Archive for the 'Book Reviews' Category

08
Jul
19

On Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

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Carrie Etter's Imagined SonsI have not found many poems focused on the topic of adoption, and I’ve found even fewer poetry collections focused on it, but Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons (Seren, 2014) is a worthy find. This collection contains poems from the viewpoint of a birth mother who relinquished her son when she was 17 years old. There are 38 prose poems titled “Imagined Sons” followed by a number and subtitle, such as “Imagined Sons 1: Fairy Tale” or “Imagined Sons 32: The Fifth Supermarket Dream,” and interspersed between those prose poems are 10 poems titled “Birthmother’s Catechism.”

The catechisms arrive in the form of questions and answers, which often feel like an interrogation. The interrogations seemingly make the birth mother feel tremendous guilt for relinquishing her son, who was born on September 11, 1986, which I believe is at the tail end of the Baby Scoop Era (if it ever ended). The Baby Scoop Era began shortly after World War II, and it was a systemic attempt to take babies from unwed mothers, especially young mothers, and that deliberately made the mothers feel like unworthy humans. The opening catechism addresses this when it points out how she signed a contract “With black ink and legalese” that forced her to give up her son. Most likely she, at the age of 17, had no idea what she was reading and was also too young to be signing a contract, which is another issue with the Baby Scoop Era. It’s also an issue that will appear in a later catechism in the line “When a stranger compares her mortgage to signing away her first son, I nod and cannot speak” (46). A little bit later in the opening catechism, the reader can see how she was treated when a “Nurse brought pills for drying up breast milk.” Right away, the reader not only feels the trauma of a young mother relinquishing her baby son, but the reader also sees how poorly lawyers, doctors, and nurses treated her. Much of the rest of the book is told from Etter’s point of view many years after, still coping with the day of her son’s birth.

Throughout the catechism poems, it’s not quite clear who is asking the questions. Maybe it’s the birth mother’s guild-ridden mind, but often it feels like a faceless, Kafkaesque judge and she’s on trial. And this judge is often, maybe always, triggering her PTSD. For instance, here is an excerpt from one interrogation:

     What is the anniversary of loss?

     Sometimes the melancholy arrives before the remembering. 

     . . . 

     What is the anniversary of loss? 

     When I say sometimes the melancholy comes first, I know the body has its own memory. 

     What is the anniversary of loss? 

     The wishbone snapped, and I clung to the smaller piece.   (15)

 

The judge is forcing her to explain and maybe justify her actions, and the reader can see how her pain is not only emotional but is also physical. The body, which grew the baby for nine months inside itself, remembers. It remembers the baby’s breathing, heartbeat, and hunger rhythms. The body, like the mind and heart, just can’t forget. With each catechism, the reader gains a better understanding of a birth mother in later years and early years. The reader also realizes and understands that she made the wrong wish, though against her will, and she lives with it daily. For instance, in one catechism the judge asks, “Who do you think you are?” and she responds, “A wrong answer” (21). And in another catechism, the judge asks her:

     Why haven’t you looked for him? 

     What if I found him? 

     Why haven’t you looked for him? 

     What if I found him turning away?   (31)

 

These lines show the hope and fear of the chance encounter of meeting her son, and it also parallels the main theme of the prose poems.

In the “Imagined Sons” prose poems, she often fantasizes in surreal, dreamlike scenes about chance encounters with strangers who she hopes will be her son. To complicate matters, Etter had her son in the United States, but later in her life, she ex-patriated to England, where the chances of the encounter are probably zero. And yet she imagines, she hopes, and she even recognizes familiar family features in the male strangers, such as how a stranger “has my large, dark eyes” (“Imagined Sons 4: Black and Velvet”), or “He’s reasonably handsome, with her father’s reddish hair and light eyes” (“Imagined Sons 15: The Second Supermarket Dream”). It’s as if she is so desperate to find her son that she might be imagining these familial features. To me, this is an unexpected reversal, because the adopted child who seeks their parents often wants the experience of recognizing where they come from – the joy in finding someone who looks like them. It seems birth mothers do the same. And all of this – the relinquishing, the guilt, the hope, the possible reconnection, adoption – is surreal, which may be why Etter chose to write prose poems. One can argue that the prose poem is the better container for surreal events than a lineated poem, because the prose poem can freely flow without conscious interference from the mind negotiating the tension between grammar and line breaks, or as Baudelaire says about the prose poem, so it can “adapt to the lyric movements of the soul.” In other words, it may more closely parallel the unconscious flow of thought and dreams. And these thoughts she will never let go of, as she tells her interrogator, she will let her son go when:

     A man carves my name into granite with hammer and chisel. 

     . . . 
 
     It is time, Celan said, the stone made an effort to flower.
 

I believe the reader also will not be able to let go of the birth mother’s trauma, language, and images in Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons. //

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Etter, Carrie. Imagined Sons. Seren, 2014.

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12
May
19

Introduction for Allan Peterson Reading

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

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From Introduction to Allan Peterson’s Reading

at The University of Southern Mississippi on Friday, April 26, 2019

Allan Peterson This Luminous: New and Selected PoemsThe first time I encountered Allan Peterson was early in my first semester at The University of Southern Mississippi in August 2012, where I was beginning the doctorate program for creative writing. I barely knew anyone yet, but I knew there was a poetry reading and I went to it. And there was Allan Peterson. I would like to give you an impression of me hearing Peterson for the first time. [jaw drops. eyes pop out of face. uses index finger to close jaw.] As that happened, I thought, “Who is this guy? Why don’t I know about him? I’ve missed so much. So many of these uniquely detailed images.” Here is an example: “trains threw oars of light from their windows. / In endless black you could see them rowing through Kansas.” The image is so original. It’s like someone who sees the world without the lens of language getting in the way. In other words, he sees things fresh, inimitable. Here’s another: “The ocean seems endless when two dolphins divide it. / Epistemology follows.”  The image alone is breathless, but that turn on the line break to “Epistemology follows.” I was knocked out by how he could mix an image with a philosophical abstraction. I love these leaping and seemingly inconceivable connections. I was hooked right then and there.

But I continued to listen to his reading. I listened to how, as W.B. Yeats said of a good poem, his poems “click shut like a well-made box.” And I imagine Mary Poppins listening to him, and thinking “My supercalifragilisticexpialidocious ain’t got nothing on him,” because he uses words that I’ve never heard before, but they are so fun to read and say, like “cotyledons,” which is an embryonic leaf in a seed-bearing light; or “coelenterates,” which is an aquatic invertebrate animal; or “carnelian,” a shade of red; or “alizarin,” a dye used to make a shade of red. The last two words are probably familiar to artists, and Peterson is also a visual artist, which is probably why he sees the world so uniquely. Or as the critic Stephanie Burt says (and if Stephanie Burt is writing about your poetry, you must be doing something amazing), “No other poet [. . .] focuses so fully on the inward effects of apparently inconsequential observations; no other poet makes them speak so well. [. . .] Peterson almost never describes scenes literally and at length; poets who do so can lose a lopsided contest against the resources of visual art, as Peterson must know [. . .]. Instead, Peterson uses what he sees as a starting point for effects of inwardness, of ratiocination, above all of analogy.”

I feel I could go on and on, but I won’t. I’ll just say two more things. First, Peterson is the author of six full-length books of poetry, most recently: This Luminous: New and Selected Poems (Panhandler Books, 2019); Precarious (42 Miles Press, 2014), which was a finalist for The Lascaux Prize and chosen as one of the four best books of poetry in 2014 by The Chicago Tribune; my personal favorite, Fragile Acts (McSweeney’s Poetry Series, 2012), which was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Oregon Book Award; and Susceptible (forthcoming from Salmon Press in 2020). And he is the author of eight chapbooks, most recently: Other Than They Seem (Tupelo Press, 2014), which won the Snowbound Chapbook Prize; and Omnivore (Bateau Press, 2009), which won the Third Annual Boom Chapbook Prize. He has also received fellowships from the National Endowments for the Arts and from The State of Florida.

The last thing I would like to say is: Tonight, listen with your eyes.

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Works Cited

“About.” Allan Peterson, www.allanpeterson.net. Accessed 17 Apr. 2019.

Burt, Stephanie. “In the Details: Looking Closely with Allan Peterson.” Boston Review, 1 July 2011, bostonreview.net/poetry/stephen-burt-allan-peterson-as-much-as. Accessed 17 Apr. 2019.

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12
Mar
19

On Keetje Kuipers’ All Its Charms

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

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Keetje Kuipers All Its CharmsAll Its Charms (BOA Editions, 2019) is Keetje Kuipers’ third full-length collection of poems. There is much to admire in this book, but what catches most of my attention are the steady, evolving tones paralleling a woman becoming a mother.

The book begins with poems of a speaker confronted with the morality of killing creatures. The opening poem, “Becoming,” recalls William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark,” where Stafford has to decide what to do with the dead pregnant doe with a living fawn inside her. Stafford “thought hard for all of us – my only swerving –, / then pushed her over the edge into the river.” Kuipers’ similar incident is “When I saw that early spring / meadowlark – one-winged, flapping into the road – / I pressed my heal to its chest, to the earth” (9). She, like Stafford, provides mercy. In the following poem, “Landscape with Sage and the Names of My Children,” she held a “dead / buck by his antlers and dragged him through the sage” (10). In the next poem, “The elk my father shot,” she witnesses her father’s respect for an elk he just shot with a bow and arrow, as he is “quiet / so as not to scare away the grazing // ghost he’s made” (11). The tone of these opening poems is one of conflicted compassion. A tone not dissimilar to Stafford’s thinking “hard for all of us.”

After these opening poems, the tone shifts to joy, reverence, and awe. What’s remarkable is how long Kuipers sustains the tone, which is for about half the book. And this tone is inspired by a pregnant mother awaiting her new life and trying to create the joyful atmosphere for her soon-to-arrive child. The tone affects the poems’ attitude and me, as I felt uplifted. In “Migration Instinct,” she compares her earlier life of a late-night partier and a careless spender who maxes out her credit card to her present life. The joyful tone asserts itself in the final lines (which is where it often happens), when she writes of her current situation:

     But I’ve got dishes to wash, tiny sock after sock
     to fold. Sadness is so much work. Angry takes too much 

     time. And there’s my own daughter, mouth to my breast
     as she winks in the lamplight, sucking it all right out me.   (23)

After reminiscing, she is faced with chores, but then is swept away in the adorable cuteness of baby socks, and pendulums back to her youthful, unfulfilling feelings, then swings back to a winking baby enabling her to experience a new type of love. She finds hope and awe, as if she has blossomed into a new and meaningful life.

This delightful tone continues into the second half of the book, too, but on occasion, it is interrupted by the worries a mother (I assume) tends to have. The tonal demarcation isn’t clear cut, but it starts somewhere around the poem “Outside the Refugium.” In this poem, Kuipers watches a magpie eat a dead sparrow and swallow its heart. Then the magpie speaks to her, “Yes, the world has always been this fragile” (37), before the worry of protecting and caring for a child sets in. In the following poem, “Picking Huckleberries as the World Ends,” she worries about how she’ll “shelter” her child. Following that in “Landscape with Children,” she thinks to herself about her child:

                                          Your absence
     is impossible, unimaginable. 

     You can’t ever be gone from me – a prayer
     I hold under my tongue like a dark pill 

     I’m afraid to swallow.   (39)

I start to see what I think is the evolution of a mother. A single mother who had a baby via sperm donation and who is alone in the world with her child amid real and imagined concerns that are presenting themselves to her. Bravely, she learns to negotiate those feelings with a joyful tone, again, such as at the end of “Collaborators”:

                                                          ferries
     we drive our big cars onto because now

     we can go anywhere, ferries that took
     the people from the clear shore of their lives

     to the internment camps on the mainland
     because nothing could be more dangerous

     than living among each other where voices
     unnetted and rising in complaint

     are a flock of birds that can make no better
     song than the one which we sing together.  (52)

She realizes no matter what happens, they will make it, they will survive, and they will make joyful music.

While the tones evolve and oscillate, as they probably should or the book would be too sugary, Kuipers sees the world like a sparrow, whose “head [is] turned to the side / so one black eye can search the stippled sky / in ecstasy,” even as it is being eaten alive by a magpie. She rises out of her past life of soured relationships and experiences, and she finds joy and compassion in her new life as a mother, and therein lies the beauty of the book and all its charms.//

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Kuipers, Keetje. All Its Charms. BOA Editions, 2019.

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18
Feb
19

On Katie Ford’s If You Have to Go

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

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Katie Ford’s fourth collection of poetry (and fourth with Graywolf Press), If You Have to Go, revolves around a break up with her partner of many years. The book consists of four sections, with section “II: The Addresses” comprising the bulk of the poems. In this section, there is a prefatory four-line poem that is followed by 39 sonnet-shaped poems that behave as a crown of sonnets. That is, each poem has three four-line stanzas and a couplet, which occasionally rhymes, and some aspect from the couplet is included in the following sonnet’s opening line. Sometimes the repeated aspect from the couplet is a line or phrase, an altered version of a line or a phrase, or a word from within the couplet. For example, the end of sonnet 34 ends, “Yet, lighting candles – / it’s how I went on,” and sonnet 35 begins, “By candlelight the house went down.” This type of linking not only aids in thematic flow of the section and book, but aids in the associative thinking of the speaker. The direction of thought shifts but with the same repeated aspect. For instance, while sonnets 34 and 35 share images of light and home, sonnet 34 is concerned with whether to burn the home down (where the “home” is also symbol for the writer’s body, as established in the book’s opening poem “In the Hearth”), and what to do with its ashes, but sonnet 35 turns the focus on how to deal with the ghost of the departed husband. This associative linking and thinking are vital as section II is a monologue, and to me, it appears to be an internal monologue of the writer sorting out her new life, or filling in the emptiness of lost love. This internal monologue also at times leads to abstract language, some contorted syntax, and multiple internal voices.

The opening lines of If You Have to Go are, “Of life’s abundant confusions / this does not partake” (“In the Hearth”). This is a perilous start, as the reader has nothing concrete to attach to and the “this” is ambiguous. However, it situates the reader with the abstractions we commonly use when thinking, especially during a break up with a lover. The reader, however, will later learn that “this” refers to all that surrounds her break up and the empty feeling that accompanies it. This abstract language also seemingly conjures past religious poets, like John Donne, who might use phrases like “abundant confusions” or use the word “partake.” The antiquated language of forlornness, however, is contrasted with images from the physical world.

Because of the contrasting languages of the internal and external, the images appear more evocative. Consider the opening of the first sonnet-shaped poem in section II:

     Empty with me, though here I am, I saw
     some soul set my meal with dream, then leave

It’s a challenge to visualize what it is happening at first because there is nothing really concrete. If the first line included “I am” before “Empty,” the reader gets a better sense of what is happening, but still the lines are a bit vague. Though the reader catches on to the fact that the narrator is talking to herself, and she represents herself with both the objective and subjective first-person pronouns, “me” and “I.” She is acted on and acts, to some extent. She “saw / some soul,” but is it a metaphysical soul or a person? And why “some” instead of someone more specific? Perhaps it’s because she’s in deep depression. But then this happens in lines 3-8:

     a gift for me: a ten-toothed comb to rake what’s dead
     from me until the comb’s carved medieval scene 

     where bend two horses, water-consoled,
     adds to me the hope of that number.
     My own comb’s a lime-shined prairie
     with the grass of plastic acres. 

The comb with all of its details brings her out of her internal despair and gives her a form of external hope. A hope she can physically hold on to, and a comb of hope that will accrue more meaning, as it is often referenced throughout section II. The image resolves what the abstract cannot portray.

The point I am trying to get at is risk. Ford risks using antiquated words and syntax, as well as abstraction. These uses are what every creative writing teacher (and composition teacher) tells his or her students not to do. Teachers stress writing in today’s language and with images to engage the reader. Ford’s risks, however, pay off as she fully renders one human’s broken-hearted condition by balancing the inexpressible internal with the sensual external, and as she tries to find stability through a resolvable regularity of abstraction and image. In addition, by bringing in the antiquated language, she speaks to the past and reminds the reader that writing of loss is timeless and universal. In If You Have to Go, Katie Ford creates a language and poetics for vulnerability. //

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Ford, Katie. If You Have to Go. Graywolf Press, 2018.//

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09
Mar
18

Jenny George’s The Dream of Reason is Marvelous

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

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Jenny George's The Dream of ReasonThe surrealist’s idea of the marvelous varies from surrealist to surrealist. For some, such as Andre Breton, the marvelous is “always beautiful . . . in fact only the marvelous is beautiful,” it can be something wonderfully unexpected, and for others, like Georges Bataille, it is the sacred. My definition frequently varies in nuance but usually revolves something like: the marvelous is an unexpected accident, like Roland Barthes’ punctum, which is transformative while, and perhaps because, it confronts reality. This confrontation is momentary. The perception, or act of witness, is momentary, but the effect(s) resulting from perception may endure in society for a generation, as society digests the marvelous object until it becomes ordinary, or something like ruin a tourist might visit. Thus, it is temporary in scale for the individual and temporary in the longer context of human history. The marvelous appears frequently in Jenny George’s The Dream of Reason (Copper Canyon Press, 2018). One could even anticipate this from the title which brings together the dream/unconscious and reason/conscious, the two realms the surrealists want to join and give equal privilege to both.

In section 4 of “Death of a Child,” we can see how the infectious moment of the marvelous moves from individual to community:

     The conductor’s baton hovers
     for a moment in the alert
     silence (a silence that leans forward
     saying Now…! Now…!) and then it drops
     into the chasm.

     Sound enters the bodies
     of all the people simultaneously
     calling them to fell together
     an unconcealed fear, a cup over-
     flowing, a sense of absolute love     (14)

The Dream of Reason is divided into three sections, plus a frontispiece poem. Section I is focused on the loss of a child, Section II main focus is on the slaughter of pigs and cows, and Section III is the speaker’s transformation into accepting grief and brutality. The book really takes off in section I’s third poem “Everything Is Restored.” The poem opens in a mundane environment of feeding a baby prunes, cleaning his mouth, and putting him to bed in his crib, and the marvelous enters as the child slips “into the silvery minnows / of dreams, disorder of shine” (10). A transformative event is about to occur, the child appears to die in his sleep, which becomes more obvious in the following poem “Death of a Child.” The child’s death is wrapped in the beauty of “silvery minnows” to which “Harm will come.” It ruptures classical concepts of beauty. It transforms the child and then the mother who in a concluding surreal moment “folds up the ocean / and shuts it in cupboard,” as if pushing the event into her subconscious, but an event that undoubtedly will transform her. It’s a marvelous movement from the one experience to the other’s experience. Many of the marvelous moments in Section I, however, are contained in each a poem’s speaker, such as section 5 of “The Gesture of Turning a Mask Around”:

     The opposite of language is not silence
     but space.

     It’s dawn; the dark unjoins
     and drifts into light.
     I enter the house and see
     with astonishment the difference
     between my rooms.    (16)

Section I focuses on the transformative event of the loss of a child through semi-surreal imagery, and section II abruptly shifts to the slaughter of cows and pigs, where brief moments of the beautiful marvelous appear that will affect not just the speaker but the community of readers.

In Section II’s poems, there is very little enjambment. The effect, at times, creates a type of slide show (where each line in the poem is like photo slide) that slows down the actual event so the reader actively participates in the experience. For instance, in the “The Traveling Line,” each line is end stopped to create a snapshot moment, but by the end of the poem, it feels like it was continuous experience. Lines 3-8 provide an example:

     The pigs are loaded onto trucks.
     The pigs are prodded through a passage.
     They roll their many eyes.
     They see the hind legs of the one ahead.
     They call to one another like birds.
     The pigs become a traveling line.              (24)

And the poem becomes a traveling of lines pierced with horribly beautiful moments, like “They call to one another like birds.” The line on its own is beautiful, a beautiful punctum in the scene of slaughter, and within a series of snapshot images that create a unified experience, like a movie. The poem recreates a moment to awake the reader to the horror we’ve become numb to, that we take as ordinary, when in in fact it is extraordinarily cruel. In Section II, many of the poems use snapshot lines to create a fluid and lived experienced.

Section III opens with the possibility of hope in the poem “New World” and its first line “There are no slaughterhouses,” but the end is filled with indifference, “In the morning, the sun may rise. / Who knows. / There is nothing to be longed for” (41). Then the poems move into the marvelous, as defined above:

     Someone strikes a match. Briefly
     the earth is illuminated.
     Then it goes out, just the drifting flare of memory.
     But our eyes hold it – for a while
     it will be all we can see,
     the dark will stream with it, the nerves
     will salvage back the light until they can’t
     and we are bodies again.                               (“The Cave” 42)

And in “Winter Variations” there is the moment “In a vast theater: one note played on a piano. / It vanishes under a drift. // Briefly the trees hold the light in their arms” (46). All of this anticipates transformation in the following poems. She inhabits the brutal and violent and the points of beauty within them, and she learns to live in it. This happens, for example, in “Revelation,” where she and her father dissect a frog whose heart is “like a gray pearl on the tip of a knife” (56), and after they clean up the speaker says, “I’m not sorry / for the frog. I’m not sorry to know this” (56), where “this” is life sputtering out of the frog before it “drifts toward stillness” (56). The marvelous moments in the previous sections have left her in the ruin of the ordinary, where “The way to keep something is to forget it” (58). The marvelous has lost its magic. All this, in a sense, recalls Goya’s Capricho aquatint image “The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters,” which is where the book finds its title. In Goya’s image, a man sleeps with his head on his artist table as evil-looking bats and owls hover over and stare at him, while a lynx stares directly at the viewer. The artist is at ease enough to sleep despite the horror around him.

Jenny George’s The Dream of Reason does end on hope, though. After a winter turning into spring that is reminiscent of The Waste Land, the speaker of the final poem, “Easter,” realizes that the first part of a human to rise from the winter thaw is not the “brain” or “heart,” but “the image.” It will most likely be a new marvelous image, as she begins another transformation, which I hope to read in her next collection of poems.//

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George, Jenny. The Dream of Reason. Copper Canyon Press, 2018.

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31
Jul
17

On Neil Aitken’s Babbage’s Dream

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

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Neil Aitken's Babbage's DreamCharles Babbage was a mathematician, inventor, and even philosopher, but he is mostly known as “the father of the computer,” as he designed the first “analytical engine.” He is also the main focus of Neil Aitken’s Babbage’s Dream (Sundress Publications, 2016). However, this is no biography, and it’s not a string of found poems. For Aitken, Babbage becomes not only a lens through which to examine Babbage’s emotions and an artist’s and scientist’s endeavors with creation, but the 56 pages of poems (two of which first appeared in Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) and nine pages of notes also tend toward ontology and explore what it is to be a struggling human.

The bulk of the book consists of long-lined, unrhymed couplets of lyric poems. But where a lyric poem uses the lyrical I to express a voice going through change, Aitken replaces the I with the Babbage persona and a near omniscient voice observing Babbage. Additionally, almost all the lines are marked with a caesura in the middle, sometimes two or three. For instance, the opening of “Babbage at His Desk, Enumerating the Known World” (23):

   From here, you lay bare the world
   table after table, column after column: 

   each thing known and numbered, counted
   like sparrows in their open graves, 

   the heartbeats of pigs, the staggered breathing
   of cattle in low country fields. Each significant. 

   A sign. A signature. The quality of ink
   spread on the printer’s block. Silk threads,

Those these lines are shorter than most, we can see/hear how the couplets move and also act like binaries. The lines move between velocity and pause, which is helpful in the longer lines. The caesura acts as a breathing fulcrum, as well as an experiential fulcrum. As for the binary action, the opening line presents an emotional abstraction that is countered in line two with the need to mathematically express or capture those emotions. Thus, line 1 –emotion / line 2 – math; and line 1 – abstraction / line 2 – categorization. Then, line three successfully quantifies the known, which is then countered in line four with an image, an emotional image of despair. Thus, line 3 – mathematical representation / line 4 – image representation; and line 3 –quantifiable / line 4 – inexpressible. There’s a back-and-forth movement between opposing experiential realms of perception and expression.

Sometimes the back-and-forth occurs in the same line, such as line six, where the period caesura acts as the fulcrum for the experiential shift. The couplets, the movements, mimetically rendering thoughts, feelings, actions a person moves through during moments of struggle, despair, joy, the ineffable, while allegorically paralleling how “binary numbers are stored in a digital computer as either absence or presence (nothing or something)” (“Notes” 71). Perhaps this can be all simplified as movement between conscious and unconscious. Not all the couplets behave this way, but many do.

In fact, there are five poems that experiment with form and structure, and four of those do so using computer programming language, such as C++. For example, “Comment” (46), which first appeared in Redactions, opens:

   At the company town hall meeting,                           // in the movie theater again
   we see the same slide. The financial gurus                // old plots, new faces

   spin the numbers again, a visual rhetoric                   // fake stars painted on the scene
   of gray bars rising adjacent to red. Someone             // dull plastic, factory-made

Here there are two columns. According to the notes, the poem “uses the // line notation from C++ to indicate that what follows is to be read by the human, but not the computer (i.e., everything after those marks is ignored by the compiler”) (72). The left column uses the first-person plural subjective “we” to attempt to objectively render a scene, while the right column has an unidentified speaker providing a judgmental assessment (or “comments”) of what is actually happening. So again, we have this fulcrum, but this time it hinges on the //. The left side is for the computer and is in a fairly objective and narrative language, while the right side is for the human and is in an unknown snarky, lyrical voice.

I think these binaries, these couplets exist because Babbage lives in two worlds: one of the computer or mechanical and one of the human, who experiences love and suffers great despair at the loss of his wife and daughter within a year’s time. In essence, the poems underscore a human’s conflict between mind and heart and the dialectical movements we encounter within ourselves each moment of the day as we endure what is here and what is gone, what is made and what is destroyed, and between maker and the maker’s creation. The language in Neil Aitken’s Babbage’s Dream is concise and specific as computer code and is rhythmically rigid, with the binary of iambs providing a steady backbeat. //

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Aitken, Neil. Babbage’s Dream. Knoxville, TN: Sundress Publications, 2016. Print.

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26
Jul
17

On Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric

 

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

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Jonathan Culler – Theory of the LyricIn Theory of the Lyric (Harvard University Press, 2015), Jonathan Culler does not attempt to provide a definition of what the lyric poem is. Instead he gives us new ways to approach the lyric poem, as Culler believed previous methods were ineffective or lacking. For instance, in the past, some scholars and teachers of poetry have tried to reconstruct the poet’s/speaker’s experiences or motives for writing the poem, even though the poem does not benefit from or need those reconstructions, especially since it doesn’t address what the poem and its language are doing; or the New Critics approach – “[Culler] was no longer oriented by the New Critical assumptions that poems exist to be interpreted. It [his chapter on the apostrophe in particular but the book in general] sought, rather, to explore the most unsettling and intriguing aspects of lyric language and the different sorts of seductive effects that lyric may have” (viii). Culler throughout suggests the reader address the lyric poem as an experience, and he provides many ways to do that. Because of this, perhaps, Culler uses accessible language (as opposed to high-academic or obfuscating language that we often encounter when reading literary criticism). Even with the accessible language, my reading was fully engaged and slowed as I wrote plentiful amounts of marginalia and would often to pause longer than normal to contemplate what he wrote or to re-read his poem examples to see how poem worked with his ideas. The book is a concentrated study of the “Western lyric tradition” (3) from the ancient Greeks to Modern poetry, and on one occasion, contemporary hip hop.

One way to approach a lyric poem, according to Culler, is to realize that it is an event, a repeatable speech act. The lyric is performative to a degree and not constative. The lyric poem seeks to make something happen and is not designed to be read for signs of character or plot. The sensual pleasures of the lyric poem – rhythms, harmonies, line breaks, memorable lines, etc. – are often what attract the reader to the poem in first place, as opposed to a hermeneutic reading for meaning. In other words, “The meaning of a poem, he [Amittai Aviram] claims, allegorically represents ‘aspects of the power of the poem’s own rhythm to bring about a physical response, to engage the readers [sic] or listener’s body and thus to disrupt the orderly process of meaning’” (165). This evokes what Robert Frost said, those who read poems with their eyes are barbarians; you must learn to read with your ears.

The articulation or enunciation of the lyric poem creates a timeless present and underlines the poem’s lyric nowness. The lyric exists outside of time, it doesn’t move chronologically, and it exists in the eternal now – the event of its reading. “The fundamental characteristic of the lyric,” claims Culler, “is not the description and interpretation of a past event but the iterative and iterable performance of an event in the lyric present, in the special ‘now,’ of lyric articulation. . . . Fiction is about what happens next; lyric is about what happens now.” (226). The poem is its own event.

This lyrically event, according to Culler, with its sensual pleasures might be especially important in times of prosaic complacency, reasoning, argumentation, and political oppression. As Merleau-Ponty says, the lyric poem resists “the prose of the world” (304). Similar to Surrealism, the lyric poem with its sensual pleasures releases the mind from prose’s abstract thinking and “perception of the world” (304). This becomes important in building a community, especially when coupled with the lyric I. The lyric I or “the subject is constituted as the subject of this sensory experience, which is available to any wanderer” or reader (323). In other words, the lyric I, while a seemingly personal subject and thus in opposition to the masses, becomes a voice for the masses, the powerless, the voiceless and unheard ones overwhelmed by power and ideology. Because of its sensual pleasures, its non-prosaic thinking, the lyric poem can “generate a community that it addresses, to assert social values, to participate in a restructuring of the sensuous and affective domain of life” (330), of which Culler gives plentiful examples. The lyric is communal and political.

While it might seem that Culler is defining what a lyric poem is, I contend he is showing what the lyric poem does, and what it does is usually overlooked in criticism and the teaching of lyric poetry. The lyric poem in its doing uses iterable musical events as an antidote to the blind allegiance to facts and signification. It makes “a new organization of experience presuming the centrality of unrealized amorous passion, which has animated the lyric and popular song” since the time of Petrarch (315). While there are a variety of themes and forms of lyric poems at any given time, it’s the experience of the lyric poem that is missing from the critical discussions of lyric poetry, and this is one Culler’s main concerns.

Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric is much more exhaustive than exploring the lyric poem as event and social force. It also examines its non-mimetic properties, explores aspects of the genre through history, reflects on theories of the lyric, provides a good study on rhythm and meter and the social meaning of meter, has a fascinating chapter on the apostrophe, delivers a well thought out study of the sonnet through time, and a concluding chapter on “Lyric and Society.” I recommend this book to every teacher of poetry, as it gives a few pedagogical approaches to teaching poetry, especially by way of rhythm:

A greater foregrounding of rhythm as central to lyric might enable the teaching of poetry to regain some of the ground lost in recent years and also might lead to a different set of poetics. One could thus imagine an approach more connected with evaluation, which has not been central to literary studies recently: What works and what doesn’t? What engages our attention, our corps de jouissance – to use Barthes’s term – and what does not? For such a poetics an important part of the teaching of poetry would be accustoming students to hearing and experiencing the rhythms of traditional verse – they have a surprisingly hard time hearing iambic pentameter without the practice of recitation, for instance, though they fare much better with four-beat rhythms. (173)

And I recommend it for every poet, as it’s a cross between a craft book (in a certain way) and a critical approach, but written by someone with a firm understanding of what poets are up to by way of the ear to the heart to the mind. //

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Culler, Jonathan. Theory of the Lyric. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. Print.

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