Jai-Lai for Autocrats Brian Kim Stefans
Portable Press 2003
As the term jai-lai suggests, something sporting and Floridian takes hold in these two excellent series poems, the first titled "The Skids" -- eleven subtitled single-page pieces -- the second titled "No Special Order" -- 4 sonnets without subtitles. The sonnets function as steps-through like a breezeway to enter or exit Stefans's game, as they appear welcoming, cheesily retro, an easy pass. The prosody and discourse in the sonnets are well-behaved chips of ambient argument squeezed into formlets -- the lines scan, rhyme and off-rhyme here and there, but to a totalizing affect in the closing couplets: "instant / intent"; "cues / disabused"; "hair / air"; "possessed / rest." The "hair / air" duo is strikingly after-Ashbery and would be Exhibit One to bolster the 'cheesy' Florida side to Stefans's dare. Exhibit Two might highlight specialized lexical items, inserted seemingly to tease and amuse his older readers like Ashbery (as well as younger readers), plucked from the 1970s or 60s, choice bobs such as "sleepovers," to "surf," "day-glo," "shagadelic." In contrast to the sonnets, "The Skids" spreads out in willful lack of design that at times burps up postmodern automatic writing: "fa la la la la, / as goat-bearded boys shimmy across, their polysyllables vetted / by paul virilio / with (university) wit and (fellowship) keds..." The reference to Virilio, a participant in contretemps between science and the ironic science of 'new' arts, is one indication of a poetics that bonds with current theoretic schemata, media as commodifier of crisis, cyberspace qua semiotics, de-corporation of the senses, and the like. Clued in on such notional constructs, Stefans's praxis can be restrained ("the shoreline overloaded / with swans with signs"), but more often it gets antic ("a geographer of gertrude stein / awash in maps of orcs / piecing together middle english vocables / from neck-operated chimps..."). The dare I allude to entails a number of mannerisms Steffans adopts to lay down serious purpose over all the fun surfaces. One mannerism is evidenced in overt paens to earlier poets, such as Stein, Auden, and W C Williams. This is poetry about poetry, then, taking its place in the 'lineage,' but as Steffans knows, there has to be more. A bolder mannerist element is what I see as a new-puritan distance from today's "matrix-like" style of consciousness. In a section of the first poem subtitled "excess," Stefans starts off in a mood for meta-aware japery: "this has to do with your bladder / wandering / through fortress cities..." But just as "fortress cities" first sounds absurd as a contemporary descriptor and then less so, the poem goes on to strike darker chords against the "pyrotechs of disney," and "sharks in the hologram," and concludes, I think, unironically: "our future codas / add 'cocktail' / to the end of morass / and soon you have ageless debauch." Elsewhere, "struggle does come," he says, "my clothes cut the kenneth cole way." Steffans is one of the big wits who's having it all ways.
Thank You Letters Cedar Sigo
Angry Dog Midget Editions 2003
Whip'em-while-they're-panting is not so promising a stratagem for a good gay poet's totality of 'subject matter.' Sexual fury may leak through crevices, but the flowing -- if tributary -- affection for people in one's circle, one's everyday actions and enduring daily pleasures are better foregrounded in the persuasively seductive text, such as Sigo's Thank You Letters, as these accumulated favors constitute a thoroughgoing ideology of participatory delight and gratification. Sigo writes love poems that engender a widespread-rootedness in the lush fields of having a life in poetry, writing about it and keeping up with friends. If we can conceive of a young O'Hara or a sane Wieners today, he might very well sound a bit apres-hip-hop ("Want me to spin the hot shit for you / niggah, write the check!"), dally in Vicodin reading Michaux, and fall under Jeni Olin's spell. Sigo conveys his forbearers' enthrallment with the movies, chanteuses, and all ranges of poets ("I should admit I find the old Beckett fuckable"). For many, an inner world is seen daily without knowing it. Here, Sigo's world is collapsed into these poems as though after decades of preying on the best possible influences: "Of course the scenes he lays out as an / inside description are entirely selfish to / his own experience. Sometimes I wonder / why he even bothered plundering at all." If Sigo hadn't bothered, everyone would be worse off.
Hey Sean Cole! Your 'first' book has 32 poems -- more or 'fewer' -- that's counting your postcard entries as separate entities (entry entity = "We are as 50 birds swinging out over the river..."), although many lay bare that uni-thematic 'Men's room' fixation on "boobs" and "breasts," I think you call them. Why capitalize "Men" when you're too 02139 (Central Square) -- "guyish food" and "No benefit to sucking ass" -- to be Frank O'Hara, you're a lot more the OS X (Panther) of the 20-year-old Bill Knott without any of the formalist "blub" shadow that "slouches like a 30-year-old guy who doesn't get enough exercise." I mean you're hotter than "the pure arrow of a voice preserved in amber." Cough, 'glug.' And you're not afraid of those animal rights fiends, correct? "the cat...in the water"; "ants / blanched at our 24 footfalls including the dog's"; "frog bonhonkus"; "blithe calf"; "A hen to colonize"; "What of the rat in its claws?" Holy "shvitz," you are "Boy in the cat basket" 'n "incessant poet"! The two-faced one you title "Daimler-Chrysler" is tough on the eyes, your two eyes crossed, "sitting on the bed composing because you can also / hoist deadly remarks," and so on. The poems where you tear yourself up I especially savor, "Wage June," for instance: "Your accent fades. // ... They say / life is wasted on the surprised. But tape runs out." And "Letter to Self...": "You sit, compose yourself, / stick the back end of your quill down your throat and hover / the page," my, 'my.' Then you poke fun at the Sox, George Will, Sam Donaldson, even Zorba. "That's okay. I forgive your ass as it bends..." Hey Sean Cole!
In extolling Thomas Campion as the master of pure poetry in English, W H Auden concludes, "What he has to offer us is a succession of verbal paradises in which almost the only element taken from the world of everyday reality is the English language." Miles Champion (no rhyme intended) is off in the same musical direction, composing verse that one might read to a metronome, recited either hurriedly (as Champion does in his public readings) in a steam of slurred adonics and cretics, or very, very slowly in order to wring out the exact progression of each turn of wit and atonal attention. Three Bell Zero is about the diverse speeds of ideas and how to make language into musics of many varieties. Champion's language is purposed mainly for dissonant instrumentation, but there are thematic or narrative components (the new body, music, and lies) and invention techniques (lies, wordplay, textual self-reference, etc.), and I have made a few lists of some examples.
Ankle-livered 'new body' stuff = "brain, discradled"; "My throat is in my heart"; "On the knees of my heart"; "the very backbones of the legs"; "my head so withdrawn // That the nerves which reflect colour to the brain were strained"; "the eye's / ear"; "a nervous stomach which / fissioned and transferred ... to each retina."
Supremacist grotesquerie = "A crab is bolted onto the shaft"; "A caliper beak"; "Road or dog brains rise"; "The Blue Foetus // 1) boils."
Lies, lies, a tissue of fabulous-ish half truths = "I saw no need to describe"; "He unlit the fire"; "I vase my meter"; "Dance the fit rind"; "Testicles she provides"; "felt his / ball jaundice"; "undrank the beer"; "ifs medicate"; "The room, like a football"; "I touched every word I uttered."
Music makes a burly interstice = "A foe is decibel"; "world peels an alto"; "Chet bakes the fast"; "The rhythm as onion."
Wortspiel = "chicken hand image"; "Chet bakes the fast"; "My throat is in my heart"; "Who put the cart before / A living symbol?"
Articles and pronouns to gulp on = "& a was"; "a / Abbreviated"; "Akin the to"; "I begins with"; "a / even"; "as a...is."
Meta-referentially = "I vase my meter"; "I / mean, to / provide you / with layers"; "metre, 'as stone'"; "conviction lengthens the sentence"; "to speak of a / Wordless thinking."
You feel some depth to Champion's aesthetic stimulus from his spare use of citation: Steve McCaffery; Poe; Picasso; Kazimir Malevich; Alfred Jarry. And we might intuit other influences, Jeremy Prynne, Emily Dickinson, Philip Guston, Piet Mondrian, a crew of jazz instrumentalists, Art Blakey, for example, Thelonius Monk, Chet Baker, Bud Powell. And perhaps Thomas Campion.
Piombino's topics are "Writing and Persevering" and "Writing and Spontaneity." In both essays Piombino selects elements of psychoanalytic theory to undercut received notions of who's in charge, accenting paradoxes attached to particular motive v. collective will. On the one hand there is a primary desire of the individual to be understood, an aspiration that "places the poetic impulse in jeopardy." Poetic impulse, on the other hand, must take control to find "a way out" of "the ultimate snare of human communication itself." Piombino points to resistance, in one example, as an "unconscious reluctance to search further," frequently prompted by "fear of loss of control." The battle for control is tested by group competition and, more challenging, group consensus bound up into "fashion," a stand-in for a cool community where "we feel challenged, warmed, encouraged, accepted, but somehow less clear." What knocks me out is how Piombino guides us away from these paradoxes and bindings by modeling an epistemology for the "professional poet" and her reader as playmates who have reached an understanding, which is "understood before anything in particular is understood," and through which the "constant" desire to transform dreams is moved "into the direction of a kind of knowledge." In this utilitarian play between poet and reader there's "enchantment," any "limit of one turns us back on the receptive regeneration of the other ... The thing said looks after those things in language that make a mind comprehensible to another mind. Something like a poetic map is drawn." This work, published in chapbook form a dozen years ago, is all the more relevant now, providing foundational material to Piombino's ongoing examination of poets' blogging, a phenomenon that seems only to intensify the play between reader- and author-ship. Proceeding from a philosophical romance (what he calls "pragmatism of heart"), in Two Essays Piombino intimates a prototype of a triadic atmosphere where author and reader continually explore their selves over textual cartographies, each of which holds promise, since as with "any map, the more it's shared with others, the more useful it becomes."
For Every Solution There Is a Problem Betsy Fagin
Open 24 Hours 2003
What if poetry were to determine how one can segue more responsibly? Fagin reveals a see-sawing contest in pitching her poetry bluntly between sampling and first-person assertion. In her brief opening poem she outlines her tactic to secure "the king's road...radiating from a center / we..." In her 16-page title poem Fagin infuses her optimism with more inclusive "reprogramming," popping from an imperious journal-keeping shorthand ("loneliness is craving information burned / into worried and jealous mind") in Part I to a more relaxed diction that permits her to blurt out, "face it. / you're getting nothing. / I tell you because I think I ought to..." in Part II, and then to propose a "community-based...embrace / a type of love," which she supports by prerogative, "I have decided clearly from / nightmares & the truth..." in Part III. Fagin credibly albeit restively inhabits undemocratic consciousness in her monologic quarrel with someone who seems to "know / what is happening," yet one who has to be reminded "there are citizens / within the nations," but if "you bring your battle to the table [...] this is / foolish." I find the later pages stronger -- "writing down designs / creating. action. the same." -- stronger and less haphazard because the rich contrivances of 'champagne,' 'propriety,' 'portals,' and the like are unsettled more by multiples of quasi-prophetic and contradictory social acuities, "lies are being made / easily..." "liberties / abandoned & laying on the ground..." "women's voices at a table over drinks."
It will be noticed, though, that we applied for pharmaceutical assistance, an oscillation gelatin they call Sparkling Affront. Nothing is more or less than arabesque, forgetting one's place in the secret order of failure. We were once handsome, having left a lavish record of the male hush-hush from hand to fingers to mouth: epic matadors in hock to our hips, fillets of fin after shark splatter. Our thoughts at this point raise the magnitude of repetitions posing a shriveled median in the after-life or its meandering dissolution.
I enjoyed it when the penis sawed us. Later we got dressed for golf, and congregated in the face with peers.
There were balls of steam suspended in bacteria from our hands to discourage others. (A boiling kettle contained the suspects.) Better now if we didn't digress but file out a shade apart to trail the copycats.
The new pressures involve a break from bodyguards.
Heaven is in the heart with its system of credos and blood, from which a biblical instrument is tossed.
The face is the vantage point inside a very powerful camouflage (instructing us to use it).
A young theorist reverses herself for a utilitarian installation in makeup. She's walking toward vanishing gray to the end. Tanned marines with bats and poleaxes are near her all the way. Confession may be for the love of God? Or to put that in mind?
Her vanishing begins and reaches wheel tracks, muffled to pick up snaps of silence. The policy change has been unencumbered even though sheeted in asterisks. Innocence was graffitied, not that long ago.
There is slender lovemaking on square obstacles.
To stop the tremors, rouged slippers are warmed like leftovers, something a dog in one room repairs to its separate bungalow. The commissary is situated down in the sub-chambers, aimlessly onerous. What would they spell for lunch today?
Glistening momentary models are cast as the first objective. I am often found on the second level with the flamethrowers. I am no longer a typo as my friends say. But I remain as static.
One hour intervals fallen to talk are inestimable. Pardon me for I used to have the ability. This afternoon I shall arrive, standing unsuspecting the years taken wherever time emulsifies in method into water to find...what? and then it's over, anyway.
A hierarchal Finland works through the general population.
Kimonos are entered.
A fragrance is found shaking our heads, wiping our brows.
Once there was a poetry writer who was an expert on the alphabet, and as any book using the alphabet is valuable, he carried the only copy in his part of the world on his back. He was widely sought after for his readings and insight into the alphabet, and very successful at propounding its profundities not only to fellow poetry writers and critics but to lay folk as well.
Thus the people of America and other English-speaking regions came to know of the alphabet, and as the poetry writer traveled, he came upon an old woman selling blog-tea and blog-cakes. The hungry writer would have loved to refresh himself, but he had only a little cash. He told the old woman, "I have on my back here a treasure beyond knowing -- the alphabet. If you give me some blog-goodies, I'll tell you about this great treasure of knowledge."
The old woman knew something of the power contained in the alphabet, herself, and proposed her own deal. She said, "If you answer a simple question, I'll give you some tea and cakes." The poetry writer readily agreed. The woman then said, "When you eat these cakes, are you eating with the mind of the past, the mind of the present or the mind of the future?"
No answer occurred to the writer, so he took the pack from his back and got out the book, hoping he could find the answer. As he studied and pondered, the day grew late and the old woman packed up her things to go home.
"You are a foolish fuck," said the old woman as she left the poet in his quandary. "You eat the tea and cakes with your mouth."
Essay this. One day a fake-hermit took his two students to a pleasant bookstore and there they met the shop keeper. "You dumb cow," the hermit intoned, "do something! What's your purpose in life, anyway?" Reading "In the American Tree," the shop keeper replied "mu" (the Chinese ideogram for nothing).
Evidence of the Paranormal Albert Flynn DeSilver, Editor
Owl Press 2003
Paranormal is way beyond mundane discourse. That's why 26 nifty poets have taken up the challenge to come together and show what they have. John Ashbery gets to have the last word in "Theme Park Days," which begins, "Dickhead, they called him, for his name was Dong, Tram Van Dong. Carefully he slid open the small judas in his chest and withdrew a heart-shaped disc." To paraphrase that judas, with a small j, 'he opened the little peep hole in his...' So Ashbery lays out one tack, deeply-wounded humor that behaves ferally and starts. Ron Padgett, whose "Scary Movie" is the first poem, coincidentally begins with an invasive body search: "Now we can go down our own throats / by looking at a TV monitor attached / to a tube at the end of which is / a tiny camera, a third eye..." Padgett proceeds ironically to riff on the third eye "like the one in mysticism," spinning a yarn, all of which fits together with the passwords third eye mysticism. So this is another kind of humor and a contrasting tack, speech about the wild and unknown. A number of the other poems vacillate -- in a good way -- between behaving ironically or weirdly. Brendan Lorber seems to address this head-on: "21 approaches before / the process can process / itself & everything outside / the cauldron is inside except / the long way around..." Jeni Olin tries a slick, offbeat pastiche -- "I feel strongly about sanctity & wash / With Flex & oily Ives of March..." -- an approximation of an ironic stance if not all that creepy. Irony or freakiness? Even Clark Coolidge straddles the two: "...no it's quiet / must've plugged in in the basement of the church / nothing to do now but snakes at rest / broke up with nobody okay? guess I snapped..." That last phrase ("guess I snapped") appears to slot the wackiness that precedes it into ironic first-person narrative. So who besides Ashbery is deeply bonkers? Eileen Myles is spooky. Here's the first half of her short poem, "Lemon Trees": "My head broke up through / a hole in the ice // It was California // The states had flickered / by like a walking / miracle // what day is this?" A few lines later Myles says, "this is not the book / I wrote," and we are ready to believe her. Brandon Downing speaks of "Giant Vanity" and a "giant's / abyss," "giant messengers," "Giant paper," etc. and then this: "giant gone... // at present / at present." That seems flipped-out. Edmund Berrigan pens a gnarly axiom in an epigraph: "The paranormal make furnace fetishes / beyond the will of a shoveler...so I sleep not / where I work but where I dream." Of course it's one thing to point to an abyss and dream states, and another thing to enact them. Thank goodness for Alice Notley, who writes,"...the only magic is in death yet the skeletal symbol's / inappropriate...there was an opaque black cloth draped over the door to the bathroom a different dead / man in my bed told me that he was in there developing photographs..." All the poems here are accompanied by Will Yackulic drawings, some with vintage copy like "my dreams had dreams," "Hollywood" and "I can practically feel it in my bones."
Deer Head Nation K. Silem Mohammad
Tougher Disguises 2003
This is the first complete book of flarf, and there may never be another that is not in fundamental technique beholden to it. The audacity of its comic breadth of subject matter challenges second-comers to top titles like these: "Full Summary and Analysis of Paradise Lost"; "Objective Lens New York Witch Statue"; "Fucking to Put Down the Army"; "Creating Child Tasks with Fork"; "Between Nothing and Eternity"; "Mars Needs Terrorists." Thanks in part to Mohammad's massaging of public-domain data-search-and-retrieval, the 'contents' are huge, timely and time and again poignant in re-falsifying found language, as in this opening to "Not a War Blog": "boy I would like to find you deer / damn skippy / if the deer are all armored like that / you may of hit the nail on the head..." The words head and especially deer recur throughout and serve as motifs to hang a synthesis (synthetic continuity) on. That synthesis is apparent when the abstract links back to the physical. In one of two poems about Wallace Stevens, for instance, without his persistent motifs Mohammad would sound less slapstick, more like a cultural theoretician, evoking Mies van der Rohe, Norman Mailer, Arnold Schoenberg, others and, of course, the poet: "look at him there Wallace Stevens / American Primitive / the Black Forest sparrow type birds / with red dustings on their heads / and nervous deer." Mohammad's aim, overall, is for the funny bone, stiffing outrage by creating more, rendering some poems so nearly unreadable -- line after line of "ack ack ack..." for example -- whole passages seem to be staring us down, daring us to wade through them. But then Mohammad slips in "Ack! a hairball!" and makes it all ha-ha explicable and worthwhile.
Detective Sentences Barbara Henning
Spuyten Duyvil 2001
Henning maneuvers conventional, "protestant" plain speech as an unlikely foil to her frequent "yogic twists" mediating "ease and disease." Henning does not attempt structural subtlety in these formal experiments -- alternating for the most part between prose patches and verse couplets. The prose is straightforward, pellucid, and all the more noteworthy in that it unselfconsciously fuses dream imagery with journalistic scrutiny. Her couplets shear experience down to judicious reportage in chilling dualities, points, counterpoints: "I sleep better with my head at the foot of the bed / The guy in the next bed is handcuffed to the rail." "I put oil in his ears... / ...you want me // to pick up the check and then nothing / not even a kiss." "The Trade Center towering over St. Paul's / Two paper cups with coffee on a bench." The value of Henning's experiments, as these examples indicate, is the intensity that appears to be lived out through the brevity of what is expressed.