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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Lee Ann Brown, In the Laurels, Caught

Author’s note: This blog is becoming a record of poems that participate in a species of seriality.

A lattice of narratives is interrupted, interwoven, as the French Broad River traces hills and coves between hills. A parallel text flows, miming cursive, in  crossweave at the bottom of each page. A coverlet is a product of sewing; swatches are tacked together to form a crazy quilt or a lacey afghan throw like my grandmother made, joining crotchet and sewing arts. Nanny knew and, as ward boss for a socialist leaning democratic party constituency, understood the economic and social history encoded in this sentence from Lee Ann Brown’s In the Laurels, Caught (Fence 2013), ”I think who owns the loom thought they got to claim the coverlet but the fingers that labor own the pattern once they weave it” (129). Here encoded: elementary Marxism concerning the means of production and a romance perhaps concerning the essential integrity of artisanry. This theme is repeated more than once, “’The boss’s brains are under the worker’s cap’” (139).  I feel this way when I look at the Rockefeller Gardens where I once planted, weeded, cut and trimmed, constructing a pattern of drainage canals and flower beds whose grace and beauty was entirely mine, my heritage. But a quilt or coverlet. unlike a garden, and similar to a song, is transmissible. That is the key to Brown’s engagement with the poetics and social history of place, a study I place in the line of Charles Olson’s Maximus, Tyrone Williams’s Howell, and my own The Cranberry Island Series.

I savor notes I can relate to only subjectively. Lee Ann Brown’s writing has an exquisitely delicate touch. Yellow transparent apples, I recently read, have apparently become orchard favorites again; although in my memory, the last of these varietals were the succulent favorites of deer on November mornings, now disappeared. Language gives song a different nature [from that of the perishable tomato]. “Lattice” is a word crucial to this collection, as is the notion of senses being caught, among laurels also known as rhododendron. The botanizing found on many pages of in this collection (also a “day book”) is redolent of the mountains. I remember the little steel pegs on the drying frames for gossamer curtains that pricked my fingers when I helped my grandmother with the stretching and drying of gossamer curtains. Then harvest afternoons in July, Brown writes:

   After tasting tomatoes picked
            fresh from a hot garden
I once wrote:
   Tomatoes like warm bleeding hearts
and could eat no other after that—
ghostlike grocery store “hot house” varietals
did nothing for me
But songs are made from a rarefied material
Language gives them a different nature (21)

Loss of the real is a result of commercialization, “postcards” Olson wrote. Images of bleeding and ghost, life and death, are the products of Brown’s judicious processes of composition. The object is “a coverlet that will not rot or unravel” (21). Her poetry invites the reader to unpack ancient memories, as I have allowed myself to do. She distinguishes between songs and language as between the product and means of production. Unlike the slave, cited in the vignette of the loom and ownership of the pattern, the worker must come to own the means of production. On one level, this is the project of In the Laurels, Caught, one among differently layered projects. Swatches or medallions of language are to a degree resistant to decay and unravelling, although the written word, especially as found in poetry, is not always exemplary with respect normative usage. The meaning may lie in a ghost presence. Emerson and Duncan taught that. One of the finest poems in the series, “How to Pronounce Appalachia” is very aware of the relation between song and language, weaving and interweaving, “I am sick with love for the poem.” Brown is a very analytical poet, “unraveling … is a good thing” as long as the variations on the old pattern is preserved “don’t lose track  / of the old one  / so you can come back to its lovely form / for another variation” (130). This poem has a secondary title, “Overshot Dictionary of Woven Names Drawn from out the Black Box of History.” It is a collage of titles, names and quotations, allusions to texts on Appalachian weaving and music, a musical anthology of found materials. Lee Ann has a beautiful voice.

Comprehension requires reading back and forth among elements, a weaving on the reader’s part. In In the Laurels, Caught  a river of text in a different hand meanders across the foot of each page, a thread that provides metacommentary, “Sometimes Lee Ann rhymes and sometimes she don’t” (22). It’s a peoples vernacular and peoples’ relation to the riverine landscape that is often reordered here, in grayed-out scrawls. Simulated handwriting provides both gloss and remnants from the notebook material from which the poems are constructed, gloss as to landscape and social history and diaristic note as to the weaving and interweaving of meaning.

Writing’s source in dreams takes the form of words discovered upon waking, “Bibliomantic,”  for instance, is the seed from which sprouts the line “The mist hasn’t burnt off the river yet” (89). I quote from “The Elemental Year,” a poem that involves a May Day-like ceremonial dance around a Vitex or Chaste Tree, whose medicinal properties both promotes estrogen production and restrains male sexual urges. The poet’s daughter participates. The rhythms are local to both place and family; they are cosmogonic: “My daughter stood across the circle from me.” A poem retrieved from the seed of a dream offers a compelling reading of human agency as nested within environmental registers.

The last poem in the collection, “Coverlet,” returns the reader to the garden as sacred place. Like much important American literature, there’s an edenic toponymy. There’s a privacy that excludes much of the shouting that characterizes this world in its current form, “While no one is looking / In my own dimension // Find each her own motif / A shady place” (143). Consider the values here as we learn to live in a world without either privacy or empowerment.
Donald Wellman, December 2014

Monday, December 8, 2014

Whit Griffin, A Far-Shining Crystal

Whit Griffin, A Far-Shining Crystal, The Cultural Society, 2013

I’ll begin with perceptions that lead through bizarre concatenations of thoughts and images to sentiments I share, “a war-mongering patriarchal people /destroy a goddess-honoring agrarian / society” (1). This sounds familiar to me. Was it Karen Armstrong who persuaded me or was it my mother? The project of modern poetry has been to discover that “the galley slave is too busy rowing / to contemplate redemption.” So “Venus in Mesopotamia,” the first poem in Whit Griffin’s A Far-Shining Crystal, suggests. The goddess theme metamorphoses into  the masculinist, war-mongering theme of “manifest destiny” before the hapless galley slave is introduced. Has not the reality of the exiled oarsman been the theme of my work? My attraction to the seafaring elegies of the Anglo Saxons? In A Far-Shining Crystal, the meticulous Whit Griffin discovers the cynical truth, “Actions / that go unnoticed were not committed in vain” (10). What cast of mind finds springs of enchantment in conundrums like those suggested so frequently, so compactly in these poems? “The River of Milk, The Snake Canoe” includes in italics higher order wisdom, let us call it, a blend of myth and history, collapsing the difference,  “A griffin, imaged in a crystal, / produces abundance of milk” (11). Is this a self-reflection? Possibly, apotheosis, maternal instinct! Thanks to Google I find the sentence in George Frederick Kunz’s The Curious Lore of Precious Stones: Being a Description of Their Sentiments (1913). I believe that I’m in terrain similar to that trod by Robert Duncan and Ronald Johnson. I am drawn to the knowledge that “Every tree trunk becomes a gnomon” and I’m willing to suspend my pragmatics and embed them with archaic or shamanic crystalline perceptions. That was my mode before I began these reflections.


“Sorcery” and “wizardry” are the most frequently used terms in the 70 numbered poems of A Far-Shining Crystal. They register a degree of hopefulness amidst the prevailing cynicism. Subjective elements appear randomly, “Existing on cocoa, / the father of a sister. When it’s damp / these wires hum” from a poem entitled “Beaumont’s Egg.” The humming telegraph wires were Thoreau’s celestial harp. I note the overlay of syntax and measure, sentences that begin midline, the rhythm of thought leads to a new or renewed perception, “I’ll trade my suitcase in for a / case of Gilbey’s gin” (13). Does the subjective add meaning to the line that concludes the same poem, “How / weak our rituals have become’ (13).In nineteenth century cast-iron bridge construction, beams of an inferior grade of cast iron were sometimes disguised by using Beaumont’s Egg, a mixture of beeswax, fiddler’s rosin, finest iron borings and lamp black.  


Griffin’s art refuses to resolve chains of concatenation. The tactic is not original but the production does involve a delicious stream of uncanny observations. ”Wizardry is when they shoot a dead man’s tooth or a quartz crystal in you” (14). The sources may be Galen or Calches. I can’t tell. The image may derive from a time when ritual had more force than today. I know that among the Ndembu of Zambia, sickness is often associated with a wooden splinter or tooth that has penetrated an artery of the heart. To become an adept one must first suffer from the disease and thereby learn the processes of its cure. Griffin puts it this way “healing starts with breakdown” (15). I register a protest, healing is communal, ritual tribal, the detached individual may do no more than spin within his or her privately constructed gyres. Sacred and secret ritual is looked to for illumination in several of these poems, “Acts never intended for profane viewing” (15). The story is told about the Yaqui Deer Dance by Jerome Rothenberg, others tell similar stories about ritual. Perhaps, Griffin’s purpose is encyclopedic. I can respect that. Catalog art without endless chains of parataxis. Counsel for the poet-sorcerer: “The best provision is piety” (19).


Pages abound with images drawn from contemplation of stars and birds and vegetation. A Far-Shining Crystal shares a range of poetic and epistemological values with Ronald Johnson’s work. It is a less structured Ark, a bricoleur’s wobbly gundalow on the rivers of my marshlands. I recognize the terrain and the values that honor human life. “People who don’t / care about the world’s changing climate / fret powerfully over the country’s changing / complexion” (21). Words written before Ferguson. Words thy have always lurked in the shadows of our ghetto groves. “What forms inside the earth will be / exposed on the surface in time” (25). It could be a naturist moral philosophy. “How quickly we forget the fungal eucharist” (26). It could be the teachings of the Yaqui Don Juan. A great synthesis of useful lore is being stitched together by this bricoleur. “So happy when the hellebores came / back” (29). In the marshes of my island true hellebore grow. I showed these to Ted Enslin, when we botanized the region. Ted’s spirit I also detect in these pages.


You may understand from my pace as I work through these pagesthat demands and rewards posed by A Far-Shining Crystal are often difficult. Patrick James  Dunagan has written, “Widely engaging, Whit Griffin confronts history as if a parlor trick turned serious. His poems offer counsel which surprises and confounds, conjuring disparate items of new and old lore at will” HTML Giant, I’ll offer a close reading of one poem. “Diogenes’Lantern.”


Cursory research reveals that “dust is the No. 1 environmental problem on the moon,” or so Harrison Schmitt reported in 1972 after sneezing into his astronaut’s helmet. Who could expect to find this fact recorded or remembered anywhere except in a poem like this. My source is an old issue of Wired Magazine. It provides a degree of meaning to the opening line of “Diogenes Lantern.” Are there any honest men? Are these poems only  cynical jests? There is birding lore: Chuck Wills’ Widow and to the culver and the pelican, astronomical fact and Chinese moon lore. All prophetically foreboding. The most trenchant shadow of frail and insecure humanity also appears in this poem, phrased as metaphor rather than the generally flat tone of most observations, “Like death licking / my hair.” The tone is foreboding. Calpurnia from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is quoted, “When beggars die there are no comets / seen.” And the poem may resolve, returning to the bird theme with a multidimensional pun on “lark.” “For larks in port, whalers flayed the natives.” Inverse cannibalisms. Another trenchant observation of duplicitous norms of behavior. My reading of “larks,” I’m sure, sees madness where none is intended. I respect the ways in which Griffin hews to social history. The conclusion of “Diogenes’ Lantern” mentions a famous banking family with a serendipitous connection to the lore of early birds, if one cares to imagine a fable about birds and banking or some other connection, “On our way west we meet, the Grandfather of Worms.’ (49). Three generations of the Worms intermarried with the Rothschilds.


Griffin’s project is both brash and erudite. It produces reading pleasure of an unexpected order. His line breaks reinforce the energy needed to sustain attention. There may be no underlying purpose other than to tease.  … The finl word might well be the poet’s own, “There was never talk of wizardry / before Fort Sumner” or as I understand it, the need for the occult is specious on the face of it in itself and yet, “Purity is / temporary, therefore ritual is essential.” So there is a need to engage. I will not parse every line that catches my attention. I do not feel invited to do so. “Words that erect a wall / of arcana. Words we say over food to keep from dying” (57). The stress falls on “wall.” But there is comfort to the language, something like prayers in a language only partly apprehended. That experience of sound verging on a lesson of some value is available to all readers of, A Far-Shining Crystal.


Donald Wellman

December 2014

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Jay Wright, American Baroque

The Baroque as experienced in a mission church in New Mexico or California  is suffused with spiritual properties. Pain is lucid in the gleam of the gold altar pieces. The suffering of mission Indians exists in overlay with both ancient tribal practices and new cross-border line traffic in drug, contraband, exploited labor and prostitution. The history is both Mexican and Native American. Contemporary policed issues related to the borderlands obscure a necessary spiritualism and the whole earth principles that are immanent to American spirituality.

The title Jay Wright’s recent work, Disorientations: Groundings (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2013) engages a form of trance, as if the disorientation produced by sacred experience were a necessary grounding. His application of numbers, like that of Leibniz, also signals a baroque expressivity. Experiences of disorientation with respect to grounding principles (variation with respect to metrics) are central to the exercises elaborated here. I am unable to register a false step in the measures inscribed. The reader learns to trust the wisdom that filters through Wright’s purposefully obscure sources. Therein lies a difficult necessity. Wright’s propositions are not deductive arguments; they are articles of faith, expressed in rhythmic meters and drawing on the language of scientific inquiry. The text most helpful to me in isolating the variables that apply to the social drama in which I feel I am asked to be engaged is Wright’s sequence, “Second Conversations with Ogotemmeli.”[1] Of these conversations, he writes, “You have me in your hands. / I trust you. I intend to echo that gesture of trust in discussing Disorientations. My analysis will be descriptive.

Several personages with mysterious identities, one addressed as Baca, serve a function in Disorientations similar to that of Ogotemmeli. Baca is identified with “a star-fed music that will not shine” (92). The notion of an appearance that is not visible proves crucial, as is a music that is a silence. Ogotemmeli is associated with rites of initiation and purification; Baca embodies an inscrutable silence identified with knowledge. Who is Baca? He is a guide with whom one might examine the puzzles that inform an intriguing situation and its liminal properties.

In a volume on Tewa religion, a certain Baca, perhaps not Wright’s, acts as a guide to the anthropologist, Elsie Worthington Clews Parson. He maintains an incommunicative silence when asked to comment on the construction of a sacred chamber with an “impression of a woman’s hand on the plaster of the north wall.” The Tewa live in Wright’s New Mexican homeland. Baca is a frequent partner in the discourse that constitutes the pages of Disorientations: Groundings, one of several ancestor figures who are invoked. Others include an enigmatic Diana; the Argentine poet Ricardo Eufemio Molinari (1898- 1996 who is associated with the Spanish poets of the Generation of 27 and the early modern Argentine avant-garde), the Mexican poet José Gorostiza (1901-73, author of melancholic elegies); Stratis Thalassinos (a figure who is found in Girogio Seferis’s poem “Among the Agapanthi”). Other ancestors include Propertius, Langston Hughes, Nicolás Guillén and Luis Cernuda. I’d like to nominate nostalgic Emilio Prados for this company. The use of personae descends from Ezra Pound’s Vorticism.

Disorientations: Groundings is a series of colloquies in which ancestors offer instruction, some, like Baca, making several appearances. Four lessons, the four books within the volume, bear titles that originate in a Dogon purification ritual. The first level is preparatory, giri so; the second, benne so, presents words identified as “side-words” (tangential or parallel to illumination); the third, bolo so, “back-words,” groundings perhaps; the fourth, so dayi, “clear words,” where knowledge may be thought to have come into the possession of the transformed student or neophyte, perhaps Wright himself, the poetry being a record of his labor. Illumination lies in the process of instruction itself. No words for ultimate knowledge are given. Such secret words, if they exist, are absent. Formulas remain. In the ritual process, as presented by Victor Turner for instance, the neophyte becomes an adept through participation in repeated iterations of a ritual. The neophyte learns the motions as a dancer might. For Wright clarity resides in pattern, not contents. The instructions at the level of so dayi are associated with the edifice of knowledge as an ordered complexity.[2]

Wright’s project is to explore “the absolute density” at the core of poetry. Paradoxically “absolute density has never appeared” (5). This is the thread to be unwound through the four stages of this deeply coherent book. There are grieving poems, absent the melancholy, that haunts personal mourning. “What does the initiate seek, if not / his own death? Think of this as the first day / the sun upon the dolaba, the way / the dancers command the terrace and plot / the world’s umbilical cord” (40). Wright’s is a poem of birth and rebirth in which the initiate ascends to a new status, marked by the emblem of the dolaba.  The terrace of stars or syllables hosts a ritual dance, freely enjambing, all the while rhyming verse—all in testimony to the value of prosody as index of the truth that lies within complex systems.

Wright’s work is therapeutic for those who will trust its constructions and articulations. Many are poems are hybrid or macaronic, combing several languages. “Our dust and meter fall / in campo abierto, logical / field without substance” (13). The words invoke a field poetics defined by logic and measure, not substance. The cluster of images forming a radiant node has long been the sine qua non of modern poetry. Here the accent falls on radiance. Often the poems read with exceptional limpidity:
Morning now appears, a green sari on a lake—
the actuality of it –a quantum field,
a biological satire always concealed
by coherence, revealed by the perfect mistake.

I would keep me where the garment goes, contrary
to my promises. All these small term misconstrue
my prophesies, confound my syntax, and argue
that all contingent light becomes an adversary.
Does grief haunt these lines? The poem evokes a feminine presence dressed in her sari, an apparition with sources at the quantum level. Disorientations presents evidence of the wedding of poetics and physics. The reader learns to appreciate end rhyme and internal rhyme, the meters and enjambments of a transcendent art.  In a book of initiations and lessons, the object is to transcend the registers of melancholy and grieve purely. For a woman? for a world?
The tutelary spirit who presides over so dayi, the fourth section of Disorientations: Groundings, is Eboussi Boulaga, an African philosopher, trained as a Jesuit priest, who wrote in Christianisme sans fêtiche against the radical imposition of Christianity upon African thought. He is joined by the cryptic Baca and other emissaries from among the roster of ancestor poets in a celebration of love as “the first and most frightening language” (86), a celebration at the river’s edge guided by “the biblical Baca.” Rivers are indisputably cosmic, celestial, and earthly, cites of birth, death, and rebirth. Flow without beginning or end. Densities unpacked:
I have been instructed to forget
                                    an inauthentic birth,
and compelled to see in the resonant light
a binding of bodies that will not move,
or cannot be compelled to move, toward their death.
What is the quarrel,
the metrical proposition that will not admit
a beginning, will not sustain a symmetry? (86)
The liminal state is not itself a death state or a simulacrum of death in its transfixing immobility. It is one in which the body is at rest between two alternative modes of being, self and not self. The liminal self, a not-not self, according to Turner and Richard Schechener. It is the state evoked by Wilson Harris when he writes of “the cross-cultural imagination.”
Prosody, with its multiple forms of articulation shapes the poet’s language. It is found in superpositions among fragments: “Follow my language / through this sacred chain: / sesame / serpent mask / albarga / calabash /neutron / proton singularity. All is superposition” (90). “Love,” accompanied by “acceptable silence,” is the subject of Disorientations: Groundings.

Donald Wellman

[1] Transfigurations (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U Press, 2000): 139.
[2] Wright’s source is M. Griaule and G. Deterlen, The Pale Fox (Chino Valley AZ: Continuum, 1986): 69-70.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Nathaniel Mackey, Nod House

Nod House: A frog pond, Erzulie’s perfume, the poem I’m about to read invokes orgasmic ecstasies, evokes wave after musky wave, transported creatures not knowing their sex without feeling between their own legs. Frogs are deeply spermatic, odiferous, amphibian, “loves amphibious hush” Nathaniel Mackey writes (4), “frogs in a nearby / pond / infiltrating sleep” (5). Voicing gnosis, “we lost our bodies in, /  sound alone / survived” (9). Nod House voices the tensions between acknowledged and necessary sensual existence and inert stone, a voicing necessarily associated with the modalities of the jazz traditions in which Mackey is so expert, radio host, author of Moment’s Notice, and now he incites followers on Facebook to visit the jazz archives in honor of the birthdays of the multitudinous truly great musicians. In “Song of the Andoumboulou 62,”  it’s the most transcendent Sun Ra who is invoked. “Hoarse arkestral flutes laid a / rug of water (13).

He writes with memories of skipping flat stones out onto the tidal current. When I stand on the Pebble Beach of my ancestral island, the tide rush pulls the small stones out from under my feet. Balance affected, I lose equilibrium. I skip flat stone 3, 4 hops into the Western Way, a reach of the Atlantic, fetching dolphins and whales from Mount Desert Rock, “flat spun with could barely keep our feet” (13). These pebbles are found in the garland of flat disks depending from Kali’s chest. They are heads. Skipping stones are heads, “our own heads between finger and thumbs as if ours to throw” (15) –“as if ours” because the words are spoken in a trance state, a state in which, according to the anthropologists, one is neither one’s self or other (Victor Turner, Richard Schechner, “ghost moment, proof it lay / else- / where / prod.” A “cement sky” (10) in “Song of the Andoumboulou 62,” a world of flattened expectations. In one of my past lives, I gathered beach stones to pave the walkways of colonial Boston.

As well as flat stones, the journeying Andoumboulou appear as sticks, in the city of trance and redemption, a world like that of Voudon, organized around the “poto mitan,” at the crossroads, adding upward and downward to the cardinal directions. In the last poem of Nod House but one, “Anouman Sandrofia,” I find the crossroads bird, like the gallows’ bird. I am transported by a chorus, horns, contra bass of a stringed instrument, “guitar clang” (137). Multiple puns omnipresent thwart transcendence for all the headlong rush of gruff choruses, “bone we picked and picked at” (140 ). “Song of the Andoumboulou 85” voices “without sound sound’s immanence” (142). The line is thematic to gnosticism’s immaterial materiality. “Stick’s sublimity sent us reeling, a we that wasn’t we against one that was” (142). The object of poetry is to speak for an “a-we” in my reading of Kamau Brathwaite in “Letter Sycorax.”

Everyone limped, walked with a cane,” Legba, or Mackey himself as he prowled the halls at a recent academic conference. “Syllabic run was more alive that we / were, bass clack bugling disaster, brute sun outside the / nod / house door” (146), among the last phrases of Nod House. The lines snake down the page, dancing, marching chorus. Like Jazz the origin is in the blues and further back Africa. The poetics are projective some say. A fully imagined mythopoeia, always expanding, underlies the world these lines embody. In what follows my intention is to pay close attention to Mackey’s line.

“Blue Anuncia’s Bird Lute (after Bob Thompson).” The opening phrase “bedless” positions the reader on the journey that led to Bethlehem, Bedlam. Is this a false analogy on my part? In Bob Thompson’s Expulsion and Nativity (1964), the Virgin is blue, Mackey’s Blue Anuncia. The poem (40-42 of Nod House), seemingly an independent, free standing text, shares many properties with the serial poems mu and Song of the Andoumboulou. The multitudinous Andoumboulou travel toward a resolution that is not quite fully human, hardly divine. “Bedless trek / she saw them embarked on,” presents the travel of Joseph and Mary as cognate with that of the proto-human Andoumboulou. “Choked / earth they were strewn across” points to Dogon originary Sahel. It could be the journey of Joseph and Mary through Egypt. The “yet to-be world / on the tips of their tongues, / each in the other’s … indigent kin” points to the frequent moments of almost realization, swiftly reversed, the usual forward motion of Mackey’s poetry, forward and back, “lapsed earth.” An incestuous twinning of forces seems distinctive of the Andouboulou’s emergence, a future for which they prepare, for which I believe it’s the poet’s desire to prepares us, although that day fails again and again to arrive, often amounts to a momentary buzz. Suzanne Césaire writes somewhere of a poetry written purposefully for the not yet born. Mackey shares this mission, in Nod House and elsewhere both in serial poetry and his neo-baroque fiction, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate.

It strikes me that the white reader who has no gospel tradition, like myself, has to reckon with the importance of the Nativity so evident in Thompson’s painting and honored here in Mackey’s poem. Renaissance motifs are present, both in Thompson’s miming of Piero della Francesca and Mackey’s evocation of “lute’s neck gooseneck.” Even the Immaculate Conception, “Lithe body had at / by one that wasn’t there, hers in  / the // his and her ghost house, near / … .” These lines resonate with the concept “nod house” (otherwise difficult to clarify); for what is a “nod house’ unless it is a reference to place of waking dreams. A tribal dreaming space? The holistic fabric of Mackey’s poetry is inarguable. When I nod, I drift off.

The quote just given, positioning the word “the” as it does, a hook at the end of stanza-like structure illustrates a quality of Mackey’s prosody, that affects my ear and how it has learned to read. Short lines of one word (here “the” and in sequence “again…”, “floor-“, “on”, etc.), placed at the far right margin instigate the forward motion of the poems amid variations and reversals. The terminus ad quem is symbolized by a one word line in the left margin at the end of the poem (a pattern often repeated), the last word hurrying the reader forward, here “thru.” The technique provides a stitching together of material otherwise cut into two, three, or four line segments, these individual lines frequently enjambing.  

Many of Thompson’s images contain a generally rust colored patch of pubic hair. So with the Virgin, “patch of hair / parting / the dark welcoming heaven” mimes this grace note. It is a grace note found elsewhere in Nod House, independent of Thompson’s painting, intimate and sensuous contact among Andoumboulou of mixed and otherwise configured sexes. These are moments of transcendence, for all the bad rap that transcendence has among devotees of the postmodern. “Hand  assessing / her leg mounting skyward … / Wonderment winged but /with/ legs held, hard to miss  what it / meant.” The words are weighted with the materiality (physical sensuality) of what I have called the “immanent sublime.” The artist’s embrace is finally “indelicate” – that indelicacy, amid multiple resonances, being a quality that Mackey shares with Thompson and a grammatical honesty found throughout his work.

 Don Wellman

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ewa Chrusciel, Contraband of Hoopoe

Ewa Chrusciel’s Contraband of Hoopoe (Omnidawn 2014) has an architectonic feel that I associate with baroque music. Repeating figures, hoopoes are found in Africa, Asia and Europe. They are found in Leviticus 11:13–19 where their detestable taste is decried. They are found in Sufi literature and throughout this book, where a hoopoe nestled in the chest is the poet’s immigrant heart. “The hoopoe is the dybbuk messenger chattering under my bra” (13). A sausage is also held close to her heart, “transcontinental dowry,” emblematic of Poland (14). Threads of Hoopoes from biblical sources (Solomon and Sheba) to fables invented for nonce effect synthesize an intriguing unity of construction. Appearances of unity and deep coherences are often found in different registers, humorous postmodern campiness often at odds with deep coherences addressed to the human condition, not here. Contraband of Hoopoe works in both registers. The proposition, “What illness springs from a lost place?” (“Prayer Before Flight” 44) is answer by means of litanies, catalog responses, intoning the names of immigrants to Ellis Island. An example, “Ann Anderson from Denmark takes a sheet used only during / deliveries. Her sheet a shroud of the womb. It springs birth. It is her / legacy” (47). The unique long line with multiple caesuras and the emphases constructed in this manner, is compelling. Smuggling is used as a theme related to immigration. “Smuggling has to do with metonymies” (35). Hence the power of lists and documentary fragments. “Irene gets permission to work in the Warsaw Ghetto as / a plumber. She smuggles babies in her tool box, and carries larger children in her sack out of the Warsaw Ghetto” (56). Repetition too is prayerful, “The large Blue Dress took Matisse endless versions, / repeated rubbings out of / the areas of paint, etching / sinuous lines—“ (“Prayer” 54). Lyrical moments amid the long-line recitatives, aspects of Chrusciel’s composition by ear. Most human to me in Contraband of Hoopoe is the solitude that gives form to distinctly immigrant emotions, “The hoopoe is a solitary bird yet has enormous filial devotion” (80). I feel a religious hush, amidst witticisms, “Is our soul involved in the hoopoe dispatch? / What kind of diplomacy is required to smuggle the self into Infinity?” (80). It turns out that there is nothing easy or of a nonce nature about identification with the hoopoe. The hoopoe is the dislocated soul of a dead ancestor.
Donald Wellman

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Tyrone Williams, Adventures of Pi

Tyrone Williams is a philosophical poet, “down home” or even “homely” in a familiar sense. He is honest about everyday experience in itinerant America, “The houses into which we move, / The houses in which we move our bodies, / Remove the histories of our skins” (29). This discomfort is also mine. It pervades Adventures of Pi (Dos Madres 2011).

Williams’s mind is a machine; his soul is generous. He recycles and repurposes what he has read, joining the postmodern with lessons from unexceptional daily experience. I find Deleuze and Disneyland, Benjamin in Hollywood, Adorno in a used car lot. Adventures of Pi is populated with automotive embodiments and disappointments: Escorts, Tempos, Mavericks, Cobras, Dodges, Benzes, BMWs; the loves and disappointments associated with driving, tired and weary, sad or drunk. The economics that force a man in particular to identify with his car is thematic to this particular version of America. I think of Ronald Johnson and his “Terraplane” where the singer returning home from prison just knows things in his world have gone terribly badly for him in his absence. “Death Drive” sums this theme: “There’s a car inside a man / and on his own he cannot work it out” (70). Melancholy and recognition of compromised manhood are central to the American psyche. There’s an effort not to bleed-out, a resolve. “Death Drive” ends “Accompanied by the strumming of the windshield wipers / he is singing a song to the sky // And his song is pouring from him / hemophiliac…”

Maybe there’s a child in the back seat, humming. I also hear Williams’s deep reading of Russell Atkins. The largely underappreciated Cleveland poet, Atkin’s is a subject of Detroit-born Williams’s study in multiple senses. Reading Atkins enables Williams to muster and impart his own wise and melancholic perceptions. In Atkins, I hear that “strumming,” so hypnotic to Williams. In “While Waiting for a Friend to Come Visit a Friend” (courtesy of Aldon Nielsen and Lauri Ramey’s Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone), Atkins writes:

the attendant keeps watch, watching

that abrupt wild geranium grow a bat’s ears

sardine flowers, moon’s eggs,

stomach guitar (13)

Multiple echoes of lessons learned from the scored speech and wisdom of Russell Atkins inform the pages of The Adventures of Pi, for instance “White Girl” (13) or “Hallucinogenic Toreador” (45) where I found these lines:

of the painting nor a poem about the postcard or the painting or a

postcard or a painting                    zebras leap

over red                               blue white                          house stamp

west                      south

                below                   dateline                               blue

tribes from the north spread down and out as tributaries to the south-

west territory of the moor (by way of S. Petersburg descendants).

Beyond the riddle and humor of “what is red and white?” reading zebras, there are moors / Moors? And of course, St Petersburg is in Florida. The field of associations in open.

An omnivorous reader, absorbing tonalities and thematics, during the summer of 2014, Williams graced the pages of Jacket 2 with multiple short reviews of the works of contemporary, post-language poets. Concerning recent work by Julian Brolaski, he wrote, “Usage begets and outpaces grammatical and syntactical rules.” This statement applies as well to Williams’s own poetry as it does to the metropolitan imagery of Brolaski.  “Brolaski and the metropolitan imaginary,” Aug. 22, 2014.

The concluding poem of The Adventures of Pi gathers together many grammatical loose ends. Many poems end with a flourish: “no end to spectacle in the theater of cruelty // I’ll be waiting for you in the cardiology wing” (76).  The failure of love to redeem echoes through multiple tender poems. “And I knew we’d never talk about the night / we tried to pretend we could fall sleep / in each other’s arms” (“Collage: Cross-Country Skier / Hannibal’s Son” 28). There’s a false note here. Hanno, a Carthaginian hero, perhaps Hannibal’s son, is mentioned by Ezra Pound in “Canto 40.”Is Williams following Pound in order to acknowledge the place of the African in the roster of heroic achievement? That’s hardly necessary. Perhaps for reasons similar to those that lead Kamau Brathwaite to mention Pound and Basil Bunting in “Letter Sycorax” (Middle Passages). In any case, Hanno by reason of his periplum along the West coast of Africa counts as one of Pound’s hero/mapmakers.

Today the search for heroes of any sort only leads to fascism. That’s my private Brechtian morality. Boundaries, rather than resolving too often complicate human needs. In a snowstorm “white dotted lines are useless.” The image comes from “Border Clashes” (25-27). The poet his been to Canada. Returning to Detroit, he is challenged by the “flashing licenses and teeth” of the border agent. In a club, he experiences “the sweat of  a hundred / worlds, the sweet and sour stench / of bargain-brand soap.” He is mindful of a couple that “had been found dead / in each other’s arms: / murder-suicide.” The poem concludes, self-medicated with booze, as the working classes have always done, “We weave our ways home, / as best we can, / in lanes of our own making” (25-27). It’s best to suspend our individual judgments and listen and reflect as Williams does on the commonalities of our human experience.
Donald Wellman

Monday, September 22, 2014

Four poets

Four Poets: Amy King, Lisa Robertson, Lisa Samuels, Elizabeth Willis

King, Amy, I Want to Make You Safe.(Litmus 2011)
Robertson, Lisa, Magenta Soul Whip (Coach House 2009).
Robertson, Lisa, Nilling. (Book Thug 2012)
Samuels, Lisa, Anti M. (Chax 2013)
Samuels, Lisa. Wild Dialectics. (Shearsman, 2012)
Willis, Elizabeth, Meteoric Flowers (Wesleyan, 2006)
I am drawn to the work of women: Willis, Robertson, Samuels, among others. Part 2 of this essay addresses the work of Amy King. By “work” I mean their books, selected titles, not their bodies but their embodiments, a puritanical, self-censoring distinction. Moth to flame, even my reserve sounds creepy. I mistrust patriarchal privilege, no matter how androgynous my self-posturing. I write to resist the “homosocial” bonding that that characterizes the life in poetry of many of my mentors and peers. A boundary condition: writing about the sculpture of Jackie Winsor, John Yau, “We tend to like seeing ourselves in others, rather than recognizing the differences … (Jackie Winsor. Milwaukee Art Museum, 48).

I write to listen, not consume.

Elizabeth Willis opens a “crease” very from different my own always encroaching abyss of uncertain moods. “I stain lengthwise all I touch,” she writes. In response: I’m fingering  a wound, it’s the “crease of relativity,” my text merges with that of “Her Mossy Couch” (Meteoric Flowers 5). Her images belong to my New England of apple orchards and refrigerated warehouses. It’s a political poem and a sensuous poem. Qualities that are true of the book. A red faced “bookishness” (8), like her ancestor, a far from virginal Emily Dickinson. Facts are found in nettles that redden the skin. She sets my task, “Girl is notational. She is an index” (12). Her form is a construction of language. Hers or mine? Her melancholy is transcendent, “The body is always softer than its image” (“Viewless Floods of Heat” 49). A world where the physical is immanent: “Sadness, you can see, is attached to my body” (A Bird of Our Country” 68).

Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip and Niling are prerequisites for the study of poetry. Melancholy, writes Lisa Robertson, is a detachable device, an affective prosthesis (53). The camera turned on interiorized spaced describes the structure of the soul, “internalized capital.” She concludes, “The soul is exuded from the body like an applied perfume. Whatever freedom is prosthetic. … It inflates us or fucks us or loves us in the inflated space of recognition” (54). “Whatever” means “all.”  Erin Moure and Chus Pato also speak of the soul as a prosthesis. (See “Secession Insecession” elsewhere in this blog, Immanent Occasions.) Robertson asserts that a perceptual space constructed from affect and capital, enables irresponsible fantasies that supplant the abyss. “Lucretius say that to flourish we must absorb more than we exude” (Magenta Soul Whip 34). But “All change is substitution” and “The affective / Passage of displacement sheds strata of / Experiment, intensity and guilt … Frankly even our Genders stutter and / Choke” (“Coda,” Magenta Soul Whip 83-85). Apart from the metaphysics of interchangeability which is crucial to my understanding of gender, I appreciate the delicate use of capitalization and enjambment, as if to inculcate within the structure of verse the hesitations of thought while invoking “vigorous paroxysms  / Of excretion” (85).

Lisa Samuels, in Anti M has undertaken forms that scatter across the page, gaps likened to erasures by her readers (Lyn Hejinian for one).  A similar spare parsing of meaning occurs in Wild Dialectics,  white space and various fonts mark divisions. A line: “the lines like episodes!” (38) abbreviates the thrust of a sequence, condensation in extremis. I value the discrimination that marks off high language, “language high” (44) from the quotidian. The reference is to the register of Moby Dick as opposed to lines in Samuel’s distinctive broken and polysemous style, “to grow the scrotum of a real compose / yourself museum, building, make your poster of / the real, inset.” (“The law’s a soft machine fondling your forehead” 28). Samuels takes concretion beyond anticipated limits. The internal near rhymes, “scrotum,” “compose,” “museum” and the quirky enjambment exploding “compose” into “poster of.” These dialectics testify to a culture of self-display. The culminating work in the volume is a love poem (“Love”). The last lines: “imminent so I half-wish / I were sugar curled / girl across last ifs” (82). Sweet hesitations set forth in a tremulous and very subjective subjunctive. Lisa Samuels turns grammar into emotion.

No reason to  connect or disconnect, or elaborate or erase gender. Each quoted line is testimony to the effects of gender. Women write love poetry. Women croon. Despite historical examples, does anyone listen. Spicer’s question of course, effecting each poet, nonetheless. Willis is melancholic. Robertson alters the understanding of the soul. Samuels seems to defer engagement. On a drive, presumably from Reno to Eugene, at least:


                        somehow                 off                   or other        and

                     a great

                                                            car                       having some idea

          strangely bare (Anti M 67).

Beyond defying the wonted use of quotation to extract meaning, the landscape, stripped from memory as details may have been, is swathed in subjective emotion. 

Or perhaps I’m the incontrovertible dreamer. Peter Paul Rubens has conditioned my imagination as much as has the angular Picasso with his surrealistic Three Dancers, as also have raster images of decomposed playmates courtesy of Sigmar Polke. I note the masculinity of my projections. I remember I was once identified as an “anti-masculinist poet.”

Amy King. “When I move I’m all angles” (“The Goddess Sunburn” 33). Amy King’s  I Want to Make You Safe includes several suites of politicized, ironic, wry poems, “I am the love you light yourself with  / and my gender is powerless in this” (“Men by the Lips of Women”31) or “but making love go dollar-designated” (“How Will my Enemies” 60). Pun noted. Female embodiment, ruddy, bare bones, or abject engages my imagination. King’s multiple “little deaths” (“This Opera of Peace” 83), scattered across sharp caesurae and winding riffs, cause storms of jealousy in the heart of a male masochist. Twice in her collection the reader finds long columnar poems, short twisting, rapidly enjambing lines extending for pages: “cleaning her skin of tags / and rhetorical devices akin” (82) and “I’m carrying a baby / wren beneath my tongue” (86). For Amy King, language is the source of the conceptual “human.” What is my form, her form in our different languages?

My private agenda requires me to investigate the working of long forms and serial forms within a compilation, identifiably lyrical. What rhythms situate the reader within a work that displays dream-like characteristics, obsessively reformulated? Her adroitness angles deep within repositories of larval and in utero images.

Last night, as I struggled with insomnia, Amy King interrogated me about my understanding of reproduction. Japanese scientists claim to be able to create sperm from women and eggs from men. My chiasmus confuses me on rereading. Primary germ cells underlie human and post-human identities. Like me, she has written on the work of David Wojnarowicz, “who among us has finished themselves / until the death knell takes our fingers apart?” (“The David Witness” 53). She uses the word “finished” in this ambiguous sense elsewhere (“The Gilded Zero” 58). Finished / masturbation?

I Want to Make You Safe is polysemous beyond surrealist limits effecting possible jump-cuts. In “finished” there is an both allusion to death and to a failure to realize potential. One of those jump cuts bending other into inner, “”Those left will weep and there’ll be heaven / where none hung before, an inner lining of the soul’s / walls, and us to stand among each other and witness.” Wailing implied and eerie enjambment, a caesural period isolates “wall,’” as if to gulp. David’s own graphic self-presentation changed the understanding of many concerning the relation between AIDS and art. I see his lips sewn together by black threads and little wires. What surrealistic hands led Amy to use a sewing image a  few pages later? Her poems are about witness, about perception affecting our perception of human form.

FOOTNOTE: Robertson’s soul is Leibniz’s monad. It is the womb with its physical properties (King’s “lining”), inner and outer projections that constitute a world.

Often King’s images mime those that already haunt me. Is a socially conditioned subconscious at work in our surreal landscapes? She writes of ice floes as sites of rescue for the forlorn (“Eclipse the Light and Cruelly Divide” 61) and, like so many, of bees in “The Animal Languages.”

She walks in her summer time limp, hoping the masses won’t notice.

We do, the big beautiful bees of us, pulling the veins in our wings,

smoking light through antennae ends we’re sure

could reach another form of life when it comes

down to us.

I’m sympathetic. I can crack the code. I know who shot

the film that plays everyday along the walls along of the black

halls that lead to how many meals we hide in her pantry.

She smelled but couldn’t stand the taste of having every food.  (63).

To my reading, the narrative concerns the death of a queen bee and the provisioning of her after-life larder, as undertaken by her drones. Variation spaces narrative time onto complex rifts. The line, “down to us” is essentially rhetorical in its isolation of a phrase implying reception and responsibility, almost biblical. The four lines after the first creates a period that stretches and reinvents the poetic line. There are two periods and a predicate suspended by enjambment. The phrase, “walls of the black / hall” the hive reminiscent of the lining of the soul, King’s queen picky. after the first verse paragraph is a second of only four syllables: “We did her in.”

The third verse presents a version of the quotidian reality all experience. “The language system” is evoked as embodied in “final directives” and want-ads. Filmic, a camera iris dissolve isolates, “several half-humans post-conscious in beds.” The poem has captured the post-human environment that has supplanted the natural. There is a final verse, cannibalizing in intent, “I elect to eat the heads, leave the stems to purpose—“ The images seek communication with a future, the ability to “turn the code.” The bees awaken and build a new hive, “We seed through the hush, rising from earth, / orchestras through flame.” I may not understand reproduction, language or music but my sense of complexities in overlay has awakened.

I have referred above to lines from “This Opera of Peace.” It is a long serial poem,  the last of the four “chapters” of I Want to Make You Safe. Individual pages in this section may or may not read as completed lyric poems. The reader will note small difference. A page line that has no terminal punctuation carrying forward to the next page. A column of words begins with a lower case letter. A page that begins, “The stomach that speaks” ends “There’s always a lesion to pass the lesser limb through” (81), one of the strongest, most graphic images of the collection. For me an image of cannibalistic intercourse. Then there is white space and more columns spanning three pages, but the third page ends mid-sentence and the fourth page picks up the grammar of the sentence form after a long silence enforced by white space. The construction of the last two pages (86, 87) also has interest. Page 86 presents a column ending with a sentence fragment (and fragments are rare) inviting enjambment with the first line of the next page but that line begins with a capital letter and presents a very differently torqued sentence, “You to crucify continents, / the least of which we / will return to …”. We have arrived at the end of the sequence and the last words of I want to make You Safe:

Until, grooming and mewing

we birth the baby wren,

full of downy coos,

the tiniest nest within

our mouths’ open bellies,

thinning now we love.

The image of the wren continues from the reference to “signature” and “bible” on the previous page. These last pages present an epithalamium to celebrate a marriage. Tenderness and a relation of the mouth to the belly, to language and creation, embodiment calling forth a chromatic resolution to this carefully constructed poem and book of poems within which it nests.

Donald Wellman­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­