(Disclaimer: this is a review from a writerly and pedagogical perspective.)
James Longenbach’s contribution to The Art of series, The Art of the Poetic Line, is almost sublime in its usefulness. The lineation of a poem is central to any discussion of craft, yet in my experience it tends to be treated as something mysterious—you either “hear” it or you don’t. In workshops, instructors and the more confident students will attempt to relineate your poems for you, usually with some kind of poetic explanation (if any) that sounds more precise than it is, and you slowly begin to “hear” it too, though you are hearing as though through someone else’s ears. There isn’t enough vocabulary on the table to talk about lineation, and the inaccessibility of The Line Break to language can allow for more or less concealed aesthetic preferences to be pressed on poems in the guise of superior intuition. (I, for one, have been guilty of doing this on occasion.) As Longenbach mentions in the preface, “line is notoriously difficult to talk about”; but he procedes to do just that, and so gracefully that he manages to demystify the line without stripping it entirely of the peculiar aura of minor magic that accompanies it.
Industrial Village and It’s Hill bisected part 1. Ed Ruscha. 1982. Oil Sobre Tela 21x404 cm
Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart is composed of a constellation of voices. If there is something identifiably characteristic about the book’s many voices, it is where they take place. Calvocoressi begins the book surveying the small-town landscape in “Pastoral”: “I watched our town, the mines and quarries; shale, brown-stone, the bell-works not far off and the church our body wanted.” Calvocorresi’s countryside is not idyllic, not the font of meaning as it is in conventional pastorals. The shepherd is now a miner or a worker in a factory. The common place is not the cathedral of outdoors but a church shaped by common want, the plural “our” in the single “body.” Calvocoressi explores the two sides of “want” as a noun and a verb, as absence and hope. “Want” takes shape in the common tragedy of a circus fire which robs a town of its children. It is in the cab of each car parked at the adult drive-in and in the chest of the young speaker at the edge of the woods watching. It is in the popular vision of Amelia Earhart, a Depression-era symbol of social mobility who, like the dreams of the working class, vanishes. Many voices compose The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart but like the quarry, the river, the bell works or the mines, they are part of the same landscape of need. It is a testament to Calvocoressi’s writing that she can inscribe that landscape into the book’s varied voices, the choir singing, holding up “the church our body wanted.”
Industrial Village and It’s Hill bisected part 1. Ed Ruscha. 1982. Oil Sobre Tela 21x404 cm
In the title poem, Earhart exists in the collective ima gination of the town as a figure of hope and its disappearance. Calvocoressi traces the reaction to Amelia Earhart’s disappearance through ten different voices ranging from a flight mechanic to a housewife to her husband, George Putnam. Bystander Clem Sanders describes Earhart among a list of other objects and people in town. He just missed her waving and witnesses only her back as she enters the plane. In each of the poem’s sections, Earhart is a ghost, even to those who knew her. The different speakers project their own wants onto her phantom figure. Flight mechanic Bo Mcneely confesses that he visits the airfield sometimes thinking about the brief interactions he had with Earhart. McNeely is torn in his opinion of Earhart. Calvocoressi represents his ambivalence in his speech:
One time she said
the body of a plane was like the belly
of a horse. The whole bar cried
Crazy bitch when I told them that.
The significance of Earhart’s lyrical metaphor changes from sentence to sentence and even within a single sentence. A moment of remembered intimacy turns to one of shared intimacy when the bar cries together. After the stanza break, the speaker reveals that the bar is laughing at Earhart. Each line revises the one it follows as though McNeely is adjusting his image of Earhart on the fly. The lines enact a conflict which occurs within McNeely between his projected image of Earhart and the harsh social reality which he inhabits. In the lines following McNeely’s anecdote, he tells of how his father used to come home from the mines and beat him, leaving him marked by soot and bruises, as though the mine itself came up from the earth to lay hands on him. McNeely’s section ends with him recounting a dream where Earhart returns. They sit under the plane and she tells him about the places she’s been, the world he’ll never get to see. The reality of his social immobility and the impulse to escape alternately surface in his speech, as though stretching to breath and feeling soot in your lungs.
Stack 52 © Boris Ostrerov http://bit.ly/prtJRM
The Chameleon Couch
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 2011. 116 pp.
I won’t lie to you — the day I started reading this book, I was tripping. In Book IV of The Odyssey, as Menelaus and Telemachus weep over their fallen comrades, Helen slips into their wine a drug that undoes “every grief and rage” and dries a man’s tears though his brother or son be slain before his eyes. Called nepenthe by poets, it’s known as oxycodone to us moderns. Helen got hers from Egypt, but I got mine from Walgreen’s. I’d just had dental surgery, so naturally I reached for two things that always make me happy, an opium derivative and poetry. They work even better in combination; just ask E. A. Poe.
Not that, in this instance, a pharmaceutical boost was needed. I liked Yusef Komunyakaa immediately when I read Dien Cai Dau (1988), fell hard for him with Neon Vernacular (1993), and decided I wanted to be him when I grew up after Talking Dirty to the Gods (2001). So, naturally I swam, through ebbing pain and growing bliss, toward The Chameleon Couch, his thirteenth book of poems.
As I read, though, I thought, dang, this is hard. And beautiful as well, and often funny. Thus the poem “Grunge” begins:Ha, ha! His sweetie doesn’t get it, so the poet explains himself. But somehow the explanation shades over into a boxing metaphor (“But I’ve been shoved up against / frayed ropes too, & I had to learn / to bob & weave, to duck & hook”), and then a show-biz one (“sometimes a man wants only a hug / when something two-steps him / toward a little makeshift stage”), and ends this way:
No, sweetheart, I said courtly love.
I was thinking of John Donne’s
“Yet this enjoys before it woo,”
but my big hands were dreaming
Pinetop’s boogie woogie piano
taking the ubiquitous night apart.
Not Courtney.See what I mean? Beautiful and hard, too. Hard on its shiny, crystalline surface; harder still in its depths, in a darkness that ends the devil knows where. Days later, when I was off smoothies and on solid food again, I read and reread these poems, and they remained difficult.
Somehow, between hellhounds
& a guitar solo made of gutstring
& wood, I outlived a stormy night
with snow on my eyelids.
on Barney Rosset and the history of Grove Press
Grove Cover image by Roy Kuhlman courtesy of Arden Riordan
The Fifties, from Beckett to Rechy
On October 4, 2009, I flew from Iowa City to New York to conduct interviews for a history of Grove Press. Everyone I contacted had agreed to meet with me except Barney Rosset. In a series of emails, his fourth wife Astrid Myers had firmly but politely resisted fixing a date, telling me that it all depended on how Barney was feeling. I had made all my travel arrangements, set to coincide with the 50th anniversary celebration of the publication of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, without knowing whether I’d be able to interview Rosset, the legendary owner of Grove Press — which had published Burroughs’s masterpiece along with an entire canon of post-war avant-garde literature — and editor of the Evergreen Review, the premiere underground magazine of the sixties counterculture. I was eager to meet the man who bought the fledgling reprint house for $3,000 in 1951, built it up into one of the most influential publishers of the post-war era, and then was summarily fired after selling it to Anne Getty for $2,000,000 in 1986. I checked into my room at the Chelsea hotel, called Astrid, and succeeded in scheduling an interview for the following day.
Taking my cue from the Mad Men-era photos I’d seen of Rosset with a martini, I bought a bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin at a liquor store around the corner from the East Village walk-up he shares with Astrid. Well into his eighties, Rosset remains spry and loquacious; though his body is bent over with age, his motions are animated and he speaks with assurance. He emerged from behind the glass brick partition separating the kitchen and living quarters from the long, narrow front room, and when he saw the blue bottle of gin it seemed, madeleine-like, to immediately evoke the past. Without preamble or introduction, he launched into a lengthy memory of shipping out from New York through the Panama Canal and around Australia to Bombay. His ultimate destination was China, where he’d received a commission, through his father’s government connections, as a Photographic Unit Commander for the Army Signal Corps. At the opening of the voyage he’d been given a blue plastic canteen, which he filled with gin instead of water. By the time he arrived in Bombay, the plastic had melted into the gin, turning it blue. He drank it anyway. It took over ten minutes for Rosset to mention Grove, and when he did it was in order to dismiss everything that had been written about it. “Something you have to understand about how Grove Press came about — nothing like what seems to be written down,” he said. “It’s really a big problem. People write about Grove — they think I came out of an egg or something.”
Good Reading by Ed Ruscha. Beet stain on moire. 36x 40 in. Collection Leo Castelli Gallery New York.
Often, when one thinks of writers, they think of the lone soul up in the attic, typing a stream of inspired material. William Faulkner in the boiler room, scribbling As I Lay Dying by the light of his miner’s helmet. Perhaps this is true of a few writers, but for the most part, writing is a form of dialogue and one not necessarily restricted to dead writers. At the same time that Faulkner was in the boiler room, Hemingway was meeting with Gertrude Stein. At the turn of the century, E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf were having coffee in Bloomsbury, London. Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop constantly exchanged letters between Boston and Diamante, Brazil. During my time at Irvine’s MFA program, I have come to realize the value of having reliable readers and critics. There is none more reliable than Daniel Yu. I’ve worked with Daniel on and off for four years in workshop, as an editor of New Forum and as a friend. He has started up a copy-editing business, Handproofs, catered specifically towards creative writing and literary non-fiction. You can try out a free sample edit on their website. If anyone is interested in quality and personal copy-editing services, visit Daniel’s website at http://handproofs.com/
Ed Ruscha. Untitled 2004
My girlfriend and I are staying at a motel for a few days while we wait to move into our new place. When she goes out at night to tutor, I spend the time reading, smoking or trying to write. I love the familiarity of motel rooms. The hum of the mini-fridge, the towels stacked neatly on a rack, one fanned out like a scallop’s shell. The room is set up as for the needs of an imaginary tenant. In stories, the man who goes off to die stays at a motel in the city. He spends whatever money he has left seeing all the sights he’s never had the time to see and doing everything he’s been afraid of doing. He meets a girl at a hotel bar and they love each other passionately and honestly because he is going to die. They spend the night together and when she feels for him in the morning, he is gone. A note in his place. They are supposed to meet again in the square by the fountain, she’ll stay with him, but he never shows up and if it were a film, the frame would draw back from her face to show her cold, folding her arms, looking from stranger to stranger as snow begins to drift down on the park and obscure the shot. Back at the motel, he waits to die in his Sunday suit. He orders Chinese and eats it at the edge of the bed in front of the TV. A fitting end, considering he spent his life performing pretty much the same routine, perhaps without the ceremony of the suit.
Motels cater to our familiar and comfortable desires. The maids make the room around you, so that one feels touched, as though wrapped by a thin sheet. They are the music piped out of the portable radio that hangs from the laundry cart. Outside in the courtyard parking lot, a couple walks to the pool painted in tattoos that have softened with the bodies of their owners. A woman unloads the luggage from her truck into the room below my balcony where her child plays out of view. She unties the black lab in the back, Ursa, who stretches her legs after the long ride. There is a grace in the woman’s movements as she unloads the truck, an easy capability which allows her to enjoy the world as well as ride out its recessions. Her daughter calls to her from the room. I imagine she is dancing, framed by the door and the warm light of the room, which is home. The woman turns—tied-back, matte black hair run with a vein of copper. She smiles in attendance.
PETER CAMPION on the wages of skepticism
in the work of three young poets.
Preserver © Andy Yoder 2009
Courtesy of Winkleman Gallery
Noose and Hook
University of Pittsburgh Press, February 2010. 64 pp.
C. Dale Young
Four Way Books, March 2010. 100 pp.
Graywolf, May 2011. 104 pp.
Even our common use of the word “inspiration” suggests it: some power larger than the writer we’re reading, some mysterious force has breathed life into the sentences, so that reading them allows us to suspend disbelief, and experience transport. Poetry in particular has long been associated with otherworldly visitations, with possession by the gods or the muses. But poetry also needs our capacity for skepticism. In fact, belief and disbelief tend to become mutually entailing in poetry. With its source in the individual voice, the poem sometimes asks us to listen beyond the dubious chatter of everyday collective life and believe in the intense singularity of individual expression. Think of the centripetal force of Emily Dickinson’s quatrains. The same process can work in the reverse direction too: the poem sometimes asks us to doubt the limits of private consciousness, and move outward, believing in the restorative strength of the surrounding world. Think of the expansive sweep of Walt Whitman’s lines.
Three new collections by Lynn Emanuel, C. Dale Young, and Tom Sleigh show the strength and subtlety of contemporary American poetry at its best. But they do more than that. In their unique ways, each of these books not only reflects and enacts struggles between belief and doubt, and between private and public, but also suggests what greater vitality that work might enable.
After “On Criticism”
On the street, there were others like myself
made curious or bored by the storm.
Passing one another on the sidewalk,
we didn’t smile or nod as the wind took us
by the hair.––We swayed in our steps
like anchored kelp, air thick with the watery
richness of a sleeper’s first drawn breath.
Franz Kline at the Museum of Modern Art.
To say that writing helps us
see a thing more clearly
is to say there is an ideal
nature by which to know it.
Writing helps us shine
lights of myriad color on a thing
and what is returned
is slanted light.
Atsuko Tanaka. Electric Dress. 1957.
As a child, I used to venture into the garage, dark but for the afternoon sun peaking through the slats in the garage door. I wanted to sit in the driver’s seat of my dad’s Accord, arrayed with so many buttons, levers, pedals. A place of control while sitting. I turned the stiff wheel, set and unset the emergency break, played up and down the scales of the radio tuner. I was a bored child with not too many arranged activities so I would spend my afternoons like this when no one was home, sitting in the dark. It was pleasure to me. The same as when I am writing. Or a particular kind of writing, where I forget that the piece is for some one or something, when all aesthetic demands are internalized, simplified into a question of whether I like it or not. It is the part of the process I enjoy the most, though it is only part. There is the laborious editing process, a honing of the object, which sometimes represents the bulk of the process. When I have creative droughts, I look to past poems trying to remember how I wrote them. The poems resist this kind of history and appear whole, as if magically conceived in one piece. The private performance of the poem’s construction is lost both to the reader and the author.
I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles for the first time a couple weeks ago and I was struck by a drawing in crayon by Atsuko Tanaka. She had drawn a series of lights and circuits, drafts for an electric dress she would later build and wear to performances. I was envious of her ability to live in her work, the weight of the neon tubes and copper wire on her shoulders, the shape of light.