I wanted to like this book more than I did; I wanted more from it, or maybe just less opacity. There are moments where the play of words, the rhythm oI wanted to like this book more than I did; I wanted more from it, or maybe just less opacity. There are moments where the play of words, the rhythm of them, feels perfect, and there are images that coalesce, but much of this collection stayed vague, just out of reach. I loved “Transpassional,” though -- the whole last half of it, especially, is just about perfect, funny and plaintive and sweet....more
I saw Mark Doty read at The Center last month and was reminded how much I like him, and why—his work is so full of observation and exquisite descriptiI saw Mark Doty read at The Center last month and was reminded how much I like him, and why—his work is so full of observation and exquisite description and shining moments and everyday wonders. This collection of poems, which includes new work and selections from previous books, is just what I want to be reading right now, deeply satisfying from the very beginning, which is a poem about writing a poem and Doty's sensibility of detailed observation, of "filling in the tale" (3). I love that so many of Doty's poems are New York City poems, love that I can picture the intersections and cross-streets (8th Ave and 20th, 7th Ave and 21st), love that he writes about the guy "in the dingy passageway/to the L yesterday singing early Beatles with a radical purity" (19). In "Theory of Beauty (Greenwich Avenue)," Doty writes "that this is the city's particular signature/the range of possibilities within any single set," and he captures that range, and the individuals within it, wonderfully (23-24). Other highlights among his new poems are "Theory of Marriage" and "Theory of Marriage (The Hug)," the sweetness and humor of the first (the story of a trip to a qi gong parlor) and the tenderness of the second (I'm a sucker for dog-stories, though it's more than that, of course). Reading the older poems—most of which I've read before—is also a delight, the bits I remember from first reading in 2004, 2005, 2007, and the bits I remember dimly, or not at all. "With Animals," which I remembered only vaguely, brought tears to my eyes on the F train. Later, I smiled at "Chanteuse" ("What was our city/but wonderful detail?") and "The Advent Calendars" (wintry and wonderful, especially the image of "The world gone/general, unmoored, white") (pp 116, 125), and oh, lots more. ...more
These are poems from a world I don’t know, the Pacific Northwest of small towns and the lumber industry: paper mills and logging roads, slash piles, sThese are poems from a world I don’t know, the Pacific Northwest of small towns and the lumber industry: paper mills and logging roads, slash piles, steam donkeys, choker setters, the narrator and his father bucking timber. It’s desolate beauty or sometimes just desolation, staying, stuck. “I could say I left town for both of us,” the narrator of “Iron” says, but then, later in the poem, admits, “But I never left” (p 1). I like “Ash and Silt,” the images of it: “the smell of orange peels and cinnamon,” shortening and pine pitch (p 6). My favorite poem in the book is “Coos Bay,” a string of images to make a town: “The World’s Largest Lumber Port,” a sign announces in the first line, then “Japanese glass floats, cranberry bogs/mooring lines, salmon roe,/swing shifts, green chain, millwrights” (p 11). A close second, though, is “Brief Elegy on the Tip of a Match,” the simple grace of it, the wonderful image of “the leaves going silver/like fish changing direction” (p 33). You can listen to the author read a slightly different version of "Brief Elegy on the Tip of a Match here, and hear him read a slightly different version of "Coos Bay" here. ...more
At the start of this book we learn this: “Averno. Ancient name Avernus. A small crater lake, ten miles west of Naples, Italy; regarded by the ancientAt the start of this book we learn this: “Averno. Ancient name Avernus. A small crater lake, ten miles west of Naples, Italy; regarded by the ancient Romans as the entrance to the underworld.” This collection of linked poems is about passing between worlds: childhood and adulthood, death and life, existence and memory, and seasons, too; it uses the myth of Persephone to play with some of those passings. I like the mix of mythic and not, lines like this, about riding the subway and reading: “you are not alone,/the poem said,/in the dark tunnel” (p 14), and then the wry humor and intelligence of the mythic poems like “Persephone the Wanderer,” which reminds the reader: “You are allowed to like/no one, you know. The characters/are not people.” (p 16). Other highlights: the wintry world of the second section of “Landscape,” “A Myth of Innocence” and “A Myth of Devotion,” the first stanza of “Telescope,” which describes the moment of disorientation after looking through a telescope, coming back to earth when you’ve been among the stars—which isn’t too dissimilar to the moment of emerging from a book you’ve been lost in....more
There are three sections of poems in this book, with each section titled after a button on a stereo, though obviously they’re also words with resonancThere are three sections of poems in this book, with each section titled after a button on a stereo, though obviously they’re also words with resonance: REPEAT, and PAUSE, and POWER. Music, both as trope and as thing, the idea of song and actual songs and musicians, figure heavily. As for the poems themselves, I like how they’re smart and conversational, I like their wryness, and I like that they’re poems that tell stories. There’s casual violence in these poems, a father beating his son with a leather belt, a backhanded slap across the cheek, and racism and dirt and grit and cockroaches teeming in the kitchen, but that isn’t to say they’re unpleasant to read....more
I picked this up from the library last month after Mark Doty recommended it at his reading at The Center, read it, but didn't really get into it. I liI picked this up from the library last month after Mark Doty recommended it at his reading at The Center, read it, but didn't really get into it. I liked it much more, on re-reading it over the past few days. Maybe I over-poetried in April, and needed the break of reading a novel as breathing-space, before more poems.
Most of these poems center on, or circle around, the speaker's mother. "I maul her into memory," the first poem says, but warns us, too that "no story is true" (p 3). There is strain and violence, violence against the speaker's mother, and then her responding violence against the world. I think my favorite of these poems is "Portrait of My Mother as the Republic of Texas," which is ballsy and funny, a way to capture an outsize figure, super from the first phrases: "After my mother won independence in 1836,/she dysfunctioned as her own nation," then continuing with twists and perfect turns of phrase (p 5) The six sections of "Portrait of My Mother as Victorine Meurent" are excellent, too, and not just 'cause I'm often a sucker for poems about paintings: I love the clear images of these, the imagined thoughts of artist and model, the way that these poems, like others in the collection, play with power dynamics: here is the artist fixing his model in paint; here is his model, walking away. ...more
I like (some of) the journal-ish prose-ish poems best, the clear and solid images of them. Elsewhere, I feel like there's often this over-the-top-nessI like (some of) the journal-ish prose-ish poems best, the clear and solid images of them. Elsewhere, I feel like there's often this over-the-top-ness to McGrath's phrasing, something show-off-ish, a pulling back from the beautiful or "poetic" image: but I like the beauty more. Toward the end of the book, "Eclogue," which juxtaposes Hiroshige and Miami, is great, and so is "Hiroshige," a few pages later. (Read both here.) ...more
Letters to a Stranger starts with the quiet dream-like images of "Waking Up": "curls of dark grass," "a lake of dark petals" (p 5). The poems continueLetters to a Stranger starts with the quiet dream-like images of "Waking Up": "curls of dark grass," "a lake of dark petals" (p 5). The poems continue full of quiet, full of dreams and death. There are some exquisite bits early in the book, like "a few perfect flakes of snow/When the season is just breaking./They strike the water and are nothing at all" (p 14), but I wasn't too interested in these poems at first. The blank verse felt overly mannered, the subjects too dreary. But as I kept reading there kept on being more to like: the meter started to feel like grace, like just enough rather than too much, and there kept on being gorgeous images, turns of phrase. I'm not sure how much it's that the book really does get better as it progresses, and how much it was me becoming immersed in James's voice and tone, seeing his work's facets differently. ...more
I like the places in this book, the sense of place, whether city or country—the description of Darwin's father's estate in "The Miser", the dark streeI like the places in this book, the sense of place, whether city or country—the description of Darwin's father's estate in "The Miser", the dark streets and slip-passages in "The Efficacy of Prayer", the rooms in Christ's College, Cambridge, as described in the first part of "The Coddington Microscope".
The poems in the second section of the book, about Darwin's voyage on the Beagle, are wonderfully full of nature, of the tropics, of the sea: "The deck is dazzle, fish-stink, gauze-covered buckets," a poem called "Plankton" starts, and there's Darwin, over his bout of seasickness, studying plankton and pteropods. A page later he's on land, and full of wonder: "Like Giving to a Blind Man Eyes" captures so much enthusiasm, so much interest. A page after that and he's in the tropical forest, the "churchy breathing dark" of it, the suddenness of rain, all the new plants: "Leaves of all textures that a leaf/could be: palm, fluff, prickle, matte and plume;/bobbled, shaggy, plus. A thousand shades/of ochre, silver, emerald, smoky brass" (pp 32-33). (I think this section's my favorite, the sheer exuberance of it.)...more
The poems in this collection that I like best are the ones that intertwine the speaker's voice with another voice, with quotes and descriptions from oThe poems in this collection that I like best are the ones that intertwine the speaker's voice with another voice, with quotes and descriptions from other writers: I like the layers of those poems, the interplay of voices and places and times, how now slips into then or vice versa. Like "Posthumous Man," (ignore the terrible formatting on that page!) which starts with the line, "I hate the world," the narrator saying it, which would perhaps be off-putting, too much angst (p 18). But then that line shows up again as a quotation from a letter by Keats, who is also (along with the narrator, I guess) the "posthumous man" of the title, and suddenly, I like the whole poem a lot more, how it moves from the narrator's disappointments to Keats's disappointments and back again, how it contains both the domestic and the wild, how satisfying its form is. Other poems I like for the same reasons: "Horse Madness", with bits of Virgil, "1st My Children," about Shaker gift drawings (oh man I am a sucker for poems about visual art), "Stranging," with bits of Cabeza de Vaca and bits of Edward Taylor (this might be my favorite poem in the whole book), and "One Willow", with bits of Paracelsus and others....more
I like poems that are buildings of images; I like poems that are stories. Kristin Naca writes both those kinds of poems, and also writes lyrical poemsI like poems that are buildings of images; I like poems that are stories. Kristin Naca writes both those kinds of poems, and also writes lyrical poems, romantic poems, poems that play with language(s) and words. Sometimes the poems in this collection were too lyrical for me, or too language-focused, but others are just lovely, like "Speaking English Is Like" (read it here - scroll down a bit to find the link to it). =
Other poems I liked a whole lot: "Uses for Spanish in Pittsburgh," with its images of rooftops and steeples and shoestores and its story of family, "Ode to Glass," about a Pepsi bottle and memory, "Grocery Shopping with My Girlfriend Who Is Not Asian," and "Las Meninas/The Maids of Honor," which is probably my favorite poem in this volume because it's so satisfyingly smart and conversational and visual and, well, also probably because it's about a painting. Also: parts of "House," a seven-section prose poem. ...more
I like how it starts, with a first line that’s matter-of-fact but made me want to keep reading (“I was raised in the company of dolls”—in “Preface,” pI like how it starts, with a first line that’s matter-of-fact but made me want to keep reading (“I was raised in the company of dolls”—in “Preface,” p 3); I also really like, later in the same poem, the image of windows that “burn with interior light/like blood oranges”: the suddenness of that simile, and the rightness of it.
Many of these poems are about childhood/motherhood/daughterhood/womanhood: personal history, family history, the idea of how the self comes from the past; there are also more broadly historical bits, like “Eight Views of the Hôtel-Dieu,”—the “oldest continually operating hospital in Paris,” according to the notes at the back of the book, which was affiliated in the 1880s with “the women’s public asylum where hysteria was first diagnosed and treated” (p 83). I like poems like “World without Birds”, which sent me off to look up what a serinette might be (an instrument to teach songs to canaries); I like the alliteration, and the bird/woman imagery, and all those great bird-y words. I also really liked “The Past Is Another Country”, maybe the start of it especially (and more canaries, too). I wasn’t crazy about most of the poems about dolls, of which there were several: not that they’re bad, they just felt like a language I don’t speak (the first line of the book excepted!).
I think my favorite poems in the book were those in the last section: poems like “Portrait of Houdini with Wife”, “The Lady Vanishes” with its old stage magic tricks and accompanying wonder, and “The Voluptuous Dancing Girls of Egypt,” about part of the 1889 Paris Exhibition: broader history, images that tell stories, imaginings of the past. ...more
This book, the first I’ve read of Keith Waldrop’s work, felt difficult, both allusive and elusive, and more abstract than the poetry I tend to prefer.This book, the first I’ve read of Keith Waldrop’s work, felt difficult, both allusive and elusive, and more abstract than the poetry I tend to prefer. It won the National Book Award for Poetry last year, but somehow I hadn’t heard of it until it caught my eye at the library, and I picked it up knowing nothing about it. The publisher’s blurb says this: “In these quasi-abstract, experimental lines, collaged words torn from their contexts take on new meanings,” which, along with the title, provides a way in to the work: it’s OK if this feels like bits and pieces, and it’s OK if, like Liszt’s etudes, this feels like a challenge. This was one of those books of poetry where, after reading it basically straight through over the course of a few days, I felt like I needed to put it down for a day or two, then pick it up and start over again—which is indeed what I did, and I liked it more the second time through....more
The back cover gives a better summary than I could: "'Eunoia,' which means 'beautiful thinking,' is the shortest English word to contain all five voweThe back cover gives a better summary than I could: "'Eunoia,' which means 'beautiful thinking,' is the shortest English word to contain all five vowels. This book also contains them all, except that each one appears by itself in its own chapter."
This is, as you might guess, both excellent and a little tedious, though more excellent than not. This book is visually really appealing: this edition's printed on very nice cream paper, and the "chapters" are made up of paragraph-length bits of text that look/read like prose poems. It makes for pleasing shapes, these blocks of justified text on facing pages, and how your eye catches the fact that all the words all contain the same vowel.
The other thing I really liked about this book, aside from the obvious sense of play, is that it contains lots of list-ish passages, and lots of exciting or satisfying or new-to-me words. By page 30 I had a whole list of words I wanted to look up, which made me think about how I'm pretty sure that the last book I read did not require me to look up a single word (though it did make me look up people and concepts I wanted to learn more about), which made me think about how much I like looking up words (as I sat at my desk before the workday started with a 1980-something edition of the Chambers Dictionary I snagged from a co-worker's old cube after she left). ...more
Lapis, ultramarine, turquoise, yearning, sad, sexy, smart. Did I mention smart? This reminds me of Anne Carson (in a good way!). I read this book overLapis, ultramarine, turquoise, yearning, sad, sexy, smart. Did I mention smart? This reminds me of Anne Carson (in a good way!). I read this book over the course of basically two commutes + an evening and now feel like I read it too fast and want to start it again at the beginning, which is probably what I shall do. I also feel like I should buy my own copy. ...more
According to the publisher's website, "Escape from Combray presents an intimate cycle of poems exploring the growing sense of urban ennui and dislocatAccording to the publisher's website, "Escape from Combray presents an intimate cycle of poems exploring the growing sense of urban ennui and dislocation affecting a generation of Americans. Snyder's poems evokes a psychogeographic landscape where quotidian symbols of the working class juxtapose with the timeless profundity of Proust, Virgil, and Dante."
On first my first read-through of this collection (it's just 75 pages, and easy enough to read on the train to work and the train home), it was the quotidian landscape of the poems I liked best, the convenience stores and sidewalks, Chicago weather, the sun in winter "setting fast/as if it too were cold," as Snyder puts it in "Decoy" (52). I like the poetic persona here: someone who stays up late reading Dante (in "The World Below"), who notices words and signs: signs for cold beer in Spanish and Polish, or a sign looking for temps "a las 4:30/en la fucking manana" (61), and who captures the image of an empty store at closing time (in "How Are You Doing") with the images of "a bin of flip-flops/and Tasmanian Devil/baseball caps," "freshly-mopped floors/and fluorescent lights" (16).
But on a second reading, I liked the literariness, too, which comes with a certain amount of wryness and play: like when, in "Postpoem" (it might be an ominous sign for that to be the name of the first piece in a collection, but it works), Snyder talks about a "periphrasis so elaborate/that even Virgil gets a little cross,/though he won't show it, or wear it" (9).
One of my favorites, both times through, was "Erasmus," which you can read here, on John Latta's blog (and while you're there, read the letter immediately after it, plus the passage from Preserved Smith's Erasmus that follows it. ...more
On a first read-through, this book was more mildly interesting to me than exciting. I liked the mix of prose poems and free verse with line breaks; IOn a first read-through, this book was more mildly interesting to me than exciting. I liked the mix of prose poems and free verse with line breaks; I liked the use of Mother Ann's own words and the use of other texts—reworked fragments from Sappho, advertisements and news from a 1773 newspaper (The Manchester Mercury). I thought it was perhaps that Mother Ann feels so distant: distant in time but perhaps more distant in values and experiences. I thought also that maybe I wasn't in the mood for reading poetry, or in the mood for this specific kind of historical narrative-filled poetry.
On a second reading, I still felt that way, a little. There were moments where it felt like too much information was crammed into the poems when I'd rather have gotten it via the end notes or an introduction: one poem, "Found," includes this: "We, the poor, sit in the back pews, sometimes even stand for the full two hours. My mother is a pious woman, brushes our hair Sundays (all five boys and three girls) and ties it up with ribbon she keeps in her good wood box. Made us scrub down the night before: knees jammed high in the washbasin, scouring backs and necks on the young ones till they're red and raw, shivering more from the rough touch than cold" (9). That "We, the poor" sentence seems too heavy-handed for me, as does the parenthetical note about how many siblings Ann had, though I love the images of the rest of it, the ribbon, the wood box, the Saturday night scouring.
One of the later poems in this book includes a phrase from Simone Weil, and the full sentence the phrase comes from is given in the Notes: "The love oOne of the later poems in this book includes a phrase from Simone Weil, and the full sentence the phrase comes from is given in the Notes: "The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: 'What are you going through?'" The idea of answering or imagining or feeling one's way into that what are you going through? is a central idea of this slim volume of Rich's poems from the late 1980s and early 1990s: it's there from the very start of the very first poem and keeps coming up. The first poem, the title poem, is probably my favorite; it and the other long poem of this book ("Eastern War Time") are to me the most compelling because there's room in them for a broadness of experience and/or time, a sense of both the big picture/history (industrial agriculture, the Holocaust) and the personal, and also room for both the horrors and loveliness of the world:
(from the first section of "An Atlas of the Difficult World"):
I don't want to know wreckage, dreck and waste, but these are the materials and so are the slow lift of the moon's belly over wreckage, dreck, and waste, wild treefrogs calling in another season, light and music still pouring over our fissured, cracked terrain. (4)
Some early favorite lines, from the same section of the same poem:
voice of the freeway, night after night, metal streaming downcoast past eucalyptus, cypress, agribusiness empires THE SALAD BOWL OF THE WORLD, gurr of small planes dusting the strawberries, each berry picked by a hand (3)
I like, too, how Rich writes about nature, wind and weather and apple trees and succulents, the different feel of different places (a cabin or a brook in Vermont, the California coast).
The poems I like best in this book are the ones that deal with places, maybe because these poems are full of satisfying specificity: Vermont and its lThe poems I like best in this book are the ones that deal with places, maybe because these poems are full of satisfying specificity: Vermont and its lake and gulls, Saratoga in summer rain, L.A. with its oleander and "Hockney blue" pools and, perhaps my favorite poems of all, the ones about Paris in the third section of the book—poems like "Jardin du Luxembourg" or poems like "Palais Royal" with its "bankers on lunchbreak/and grandmas with children" soaking up the sun by the fountain. ...more
I didn't particularly like this book after my first reading of it: it seemed somehow both too strange and too ordinary, with more humor and less beautI didn't particularly like this book after my first reading of it: it seemed somehow both too strange and too ordinary, with more humor and less beauty than I like the poetry I read to have, but I decided to give it another try. It's a short book, and maybe part of my problem the first time around was that the subway is perhaps not the most conducive reading atmosphere for an unfamiliar book of poems: too many distractions. I did like it more the second time through, though there is still plenty of strangeness ("so paddle with vacuous cheer/into your fat bottle of pink soda and I will plunge/into some sunny buttocks with the grace of God's eraser" - in "A Poem from Bled," a slightly different version of which appears here) and ordinariness (a poem about drunkenly texting one's friends on a bus ride, just to say you're drunk). But there are also poems whose strangeness somehow entirely works, like "Wild Is the Wind". And there are bits of beauty, like this, from the start of "On the 730th Day God Made Me Happy," which I think is my favorite poem in the whole book:
I dreamt we fell in love. You bought new sheets for the bed and made dinner from breadcrumbs and yellow squash. The red-fringed ivy bobbed as the wind touched it, stirring the building to feel. (27)
(4 stars based on the strength of the first section.)
What is there to say about death, about absence and loss and the space death makes in life? "Star(4 stars based on the strength of the first section.)
What is there to say about death, about absence and loss and the space death makes in life? "Starting from nothing with nothing when everything else has been said," Howe writes, early in "The Disappearance Approach," an essay about the sudden death of her husband, Peter Hare (11). Then she quotes Sarah Edwards, writing to one of her daughters after Jonathan Edwards's death in 1758: "O My Very Dear Child. What shall I say?" (ibid.). As the essay continues, Howe considers her immediate domestic experiences after Hare's death (noticing the quiet of the house that morning, the New York Times still sitting on the driveway, sorting through Hare's email, papers, photographs, noticing the paperwhites flowering) but also reaches more widely, using Edward and his family's history and legacy to look at what remains of lives, what death leaves behind. Sometimes what's left seems to be "a negative double," the lost loved one coming back in dreams, or through the presence of his possessions, and in his death the traces of other deaths, including those of Hare's first wife and Howe's second husband (13). What's left, often, is bits and pieces: letters, diaries, notebooks, a scrap of a wedding dress, embroidery—and the essay itself is made of bits and pieces, too: a poem Howe wrote in 1998, the dictionary definition of "autopsy," the official autopsy report of Hare's death, the birth-dates and death-dates of Jonathan Edwards and his ten sisters. Howe also writes about finding "solace and pardon" at an exhibit of Poussin's paintings at the Met: the works on view are another way of looking at death, whether in the form of "Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake" or "Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe" (26). Howe writes about reading poems as a child with her mother, how her mother liked the ones where "people disappear into never-answered questions": and perhaps that's all everyone does, ultimately (28). This essay is my favorite part of this book: it's contemplative and quiet and worth reading at least twice (I read it once on the train, too quickly, then again at home on a quiet evening and a foggy morning, drinking tea and taking notes).
The second section of the book, "Frolic Architecture," takes both its title and its epigraph ("Into the beautiful meteor of the snow") from Emerson. (The title's about snow, too). Thinking about this section in terms of white space, in terms of accumulation, makes it slightly more approachable, but it's still tricky for me. These are collage-poems, made from fragments of Hannah Edwards Wetmore's diary, accompanied by spectral gray photograms by James Welling. This section was published as a standalone limited-edition volume by the Grenfell Press, and you can see some images of that book here. The copied texts that Howe uses are fragmented, cut mid-word so you see only glimpses: "her arms" then "could tread" then "air was dark" (41). Is this the distancing of death and time and history, the way that if we're honest we accept that what we see of the past can only ever be fragments? I'm not sure, but fifty pages of this was too much for me: there are striking phrases ("wild unbounded place," "ravished with it," "some parenthesis that darkens the sense"), and the collages as visual objects sometimes have appeal, but I found myself more bewildered than won over. "That This," the final section of the book, is made of "short squares of verse," as the back cover puts it. They look lovely on the page but I wasn't sure what to make of them; I didn't feel like I could find a way into them....more
I haven't yet read Nabokov's Ada, or Ardor, though I own a copy, but I think that's OK: I think it's enough to read The Ada Poems informed just by theI haven't yet read Nabokov's Ada, or Ardor, though I own a copy, but I think that's OK: I think it's enough to read The Ada Poems informed just by the quotes from Nabokov that Zarin uses throughout, and by the flap copy, which explains that these poems are "inspired and inhabited by the title character of Nabokov's novel Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, who was the lifelong love of her half brother, Van."
I like the way Zarin's language builds on itself, an associative vocabulary that grows within a given poem but also throughout the book. The very first poem, "Birch," starts like this:
Bone-spur, stirrup of veins—white colt a tree, sapling bone again, worn to a splinter (3)
and I like the multivalent feeling of it: as the poem continues (names carved in a tree-trunk: "a child's hackwork, love plus love" (ibid.)) I have the sense of the birch as a colt and a tree, and the beloved as a colt and the birch: the thin skin of all of them, the curiosity about bones, veins, roots, what's underneath. In other poems, too, the speaker and her beloved are horses: "we balk and shy," the speaker says in "Regime," and then later, in "Letter," "for days we've/sped and shied" (5, 12). Other images that recur are decks of cards, winter-images (snow, fir trees), and summer ones (the beach, insects: a fly, dragonflies, damselflies).
Some poems are explicitly "dreamscapes," but even those that aren't have their own dream-logic of love and desire. Sometimes there's pleasing wordplay, as in these lines from "Christmas I": "Below, our old tortoise/paces the scorched carpet. On his armoured back/a sparkler shooting red and green. One letter/less, amour is his world" (7). Other times Zarin plays with sound while also giving us gorgeous images, like in this passage from "Fog in Holyoke":
Four days after Christmas, fog skims the river— thin skin a skein of yarn after yarn, knotted with sleet, moth grey. Headlights on. (9)
I read Inger Christensen's itback in 2007 and don't remember it very well: I just remember it being difficult, prickly. I picked up this new volume,I read Inger Christensen's itback in 2007 and don't remember it very well: I just remember it being difficult, prickly. I picked up this new volume, which is really three volumes in one, as much because of the cover image as anything else.
Light and Grass were Christensen's first books, from 1962 and 1963; Letter in April is from 1979. I liked the latter the best, though there were moments in the first two that I appreciated. Some of the poems, particularly in the first two books, are too abstract for me; I feel like I can't find a point of entry or anything to grasp. But there are turns of phrase and images I really like, particularly when Christensen's writing about the natural world or the turning seasons, like in the first two lines of a poem called "Sandemose," after a Danish/Norwegian author: "The sun hangs low in the little year/the bracken ponders darkness" (10). I like this, from the end of "Deep Within": "what are we and to what do we cling/at sea two hearts with flares on board" (38). And this, from the start of "Light":
Once more I recognize a light within language the closed words that are there to be loved and repeated until they are simple (45)
Letter in April features drawings by Johanne Fosse, and an interesting structure: as Susanna Nied explains in her introduction, it contains seven main sections, each of which has "five subsections, marked with small circles o through ooooo, and arranged in varying order"—so you can either read the seven main sections straight through or read all the sections marked by o, then all the ones marked by oo, and so on (x). I liked this part of the book for its concrete images: a summer house, pines, cobwebs, dew, pomegranates. ...more
I'm not opposed to feeling adrift when reading, but this book, on my first read-through of it, made me feel more than adrift: I struggled to find a waI'm not opposed to feeling adrift when reading, but this book, on my first read-through of it, made me feel more than adrift: I struggled to find a way in, or anything to hold on to. I didn't like this book much after my first read-through of it, but I think the final/title poem helps cast light on Ashbery's approach: the last line of the book is "But all was strange."—which is I suppose a bit of comfort to take into a re-reading. Also heartening was the first paragraph of Christopher Middleton's 1984 review of this book in the NY Times, which starts like this: "Reading John Ashbery's poems is a bit like playing hide-and-seek in a sprawling mansion designed by M. C. Escher."
Almost Invisible consists almost entirely of paragraph-long prose poems—there's just one piece, the poem-within-a-poem of "Poem of the Spanish Poet,"Almost Invisible consists almost entirely of paragraph-long prose poems—there's just one piece, the poem-within-a-poem of "Poem of the Spanish Poet," that deviates from that form at all. I like prose poems, generally, the way they sometimes could almost be called short-short stories, and I like these prose poems, the way that in bite-sized pieces they blend humor and nostalgia and uncertainty. I like the vagueness of some of these poems, like "Bury Your Face in Your Hands", with its images of wind and snow and haze, with its sense of being adrift. I like "Anywhere Could Be Somewhere" for its radical sense of uncertainty, which manages to be ominous and funny at once, in the voice of a speaker who doesn't know where he/she comes from. Throughout, Strand has a knack for striking images, striking lines, like: "The empty heart comes home from a busy day at the office" (15).
Probably my favorite poem in the book is "The Everyday Enchantment of Music", the cadence and pace of it, and how well it fits with the conceit/images of a thing becoming something becoming something else. ...more
The poems I liked best in this volume aren't the obscurely allusive ones, but rather the more apparently allusive ones: the ones that are lists, thatThe poems I liked best in this volume aren't the obscurely allusive ones, but rather the more apparently allusive ones: the ones that are lists, that are "found poems" (as Galbraith puts it), and also the images in some of the poems about cities and journeys. I like poems drawn from life and from texts, poems collaged together from bits and pieces from newspapers and historical snippets and things seen or overheard. "Donderdag," which quotes from a Dutch newspaper report about some murders in the city of Venlo and has the speaker reading about the murders while on a plane, is one example of this kind of style; there's also a really pleasing poem that draws from events near the end of Chekhov's life, and a great list poem that features the titles of books "assembled/by chance/in the display/of a junk shop/near a railway/underpass" (101).
Other highlights of this book, for me, were "Day Return" and "New Jersey Journey", both of which feature really great city-scapes, wonderful observed or invented detail of things/places/signs seen from a train or a car. ...more
I was going to say that "so what?" is the question of this book—it appears twice in "Blizzard" and again in "Your Body Down in Gold", and I do think tI was going to say that "so what?" is the question of this book—it appears twice in "Blizzard" and again in "Your Body Down in Gold", and I do think there's something to that. Phillips, in these poems, is concerned with what matters and what doesn't, with the vagaries of love and desire, with the things people say and the things people mean, and with the everyday world, the natural world as well as the human, the world of starlings and cottonwood trees and crepe myrtles. The poems themselves are an answer to "so what?": so here we are, so here we are in this world, so let's pay attention.
But actually, these poems are full of questions, not just that one: in 35 poems I counted 29 questions, and that's not even counting the ones not phrased with question marks, like this, from "Shimmer": "When did souvenirs of what happened start/becoming tokens of what/could have been becomes/one of those questions that, more and more, I keep/forgetting to stop asking." Some of the questions are succinct: "Has it come to this again/already?" or "I love you/means what, exactly?" or "why do we love, at all?", while others meander and sprawl, like this stanza-and-a-bit from "Distraction":
"You know how, when the light flashes off water, then passes through it, then rubs against, it can seem just like the mind in a fix thinking its way out of a fix, or at least trying to, the way Virgil in his big poem describes it, and for a moment you think
everything's new that's been known forever—swamp-thistle, bull-thistle, touch-me-not, red clover?"
I like how many questions there are, and I like the uncertainty or ambivalence that Phillips captures in other ways, too: there are multiple poems in which something is or isn't, or happens or doesn't, or is and isn't. In his review of Silverchest in the April 15, 2013 issue of the New Yorker, Dan Chiasson writes of these poems as Phillips's way of "tracking the heart's false starts, close shaves, and dead ends," and I think that a major way Phillips does that is through the language: the questions and ambivalence and ambiguity that I like so much.
If you're curious to read more, several of the poems are available online in one form or another. You can watch/listen to Phillips reading the book's first poem, "Just the Wind for a Sound, Softly," here: I really like the mix of concrete and oblique, and the sense of time passing: a season, many seasons. I like "Bluegrass" for the crispness of the image of the second stanza and the conversational tone of the first. And I already linked to "Blizzard" but here it is again: I love the lines about the starlings and their shadows on a frozen pond, and also the last ten lines, which are a translation of/variation on a poem attributed to the Roman emperor Hadrian. ...more
I picked this book up at the library based mostly on the cover art (a collage by the author) and the back cover blurbs, which talk about how these poeI picked this book up at the library based mostly on the cover art (a collage by the author) and the back cover blurbs, which talk about how these poems are, in the words of Joshua Marie Wilkinson, "trafficking in the near-spoken, the peculiar particulars, and in the unseen textures of lived experience." The twenty-three poems in the book are mostly short, generally a page or two long, though there are three longer works as well. The edition I read doesn't have an author statement, but this blog post by rob mcclennan quotes from one in which Leslie talks about how the book uses collage as a technique, about how collage may "convey instability and collapse" but can also be "a kind of visionary or metamorphic medium."
Mostly what I liked in this book were fragments, bits that cohered, rather than whole poems (though the poem called "I Meant to Write You a Letter" is an exception: it's eight lines long and totally satisfying). I love the tightness of the language in the first numbered section of one of the longer poems, "Margaret Fuller," which you can read in rob mclennan's aforementioned post. I like this, from "The Age of Parts":
One can take details from a still life and render their motions the hip of the glass the body of the paint
"My desire is to argue/on behalf of the world," says one pair of lines in "That Obscure Coincidence of Feeling," and I like the bits of other poems that feel most like that, like bits of the world caught in words in ways that somehow resonate. I love the first three lines of "Something about Bundles":
This is what you do with a list let the air in
And this, from "Poem with Moveable Parts":
there is the newly emergent like a crush a perfect piece of air how we dive into vessels with our hands
I. I've never seen any of Chris Marker's films, but this book made me want to. (You can watch La Jetée online, or it's available on DVD, along withI. I've never seen any of Chris Marker's films, but this book made me want to. (You can watch La Jetée online, or it's available on DVD, along with Marker's 1982 film, Sans Soleil.) (I've never read Moby-Dick, either, and this book made me want to do that as well.)
II. Howe's book is mostly in prose: nineteen numbered sections ranging in length from a paragraph to twenty-two pages, with images from films interspersed with the text: an airplane seen from below, a woman with an inscrutable expression, a scene of dismay, a fuzzy image of, what, a shadow on water? Soldiers cross a frozen lake; a balloon hovers/wavers. Another blur; three blonde children walking; that woman, again. There is one other image: the return address on an envelope, postmarked January 1943 from Roswell, New Mexico: a letter from Howe's then-future husband, now deceased.
III. Don't worry: this isn't going to be nineteen sections long.
IV. What's interesting and challenging about this book is the way Howe brings together so many different strands. She's writing about the films of Chris Marker, sometimes in detail, scene by scene, but also writes that she "was drawn to the project because of the fact of [her] husband's death and [her] wish to find a way to document his life and work" (5). Other filmmakers make an appearance: Dziga Vertov, Andrei Tarkovsky. Howe writes about Ivan's Childhood and also about the movie-going experiences of her own childhood, and also about her husband's life as a pilot in wartime, and also about the death of Lenin and Three Songs about Lenin, and also about American literature she knows well: Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, the idea of montage in their work.
V. The word "fact" keeps recurring. "Without words, what are facts?" (7). The idea of "the primacy of the "factual"" in Vertov's work (9). Poets and nonfiction filmakers as working by "factual telepathy" (7). The world is "flooded with facts" (13).
VI. There's something so satisfying about the kind of close-reading that Howe is doing of Marker's films. Like this:
La Jetée, composed almost entirely of photo stills, begins abruptly with a violent out-of-field-movement-sound-image, the roar of revving and hovering jet engines. Sometimes I think I hear sirens, until the whine or scream of aviation doubles and dissolves into cathedral music: voices in a choir sing passages from the Russian Liturgy of the Good Saturday. In northern Russia, Iceland, and other northern places, the sun never goes out of sight in summer. La Jetée's aborted soundtrack takeoff evokes technicist and eschatological worldviews. Immediately time could be going either way. (13-14)
VII. There is in this book a sense of "oscillating between presence and absence" (10). Howe writes about her husband; Howe writes to her husband. Howe writes about her husband's image in photographs, in a home-movie; she writes about his studio, now gone: she "can only perceive its imprint or trace" (25). Her husband's daughter, from an earlier marriage, "remembers listening to the noise of waves breaking over pebbles in the cove at night, how tides pulled them under, how they swirled and regrouped in the drift and came back" (25). "A documentary work is an attempt to recapture someone something somewhere looking back" (50). ...more