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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

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Ana Božičević, Rise in the Fall

Rise in the Fall (Birds, L.L.C, 2013) by Ana Božičević, winner of the 2013 Lambda Literary Award, has won many readers with its charm, intelligence, wit, honesty, and an unlikely (given the odds) affirmation of beauty. On her web page, Ana Božičević identifies herself simply as “poet.” Dashing simplicity is an aspect of the fascination, dashing being both a term of fashion, hip au courante, and a put down. Telling perceptions: “sadness is a substitute for sex”(19). Desire that is purely sexual: “to fuck a train station in the snow” (33). Surprising beauty: “I dreamed of clear waves like arches / an amusement park in the snow.” (72). I engage this book because I truly love it and learn from it on each re-reading.

Some poems seem to ramble. “Poem,” from which the last lines above were extracted, may be an example. It is  a rambling poem that hones in on its truths like a hornet. I was going to say arrow, but there is a stark avoidance of truly violent “hard-on” producing imagery like “bombs” in Rise in the Fall, an avoidance that is timely in the days of beheading. Her choice of diction, all mockery aside and there is plenty of mockery, is sensitive to the war-torn history of her native lands.

 “Poem” is constructed from a long pastiche celebrating the glamour of Elizabeth Taylor, followed by an anecdote of sadism from the lives of pre-teen girls, best friends, who “were raping each other because we didn’t know a different language …the chewed Barbies were unspeakable” (73). The  poem is both a deconstructivist criticism of the effects of glamour-capitalism and an indictment of language’s inadequacies with respect to love and beauty. The fantasy is punctuated with words like “useless” and “out of reach.” And yet, “Poem” is also a sensuous and intimate declaration of love, simple and heartfelt. In many senses Rise in the Fall is, as Elisa Gabbert has noted, “performative” (Lemon Hound April 17, 2013). Rise in the Fall is a suite of love poems and also a book of testimony.

I  want to write in-depth about a short poem, “The Day Lady Gaga Died” (52). Blunt parody, appalling fiction. No tristess.

“What is this day: is it like rainbow

and abstract I kinda grasp, is it a house with the white streamers on it

how can I get at it.

The period is functional, the diction rocks. The “white streamers” haunt. I associate these with a child’s funeral, perhaps childhood and nostalgia? When Pope John Paul II visited Rijeka, Croatia, on June 6, 2003, thousands of school children waving white streamers greeted him  I have no cultural basis for my assumption regarding Božičević’s imagery.

“Once I knew a girl called herself Beauty

and her leather accessories Beasts.

So can things be what I name them, is that the secret?

Between fairytale and a hint of sadism lies poetry’s source, some have said. I’ve been told that muses no longer exist or if they do they objectify women. Haunting beauty exists in childhood, scarily haunting. Magical thinking remains the crucial power of poetry?

“Once on a time in Osteuropa

a girl lived who went to the Contours Club

she touched herself on a Slope among the Sunclouds™.

When I was 17, I met a girl from Osteuropa. The Berlin wall had just gone up. My images, rereading these lines, are of health clubs and ski resorts, masturbation.

“That all sounds vapid. Yeah, I touched myself. Kind of fat,

never thought I was a natural, a star,

I just didn’t “get” the others. But you,

you don’t want to hear that part, you just want me to keep having sex

among the politics.

Trenchant realism. Misplaced identity. The arguments related to identity and empowerment are here but undercut by the insistence on “politics.” Shared intimacies do not interest her lover. Repression results. The lines read as if someone had told her to grow up but in the remonstrance intimacy is short circuited.

“Fuck you: all I want to write about is

bumble bees, bumble bees.

I need these lines for my own work. Would that resistance and insistence and lyrical panache defined my poetry as much as they do that of Ana Božičević.

“New York School is because

you have to name things in New York.

Otherwise, too much exists.”

“Poem” resolves by exploding the metaphysics of naming and challenges the high seriousness of art. I am learning that too much pretension wearies the soul. Rise in the Fall presents a sweet surfeit of both longing and parody, humor that does not kill anxiety or beauty. “Kill” is a comedic term, too. My senses are charged by these lines, “I’d settle for you // just trembling next to me. Don’t you know how to do that anymore? / Do you know how unhappy one is / who wants a ghost for a horse …”, lines from the title poem (61-62). For me, amidst all the ambiguities generated by my multiple identities, the inability, confessed to here, being unable to describe “green” or “love” or “lesbian love” moves the intellect from naming to feeling. Essential poetry.

Donald Wellman

Monday, September 8, 2014

Song X, Patrick Pritchett

Patrick Pritchett, Song X (Talisman House 2014)
Proposing a new and selected poems invites the reader to search for polished gems. And yet I associate Patrick Pritchett’s poetry with a degree of seriality, not the self-standing lyric. His Song X: New and Selected Poems from Talisman House (2014) samples work from six earlier collections, including the remarkable Gnostic Frequencies and concludes with selections from the recent Song X.  My purpose here is to engage the aesthetic parameters of a range of poems excised from the body of the work. I found the selection from Burn-Doxology for Joan of Arc (2005) to be especially intriguing. Individual lines such as “encrypting the body of dust in the body of flame” from “Devotion” (17) speak to the “story” of Joan, a complex of associations with which I am familiar in relation to censorship theory. “Devotion” can be placed in the context of Joan’s agreeing to dress in female garb instead of her wonted military and masculine costume, a misguided compromise with authority. The result of her “display” led to her recanting her confession of heresy and ultimately to her being burned at the stake. The line, “encrypting the body of dust in the body of flame,” resonates with her martyrdom. Such reverberations are not evident everywhere in Burn or in “Devotion.” Still to read “Devotion” as a freestanding lyric would be to misread the poem. Pritchett’s “new” Gnosticism shadows the text in delicious ways. Burn aggregates to itself the same artful subtlety as is found in his Gnostic Frequencies. See my commentary on Gnostic Frequencies elsewhere in Immanent Occasions,

I propose then to share a careful reading of one poem from Burn, “Of Utterance” (40), the penultimate poem but one, my comments or glosses in square brackets.

“Because the pressure of rain on the skin
is like a natal wound.

[An embryo may be the subject, bathed in both tropical rain that is likened to a rain of amniotic fluid. An originary moment? but a wound? There is an ancient and cryptic homology between “wound”  and “womb,” evocative of gender reversals and wish fulfillments that promote a male abrogation of child bearing. Dionysius is  born from Zeus’s thigh. I pause too long perhaps at “natal wound”?]

“Because the drift of cloud through pass
sets the field to green fire, its branches

[Green fire can sometimes be seen on the sudden setting of the sun continuing the evocative birth imagery from the verse above.]

“Because I hurry to the wing of the limb
where the blue wheel and its flickering discharge certain energies.

[These lines ring as if a logical conclusion of some inscrutable order has been reached. The wing may be that of any bird, a bird associated with the soul, or the wing of an angel, a gnostic angel? The blue wheel is surely the heavens in anyone’s cosmology. If we add blue and yellow we get green. Who has introduced the sun?]

“Because the water. Because the stillness.
What is raised to the lips drowns.

[An incantation returning me to the first verse. Is the second line about drinking from a cup? Or is it about inarticulate speech? I sense the latter. The circumstances are sacred, ceremonial.]

“The life of action set to another music.
Because the sun is the respirator of the afterlife.

[My readings seem to have fallen into place. Thematic birth is rebirth into a blue sphere with its own sun. “Respirator” has entered the poem from the world of hospitals and modern medicine.]

“The shimmer of its light across the grove of trees
burns the master’s eyes.

[A mark of thematic unity returns the reader to the first verse. The “master” seems impersonal after what had seemed to be engaged individual contemplation of the relation between birth and language. I scurry backwards and find on an earlier page a reference to a “Master of Fire” who said ‘the wheel and what it moves grow old inside the flame” (24). This earlier concretion of spirit and flame is a “gnostic” moment of the sort that Pritchett often puts forth. The image of the master of fire may relate to the Christian Holy Spirit or paraclete, sexual ambiguities aside. The subject of the next poem in the series is parousia. The Holy Spirit, a green flame then, an “enunciating ‘flame’” in the next verse. I quote the last four lines.]

“Rectitude. Stone of the muse at the bottom of .
Enunciating ‘flame.’

“Because a cicatrix forms over every word
and we call it utterance.”

[ I cannot sum the meaning here any better than the poet has done. Utterance is painful. “Rectitude” may be a property of Joan and she may be a muse whose heart turns to stone in the flames that consume her, but meaning now wheels free of allusions. Note the broken period.]

As an example of the conceptual lyric, “Devotion” contains sufficient coherence to qualify as one of those gems whose integrity I generally mistrust, not however in this instance. Cite it in your catalog of metaphysical poetry, along with Donne and Eliot, if you will! The gnomic wisdom of the last verse stands on its own, like an ancient riddle. Still “Devotion” gains from an understanding of context, as all poems must.

I may prefer the overarching unity of the serial poem to the context of a selected but without a selected we would not have these thoughtful and thought-provoking texts and the emotional realities that underlie sometimes difficult words. So I turn to the back of the volume and to poems associated with the rubric, Song X, recent examples of Pritchett’s work, poems whose rhythms according to Norman Finkelstein’s note, derive from free jazz. Some poems seem entirely occasional and deeply personal. I especially appreciate the notion that “The beautiful is a kind of noise that we love,” a concept associated with the work of Tim Bahti who has theorized that the lyric rather than pursuing the effects of a satisfying end or resolution instead participates in a loop where the middle is the aesthetic soul, a central idea for Pritchett’s art. The poem from Song X that most seems to break new lyric ground to my ear is “The Idea of Evening as Abode” (128). The title suggests a mode that I associate with Wallace Stevens’ meditations in verse. It is a curious idea, difficult to grasp, “evening” as “abode.” There are houses in the night sky but the allusions here lie elsewhere. They stretch over complex sentences that culminate in telling formulations, for instance, “the long / force of diminishments.” “Diminishments” is rarely pluralized. From the middle of the final stanza, “for the pulse and ring / of the still listening bells / their thermal updraft, psalmic gate.” Do I hear Nate Mackey? What I do hear is a sinuous threading of concepts through supple lines, subtle use of enjambment. The conceptual lyric if these are examples of that genre as well as of a new Gnosticism, recharges old concepts with new meanings, allowing texts to speak to one another. I look forward to reading more poems like these.

Donald Wellman