Posts Tagged ‘poems

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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26
Apr
17

On How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative Discourse

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

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How Dare We Write

Use coupon code REDACTIONS and save 30%.

Like most of America, the higher up you go in Academia the whiter it gets. With that comes the white privilege of criticism and writing, whether intentional or not. The vast majority of writing anthologies and handbooks are written by white authors, which reemphasizes certain styles, modes, and approaches. Editor Sherry Quan Lee’s How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative Discourse (Modern History Press, forthcoming May 2017) is a new creative writing anthology by writers of color. Through what are essentially literacy narrative essays, the writers share how they struggled to write in an environment where they “are to listen, be silent, and be awed by the ‘right way’ to tell a story as defined by those in the ruling class going back to Aristotle” (Stark 51). These writers are doing what writers in the past have done: teaching us how to read literature. They educate us, though this education is not on an artistic aesthetic, like Imagism or Vorticism, but for cultural aesthetics. As a white, heteronormative, cis-male who tries to check his privilege, I was often surprised at certain privileges I had that I was not even aware of, such as how “italicizing non-English language contributes to otherizing our tongues” (Gómez R. 87), and more of which I’ll point out below. This book is eye-opening, critical, and personal.

The first essay after the introduction perfectly lays out what is ahead: “the personal is political” (Falcón 9-10) and “[a] need to interrupt the narratives of domination” (10). Kandace Creel Falcón writes as a Chicana (she identifies to “Chicana” as opposed to “Xicana,” which she explains) academic navigating the “cis-male white privilege” (11) embedded in scholarship. She points out “the assumed neutrality of whiteness translates into invisible authorship” (11), an invisible authorship that neutralizes voices that aren’t cis-white males. This privilege was one I was not aware of, and it became an eye-opening moment for me. Falcón then explores how she inserted the “I” back into academic writing and that her “scholarship is rooted in an agenda of liberation [. . . a] liberation for us all” (11). At this point, I reconsidered how I might change my approaches to teaching Composition I and II, among other courses. What new texts will I use and how can I teach a criticism that validates approaches from a variety of identities? How can I emboldened the critic’s “I”?

Jessica Lopez Lyman in the following essays builds on the idea that knowledge can come from an individual, as “we are all producers of knowledge” (17), and there doesn’t need to be preceding archival materials to sift through for validation. As a result, she tries to be heard, to be unerased, to not feel like an impostor, because as she says, “non-existence is the most dangerous violence” (19). This erasure, according to Chris Stark, who identifies as “a mixed Native lesbian” (49), also occurs in the creative writing workshop. She points out that in a piece of fiction she

was criticized for writing about someone similar to me, for writing about myself. Never once, in the MFA workshops or in other writing groups I have been in has a white man been “accused” of writing about himself, even when he clearly is writing about himself and his experiences. (50)

On top of it all, her professor read a story clearly based on his experiences, “but no one said a thing” (51), which highlights the hypocrisy. This makes me hypothesize that this is also true in literary criticism. If a person of color writes fiction that is based on their life events, then it’s critically looked down on as not truly fiction, but when a white male writer does the same thing, rarely is he called out on it. Stark also reveals another type of privilege like an apocalypse (in its etymological sense “to uncover”), where a story needs to have a “climax” to be considered a successful story, whereas native American writers tend to tell “stories in a cyclical fashion [that does not follow the] the checkmark structure [. . .] taught since elementary school” (51). Or as Anya Achtenberg points out in “Notes in Journey from a Writer of the Mix”:

[W]riters of the mix/writers of color, with this high degree of deterritorialization in our language, exhibit high potential for radical and revolutionary work. With language less “representational,” more expressive, marked by intensity; there is “a whole other story vibrating within” the story [. . .]. This critical language speaks of a condition perfectly familiar to me, and offers a way to refute those judging our works within old, biased parameters. (100)

This reasserts a major thesis of this anthology, which Achtenberg synthesizes down into a sentence, that writing “calls for seeking other story structures that work with that consistent level of tension [as opposed to building tension, relieved by “a perfect screaming climax,” and then dissipating in denouement and “comfy resolution”], and open story to the spectrum of experience of life in this tension [. . .]. I must go with story finding its unconventional organic form in motion and constant tension” (99, 103).

Perhaps the heart/heat of the anthology lies in Marlina Gonzalez’s “Dancing Between Bamboos or The Rules of Wrong Grammar”:

How does one speak or write or exist, survive or even dare to thrive in an environment rich with diverse cultural perceptions, when our cultures are blind to each other and one culture insists on taking over the dialogue? (67)

The personal and critical essays provide answers to this question and others, such as learning how to claim a place in a “white male dominated (WMD) literary ecosystem” (Vongsay 118).

This anthology can easily be used as a supplementary text in a creative writing workshop environment, especially at the graduate level or upper-level undergraduate courses. Not only are the essays informative and make the reader consider new manners of writing and reading, but each essay is also followed by a writing prompt, so the reader can put a theory to practice. I can even see this anthology being used in a composition class. No matter how it is used, I recommend this book for all writers and those who write about literature, and when you do, be sure to have a lot of sharpened pencils, as there will be a lot of underlining. I know I will be a better teacher of writing because of editor Sherry Quan Lee’s How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative Discourse.//

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Lee, Sherry Quan. How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative DiscourseAnn Arbor, MI: Modern History Press, May 2017.

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Use coupon code REDACTIONS and save 30%.//

 

03
Apr
17

“Love Waves” and Doors: Associative Pattern Making in Laura McCullough’s The Wild Night Dress

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

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Laura McCullough -- The Wild Night DressIn the “Series Editor’s Preface,” Billy Collins notes, “One requirement for poets is the ability to write about two different things at the same time. Seamus Heaney turns writing into a kind of digging. John Ciardi intertwines marriage and the structure of an arch” (ix). In the 2017 Finalist Miller Williams Poetry Prize book The Wild Night Dress (The University of Arkansas Press, 2017), Laura McCullough does this, too, and she informs the reader up front in the Prologue’s poem, “The Love Particle,” “Love Waves is the name given to shocks / across the planet’s surface after an earthquake, what we / who are not at the epicenter actually feel” (3). She’s aware she’s going to share some intense personal experiences from her epicenter of grief and pain and her readers will experience her emotions in those Love Waves.

The two opening poems of “Part I: Passage with Hardboiled Egg” – “Feed” and “Toward Something Larger” – inform the reader what is at the epicenter of McCullough’s grief: her dying mother and her departing husband. Both create voids in her life, but more of the book revolves around her mother than her ex-husband. Perhaps this is because the bond with a mother is stronger than with a lover, which as a “long marriage / cycles predictably” (7), whereas with her mother, there appears to be a deeper intimacy of unspoken understandings, such as when her mother had “thrown up / in the water, perhaps a first sign.    Signs // in language are made of signifiers and the signified. / Mother and daughter are a kind of language” (19). McCullough will also build signs and symbols for the reader, which I’ll get to obliquely.

The poems in this collection are interconnected in the immediacy of one poem moving into the next and across the breadth of the whole collection. In fact, this book of poems would be a good one to use in an advanced poetry writing workshop where students are trying to organize their own poems into a manuscript. In the poem-to-poem movement, an image, word, or idea appears in one poem and the following poem, such as the appearance of “residue” and “bees” in “Soliloquy with Honey: Time to Die” (14-15) and “Across Which the World” (16), language in “I Am Calling You” (17), “What He Said the Russians Say” (18), and “Hunger Always Returns” (19), and “door” in “Ceremony of a Commonplace and Unremarkable Moment” (25), “Passage, Revolving with Boots” (26), and “Revolving Door” (27). Additionally, some words and images appear in poems far apart, such as “water,” “salt,” and “ocean,” but with the distantly echoed images, or conceptual harmonies, associations are being created within the self-contained universe of the book. For Instance, in “Water : Waterfall :: Equation : Proportion,” McCullough creates relationships between “soul” and “water,” “ocean” and “human,” and “salt” and blood,” so that later on when we read “water,” for instance, we have a built-in associative memory to “soul.” Certain words and images, like “water” and “soul,” then carry a relationship throughout the book.

With the image of “door,” which appears at least 12 times in the collection, it accumulates multiple associations, so much so that it behaves like a symbol. “Door” first appears in “What He Said the Russians Say” (18):

   I was just a girl
   who hadn’t lost enough to understand
               language
   as a door we stand at pondering,
 

   trying to get it open, say what we mean,
   and how we are afraid that no one
   is even on the other side. (16-22)

Here, “door” is an obstacle to expression, as well as a place of meditation, mystery, and fear. Later, in “Revolving Door” (27), she is able to see what’s on the other side of a door – a gardener “cutting leaves” (11). Still, there is a sense of being afraid, as she can barely see him, “his eyes meet no one’s” (8), and because “his sneakers were once red” (9). The once-red sneakers when coupled with the “weapon” he “wields” creates on ominous moment, because it feels like those shoes are covered in blood, but in fact, the blood-colored shoes have been soiled by his cultivation of plants and keeping them alive. The “door” here then begins to set up the feeling of a liminal place between one living world and another living world, so when we get to “Body a Doorway” (35), where McCullough wants “to make” her “body a door though which she [her dying mother] might pass” (9), we understand she wants to mediate her mother’s death and make it pleasant for her. However, the door still carries a fearful emotion, because “in these last seconds my [McCullough’s] mind rebels, / and I barely hold back the small selfish voice: No, don’t go. // Then it is done” (10-11). She couldn’t mediate for her mother. The moment was too overwhelming, too scary. She instead watched her mother pass away to “the other side.” Much later in the collection in “Lake of Sky: Refrain” (71), we see how McCullough “prepared” herself “for being / a doorway” by bringing her mother’s favorite books to her, as well as “myrrh,” “a battery operated candle,” a “scarf,” and other intimate items. But here the “door” works in reverse. While McCullough can’t cross over, her mother from the other side can, as she now has her mother’s “face inside of” her face (19). The image/symbol of the door gains new layers of meaning and associations as we move through the collection, as do other images. In essence, in developing self-contained associations and image/concept harmonies, she creates the “Love Waves” as well as she can through language so we can feel the ripples emanating from the epicenter of her experience.

Throughout The Wild Night Dress, McCullough is in the crosshairs of two griefs while attempting to stay whole, and her writing of this book, so it seems, is an attempt of making a new wholeness for herself amid the absence of her mother and ex-husband. As you move through the poems and the wake of “Love Waves” in The Wild Night Dress, be sure to have a box of tissues and leave your doors open.//

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McCullough, Laura. The Wild Night Dress. Fayetteville, AR: The University of Arkansas Press, 2017. Print.

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19
Mar
17

On Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet

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

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Knowing Knott: Essays on an American PoetMy first encounter with Bill Knott was reading a review copy of The Unsubscriber (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004) in a yurt in or nearby Newport, OR. I was dazzled and amazed at his wildness and technique. Next to the collection’s third poem, “Neckognition,” I wrote:

He has mystical line breaks. They do what we try to make them do. Give them a split-end quality. One line is appearance A, the next line changes appearance A into B and into C, until you’re left with A+B+C=an action or event of fluidity. He’s stopped time into discrete parts, but by the stanza’s end, the fluidity of the act is realized. See stanza one. Harmonies in the last stanza.

Here’s the poem:

     In love the head turns
     the face until it’s gone
     into another’s where
     it is further torn

     from its own mirror
     and grows even more
     erased and lost and though
     the former still yearns

     to be his/be hers
     it sees these lovers
     over your shoulder show

     whatever disappears
     can also go as verse
     whose shape’s nape-known now.

This is also a sonnet-variant. I fell in love instantly with this master of forms, language, style, Surrealism, and freedom to explore unlike any other poet, at least any poet I’m aware of, since Gerard Manley Hopkins.

In Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet (Tiger Bark Press, 2017), there are essays from 16 other poets and friends of Knott, who also write about their love for him. The essays are short, and vary in length from three pages to 35 pages, although most tend to be around five to six pages. The essays are mostly filled with anecdotes that portray the complexities of Knott’s personality, his generosity, and self-sabotage at success. There is also some analysis of his poetry in Michael Waters’ essay “What Had Made Us So Whole: ‘The Sculpture’ by Bill Knott” and in Stuart Dischell’s “On Human Stilts,” but mostly the essays are sketches of Knott as complicated human being. The book also includes six color images of his art, as Knott “was as serious about his painting as his poetry” (113), as Robert Fanning notes in “May Eagles Guard Your Grave.”

In Thomas Lux’s essay “Bill Knott: Can My Voice Save My Throat,” Lux asks, “do you think Knott’s self-deprecation, his self-denigration, his self-abnegation, might have anything to do with his childhood?” (84). In the 83 pages prior to this, I was realizing much of Knott’s actions are the classic traits of someone who suffers from abandonment trauma. According to some of the authors with varying degrees of detail, when Knott was young, his mother died giving birth (though Knott “always suspected she might have died during an (then illegal) abortion” (91), then a few years later, his father sent him and his sister to an orphanage because he couldn’t take care of them, and then the father committed suicide. I believe this contributes to what Jonathan Galassi in “(Not) Publishing Bill Knott” identifies as Knott’s “serious self-esteem issues.” For instance, as Star Black in her essay “Loving Bill” points out, Knott:

[s]omehow felt betrayed by his own accomplishments and connections, as if to be a self-published outsider was not quite satisfying, yet to be an insider was fraudulent. Making a decision and then reversing the same decision after he made it was one of his traits. (44)

There are consistent stories throughout the anthology about him pushing away his success (and sometimes pushing away others before they could push him away) as if he wasn’t worthy of it or them, a classic defense move by someone who suffers from the trauma of abandonment.

Perhaps this is why he started to self-publish numerous chapbooks in small print runs, sometimes even only one copy. Knott published at least 11 books of poems with publishers such as “Random House, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the University of Pittsburg Press, Sun Press, and the American Poets Continuum Series at BOA Editions” (Dischell 71), but he was so prolific and printed so many self-published chapbooks that probably no one knows how many books he really released, maybe not even Timothy Liu or John Skoyles who tried to collect everything Knott published.

Knott was a poet’s poet. He was a master of the craft and was always revising, and was even known to put “errata slips into books of his in bookstores” (Lux 85). Despite his constant revisions, Knott’s poems arrive to the reader with the energies and wildness of a first or second draft, which to me is a major accomplishment.

Knowing Knott is a pleasure to read, and can be read in one sitting because it is so engaging and only 114 pages of essays (126 total pages), and it’s very inspirational, too. Prior to reading this collection of essays, I thought Bill Knott was a semi-obscure poet, as not many poets I have met who are my age or younger know of him. After reading this book, I realize how important he was to the generation of poets before me and the generation before them. According to Robert Fanning in Knowing Knott’s last essay, Thomas Lux declared “Bill Knott our greatest living poet. ‘Bill Knott has more talent in his pinky finger [. . .] than Any Poet of his Generation” (115). I believe this book, in some degree, is a calling to future generations of poets to not overlook this poet whose “art lies, in part, in living inside the language, and lies, in part, in viewing it from the perspective of enduring outsider” (Waters 13), and whose poetry is so “hard-core surrealist” that, according to Lux, “If Bill were French and born a few years generations earlier, he would have kicked André Breton out of the [Surrealists] group for being counterrevolutionary” (80). I believe after reading Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet that Knott can teach poets how to be unique, wild, energy driven, as he fully embraced and triumphed in the many forms of poetry, and perhaps more importantly, Knott’s actions will inspire us to be generous members in the poetry community, as he was consistently helping poets with their poetry or helping them financially. In the words of Skoyles, “When we lost Bill, we lost a person with an uncompromising integrity and an enormous compassion for the underdog. [. . .] When we lost Bill, we lost what could be called the conscience of poetry” (97). Knowing Knott will keep reminding us of this and Bill Knott.

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Huff, Steven, ed. Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet. Rochester, NY: Tiger Bark Press, 2017. Print.

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22
Nov
14

Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose 2014 Pushcart Nominations

Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose has made its nominations for the 2014 Pushcart Prize. The nominees this year are all poems. In the order of appearance in issue 18 are:

  1. Andrea Spofford’s “Tundra.” Page 8.
  2. Mary Stone Dockery’s “The Idea of Brad.” Page 23.
  3. Paul Allen’s “For the Spoken-Word Poet-Friend Who Drove up to Baton Rouge to Tell His Girlfriend to Get Lost and After 36 Hours of Both Crying, She Didn’t Get Lost, and He Was Glad.” Page 29.
  4. Robert Gibbons’s “Experience & Art.” Page 54.
  5. Ed Schelb’s “Portrait of Five Composers.” Pages 56-59.
  6. David Lloyd’s “What Remains.” Pages 70-71.

To read these poems, stories, and more, order a copy of issue 18 from here: http://www.etsy.com/shop/redactionspoetry.

You can also read the Pushcart Prize nominated poems here: http://www.redactions.com/pushcart-poems.asp.

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22
Jun
14

On Stuart Kestenbaum’s Only Now

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

Stuart Kestenbaum – Only Now Many of the poems in Stuart Kestenbaum’s Only Now (Deerbrook Editions, 2014) feel like poems Gregory Orr would write if he wrote narrative poems (some of the meditative and lyrical poems also feel like Gregory Orr poems), a number of the poems have the mythical feel of a Merwin myth-like poem, and some have the intimacy of a Jack Gilbert poem. These styles, among others, are what one would need to successfully write a carpe diem book of poems, and neo-romantic book of poems, at that.

I don’t normally like drawing comparisons to other writers when a reviewing a book of poems, but this time it seems like a good idea to present a feel for the book. In addition, while the opening poem, “Prayer While Downshifting,” is a fine poem, it is acting more as a deliberate lense for the book. By placing this poem at the opening, Kestenbaum is attempting to focus the reader’s mood or reading in a deliberate direction. However, this poem would be better off if it appeared further on in the book, as it needs to built in to or up to. As an opening poem, it’s too heavy handed in its allegory and symbol building, and I want everyone who gets to this book to know that what follows the opening poem is very moving – emotionally and intellectually. In addition, I think (and wonder) if it is better for an author to let the reader discover meanings on their own instead of directing them down a certain path. Or better still, for the author and reader to discover together. More inclusiveness. More of a we-book, where meanings have “to happen because we’ve / made a framework for it. It’s the framework that gives the meaning” (“Big World”). Further, “because meaning is a wild animal that surprises you” (“Prayer for Real”), the reader will want to experience the surprise of discovering meaning, which is what this book does. It surprises. It’s inclusive. It’s a book for author and reader, for you and me, for we.

Maybe it would be better if the book opened with the second poem, “Rocky Coast,” which begins 350 million years in the past, and then in two words, flashes forward 350 million years to today. (Has there ever been a lengthier flash forward?) And this flash forward takes us into an everyday we are familiar with – it takes us into Dunkin’ Donuts. It delivers us into fantasies of hope, revenge, and escape while the “fallen world” is everywhere outside the Dunkin’ Donuts. The next poem, “Getting There,” turns inward even more. It balances the safety of Dunkin’ Donuts with the neo-romantic notion that “deep inside us” are the answers to:

     Where is the place we are always asking about.
     It’s the country we remember in our dreams.
     Where is where we’ll find what we need to know

     whatever that is, whatever we thought it was
     going to be.

Notice how these are shared questions (we all have them), but it’s the turning inward where we find our own answers and meanings. The slow accumulation of poems in Only Now is like a manual of examples and experiences we are all aware of, and the poems about them are in Only Now for us to meditate on, to turn inward on, to equip us with living in the only now we have, and to help us prepare for our eventual demise.

For instance, the conclusion of “Crows”:

         before we began to speak we could feel the world
     inside our bodies and it moved us as we moved with it.
     Perhaps this is our mother tongue, the language of our cells,
     the diction of our hearts and lungs. There, don’t say
     anything for a while, don’t even think in words,
     think in whatever is beyond the thought of words,
     the nameless world that you try so hard to forget
     by naming everything. Take away the caws from the sky,
     take away the rumble from the ice and while you’re at it
     take away the hiss of today’s headlines, like air leaking
     out of the world. See what’s left after that and listen to it.

Again, there is the turning inward for answers, meanings, and, perhaps more importantly, the turning to pure experience – the experience of events before the interference of language. In this wordless realm, we might even get closer to how a god lives and experiences time and the world, as we eventually will. In “Wild God,” we experience god in the Garden of Eden “when the earth was new and animals hadn’t been named yet.” We see god creating and rearranging the earth and then relaxing and admiring his work. Similar to “Rocky Coast,” there is a lengthy flash forward, but this time the experience is not imagistic – like being in a Dunkin’ Donuts – it’s in the experience of time as a god experiences time. When I read this poem the first time, I felt a shift in time, but I wasn’t sure how it happened. It was seamless and flowed naturally. After I paid closer attention to the tenses in the poem, I saw how in half a line the tense shifted from past to present, and the poem moved from millions of years ago to today almost instantaneously, in the blink of a god’s eye. Kestenbaum used syntax and not words to approximate the experience of time for a god. He didn’t explain or even show. He made an experience and made it feel real. In addition, this instantaneous passage of time also seems to suggest that the past resides in the present, or that the distance between past and present is not so far apart, such as for the 93-year old Dora on her deathbed in “The Passage,” who is dying in the present but living in the memories of her past.

Overall, Only Now creates the feeling that living and dying is a juggling act:

     Whether we spend our time
     fearing death or not, listening
     for its footsteps or plugging

     our ears, we all end up
     where we began, just dust
     combined with the weight
 
     of what we carried in the world. (“Scattered”)

It’s a juggling act of living in the now and with the past that made us into who we are now, while at the same time preparing for death, or even avoiding thinking about death like “young minds [who] can’t imagine not existing anymore” (“Back Then”). Stuart Kestenbaum through tight, interlocking poems gives experiences for how to live “As if the Tree of Life / is inside us” (“Breath”) within the precious time we have in our Only Now that is our only life. This is a book of poems I can’t recommend enough for the collective that is we.//

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Kestenbaum, Stuart. Only Now. Cumberland: Deerbrook Editions, 2014.//




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