Telling the Future Off
Tougher Disguises 2005
Stephanie-Youngism (SY) as a poetics conspiracy did not seem plausible before Telling the Future Off. Sure, trial-sizes of Young's persuasion have appeared in influential magazines, and I've heard that her brief readings in California and know firsthand that the one she gave at Segue last year were triumphs. From this slender evidence I had pieced together an impression that she was a charm freak, really good at negotiating varieties of fun, the fun of shame, of political puzzlement, of standards against pretension, of others' feckless assaults on civility. Yet with this debut collection the totalizing, under-the-skin reach of Young's subterfuge is patent. Her merriment encompasses stratagems for controlling how poetry now and in future can "grow her hair," "dream in the forehead" and "have this opportunity [...t]o more coyly move / within the doors 'of your heart,' & go / unnoticed."
SY is disarmingly overt, 'sauntering' in its dodgy "sleep rhythms" (as if that granted it special license!), bluntly self denigrating (that's the source of its strength!), whispering it "cannot distinguish left from right," yet right here on Page 69 (...) it pronounces in italics: Of course I've come to read your trousers. This opens a second section of the poem titled "I Use My Fantasies & I Solve My Problems..." There's a subtitle that goes on for another nine words, but you'll agree, I think, the title says it all. This section of the poem continues with a sort of discussion on a "troubled family," "pussy" and "the words 'pussy' and Juice Extractor," various kinds of "juice," indeed, including "fresh pussy juice," a 'talking bracelet' and, o Jesus, "marzipan." The bracelet and marzipan appear in all six sections of the poem, along with a no-doubt fake quotation from "a Sharon Olds poem" [sic] that makes an appearance in the last section. Totalizing, I repeat.
You'd probably be as upset as I am with the prospects of SY's potential sway over poetics if you felt it was calling you a "vegetable fritter." (Check first line of the aggressive "Retaliatory Dream Affair.") You'd likely sense something integral to your self respect slipping away "[h]aving to be your own detective at Walgreens." ("Today I Trust My Perceptions" huh!) And how would you react if while "laughing behind our fingers," you, loyal reader, were toyed with like a shih tzu or son of? Before Telling the Future Off I could not imagine verse that admits to pimping "a cute dog" not to affect but "to get away / from whatever may happen"? This is sly. This whole set of texts is sly. "What a mess!" Young writes. It's more than a heap of slyness and mess, SY's invention makes me complicit, doggie-style, with its pet-acquisition design, forcing me to wipe my eyes many times, tears of mirth, tears of wretchedness (my own) -- "Look at that dog!" This is the most lethal debut in poetry since the first imprint of Puppies for Dummies. Still, I feel cared for and obedient. I love my boss.
Katalanché Press 2005
In four pages of introductory matter we learn a lot about Samuel Greenberg from his editors Michael Carr and Michael Smith. A) A Lower East Side poet for his last five years, born in Vienna, educated through seventh grade, Greenberg wrote over 600 poems, including 92 Sonnets of Apology, while battling tuberculosis that took his life in 1917 at age 23. B) None of his poems was published in his lifetime, but a selected-poems was printed in 1939 by New Directions and another in 1947 by Henry Holt. C) Had Hart Crane not stolen numerous lines from him, we might never have heard of Greenberg.
The joy in Greenberg's mostly unpunctuated sonnets and short poems is bound to their semantic vigor: an unstoppable current of common, archaic and new words, misspelled and mis-written words, unmarked by interchangeable personae, theoretical design, or other stylistic distancing. Something less than a precursor to high-modernism, the work still bears the genius of Joycean compression and Lawrencesque lust swiftly reinventing its vistas. "The summit where I sat flowed a tide / Below a hill, that of pure green water / Filled the lowly place refresHing air." Greenberg eyeballs interiorly, as well, exercising an adolescent's freedom in diction. The poem "Self" lets the imagery simply rip through the language. "O art thou not Vikeings / Rarious toke, that sailed by their 'Bellished quay / Who gave thee, quantity --" Chopped-off words, like replicating cells, (Rarious, 'Bellished) seem weirdly warranted by the otherwise mystical "quantity" [of self]. And has bateau ivre been better matched in English than by Rarious toke? Word clumps deserving attention from new thieves: "loves committance / The great awe of aeoleans Blur"; "innocent weak dimed speck like / Stains, called eyes": "tentacles serene / Melancholy robe"; "to sober / Elertness to combine"; "adrift cacoone / that spun efflugence."
Nine of the two dozen poems here have never been published, but that's a banal distinction. Since Greenberg's poetry has been out of print for many decades, Self Charm is news. For more info and to order, write katalanchepress at gmail.com.
Last night Anselm Berrigan and Tom Raworth read at MIT's Stata Center, Boston's newest academic seat of corporate architectural fetishism. There is good Gehry and the implosively bad, and this place bears heavy marks of whimsically conservative oversight rendering a utilitarian structure housing computer labs and lecture halls an overly estheticized convenience mall. (The Stasis Center?) Fortunately, the evening's poetry and song surpassed their surroundings, solemn and light vocals far removed from instrumental purpose.
Anselm Berrigan writes and reads with a willed "strand of disaffection," moving within contemporary habits. His currency cuts at least two ways. He is at once anachronistically a court lyricist during an era without a court but needing one, a lyricist both in tone and in meaning ("a thing better felt than sung"), acknowledging, for example, deep impressions from poets that came before him, Robin Blaser, Jim Brodey ("he was around a lot"), Lorenzo Thomas, and of course his father (both Lorenzo Thomas and Ted Berrigan died on July 4, years apart). Anselm Berrigan also values the primary, salient work in poetry, looking, looking a few or many steps ahead, looking 'normal but in fact a whack-job,' looking for 'the you and the you you you with.' He read mostly uncollected work, including a long poem, "Free Cell," that poses the half-question and fully ironic proposition, "Why, for the torrential / stink comes near such certitude staving off concision." The poem addresses the will of looking "for / reassurance in the threat of meaning" and the diseased look of the will, "televised image / faking consensus... It's a shame I have to be sick / to surround myself with thought in practice."
At least half of Tom Raworth's fast reading was given over to the freshly minted The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan. Mixing in what he called ad libs (whose?), Raworth made Ted Berrigan sound a living force, "talking on the phone, with various rubber stamps hung," prepped for technical analysis: "the presence is surrounded by the ring of ings"; "my shadow is thrown on air"; "damn neutrinos." Reading from several pages of an unpublished manuscript, Raworth continued with his own science, "is thought calculus?" he asks, or "a network of cracks...life traffic aimed at brains." Not one to stick to abstracts exclusively, he threw the sharpest curve of the night, referring to "my folding chair" as a "return to sculpture."
Raworth's reasoning was impeccably made-up, arson and murder seen as "economies." In a prolonged, deflated narrative Raworth seems no less than Beckettian finding human emotions the "gatekeepers disrupted by stress... confections from the firebox... a menace without epiphanies."
But a poetics of reciprocal alteriority raises another core possiblity of a repressed evolution in poetry fabrication, a pre-poetics. For, as writers began to avoid the congested highway of Lacanian selection, new historicism, queer theory, and the like, others opted for a less traveled route, until the new one (post-cooperative) was no longer less traveled, so many chose the first one after all, up to the point where congestion built up there as well. Poets distributed themselves in a ratio between the two roads. The same thing can happen in praxis where it is called The Tennis Court Oath.
Mohammad read first, rolling out adjectives and noun phrases that appeal to us girls who cut our eye teeth in the 1980s, "stupid exorcist," "goofy," "spooky," and "boo," cartoon-lean, melancholy-balloon vocabulary mostly from Deer Head Nation and A Thousand Devils. Mohammad read newer material as well, with humorously fake plain titles, "Personal Poem" and tricked-out ones, "Why I Am Not a Forest Ranger." (When Mohammad read this title, I turned to Forrest Gander who was sitting beside me. He seemed as surprised as I was, since at first we both heard Ranger as Gander. And by the way, Gander might be equally as persuasive a word choice for the title.) Mohammad's pieces all together, new and vintage, carry on in their appeal to "alternative girls" by way of a deliberately muddled hilarity ("creationism's ... third nipple"; "food is Scottish"). His last few minutes were transmuted to more purposeful comedy, if not ripened disgust, by way of many repetitions of key phrases "threw up" and "vomit." These words have been experimented with on the flarf list, I'm told, and it appears Mohammad finds their overrepetition one way to move from easy laughs to the more deep seated guffaws that prompt belly- and heart-aches.
Kent Johnson read from texts all over the map of genres. He opened with two contrasting exercises -- first, an intentionally unhumorous translation (co-authored with Forrest Gander) from verse by the Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz: "the night is the body already in you"; second, a single page from the more ambiguously comedic Also, with My Throat...: "I am sorry for this language, which is rags...I wish grammar is a doorway to God." One senses in this 'letter' when the persona speaks of language and grammar she is pursuing an argument incubated for decades, one filled with slippery entendre, signing off, "What are you doing? // I am sincere." Johnson read unpublished work, including an epigram to David Shapiro and other pieces that took in recent events in New Orleans ("I hope you're ok") and science ("fractal ironies"). In a final piece, the title poem from Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz, the grim ventriloquist that inhabits many of Johnson's clowning personae emerged as American interrogators of Iraqis submitting to lyrical descriptions of torture. These were excesses in harlequinade, but in aggregate they conveyed a disgust that even though overwrought, was on a similarly sloping-downward plane with Mohammad's. Suddenly funny without the sting of terror seems stagy. Johnson's humor is more inset with generic spoofery than Mohammad's stand-up, but both poets came together as proportioned satirists making for a solid poetic dual.
With the shut-down as backdrop, poet John Mercuri Dooley, co-curator for Demolicious, invited locals to convene at his East Cambridge house Sunday to talk over next steps for the series and to read poetry. A next step, it seems, will be to canvas other bars and galleries in Cambridge for a new home beginning again in November.
Those gathered for reading and discussion of poetry included Michael Carr, Christina Strong, Irene Koronas and about a dozen area writers in all. A few read their own pieces; one of the more elaborate by artist and writer Jenny Lawton Grass whose poems wrap around long Photoshop scrolls designed to carry enormous visual and textual detail. Moses Sekajja, an Ugandan now studying at U. Mass., read from a manuscript that will be published by Pressed Wafer later this year. Work by two nonlocal poets was discussed as well, pieces by Rob Fitterman and Joan Retallack who had both been invited to read for Demolicious, but now must be rescheduled due to the shut-down. Mercuri Dooley read a selection from Fitterman's Metropolis XXX that helped shift the conversation that preceded. Questions had been thrown out by Boston writer Lisa Vaas, also co-curator of Demolicious, concerning differences between prose and poetry, and whether any 'poem' today could more generically be reclassified as prose. Fitterman is helpful in this regard in that his project turns the question around. That is, Fitterman often appropriates the blandest prose -- memo-speak, marketing jargon, polisci suburban pastiche -- and kicks it up a few lyrical notches. The poem "IX. The Hermes Effect" was one example, with lines such as these: "don't set up a vigilante eco-militant gloomsite just because / your neighbor has // don't multi-purpose mosquito netting // don't expect any new results with the gentle cycle // my other car is...stolen." The consensus: it may be hard for the literal-minded to accept this progression as lyric, but it's certainly not prose.
In a tribute to the other missing guest reader, Irene Koronas gave us her own appropriation of Retallack's text from the collection Memnoir, in which Retallack offers poems built on childhood and cultural "memories," mixing up patches of prose and verse with film noir dialog. Koronas's four-stanza poem proceeds by repeating in the original order every four-letter word used by Retallack. Koronas's last stanza:
Here that same from happ luck draw from next
Some song fill, they line fall into ruin this that only
Dust that wall into then this time read pull your fold
Tear you're here tear. Blue part you're your bend into
Make your take you're your hand into
I like reading the first iteration of "Tear" in the second-last line as a verb (rhymes with fare) and the second iteration as a noun meaning lachrymal secretion (rhymes with fear). That's a personal preference. Koronas's poem meets its borrowed text (which in turn was compiled through bowerings) more than halfway, if not as an equal, in the chaos-ordering business of making sense(s). And Koronas's poem seemed an appropriate fillip to the previous controversy regarding prose v. poetry, clearly illustrating that some text takes sense so far it doesn't stand a chance as prose. Ergo, poetry!