Mark Weiss: mental & material traveler in a fragmenting world

t_223_4903Mark Weiss. As Luck Would Have It. Shearsman Books 2015.

As both translator & traveler, Mark Weiss (who runs his own small press from New York, & has edited & translated The Whole island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry from University of California Press, among many others) tends to look carefully & find a way to turn what he sees into clear (& clear-eyed) poetry. As Luck Would Have It, his fourth major collection is a lively collection of various kinds of poems, most of them little serials.

Weiss ranges widely in As Luck Would Have It, moving from terse little discursive poems through witty & punning commentaries to carefully considered responses to other lands & landscapes. ‘Focus,’ from the 2nd section, ‘Glass Palace,’ is a good example of the first: ‘Whose greatest worry was to paint the petal / just so. // A decent restraint, / when the moon seems the largest thing.’ Here the balance in the lines repeats the balance the subject of the poem seeks; but we can also hear the poet’s delicate sensitivity to sound, which can be found throughout. A sense of humour, too, flitting in & out of all the poems, but sometimes on direct display, as in the 3 ‘Wheelbarrow, For Williams’ poems, in, of course, ‘Riffs,’ the 3rd section. After playing off a number of possibilities for that red wheelbarrow, he rightly ends with ‘There was a gaiety / to those shiny red things.

Weiss likes to construct collages, putting various fragments, both remembered & invented, side by side to allow his readers to make connections as they will. Often, as in ‘Riffs’ itself, he will let the punning possibilities lead the verse on: ‘Oration. / A golden prayer or ate / or shun or ate / the sun / the tongue  / become golden.’ Yet in that same poem, following a bit on rubble & the claims of ownership, he can directly state the argument: ‘The deadman’s hand / proclaims the land.’ The connections carried in the obvious & undercover rhymes.

The longest poem, the complete 4th section, ‘Different Birds,’ emerges from his travels through Australia, where he sees most sharply both the specific landscape of that country & the ways its people(s) inhabit it. As he says at one point, ‘Poetry first and foremost / a tool for knowing.’ Even if there is, as he must admit, ‘No time to note / everything.’ But he does note a lot, & offers a finely tuned series of observations of some of Australia’s cities & its inner desert, the latter both a place for ‘wild camels, which’ ‘Like me, the first of them, transported / from Arabia, might have thought, “Not so bad, a lot like home,’ & now the land where ‘drought’s / the only news, flocks trimmed / by two-thirds.’ There are close-ups of people alongside views from the air, all inscribed with clarity & charity of eye, even as this viewer, fully aware of their beauty, recognizes the damage done to both.

In the 5th section, ‘Dark Season,’ the poems turn more quizzical & philosophical, turning both inward & out, yet even at their darkest, full of a yearning wit willing to follow the twists of language & sudden insight: ‘Mist / and mystery / in the English / idiom, math / and mastery / in the physics of war.’ As the final sequence, ‘Dark Season, slowly unfolds its scattered observations, the rest of As Luck Would Have It falls into place behind it. In the ‘troubled dialogue with the concepts / home    family   death’ perhaps all we have is what’s ‘Lost and saved. // Plash of stones across water.’

The various & varied parts of As Luck Would Have It cohere into a complex whole delivering a complicated pleasure to its lucky readers.

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Adam Dickinson’s polymorphous polymers

9781770892170_1024x1024Adam Dickinson. The Polymers (House of Anansi Press 2013).

Plastic can be many things, & there are many polymers that make them up. Adam Dickinson has taken plastic as a polyverbal entity & action, & played with as many of its metaphorical possibilities as he can in this provocative & entertaining (if also slyly didactic) book.

At the end, in ‘Materials and Methods,’ he offers some clues to the various ‘experimental protocols’ he observed throughout. That each of the varied & various pieces is a separate experiment & yet that they work so efficiently as writerly-to-readerly texts testifies to his careful construction throughout. Polymeric perversity rules! And what fun ensues.

The major metaphoric transformation underlying The Polymers has to do with how plastics change the world in which humans (‘macromolecules’ as Dickinson puts it) continue to change as we press scientific & technological changes upon the (so-called) natural world. He has assembled an interesting twist on eco-poetics here, wherein the ‘poems’ of The Polymers insist on their artificial construction (no lyric naturalism here). Whatever the moral(s) of The Polymers, its ‘arguments’ slyly slide behind the play of language & documentation.

‘The game does not come to us naturally,’ after all; & ‘We are not good thinkers of the game.’ That’s stated near the end, a kind of summing up, except in this game there can be no summing up. As another later piece puts it, ‘a man-eating shark / is not a man eating / shark meat.’ Which is to say, language is plastic too, as in malleable, able to be shaped as plastic is, & as artificial, an invention.

So the reader moves into this polymer maze & takes her chances on find he way(s) through. Each reader, bringing his own knowledge to bear, will find different insights & implications. Each will laugh at different lines, mostly ruefully I suspect. As I did at this: ‘Mosquitoes pass along malaria like constructive criticism, while the buzz on the street is run-on sentences accruing in prisons with dangled modifiers and infinitives split along party lines.’ Or, more to the political point: ‘Future generations will / consider detergents / shockingly feeble / instruments of thought.’

The Polymers does a good job of defamiliarizing the news of the world we are driving to ecological destruction, using that most familiar & ubiquitous material now ‘That plastic patch in the Pacific // stealing all our shit.’ It’s also perhaps even more relevant to Canadians now (as the Conservative government rams Bill C-51 through Parliament) than even a year or so ago, at least the section on ‘The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,’ with its sly assumption that it ‘represents an important milestone in material science’ & later that ‘At such a high molecular weight, the Charter’s constitution both drips and bounces.’ Well, The Polymers certainly bounces, as will any reader’s brain after playing its games, which are definitely constructed to be win/win.

Oh, & just like Adam Dickinson, I typed this on plastic keys.

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Sarah Dowling: Down, but definitely not out.

9781552452981_DOWN_RGBSarah Dowling. Down (Coach House Books 2014).

Midway through ‘Sunshine Honey,’ the first of a number of sequences in Down, the poet or a figure or the text says: ‘I guess we are part of this disorientation.’ It’s as good an introduction as any to what Down does. In its fragmentation, cutting-up, & collage effects, it subjects a number of other texts, both public & personal, to a kind of flattened détournement, an apparently objective deconstruction of sources.

What Dowling has added to the usual theoretical play with mostly banal texts — news reports, interviews, popular entertainment (especially a couple of specific songs) — is an inscribed desire not only to put them into new contentions with each other but also to slyly ground them in a personal (dare one say, lyrical) annunciation. This is especially true of her utilization of The Temptations’ version of ‘My Girl.’ One of the things pop songs do is repeat, is use repetition for emotional effect, & Dowling does this differently throughout the various pieces of Down to both heighten emotion & to flatten it out.

In ‘Sunshine Honey,’ each prose section approaches repetition slightly differently, as if to say, yes, the repetition is a part of any relationship but it both changes & stays the same, somehow:

What could make this aesthetics. What could make me feel that. Make me many.Make me better. What could make me sexless and sexual. Make me feel we. Make me feel made. Make me feel us. Make me feel matter. Make me feel this, for one. What could make me feel this commotion, this relationship to energy. What could make me feel this way.

Later in ‘Everyone Sleep,’ the text sets up a neat dichotomy of ‘Sometimes,’ with its sense of happening a lot, often in the past, & ‘Right now,’ with its sense of immediacy & once only. The chorus line, so to speak, ends all sections but the last: ‘and told my friend how I felt.’ The individual sentences are generally recognizable, they emerge from the basic love word-hoard, but piled up as here they both acknowledge their banality & then break through to something that feels truly felt. This, I think, is one of the prime successes of Down.

What’s interesting in such pieces is the way Down takes up various general public (if only because popularly constructed for a large audience) discourses & finds a way to re-imagine their use. In some of the other pieces, it directly confronts public wrongs, as the ironically titled ‘Starlight Tours’ does the death of Neil Stonechild (it piles new ironies on what the police may have felt was a lighthearted irony in using that term to describe their handling of aboriginals). Here the cut-up technique reinforces the sense of loss, of being cut off from any rational response by the official rhetoric surrounding the event: ‘before the found found found when found         were likely / his boy      in two             and cop caused / frozen             the an a more the forced guilty by’. Here the fragmentation evokes both that of the official reports & the hearts & minds of his parents, relatives, & friends. A similar effect, but without any specific event as ground, animates the ‘Brush’ sections. As various things go wrong in both nature & civilization, perhaps only documentary quick shots are possible, as they pile upon one another, & the poem can only catch fleeting fragmentary glimpses. The poems effectively do so.

But in the midst of such chaotic impressionism, the lyric returns of song allow for intimacy & its larger possibilities. ‘Morning,’ borrowing its title from Frank O’Hara, offers 112 numbered lines of just that, all of it ‘mine.’ Most importantly, ‘my girl,’ repeated most often, but ‘my feel,’ & that seems to be for so much the world still offers a receptive self. While Down insists such a receptive heart & mind must pay attention to all that’s happening in the world around us, & to the way its reporting flattens affect, it also argues that ‘my love’ is what makes such attention possible.


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Julie Joosten shines a Light Light

Julie Joosten. Light Light. (BookThug 2013).

I have recently been re-reading Marjorie Perloff’s fascinating essay, ‘Pound/Stevens: whose era?’ Its conclusion – about how Pound is the Modern of the two, not least in his sense of a poem being able ‘to assimilate all kinds of material and to incorporate many voices,’ as well as having the ‘structural properties [of] collage, fragmentation, parataxis’ – points to what she saw (in 1981) as a growing ‘constructionist’ tradition from the 1960s on. To turn then, somewhat belatedly, to Julie Joosten’s Light Light is to discover another, brilliantly original, addition to that tradition.

Light Light presents itself as many things, a complex collage construction, filled with fragments (of other texts, of information, of sentence structure even), laid out in a carefully parataxical manner. Although Light Light is made up of a number of titled sections, some one page long, some lengthy sequences, it is very much the book-as-poem, & invites readings that attempt to hold it all in mind as one moves through its rhizomatic undergrowth. This text amasses many discourses & voices, some contemporary, some historical, including, almost surreptitiously, that of ‘the poet,’ in a deliberately, if interrupted, lyric mode, & one that refuses the late-Romanticism of Stevens (as presented by Perloff).

So Light Light invites us in through many doorways, each a threshold to other ways of seeing/saying. Indeed, this text insists upon perception as meditation, & that perception will be validated scientifically, both in the past & in the now. Take ‘If light stabilizing / If to receive a bee’: wherein botany as a colonialist appropriation, as recorded by one ‘Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717),’ ‘who voyaged solely for science,’ yet who also ‘relied on Amerindian and African slaves to help her find choice specimens and to protect her in her travels.’ That she learned things from her slaves is recounted, but also that much of what she learned ‘was never noted in medical encyclopedias or herbalist manuals.’ And in the midst of this collection of discourse & information (lost & found), there is this: ‘thought (also / called love) becomes / an indirect light stabilizing / perception in a self / ceasing to be.’ A lyric interjection dependent upon the language of the botanist now incorporated in this poem. Science as poetic vision (which seems to be an important aspect of the ecopoetics I take Joosten to have entered into).

The first pronoun in the first poem, ‘Wind,’ is ‘we’ – that scientific assurance of agreement about the observed; yet soon, slyly insinuated, a ‘I’ slips in, in love (with the world of light? & with an individual ‘you’). It’s almost not there, until midway through the book, & the long ‘Once Sun,’ when it suddenly speaks of an event between the two, how ‘once on the stairs, you walked down ahead of me, my soul, I swear, walked tours with you.’ ‘I blushed to realize that this can happen,’ she says, arriving at a moment of insight, ‘And this is love, I thought, leaving the body and returning to it, life thriving like that.’ This passage stands there, its prose stark & lyric, & then Light Light returns to its other concerns, how, for example, ‘We draft maps, particularly of lesser known and contested areas, and conduct astronomical observations and measurements // We read about the politics’ or how ‘Chlorophyll confers the faculty of feeding on light. Hair-breadths of light dangle deliciously, open resilient margins of attention.’ Here the ‘scientific’ impresses through perceptions of ‘a precipitous accumulation of the present’ which contains the past as recorded & will, the poem seems to suggest construct the future. All of which becomes ever more important as the various fragments of ecological understanding accumulate, yet the little inserted jabs of that ‘I’ remind us that ‘life thriving like that’ grounds the whole.

Light Light invites repeated readings as it struggles with how the personal impinges on the larger concerns of our dissipating world. A finely tuned work, & also a deeply engaging one, it clearly deserved to be a Governor General’s Award finalist & clearly deserved to be read as widely as possible.

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Gary Barwin swings & sings the twisted evolution of moon baboon canoe

MOON_BABOON_CANOE_PromoCover_LoRez-194x300Gary Barwin. moon baboon canoe (Mansfield Press 2014).

Gary Barwin’s imagination begins its weird & wild peregrinations a little beyond the world the realist eye sees. One aspect of surrealism as he practices it is speed of transformation: the imagination caught in the rapids of a river of images, fraught & freighted.The poems shift gear so quickly, one is left behind, staggering along the side of the read.

Barwin achieves his speedy shifts of perspective & tone mostly across short lines here (although there are a few poems like ‘eclogging,’ ‘psalm,’ & ‘animal intelligence’ that stretch out a bit & achieve a whole other poetic rhetoric, especially the first with its braggart blaggardly over-the-top wordplay). More usually, Barwin disperses oppositions across the line breaks, as in ‘postcard,’ where the ‘I’ puts ‘a postcard from my mother’ ‘under the lens’ of ‘the microscope’ that is ‘a gift from my father’ in order to examine it. The card shows ‘the Brockdan Motel, 1973′; & ‘I look up close at the window / and you’re in there’ or are you? The poem takes us into dream country & eventually admits, ‘you wren’t really there / in the window // of the Brockdan Motel — / under the microscope // you are coloured dots / fields of inky texture’ & ‘I’ am something altogether else & elsewhere. And his is how these poems proceed. As ‘a squirrel considers the sky’ puts it, ‘wisecracks / then winter.’

Barwin has a sense of (often very dark) humour, & this plays well with the shifty transformations he puts his various figures through. Watch the stops & starts of meaning between lines & stanzas in ‘spring,’ for instance: ‘Anne Frank now my grandmother’s age / sings the hummingbirds // return to where the hummingbirds / belong in front of my house kids // between parked cars / my daughter reads // books always an empty coffin / open’. Or see how he makes even an accordion interesting in ‘push and pull.’

In the long ‘woodland road with travellers,’ he ekphrastically improvises on a theme by Breughel, what the mind makes of what the eye sees on that canvas, allowing only the briefest line in the final section to remind us that this is all about a painting, a further artifice on which this one is constructed. There is a politicized darkness behind many of the later poems in moon baboon canoe, some of it tied to the devoted ignorance of so much of the polity. Indeed, although ‘inside,’ his Stephen Harper poem, is a jape, it concludes with a sharp slap meant to wake its reader to just how small he has made the country & us its citizens. We can laugh but only embarrassedly.

Language plays its sly games throughout moon baboon canoe: ‘injured by song / or inured to it / strangers are fossils / stethoscopes with no eyes’. Nevertheless, ‘an experienced guide can follow / 8 tracks through the city / the way a scientist follows / an atom’s breath’. Gary Barwin is our guide in moon baboon canoe; follow all 8 tracks & be rewarded.


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Amanda Earl’s (formally) kinky Kiki

kiki_coverAmanda Earl. Kiki (Chaudiere Books 2014)

Amanda Earl’s been publishing a variety of chapbooks for some years now; Kiki is her first full collection, & it is something of a roller-coaster of a ride through Montparnasse in the twenties & thirties, a place & a period that never stood still till the next war stopped it cold. In a series of sequences, made up of textual mash-ups & cut-ups, dream journals, & fictional memoirs, Earl imagines both Kiki (born Alice Ernistine Prin, &, says Earl, ‘One of the most exuberant celebrants’ of that special world) & the fantastic whirligig of artists, writers, dancers, actors, & just plain bohemians she came to know in the Montparnasse of the inter-war years.

She begins with the prose poem ‘memories’ of ‘Alice,’ a name allowing more than a few allusions to the most famous fictional figure of that name, as she stares at herself in the mirrors of memory & gossip, wondering with every iteration of her ego (‘This is Alice. This is fucked up.’ but also ‘I am Kiki. I wear pearls. I drink red wine and sing love songs to old reprobates in the boites.’) just who she, always changing, is. The sequence follows her through those changes, imagining her artistic/erotic life in that looking glass milieu, falling down various holes, stepping through mirror after mirror. At the end, as the next war approaches to destroy the artistic utopia she & the many artists (including her American lover, Man Ray) imagined they might build there, she is lost: ‘I am common glass. / I am broken fragments. / i am ugly, a nightmare kaleidoscope. / I am mad. I am naked. I don’t know what I am.’

‘Tales of Montparnasse’ presents visionary vignettes of all those who moved through that place & time, all of whom Kiki touched in one way or another, all part of the floating art world there. Earl’s mash-ups achieve a kind of surreal music of dropped names, as in ‘Kisling and O’Keefe / rise like angels with horses’ & ‘Frizzy femmes damnées / shiver with Schwitters.’  The section ‘Opium’ borrows vocabulary from Jean Cocteau’s Opium; the Diary of a Cure as well as various other texts to allow the drug to speak for itself, & it has much to say: ‘I am Helen of Troy, mixing elixirs. I am nepenthe. / I am a sunless sea and a lifeless ocean. This is alchemy.’

Finally, ‘In Which K Meets B in a Dream’ sets up a weird dialogue between Earl’s Kiki & William S Burroughs as manifested in Naked Lunch. Here the cut-up approach, obviously carefully edited, releases an anger they both feel at a world refusing to acknowledge or accept the outriders they love to be: ‘It’s cerebral as horse, / raw as Ouab. Hungry as terror. / A throbbing hero fossil scrolling / up morphine peddled screams, cornhole. // No, it’s lunch in a cocktail lounge where the spoons are chipped as a / black habit, you insect.

Kiki is very much the sum of all its parts, & needs to be read through. These quotations give a but a taste of the whole rich assemblage. Earl finds in Kiki & all the artists of that lost place & time a kind of ideal world where the erotic & artistic meshed beautifully & madly for a short time. Her slippery & convulsed textual play in Kiki seeks to reveal in its revel something of the experimental joy & pain of that life.

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In Afterletters, R. Kolewe finds the less (is more) in loss

201422_LR. Kolewe. Afterletters (BookThug 2014).

This is a stunning first book by a writer previously unknown to me (well, he was educated in physics & engineering, & had a successful career in the software industry — during which time he obviously did what few engineers do: read widely, not least modern poetry). The title, Afterletters, is full of implication, not least the inventive wordplay Paul Celan constructed throughout his oeuvre. In Afterletters, Kolewe takes up Celan’s well-known parsimony with language, his ability to compress so much in a single small poem, to construct a short lyric suite based on the more than two decades long, mostly epistolary, relationship between Celan & Ingebord Bachmann.

As his Notes make clear, Kolewe has read both writers’ works as well a their correspondence, much of it in the original German. And he has extracted bits & pieces from these writings, cut & folded them into his own (anti-)lyrics to construct a compelling underground narrative of unavoidable loss. Or losses: those they endured before meeting, those that their psychological burdens of memory made impossible to avoid once they had met & connected. As the series of found sentences from both in ‘Decorrelation’ demonstrate, managing to cover their whole long relationship in one short acidic burst.

Indeed, Afterletters is an odd addition to both the genre of the found poem & that of the Canadian documentary poem, yet it refuses to lie quietly in either format. In so far as it quotes the poems & letters of Bachmann & Celan, it offers a kind of documentation of their long relationship, but because it only quotes fragments, & juxtaposes them for their impact in a particular poem, it refuses any attempt to lay out either a full narrative of their lives or any analysis of  their relationship or individual psyches. And even when it quotes one of them directly at some length, that quotation becomes part of Afterletters, an anti-lyric suite more fascinated in what language can do (& perhaps did to & for these writers) than in anything as banal as mere biography. So a poem like ‘After a quiet year, this October’ can begin with a(nother) reference to stars (the word or its synonyms appear in many of these poems, as it did in Celan’s work): ‘Every star is numbered. / Let me count the ladder steps from here. / Let me say I saw you climbing up / into the lead-grey constellations…’. It can then obviously quote Bachmann before slipping into reverie, & then seemingly continue that, while actually quoting once again: ‘Half an hour has passed since / the first sentence, and last autumn /is forcing its way into this autumn.’ But that quote is now in English, & the line breaks work to force multiple readings for us English readers.

Kolewe achieves such subtle formal play throughout, insisting that the writing (often of not writing) is the core of what he’s found in these two writers’ correspondence: ‘Writing I can understand that you / are not writing to me cannot write / will not — the flow parted / in the letters before I was / nothing is missing just / the ink for this and I can live.’ How these lines keep demanding ever renewed parsing by the reader is a major part of the pleasure the offer.

Although the notes allow us to see what Kolewe has taken from each writer for each poem, the double complaint of ‘Objects retreat from their qualities’ ‘A’ & ‘B’ argues that something as simple as I-dentification is precisely what Afterletters seeks to undermine. What is written, not who wrote what, that is what counts here. And while we might agree with whichever of them says, ‘I wish you’d told me more,’ in fact Afterletters tells all it needs to, & is telling indeed. Oh, & about those stars: the final poem presents a list (the note says is taken from a study of Celan’s use of the term up till 1967, a gloriously lyrical evocation of ‘any one place at midnight.’  This is what Afterletters does: it shows us that words count (& that counting words carefully makes for the most concise beauty, even if it’s only the beauty of loss).

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