Mary Margaret Sloan, The Said Lands, Island, and Premises
Dale Smith, Notes No Answer
Clayton Eshleman, My Devotion
Joseph Donahue, In This Paradise: Terra Lucida XXI-XL
Shin Yu Pai, Unnecessary Roughness
Kent Johnson, Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz
Peter O'Leary, A Mystical Theology of the Limbic Fissure
Mary Margaret Sloan, The Said Lands, Island, and Premises (Chax Press, 1995). $11. ISBN: 925904-13-9
Order here: http://www.chax.org/poets/sloan.htm
Published in 1995, Mary Margaret Sloan's amazing book is it -- one of those books by one of those poets that you push and cajole your friends into investigating. A completely unique poet, Sloan deploys radically formal innovations to create precise, anxious (and often visionary) texts. From “Like Trees, the Surface”:
where on cloth with panes or frames
a portrait rested an animal
emerging from closed grounds
like trees the surface
framed difference in density
in one door another bloomed
shadows for giving vacancy
words for wind close up
austere messengers work below
The wildness of these poems resides in their precision; the jumps from word to word, line to line are startling, often revelatory. A single stanza from “Abeyance Series,” the lengthy opening text, offers some of Sloan's gifts in miniature:
to petals equal to road
perforated in effect
by peering into
The p and q of the opening line visually mirroring each others, and aurally modulating from a surface consonant (p) to a back of the mouth one (q) while the two “to”s bookend the subtle interplay between the e 's and l 's and a 's of “petal” and “equal” until “road” ends the line and offers a release by introducing new consonant and vowel sounds. The following lines offer variations on the sounds of the first line, with the repeated f ”s softening the music. Most every line rewards a hyper-attentive mind, eye and ear.
Sloan is a poet who publishes rarely. The Said Lands, Islands, and Premises is her second book, and a third has yet to appear in the ten years since its release. Regardless, she is, to my mind, as essential as any poet at work today.
Dale Smith, Notes No Answer (Habernicht Press, 2005). ISBN: 0-9729213-3-8 , $8
Purchase here: http://www.habenichtpress.com/publications/notesno.html
Dale Smith's newest is a terrific piece, a series of poems all in the form of questions, a sequence of inquisitions that turn subtly through their 49 pages. They shift tactics throughout, yet each poem/question registers as fully felt, and considered:
Would someone please
put the moon out
of its misery and
rabbits out of theirs, and
while you're at it could you
tell the birds we aren't
listening ‘cause something
beautiful that doesn't
in the last ice age
in a cave where
Plato got it down?
The poems/questions assume varying degrees of intimacy and familiarity, some bordering on confessional, others openly polemical, others rhetorical. The literary precedent that first comes to mine is Ron Silliman's Sunset Debris, which is also constructed as a series of questions, though that seems to be about all the two pieces have in common. Silliman's piece, which is brilliant, moves with a furious momentum. Notes No Answer is much more deliberate, evoking the William Carlos Williams of The Wedge, or much of Creeley, in its carefully crafted directness:
Isn't it the soft green
the Arcadian flycatcher
that breaks attention down
to hardy trash trees
in the yard?
If the forces of
nature can be
tamed, can the ass-
umptions of mod-
ernism be far
Clayton Eshleman, My Devotion (Black Sparrow Books, 2004). ISBN: 1-57423-192-8, $16.95
Order here: http://www.blacksparrowbooks.com/titles/recent/1574231928.htm
His first collection of poetry in six years, Clayton Eshleman's My Devotion works beautifully as an outgrowth of his years spent as not only one of the pre-eminent editors and translators of his generation, but also as a continual mapmaker of human consciousness as it has manifested itself in the painted and engraved Ice Age caves of southwestern France (including the Upper Paleolithic cave of Lascaux). Eshleman's recent Juniper Fuse is undoubtedly the masterwork in this regard. In My Devotion, the poems themselves often work as a series of powerful, yet firmly controlled, movements that create their own paths into understanding.
There is a physical presence in the poems, derived from the richness of Eshleman's subject matter and the directness of both his engagement and address. For instance, there's the uncomforting precision of his imagery, as in “In Happiness a Power”:
There is in happiness a power that stems the maggot tide.
And not just dying, but the maggotry men invice in life.
When Caryl's face smiles forth, I think I briefly pass on,
or pass into the chill of passing crossed by permanence.
My favorite instance of Eshleman's explication of the entwinement of the visceral and the tender is “A Yonic Shrine” in which he finds himself urinating at night into a toilet that also contains his wife's menstrual fluids:
There is something gorgeous about this blood and its odor, arcane, alien to my male snout, evoking Egyptian carnelian. I become the wall upon which I am often climbing. I watch myself, fascinated with a self that from this viewpoint is hopeless.
I'm a lizard guy whose eyes are in the soup as the cruelties of the brew climb into him. Then I am utterly intact and belong, not to anything in particular . . .
Many of the poems concern Eshleman's wife Caryl and her illnesses in an unflinching, unsentimental and often overpoweringly loving manner. What becomes apparent over the book's 100+ pages is the connectedness between the primal underpinnings of human consciousness and the daily riches of a fully felt domestic existence.
Joseph Donahue, In This Paradise: Terra Lucida XXI-XL ( Carolina Wren Press, 2004). ISBN: 0-932112-46-3, $10.95
Order here: http://carolinawrenpress.org/titles/title.php3?press=CarolinaWrenPress
To those unfamiliar with Donahue's work, I'll often describe him as the ideal lyrical poet, combining John Ashbery's feet with Robert Duncan's eyes. By this I mean that Donahue shares Ashbery's deftness at shifting registers and modes of address with extreme skill and elegance, the ability to create an emotional coherency out of material that would otherwise be incoherent. Combine this with a Duncanesque knack for uncovering the piercing image or situation that resonates as some kind of spiritual allegory, and you have possibly the ideal lyrical poet. From Terra Lucida XXVIII:
Are you the one whose
error has required you to be
a billow of moths, a sprig of gold
in the garden of a witch
a cut finger at the banquet,
the jewel forming from the blood
or the eel who says to the astonished boy:
I feel myself pierced and dispersed.
Any minute, you could be
the stag leading the lost soul,
or a splatter along a rail crying
out to your sister: here I am.
Any minute you could be a lost spoon
or bones murmuring in the flowers:
Some of us are in disguise,
& some of us have been eaten.
Some of us are touched by beauty
& cannot control our thoughts . . .
Or ice glittering in the trees.
In This Paradise, at 30 pages, is a fine continuation of Donahue's poetics for those of us who have come to rely upon his unique visions of beauty and difficult grace; it is also an excellent introduction for those yet to discover one of the best poets out there.
Shin Yu Pai, Unnecessary Roughness (Xpressed, 2005). $7. ISBN: 951-9198-81-4
Order here: http://www.lulu.com/content/103810
An unnerving conjuring of adolescent dread and terror, Shin Yu Pai's Unnecessary Roughness utilizes visual and objectivist approaches to make precisely and uniquely discomforting poems. A vicious socializing process is enacted in Unnecessary Roughness , as is a mindset that is as ruthlessly competitive as it is often awkwardly sexual. A representative example of the book's major method, a kind of composite dramatic monologue, is “on the secret sex lives of bodybuilders,” quoted in its entirety:
hard on yourself
and hard on others
the cock isn't
a muscle that
grows in proportion
to a man's ego
I went out there
feeling like King Kong
atop the Chrysler tower
the heroine was heavy –
by building standards
she can weigh 150
pounds, I don't care
if she's a good fuck
having chicks around
is the kind of thing that
breaks up intense
everyone jump on
and we'll all
Interspersed between these sparse pieces are visual works, most set in familiar athletic grids: a four-square court, a track, a competitive swimming pool, etc. With impressive range and intensity, Unnecessary Roughness maps out the intersections of the American id.
Kent Johnson, Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz (Effing Press, 2005). $7
Order here: http://www.effingpress.com
One of the polarizing figures in American poetry, Fascicle contributing editor Kent Johnson has delivered a direct challenge to poets, American or otherwise, “experimental” or “mainstream.” What that challenge is has a lot to do with love, self-knowledge, guilt, rage and remorse – familiar, universal tropes. Johnson's brilliance is to access and address these matters in an impressive range of forms and (bad) manners, creating an electric book that engenders not passive consumption but rather an active response.
One of Johnson's strategies is to employ and implicate beloved poets of the American avant-garde in his ethical interrogations. It would be a mistake to characterize this usage as an attack or desecration; Johnson clearly is intensely fond of many (if not all) of the poets that find their way into this book. It is this fondness, and the self-implication that is present on every page of Lyric Poetry, that makes many of the poems so devastating. “The New York School (or: I Grew Ever More Intense)” is an excellent example, for, as its note proudly states, it is “the first instance of a new poetic form.” As Joshua Corey very aptly states at his blog Cahiers de Corey, this could be Johnson's presentation of “a parodically overwrought new form, intended perhaps to gesture at the futility of trying to resolve moral/political dilemmas with new poetic forms.” Here is an excerpt:
I turned over the bottle of shampoo, and Frank O'Hara came out. I rubbed him all into my head, letting the foam rise, knowing I was just warming myself up, excited by the excess of what was to come. Soon, I began to make noisy climax sounds. The scent of oranges and oil paint from a general store in the outlaw town of Shishido (with all of its exotic wares) filled the stormy air.
I couldn't help it, I thought of this: “One day, a fortnight or so after my mother's death in Shishido, I was up in the hills playing with some friends. Suddenly one of them said, “Look, the baby's hands are swollen.” I touched the baby, which was still strapped to my back, and screamed—it was stone cold. My friends began to panic and jump up and down, shouting “It's dead, it's dead.” It felt awful having something dead tied to me, so I ripped off my jacket and dropped the baby, before joining the others as they ran back down the hill as fast as their legs would take them, shrieking.”
I grew ever more intense. I pressed the button on the shaving cream and Barbara Guest came out. . . .
As opposed to unfairly accusing beloved and mostly deceased poets of not writing politically engaged poetry, or of being blind to political realities, Johnson appears to be asking a much more fundamental and chilling question, one that seems to get bypassed when discussions of a politically-responsible poetics are raised: What if we poets and poetry-readers aren't in fact the good guys? What happens then?
Peter O'Leary, A Mystical Theology of the Limbic Fissure (Dos Madres, 2005). ISBN: 0-9763647-9-4, $5.
Order here: http://www.dosmadres.com/
Peter O'Leary's A Mystical Theology is a gorgeous book-object; it is very slim at 20 pages (which includes some beautiful illustrations by Elizabeth Murphy), yet is undoubtedly one of the most intense reads I've had the pleasure of undertaking this year.
O'Leary is the younger poet who I think is doing the most interesting work in the “New American Poetry” tradition; fully immersed in the works of Ronald Johnson (O'Leary's mentor) and Robert Duncan (see O'Leary's terrific book of criticism focusing on Duncan & the poetry of illness, Gnostic Contagion ), his poems are rich and exact, foregoing any touches of irony or hipness, instead focusing on an almost scientific scrutiny of the mystical and divine. From “Angelology”
. . .Did Abraham reckon the life beyond life? Or did he
invent it? Since his contract with starlight, we live for
increasing an exemplification of the angel's
life, potential in the cycled horizon of time in
our chest-cavity, gain by an auto-intellection--:
prayer, interiority. We inherit Abraham's
power of seeing, obliquely. As a human tendency.
The angel is an emotion. He arrives out of
Profound intuition. Not a higher but an inner order.
If you find such a combination of critical intelligence, visionary imagery and lyrical deftness intriguing, please find a copy of A Mystical Theology, as well as Watchfulness, O'Leary's first full-length collection, published by Spuyten Duyvil in 2001. His work is the rare kind, growing deeper and richer with each reading, briefly transforming poetry into the means of spiritual transfiguration.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
August 26, 2005
back to issue one
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