New & Noted
by Richard Silberg
Sarah—Of Fragments and Lines, by Julie Carr, Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2010, 74 pages, $16.00 paper. Selected for the National Poetry Series by Eileen Myles.
When I Was A Poet, by David Meltzer, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 2011, 144 pages, $10.95 paper.
Destroyer and Preserver, by Matthew Rohrer, Wave Books, Seattle and New York, 2011, 74 pages, $16.00 paper.
Angles of Approach, by Holly Iglesias, White Pine Press, Buffalo, New York, 2010, 82 pages, $16.00 paper.
Army Cats, by Tom Sleigh, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 2011, 98 pages, $15.00 paper.
White curtains hang ceiling to floor
feel one's face as
white curtains hanging ceiling to—
Let's begin by zooming in on this small poem, shortest in the book. How strange and striking to image "exhaustion" by introjecting these limp curtains into the writer's/reader's body, to make an image by 'feeling one's face'. Striking, also, the abrupt ending. On one level the ending says, "Etc.—(I'm too exhausted to repeat myself)." And on another, it hangs the words abruptly into silence, makes what we could call a characteristic post-Language poetic gesture.
Which precisely locates Julie Carr as a young, twenty-first century innovative poet, one of our most creative and energetic. As her title says, she's working primarily beneath the sentence level in the joints of language, its fine muscles. The context of the book is the speaker's loss of her mother to Alzheimer's as she prepares for the birth of a child; the poems feel inward, mining this liminal zone between loss and new life, creating a stream of consciousness, not as realist illusion but as poetry:
Mired in rhyme, I rise and am two. A ruse or a wraith.
Doubled, I see so. See the hedge of the sky with the edge
of my eye. The face of my kind with my mind.
The doubled woman is a common thing. Nothing more
common than this, this slide of myself from one to two to
none. Something to something more to nothing then. And
the nothing that my maker becomes contains me as the
space does a bit of air. Flawlessly and firm.
Grief of fire in its final flash and smolder.
The weight of her speaks spark's brief ire become ash,
become ruinous food full of dolor. To recall her
laughter is to grow older. Fear's rife in this filial order.
If molded, I'm fodder for air, and I'm colder. Since I
lost her I stored her like ore in my form as if later I'd
find her, restore her.
(from "Grief Abstracts")
The most obvious power in those passages is their sound, rhyme and slant rhyme, the voltage of word edged against word, "The weight of her speaks spark's brief ire become ash." But the emotion also surges, not out of control, but tamped, contained, "Flawlessly and firm"; the "Grief of fire" (speaker's? mother's?) burns out, and the speaker grows "older" and "colder"; she wish-fulfills "as if later I'd find her, restore her." And there's the power here of teasing, provocative ideas. Why is the speaker "doubled"? Because she's pregnant? Because she's stored her mother inside herself? Because she's a "ruse or a wraith," doubling back to trick this grief, both gullible object and cunning subject? Carr plays the whole poetic keyboard.
One more passage from this protean book:
Bottle-fed once a lamb in my lap. The sucking more focused
than any one noun or stone. To position myself between such
need and its fulfillment seemed then the most honorable of
seats. But now I find I cannot, with any steadiness, sit there.
But perhaps this never happened? Just as you were never a
woman who birthed me.
And stilled the clouds.
(from "Sarah" page 49)
Much that could be said about that quotation, but I'll hold myself to two things. The slant rhyme phrase "noun or stone" is so strange, creates such an inexplicably forceful explosion of stymied thought. And the last three lines, how could they more beautifully express (in their dreamy negative) the strength of and love for that first, lost mother?
David Meltzer is a mystic comedian, master of the razor riff:
When I was a Poet
the World was
a cluster of Words
splattered upon white space
When I was a Poet
I knew even what I didn't
I thought I knew the Game
whereas the Game knew me
played me like an ocarina
When I was a Poet
I was an Acrobat
a Tightrope Walker
in my slippers
on a wire above
Oh I did prance
the death-defying dance
death defines each second
He's one of the key poets of the Beat generation, and he's riffing, here in the title poem, on the shamanic essence of Beat poethood, simultaneously glorying in the memory of its godhead and ironizing it, hollowing it out, in the light—or gloom—of his later life experience. Meltzer is a prolific poet of many modes and voices, quite a few of which are here, love poems, poems out of childhood, a series of "amulets," cryptic short wisdom poems, and much more. These are all tasty, often ironic and/or mysterious, pieces of Davidness to be savored (he opens "David Dog the Lion," last poem in the book: "David Dog the Lion / bounds across Brooklyn / like a greyhound & monkey"). But I'd like to focus here on my own triangulation, an inner story the book told me.
Allow me these fragments
They are my poem
My poem is pieces
Here & there
Chips off the old blockhead
One wall cracks apart
Not from despair but rain
Plaster falls on the floor
Reminds me of a poem
I write whenever I get
Time to sit down.
Others balance by
Kneeling to pray
I allow them their poem
This is mine
A patchwork poem
Dream flesh sewn to
Flesh of wounds whose edges
Cut against the mouth
Don't turn away.
My blood mixes with plaster
Sealing the poem together.
One letter, one word
One line at a time
Held in the page
When I sew pieces together
They remain fragments.
Those are the opening sections of a sequence poem called "French Broom." How different that idea of poetry is from the remembered poetry of his Beat youth. Much of a life came between, but for me the wound, the changer, is the death of his wife Tina, who is remembered in some heart-wringing poems. Let me repeat, this story of poetic metamorphosis through the death of his wife is my own figuration; Meltzer has included a love poem, "Jewelbox, for Julie Rogers" toward the end of the book. But I'll end my look with this–in the interest of space, these are only the first and last sections:
All the Saying Said
roar of webwork branching w/in
despite the light between us
what's to be said
blood clouds swell & cast out
vast inescapable traps
body economy's energy
focused on each remaining moment
what anything means or meant
gets lost beyond belief
it's time to change the bag
plugged into your neck
whose fluid nourishes
life against the death
it also nourishes
what's to be said
no word play
no more singing
you can barely speak
& then it's basics like
"water" or "more morphine"
a dream so precise
in each second's unfold
nobody could believe
all that did & didn't happen
all the saying said
Marque Número Dos
But then the day got
away from me
holding the phone
to my left ear for 45
minutes para español
marque número dos
for someone else's appointment
was lost or I fell
into a hole and no one
could see me
pulling on my face
or hear me screaming
and then I just hung up
and walked out into the blue bloom
of love and needed to eat
I ignored the phone
at what peril? the rooms
swelled a bit to fit my new silence
and my shirts were on
the floor. There was no one
could touch me
a sunny day
is a sufficient cathedral
though I have not finished with you
I saw no way to usefully excerpt from that swift, skinny poem by Matthew Rohrer, from Destroyer and Preserver, part of whose point is that it's tight as a rubber band, so I've quoted it whole. Its tightness reminds me in a cross-media way of the tendency in early modernist painting to emphasize the two-dimensionality of the picture plane. The poem's run-on syntax and lack of punctuation (only the indispensable question mark and the one period after "floor" before we get a sonnetlike turn) in part expresses informality, like the ampersands and contractions in Beat and New York School poetry, but it also feels to me a little anti-illusionist, emphasizing the words-on-a-pageness of the enterprise. The voice, itself, though, continues to achieve the illusion of speaking to us, immersing us in the entirely naturalistic details of its day, and being very witty and funny, especially in its surprise, Terminatorlike threat to Doctor Wong at the end.
There's quirky charm to Rohrer's voice. I'm struck by the unironic way he speaks of the "blue bloom of love" and the "cathedral" of the day, unafraid to rhapsodize within his abrupt, deadpan form. I'm struck also by the frequent inspirations of his understated imagery, as in the poem "Not Questions" where he writes of "…the fat man / who limps slowly / from his basement / to the main road / the Burger King / and slowly back / three times a day / too young, too young / some drug put him / in its back pocket / and forgot."
One more small poem in its entirety:
My son says
are soldiers good or bad?
I say it's very complicated.
He brushes his teeth
with a toothbrush
that looks like a whale.
I see his face, his eyes
right in front of mine.
We are drowning together
in the hold of a ship.
He looks just like me.
The rain slows outside.
One cloud turns pink at sunset.
A bomb falls on a house in the desert.
The plane that dropped it
glides through another blue
and returns to us
to be washed and put away.
"Casualties" is conventionally punctuated, but like "Marque…" it moves fast and with utmost economy, all short declaratives, very few subordinate clauses, modifiers, etc. But how it charges up its unsaidness with implications, vividness of the little boy with his whale toothbrush, sense of fatherly love, concern, perplexity, "it's very complicated," "his eyes / right in front of mine," "He looks just like me." And then the masterly switcheroo at the end when the 'real' plane that drops its 'real' bomb returns to a child's world to "be washed and put away." It would take pages that we don't have to unpack the implications of "Casualties," but that, in itself, is my point; that and the double way in which the poem draws us into its emotional world and simultaneously flattens itself, signals its 'poemness' by drawing attention to its own brilliant devices.
This book of prose poems, Angles of Approach by Holly Iglesias, has the feel of an America lost around a bend in the road of the last century, America seen from angles both homely and startling:
Rudy and the Science of Appetite
There is nothing we cannot learn, dear, nothing we cannot do, for the world
is our plaything, an oyster, a horse painted blue. A sea of wheat behind us
now, drays along the market road, boys in a hired buggy behind the Grange.
The swing still hanging in the orchard, where once my hands caught then
pushed, caught then pushed the small of your back till your shoes reached
the sky and cottonwoods sighed for love of you.
Ache of that in its simplicity, its sweetness and goneness. The confidence of that unknown voice, alive in the poem yet betrayed by time. And the mysterious oxymoron of an achieved prose poem. This one is short enough and shapely enough to be analyzable, more or less. The first sentence breaks into two halves, each half divided into a rhythmic triple, long, short, long, so that the halves mirror each other rhythmically and are united by the rhyme "do" / "blue." Then comes a series of phrases of roughly equal length comprising one 'sentence', actually three prepositional phrases, and on to another phrase beginning a true sentence, the double "caught then pushed," into the last clause, "till your shoes reached the sky and cottonwoods sighed for love of you," which works a beautiful soundweave, the rhyming of "sky" and "sighed" inter-rippling with the slant-rhyming of "shoes," "cottonwoods," and "you," a clause etched and open as a song lyric.
But the workings of most of these pieces are much more anomalous, riding only the naked rhythms of speech. Here are the last two sections of "From the Final Book of Ralph":
Old Spice, nosegays, bloody roast beef, the father-daughter banquets were
costume dramas of things to come, my old man the only cool cat there, the
one who played Louis Prima on the hi-fi and taught me how to drink
Scotch neat, the one I drove home as he sobbed into his sleeve, Your mother's
one hot ticket.
Now, every day is the day he died—not the Saturdays off, king of the
garage in plaid shorts, not the single day I call childhood, when we burned
trash at the curb and watched sparks fly, not the Sunday I gave birth in a
language he didn't speak, not the morning he pulled the dialysis needle
from his arm, the sheet suddenly sprinkled like a suburban lawn, pleading,
Please get me, please get me, God, get me out of here.
There are several mysteries there. The books of Ralph are mentioned in one other poem, "Sermonette," and they seem to be a series of redemptive or prophetic books, but it's unclear what their connection might be to this poem, unless the father is, indeed, Ralph. Also, one wonders what "gave birth in a language he didn't speak" means, birth is experienced in its own, woman's language? she gave birth to the child of a foreign speaker? But these mysteries don't detract from, rather I think they enhance this poem, so clear in its human situations and relationships, yet swift and cryptic in its overall effect. Like all the poems in this book, it speaks the brand names, celebrities, slang of the first half of the twentieth century. The feeling here is distinctly elegiac, "every day is the day he died," "the single day I call childhood." And what makes the prose of this piece poetry? I can only point to the headlong, stripped feel of the language, the terrible, conclusive rhythms of the father's italicized plea, the way these words seem to speed towards the ending, then to condense around it and give off light like a star.
Tom Sleigh is unusual among American poets for what we might call the swashbuckle, the action component of his writing. But what helps to make him a fine poet is that he goes there with no loss of intelligence or seriousness:
…It was worth a few words, after
all. Even this bootleg version of Saddam's death—titillating, almost cheaply
pornographic in its forbidden, smuggled out quality—can't help but remind
Shakespeare of the cardinal rule of his profession: don't bore the audience,
even if you have to throw in some mindless violence or gratuitous sex. This is
something an old pro understands: it's not enough to use the imagination as
a form of insider privilege to give you access to the scene of an historic execution.
Take it from Will Shakespeare, former butcher's boy and glover, you've
got to skin and tan it with your own mind before you can relish it, deplore it.
That's the ending of "'This Thing of Darkness,'" a four-page prose poem on the YouTube video of Saddam Hussein's execution that so many of us saw on TV news. Sleigh is following the unlikely but tasty "hunch" that Shakespeare was holding the camera phone. I've chosen to quote the rhetorical finale rather than 'action' excerpts to give some flavor of his thinking, but the choice of subject speaks for itself as does the crack and muscularity of the writing, particularly those last two lines.
"Fenix" is another four-pager, this time with a female protagonist whom I'll provisionally call a 'bag lady'—Sleigh weighs and rejects 'street people', 'homeless', 'the poor' as insufficient to "her own sense of her inside different than the eyes that looked at her." Fenix is the dream name he gives her, never knowing her real one, this woman, certainly not an alter ego, but a fascination, an object of powerful empathy, even sympathy:
…Once, a draggled kitten
peeked its head out from her coat. Once I saw a man trying
to hit her, her screaming back, Get your pinche shit
away from me, pinche culero—everyone looking
away until the beat cops happened by and broke it up.
And once I saw her coming out of the detention center's
cable-gridded doors: escorted by a guard,
she shrugged eyebrows in greeting; I smelled her odor,
laminar as wet spring dirt giving off leaf-rot,
urine tang, sweetish, acrid mellowing of dried feces:
there was something stolid, pugnacious even in her jaw's jut
that shoved past barriers…
On one of a string of days he sees her counting her change on the street, and her face is an "angry orange." He knows its jaundice and that "she's for it now." Indeed she disappears two weeks later; he never sees her again. Here's the dreamy vision that ends the poem:
…And without really thinking
any of it's there, I see the rickety, flashing wheels of her laundry cart.
I see her hand thrust out, face unreadable, gone wooden, gaze pointing
at my chest right at heart level. And most of all I see her sunglasses
that say in florid cursive on one tinted lens Kiss
and on the other lens My Ass.
Fenix's proud, unknowable character, then, like Saddam and much else in this book is touched by death. So as a last key to Army Cats, its drama, its mystery and brio, let's look at this short poem:
You won't wipe away my joy
in my seaweed skin, my hunched neck,
my folds and creases you hide in
even as I throw my arm around you and lie
my leg sweaty and cooling next to yours.
I know you make my face more
interesting to me on this beautifully
lit stage made to look like an open
field where I wander in your theater
of fantasies touching God knows what
in this delirium of bodies
in this noisy club where everybody's
drinking and that's you leaning over
secretly spitting in everybody's drink.
Richard Silberg is associate editor of Poetry Flash. His new book, The Horses: New and Selected Poems 1982-2000, is forthcoming in September, 2012. He won the Northern California Book Award in Translation for his co-translation of Korean poet Ko Un's The Three Way Tavern. He also leads Poetry Flash's Workshop, The Dialogue of Poetry; the next ten-week session begins March 28, 2012.