Thursday, December 31, 2015

Ten Books of 2015

 The Times Literary Supplement annually asks writers to name the books that meant the most to them in the past year. I think this approach is more respectful of the reader than the typical “best of 2015” list, as it does not imply some kind of participation in a literary-award industrial complex built on annual marketing or career-making cycles. In that same spirit, here are the ten books that have meant the most to me this year:

Claude Le Fustec. Northrop Frye and American Fiction. (U Toronto, 2015)
            A focus on genre, character and narrative arc: what’s so wrong with that? This book
            brought me to the hope of a syncretic approach to critical work: jouissance and the
            redemptive as correlative narrative functions. Sometimes gets a bit too ventriloqual.
 Paul Giles. The Global Remapping of American Literature. (Princeton, 2011)
            Explores literary history as a geographical imagination, and as such he inverts a lot of the
            basic assumption guiding that narrative as it has been developed in academic terms.
Francis Parkman. France and England in the New World. Particularly the books on the Jesuits
            and Montcalm and Wolfe. I hadn’t studied Parkman before, but am very glad for the
            attempt at narrative here of what did happen. So much of the first “world war,” that
            between Britain and France (and allies everywhere) in the 1750s, determined the
            outcomes of the American Revolutionary era and the transformation of American
            landscape and its peoples. But Parkman has real narrative skill, despite all the
factual & intellectual liabilities we know goes with this territory.
Wayne Booth. Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism.(Chicago UP, 1979) In
           his very unusual argumentative style, Booth brings us to understand what it might mean to
            consider (or perhaps conjugate) two critical assertions that share next to none of their
            basic premises. This is a project I wish more people would undertake, as he summarizes
            the arguments of three of his favorite thinkers (R.S. Crane, Kenneth Burke and M.H.
            Abrams) and they reply to him at the conclusion of the chapter. While Booth was
            influential in college composition pedagogy (rightly so), this is I think the fruit of his
            “rhetoric of criticism” efforts. 
Denis Johnson. The Incognito Lounge. (Random House, 1982). Poetry. A great collection, or as
            the reviewer on the giant book website says: “a breath of the magnificent”. If I can make
            recommendations, then the whole of the The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations
            Millennium General Assembly: Poems Collected and New (1995) is an encounter I hope
            you’d try to have.  
Geoffrey Hill. Selected Poems. (Yale, 2008). Glad to have made its acquaintance.  
Dave Eggers. The Circle. (Vintage, 2013). I remember when I was 15 and read Orwell, how
            hopeless it made me feel. Eggers understands the legacy of Orwell’s picture of
            totalitarianism. What confounds me about the story of Mae Holland is that she is such a
            sympathetic figure, and yet she is on the opposite side of the mirror from Winston Smith:
            this novel tells us how O’Brien became O’Brien. I felt hopeless, but more importantly,
            the book exerted a palpable sense of how one can become entirely two-dimensional and
            annihilated as a person.
Robert Fitzgerald. Enlarging the Change: The Princeton Seminars in Literary Criticism, 1949- 
           1951. (published in 1984).
James M. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. (Oxford, 1988). American     
           history. I should have read this in college in 1990. Enormous craft and scholarly depth.
           Most scholars consider this, even after 25 years, the best book on the subject.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

I Shall Be Enchanted (W.H.Auden)

Enter with him
These legends, Love;
For him assume
Each diverse form
To legend native,
As legend queer;
That he may do
What these require,
Be, Love, like him
To legend true.

When he to ease
His heart's disease
Must cross in sorrow
Corrosive seas,
As dolphins go;
As cunning fox
Guide through the rocks,
Tell in his ear
The common phrase
Required to please
The guardians there;
And when across
The livid marsh
Big birds pursue,
Again be true,
Between his thighs
As pony rise,
And swift as wind
Bear him away
Till cries and they
Are left behind.

But when at last,
These dangers passed,
His grown desire
Of legend tire,
O then, Love, standing
At legends' ending,
Claim your reward;
Submit your neck
To the ungrateful stroke
Of his reluctant sword,
That, starting back,
His eyes may look
Amazed on you,
Find what he wanted
Is faithful too
But disenchanted,
Your finite love.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Two New Chapbooks from Brooklyn Arts Press

in review

These books are available from:
Brooklyn Arts Press
154 N 9th St #1
Brooklyn, NY 11249

Dear Mark: poems by Martin Rock. 43 pages. (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2013)

This is a series of poems addressed to Mark Rothko. The poems are intricate, with a fine sense of the anticipations that can occur at the edges of its short, transformative lines, where images upend themselves and become something else. The discrete, static images in these poems stand out more than the movements between them, yet most of the images in these poems are of moving things: sky, water, light. Then again, one could go through the poems and find an equivalent number of static things: earth, rock, pillar. So I won't go too far in characterizing the thematic of this book as "stillness versus motion." Instead, I will try to characterize the moods it invoked in me, or at least the places and times that seemed central to it. The poems are named after Mark Rothko paintings. Rothko (1903-1970), an American painter who immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 10, is famous for his use of one to four colors and arranging them into rectangular forms on the canvas. Some might call this minimalism, or abstract expressionism, but the idea is that there are usually two big rectangles, wider than they are tall, and that they have a complex relationship with each other. The paintings that lend their names to Rock's poems are dated from 1949-1968, and the prevailing imagery of the poems could be thought of inhabiting that historic frame. It is often referred to as "Post-war" or the "Cold War", and accordingly, Rock is also focused on this time period. He uses imagery evocative of the Holocaust, when European Jews were victimized by the Nazis, of mushroom clouds formed by atomic bombs, and related images of ashes, mass graves, or human bodies deformed or mutilated. But in this description, I am putting together imagery that is diffused throughout the book, so this may give a false sense that these poems are obsessed with the Holocaust, atomic bombs and all the terrors and horrors of those historical facts. Instead, I would like to emphasize that the poems are much more concerned with sculpting delicate lines of modulated colors and images that leave emotional and sensual impressions, rather than crying out danger, despair, and pain. There are also many cosmic dimensions to these poems: sun, earth, moon, black holes, worm holes, planets, matter. Then there is a Kabbalistic dimension: Golems, symbols, language taking on material qualities or bringing objects to life. The poems Dear Mark are careful, beautiful, musical, deft, skilled and sometimes puzzling, which in poetry is a good thing. The poems are also of a place and time that is our current day, and in Brooklyn, New York. Without delving too deeply into Mark Rothko's life, aesthetic, or the interpretations he favored among his viewers and appreciators, I would assume that the poems are direct responses to the paintings they have been named for. That would make this collection of 21 poems a study in ekphrasis.

Attached Houses by Michelle Gil-Montero. 40 pages. (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2013)

This is a chapbook of 18 poems, each with its own distinct music, gesture and ambiguity. There is within them the recurrent imagery of houses, especially of windows and curtains that yield to light and wind, or become clouded over and still. These are poems that demand careful attention, as the complexity of Gil-Montero's prosody runs parallel to a precise, if not obscure, vocabulary. There is a style here that plays hide-and-seek with sense and pattern. I find that I often want to read her lines musically, but then stagger over broken rhythms or find an inconsistent delight in the book's many metrical surprises. As I read and reread the poems, I did not feel set free as in "free jazz," but found myself insisting on a meter that almost isn't there, but somehow is, not unlike the way e.e. cummings would take iambic pentameter in strict quatrains and free them across the page. An example (from the poem "Sequence").

            a searchlight perfects the pause

                  in which a dark
                  divides its cloak

                         for bright-boned words
                         on a pubic frontis

                                  they were chasing down places
                                  chased down by strangeness

           but the roads short-circuited

           such is youth

                  whose best defense is stillness (pages 31-32)

 I do not wish to suggest that these lines would pose a careful reader any difficulty, but in my own attempt at interpretation, perhaps a stumbling one, I reconstructed them as follows:

          A searchlight perfect in its pause
          for which the dark divides its cloak
          over bright-boned words on a pubic frontis,
          chases down places chased down by strangeness,  [I could never decide who "they" were]
          yet the roads short-circuited, such is youth,
          whose best defense is stillness.

Now here is a set of images that builds in eerie if not erotic intensity, and combines a number of exciting images: a searchlight, which may connote danger, cloaks, bone-words, and flight down roads. There is also a pulsing rhythm in the distances between the lines and in widening margins, so that, if love is hinted at, it is somewhat clandestine as the light searches for, or reveals, an inscription (the "bright-boned words") on--what?--a public fountain? I do not know what to do with the phrase "pubic frontis". In Latinate terms, "frontis" suggests "frontispiece" which is a "view of the front" so it may translate into "a view of the front of the pubis". In Spanish, a "fronis" is a medical term for a smear. So, given my limited knowledge and resources, I decide that "frontis" is a neologism. Gil-Montero has elsewhere suggested the use of paragrams, if in her mention of the way "white almost exists" in the poem "Thought" asks us to read the next line, "wraith of aimless blatancy" as an almost-existing "blameless latency." Thus, I am reading the previously quoted lines to be largely about the searchlight and the dark, a public fountain, and young lovers on the run. On a third and fourth pass through the poem, I begin to think of internet search engines, indecent exposures, and exploitation--perhaps someone searching for a vicarious thrill, or conducting an investigation (or "search") that fails. I decide that the point here, if points should be made at all, is that young love is still on the run, but not just from nosy, prudish elders, but the wider surveillance culture as well.

With all of my own difficulties in interpretation, I wonder how many readers will be patient enough to gather in such a complex beauty. I could wish for a more straightforward approach (as in my recasting of lines & altering of wording) and a more accessible diction, but over and over I find that Gil-Montero's strength is not to allow an easy grasp of line, poetic image or thematic consequence. Why should I want to go after these lines, chase down the poem? The sum of images and music, here and throughout Attached Houses is startling, exciting, and new. The ellipticism of Gil-Montero's imagery pushes my attention towards her voice and style, and that effort is amply rewarded with a rich and nuanced music.

Monday, July 29, 2013

I enjoyed the New York City Poetry Festival for 2013

I had fun wandering around and hearing poems coming towards me from all directions. That's a true New York way to do things: go at your target from every conceivable direction. I heard many good poems. The day was sunny and hot, and I didn't bring enough money for the food trucks. I'm not going to write an essay or review about my experience, but I was happy to read a few poems, "Cousin" which is a poem as a letter to a famous (dead) American poet, "Summer Song" which is about love and apocalyptic movies, and "The Materiality of the Signifier" which  is about what it is about.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Golden Treasury by Francis Turner Palgrave

 #72, Elizabethan poem by Henry Wotton--

Character of a Happy Life

How happy is he born and taught
That serveth not another's will;
Whose armor is his honest thought
And simple truth his utmost skill;

Whose passions not his masters are;
Whose soul is still prepared for death,
Not tied unto the world with care
Of public fame, or private breath;

Who envies none that chance doth raise,
Or vice; who never understood
How deepest wounds are given by praise,
Nor rules of state, but rules of good;

Who hath his life from rumors freed,
Whose conscience is his strong retreat;
Whose state can neither flatterers feed,
Nor ruin make accusers great;

Who God doth late and early pray
More of his grace than gifts to lend;
And entertains the harmless day
With a well-chosen book or friend;

--This man is freed from servile bands
Of hope to rise, or fear to fall;
Lord of himself, though not of lands;
And having nothing, yet hath all.

Wikipedia tells us this about our author:
Sir Henry Wotton (30 March 1568 – December 1639) was an English author, diplomat and politician who sat in the House of Commons in 1614 and 1625. He is often quoted as saying, "An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country." (he is said to have stated this while on a mission in Augsburg, in 1604.)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Next Big Thing Questionnaire

Poet and ecologist E.J. McAdams tagged me to answer:

Painting by Peter Fowler. circa 2007.

What is the working title of the book?

As I was writing it, it was entitled “To Becoming Normal”.  Since its completion, it carries the title “A Normal Line of Work”.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I had hit on a measure (for the line of the poem) that I found endlessly creative and beautiful. Writing with this form was for me a very distinct and productive experience, and I was almost always surprised and pleased by the results. So, to be brief, the idea came from my writing of poetry over all the years previous to it.

What genre does your book fall under?

It is a poem, a long poem. I amused myself with a new label at the time: literary pointillism. Something radical, integral, but clearly just a drop in the bucket.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I would choose the first group of people who could stage it, if each actor took a section and commited it to memory.  There needs to be an instrumental component, but outside of ballads and what I consider pop music, I am not a composer. I know it has performance potential since it was best realized as a theater, or performance, event back in 2008. But it is a book.

I like Alec Guinness a lot, and James Stewart, Harriet Andersson, Julie Christie. I’m not quite up to date on A-list actors. Why don’t you ask who I’d like to make the movie?

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

“A Normal Line of Work” is a long poem-as-score for musical and theatrical performance, coordinated between the extremes of pure music and recitation.

How long did it take to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Three years.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Poets—early companions—Major Ragain, Alice Cone, Kathy Korcheck, Jayce Renner, Adam Brodsky (the Cleveland poet, not the anti-folk guy), then purely historical sources—Kenneth Patchen, bpNichol, and so on—hundreds of poets I heard at readings before I quit the scene—I guess those who provided me the space and time to work as a poet for as long as I did with such concentration (sadly, I do currently work at that level)—the poetics program at Buffalo: Robert Creeley, Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein, Dennis Tedlock, those I worked alongside—Michael Basinski, Kristianne Meal, Jonathan Skinner, many many others. Though my writing process and aims were, in my view, vastly different than his, the master then and now of the short line is Tom Raworth—this was made clear to me only when the book was nearly finished. All the best poets I read and listened to understood this kind of weighting of sound and silence, textual space and writing. But I was continually inspired by friends and loved ones who supported me as a poet in Buffalo.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

We might wonder if the United States will ever understand the disastrous problems and self-inflicted wounds it faced in the years 2001-2008. Many Americans do seem to recognize the severity of our crisis in some places, but too many continue on in ignorance of chronic inequalities and injustices in many others. I think my choice to work and live as a poet at that time was either ridiculously foolish or uncommonly brave, depending. Poets, for good or ill, are tuned to completely unexpected ranges of impression, and in writing my poem at the level of seriousness I then had, I was truly happy to have written the book for what I was learning and able to convey. I haven’t had that assurance since—and once I knew it was done, I didn’t know what was to come next. I don’t know that I’ll be as close to a combined feeling and structuring of music in the line ever again. Because I didn’t know exactly what to do with it—so that it would lead to a further development in my writing—I didn’t travel with it or share it with audiences in any big way. Also, once it was finished, when I saw most supports for myself as a writer crumbling away—both internally and externally—I stopped trying to go on with poetry as my only serious work. I could muddle along as a clerk or marginalized, adjunct professor. The sense of my feeling that poetry was all I had may be in there—the feeling that, while those closest to you accept you and support you, there is a malicious ocean of discouragement awaiting you for sticking to your art without obeying the orders of alternately ignorant, commercial, bureaucratic & totalitarian forces, even in our beloved fine arts communities.  I guess it might pique your interest that I’m not screaming through the flames, I’m trying to live a relatively boring, middle-class life as a poet and performer. The absurdity of that might twit your boutonnière. But look, when even loudmouth poets stop taking poetry seriously as the best of our intellectual and emotional efforts, then what the hell kind of reception will poetry get? You’re probably too busy trying to feed your kids or punching the clock to drift off on my mad trips, anyway.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

What a great question. I saw in another magazine the question “Paper or plastic?” put to an author—are you an ideologue of print or digital? Ha ha. I was making laser-printed, stapled chapbooks at the time I was writing “A Normal Line of Work”. I had a poetry press. It would be nice if my poem were in a book that someone could check out of the library or buy in a store, that Small Press Distribution could send to someone if he or she ordered it, or that I could send out if it was ordered from me. I know now that I am much better off just working on my writing, rather than trying to handle the manufacturing or publicity end of things, trying to wedge it into people’s brains. If there are any publishers who like the idea of making a beautiful, printed volume better than keeping a balanced budget, they’re welcome to contact me and we can set it up as a project. The poem is also somewhere on this blog, under the title “A Long Poem,” but it really belongs in a book. I’d love to perform it again, with my jar of honey, the stamp-pad tattoos, the guitars and all the interruptions, ‘at any point’.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Unused Blog Takes on Spam

While I rarely use this blog, I do keep it around for sentimental reasons. A mark of a time. A time of marked activity. It was an active blog, but not a very well-remarked blog. I eventually realized it was eighty parts personal vanity, and twenty parts a contribution to the written art, and a source for critical, personal and miscellaneous notes on life. It persisted as an activity for me for a number of years--perhaps Facebook took over whatever hole of need it was filling for me. Since I rarely blog, I have been getting enormous amounts of spam posts, and I wish Google could identify spam more rigorously, so that it doesn't seem like my blog is haunting me through my email account. It is not a haunted blog, but a kind of electronic home.I care enough about it to not let it fill with useless garbage, scams, and hawkers of less than nothing--hawkers of digital harm, in my opinion.