poem, which, so to speak, marries these protagonists, displays one last power in Webb's poetry, his hope, his pyrotechnic, his zest for life. Here it is:
The instant I saw you in your white pajamas, 1970, thumbnailing your harmonium, braying in your love-fest hippie-beaded tuneless voice, leaping around, an awkward, shameless spaz, chanting and dancing, ecstatic, orgiastic, delighted, joyous, gleeful, gladsome, gay—really, truly gay—telling a thousand college kids about your lips against a black policeman's chest, begging "Please Master," encanting "Please Master," praising God "Please Master," I knew if you could face the world that way, with your pubic beard, bald rabbi's head, hideous black glasses, and bare, pudgy, queer soul, then anythig was possible, even for me.
And So, the title of Joel Brouwer's new book, happens also to be its first two words: "And so among the starry refineries / and cattail ditches of New Jersey / his bus dips from egg-white sky into shadow." ("A Report to an Academy") The title is surprisingly revealing of the collection. For one thing, it speaks of a certain slyness in Brouwer, a propensity to highlight seemingly incidental details and build them to a wayward significance. For another, "and so" signals succession in time, perhaps in manner and/or causality. This is a narrative book, poems of a restless, even headlong, third person telling. For a third, 'and so' suggests the paratactic. I'm thinking here not so much of Brouwer's syntax, spry and swift, as of the quality of these stories he tells, event succeeding event—this, this, this—making us feel that beginnings and endings are ultimately arbitrary, skeins of events whose outcomes are metaphysically meaningless:
…Red, white, and blue plastic cups
wedged in a fence formed an un-waving flag.
In brief, tons of trouble with representation.
and countless subsequent panicky theses
in fast-food drive-thru lines. If everything
is surface and the surface is what's there
and nothing can exist except what's there
then everything is surface?
Did I just
(from "Peripeteia in a Soggy Snapshot, Featuring Lines by Ashbery and Pronoun Confusion," page 30)
The italics seem to be Ashbery's. And the quote is atypical, both in that Brouwer jumps to first person very rarely here, and because, whether the words are his or not, these kinds of philosophic judgments rising up like a periscope out of the narrative flow are equally rare in And So. Nonetheless, I think the lines are telling. Here's another of these 'overview' quotes, as it happens from the poem just preceding "Peripeteia…"
…We subsist on scattered
moments of joy and faith. Between them
our choices are patience or despair,
The puppy sniffs the dry, leaf-choked gutter
like a bored sommelier. The husband
thinks of a particular afternoon
of sex, laughs easily, without desire.
The puppy startles. A silver balloon caught
in the pecan's branches catches headlights
from the avenue and flashes back half
(from "The Other Half's Dark")
The attitude towards life speaks for itself. I'd like to point out several things in these lines, though. The way the end of the poem, that truncated "—Happy—" works with the poem's title to wring significance out of a throw-away detail, reminding us of the book's title and its first words. The urbane wit of that "bored sommelier" puppy line, highlighting the deadpan humor, the razor perception and intelligence that works through virtually every line of this collection. The "husband" lines—these are poems centered on—what to call this unhappiness?—love? relationships? the sexual dyad?
The guidebooks to China on his nightstand festooned
with prayer flags of color-coded Post-its. Lime, lemon, orange.
A careful planner even for his unlikeliest fantasies,
as if each would bestow its fortune on the most organized petitioner.
Vibrator in the top drawer, fresh batteries below. She preferred
sleep. Ruin. Sudden ungovernable leaks from the body,
and the body's slow repairs. Mice in the flour bin as sweet,
white, and plump as marshmallows. Fruit over- or under-
ripe. Call without response. Aimless walks along
the ice-callused shore of the frozen lake, where ducks
caroused in the power plant's hot effluent…
(from "For All We Know Delicious")
But, although And So is definitely not a 'feel good' book, Brouwer is a poet at the tip-top of his game, and that game is—more than fun—enlivening, enlightening to play along with him:
…What's under bone? Marrow? Their forks so
small and dull. As if for dolls. You can tell
dolls from animals because the latter
are made of meat. Many eat it, also.
Lions are interesting. Lions don't eat
the flesh of their kills right away, but first
lap up the blood, until the meat is blanched
nearly white. White as the little cabin
by the river they stayed in that summer.
White as the raccoon covered in ashes,
its black eyes bottomless and bright with hate
(from "Lions Are Interesting")
Nick Lantz's book of poems, We Don't Know We Don't Know, is framed between the epigraphs of Donald Rumsfeld, W's former Secretary of Defense, and Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist and scholar. Lantz takes his title from Runsfeld's famous little speech about 'known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns', etc. Between them, these two sages bookend his intriguing, mysterious collection that defines a negative epistemology, 'how we don't know'. And because it's poetry, not philosophy, it does this in terms of what we can see, touch, feel:
Vultures don't go straight to the dead
but circle for hours. Their patience is a hole
in the bottom of everything we don't know.
Let's face it: Yawning and bombs are just
different replacements for paradise.
The bat squeaks the same question
into the dark all night. There's nothing
left to compare his disappointment to.
Think of all the beautiful Bigfoots striding
forever into the forest of our unknowing.
(from "Homeless in the Land of Aphorism")
The spacings in that quote call to mind the hollows, the blanks, that Lantz uses strategically elsewhere in his book to get at the empty heart of his theme. One of his poems, in which Eve rebels, mentally unnames, unwords Adam's developing lexicon, is titled [ ]; another, with the epigraph "Traduttore, traditore," 'Translator, traitor'—which, of course, is my translation—is titled "_______, for Which There Is No Translation." Here's part of it:
________, by which travelers mean falling asleep on a train
and waking hours later to discover that the other passengers
have all been replaced
by new travelers, that even the agent who punched your ticket
is gone, has ended
his shift at some earlier station, and your heart feels
like a pair of couplers holding two freight cars
together in a long turn,"
Despite Rumsfeld's pithy quotes throughout, We Don't Know We Don't Know isn't really political poetry in any conventional sense. The closest it comes is a four-page poem, "Will There Be More Than One 'Questioner'?" which bears an attribution to "CIA Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual (1983)." The poem, which is entirely in questions, creates a kind of story, examining the effects, moral, psychological, of an interrogation on "you," the interrogator. This quote comes just before the ending. The woman here is the prisoner's wife; the "bucket" and "anticipation" lines each refer to and build on, earlier lines in the poem:
Will you approach her at the gate one morning and touch her arm, though to do so is forbidden, even for you?
Will you risk everything to say, He is alive, he is alive?
Will it be true?
Will she call out for help?
Will the bucket in the corner overflow?
Will you say, The anticipation of death is worse than death itself?
Will you say this to no one in particular?
Will you go to his cell, sit in the chair he sat in, and imagine your own face staring at you across the pocked table, your open mouth a hole that water drips through day and night?
But in the book as a whole—moving as that quote is, and with the political implications that might be attached to it—questioning as a mode, the question as it echoes and meets with silence, is far more important than politics. Here's the ending of Lantz's poem "A History of the Question Mark":
The question mark as a child's ear
taking in the song his mother is singing,
as cattle brand, as thumbprint whorl,
as flooded river eddying back on itself.
When Jean-Francois Pilâtre, first man
to go up in a hot air balloon, looked down
into the wind-diced Seine, he saw only
a sliver of the balloon reflected back,
the shadow of his own gondola, his own small
body, suspended as if by nothing.
There's a wonderful lapidary quality to that quote, as to so many others that could be made from this collection, quotes that, like their visual analogues in the work of M. C. Escher, dovetail so precisely with mystery. That "balloon" quote also suggests a kind of bulls-eye here, the uniquely human quality of striving into the 'great unknown', and how that unknown swallows our strivings in its unbridgeable silence.
Finally, of course, we have the greatest of unknowns, of silences, death itself, which naturally makes more than one appearance in Lantz's book. Let's close with a quote from "What We Know of Death by Drowning," from its first section, "Josef Mengele Drowns While Swimming at a Beach in Brazil, 1979":
His pants, left crumpled
on the beach, forged papers
and a few hard candies in the pocket.
Where the water
was shallow, he could look
down and see
his shadow passing over
the pale sand, a wobbly twin,
stroke for stroke for stroke
What strikes me first and foremost out of so many striking features in Brenda Hillman's new book Practical Water is its scope, the sheer size of its yearnings, a seven page poem titled "Pacific Ocean," an eleven-pager titled "Hydrology of California: An Ecopoetical Alphabet," its movement, sometimes within a few lines, from mystical realms to the canny observation of human or natural details, the range of its formal play. This is the third in her projected elemental tetrology, Cascadia, earth; Pieces of Air in the Epic, air; and now her water book. Hillman is a quintessentially lyric poet, yet there's lots of science here, and Practical Water is the most explicitly political of these five books I'm looking at, a politics of peace and, of course, a strong eco-politics:
…When he says
has to be reasonable the droplets
splash their skinny necks & swelling Buddha
bellies & break to make CAPITOL HILL spell I TOLL
or TOP AL ILL. You at home, what do you feel.
You can vote by calling 1-900-it's-either-too-fucking-
a secret in every century that likes it
if you shout. There is time for our little secret.
There is space for the secret spilling out.
(from "In a House Subcommittee on Electric Surveillance")
Other titles include "Ballad at the State Capitol," "In a Senate Armed Services Hearing," and "Economics in Washington"; among others, the book is dedicated to "veterans of the current wars & Code Pink."
But, as you can tell from the quote, there's nothing shrill or hammerhead serious about her politics. That same poem begins:
It would be lovely to ask water to investigate
domestic spying so i put myself in a trance
right here in Congress holding a bottle of H2O
from California so when the Principal Deputy Assistant
Attorney General reads probable cause to believe
the water shakes its curly geyser brain &
when he says need to close the gaps it shakes times 3 until its letters
break & splash to the floor of the Rayburn Building
Play, the kind of childlike illumination that gives her access to an image like "water" shaking its "curly geyser brain," has always been key, an essential dynamo of her work.
Look at these two lines from "Pacific Ocean":
A verbed set of dolphins scallop on by toward San Diego. (Hi Rae.) A cloud goes by, puff-, parallel to economics. Puff-puff.
The entire two lines in their goofy-gorgeous tableau make this point about play, but I'm thinking especially about that "(Hi. Rae.)." The Rae in question is the poet Rae Armantrout, who lives and teaches in San Diego. I ask you, how many poets would flip that inside hello into the midst of a long 'serious' poem just because Armantrout lives in that mentioned city and Hillman loves her?
And maybe also because Armantrout is a poet that Hillman respects, and so is a kind of 'angel'. I'm saying that in relation to the "trance" of that second "In a House Subcommittee…" quote. Hillman has always been mystically inclined. It's no exaggeration, I think, to say that in her poetry—and doubtless this is true of many other poets as well—she communicates with other planes:
(i looked up from my reading;
the one who is
stood on the rug
in one of her Europe moments;
i asked her whether
i should be writing
when i'm not writing or
not writing when
i'm not writing—)
( untitled, page 16)
That pops into the book 'unannounced' and then disappears seemingly without trace. I associate it with Bright Existence, a book she published in 1993 that was influenced by her readings in Gnosticism. In the title poem she says:
An ethics occurs at the edge
of what we know
The creek goes underground about here
The spirits offer us a world of origins
The owl takes its call from the drawer of the sky
Unusually warm global warming day out
A tiny droplet shines
on a leaf & there your creek is found
It has borrowed something to
link itself to others
The otherworldliness is explicit there. But the "trance" touched on above seems new to this book. It occurs several times in Practical Water, signally in the prose poem "Reportorial Poetry, Trance & Activism," where she says, "Meditative states can be used to cross material boundaries, to allow you to be in several places at once."
And yet this unabashedly mystical poet is so keenly alive to the material world, so savvy and funny and caring in how she sees it:
smart to pray talk with men
too smart not to. Terraces of
almonds, piles of ridged hazelnuts &
tubs of hot dal. Marjoram, stalks
of lavender & limp dill. Chips
for sampling tomatillo salsas. You have
entered the market with your beloved,
your souls like drops of water
easily merged. Water tumbles from
the east. trickles under the huge
blond radishes, dark parsley, big broccoli
rabe & mustard greens, beneath only
slightly popular bitter melons, baskets of
trench-coat gray sunflower seeds, flat &
curly kale, unruly rainbow chard, under
raisiny balsamic vinegar from Sonoma &
tables of Big Paw Olive Oil,
violet grapes, girls with yo-yos, boys
doing Tai Chi, beneath smart, worried-
looking Berkeley babies…
( from " Berkeley Water")
A brief word on the forms in Practical Water before we close. As I said above, there are a startling variety of different kinds of poems here, long poems and short, prose poems and lineated; there's a poem called "Rhopalic Aubade" that's triangular in shape, starting with a one-word line that gets longer and longer, and there are a number of poems in double columns, including twelve "moon" poems, one for each month, printed so that the second column, what seems to be a second, 'shadow' poem, is lighter, grayer than the first. Hillman is playing on a big, wide ball field with aqueous rules.
Let's end our look at this majestic book with the ending of "Hydrology of California: An Ecopoetical Alphabet." It needs no comment from me:
Dear love i'm tired
Let's go to bed Maybe a college girl is reading this when we're a little
dead O girl please mind your watershed Take care of crazy poets
Visit the inner-net In the end there will be a rupture
said Walter whose arcade
thought up the Web
We are freckles of sun We are sleeping in the poem Shoppers stand
in the little shops They don't know what to buy We lie at the Shangri La
between z & y No one knows how this sentence will end in a dream
with a lyric sky
Visit us Joni Mitchell
Visit us Future of Poetry with a solitude of streamlets into a local
pond the mind at the end of the palm Nothing was gone when we
saw that bird We saw its feathers as water It was in & out of time
Richard Silberg is associate editor of Poetry Flash. His most recent book of poems is Deconstruction of the Blues. He won the Northern California Book Award in Translation for his co-translation of Korean poet Ko Un's The Three Way Tavern.Poetry Flash Workshop, The Dialogue of Poetry; a new ten-week session begins June 29, 2011.