Monday, December 15, 2008

Miles To Go

Biking The U.S. of Awesomeness
The mass email correspondence of cross-country cyclists Meryl Estes, Nicole Grohoski, Caitlin Prentice and Jonathan Stuart-Moore, illustrated by Charles Mahal
. New York: Graphic Union Press, 2008. 55 pp.

O, open road, (almost) endless and winding.

Here is the bicycle bell (mini-clarion) of a new generation, out to discover the U.S. of Awesomeness unburdened by cars, gasoline, or that gritty taste kicked up by long miles of high speed driving. This book is a pleasant, present, joyous record of the travels of four young bicyclists who, in the summer of 2005, pedaled their way from Maine to Oregon. It was planned as a project for a Geography course at Middlebury College in Vermont that spring, and then carried out and documented nearly every week for the 100s of people who received their emails. As a travel narrative, it is full of simple pleasures and perplexing frustrations met with wit and humor that speak of a kind of Thoreauean deliberateness. Not exactly a philosophical meditation, it is instead a collectively-authored account (written in the third-person singular) comprising the landmarks, landscapes, and local flavors encountered on the road. The path itself is traced by illustrator Mahal across a large map that spans the final five pages of the book.

As a document, it provides lots of factual detail: a "bikers' index" lists the amount of peanut butter eaten; the cyclists' regimen of diet and daily progress; the aid and comfort given by strangers who unexpectedly encounter the voyagers along the way; and praise for the community of family, friends and supporters.

While this account of a
+4000-mile trek is rather brief--so brief as to leave a desire to know more--the combined array of illustrations, introduction, excerpts from the original "guidebook", emails from the relieved and celebratory cyclists' parents and the index provide a diversity of ways to read through what is truly a one-of-a-kind, and awesome, expedition.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Some Poems

Julie Perini. Videos to Be Constructed in Your Head. (Buffalo, 2007) 8 pp. A small book , 5.5"X4", picked up at Squeaky Wheel or Hallwalls last summer. A brief homage to Yoko Ono's 1962 Tokyo exhibition Paintings to Be Constructed in Your Head. 6 brief instructions or prompts for the imagination: #1 "This is a video unlike anything/you have seen before." #2 "This is a video to be read out loud/so go back and read this out loud./Try not to feel shy or awkward about it." and #3 "this is a short video. " If the early 1960s were an age of conceptual, Fluxus art, ours is an age of repetitions.

Rikki Ducornet, illustrated by T. Motley.
Clean. (an excerpt from The One Marvelous Thing, Dalkey Archive Press, 2008). A small, 5.5"X2", 12-page "freebie" booklet done after the style of Jack Chick's proselytizing, fear-inducing pamphlets. Drives the notion of "cleanliness" to absurd heights: "And Jesus says: 'Do you smell good and are you the color of roast veal?' And the old folks answer 'O yes, Lord, we are clean and Our thoughts are like white sauce and our blood is like water and we are ready, O sweet Jesus." Funny and gross, quite a combo.

d.a. levy. "What can I say?" (poem one-fold excerpt from
RANDOM SIGHTINGS WITH NO ONE AROUND, Kirpan Press, 2007). 4 pp. 6"X4". This poem is subtitled "for r.j.s May 10, 1967/imprisoned for making a moral decision to help other young people even if it meant endangering himself". levy's friend was hounded, censored, jailed, etc., in Cleveland, OH. It takes the attitude of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and crafts an angry portrait of a loss of identity amidst a culture of fear and suspicion.

this poem is wired
they are listening
they are in the audience
they are in the poem
they are in the words
they are waiting for something obscene
for something un-american
for something about drugs

they dont know
i am as frightened as
they are


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Elevator Express

Jessica Smith. Organic Furniture Cellar: Works on Paper 2002-2004. Charlottesville, Va: Outside Voices, 2004.

This is an incredibly well-made book.
An impeccable book, even, if such a word doesn’t sound archaic. From the lush tapestry of green on the cover, the thick black endpapers, the erudite Foreword sparkling with serious insight into the art of poetry, architecture, music and painting, all the way to the poems themselves, each moment of a reader’s looking and touching encounters a new thing of verbal and visual beauty. Jessica Smith has composed a work with a dynamic range rarely seen—a book as a performance, a score for reading which permits wild permutations for each poem, and a poetry of scholarship with continuous insistence on considering the distances from the spoken to the seen, the eye and the ear, the eye as a means of reading language, and the ear as an organ of spatialities. If this book of diverse poems—54 in 6 sections, divided into 2 halves—can be described in a single sentence, it might be: we learn more about the degree to which our senses are cooperative functions of a synthetic relation from their strict separation in a work of art, in a single aesthetic encounter, than we do when they are submerged in a thematic, conventional work in an established genre. We are more lastingly challenged to consider our ways of making meaning to the degree that more of our senses are engaged in simultaneity and succession (terms she defines in her Foreword). This is a book of many places, an artography (drop the see), yet she has assiduously followed Creeley’s advice: keep looking. This is splendid artifice, a painterly architecture, a making, and the site of her έποίησε.

Here, to the best of my skill in transcribing it, is one of her poems.
To set a work like this in a blog takes careful composition, and must be built line by line. This is the poem “Locations along the Rust Belt” from the section “Canal Series” in the division “Chronography” from the book Organic Furniture Cellar:

[i spent an hour trying to format this--couldn't do it. I am not "web ready" as they say. This isn't the poem, these are all the words in the poem, but they bear no relation to what this poem is, or how it should be enacted.]

fascination with



grain elevators
in order

if you want to remember
glasses with limes at the a loved one, sloss furnace
bottom turn up around the
comfort lose it .let
cities everyday activities.

remembering is suffocating,

b ear

suffering vulcan
7. g dying under
buffalo drives

drink recover its name. If someone has died


the light

may be red.


It has taken me three years to give Jessica Smith’s poetry a composed response. We went to school together. I consider her a friend. We’ve shared, at some remove in age and space, similar experiences in the attempt to compose distinct careers as writers. We’ve studied many of the same texts, and were trained in the same, distinct tradition of aesthetics, one recognizable by its differences from a more conventional approach to writing, the page, and the poem. One major component of OFC is the way she is able to acknowledge that tradition and take it into the future, deepen it, expand it, fulfill it by exceeding its limitations, by expanding the ground & source from which it emerges.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

While You Wait

I experienced a household power outage this morning. Buffalo is so beautiful because of its spacious, urban-friendly older houses (many of which are under threat of demolition because of the ongoing financial blockade--er--recession. Sorry, did I just attribute intention to how economically mucked-up our region is??). But along with that aging grandeur it also means that many of them are not fully up-to-date in terms of plumbing, heating, etc. So, I lost three pages worth of my post, and will have to reconstruct it. But in the meantime, take a look over at the sidebar. Go ahead, look over there ->

see those amazing-looking books?
Wouldn't you like to read one, or simply have that kind of chic book art elegance on your bookshelf? Don't be afraid, now. Remember, mama poetry loves you. Why don't you order one today? You seriously have to stop going around talking about Germs, Guns, and Steel and start talking about Venus 93, TwentyTwo and At Any Point. These aren't the nineties anymore, you know.


Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Gesso Apprentice

My apologies for the fragmentary, uneven nature of this post.

The Gesso Apprentice.

I’m reading a book called The Gesso Apprentice. This book is anonymously written. It is composed of 25 poems. It is a book some people here in this town may own. But other than that, I don’t know if it’s for sale anywhere. Court poets used to circulate their poems in manuscript within a tightly delimited circle of readers. Yet, because of their proximity to royalty, they could expect some degree of legacy for their poems despite their scant readership. At the same time that Marvell and Sidney were writing their poems for the gentry, in Spain the chapbook was circulating like crazy, so much so the crown tried to censor and shut down presses because these little books had such an influence on the population. (For a good look at chapbooks and Spanish nationalism, check out Wlad Godzich’s essay “Popular Culture and Spanish Literary History” in The Culture of Literacy [Harvard UP, 1994, which, completely out of context, has this wonderful sentence: “part of the answer to the problem of transmission of literary culture lies in the chapbooks”]). On the one hand, reading a book like The Gesso Apprentice makes the reader feel part of a privileged group of specialized readers, part of a community made up of an aristocracy of art. On the other hand, because of the strength of these poems, it seems somewhat ridiculous to publish them anonymously. But to call these poems “aristocratic” isn’t a very reasonable designation. Nor does it at all reflect the community in which this book circulates. It’s very important to see where the chapbook stands today vis-à-vis this august past—both challenge and support to the Spanish Empire in the 16th century, and of questionable value in the current literary marketplace—thinking here of Kyle Schlesinger’s admission that his press can no longer viably publish chapbooks.

I have twice been told who the author of this book is. But I don’t want to break the anonymity of its authorship, even though I feel that, in its deliberate effacing of an “author” attribute it makes an overwrought gesture towards authenticity. I think this anonymity is certainly meant to be taken as a gesture of humility (or so I guess, though these poems are not at all a questioning of poetry’s ability to speak, enact, or designate), but it could be mistaken for an attempt at deliberate obscurity or the manufacture of mystique. The only reason I say this is because these poems are amazing. There is a long sequence of prose poems that make up the bulk of the book, and they are, too, a kind of enactment of fragility the likes of which I haven’t read before. Perhaps the removal of the author’s name helps keep the gender of the author in suspension, so that we aren’t concerned whether these poems were written by a woman or a man.

The poems before this sequence, while important for their own reasons, seem simply a kind of warm up for the extended portraiture provided in the main section of the book, entitled “The Tyst Poems”. The Tyst Poems describe a character with wings who goes through a startling series of transformations and self-mutilations while engaged in a rather tragic struggle between life and art, flight and flightlessness, waking and dreaming, and strength and weakness. While it seems somewhat akin to the late romantic conceits of the Rosetti circle and their imitators (especially in Swinbourne’s penchant for ekphrastic poems, or poems about a work of art), there is a grittier side to these poems that save them from preciousness or the merely illustrative.

I’ll provide one example from the book, and then leave it at that. I think there is more to say, a lot more, about this book, but I’ve run out of time.


Molten glass at breath’s end. Inside its wobbly swelling Tyst masturbates. When the shop closes, she rides the nose of the mute home to his sister’s house. The saliva that bubbles at his lips while he sleeps she shapes into flightless likenesses of endangered moons.

Okay, one last point: the anonymity here makes of my response a kind of well-defined and specific address—a response to a set of poems that becomes so hard to extend beyond anything more than a personal letter writ large onto the intimate/public screen of a blog. It makes the simplest description of the work seem like a failure of the art itself (the art of criticism, and the art of essay). I feel somewhat compelled to respond in a like form—to compose a letter say, or construct an intact dramatic form in which to stage an overheard discussion between two actors discussing the book’s themes by way of a particular, delimited crisis they are both engaged in, and must figure out together or dissolve away from the stage, let the stage dissolve, and stand there looking at each other as the theater goes black.


Saturday, December 6, 2008

Eli Drabman: Daylight on the wires

Eli Drabman. Daylight on the wires. Buffalo (?): Vigilance Society 1917, (2007?) 20 pp.

I’m pretty sure I grew up in a conservative suburb, because I remember not having read anything like Daylight on the wires until I was nineteen and going to college. I also just now realize that I’ve not even lived half of my life on my own; meaning, I lived more than half my life in my parents’ house, and less than half of it somewhere else. I mention these facts because Eli once told me that his parents gave him a very serious upbringing, stressing politeness and manners all the while. He impressed on me how important that upbringing had been for him, and I’ve always respected the serious perspective he took on how much that strict environment had helped him when he had moved out on his own as an adult. I remember that, as much as my parents stressed manners and good behavior, and were models of sobriety and concentration, honesty and hard work, I still seemed to get into trouble of the worst sort: I would do something wrong, but rather than have the strength or wit to avoid detection, I usually just waited until someone came along to see what I had done, or said, or had not done that I was supposed to do. This is called “asking for it,” but in the worst way; because it lacked any literal request, and instead involved my making some terrible blunder as a means for having to fix it later. But only when someone told me to. I’m not going to go into the finer psychology of this. But needless to say, if I had read a book like Daylight on the wires as an adolescent, I wouldn’t have needed to make the mistakes I did. If I were fourteen again, I would have been very well off, and a lot wiser, if every week or so I would have gotten my hands on something just like, or very similar, to this book.

In fact, I think younger people, younger adults, in their teens, should read lots of books like Drabman’s. And this doesn’t mean that this book is only suitable for readers in their teens. It simply means that it can, at the right time, get you ready for things that will be coming along in your life that you’d be better off thinking more about. At least, for a teen like the teen I was, and maybe at that particular time I was a teen (in the 1980s). It would be cool if the hundred or so chapbook publishers I know of could pool their resources and create an outreach subscription service for readers in early adulthood. Sure, as a young man I needed lots of good solid information, but I also need the stuff of imagination way beyond, and more realistic by way of its surrealistic fabulation, anything I had at that age.

I’m not even sure what transpires, in any realistic narrative sense, in Drabman’s book. But there is a lot of hunger involved, a good deal of anger, or at least bewilderment, and a strenuous desire for an escape from boring, dead predicaments. Beyond these mere hulls of my interpretation, picked up from a less-than-rigorous reading of the book, there is an amazing degree of intricately woven imagery that unfolds in long curling waves from these pages.

The book is large, composed of 8.5" X 11"-sized sheets of paper, printed on one side only, and stapled near the edge of the papers. The poems themselves are shaped along the page to create long, linear margins for the text. What is gained visually, which is a lot, because the pages are stunningly beautiful, does make for a rather prosaic reading experience. Which is all to the point, and not a criticism. The poems here read like sections of a work of fiction, a poetic fiction that bubbles with unreal, hypnotic, and nightmare visions that widen out and collapse back to a kind of breathless familiarity once again. There is a wonderful tension between the underlying sense of daily life presented here, and the hallucinatory, crowded imagery streaming atop every poem:

…she blames me for

not putting needles in my eyes, for holding a mouse head

as if it were a diamond’s relentless consistency, or angels

posing as grandmothers scrawled their wings across a sky

making sundown shudder like a dawn in camera jaws, hold

furious screaming against the hollow in your chest to see if

you vibrate at that frequency, climb inside a tree, write one

name with a knife and put an arrow through it before the tourists

light you on fire…

This seems to me on one level a kind of domestic, if wildly tangled, scene: a way of describing the inner contours of two people in serious contention for each other’s heartstrings. At least I think it is. But obviously it’s a lot more than that. What is evident on every page, and in practically every line, is a vivid series of unexpected imagery, surprising in an irrational/rational connective web of accumulated modification, as if metaphors were still trying to fight their way out of the language into the direct perception of the thing thus qualified. If I could say more, and get you to track down a copy of this book, I would. But I’m not trying to sell you this book, I’m trying to say what effect its had on me. And it was a vivid one. Why I couldn’t help but think of myself at age fourteen, I don’t know. These are mature poems. They stunned me. Could you, dear reader find a copy of this book if you wanted one? You might be able to get one from Michael Cross. But I don’t even know where he lives, or what his email address is. I do know he edited a new magazine called On, and that this magazine has a critical essay by (or about) Eli Drabman in it. Do try to get a copy of that—because I think it is just now available. I don’t have a copy of it, though.


Friday, December 5, 2008

Aaron Lowinger's open night: a gush

Open Night by Aaron Lowinger. San Francisco: Transmission Press, 2008. 32 pp.

Designed by Logan Ryan Smith, the poems in this book continue from the end flyleaf onto the back cover of the book. I'd never seen a book do that before. I've never read poems like these before. Here is a returning book, half of it published the year before, but now bigger, wider, ever & even more generous.

Lowinger doesn't waste a single word, or even a syllable. That I would do likewise in acknowledging his art. This chapbook contains 50 poems, all of them entitled "open night". It suggests "opening night," the big introduction of a new work--art, musical, a play, or the first day of baseball in the spring. Or a request: "open, night". Open all night, like a 24hr store.

Open Night has the recipe, gives you a blend of the finest choicest meters. Creeley's tight syncopation, hip-hop's matter-of-fact skips, samples, and scratches, and watershed meditations nourish every single time scale sermon in smoke of night. My series, "The Table," is a cheap knockoff propped on spindly legs. The Buffalo News should give him $1000.

Yes, Virginia, this book is a tuxedo.

open night

Your mouth opens
like the movies do
your clock continues
to click
you make me feel like sleeping
in different places
speaking many tongues


Thursday, December 4, 2008

an alien here

leah angstman. an alien here. Cambridge, Mass.: Propaganda Press, 2008. Pocket Protector series book one. 64 pp. 2”X 2.75”.

This is a “teeny tiny poetry book” that was sent to me by my fellow chapbook revolutionaries at the Alternating Current Arts Cooperative in Massachusetts. I learned of this press, and the publishers, through Doug Holder’s Boston Small Press Poetry Scene blog after he posted a notice to the UB/UPenn Poetics email listserv, and where I read his extended review of Ed Galing’s chapbooks, which the Co-op publishes. Reading Holder, I felt an immediate “zip” of recognition for what I had once thought of as “street poetry” when I was a constant regular at the Brady’s Cafe poetry marathons in Kent, Ohio from 1996-1998. There was a retired chemistry professor (Edmund?) who used to stand at the microphone and, in a labored, earnest voice, read endlessly bad poems about a younger woman he’d fallen in love with. Holder’s review of Galing’s books worked on me as only that kind of nostalgia can: poems that are remarkable not because they reinvent the language or enact brilliant theoretical stagings of density and prowess, but because they are intensely vulnerable in their articulation of helplessness: a poverty of language, a simplicity of statement, and basic, conventional emotional states for some reason so obvious that I feel relief somebody is bothering to articulate them at all. But am I guilty of patronizing? Of course, Ed Galing’s work is a kind of writing, and a reading style (if read in public), that has a number of real and palpable drawbacks. It is the seduction of one’s critical capacity toward slumber that is the most suspicious component in work of this nature. In terms of rhetorical persuasion, the stance of innocence and candor is odious to a more literary perspective simply because, in hearing or reading it, one feels compelled, even coerced, into admiring the poet for having staged a private, interior space in the public one of the poem, or at a public event. But how is it that intellectual friends of mine can ridicule a poetry like Galing’s and turn around and rave about the films of Sam Shepard or John Cassavetes? Part of the effect, even power of this performance, lies not in the generosity of the poem, or poet, but in the realization that the artifice of a private world is being built up even as it is torn down by the implied honesty of the feeling expressed: “I felt this, therefore I trust it more than anything else.” We have a lot of names to use for this dimension in our poetic culture—confessional poetry, or School of Quietude—and I even learned this year of a semi-organized group of poets proclaiming a “new sincerity”. My own seeming liability as a reader, poet, and writer, is that I do not reject this kind of poetic outright, or on principal. I was once asked by a friend (and by way of suggestion) to accept the idea that my having been “rejected” by the academy, or having been rankled by the experience of years-long & fruitless application for work, was fully meliorated by the “consolation of lyric”. I think my friend even said that lyric was my “consolation prize”! As if the whole of one’s engagement with academic intellectual work was really, and in fact, a space of competitive antagonism where the achievement of rational discourse, the ability to reason, could only be achieved at the rejection of that human dimension we call “feeling” as a kind of residue; and that, moving onward from there, one had to reject all poetic works that would assert a fact of sensibility, in whatever pathetic form it momentarily held, as painfully naive, gullible and just, too, well, pathetic.

This is a lot to say as a warm up to describing leah angstman’s book, and it doesn’t really arrive at the kind of thesis one would hope from an objective critic, able to bring his diverse & many years’ experience as a reader to the work at hand. But the work here is quite specific, and intent on its communication, as in the poem “i don’t respond to hey baby”: “for a minute i forget you/and am a little disappointed/ at my cap’s nakedness”. There are a number of issues I have with this book. But the issue isn’t with the fact that almost every poem is directed toward a specific individual (and here is the itinerary: a lover who smokes, a “you” who is in fact the speaker in the poem, a lover who is compared to Spiderman, Scott Weiland of the Stone Temple Pilots, someone the speaker is infatuated with, a recent ex-boyfriend, “everyone”—in the poem “on the level”—which is one of my favorites, a personified drug—maybe heroin, the author’s grandfather, an absent partner, a creep on a bus trying to flirt with the speaker, a sex partner, the reader, someone attractive and eight years younger than the speaker, an old friend, and then, in the last three poems: nobody, nobody, and nobody!). And my issue isn’t with how beautiful and simple this tiny book really is. My issue is with the effect that the pop culture references and products mentioned in the book have on me, which is the same effect a beer commercial has on me, or a scene in a romantic movie when the music begins to swell and I feel my tears start to form against my will. And my issue is not with the poems, because, as I made my way through the book, I realized that the poetry was getting better and better—I especially enjoyed the extended narrative poem “1926” that forms the centerpiece to the book. And when the poems ceased trying to address a specific individual, I begin to feel less closed off from the words and imagery, because I no longer had a problem trying to identify with a “you”. angstman has the capacity to describe scenes with flair: “driving through spastic june cottonwoods/like snow in summer rainbow days/and speckled tori amos days/and robin eggs/broken at my feet”. I found myself abetting these early 1990s musical and cultural loci—found myself caught in a nostalgia for something I never really had, if only because I like cottonwood trees for the same reasons mentioned here. The simplicity of angstman’s line is pleasurable, just as Bukowski is pleasurable, by making the implied spaces of the poem move with a determined, if singleminded, need or perception. But I guess I should try to identify what these poems would offer to someone never acquainted with what are familiar signifiers for me. What would they offer to the “alien” indicated in the title? I guess I could say that there is a real place inhabited within the book. The poems are narrative, each is self-contained in its theme, and unified toward the complete delineation of the sense evoked. Erotically charged and sensible at the same time, it provides a cumulative and composite portrait, and the identity, foregrounded in this work, while “imperfect”, is in every case palpable—mainly because the voice is one that persists through shades and nuances of tenor, of motion, of estrangement, of experience and of acceptance. These are poems as “easy goods”, yes. But in guessing what source was mined (and minded) to make them, there seems nothing more difficult in the world to achieve. I am made mindful of the basic antagonisms prevalent in the human universe just as readily here than I am in a work, say, of Rodrigo Toscano or Joshua Clover. While angstman’s poems take up stakes on a plane of language separate from these authors, for me, at least, the sense of accomplishment is equivalent.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

I'm Feeling Frisky

And ambitious. Because there are about 50 pieces of poetry sitting on my desk--little objects, broadsides, chapbooks, entire books, unexplainable concatenations of verbal intention and dispersion--and I want to acknowledge each and every one. So, if I'm not being too florid in my thinking, I will try to acknowledge, note, gush and analyze 1 (one) new work every day for the next 1068 days. But I need a three-day safety buffer. That means if I go three days, then I will post about three works. And I dedicate the Frisky Ambitious Project to Promote Poetic Living to Miriam. For Miriam.