Posts Tagged ‘Louisiana State University Press


On Kelly Cherry’s The Life and Death of Poetry

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose issue 18, due out July 2, 2014.//

Kelly Cherry's – The Life and Death of PoetryThe Life and Death of Poetry (Louisiana State University Press, 2013), is an ambitious title to fulfill, especially in 68 pages of poetry. I could write about how Kelly Cherry manages to achieve this, but instead I want to think about beginnings. I want to mainly focus on how this book of poems opens and then moves, because after my first reading, I wasn’t convinced the book’s opening poem was the best poem to open the book with. I thought it a good opening poem, but I thought there was a better choice with the poem “Underwriting the Words”:

   Ousted from heaven,
   we crashed into language.
   Incomparable music
   gave way to words.
   Authors filled auditoriums
   with their friends.
   Orpheus wrote a novel.

   Some days we try to climb back.
   We search for the word that sings,
   the sentence that sings.
   It’s not the same.
   Remember the music?
   It lifted you up to the light
   and endowed you with understanding.

   None of us understands anymore.
   Commentators baffle, words
   reinvent their meaning, every voice
   contradicts another. In a city
   of deserted streets, where people hide
   like turtles, in their houses,
   silence is the one common denominator.

   The hidden theme of the book is silence.
   Between the lines,
   underwriting the words:
   In every line we read
   the absence of perfect sound,
   the severed head with mouth sewn shut.

   The hidden theme of the book is our obliteration:
   that we are swept away
   like fallen leaves from the front steps,
   insect shells from a sill,
   drafts from a desk.

Bob Dylan – Blonde on BlondeThat’s a dynamite poem and it covers some of the themes of the book: language, writing, singing, relationships, silence, death. (These aren’t the book’s only themes, as it also explores nature, poetry, and love.) “Underwriting the Words” could deliver some of the necessities of opening a single collection of poems as it’s strong, it introduces themes, it gives a beginning (we fall from heaven), and anticipates the end (“obliteration”). I wondered why the book didn’t begin with this poem, and then I thought of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde – both the double album and its later reincarnation as a CD. If you haven’t noticed, the order of the songs is different on the album than on the CD. I particularly like the album’s order better. But why are the songs ordered differently on the CD? Not all the songs are rearranged, but enough are. The CD version still opens with a defiant, partying youth celebrating getting stoned in “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and it still ends with a deeply in love, fully-matured adult who is singing one of the most passionate love songs “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Even the tones of the songs are completely different. The former is quicker paced, playful, and in a higher pitch, and the latter is slow, contemplative, and in a lower pitch. But back to the order of the album. The album is ordered so that each album side (all four of them) crescendos into a higher intensity. Each of the four sides starts at lower intensity than where it ends, and, overall, the album’s intensity reaches its maximum in “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” The CD, since it only has one side, has to rearrange the songs so the crescendo is more gradual. Oddly, one might think the CD’s order would work better than the album as it moves from song to song, but in my opinion, it doesn’t. It seems a little jerky. I think Cherry had a similar idea to the Blonde on Blonde-album crescendo effect when she chose to start The Life and Death of Poetry with “Which Is a Verb”:

   We fell out of eternity
   into time, which is a verb.
   Life was rushing past us,
   and we began to rush too.
   Everything was a blur. In the confusion,
   some things got mixed up with others.
   A loaf of bread drove a bus.
   A longleaf pine swam in the pond.

   We grew so dizzy, light sparked
   beneath our closed eyelids, like rescue flares.
   We lay down on the red grass
   and clung to the world as it whirled.

   Wind whistled past our ears.
   Tears flew from our eyes.

This is a dynamite poem, too, but it lacks the powerful intensity of “Underwriting the Words” and its end. If the book started with “Underwriting the Words,” it would decrescendo not only in intensity but in facility (for lack of a better word, as some poems are more powerful than others, though I wouldn’t remove any one poem from this collection). “Underwriting the Words” is probably the strongest and most successful of the poems in the book, a book that certainly has many very fine poems. So the book, as a result, would descend (though subtly) on two fronts. Still the first poem needs to get the reader excited, it has to act as a frame of sorts, and the one Cherry did choose to start the book does.

The book opens with the fall, but not the traditional fall or the fall from heaven, but a fall from eternity. We are falling gods. Only gods are eternal, and non-eternal beings (like angels) can fall from heaven, as in “Underwriting the Words,” but they cannot fall from eternity. And we, as gods, fell “into time,” and time makes us mortal, human. But time is not an abstract noun here. It’s a verb. Time is active and acts on us, with us, and through us. Time is so active, we couldn’t see straight. We ended up in surreal world where bread drives busses and pine trees swim in ponds. We were pre-linguistic with one verb we didn’t yet recognize. And here is our and the book’s beginning. We are going to go through the evolution of language and poetry in this collection of poems. We are going to live and die in this whirling world and transform wind and tears, what we hear and what we see, into poetry. And that’s where it all begins. And this is why “Which Is a Verb” comes first. This is an effective opening poem in framing the book, leading us into the book, and establishing energy levels from which the three sections of the book will build on.

And so section I, “Learning the Language,” and the book begin with “Which Is a Verb” and crescendos into the section’s penultimate poem “Underwriting the Words.” In between, the section moves into steadying the world that was whirling by in “Which Is a Verb,” to discovering music, to vowels, to the first word (which is also a person’s last word), to more words, to singing, to language, to signified and signifier, to fiction, to poems, and to gods and heaven. During these poems, the section crescendos from crawl to dance in the gathering of experience and the development of poetry, which climaxes in “Underwriting the Words” and then gently settles in section one’s denouement “A Voice Survives,” which is a quiet meditative poem.

Section two, “Welsh Table Talk (A Sequence),” moves into using poems to create a land, a place. Not recreating like Olson in The Maximus Poems, but creating it much like I remember Robert Graves writing about in The White Goddess, the goddess of birth, love, and death. When I’m in this section, I feel Graves in the silences, or perhaps I feel the poems arise from analeptic thought, or unlived and forgotten events recovered/created through intuition, as this Welsh land often feels ancient, or with the echoes and hints of the ancient. This section then crescendos into an emphatic yearning that echoes the end of The Waste Land and its wondering what to do, but Cherry has an answer – “Carve.”

The book turns to section three, “What the Poet Wishes to Say,” which is a natural progression, because even if carving is the answer as to what to do, there is still the question of what to carve, as the opening lines of the opening poem, “On Translation,” indicate:

   Be warned, I tell my students.
   A writer with nothing to write
   is in danger of falling into
   one or more of four
   pitfalls: drink, drugs,
   adultery, and translation.

The book’s concluding poems, including the one just mentioned, or essays in verse about poetry, help the reader arrive to the final realization that “A poem can move to love,” and love, which is a verb, is the ultimate crescendo and the last line in Kelly Cherry’s The Life and Death of Poetry.//




Cherry, Kelly. The Life and Death of Poetry. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013.//


Robert Morgan’s The Strange Attractor (2004)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 4/5, which was published circa early 2005.


Robert Morgan – The Strange AttractorRobert Morgan has been writing for quite a while, but this poet is new to me. The Strange Attractor: New and Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 2004) begins with his newest poems, & man was I knocked on my ass. The language is tight, the rhythms are beautiful, & there are some of the best science poems I’ve read. But before I get there, it should be noted, except for the science poems, most of these poems are narrative & deal with this world, particularly his world – his life in the country. These are the poems of a man whose hands are dirty & calloused. Meaning, the subject matter could be, for instance, about an odometer & a man sitting on a tractor, which is written in a colloquial language; but when these two aspects (content & language) are accompanied with the rhythms (often in iambic pentameter or loose iambs), then movement & poetry are made & meanings are had. In a sense, he is a bit like Robert Frost — both are poets with dirty, calloused hands who write with common language, yet produce beauty. And whether in narrative-country poems or in lyrical-science poems, there tends to be the desire to connect whatever world he is in with nature. Consider “History’s Madrigal”:

   When fiddle makers and dulcimer
   makers look for best material they
   prefer old woods [...]
   the older wood has sweeter, more
   mellow sounds, makes truer and deeper
   music, as if [...]
   it aged, stored up the knowledge of
   passing seasons, the cold and thaw,
   whine of storm, bird call and love
   moan, news of wars and mourning, in
   it fibers, in the sparkling grain,
   to be summoned and released by
   fingers on the strings’ vibration
         the memory and wisdom of 
   wood delighting air as century
   speaks to century and history [...].
                                                   (ll 1-3, 8-11, 12-18, 20, 22-24)

The science poems (which are my favorites & make me anxious for his newest collection of poems to appear & to also read Trunk and Thicket (L’Epervier Press, which is now Sage Hill Press), represented in this collection by the long, sustaining, & energy-gathering poem “Mockingbird”) try to connect the universe with the nature here on earth, & quite often the connection is insects. What’s significant about these science poems is they take difficult subject matter & by the transference to this world make them understood. Consider “Time’s Music,” which deals with Cosmic Background Radiation which originated approximately 100,000 years after the Big Bang & still flows through the universe:

   Insects in an August field seem
   to register the background noise
   of space and amplify the twitch
   of partners in atoms. The click
   of little timepieces, chirp of
   tiny chisels, as grasshoppers
   and crickets effervesce and spread 
   in the weeds ahead, then wash back
   in a wake of crackling music
                    in every bit
   of matter, of half-life in
   the thick and flick of creation.
                                                   (ll 1-9, 13-15)

And I think the following lines from “Mockingbird” best illustrate what the science poems are doing: “[…] where the / watt and kilowatt accumulate like / cells of honey.”

Morgan is also quite often grounded in detail, which of course makes abstractions like background radiation more palatable, & as Norman Dubie says, “Detail creates intimacy.” But I think “Exhaustion” best captures what is going on in The Strange Attractor:

   The earth is our only bed, the deep
   couch from which we cannot fall. Suddenly
   this need to lie down.
   The flesh will flow out in currents of decay,
   a ditch where the weeds find dark treasure.

Morgan, Robert. The Strange Attractor: New and Selected Poems. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2004.//

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