Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Johnson, Kent. Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War. Austin, TX: Effing Press, 2005.

At first blush, Kent Johnson’s Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz may appear to be an excoriation of American experimental poetry. Take, for instance, the poem “When I First Read Ange Mlinko.” The speaker states that “no matter how self-/ reflexive I get” the four “often-raped/ kids” who were eventually “incinerated in a mud compound by a missile fired from a pilotless drone…will/ still/ be/ dead.” Certainly, this passage recriminates Mlinko and writers like her as ineffectual (at best) in the face of modern warfare. Moreover, we find the speaker of the poem “Baghdad” posing the rhetorical question: “why do you seem like American experimental poets going nowhere/ on little exercise bikes?” Obviously, taken outside the context of the entire collection, neither of these examples does much to negate any anti-experimental assertions.

But to simply relegate Johnson’s collection to a negative critique of “experimental” writers would be to misconstrue its central argument. To understand, one must consider seriously Johnson’s critique of Charles Bernstein’s “Enough!” in Lyric Poetry’s afterword. What Johnson takes issue with is not so much Bernstein’s aesthetic that champions “ambiguity, complexity, and skepticism,” but the fact that the latter seems to have conflated aesthetics and ethics[1]: promoting LANGUAGE-based poetries as the most efficacious route to undermining the “moral arrogance of the Bush administration,” while simultaneously denigrating a more straight-forward poetic as “righteous” and “detestable.” It would appear, according to Johnson, that Bernstein’s call for an “open-ended process” that fosters “finding” and “thinking” when addressing America foreign policies does not likewise translate into the aesthetic realm. For all intents and purposes, Johnson’s target is the hypocrisy of some “avant-garde” writers, not a particular avant-aesthetic; otherwise, Johnson would be as short-sighted as Bernstein.

The poem “Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, or: ‘Get the Hood Back On’,” provides the reader with an actualization of Johnson’s egalitarian approach. In each paragraph, an American citizen addresses a Iraqi prisoner: they tell him who they are (e.g. a pregnant nineteen year old, an assistant manager from Wal-Mart, a member of the 700 Club, etc.) and what each intends to do with their respective foils before a Military Intelligence interrogation (e.g. “hold a pistol to your head,” “shove a fifteen inch dildo down your throat,” etc.). The last of these characters is “an American poet” who is:
Twentyish, early to mid-thirtyish, fortyish to seventyish, I’ve had poems on the Poets Against the War website, and in American Poetry Review and Chain, among other magazines, and I have a blog, and I really dig Arab music, and I read Adorno and Spivak, and I’m really progressive…I’m going to be completely candid with you: I’m going to box your ears with two big books of poems, one of them experimental and the other more plain speech-like, both of them hardbound and from leading academic presses, until your brain swells to the size of a basketball and you die like the fucking lion for real.
To make the Iraqi prisoner’s brain “swell to the size of a basketball,” the poet uses both “experimental” and “plain speech-like” poetry books to smash in his head. The poem’s parallelism posits a complicity between, not just differing poetic camps, but between poets and average American citizens, between American citizens and the guards at Abu-Ghraib, and between American citizens and the Bush Administration’s foreign policies.

The paragraph ends with the poet saying: “Well, we did our best; sorry we couldn’t have done better…I want you to take this self-righteous poem, soak it in this bedpan of crude oil, and shove it down your pleading, screaming throat.” And this is Johnson’s real target: the utility of poetry in a country where 300 million Americans, more or less, idly sit by and watch as our military rapes another country 7000 miles away. In this case, the poet’s “best” is an affirmation of torture. Yet not to worry: while the incinerated kids might “still/ be/ dead,” the poet can rest easy knowing that he can still waddle “downstairs, and/ thr[o]w/ a match/ on the fuel-soaked/ brisquets” for his family’s nightly barbeque. The American poet, regardless of aesthetic leaning, more often than not leads a life insulated from the atrocities of the modern world where (s)he can write whimsically of “the tulip flowering/ by the jacarandas in the dying light” without needing to be troubled by bodies burning in “a geyser of fire” (unless, of course, it helps them to write an “edgy” poem).

What, then, is one to do? Stop writing poetry (whether it be “experimental” or “plain speech-like”)? It would seem that the Adornian epigraph to the collection provides us with a hint as to how to proceed: “I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric…[But] literature must resist this verdict.” In the face of the insurmountable, then, poetry must “resist,” even if the odds are always already against it. But merely to resist is not enough. In Minima Moralia, Adorno writes:
The dialectic…was a mode of discussion whereby dogmatic assertions were shaken and…the lesser word made the stronger…But as a means of proving oneself right it was also from the first an instrument of domination…unconcerned with content, serviceable to those who could pay…Its truth or untruth, therefore, is not inherent in the method itself, but in its intention in the historical process.
Poetry, like dialectics, can be thought of in a similar fashion. If the “intention” of poetry is to upend “dogmatic assertions” and make “the lesser word…stronger,” then poetry “must resist the verdict” of its death; yet, if the “intention” of poetry is to act as “an instrument of domination,” and at the availability of only “those who [can] pay" (i.e. act as a bully pulpit to level negative critiques, or marginalize another aesthetic), then poetry, regardless of aesthetic, must be carried swiftly off to its death.

[1] Or, more appropriately speaking, Bernstein attempts to stabilize a center in both his aesthetics and ethics when such a center, vis-a-vis his poetics, is inherently unstable.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Leon, Jon. Hit Wave. New York, NY: Kitchen Press, 2008.

Primarily composed of two long sections of prose, Jon Leon’s chapbook Hit Wave employs an absurdist-satire that recalls Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. “1982,” the first major section of the collection, documents the artistic and careerist pursuits of an unnamed speaker as he attempts to reconcile himself to the fact “that poetry was now industry.” The piece’s narrator saturates the reader with a continuous stream of events, book titles, sexual exploits, alcohol-drug consumption, and faux-artistic revolutions that unwittingly imbricate him in the system he claims to oppose “during a political awakening that would remain with [him] as [he] attempted an avant coup in 2004.” Take, for instance, the following paragraph, which functions as a microcosm of the work as a whole:
While writing Long Hot Summer in Atlanta I went through a string of glossy women a la Eva Herzigova. Though I lived like a wretch my charisma was irresistible. I remember sitting in a restaurant in the East Village thinking about a plot error and how Carre sitting across from me looked like Noelle, a girl I’d met on the terrace at Zane’s and who’d said she modeled for Wayne Maser.
Throughout “1982,” book titles, such as “Long Hot Summer,” operate as signifiers emptied of specificity, vis-à-vis the writing therein, and instead act as contextual markers for the speaker’s extracurricular exploits: in this case, “a string of glossy women a la Eva Herzigova.” Of course, since the creation and publication of these books are detached from particular dates, readers are left without any sense of how the events before or after the current description relate. The one constant that does relate each event to one another is the speaker’s self-aggrandizing narcissism; the writing and “artistic” endeavors become window-dressing for caricature. In fact, the sheer volume of titles the speaker references (32 that he either writes, creates, publishes, reads, or watches) transforms the egalitarian Whitmanian catalogue into a solipsistic undertaking in which he falls prey to “the pleasure that only international prestige can offer.” Furthermore, the interchangeability of female names (i.e. “Carrie sitting across from me looked like Noelle”) evidences the rampant misogyny that pervades the text, wherein “a string of glossy women” serve as fulfillment for the narrator’s “sexual deviousness.”

All of these actions and attitudes are rationalized by the speaker through the lens of the misunderstood genius:
A lot of people didn’t like me. Most of them were poets. They called me names like proletarian, idealist, romantic, handsome. Fools I thought. Why would people sell themselves short and not just live the life of pure creative glamour. It is easy for me, to others it was a mirage. The real geniuses of history were the ones brave enough to be it. I couldn’t understand their criticisms to be anything but jealousy.
And this, it would seem, encapsulates Hit Wave’s conceptual focus: the manner in which misguided identity formation can so easily, especially in today’s cultural-environment of hyper-self-promotion, devolve into a carte blanche justification for dismissal of the other in order to foster megalomania; or stated in Leon’s words, extolling “the life of pure creative glamour” at the expense of “poets” and “fools.” In many regards, then, “1982” functions as a cautionary or moralistic tale. Yet unlike a Horatio Alger story in which the main character’s ambition results in an unassuming assimilation into bourgeois existence, the main character in Jon Leon’s story does not seek assimilation, but a recklessly autonomous existence that revels in inflicting “severe sickness and humiliation” upon “those people who ignored me.” To this extent, Leon does not provide a (much needed) model with which to combat Alger’s capitalist propaganda, but through caricature, unwittingly provides a nihilistic counterpoint that confirms the worst fears of those who resist that which resides outside of the hegemonic order.

Svalina, Mathias. The Viral Lease. Brooklyn, NY: Small Anchor Press, 2008.

The Viral Lease is a chapbook length lyric poem that re-imagines both language and the body within a disjunctive framework where the reader is told to discard that which “your parents/ left dangling/ from your throat,” so that “words [may] breath shadows”; or stated in another way, the poem attempts to reformulate standard narratives by severing the normative, associative links we create between words within discrete syntactical units, as well as the relationship between individual images. Take, for instance, the follow lines:
Underwater eyes
wring from blasphemes

in the quiet
of hallways.

Heirs burst
with stairwells.
While contemplated in isolation, “underwater eyes” could literally refer to someone’s (or something’s) eyes while underwater, but complications arise when analyzed within its grammatical context. Specifically, what is the relationship between “blasphemes” and “eyes,” and how does one “wring” the latter from the former? The poem does not provide this information for the reader, thus we must foster an absurdist image and, at least temporarily, submit ourselves to its plausibility if we are to make “sense” of the phrase. Adding an additional layer of complexity to the couplet is the fact that the syntax of the sentence succeeds in displacing the agency normally attributed to the verb “wring”: a subject “wrings” the object of the verb “from” the object of the preposition (i.e. “He wrings water from a rag”). In the case of the above excerpt, there is no object of the verb and thus the lines reorganize agency so that “underwater eyes” are now complicit in their own extraction.

But beyond the reversals taking place within a given image, the interrelationship between images is also problematized. What can we, as readers, claim to know about the narrative or semantic correspondence between “underwater eyes” and the “heirs” that are “bursting” two stanzas later? On the surface, little connects the two, but what does is of utmost importance: the confining passageways of an unreferenced building (i.e. “hallways” and “stairwells”). While the disparate nature of the images forces us to make an associative leap from one image to the next, the relative similarity between “hallways” and “stairwells” aides in bridging that gap, although not fully; while a connection can be made, there is room for associative-slippage between each reading or between different readers.

The question, then, becomes: why does the poem enact this particularly oblique poetic? Is this only a matter of writing in antithesis of what one’s “parents/ left dangling/ from [one’s] throat”? Not in the least. The poem, it would appear, claims the stakes are a bit more elevated than simple oedipal relations. In fact, the poetic is a war-cry (“Give me the war”), and the war takes place not only on the page (“Sheaves of war”), but on the body (“The war has broken/ & bruised wider// than eyes.”). But if this poetic signals a conflict, carrying “the bodies/ from the classrooms,/ limp arms dangling” has left the speaker disillusioned and oscillating between a call-to-arms and self-doubt. Specifically, we find this ambivalence in a brief but salient confession midway through the poem: “I am writing you a letter// in the weather reports/ & my every prediction is wrong”; additionally, this sense of resignation redoubles itself when the speaker states: “the viral lease,/ the verses we hear// are nevers.” As the end of the poem approaches and we wait for one last chance at salvation (or at least the hope for future salvation), it soon becomes apparent that there will be no such thing. The poem concludes by collapsing into the “nevers” ever more violently as we are “broken by the throat’s/ red gag,// broken by the bomb.”

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Word Rolls


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Titus, Allison. Instructions from the Narwhal. MA: Bateau Press, 2007.

“Dear Greenland won’t you take off your gloves and sit here by the belly of the stove.” As Greenland melts by the fire, “a folktale gesture” courses through the speaker’s house as an “elaborate gathering,” an “alphabet of sealskin,” scatters and fragments: “Subtract the heel prints from the glacier, the glacier from its drift.” And so commences Allison Titus’ chapbook, Instructions from the Narwhal. In many respects, the first section of the collection’s opening sequence (“How to Harvest Ice”) can be read as an ars poetica for the remainder of the text: a series of surreal folktales set adrift on an oceanic, Coleridgian dreamscape where Ukrainian giants, icebergs, a mummified John Wilkes Booth imposter, discarded souvenirs, and Siamese twins “traipse the bottom of the sea.” But unlike the traditional narrative arc provided by Coleridge’s ancient mariner, Titus’ narrative is more supple, offering “several endings to choose from.”

But Instructions provides the reader with more than an escapist fantasy-world into which surrealism often devolves; the chapbook, additionally, investigates the epistolary form and its many possible manifestations. Take, for instance, the collection’s second poem, “How to Address the Ukrainian Giant.” While the salutation of a letter generally precedes the letter in earnest, Titus defers the greeting until the penultimate line: “Dear giant if such grand scale was easy.” The following poem, “How to Navigate the Arctic Sea, Part 1,” follows a similar pattern, but alternatively addresses the speaker’s landlord. To wit, the question becomes: how does a re-structuring of the epistolary form affect the reader? Or, at least, how does such a re-structuring complicate our received notions of the form?

Of course, the deferrals contained within these selections can also be read another way. In the poem “Letter,” Titus writes:
Sometimes I sat for hours with the word Dear
on the page, forgetting what should have
come next, thinking only of the whitetail

in the woods, body frozen & body darting

in the same instant.
If hours are spent pondering what comes after “the word Dear/ on the page,” the solution to “forgetting” words would appear to be a reversal: write what comes before the word “Dear”: a readjustment of perception: a rethinking of communicative address. As such, dream-memories of a “whitetail,” or any number of animals, objects, and characters found throughout the chapbook’s poems, support, re-imagine, and modify the “unwritten letter.”

Re-imagining the epistle, then, is also the re-imagining of forgetfulness and creative-stagnation, a turn from negation to affirmation. Instead of lamenting the would-be-stifling process of composition, “forgetting” transforms into “thinking,” and “thinking” becomes “the machine that makes the world and the machine that unmakes the world” where we can “take a faithful inventory” of the stories which Titus and Greenland create as a writers, and the “several endings” through which we as readers navigate.

Wilkinson, Joshua Marie. The Book of Truants & Projectorlight. Lincoln, NE: Octopus Books, 2006.

In “what you wish to return to will not leave you unmarked,” the opening prose poem of Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s chapbook The Book of Truants & Projectorlight, the reader is told: “What you forget is up to you…What you lose cannot be recovered if the light is wrong.” Within these statements we hear the echo of Breton, when he writes that the waking-state is “a phenomenon of interference” where the mind displays “a strange tendency to lose its bearings.” Wilkinson’s poems, to a great extent, exemplify the strange world between waking and dreaming, where one’s bearings become lost in a world where reality and fantasy coexist in a perpetual field of interaction. Take, for instance, “the diamond cutter speaks.” Within this poem we find the speaker’s material body, a tangible reality; but the body transforms in some curious ways, such as: “I have to ask him for something but my teeth turn to dust. Clocks of five cities crashed in my chest with their ticking.” The first section of the book, bearing the same name as that of the collection, proceeds in a similar fashion throughout the course of five prose poems, culminating with the line: “I know the sounds you make sleeping & arriving alike.” The sounds of sleeping and the sounds of arriving, or waking, permeate these poems, constructing a surreal world of and from language that is littered with strange characters, animals, and a variety of lights: the “garage light,” “dusk light,” and “copper light.” The question, then, becomes: of these lights, what is the correct light in which one can recover what was lost in a dream?

Section two, or The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth, approaches the search for the forgotten in slightly different manner. Instead of the prose poem, fragments scatter themselves about in a seemingly random manner. If readers intend to develop a narrative (which is by no means a requirement), they must partake in free association between the disparate elements of each fragment. What is the relationship between “Translucent wings in the grey soup” and a “Rowboat of/white//flour & beetles”? No doubt, a multiplicity of connections can be made between these fragmentary-images, but it would appear that the one strand connecting them all is that they need be ethereal, upending reality; or, as Wilkinson writes: “you can unlearn the earth’s/ spinning//if you//lie down on your back/in the goatfield.” It would appear, then, that to “unlearn” the material-empirical world is of utmost importance.

But, as mentioned earlier, this is not simple negation of the aforementioned material-empirical world, but an admixture of reality and dream. Highlighting such an admixture is the collection’s rhythm. Yeats once wrote that the “purpose of rhythm…is to prolong the moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake, which is the one moment of creation, by hushing us with an alluring monotony, while it holds us waking by variety, to keep us in that state of perhaps real trance, in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded.” The “variety” of section two acts as a counterpoint to the “alluring monotony” of section one’s prose rhythms. Take, for instance, the following lines:
Shaker chairs. The
morning pulling, un-
packing itself onto
snowy porches &
a spun ice.
The enjambment found within these stanzas, with lines breaking on articles, prefixes, and prepositions, disrupts the rhythmic flow of each syntactical unit, fostering a vocalization that causes the reader to abruptly stammer. Yet, just as soon as the fragments awake us, a return to the prose fluidity of section three lulls us back into a dream.

In the final section’s poem, “still life with shark tooth, sleeping boy, moon [missing], & treefrog,” there is a series of rhetorical questions that conclude the piece: “Where are your parents, little one? Where is the lodger who promised you things? Where is that treefrog in the shop window that blinked at you? Where are you headed on this boat? Which way is the engine room? What age will you be when you return?” The dizzying array of questions, most of which provide no specific referent with regard to the content therein, need to be re-constructed by the reader. This, of course, is no easy task; in fact, in the chapbook’s closing poem we are told: “You will find out what trouble means when you build your own road.” The “trouble,” it would seem, stems from our tendency to subsume surreal worlds into the logic of reason; to wit, Breton wrote: “logical methods are applicable only to solving problems of secondary interest.” When working through Wilkinson’s writing, “logical ends…escape us.” Instead of a logical-analytical-empirical paradigm, perhaps then, it is best to for us to follow the dream-examples found within the book, such as the man who:
this bridge you are forced
without words
               to cross.

Boyer, Anne. Art is War. Lawrence, KS: Mitzvah Chaps, 2008.

The center-piece of Anne Boyer’s chapbook Art is War is the manifesto “Difficult Ways to Publish Poetry,” which was originally presented at the 2007 AWP conference in Atlanta. Within the text, Boyer lists twenty ways in which to publish one poem a year in a “difficult, but not impossible” manner; of course, one quickly discovers that her projects go “well beyond the parameters of the possible.” For example, take the seventh difficult way to publish poetry:
Become skilled at computers. Hack into the main traffic control system for a community that needs some poetry—say, Sacramento. Cause traffic lights to blink out poems for Sacramento in Morse Code.
At first blush, such an endeavor appears preposterous and the list, in its entirety, could be easily written-off as nothing more than an absurdist diatribe by an avant-poet. But further consideration of the work provides the reader with not just a deeper understanding of the list, but of poetry in general. In his elegy to W.B. Yeats, Auden famously wrote: “For poetry makes nothing happen”; but due to the truncation of the poem through quotation, what follows more often than not is forgotten, or missed entirely: “it survives/ in the valley of its making where executives/ Would never wanted to tamper.” The latter half of Auden’s quote, it seems, alters the rhetoric of his verse a great deal: poetry makes “nothing happen” in a cultural world driven by revenue streams and products engineered as intentionally disposable so as to intensify consumption. Poems, or “projects of no interest to anyone in general,” function outside the sphere of consumer-culture and thus escape what Adorno described as a monopoly wherein everything “is identical” and there is “nothing but business…used as an ideology to legitimize the trash they intentionally produce.”

But this, of course, is a far too reductive reading of Boyer’s manifesto. For, indeed, the title of the piece is “Difficult Ways to Publish Poetry” (my italics), and thus engages the question of how an art form created outside of the mainstream production-cycle attempts to enter directly into it. This becomes no clearer than in difficult way number fourteen, “Haters & Fakers”:
Invite the fakers to a “creative writing” conference that promises to lead to tenure track positions and glossy perfect bound books. Invite the haters to an anti-conference with keynote speaker [xxxx xxxxxxx] and panels on hating chapbooks, hating perfect bound books, hating flarf, hating anti-flarfs, community, anti-communities, capitalism, anti-capitalism, the internet, the material world, poets, nonpoets, people of color, people without any color, women, men, the lyric, the anti-lyric, etc. Make these the same conference in the same Hilton ballroom. Have gang of thugs lock the door and strong arm haters and fakers into reciting poems before a video camera.
A not-too-covert-reference to the AWP conference, Boyer questions the validity of writers who seek to monetize their art form, ostensibly transforming themselves from artists into unit-movers, or more damningly, from never-weres to unit-movers. The heart of the problem resides in one’s desire not to create poetry, but to secure a bourgeois existence through “tenure track positions” and “perfect bound books.” But considering that the poet herself published a “glossy perfect bound book” with Coffee House Press and, indeed, first presented “Difficult Ways” at AWP, how are we to reconcile such a paradox? Do we need to? Perhaps, perhaps not. What does need to be noted, though, is that Boyer’s manifesto refuses to promote a negative critique of the “professional” writer because to do so would necessarily align one with “the haters.” A “hater” is no better than a “faker,” made apparent by the fact that both groups are lock into a Hilton ballroom with a “gang of thugs.”

What, then, is the most appropriate way to for a poet to proceed in a world where it appears so easy to be caught in a double-bind if one desires to create poetry that operates within a community greater than the self? For Boyer, it seems, one need look no further than the material object that is Art is War. Printed on plain white paper, bound by hand with string, fly-leafed with a newspaper advertisement, and publish in a limited run of 100 by her friend, poet Robert J. Baumann, the chapbook is a labor of love[1] that circulates through a small, self-generated community of writers for a fee that likely is no more than production costs ($6 US). As Noah Eli Gordon states in his essay “Considering Chapbooks: A Brief History of the Little Book,” the chapbook “allows the poet to enter into a shared life of the imagination while swerving around the dominant paradigms of economic and social space”; in many ways, Art is War does just that. Of course, and this should come as no surprise, such a reading is far too reductive of Boyer’s manifesto. The importance of Art is War is the fact that Boyer’s chapbook thoughtfully calls into question both the purpose and utility of poetry in a modern world overrun by consumer-culture. Far from being an absurdist rant, “Difficult Ways” (and the entirety of Art is War) can provide the writer and communities of writers with new ways of envisioning their art form and its distribution.

[1] Not coincidentally, the "heart" character-symbol appears several times throughout the chapbook.