Murmur, Laura Mullen’s fifth book, melds form—a fragmentary dance between prose and verse—with content—a sprawling meditation on authorship, readersh...more Murmur, Laura Mullen’s fifth book, melds form—a fragmentary dance between prose and verse—with content—a sprawling meditation on authorship, readership, genre expectations, and murder. The central conceit of the work is the detective story, which Mullen is at pains to undermine. To do so, she evokes a number of familiar, and unsolved, mysteries—The annunciation of the Virgin Mary, the Jack the Ripper murders, scientific investigations into the fossil record. The tenth chapter posits “The Detective story is a kind of intellectual game.” The reader assembles the story, inhabiting the detective role and deriving satisfaction from the possibility that she is as smart and capable of completing the puzzle as the investigator. This chapter presents a series of tenets for the genre (“1. The reader must have equal opportunity for solving the mystery,” “2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be played on the reader...”) that are immediately undermined by responses designed to undermine such strict guidelines. For example, in response to tenet #2: “As well, and most painfully, you didn’t give us a chance, since for one thing you were lying like mad.” The point, it seems, is that no case is so simply solved, so satisfying as the detective novel would have the reader believe. Suffice to say, this is no ordinary murder. The victim, a woman found dead at the seashore, complete with ripped gown, shredded stockings, and a gaping abdominal wound, is resurrected to assist the writer in telling her story. The author, ferreting out the narrative and cosseting her characters, is conflated with the detective. It seems as apt a metaphor for writing as any. Moments of absurd interaction across planes of reality and immateriality are the closest approximation of plot and character development in Murmur. They serve as concrete islands for the reader to rest on in what is otherwise a sea of abstraction. We are given many versions of the events surrounding the murder, and the most uncanny among them ring truest: “He takes her lipstick: leans close to the glass, making a mouth as if to kiss his reflection, while behind him she staggers to her feet, shoving the edges of the wound together, trying to close that hole as though her body were a shabby robe a bit too small, worn late into the day, food-stained, rumpled...” These interludes are clues to the reader that Murmur is not concerned with approximating the sort of heightened reality depicted in pulp novels of crime and passion. Rather, it is concerned with examining the unrealities of these stories and exposing our prurient societal fascination with gory details by, in turns, withholding and giving us what we want. It is perhaps worthwhile to note that the chapter entitled “Evidence” is an extended consideration of the story/essay binary. Later, in her chapter “L’aura,” Mullen notes, “(This tense, also called passe simple, passe defini, and passe literaire, is reserved for strictly literary narration and...also used in fairy tales and stories that involve an obvious suspension of belief. French children know, automatically, that a story told in that tense is a tale, not a true story.)”
I heard Tim Seibles read his poem “Bonobo” at the 2005 AWP conference in Vancouver. He was participating in a panel on “Transgressive” poetry and the...moreI heard Tim Seibles read his poem “Bonobo” at the 2005 AWP conference in Vancouver. He was participating in a panel on “Transgressive” poetry and the poem, which appears in Buffalo Head Solos, might be called transgressive in some circles. I’m a tad ashamed to admit that I bought the book based on Mr. Seibles’s very charismatic reading of this one poem which, on the page in the light of day, does not live up to the risks it takes. Mental note: never buy a book based on how well the author reads his/her poems aloud. While I’m still a little sketchy as to exactly what “transgressive” poetry is, it seems that the writers on the AWP panel all shared a distaste for “confessional” poetry and saw their movement as a more socially aware and engaged answer to more inward-looking poets of the past. In his introduction to Buffalo Head Solos, Seibles addresses his own level of social engagement in a series of reductive assessments of American societal ills, beginning with the marginalization of poetry and American poets’ willing acceptance of said marginalization. I wasn’t aware that anyone was arguing against excessive imagination in poetry, but that’s beside the point. To a certain extent, I agree with Seibles that poetry should take risks. In fact, I agree with many of the ideas in his introduction. For instance “Writing poems in SUV-America can feel like fiddling amidst catastrophe, but if one must fiddle shouldn’t one play that thing till it smokes?” and “Maybe we could measure more critically the distance that separates us from, say, a non-academic audience” and “We should pursue [readers] as though we are love-struck and cannot help it.” All are hip little encouragements to the writer struggling with placing a voice in the public arena, and I’m OK with that. What I don’t agree with is the unconsidered and moralistic appraisals of Americans’ mass media mentality. My beef with this book is mainly the tendency toward easy answers to tough questions and the wholesale lack of the very contemplative rigor that Seibles laments in his introduction. Seibles constructs a racism-capitalism-poverty triad through copious invocations of fast food restaurants and sitcoms. His use of these brand names is at times critical and at times complicit. There are some troubling assumptions that point to a very significant underlying racial tension, namely that whites have been the catalyst for all social ills (“a little rape here...a little genocide there”). Such claims ignore history and current events. Rape and genocide are the tools of every race and nation, unfortunately. In “The Matrix”, Seibles uses a quote from a movie that pulled in over $170 million at the box office as his epigraph, “The matrix is the world pulled over your eyes.” This could have been an extremely nuanced poem exploring the contradiction of a box office hit that urges viewers to be aware of the illusion they’re living. Rather, it’s a trite list of business jingles and pop phrases used to consider the nature of loneliness and, inexplicably, marriage. Seibles does have a flair for sound-driven, generative language. He seems to be mainly concerned with the value of utterance, the ascription of meaning onto sound whether it be instrumental music, a cow’s evening lowing, or the buzz of a mosquito. Unfortunately, these moments are buried in long passages of inconsistent dialect (the mosquito is personified as a southern black man, as is the cow, as is an oversexed cat—there seems to be a pattern here) and rhapsodized female genitalia. I stopped counting how many times Seibles referred to “tilting hips”, “honeyed” parts, and spread thighs midway through the book. So if “transgressive” means blush-worthy and more than slightly embarrassing, then yes, this book is certainly transgressive. I, for one, was hoping that “transgressive” might mean something more than that. (less)
This rather anachronistic, decidedly un-bowdlerized translation of Catullus' poems is my favorite of the translations I've read so far. It's overtly b...moreThis rather anachronistic, decidedly un-bowdlerized translation of Catullus' poems is my favorite of the translations I've read so far. It's overtly bawdy and poignant by turns.(less)
I was prepared not to like Elizabeth Bishop. Nature, traditional form, rhyme all that stuff I'm not terribly fond of in poetry are in evidence. But on...moreI was prepared not to like Elizabeth Bishop. Nature, traditional form, rhyme all that stuff I'm not terribly fond of in poetry are in evidence. But once I got past that prejudice (Why do I even have that prejudice? I love Wordsworth and Blake, so why can't I abide formalism in contemporary writing?), I found that I really enjoyed the content, much of which forms the locus of my own obsessions: travel, outsiderhood, a sort of gestalt-style vision, ekphrasis, etc. Her verse is distant and observational and, at times, intensely humorous. Also, gothic in its creepiness (c.f. "First Death in Nova Scotia"). Especially interesting was "Invitation To Miss Marianne Moore" which struck me at the time as having resonance with Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry". But then, everything strikes me as having resonances with that poem.
There was a lot to like in this book--I enjoy the risks Moss takes. I also enjoy the way she relentlessly explores the many facets of facelessness. Ho...moreThere was a lot to like in this book--I enjoy the risks Moss takes. I also enjoy the way she relentlessly explores the many facets of facelessness. However, I'm not sure I can buy into her coining of the term "limited fork poetics", the concept of which seems so close to that of hypertext so as the two seem virtually indistinguishable. Do we really need a term for hypertext as it applies particularly to the practice of writing poetry? While I'm all for Googling (or Blackle-ing) and I believe in its value as a writing resource, I find Moss' convoluted explanation of LFP a little affected and self-congratulatory.(less)
Dig the voice. However, reading the poems aloud was difficult. I can't figure out the line breaks and the lack of punctuation gives no indication of o...moreDig the voice. However, reading the poems aloud was difficult. I can't figure out the line breaks and the lack of punctuation gives no indication of oral phrasing. Then again, I can never figure out why lines are broken where they're broken. There's probably all sorts of scholarship about how brilliant O'Hara's line breaks are. Meaning I'm just obtuse. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the colloquialisms and all. I've been challenged to use the term "wet fart" successfully in a poem, so O'Hara's use of the term "snow fart" in the final poem of the collection, "Fantasy," gives me hope that it can be done. (less)
Tony Tost’s Complex Sleep is a fugue-like arrangement riffing on such disparate themes as semiotics, nature, technology, power and the project of writ...moreTony Tost’s Complex Sleep is a fugue-like arrangement riffing on such disparate themes as semiotics, nature, technology, power and the project of writing itself. Tost invokes figures as diverse as Isaiah, Socrates, and Orpheus. The reader, in danger of becoming lost in the fragmentary nature of these compositions, is constantly rescued by the writer’s many returns to the aforementioned thematic scaffolding. This may be due in part to the recursive nature of the project. In a footnote to the title poem, Tost writes:
“Complex Sleep” is an index of alphabetically arranged sentences and significant syntactical units (presented in sentence form) that made up a prose poem called Complex Sleep which was written between August of 2004 and February of 2005 and was intended as a reconsideration of statements, assumptions and values embedded in previously written pieces. For instance, the sentence “Two swing sets are nearly touching” from my book Invisible Bride was rewritten in Complex Sleep as “Two sentences are nearly touching.” Most of the sentences however, diverged much more distinctly from a seed sentence or line.<\pre> The result is anaphora—a litany of lines wherein the alphabetical repetition of words becomes an expansive meditation on the multivalence of the words themselves: “A voice in the body / drowns a voice in the mind. A voice / invested with power makes me white with desire.” The meditation is quickly broken as the alphabetical progression moves forward, disorienting the reader: “A wiener dog on the way home (judging the dead) eating a possum.” The method of composition undercuts our conventional notions of context and asks us to consider the ultimate arbitrariness of those notions. A similar style of formal constraint rules “Squint.” Each line is constructed of four short phrasal units separated by commas, creating a rhythm that builds steam with each added modification. Content-wise, the phrases have less to do with description or elaboration of meaning than with how the juxtaposition of ambiguous words with more concretely signifying words creates meaning. For instance, in the phrase “one is often its child,” “child” is the only unambiguous unit—every other word relies solely on context to reveal its purpose. The entire line reads, “The goal is far distant, it becomes the wind, one is often its child, of its inner eye.” Again, the line itself is abstract rather than specific and also relies on its context to give it meaning. Unfortunately for meaning junkies, the poem as a whole isn’t necessarily forthcoming. I am reminded of William S. Burroughs’ cut-up method of composition. If one were to cut the poem in quarters and rearrange the phrasal units according to a set pattern, the assumptions and values involved would remain intact and the form would be maintained. This is not to say that Complex Sleep is devoid of meaning. It is, however, to say that, for some of these poems, meaning is in evidence more in the form than in the words themselves. In “World Jelly” (the title of which, we are told in a note, was derived from the Guided By Voices Song Title Generator), the reader is treated to a number of lines that seem humorous at first blush: “Prom king grill work,” Up upon night / with Rufus Iscariot / eating meat like / there was a stalking” or “Asshole serpent / write this down.” But this is hardly a whimsical poem. Other couplets serve as interludes of gravity: “Compare notes / with the beaten animal” and “Words taken / away from families.” These are themes that crop up throughout the book—intimacy and isolation from the natural world, the loss of the ability to speak—and they mark a dark progression in the poem that leads us through negation and acts of cruelty. We are never comfortably in one tonal space before the terms have shifted. The speaker says, “Sun I do not / want you on my back” and asks, “When can I / be cruel again”. But the speaker does not appear to be wholly without conscience or feeling, “Desire for brethren / was not prompted / accept the light / where no light is due / The affect of our happiness / and so easily supplied / form is evidence / of the lonesome rhythm”. In presenting these contradictions so starkly, Tost creates an almost unbridgeable dichotomy between the desire for brethren and loneliness to disturbing effect. So it is with some relief that we reach the untitled prose poem preceding “An Emperor’s Nostalgia.” The justified lines are some visual comfort, as is the fairy-tale like narrative wherein an emperor effectively wreaks havoc upon his kingdom as he spreads decrees (which are more like poetic declamations than orders; he tells his subjects “we are the currency of heaven”) by word of mouth. What ensues is like the parlor game “telephone,” as the decree alters through repeated tellings. “In the North, for instance, his subjects believe that, as in Heaven, the kingdom’s new currency is art.” It is a particularly telling translation on the subject’s part and the kingdom disintegrates as artistic works are traded for commodities. To fix the mess he’s made, the emperor “composes the story of his kingdom, which becomes, miraculously, his means of buying it back.” There is much to be inferred here—the relative value of speech vs. writing, the absurdity of the emperor engaging in the very same economy that has ruined his kingdom as a means of imposing order, the power the Word has over people, etc. “An Emperor’s Nostalgia,” then, is the incantatory antidote to the mistakes made in the prose piece. Whereas the prose closes in the terror of the kingdom, the speaker of this poem proclaims, “This is the end of terror.” A 12-part romantic address ostensibly set in a domestic context (with house/home ripe for interpretation), “An Emperor’s Nostalgia” is the emotional center of the book and, as such, is worth the price of admission. In a mere 122 pages, Complex Sleep manages to hit an impossibly wide variety of registers and that alone is a feat to be reckoned with. There is one characteristic, however, that is absolutely consistent: Even in a sequence of non sequiturs, the writing is lyrically breathtaking. Perhaps it can be taken as the compliment I mean it to be when I say that I was exhausted as I turned the last page of the book. Tost asks the reader to do a considerable amount of work in order to engage his poems. Once engaged, though, I couldn’t help but be caught up in the milieu.