Thom Gunn. R.I.P.

Nine Immaterial Nocturnes
Tony Towle
Barretta Books 2003

Immaterial is one of those two-headed terms, conveying qualities of the insubstantial and -- hey! -- metaphysicality. An eerie self-putdown, I guess. Towle's adoption of the term is quizzical in that his accomplishment is neither incorporeal nor slight, unless we consider a run of nine one-page poems slight. This could never be the case with Towle, I maintain, since whether in long or shorter pieces no other poet better spoofs the yearning for self-engrandizement of the individual as creator, nor more envelops his readers within the self-searching generation entailed in composition: "'...you can sweep easily through the words / of a talented writer,' the critic said / but not of me alas." This is Towle speaking to the occasion of something like this very one-paragraph survey, perhaps, "...nobody's poetry is any good / until someone in prose says it is." Towle's luck is early on to be welcomed (personally as well as in praiseful prose) into the second generation of the New York School under the nurturing auspices of Frank O'Hara, only to live through the subsequent atomization of the scene after O'Hara's death, to witness the metamorphosis of the craft from one of avocation to career path. There is, doubtless, a masterful cartoonist gesturing that smoothes over such a shift in aesthetic temperament, imaging himself decades after his entry into poetry among the old-timer "cactuses...keeping our spines straight out all night...an effort well worth it." The effort is a countermeasure to the careless as "we force wit, / laughter and subtlety to carry gloom, / lamentation and humorlessness on their shoulders." Towle continues to play historian and geographer in his references ("I pick up a copy of Medieval Ways to Have Fun"; after putting back "What Brooklyn Means to Me"; in the poem "Hudson and Worth" we are informed one of these is "the former Anthony Street"). His metaphoric digressions are erudite audacities ("Catherine the Great draws even closer, / her Russo-Teutonic bosom heaving...the empress is coming to resemble / Margaret Dumont..."). Towle's game is tableau completion, nine tableaux here, each incorporating social commentary that adds texture to the view, as in "Le Voyage." This is a 13-liner that manages to capture moments when the I is in the midst of composing, planning a visit to France while walking "in fashionable Tribeca" airing, evidently in English and French, "topics of internalized interest." The poem recognizes "voices have informed me" and "Every little breeze / takes on import" especially since this is "Hurricane Awareness Week" (though, in another voice of droll recognition, this is just another start to "Real Estate Avarice Month"). In closing lines, Towle's self-conscious determination and hilarity resolve the prospect, a stunning rendition of the poet in action: "I walk down the street, / ... the passersby assume I am on an unseen cell phone, / a bilingual conference call of schizophrenic significance." Eerie putdown, precisely so.


Michael Scharf
/ubu editions 2002

There aren't many like Scharf riding high and meaning it, stitching glib art-talk, geopolitical prognosis and theory-laden stricture into deeply compressed, formally satirical, selfdeprecating verse. To suggest that he wields humor mock-ferociously, like The Donald at a Zen center, say, is beside the point that he continually makes ("to attract art world money") or it's an enormously fake understatement. You decide. I went hunting for funny, neurotically insolent thematics, turned on my random selector and started to lift and weave. Persist in the system or perish, there are parts of the world of which I have no right to speak. Still, people carry images, reproduce themselves through genetic predispositions triggered by abuse, reactions to toys predicting their behaviors. I wanted an organizing principle, honesty about materials (sodajerking) but the trend is bigger, permanent parabasis, a morality in chains: we can rubber any room -- Mommy's coming home! -- replacing subject matter with source text, exploring only the musts: structure, acquisition, use, medium, no eros in ideas that won't pash the inquiry. You may find Scharf's humor dry for following reasons: about a quarter of the text is written in the philosophy of poliscience or in French or in German; there are "Six Poems for Austria"; he inserts diacritical essays among the poems (indeed he starts off with a five-page essay), prose that is occasionally marked by rambling though well-structured sentences of 100 words or more; he comes up with such titles as "Lament for Adler" and "The Song Form as Reflective of Actual Infrastructure"; he uses a lot of trick words, "colloidal asphyxiates," "cathexes," "pulvery," "Axl Rose," "numbkin," "McKenseying," "fuckball," and the like. Those are also grounds for finding the text endearing, of course. Of 15 sonnets, I am especially envious of IX in which Scharf demonstrates how everyday insults externalize macro constructs, noting, "There's an argument that would say" to paint over a small swastika "penned" in the men's room "constitutes a reification." Some arguments seem more self-involved and thus more self-conflicted and comprise the richest bases for ironic pleasure, as in "Almost Against Archaism," where Scharf arranges his language in gorgeous heaps of "symphonic ideals" to run down the "angelic anguish" of romance whose "failure is beautiful," yet countered by the analytical life, as it were, "exploring…structure, / acquisition, / use." The last sentence begins, "Form as patent-holder..." as though this were an answer, and then concludes, "dead / cypress, // a marshy / morass."


Sodajerks. Their stock was luminous.
There was a skeleton curse.
I shit where I cat.


Alli Warren
Housepress 2004

This text is shot through with wit and vim shaken from the inside, turning words and sentences upside down, tuning grief into giraffe. I recommend an open window (to admit purrs of the outdoors) and a Lou Harrison disc as backdrop, tapping with one hand on your desk or something to keep the beats, holding Schema in the other hand while reading from back to front. This way you'll confront the lines "in her underpants milk grows / like liquid overflows a vessel" after reading the poem titled "Poem for After Sex." If you follow my strategy, the first poem you'll read is the second page of a piece titled "X. Inverting Distance," which, for me, is principal: "I want to write the whole poem ... // ... in abandon..." This inverting business is a very amusing ambition, furthered in the poem "VIII. 'Willfully Embedded'," which begins, tellingly: "Slicing potatoes to make a table of / how I have not seen this before // walking on your skin..." Note the homely culinary slicing attempts to precede the love act ("walking on your skin..."), but this is not necessarily the case, since the slicing only appears to be in the subject position in the sentence that goes on to aver: "for exploring ideas stick to the sentence // and between blocks of text say 'love'." You, after all, is the subject in love, commanded by imperatives "stick" and "say": inversion tagged with attractive demands. Again, Warren has the gift for switching agents and subject positions. Winter, it seems, "blows trombone" but we go back to read that it's some "man / on Mission St. / porch / in winter / blows trombone..." Tall, fabricated schemata put into verse -- ending a poem with "how do you do"; baldly claiming "the larynx / is smaller than / emotionalism" -- are language models for three-dimensional real time as we might know it were more poets to drag their dioramas on the highway. In the second (or if you read it backwards, second-to-last) poem, "Operating Equipment," the dioramas are racing: "remarkable structure of shuddering, / lurid flooring // sprawled out in socks / the Romans are coming." The implicit oxymoron of writing in abandon is halfway exposed as "conflicted" representation. What Warren discards, I think, is self-erasure or received piety toward procedural or analytical modes as substitutes for "thick longing / haphazard virtue / ...inflicted by inclination." Warren's inclinations are attitudes and sentiments divided by clowning linguistic acts to yield fruitful accidents, adjustments in natural ambiguity, and conditions for intimacy.


Desire relief set passes depth.
Once making shattered again
love arts slate winter. Heaving below
life comes in effort, then parks,
streets, arrogance.

I roll now when to hold you
burnishes a flare, ever the moment.

I once kissed a cat. I wrote about
turning you into dominion over
identity and rumors. What's the worst
that can happen? Doom's partner
is a villain, twenty times its own weight

Skip scattering the venture words
enclitic of meaning, low on nation-wise.


Otherness when down
("I've stopped looking")
otherness came.

Jerk, did you sleep all right?
The moron thought, it's a little too
early to tell. There's so many
beginner things on the prowl
chained to today's complex wealth.
The office, the right tennis fans, cultural weight
loss. What are we instead of nothing? I'm
not against having children, this is goodbye.
You're staring in the mirror names don't balance
new memories, downers, blight
till we think away the best part.
Oh baby I'll be right over.

Liberal radio's been there for over a week.

Too trail-rated, too silly, too hole-in-the-

I don't think knees drawn together
should see each other
-- this homestay's so needy --
noises jump blades when experimented
("If the brain could be two...") on
boring a woman in a man carefully, memory
-- mother drinks, doesn't she? --
gurgling, bolting herself to the bed
splitting up to mourn, wobbly discomforted,
two little girls who will grow to evict us.

("Instead, there is another.")
Perhaps the most unpuppetlike one
in five women and men is a spare.

Destroy, screw and laugh all the way.
Aren't we supposed to feed the bad dog
a good cry, a single outpouring
lining it up in the voice to be tailored upstairs
to adapt a range of compliments
to leave grief with snippy suspects
and insurgents to bind heartache?
What time do you get off work?


Rachel Levitsky
Duration E-books 2001

Jean Cocteau advises, "never get excited about mystery, so that mystery may come on its own and not find the path confused by our impatience to make contact with it." In Realism, Rachel Levitsky writes undecorated and at-times disjoined allegorical verse that frees itself of elaborate predicates, much less premature resolution. This spawns room for mystery. The short set of poems -- subtitled "(A Work in Progress)" and also self-described as "(In the serial novel.)" -- triangulates through a Lady, a turtle who is the Lady, "herself always," and "a third / nameless / ever present." Right from the start I'm set to take this as allegory, but I feel a little unanchored about the story telling, as indeed Levitsky seems, "Once upon a time there were stories. This one already written." Her narrative thread, let's call it, improvises scenery or half-tableaux installed with promising storyline prototypes, fish, silence, sky, dogs, painting, sex. The thread, then, like Levitsky's language, is hardly abstract; the narrative components help one conceptualize occasions of desire but, these occasions are mere suspicions of potential fulfillment, unquestionably not seductive preludes or otherwise needy emblems of paucity or rank impatience. Levitsky is performing conditions that surround her desire and her creation, finger-pointing to sections of text qua text ("On you hands and your knees...Even we / lose words"; "I tell myself: / pull the narrative into a visual scheme"), describing physical qualities of the text process (That Black Mess of Squiggles with some Red"), bracketing some text "(for silent reading)" while other parts carry the imperative "(return to speech)." The overriding condition in Levitsky's ambitious performance is requisite recombinings of components, which are "difficult to finish," difficult because, "annoyed by repetition," she insists on bringing in blank canvases to mix up with her "Book of Love" and "Book of Fantasy" to keep filling up her "box of unheard of material." Realism goes for all the senses and attendant synesthesia, including sound that "corrupts the viewer" and that most difficult sense to achieve in writing, "a new smell. / The articulation of which / is a sign of collaboration. / War meeting art." The stage for further warfare has been set by Levitsky, one that requires attentive audiences and readers to join her to "Defeat / Foolhardy explanations," to see with her that although "The peaches and blues / are appealing," there's more to be determined together, more "we can say / about fracture. // Why we bother."


Dahlia's Iris
Leslie Scalapino
FC2 2003

To float in Buddhist undercurrents from work by a mature avantist is no more a surprise than learning that rock stars you never danced to undergo drug rehab. We know Scalapino is a bona fide avantast, and on whichever side we find ourselves in the Naropa Wars, the demeanor of a calming, enlightened refusal has likely rubbed off during her and our intake of an illusory simultaneity in the social imagination. Or don't know. (Also refusal.) Scalapino mines Tibetan lore from Treasure Discoveries (detective stories about current obstacles set up in a prior life) to write film noir before telling it within a set of lifetimes that, for me, achieve moments (movements) of past and future in present West Coast time. ("Ashcroft petitions justices for secrecy in deportations.") Like Dogen's view of mortality, the story engages death before it may not have happened, requiring scenes and coincidental backdrops to be replayed, special terms like "waves" to recur like waves ("repetition...of events will make a crack, will crack realism"), personnel to be shifted and some to be fired so when they come to work anyway, they may achieve a seeming bliss ("the boy is a crushed rose on the cement") of the non-willed state ("the high waves of grass flickering in color where one will be..."). The novella could be critiqued as an even-tempered theoretical interchange of matrices connecting Stein's continuous present, for instance, to Walter Benjamin's nostalgia for the now defunct interiority of an observer-as-flaneur, apposite Kathy Acker's view of absolute present as pain emptied through plagiarism. Or Dahlia's Iris could be experienced as a brainy appropriation fest in which story lines from some favored movies (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Blade Runner) have been researched and repurposed to trick us into seeing the transcience of visual evidence. The exchanges here across time and hills and twisting plains of narrative and metanarrative demonstrate why "inside the muffled trussed adult in the swaddling clothes grows mean as institutional behavior...Speaking at all is understood only as anger."


In our language there is no polite way to respond not yet.
Breathing in through the teeth I make the ss-sound.

Exhaling I manage to say, domo.
I wish you every success but aesthetic.


Nelson & the Huruburu Bird
Mairead Byrne
Wild Honey Press 2003

Mairead Byrne has worked as a journalist and educator in Dublin and as a teacher of poetics at Purdue and Rhode Island School of Design. Reading Byrne's bicultural poetry I'm reminded of hybrids and typologies of realism and also of photographic memory, and then, I imagine, I get it! Photo-realism. However, other points from which to speculate on her approach would be a) attention to the meaning for a feminist of writing under male influence on both sides of the Atlantic; b) ardent adherence to exact events, places, people, data. Point b) is repeatedly evidenced in her addressing subject matter about her home country. "The pubs inside the pubs / made new to look like old or old made look like new / the pints and pints and pints each daisy-fresh / and sloppy on the bar." Again, her cityscapes drip of photo-realist brushwork. "Woolworths was a box of light. On the bright side / looking out you could see the streaked street, / plate glass doors like a fresco..." Byrne's literal-mindedness steers the discourse, interrupting what might become too-abstract a passage, veering it back down to ground level. "And before I was let out / there were flags, green and pink tags. / Pins. / What the hell am I talking about?" Her retort, "I am talking about dusk." Some of the text maintains the Celtic tradition of alienation from within, as in a trio of ironic found- and clichéd-verses dedicated "To the Traveling People of Ireland," gypsies. Byrne uses found poetry to render her stay Stateside ironic, as well, adapting in "A Salute to the Cape Verdean Community..." commentary from a visitors' book for a New England exhibit of Cape Verdean photos: "Today I feel as though Boston finally accepts me." I most admire the poems that explore a brand of antagonism she locates within herself provoked by men: "This is not home and I don't have to stop / to pass the time of day or night with you / or anyone." These are the opening lines in "Commercial Street," a poem that celebrates a gypsy-like, predominantly male province of "extras...the fresh meat" pacing inside the "neat New England zoo" of Provincetown. The anomic freedom of not having to pass time with anyone seems worshipful and light-headed in ways that recall her American progenitor, Frank O'Hara: "Here come the babies -- they're the best! Relaxed / as Einstein, turned, impassive to the core." But this male-sort of freedom from commitment and Byrne's relation to it are not without a gruffer side. With regard to another pair of male babes, after 36 lines of monolog posing unanswered questions in "An Interview with Romulus and Remus," Byrne finally breaks down: "Hey -- thanks for your time boys. / It's been real. / You got to talk soon boys. / A lot of people are dying to hear about this." There are over a dozen intense love poems interspersed among numerous exercises, a ratio that may indicate an accurate rate of frequency as well as depth of experience. In the most lyrical, "A Boat about a Poem," Byrne achieves an equitable omnipresence with her prey: "All the men I've ever loved are living / with me..." After insinuating plurality, the focus, like most instances of love, seems mostly about a single other presence, but in Byrne's dual role of being influenced by "you," and of striving for parity as "your" antagonist, she and her love operate in combat. "The rain racks barricades / around the house. / It nails us in. We're soldiers...I rain. So do you."


Color and Its Antecedents
Brenda Iijima
Yen Agat Books 2004

Color lulls one into a nappy demimonde of procedural ambiguity. This pretentious argument is something Iijima does not intimate in Color and Its Antecedents. She doesn't need to, since she already knows how much better than argument is laughter, and better still, she knows how to rouse us to laugh until we can't stop. Iijima, painter and poet, knows such things not as proposition, but as enterprising pattern, the species' disgracefully pragmatic hostility exemplified by one's never having to complete a sentence, much less a thought, of one's own. Strands of others' erotic conflations, therefore, as well as others' unfinished apologia, run-on judgments and half-views are "maneuvered, turned, replaced" to bring down the "unconditional architecture" of "red associated aesthetically with animal flesh." I cannot speak to Iijima's occult token phrasings -- Francis Ponge's "BROWN LIES," Miyazawa Kenji's "Turquoise / adrenaline," Jack Spicer's "lemons" -- but there is surely enough here that is "Groomed by the pen" to drain the half-awake of their unearned logic and liberties. Pinning wine-stained sensualities from Li Po to war chants from one Charlie Crowchief is another occasion of procedural pandemonium, as are Iijima's final caveats: "A drab, colorless situation is punitive to poetry. Originate necklaces of color."