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.