FEBRUARY 14, 2014
Whom Do You Love
By Alan Michael Parker
IN JANUARY OF 2013, I began a conversation with Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Senior Poetry Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, about a project to solicit love letters from various poets. With her guidance, that project became “Valentines.” Out of a dozen poets asked to contribute, eight did, the sterling results of which are presented here. The charge for each of the writers was simple: choose a book from 2013 that you loved and write a love letter about or to it; the only criterion was that no book could be chosen twice.
In Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions” from 1817, the poet describes succinctly (if not gnomically) in a footnote the actions of a poem: “The fusing power that fixing unfixes & while it melts & bedims the Image, still leaves in the Soul its living meaning.” What a great way to think about what poems do. That the various parts of a poem have the power to come together as the meanings are created (“fixing”) at the same times as they are changed (“unfixes,” with each next word) seems to me glorious and precise. A poem is an activated text for Coleridge, and one that persists in its effects even after being read. In a way, this “Valentines” project became inflected with Coleridge’s concepts, applied in this case to a collection of poems rather than a single poem: dear reader, which recent book of poems comes together for you, has “fusing power,” and leaves in you a “living meaning?”
There’s more to Coleridge, as always: his concept of “Soul” borrows heavily from Friedrich Schiller and others, is infused with the egalitarianism of William Wordsworth and the French Revolution, and expansively resists our 21st Century ecumenisms, the word “Soul” clearly not a euphemism for “self.” There’s also the question of what an Image might be that, “while it melts & bedims,” endures in the reader: what form does that image ultimately take, in its new incarnation? I’m not trying to be obsessively taxonomic or pedantic, but what’s an image if it’s still an image and yet it “melts & bedims”? Perhaps with 20 more years of writing poems, I might understand.
Additionally, inspirationally, in the phrase “leaves in the Soul its living meaning” Coleridge seems to assert that the poem helps the Soul find its “living meaning.” Consider the pronoun: while “its” could imply a reference to the Image, grammatically, “its” must refer to the Soul. The Soul harbors the living meaning — activated by the movements of the poem, by the fixing that unfixes. Such a brilliant idea. Perhaps this too might be worth aspiring toward: maybe with care, luck, work, and 40 more years of practice, a poem of mine could leave a reader with a living image of her or his Soul.
For Coleridge, and for the authors of these Valentines, the question remains: what does a poem do? Of course, I want to read all eight of these Valentines in terms of their authors’ aesthetics, to help me understand what their poems do, for I suspect that such a reading would be valuable. Thankfully, though — perhaps due to the call to ebullience and effusion that a “Valentine” invokes — these love letters seem far less self-justifying or self-congratulatory than many of the poetry reviews we might read elsewhere. These are, in fact, loves, and maybe even “living meanings.”
On All You Do Is Perceive
By Wayne Miller
Joy Katz is a meticulous poet. Her last full-length collection was the terrific Fabulae, published in 2002. In 2006, The Garden Room won the Snowbound Chapbook Award. Virtually every poet I know includes chapbooks in full-length collections, but Katz felt that The Garden Room was complete on its own. Thus, we had to wait until 2013 for Katz’s second full-length collection, All You Do Is Perceive. These days, when poets sometimes publish multiple books in a year, Katz’s painstaking approach seems admirably out-of-fashion.
All You Do Is Perceive operates mostly as a kind of constrained verse — not constrained formally, as the term is generally applied, but constrained by a rigorously limited perspective. As the title indicates, the book is interested in the phenomenological complications of how one perceives, and we often feel ourselves contained entirely by the speaker’s mind. In “He Laughs Too Hard about the Wine,” a momentary awkwardness at a dinner expands into the speaker’s imagination: “He laughs as if there were no shore / […] / Beyond the edges of the room, nothing; / Beyond the room: space, weather, the rain, nothing.” Or else we’re with the speaker when she’s asked directions to Film Forum, after which she imagines tagging along with her questioner — simultaneously addressing the reader: “Are you going to sit there? / Coincidentally I am also going to sit there. / Can you see out of my eyeholes? Are you comfortable?”
I’m particularly struck by the range of what enters these poems, despite their constraints. The title of the poem “A Lynched Man Came with the Mail onto My Desk” perfectly captures Katz’s approach, pointing to the ways we find ourselves — even in middle-class domestic spaces — confronted by the reality of violence. In the stunning “Slight Pause,” the speaker’s neighbor has died, and now the speaker and her partner debate if they should eat the neighbor’s tomatoes. After asserting that small moments are often when “the world comes down,” the poem shifts suddenly to Saddam Hussein’s execution:
The night of the hanging, you said when does he hang?
as if you had asked, when is supper? We laughed
then checked online. The despot was hung in haste
for two few of his crimes
an hour ago while we were drinking wine.
Above all else, All You Do Is Perceive is about parenthood. The poem “Death Is Something Entirely Else” considers the games the speaker plays with her son (“I like it when he orders me lie down close your eyes”); it ends with the startling assertion “His song is the door back to the room // I am composed of the notes.” In “The Family, One Week Old” Katz unflinchingly depicts how “[t]he parents, as if clubbed between the eyes / but with no memory of it, regard the infant / who has no self-regard and none for them.” By the end of this smart, subtle, and haunting book, I’m not sure whether to read the title as a poet’s self-admonishment or an admiration for the purity of a child’s limited perspective. Of course, it’s both — something else that makes me very happy this wonderful book is out and in the world.
On An Ethic
By Michael Klein
Louise Glück says: “I’m attracted to the ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. Often I wish that the entire poem could be made in this vocabulary.” I’m drawn mostly to the kinds of poems Gluck is championing, in which the language is so spare and pared down that to cut any further would practically result in a page that has nothing written on it. Short poems, of course. Usually. But more ecstatically, poems that seem to live in some sacred charged space between being and nothingness — in which silence is actually where the poem is trying to arrive, and not a meditative first gesture one then shakes off to get the first word down — an opposite.
Christina Davis’s exquisitely rendered An Ethic is a book of poems like this. It reminds me of Oppen and Celan and Valentine all at the same time, and — if this makes sense — of a kind of living I do not live or, as the critic David Kalstone said of Elizabeth Bishop, makes me homesick for a place I’ve never been. Davis’s poems are also — out of their architecture of silence and grace — ones that also reach back to something more transcendental: to the earlier thinking and writing of Whitman or Emerson and Thoreau, dealing with citizenship and responsibility while meeting the page where the supernatural inhabits faith; where living is more soulful than perhaps the soul can actually intuit.
And so, here’s a book that hits the soul without narration. By that, I mean, the poems are without ego or hyperbole or — as is the somewhat current fashion — cleverness or an easy or obvious disdain for the Republic. They are written from an inner chamber of experience in ways not totally dissimilar to Brenda Hillman’s Death Tractates. But why compare? What makes them essential, of course, was how they were originally won. The book begins with the death of a loved one and branches out as a dark meditation that reads, at times, as something thought out before Eden materializes:
And, we had not made the world.
First we were forced,
then freed to believe
we belong here. We are certain
of nothing except we are
not dead, and the dead are
more than us
and harder to love.
And we had not made the world—
or the water raising a family of waters,
or the wind retenanting the trees,
or the squirrels that mete out their meals
in tiny minefields, or the father and the mother
who will end, on an Earth
that will end,
a detention desired
in the school
of our no longer being
— “For the Dark and Blazing Truths”
Received? Of course, but also resisting full engagement — what Forrest Gander notes in his beautiful and appropriately short introduction — that Davis’s poems “make contact and withdraw.” That is the cadence here. Just enough said, just enough resisted — as the first line of the title poem confirms: There is no this or that world.
On Dear Stranger
By Erika Meitner
I must confess to you that I’m in love with Dear Stranger, by Jenny Browne.
Because this is a book rooted gloriously in (Don’t Mess With) Texas — cactus flats, mountain cedar, long drives, BBQ, Shiner Bock, armadillos, gunpowder, mesquite, pro-life billboards, the sun-bleached bones of an animal in the road.
Because this book made me wonder if poems could be simultaneously local and global, and the answer it gave me was a resounding yes.
Because some of the strangers Browne writes to and about are all over the world — in China and Iraq, in Afghanistan and elsewhere — and her poems remind us that suffering and loss are both extremely specific, and always universal. Because this is one of the few poetry books I’ve read this past year that doesn’t ignore the fact that our country is still at war.
Because Browne’s “Dear Stranger” poems force the reader to confront difficult questions: Who are strangers to us? Who are kin? And to whom do we feel more connected to at any given time?
Because “To the Man Who Stole the Trees We Planted in Memory of My Brother-in-Law Who Killed Himself Earlier in the Spring” brings back good old-fashioned invective. “May the reincarnation of his dumb cat piss your Dallas Cowboys pillow,” Browne writes, with a resolute glee. “May his Fleetwood Mac shiver the crusty dishes in your sink.” In this poem, these acts — the stealing of the trees and the suicide, both of which lack reason or explanation — are subtly woven together in the poem’s ending: a haunting image of a man with a broken pencil in his fist.
Because “something has to happen / next to make a story.”
Because (ohmygod) “from The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” is a show-stopping piece, complete with sex, humor, life, death, vivid vignettes, delicately interwoven motifs, and Texas. We start with Browne’s brother-in-law dressed as a fallopian tube, move from abortion and suicide to recreation (swimming, beer-drinking on the porch at night), and end with a translator and someone’s decapitated head in an ice chest.
Because “Taking Children to the Cemetery” uses repetition and form to build to a matter-of-fact and yet shattering ending all in six short lines. And because the motherhood Browne writes of throughout this book is forthright, and unsentimental, and real. “How my children’s teeth tunnel up / through bone and meat. How they chew // their fists and drip. How they stare.”
Because the poems in here proudly incorporate the detritus of everyday bourgeois life: baristas, dry-cleaning, sashimi. Because Browne includes her complicated relationship with the Mexican nanny.
Because, in “Indiana Elegy,” she doesn’t shy away from the racism and sexism in her own family, from plumbing their ugly and complicated legacies.
Because “The Deceased Hope the Farm Remains in the Family for Generations” is filled with snippets of story, dialogue, sly humor, and powerful images that build on each other to form a family epic — a centerpiece of the collection in which her story about the loss of the family farm in Indiana becomes a larger chronicle of a society’s shift away from its agrarian roots and connection to the land.
Because this book is about bodies — “What then is a body?” Browne asks, in “The Center for the Intrepid,” a poem, in part, about wounded soldiers and witness. “I’m tired of every imperfect body,” she writes, of her father’s tumor, and the book ends with her father’s death, the sound of the human heart, the body of a green bird, “not quite ripe / or not quite bird.”
Because the poems in here are daring and stylistically varied and have much at stake. Because it’s a paradox, this book: bold-voiced and delicately lyric, transcendent and of this world — for all of these reasons, and many I’ve probably failed to articulate, you should read Dear Stranger immediately, if not sooner.
By Rebecca Hazelton
“Playful,” that mainstay of blurbs, has always seemed like a backhanded compliment to me. There’s a whiff of powdery nursery room funk that drifts in with playful. Children play, and like nursery rhymes, “playful” verse is often sonically driven, full of rhyme, meter, assonance, and alliteration. Adults don’t play, at least not without the mediation of irony (flash mobs, hipster kickball), or distance (couch-coaching sports, pageant parents). Play is haphazard, is experimentation without purpose. It exists only for itself and its own pleasure — how dreadful. Applied to verse, “playful” is code for poetic jazz hands, an acknowledgement of style wrapped around an implicit critique of substance.
And yet, the first thing I find myself wanting to say in a valentine to Hailey Leithauser’s Swoop is that it’s playful. This is vexing. The last thing I want to do is rely on that troubling, faintly damning “playful.” But there it is. So let me address the above concerns. In most books of poetry, there’s a good quarter to a third of the poems that I wouldn’t miss if they were gone. Such poems are competent, mildly affecting, middling work, neither good nor bad enough to be memorable. In Swoop, I can’t find those extraneous poems. Every poem feels necessary, because there’s nothing haphazard about Swoop. Each one of Leithauser’s formal poems is so meticulously crafted that the book as a whole should feel like a stiffly brocaded coat — but instead, it’s airy and light. Take these lines from “Schadenfreude”:
So often ironic,
at times caustic, despotic,
and always so
that the mere sight
of the word
stirs a not quite
crimp of the lip.
The rhymes linking “ironic,” “caustic,” “despotic,” and “Teutonic” initially read merely as an easy joke about German character (or history), but on further reflection, suggest the deforming effects of indulging in schadenfreude — insincerity, corrosion, and tyranny. This is the trick Leithauser does so well, marrying delightful, silvery rhyme to darker content. It’s clearly evident in poems like “Guillotine,” “Crowbar,” and “Brass Knuckles,” told from the viewpoint of instruments of violence, and subtly at work in a poem like “Frostbite,” where an extremity is lost “pinch by stony pinch” to the “placid / scald // and hissing of the snow.”
But I suppose I must concede to one of my own charges against “playful”: its pursuit of pleasure. All of these poems are pleasurable to read, and some of the most laugh-out-loud-delightful ones are about carnal pleasures, such as “Sex Rubenesque”:
Unleash the excess!
Bring me cleavage and rumpage,
one heftable breast, then another,
a buttock untrussed
and rhapsodic for humpage.
If that doesn’t strike you as equal parts funny and rhapsodic, much like sex itself, then probably this book isn’t for you. Leithauser has style to spare, but also substance, and yes, playful, in the best sense of the word, pleasurable and pleasure-seeking.
On King Me
By Terrance Hayes
I was thinking of that image of Walt Whitman the first time he encountered a small pile of amputated limbs at the edge of a Civil War battlefield — a pastoral scene set in the last hours of an apocalypse. I was wondering what manner of metaphor and music entered him then beholding those disembodied limbs. Because I’d read Roger Reeves’s poem “Kletic of Walt Whitman, the Wound Dresser,” I was thinking, not of Reeves speaking as Whitman, but of Whitman speaking through Reeves in multiple voices. One voice said, “Here, the severed palms hidden beneath the improvised altar,” another said, “Here, the severed palms / of a priest,” another said, “hidden beneath / his black robes / here, legs / a one horse wagon,” another said, “the improvised altar / here, a wound, / carried back from a field.” Whitman has many mouths, I’m saying, and one of them belongs to Roger Reeves, a poet of Pentecostal ecstasy. Pentecostal, you know, as in a mouth shaped by magical tongues and faith healing, worship and song — I’m not drawing conclusions: “The Day of Pentecost came without the usual ladder of tongues,” is the first line of Reeves’s “John Henryism.” In King Me nothing is incidental, yet nothing is contrived. That is, the poems often unfold in ways that seem both expertly crafted and improvisatory. That is, these poems surprise me and, I believe, surprise the poet as well. Thus, the frequent incantatory, lyrical lists throughout this collection. He writes in “What Stalin Grew Tired Of, 1931 (Bulgakov Blue), As Written by Mikhail Bulgakov”:
Little cartographer, little sparrow,
little bathtub sitting upon clawed feet,
little aquarium cracked and housing
a dead crow, little anvil, little hones
holding large sickles, little swan
of the question mark neck choking
on flakes of black snow, little
water truck nose-down in a gully
with a rusty tongue
One feels — I feel as one sliding down a steep blue slide feels. Reeves’s lines blow at/through me clean and fluid and ethereal as wind…
I’d just retype all the poems here for you, Reader, if I could. But I’ll dispense with the quotes now, and say, simply King Me is a book of varied tongues and urgencies. Van Gogh is here, Mike Tyson, Ernest “Tiny” Davis, and in the first and last poems, someone named Roger Reeves appears. It’s a book of inhabitations and transformations; the disembodied multitudes that constitute a single body.
King Me. The title sounds in one ear like the declaration of a deluded despot atop his ruined kingdom, double-fisted with bravado coated in tragic doubt. It sounds in another ear like the request of a formerly powerless pawn having made it, after fields of struggle, to the king’s doorstep. In both ears these poems are resoundingly humanizing and vital and true.
By Randall Mann
What is love without a little deviance? Peter Kline’s fine debut collection Deviants begins in the drag of sexual ambiguity (“I want to dress you as a man”) and ends “listening / for updates from the interim between / goodbye and gone.” In the interim, Kline’s polished, twitchy voice cajoles us into shadowy places, and though we have consented to join him, there is often an almost unknown sense of transgression: “her thoughts keep on turning to threat / as though I’ve been doing some violence / she can’t confess to yet” (“Domestic”).
Kline’s speakers lurk, perverse voyeurs — “I go where everyone goes / and I go unseen,” he writes in the title poem — who are nonetheless, and at times surprisingly movingly, trying to find their way in the hostile commonplace world. “I was worried, so I watch,” he writes, the line an act of care yet crisp voyeurism. Kline always seems to go both ways: he’s a poet of contradictions, a formally dexterous poet who is just as comfortable in free verse; a man of passive aggression and aggressive passions; a sexually uncertain writer: “A man for a woman for a woman for a man for a man,” he writes in “Axioms for the Anxiety.” “Tell me again how it’s supposed to be.”
“It never happened if I don’t get caught,” Kline writes in the title poem, and this sentiment is key to his poetic project, one of getting away with things, of inspecting with one eyebrow cocked — one imagines he has a rumpled trench coat on his metaphoric rack, and we are not exactly surprised that a speaker admits, “Only I know where this hand has been.” I like that even the most celebratory of occasions — as in “Invitation,” an urban party, all goodwill and “good-time synth” — has its visible invisible darkness: “Everyone is accounted for // but the absentee” (that stanza break and enjambment cunningly jarring and expansive), the ghost of someone both at and not at the party: “There he is on the fire escape — / laughing in another language.” Kline casually shifts the everyday into everyday menace, reminding us that it, more often than not, hides in plain sight. He has a brutality that makes me think at times of one of my favorite poets, Anthony Hecht; he adds a moral equivocation that is all his own.
Kline makes thoughtful musical and formal decisions: I admire, in, say, “Taboo,” a bleak sonnet where “I did a thing I wasn’t meant to do,” the octave, a sideways admission, “I found the camphored stairwell, second floor”; the sestet, the aftermath of an unnamed act, “My dreams are the dreams of any righteous head, / perhaps.” Kline, a pro of tone and withholding, offers us just enough to understand risk but never contain it. “I don’t disappear,” Kline bookends his poem “Mirrorform,” the repetition, like many of his gestures, both comfort and threat. This is an invigorating, dirty, impressive first book.
On Feel Trio
By Farid Matuk
My Dearest Feel Trio,
It is mad to love you in your parts, levitated as they are. Some say atheism’s highest articulation is that moment in the gospel of Matthew where Jesus on the cross cries, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” It’s not a God who has turned his back on us but an admission that God turns his back on himself. My Trio. Can you be a hero for me?
I love how you talk to me. You said, “this / is important” before you asked. I was reading you in the corner of the bedroom late into the morning when the doves had stopped cooing. My daughter was safe in her preschool. Appearing on “Oprah” on Sept. 6, 2005, Chief Compass said of the Superdome and the victims of the levees: “We had little babies in there, some of the little babies getting raped.” So you write, “we couldn’t afford it but we got some anyway. / the finance company is a superdome. this is / important: did anybody come in there?” And it is important, in all its ways, since pleasure is one technology with which to answer institutions, power, the police. It is important since pleasure is friend to no one and because in this country apocrypha stick to black folks most. Who comes in and who is brought?
I like how you talk, like everyone is listening, our voices getting louder and thinner, twisted in those millions of ears. It’s difficult to say and be anything in that network. In the same poem you say, “he’s all alone, like Juan Williams,” who lost his job at NPR for saying he was afraid of folks he identified as Muslim boarding his plane.
David Bowie sang, “I like that you’re older than me. / It makes me feel important and free.” That’s how I think of you sometimes. You teach me things. That amplifying network and Juan’s loneliness, and his money for talking, they’re all part of our materials and circumstances, our occasions. The poet and critic Dale Smith says poems can do little, but they can model for readers new capacities for meeting our own moments. If amplification and surveillance are part of it, then how do we disappear? You write: “I pay attention so I won’t appear, / bottle-necked, wachovia-tracked, // with a notice on my door / ’bout putting notices on doors.” Baraka is a few days dead, but I think he would have said yes, that’s where their literature is, that’s where they’re writing us, it’s in the notices that assume our compliance, that assume they need only write and post for folks to be served.
I think you can be a hero for me, when I take you in my mouth. There your words “translate for the new times,” slip along “slideways” so it feels we’re both on “project runaway.” Slideways we run away from each other, slideways your words in my mouth come and go, they are for me and for others, in your three parts and in their gaps you address me and forsake me. You demand: “soul, tell me how to save that / burning getting over.” But you’re already doing it. In the same poem you take slideways from James Brown: “I got soul and I’m super bad.” Never or, but yes and yes.
On A Swarm, A Flock, A Host: A Compendium of Creatures
By Tina Chang
A Swarm, A Flock, A Host: A Compendium of Creatures, is nothing short of stunning fantasy born from the collaborative imagination of poet Mark Doty and artist Darren Waterston. Waterston’s illustrated black and white silhouettes of known and mystical creatures are as much a study of contrasts — darkness and light, danger and safety, hunger and fulfillment, the real and unreal — as they are careful observations of movement, space, and perspective. Each page is like unpacking a visual and literary surprise, a journey into the animal world with all of its wonder, strangeness, and haunting fascination. To read A Swarm, A Flock, A Host is to give oneself over to a universe where creatures claim their place in an ever evolving landscape and where the viewer finds himself seated within the bramble and thicket of the imagination.
Many of the illustrations capture creatures in mid-leap, mouths open, bearing teeth, claws splayed in an act of fury or flight. Mark Doty’s poems, situated alongside and also within the artwork, ponder the modern day bestiary in various poetic forms. From meditations that seem to draw inspiration from haiku — “Fireflies / escaped notes from / what performance” — to longer sequences that speak more fully to the human condition — “When I found the deer’s body at the back of the garden / where it had sunk into the earth beneath the wire fence […] descent that passed in blind pain and then swelled out / into the unstoppable current of the new” — Doty demonstrates his lyric and narrative dexterity.
Mystic beings are born from the amalgamation of fowl and reptile, vulture and antelope.
A deer, rabbit, mallard unify to create one imposing winged creature. The next page finds the boundaries blurring between a singular beast and the pack/swarm/flock to which it transforms. A family of various species, stacked one on top of another, is interpreted as “hunger piled upon hunger.” What makes this book a magical document is the charge between poet and artist who exchanged work in the making of this book. The artists built upon the questions and answers that arose from line and image, urgency and song, each inspiring the other in a process of regeneration.
This collection is a rich sensory experience for any lover of art and poetry. In its darker moments the world possesses a gothic air gesturing toward the shadow self’s possibilities while the brighter terrain creates a universe in which a believing reader could most surely wander, losing himself or herself in open air and animal thunder.
Hold this book in your hands and feel its weight; turn the glossy pages and notice the color blue punctuating select text like pulsing fireflies; let the observations of the poet burn into your waking dreams:
Horologists given the velvet key
to wind the night-spring
as they choose
On whose watch the world is ending
allow the darkness to close
your eyelids cool hand on your brow
and face wrap your arms around yourself
like wings be still be suspended
O what a world we owned