Jake Kennedy dances sideways in his own Merz Structure

Jake Kennedy. Merz Structure No. 2 Burnt by Children at PlayMerz-Structure-No.-2-Burnt-by-Children-at-Play-Jake-Kennedy-Cover-5101. (BookThug 2015).

The title of Jake Kennedy’s 3rd book has to do with his having accidentally burnt down an abandoned house when a kid, then later discovering how Kurt Schwitters’s Mertz Structure No. 2 was destroyed after some children playing with matches accidentally burned the building in which it has been constructed down. At least so the back cover copy tells us. What it doesn’t tell us is that this tale, like so much else in this collection is a slyly devious subterfuge, a nifty sleight-of-hand.

Somewhere toward the end, someone or something tells us that ‘Galeano believes in language. We do not believe in language. We have not had to believe in language . . . asked, maybe, to live the very opposite: that language does nothing at all.’ Given all the ‘language’ this text has thrown at us in a variety of modes, this should bring us up short, but it feels like just another feint, & like all the others, has a certain energetic frisson. Kennedy can jump all over the place in these pieces, but he doesn’t bore or offer the obvious. So, is this a simple attack on the viability of politically engaged writing or, more complexly one of many sly takes on the difficulty of same in a North American society all too happy to just get along, ignoring politics or ignorant about it. After all, later in the same piece, ‘Mishaps Or,’ another figure says ‘the real,’ like art, is both grace & shame, & this book suggests we live in that contradiction (or dyad).

There’s a little bit of everything in Merz Structure No. 2 Burnt by Children at Play: prose poems, one-liners printed in huge font (‘Impromptus,’ but really more prompts for whatever: ‘Accept art as hysteria’ or ‘Suffer as paper above flame’), what appear to be going to be ekphrastic poems but diverge into surreal little monologues; all delivered with satisfactory wit. In the verse-shaped poems, line & stanza breaks always serve both rhythm & concept: ‘where “” are the talons / of one of Stevens’ blackbirds // above the sea / the sea as – wait for it – // that fallen theatre curtain / and the audience, rapt // covered in its hush.’ How this moves across textual & conceptual borders so easily.

Merz Structure No. 2 Burnt by Children at Play is a kind of portmanteau book, full of disparate goodies, all of which tantalize the taste buds. It does, well.

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Joseph Massey is very much to the point.

Joseph Massey. At the Pointt_223_4159. (Shearsman Books 2011).

There are just too many books of poetry for anyone to keep up with, which means even the most dedicated reader misses some very good work. I’m grateful, then, that a friend (friends whose taste we trust are one way of finding out about writers we might otherwise never know) sent me a copy of Joseph Massey’s wonderfully maximal minimalist At the Point, a collection not to be missed.

One aspect of contemporary poetry has to do with the difficulty of approaching the lyric now while evading an almost built-in redundancy. Refuse it is one solution. Or find some way to stringently utilize it without falling into its various worn-out conventions. Joseph Massey has found a way to do this in his tight taut little poems.

For one thing, he has a great ear, a mastery of concise repetition, of line breaks as both rhythmic intensifiers & torques of meaning. Take this lovely tiny move, for example: ‘measure the afternoon’s / accumulations – // the overcast / undertones – // this slow vacillation.’ Or there are the sound patterns & rhythmic jumps of ‘Gnats / knot sun’s / white flush’ or ‘—crow sounds assemble / a sustained syllable / open as the light     opening / slit by slit / around it.’ Formally decisive in all senses.

He also has a very precise eye, & the understated language to express perception of the material world in a manner both fresh & unpretentious. He makes us see anew too. And when he uses the ‘I,’ he carefully places it in the context of presence the poems seek continually to engage (no egotistical sublime; in fact little sense of ego at all).

Finally, Massey has constructed an almost camouflaged meta-textuality in At the Point. Throughout the book, the field of nature, perceived, is also the field of the poem on the page, as the first poem, ‘The Process,’ announces: ‘There’s the bay, / highway slashed / beneath; water // a weaker shade / of grey than this / momentary sky’s // widening bruise. / The page / turns on the table, bare // despite all / I thought was / written there.’ Yes, these poems do invite quotation.

There’s an interesting conundrum around the concept of ‘influence.’ When readers speak of seeing it in a particular writer’s work, are they his or hers or are they what any one of us, with his or her history or reading in mind, perceives there. I, for example, hear/see such writers as William Carlos Williams (whose life & work inspired the sequence, ‘From a Window’), Robert Creeley, possibly Lorine Neidecker, her small sharp observations of the natural world, in Joseph Massey’s minimalist verses. And behind them all, those ancient Chinese poets who saw nature as clearly as they saw the worldly world. He ties them together, now, as in ‘No Vehicles Beyond this Point’: Tape unspools from a cassette, / collects – a nest – between two / pieces of driftwood, measures / the wind’s direction. Wind pinched / with skunk, sea salt, gasoline.’ This beautifully demonstrates Massey’s quiet strengths. At the Point is full of such moments.

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DearLeaderCHBcovSmallDamian Rogers. Dear Leader. (Coach House Books 2015).

The very title of Damian Rogers’s Dear Leader announces a volume of apostrophes, but to & from whom, & why? This marvelous gallimaufry of dissociated verses answers those questions, in its own way, by refusing to answer anything directly, & by addressing a wide range of listeners from an equally wide choice of ‘I’s. It’s something of a wild ride, but readers will come to trust the driver even if she shows herself to be rather culturally dangerous.

Rogers has mastered the poetic sentence, finding interesting ways to both mass & mess with them in either short or long lines, & she deploys them with a generous & sometimes harsh wit. The first 2 poems demonstrate this ability well. ‘From the Window the Alley’ begins, ‘Some days / I’m not on.’ In ‘The New Monuments,’ the ’I’ shifts with every sentence, & in the middle it announces (making only the first of many of this kind of statement), ‘I don’t want to go on forever, exactly like this, always a Damian.’ Or, as ‘The Trouble with Wormholes’ puts it, a little later, ‘It occurs to me I don’t have to be so many people.’

As you might have noticed, she has a way with titles, too. They reveal a dark sense of humour that also plays across many of the poems. Take the highly factual, but you have to guess, ‘Poets in the Public Domain,’ which simply lists the many ways a number of poets have died. Of course, she constructed the order, & the final entry, & that is a highly ingenious poetic act.

Because Rogers decided to make this 4 part collection a bit of a hodgepodge assemblage, with many different kinds of writing, she can switch tone from sardonic to sympathetic, theme from satiric to lyric, &, because she handles all the various kinds of writing she offers here with real skill, readers will, I believe, follow wherever she leads. She can offer a truly chilling yet marvelously sarcastic ‘Curse,’ which both accuses, with details, & attacks, including this fabulous line, ‘Look at your works, you asshole, and despair.’ And she can then break your heart with a poem like ’52 Notes for the Products of Conception,’ a profoundly moving fragmented narrative of a dangerous stillbirth. Within each poem, she proves a master at the quick shift, the disconcerting juxtaposition, yet she also constructs endings that instead of turning us back into the poem turns us out into mystery.

Part Four takes up the titular figure in a series of sardonic addresses from a ‘I’ trapped by the power of tyrannical language, striving to escape but always caught in the oceanic swells of Dear Leader’s spin doctoring. Of course, she’s not alone: ‘See the daughters of the screenshot / arrange their arms like / the ladies in major paintings // for an online salon.’ In the end, perhaps there is no escape, but one can try: ‘Bring me he who / would fight the Administrator and that stinking counsel of lies. / Send the Marine to protect me. Let me go forth to happy day.’

Dear Leader invites you in, but you’d better be prepared for a choppy ride. It offers much, but doesn’t give anything away.

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Roland Prevost’s singular first collection

singular_plurals_coverRoland Prevost. Singular Plurals (Chaudiere Books 2014).

In his first book, Singular Plurals, Roland Prevost offers a smorgasbord of his work so far (well, from 2005 to 2010). Thus, letting the reader dawdle among the wide array, picking & choosing, perhaps, what to enjoy. Certainly, there is plenty to choose from, something for almost every taste.

In a note on putting this book together, Prevost writes that ‘in spite of their varied physical forms and voices, they were generated using a single methodology.’ This involved starting with ‘a spontaneous unrestrained image’ & then writing a number of independent triplets derived from that image, recombining lines, cutting & adding together, & ‘choosing an apt form for [the poem] based on its emerging topic and voice. Finally, apply as many edit iterations as needed to complete the work.’ This is an interesting insight into his working methods but says little about what readers will see & respond to. What leaps out at this reader are the many lacunae in the finished poems, all the spaces (of information, speculation, desire, fear, etc) we are invited to (collaboratively) fill in. As in the first 2 couplets of ‘Sing Designer Drug’ (Prevost is very good with titles): ‘museum skeletals / held by wires // what does a simian do for service / among these parts?’ Yet, even if one is unsure where this is going, s/he will acknowledge the wit at play here

What I noticed & appreciated throughout are the quick, sudden shifts of focus, the ever indeterminate stances of the various narrators. I think there are implied narratives throughout, though only sometimes do they emerge clearly, as in the comic violence of ‘Apposable Thumb,’ with its double tale of a kid by the road nearly being hit by ‘half a prefab house / sail[ing] thru the air’ yet lucking out the same evening ‘when two soused women / teachers on a driving vacation / provided a ride & quite an education.’ Appositions rule.

If most of the poems in the first 2 sections of Singular Plurals tend to a fragmentation difficult to parse even while suggesting so many unstated connections, some of the later sections offer slightly more easily read connections: ‘Your operation’s later today. // A white lab coat / plays doctor well, soon / to sew you up. // Ragdoll you. Patch you up. // We’re all under the coin, / tossed; flipped, now or later // Everything in my room whispers, / hums unknown hymns.’

The poems of Singular Plurals depend on a wit that we once called metaphysical for its wild juxtapositions. In their 21st century way, they are sharp, tight, & evasive in a fascinating manner.

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Michael Boughn has a City in mind

City-Book-One-Singular-Assumptions-by-Michael-Boughn-510Michael Boughn. City Book One: Singular Assumptions (BookThug 2014).

Those who know Michael Boughn also know of his great admiration for Charles Olson’s work. The back cover of City informs us that it takes ‘Charles Olson’s “Poem 143 – the festival aspect’ as its provocation and partner in conversation.’ That particular Maximus poem explores various ways in which ‘the Three Towns’ encounter both the human & the apparent divine as it manifests in civic festivals, among many other things. City, as an ongoing poem of which Book One: Singular Assumptions is the beginning, takes up some of the same complexities, in terms, as far as I can see, of Boughn’s home city, Toronto. Perhaps there are ‘Three Towns’ in the Toronto he knows intimately, I don’t know, but the ‘inhabited domesticities / in face of streets’ he sets out to explore yield more than simply ‘coteries of sharpened / intensifications’ throughout this challenging, sharp witted, provocation of a book.

City Book One: Singular Assumptions is divided into 3 parts, ‘Prelude,’ ‘Rush Hour,’ & ‘Entertainments,’ & Boughn finds a suitable tone & form for each. ‘Prelude’ utilizes the wholes page in a wide open mapping of the city’s various bounds, both physical & metaphysical. Indeed, each section of ‘Prelude’ spreads across the page almost like a wordy map of some part of the city it insists upon navigating in ‘syntactical confusions,’ ‘erupting language         escaping declensions,’ & ‘context     implications’ that might, just barely, allow the driver of this machine to swerve & accelerate through this city built of language. Indeed, throughout City Book One: Singular Assumptions, Boughn takes marvelous liberties with normal syntax, taxing word after word with the job of simultaneously performing many parts of speech.

‘Rush Hour’ reflects all too well the awful traffic jams any commuter in a city like Toronto suffers through, while also implicating a vast array of theoretical discourses, all of which are treated with careful ambiguity. ‘Examined / traffic patterns [like any patterns found in, say, a poem] yield / crusading misprisions in place / of flows when deflect // enters the picture’ could stand as an exemplum of how City does what it does. Watch the nifty shifts in this passage: ‘The light / changes and no one moves / because distant incursions / of injected greed breeds / entropic incursions normal // stasis and no one really wants / to get there knowing pensioned / conclusions offer little hope / …’. It goes one, with more twists & turns, to announce ‘broadcasts / across temporal grid interstices / every night at six while economies // quiver thinking of arrangements / opening, beginning to move / into the night, shifting constellations / flowing toward another long day.’ Each poem in Part Two takes the reader on such an intellectual ride, despite the poem’s insistence that the only rush ‘Rush Hour’ provides is the frustration ‘of patrolled rectitude indications’ that nothing will move (or change).

Or will it? What City Book One: Singular Assumptions demonstrates throughout its sharply observed & playful construction is one reply to the accusation that poetry doesn’t, & can’t, matter. We know how bad things are, in the largest political sense, in our cities, our states, & poetry, however cleverly it articulates the ‘atonal breaches in the historical / fabric.’ The wit of the whole, & comic intensity of, especially, ‘Part Three; Entertainment,’ suggest the ways in which poetry can shake up minds too easily & lazily given to reading the world (& its many means of communication) with an aggressiveness that remains trapped in political passivity. City argues, finally, that beauty & art are part of the possible solution, the book’s ‘adieu calls / to attention, to here, that supple / shift of weight yields the world // in spades. Anyway it’s a place to start.’

So is City Book One: Singular Assumptions, which invites the attention it clearly earns with its intensely witty linguistic play, all the more serious & demanding for being so.


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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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