Posts Tagged ‘Redactions: Poetry Poetics & Prose

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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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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07
Jun
14

Modernist Style, Contemporary Play, and Ecological Lament: On Betsy Andrews’ The Bottom

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

Betsy Andrews – The BottomBetsy AndrewsThe Bottom (42 Miles Press, forthcoming 2014), winner of the 2013 42 Miles Press Poetry Award, opens with the 48-page long poem “The Bottom,” which consists of 48 juxtaposed smaller poems varying in length from poems of 12 short lines to poems of 21 long lines. The poems feel like they arrive from a life experienced, or should I say, these ecological poems don’t seem a step removed from experience, as if written from only studying, or appropriating information from, texts about pollution, ecology, marine biology, etc. At the same time, this long opening poem, which is rooted in the Modernist tradition of long poems of disillusionment, exposes what lies behind the illusions from the denial of ecological harm or future ecological harm. And like a Modernism poem, the language is of the language spoken by everyday people (especially people from the United States), but unlike some Modernism poems, Andrews’ allusions are shared allusions of the American populace. Along the way, we encounter mermaids, Martians, and even Mr. Limpet (the Don Knotts character from Disney’s The Incredible Mr. Limpet.) With that in mind, this long poem is also very playful, which is a difficult endeavor to do in political poems without being didactic or heavy handed, but she succeeds by way of her playful allusions, irony (another Modernism device), and music – rhymes, internal rhymes, assonance, consonance, word repetition, etc. In addition, this music, unlike music in Modernism poems, feels like it is discovered or is spontaneously composed rather than imposed or purposely created to frame the mood of the poem. As a result, Andrews is able to entice the reader with the sugar of music and play and then deliver the ecological medicine. Fortunately, the medicine doesn’t arrive in one dose. Rather, it’s an accumulation of 48 little doses. And even though there are 48 different doses of poems, there is cohesiveness about them. Unlike some  long Modernism poems that often hope for a cohesiveness to be discovered, the cohesiveness is 48 different ways of looking at the harm to marine biology and ecology in ways in which a reader can experience – whether the experience comes from the real, the imagined, or the intersection of both.

If the poems are enough or aren’t enough to move the reader to an ecological empathy, The Bottom has, like The Waste Land, a notes section (which might also be a poem depending on how it is viewed) at the end titled “Tributaries.” The “Tributaries” lists the sources I assume Andrews read in composing this long poem or that were influential to her and fed into the making of this ocean of a book. “Tributaries” starts with The Oxford English Dictionary and then moves into newspapers, National Public Radio, national parks, books of myth and symbolism, books and articles about seashells, books and articles on marine biology, books about the aftermath of unrecoverable ecological harm, and then concludes with books, stories, songs, and writers that I assume are inspirational to her, such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Saxie Dowell’s “Three Little Fishies,” Anne Sexton, W. B. Yeats, and T. S. Eliot.

Betsy Andrews’ The Bottom is a short book that playfully moves in the imagined and heroically moves in the unimagined, and by the latter I mean that it moves heroically within the unimagined that is real and the “dry page of fact” and within the unimagined (or suppressed imagination) that exists because of the denials of ecological harm “when we go still and are quiet.”//

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Andrews, Betsy. The Bottom. South Bend: 42 Miles Press, 2014.




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