Originally published in 2016, Tyehimba Jess’s Olio won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and has since been reprinted by Wave Books to recognize the award. This essay explores my reading of the book for the first time in early 2018, in the onset of the second year of the Trump Administration.
Tyehimba Jess wrote Olio. It is important that I acknowledge the brilliant artist behind a book that is about so many people that are not the artist. It is important to me to acknowledge the artist who creates a conversation that extends beyond the moment of the absolute personal, for the absolute personal is easy to forget in a book that is about community, unity, and collective memory. And music. Yes, music too.
It is also important that I publicly thank Jess in this text, right here, because what will come soon after this set of lines is another set of lines, and another, that reflects my haggard, distracted, and often chaotic sense of time, space, identity, and the thinking-feeling mind. I thank you, Jess, for creating this book—and regardless of the clutter and ideas that are soon to follow, what, at the core, I would like to impart and pass on to anyone who comes upon this text is a hope that they will find the book, and approach it, and see how it is what it is, and perhaps see how it is that they did not see previously, and maybe consider the many qualities of the book, as a book in a lineage of books, of poetry, of African American art, of abolition, and as much of the 1800s and 1900s as of the 2000s. So, thank you for your contribution and, on a selfish note, to sending out a gift that I (and so many others) received.
Part 1: Olio
At 235 pages of text, Olio is the offering that sits beyond description. It is the established collection, gathering, fulcrum of voices recovered from their state as dematerialized and depoeticized through the malfeasance of time and structure. It is a book with the title demonstrating the miscellaneous, and as by the act of beneficence it is the miscellaneous taken into center, compiled, reinvigorated. And we have a presence to this book that grows with age, continues to sit as a cornerstone of a new epic, a new shattering and reinventing of the canon of American poetry and, more generally, the avant garde. And perhaps, through roots literal and figurative, representative of the deeply, historical individualism of the poet, and also representative of actual individuals who actually provide their own poetic, beautiful, souls, souls that continue to survive, and burn brightly, singing and singeing their way through text and context into today.
Thinking: that NPR would call this poetry unconventional.
The era that I write this in is an era of quaking and screaming. It is an era of agony and an era of unending uproar. 2018 comes two calendar years after the first publishing of Olio, which to much agreement and praise became a book to win the Pulitzer Prize. When the book won the prize, there were, of course, those who knew about it and those that did not. There are still those who know about it and those who do not. The prize resulted in those who would write about the book, and those who did not. And of the many public descriptions and responses of a book winning the Pulitzer Prize, many are lackluster, vague, and objectifying.
Like this, which is nothing much greater than a summary.
Like this, which refers to the book, among other things, as embodying book arts.
Like this, which may understand the book's humanism, but doesn't highlight the demand for this book's existence.
Like this, which despite its integral descriptions of the book's functions, still manages to leave readers with the reverberating, deeply callous "twisted funhouse" imagery.
How would you want your epic to be described?
How would you want a smash of canon to be shown?
How would you want the opportunity for respect and humility to be left tasting in your mouth and sweating from your ears as you move forward into the future?
But surely, disrespect and shallow beams from writers of our country can be tossed aside. Surely, they can? We are all deposits from the bowels of a fetid and fetishized dream, a landscape of infinite surfaces. "We" are the excusable writers whose privilege coats them in protections made to look like constraints and agreeable language. "We" the writers born out of a landscape of sickness. Turning the blind eye as our sick country decays and implodes around us. "We" who can hide behind the uproar and pretend to get away with our musings.
The country’s uproar is the uproar of a sickness. And the stupefying malaise of the responses to Olio, which in no way make up all of the responses but do stand out, notably, is a malaise that is contained within this sickness of the United States. That a poet of color, writing about people of color, heroes of color, would be denied or given less grace than anyone else, is the logical continuation of both historic racism and recent crises in racial identity embedded, deeply, in our fabric, in our daily conversations, in our sense of belonging, and our sense of communal history. The continued oppression and the minimized, passive-aggressive silencing of this great American poet is an also a phenomenon forming as an extension from other phenomena in our culture, which I hope to get into below. But there is racism, and one only needs look at the flat, bland rehashing of the book solely formed as narrative text (a deeply limited and limiting view) that we get a sense of how the book was received and interpreted beyond its greatest supporters.
Olio is a word I didn’t know before reading the book, and as I read the book, with the white privilege of being able to easily transport myself into other perspectives and appropriate other identities, I take a moment to wonder about what being within the olio as a physical thing might look like, and how being part of a culture of the minstrel show might look like, and how this book could serve as a guide, could in some way iterate the trajectory of a trinity, a contemporary Divine Comedy, or perhaps some degree of cantos. For there are songs in Olio, are there not? But who is doing the singing?
When I think about myself as the reader of this book, I think about my own differences from Tyehimba Jess, and Tyehimba’s representation of the “Owners of This Olio,” which include John William “Blind” Boone, Henry “Box” Brown, Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Fisk Jubilee Singers, Ernest Hogan, Sissieretta Jones, Scott Joplin, Millie and Christine McKoy, Booker T. Washington, “Blind” Tom Wiggins, Bert Williams, George Walker, and Wildfire (or: Edmonia Lewis). I think about the other representations and recordings and descriptions and borrowed words of other real people in this book, including (but not exhaustive) Julius Monroe Trotter, Della Marie Jenkins, Ben Holmes, George White, Maggie Porter, Greene Evans, Carmen Ledieux, and Thomas Rutling.
I ask myself things, automatically, things that may tell me more about me than they do about American poetry, but still come to mind, like:
“A miscellaneous collection (as of literary or musical selections)” . . .
I consider whether the irony that the audience of Olio is in fact an olio also, a la Terrace House, contributing in their own contemporary illusions of minstrel show-esque trapping is one Tyehimba Jess wished to invoke in the creation of his book. And I wonder if the book’s readership, as extension of our country’s splinter of seekers of the poetic, will ultimately arrive to encounter this quality of this newly spot-lit epic.
Now I am thinking back to the canon, and I am thinking back to Olio as a cornerstone text in our canon—yes, “our,” as representative not just a book of the African American literary history, but of one being, celebrating, poetry created in the United States as a geometry, a territory, a country, with its own macro-culture and fucked up but describable mass-lineage. I think of those texts we identity within our cannon already. Can we all agree on specific titles? If you think of a keyword string, say, “famous American poetry,” or “best American poetry,” what have our power structures, our leadership and decision makers, our consumer markets, agreed to meet those requirements?
I very much want to dwell on the inevitable oppression that exists in the canon, but I have other things my mind considers as well. In other words: there are qualities to “American poetry” as a canon, as a thing that we may ascribe denotations to, agreeable descriptions about, that I question as intersecting qualities with consumerism, technology, simulacra, and oppression. There are prevalent qualities that require us to examine the soulless, the invisible, those who suffer, those who are forgotten. There is also what is taught, what is known, and what becomes normalized. We are all victims to these trends, these patterns, these inevitable manifestations of management of media and content and cultural miasmas that we trudge through, as though swampy and murky and nearly-drowning us.
What happens if we change the keyword phrase to: “What makes American poetry good?” “How did American poets become famous?” I am reading Tim Wu’s book The Attention Merchants and am also thinking about Kevin Young’s Bunk. And Olio, where I take notes like “The ritualization of the performance as one that is commodified; breaking free from that performance seems to include an acknowledgment of it and a performing to the self.”
Is it possible to feel satisfied with simply acknowledging that a powerful new book has entered our canon, and that we can all sleep easily knowing that as an epic poem and as an expertly-navigated body of voices Olio has done more for the evolution of American poetry than any other book in recent memory, arguably ever?
On page 122, we encounter the Greene Evans jubilee, which, following a section of poems on Blind Boone, states:
“My friend, / can you imagine how it must feel to / finally own your own skin? Arms? Legs? Eyes? / To bellow with your own almighty light?”
I page through my notes, and think of a certain self-awareness to the notes I wrote of this section:
“As with Blind Boone, the people that are characters in this book not only struggle from systematic oppression, but also have to deal often with disability. Such is the case with Blindness, which ends up coming off as a blessing in disguise.” (See: page 105, on “Blind Boone’s Blessings”.)
Part 2: Breathing through the Book
When thinking about the breath used in various modes of meditation, there is often the metaphor of the breath as a way to carry and release the burden that exists. The burden may be that of the self or that of the world or that of the universe. It may be specific or it may be in totality, but the breath continues, and the breath lets the burden arrive, only to dispel and dissolve the burden a moment later. I have heard of song described the same way. I have heard of song as a way to resolve moments of pain, hardship, and suffering. That there is song, that there is voice that can carry music, is proof that we, that humans, can counter that which we face and carry.
Not all works disembowel the soul of this work. Not all.
I approached Olio as I approach most poetry I encounter at this point in my life, and that is through breath and voice. As I’ve just described, both the act of breathing (whether you describe this in terms of meter and form within the text or something that happens in parallel but not bound to the text, or otherwise entirely) and the act of expelling sound is an action of relief and processing. To read through breath and voice becomes a form of momentary liberation. It is tempting to make the jump, as ridiculous as it might sound, from liberation from the moment as the general reader to, analogically, the works of the minstrel show and the African American slave performances. This is tempting, but I do not think it is fair. What I do think is fair, and hopefully not entirely disrespectful, is that encountering a poetry bound in song and performance (as qualities of freeing, for the African American cast described in the previous section, the “cast” of Olio) that feels relieving to the reader will help develop some degree of empathy and engagement with the slave experience.
I wonder if perhaps the trouble with this book, as identified by the public, is through that empathy, through that unlocking pathway toward even one or two steps toward an inkling of understanding of what these individual humans went through in order to come to grips with their selves, their souls, their identities, their personhoods. Does unlocking that pathway thus turn this book on its head? Does it make it perform to the point where we are dissuaded from reading it? How many readers project their own insecurities onto a book in order to make it perform for them? To relieve the qualities of the olio (miscellanea of struggle) to find the bearable qualities of the olio (a minstrel performance)? And, sadly, if not also ironically, would a reader through unconscious transformation like this end up causing so much dissonance that once again the characters are just characters, the minstrels are just minstrels, the blacks are just blacks, and the poetry is just poetry?
The oppression of the soul is insidious. The murk of our disconnection is vague and safe.
“How do we prove our souls to be wholly human / when the world don’t believe we have a soul? / How do we prove black souls holy and human / when the whole world swears we got no souls?” (from: “Jubilee Indigo” on page 166)
Tyehimba Jess’s choreography is incredible and incredibly poignant, and it explores far better than my own writing these ideas, these layers of who we might be before, during, and after Olio is part of our lives. He quotes from Paul Laurence Dunbar: “We wear the mask that grins and lies, / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes-- / This debt we pay to human guile; / With love and bleeding hearts we smile . . .”
And at what cost to pick up the book, in 2016, 2017, 2018, and read it? Or better yet, at what investment? Where do we pay to be liberated from a canon of the dead, blasé landscape of vague hierarchy?
I feel a sense of demurring within the implications of this book that sits open in front of me. An demurring of the self. I of course write from a seat of a history of power, of people who came before me and continue to exist around me, whose qualities are very similar to my own, who I identify with at times, and I write of this book and its reception from a perspective of a section that I ache to see transformed and, in staring at that white abyss I ritualistically ignore the world that I do not look toward—of those who are and will do more with, and benefit from, this book.
Part 3: Recognition and a Recognized Present
Well through Olio, Sissieretta Jones speaks in one of the poems: “Let the key be infinite. / Let the coon song scatter. / Let each mouth be envy. // Let bloodlines be muddied. I stand solo in this country / of concert. I am multitudes / of broken chains. I am Aida / with war on her lips.” (159)
Jones, a crooning Black Diva (to use Jess’s description), is a mesmerizing individual who, her story of survival, success, and struggle recognized, represents a truly beautiful and marvelous language. Olio is filled (in its many pages) with powerful, paralytic language. The verse is capable of throwing the reader from their seat. It is heroic and sacred, as warm as blood and as strong as steel. The imagery is hypnotic and the tone stings. There is a sense of the incredible, but a reader need not veer far from the stories of the speakers to understand why: the lives these people, these many chosen by Jess, were truly extraordinary. They were lives filled with horror, with the miraculous, with the truly unbelievable.
How often are we buried in our own perception of what is real and what we believe to be the limits of our knowing, when some new component of our collective existence comes along and shows us we were wrong, we did not actually know anything at all? What level of performance does it take to realize the drab din of our daily waking existences? What spell does it take to waken us from the perilous, endless dream?
If Olio was a single, simple parable, it would give us an answer to these questions: it takes the individual’s relationship with their expressed self, with their art, to realize how to elevate above the status quo, the chains, the indentured. Time and time again, story upon story, recollection upon recollection, confession upon confession, and celebration upon celebration, we encounter the meaning of the proposed answer, the subtext of Olio.
As I interpret it, it becomes the acknowledgment of the power within, and the ability to recognize that power for goodness.
Reading that line over, I find the crossovers with religion (which are too numerous to dive into too deeply here) significant, and that much of the community of sharing (where the transcendence of these artists took place) is one that finds solace in common ground. The ethical qualities of that ground are undeniable, and the collective suffering is undeniable as well. I will touch on this a bit in the next section, but I wish to acknowledge it here as well: Olio is strongly about itself as a world. It, as a text, operates on itself, as a concept, and the concept is one of dualism. It is miscellanea, but it is also the identified modeling of characters of significance. Jess as an artist has chosen to buffer the stars of the show, the cast as defined, with the myriad voices that also compose the greater miscellanea. Through these additional voices, through the found documents and extended contributions, there is the level of support that goes into the construction of the book.
Let me take a moment to undo the intellectualization of this text by simply commenting on the size of the book. It is a giant. Simply lifting it, feeling its weight and loftiness, indicated an item of grandiose fervor. Of an exceptional, storied essence. In its design, its approach, as a physical object of symbolic resonance, Olio’s appearance and surfaces reiterate its meanings of largeness, of collectiveness, of the voices and voices and voices.
I think for a moment about what it must be like to pick this book up. To know that there is so much within this book, and yet, could there also be an anxiety to interact with this book? Where are some readers of American poetry sick right now? Where is a book like this inaccessible? Where does its bulk, and the nature of its bulk, become a barrier or impediment?
“This is how I know love-- / so you can see my life is brimmed. It’s full-- / with every breath we’ve got. I’m filled completely, / the way any other human would love.” (53)
If anything rises through those question marks like truth to the surface of a body of unknowing, it's love.
Part 4: Speaking Toward the Future
“I conjure a claim / of birdsongs blended from each season’s sun / rooted deep in black muscle memory / that’s set slaves almost free, that carved its name / scrawling across each heart, the music's brunt, / ringing like a bell, like an open wound” (28)
There is the opening of a funnel. There is the drawing attention to an approach to craft capable of community. An embodiment of voices of those that deserve to be sung. Olio is not a reinvention of poetry, or the tradition of human storytelling, but it is a successful revitalization of how we successfully explore humans of history in the contemporary era.
It is a book that pulls forward the voices of a disembodied era into the contemporary. It is a book of evidence as much as it is a book of direct action. Olio is synchronized in its arc of the 19th and 20th Centuries with the spirit of the indie presses and indie artists of today, those spaces where the marginalized explore and receive justice, where the minoritized are capable of eroding the hegemony. Where systemic oppression is proactively countered. Where pride and worth is kindled. Where belonging and community blossom again and again.
To say that Olio as a grandiose, epic text fits into the current mode of the young and progressive poets operating within the world today, at large, is only one end of the book’s full scope. It also integrates uncomfortably but excitingly, into the ongoing, enduring story of the canon, which is published, which is nationally and internationally recognized. That discomfort, explored here a bit, will only be explored with Jess’s next projects, as well as those of his peers, of “American poetry.” That we may consider the past, the present, and the future as the culminating resonance of this book—a book that speaks with a peripheral in multiple temporal directions, is of note. But also of note is the splicing into, the fragmenting off of, our ever-emerging context, the context of the “on the verge of” and “eminently.”
In many ways, the book’s poems and the stories within those poems, about the life praised within those stories, all deals with the moments upon moments we carry around with us, symbolically attached to our lives. These moments define who a person is, what they have gone through, and what they have become as a result of those trials. The performance, as corrupted and bastardized and commodified as it was in the case of the heroes of color within Olio, was also the performance that fulfilled the dualism of freedom and autonomy within these individuals.
The performance in some cases was an identified pathway towards a vision of liberation from the beginning; in other, more epiphanic moments, performance became the hinge of transformation towards liberation and self-empowerment. And of course, there were those whose performance began, endured, and ended through its abuse, as in the case of Wildfire/Edmonia Lewis. Though it exists within its own timeline and I think it should be respected as such, the full spectrum of this relationship with this active, living expression of one’s thinking and feeling life (the performance), is also worth looking at as we, individuals living freely (in some ways) and enslaved (in some ways) go through with our own lives, our own potential transformations.
How might the literary artists of the world learn from Olio where Olio, a year after its award, remains more underappreciated than not? How might its size and its miscellaneous containment, threaded exquisitely together through Jess’s visionary mind, be accessibly and relevantly applied to the niches and moments that surround us? How might is battle institutional racism, individual racism, and the discomfort of knowing the corrosion and disgust that exists within the reality of the brutally pale Western canon? At what point might it, as a model, demonstrate the capacity for compassion, selflessness, and love that we have within ourselves? I ask these questions not in thinking they haven’t been asked before or answered before, but because the book, as I read it, continues to respond to these questions by default. The themes that emerge for a universal readership draw us, the readership, closer, educate us, inform us in ways that may not have done so in quite the same way.
And while the world has known fantastic writers of color finding well-deserved spotlights and recognition and elevation for influence (including poet laureate Tracy K. Smith receiving the Pulitzer in 2012, which was also trounced, also the end point of the racist confusion, and meanwhile her words speak for themselves and above the others), the world, and the United States, hasn’t quite been a moment like the moments it sees now, and hasn’t seen such a book as Olio. It joins links with other unforgettable works, works which defy and diffuse the spotlight toward a new centrum. And true, selfishly, I write this coming out of my own appreciation and acknowledgment of the overlapping moments of discovery and awareness that explores this book’s existence at this time, this place, this cornerstone of cornerstones for my own journey.
There is no easy way to close this piece of writing, and so I turn back to the text, look at one of its many fantastic moments of arising, where the voice of Edmonia Lewis bears witness to the undeniable power of self and transformation, on page 195 in “Minnehaha”:
I was born when I was written,
then hammered out of a mountain.
I was shattered and then broken,
then sharpened to the human.
Part *: Becoming and Unbecoming
It costs the journey
of the burn-out rockets
to learn how
to light up space
with the quick fire of refusal
then drift gently down
to the dead surface
of the moon.
As I move forward, as I have taken moments of my life to look and to look further, I move backward and follow, as the light of an illuminated reflection, what has been created. There was creation and there was response, which was additional creation.
This piece, which I've written out of respect for but also with admitted haste, this piece on Olio, on the olio, is far from perfect. I think about what I was hoping for when I picked up Olio for the first time and, with an intentionally open mind, said "Okay, I embrace this," and pulled the book close. The act of embracing one book and keeping others from being embraced. The act of intentionally choosing which book instead of a mindless flow of literature, the endless tides of words, the soulless sprawling of an abundant mass based upon previous conjectures of whiteness and power.
As I move forward, I imagine each book I stumble upon, encounter, am greeted by to be a masterpiece. I imagine the oppression of the academy and the institution of the published poem and the published poet as holding potential inequity. I imagine those works that gather dust in the corners, gather corrupted data in the corners of their owners' thumb drives, to be the next contribution to the canon.
I think about the generalizations I've made in these statements, and what kind of wrong they might bring. Have I oversimplified? Have I objectified? Have I appropriated? Have I misappropriated? Have I seized as an element of my entitlement, or am I honest and loving in my explorations? Where have I stumbled? Where have I lost foresight? Where has my blindness held me back? Where are lessons I should have learned previously? Where is there no conversation and only ego? Where is there only ego and no conversation?
The considerations of the spaces that have become uplifted and have the power of affecting so many people. These spaces have a certain spiritual quality. They have a certain quality that can transform the lives of those who believe in it. But first they must see it. Know it. Be aware of it. Conscious. Directly entwined. Intentional. The process of the presence of works like Olio have so much potential. There is a light. And there is more light after that.
When someone asked me, recently, what I was writing thousands of words about, it was hard to respond. I believe that sometimes the most vigorous words I encounter are some of the most chilling. And we often don't know why they chill. They just do. For me: Rene Char. Audre Lorde. Georg Trakl. Adrienne Rich. Claudia Rankine. Some and yet many. Many voices. Voices that erupt the notions of what "notion" even is.
These are seen. These people are seen. But olio. But jubilee. But the collective. The people who are not. The people who are not seen. The people who emerge. Who are discovered. Uncovered. Remembered. Brought to life. The people who have the potential, all the people, who all have the potential, to exist.
I think of the endless sequence of faces. The endless smiles. The endless struggles. The endless recoveries. The endless steps forward. And with each step, the procession of what is brought, like rhythm, into being and acknowledgment. Acceptance.
The truest canon that we can see: directly in front of us, as individuals and as collective, what we draw. But it takes the presence of these magical, powerful, and mesmerizing individuals in order to watch their works fill in the gaps of experience. I am grateful that Wave Books allowed for this to happen with Tyehimba Jess's Olio. I think of it as risk. I think of it as testimony. I think of it as dynamite on the floodgate. And it excites me. As it certainly does and will continue to excite the world. For poetry. For beyond. For truth. And for a persistence of an appreciation for the equitable human experience. Of the past, of the present, and the future.
Identity feels likely.
. . . Or at least zany, un-re-
to a glare, a stamped ex-
haustion of fixture’s texture
lowlifeing in the local cut.
Through grafts of language we find the most secretive burrows of truth, the truth that is destined to hide, the truth that is destined to exist before, during, and after the iterated expression, the accepted, the understood. In Insolvency, Insolvency! there are poems demonstrative of the active though underlying/peripheral/subtextual truths that appear like glitches in the perfection of representation, like melting in the stasis of certainty. This language, a language that is wholly that of the poet and author of the text in question, Jeremy Hoevenaar, is one that moans with arousal, shivers with clandestine excess and morbid recession. It is a language of the computer-as-precipice-of-humanity. An epilogue to the Turing Test. A presumption of the intelligence that could model the authentic and the artificial at the same time. Hoevenaar’s work is crucial to the fabric of a world that exists too quickly to notice itself, yet is pinned to the wall like a tapestry, unmoving when unacknowledged and infinitely capable when acknowledged. A mandala for circuitry. A vortex for the contemporary subconscious, which knows itself through the tidal waves of information that plow it around like snow on asphalt. Insolvency, Insolvency! is a rattler, a fountain, a fulcrum of the engorged reality within which we live. When the poet says, “In a world that doesn’t see you, / your thoughts must welcome you” we hear the moments of Camus and the existentialists uproariously imbued with the digital.
Insolvency, Insolvency! by Jeremy Hoevenaar was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2017.
What the world needs
now are more clover bees
and stings, delicious stings.
Boys Quarter is a fantastic collection of poems by, for, and about the center of self that is the poet. It is a book that has fantastic implications on the daily life of the 21st century writer, the 21st century person, the 21st century social being. Chukwuma Ndulue provides nothing short of the ecstatic experience that is his daily life, and the mementos and curios that make up the images and contexts of these poems are extraordinarily honest. They reverberate with an honesty that is thorough, albeit at times disagreeable through Ndulue's own, humble privacies. But that quality of the deeply personal becomes, when collected and conformed to a book, a satisfaction of self, authenticity, and autonomy. Ndulue reinforces what he knows through life with what he knows through thought, synthesis, and a general brilliance towards a critical existence. The sense of the ugliness and most monstrous qualities of the world are regularly poked, jabbed, and also represented through the multitudinous voices that emerge (only to erupt) from poem to poem. A certain and exquisite ambiguity, the like of most poetry, faithfully serves the reader in supporting the construction of a dreamy, disconnected universe of consumption, love, and reconciliation. Boys Quarter, being imbued with a genuine, far-reaching attempt to showcase life as life, succeeds wonderfully in its world-building, and Ndulue intelligently captivates wholly throughout the book’s short duration.
Boys Quarter by Chukwuma Ndulue was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2017.
Hey little buddy. Hey bud. Hey buddy.
Brooklyn's Holly Melgard is astute, concentrated, and calculated. Her work in Catcall is driven by the power and effectiveness of performance. It directly addresses the problem of verbal harassment (specifically catcalling) by repositioning the problem to face (target) the anonymous man who would otherwise be in a position of power, in the position of the harasser. This is a polyvocal piece merging the actual act of catcalling (in a poetic variant) with the reflection/commentaries of those making the catcalls. It approaches this phenomenon as oppression and misogyny, and redirects the anticipated scenario so that the anonymous man, the target, at least in the text, becomes both the antagonist and protagonist of these situations, these stories, these narratives. Through moments of absurdist shock, the work succeeds in creating a perplexing, if not disturbing, scenario of revelation and bluntness. Catcall also reinforces what so many have known for so long but have been distanced from, blocked from, made numb to. The result is a work that utilizes language to embrace the problem as one needing addressing, while also exploring (through language) a more accessible way to talk about the issue of harassment as a whole. Though the book itself lacks description on the intent or inspiration for itself (which is, honestly, only slightly needed), the book succeeds to transform the reader to the place and time of the every-instant of these crises, these moments of violence. It is uplifting and exciting to see works like Melgard's created to reinforce an acknowledgment of and witness to the cruelty of the world we live within, that many otherwise do not actively respond to transform. Reading Melgard's work will, through its intense yet accessible experimentation, make the issue of harassment more relevant and approachable than the status quo paradigm.
Catcall by Holly Melgard was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2017.
What if I were a little
manufacturing plant of
New York’s Simone Kearney has written a book that is captivating. My Ida is captivating, drenching, charming, alarming. It returns to Gertrude Stein’s Ida, but goes beyond, personalizes it, brings the concept (and the concept’s concept, and the concept’s echo, reverberation, refraction) into a refreshed 2017 glance. The book is as much about Kearney as it is about an Ida that is acknowledged and explored by Kearney. It is as much about poetry and the poetic image, the poetic voice, as it is about the landscape of objects that could be, are, and will be before, with, and after us. As it is about the process, and the chance of process. My Ida is a book of self and a book of other, and it is also a book of ether, but it is also a book of all, which is where the captivation occurs. Demonstrative of play, demonstrative of affect, demonstrative of awareness, importance, elevation, My Ida is the sling that arms the shot, the tension of the band before the release. It is the envisioning of the funnel that emerges from the ceiling of sky to pour down and activate the landscape. It is the wing outstretched to absorb a generated current of air. It is, as per Kearney's choice, an onion. There is, in My Ida, a chance to explore what would otherwise be left behind, and thus a love for that exploration of which Stein would approve. Simone Kearney’s My Ida is the exerted glance that’s worth intercepting, worth returning, worth remembering.
My Ida by Simone Kearney was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2017.
In the Still of the Night by Dara Wier (Wave Books, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
See here this is
all it means
to be dead--
to be no longer living and
to be both never
and always as never before
From “That’s What the Dead Do”
At first glance, in so many cases, a poetry that sits on the page looking still and unmoving also appears quick and fleeting. There is the act of the poetic disappearance. Poems that have short lines appear exquisite and completed with ease, ready to acknowledge and push off. The poem that is visibly minimal is disguised in our notions of access and maneuverability. These qualities may or may not be grounded in truth. Some poetry that spools down, appears as a cascade of text in short but impactful drips and smears, is designed to do this. Our notions of this flight, this passing of time through the poem's form, are occasionally satisfied. Yet no further from this quality of quickness, this quality of passage, is Dara Wier’s In the Still of the Night. In her recent collection, the poetry is as dense and protected as a series of stone glyphs. It is as enduring as a caustic wound. It is the silence of the active world before, during, and beyond a single, enticing sigh. The lines are short, but they resonate, reverberate, and stick around for an endured presence.
Wier’s work in this book is exciting and challenging. It is the quixotic beyond the glossy surface. It is the essence of fullness within the stillness alluded to in the book’s title. It is a seducing mixture of the mental and the emotional, grounded in a seeking of the stated truth, the analytical. There is cunning in this book, which contends with the process of the poems themselves, slickly cut into the pages. This process creates a slow, ambient crawl for the readers who seek to energetically read through the poems to the revelatory core gently sitting beneath. There is exhaustion here, an imposition from the poet through the poet’s own process. Process is the thoughts and feelings that allow us to live, that lead us through reflection and autonomy to greater choice and elevated existence.
floating from my mouth
and I have to pause
a little to admire how good
confetti can be
as it floats out gently
on waves of air
From “The Dream”
Books like In the Still of the Night are often pulled together through obvious themes. The ideas that compose this book are radically elastic, stretching across mind states and incredible experiences. There is a broad brush of image cast within the book that leads the poems to cover ecstatic differences in environments, characters, objects, and moments. And yet the book maintains its course as one that has been designed with the weight (and wait) of inquiry. There is a striking juxtaposition between profession and prophecy within Wier’s writing that feels homely and yet also educational. These poems are positioned into intimacy but also contain a language of modeling, sketching, advising.
The core of representation within these poems is one of truthfulness. Inspiration is an incredible core working well to maintain its nightly cues. For there is a recharging, a resting, a rebounding of the night that instills a sense of growth, satisfaction, and contentment from poem to poem. It is the sigh as acknowledgment. It is the sigh as appreciation. It is the sigh as the token of experience.
The blossoming pear trees
invade the city,
and the plums,
and the other
that lead to nowhere
From “Free Will”
The world that exists in the poet’s reality is a world of perceived transience and transformation. It is a world of life and death. It is a world of conclusion. Observation, observed by the poet, becomes the guide to truth itself. As we explore our worlds we will find resolution. There is an overwhelming pressure to relate Wier’s works with the ideas of centered self of the most famous 20th Century existentialists, and, perhaps contentiously, with the detachment of many Buddhist teachings. This pressure is rooted in the conclusive, stable space that we arrive to after conflict, struggle, and exhaustion. And yet Wier’s work is ultimately also one that is beyond the poet at times, one that is deterministic, even, with more untouchable universal laws and reasoning arriving around each breath.
It is also a work that is filled with attachments to the value of the beauty of this world of revelation. As a collection it reflects significant moments of conversation and active exploration, which arrive to the eruption or arousal of moments following the processes of examination. To be with the poet during these transformative iterations is not universal of poetry, but, as presence, it is an intention that exists and is attempted in many poems in many cultures. Wier’s work successfully invites the reader into the process, while also explicating the results before, during, and after. This is the power of the glyph. Of the burn. Of the sigh. There is the wonder that it exists as action and the wonder of context that surrounds the action. Wier’s work is thus one of itself and that which led to its creation. The effects are stunning, filled with awe, and assuredly will impact many readers and many types of readers.
as paths cross
with any place
we can never leave
From “Autophagy Irrespective”
Unmark by Montreux Rotholtz (Burnside Review Press, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
I am an error fish
an arrow sunk in distance.
A piece of flesh strung
in sails a sunning pair
that lick up bare light
that lick up the story
I read Unmark and fall into the space that sits before me, the spaces that sit before all of us, and I begin to begin. It is a process of relief and it is a process of the latent, hypnagogic pleasure of possibility. This hypnosis is deeply rooted in a poetics which has a field both open and mindful, both contextual and liberating. To speak of this hypnosis is to speak of Montreux Rotholtz’s poetry as one that borders on pure and potent language, a la Lissa Wolsak, and the inescapable prowess of the poetic vignette, a la Joshua Marie Wilkinson. It is a poetry of the range of story but also a poetry of the tongue and the lips and the air that fans out from beyond and within. Rotholtz’s Unmark is a testament to the limitless devouring qualities of the image and the woven cord of the journey approaching, arriving, and exploring experience.
Phantasmagorically positioned, the language falls into place like laws of reality, challenging and questioning, establishing and stabilizing, reinventing and revolutionizing, emerging only to emerge again. This poetry is raw, resonant, reverberating in its wholesomeness. There is the guttural and the brutal and it is matched with the secure and exquisite. It is outlandish and homely. It is a poetry of the charred remains and the frozen preserves. Juxtapositions abound into a world of extremities, where memory is fantastically filled with fantastic possibility.
[. . .] I had long
been coveting the suburbs and your wrist
like a burnt cyprus, lilting, glistening,
blistered and split.
Rotholtz writes of worlds within worlds. In some moments, these scenes are unfalteringly exotic. Spot-lit locales from spaces of storybook and epic pockets of earnest, exposed spaces of hiding. In other moments of the poetic present, the idea presence is a determination of witness and self. There is subjection, personalization, and an intimate relation with the act of description. These moments stand and sit as representative of the hazy motifs sliding across the skin of Unmark—motifs of precision, attention, and capture. What is the subtext of our relationship to each and every collected prong of time? Where does that arrow pierce us, and what is the blood pouring out of our response to trajectory and impact?
For readership, the fall into the poetry within Unmark is the fall off the cliff into cool water, the fall into beds of prickly soft grass, the fall into the cushions that have guarded days’ worth of sleep, the fall into the arms of a person who has been able to protect and wrangle the world via sincerity. This book is the opposite of void, the outward remarks of introspection, the subtle and provocative underbelly of the undulation, the dip into a needed rest on the periphery of life’s quests. The effect is feverish, trance-inducing, tongue-lolling, eye-batting, with pages spinning across the palms like the musing of notes or the spongey effect of a mossy recollection.
[. . .] I heard the pig
smoothly butchered, packed in plastic.
I heard he was an hour in the dying.
I heard, and this is true, the meat rotten
and the veins like the cables of a bridge.
As a book, as a collection, Unmark shows us a world of happenings and exposures. It is a seasonal, transgressive, and impassioned transience of poetry that feels flight and scrapes across poem to poem, image to image, line to line. It is a book that creates etch-like senses of being and boundary, where the voices of the poems are voices of those who survive, and those who exist, and those who persist throughout the oft-stark and oft-harsh elements of spectra, protagonistic and antagonistic at once, a clash, a chatter, a flail of limbs, mental awakenings meeting sedation, the friction meeting the relaxation.
As a book, as a collection, Unmark is enticing in how far it goes beyond the expectations of itself as a thing, an object. The poems exist with such fervor and relentless presence that the impact and impending solidity becomes aflutter, afloat, freshened, and discarded. A poem is a poem, and poems are poems, and in this entrancing whirlpool of language, Rotholtz’s writing shudders the system of the body of poems for the sake of and respect for the poems themselves. It all fits together, one long slush of dream in which the linguistic bathers may find comfort and resolve.
[. . .] The sea convulsed.
The ghost did not come back,
though we watched for it,
ready with a net and knife.
Sheila, she looked infinite,
sunk in the glass wedges
that bordered the lamp.
From “Axiom of Ghosts”
With the enamoring of language, we endure the hypnosis of comfort. A ring of the aural as we recite that which our gaze falls upon. The poetic becomes an instrument for understanding the housing and mediums of desires and desirable visions. The breaths beat. The beats breathe. A relief occurs in the same way some beings molt. The discard is the veil, weight, pause of presence lifted. We become opened to the possibility of our past, the memory binding images, the refreshing of our experiences, as we become opened to that act of creation we contain simply by being alive. Unmark is a powerful push towards this ideal space of such retribution, of the complex brush of humanism scrawling across the beautiful, bare walls of structure that all of us, at some point, long to possess, long to dream within.
Safe Word by Donald Dunbar (Gramma Press, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
I fell in love with a certain part of my forehead
and thought about it all the time;
glaciers fucking just off-screen.
I glued memories to the clouds
There come these moments of refusal and fusion in poetry. The landscape of the American grain that’s been shucked, shuffled, torn into place. Packaged and processed, left to sit, collecting digital dust, and then the greatness comes along, and we have the rot, the decay, and the bountiful blossom of the reorganization of our longing. A paradigm for the wet, new, and ferocious. When poetry becomes of two-backs, the spectral scythe of the re-engrained, the revisited, the revalued. Nostalgia quirk. Freshening.
Donald Dunbar, in his new collection and instant cyborg classic Safe Word, tills the soil of our blusteringly decrepit society well. Organs are milked, tendons are aroused, cords are uncoiled, and through the magic of a poetry of startling we see newly alit beauty in spite of as well of despite all the blanketing, muffling, strangling noise of the abscess of current cultures. This is poetry spritely and damned at the same time, a poetry of the noxious and the vomitus, the peculiarly pestilence-inducing awe of the spectacle. This poetry sleeps soundly as time, as Time, and in a spaciousness quantifiably infinite.
If you imagine a screen sob right no prayer can get through,
Or staring through the screen to the sun behind it, you can see
How seeing your lover in love with someone else too is similar
To the joy of watching her eat ginger candy, rice crackers, or roe.
From “Bronze Glitches”
I only visited Tinder and only swiped 50% of my total daily allowance once during my full-on read through of Dunbar’s Safe Word, rather transfixed on the undying references, the alluringly mellow appropriation, appreciation, and indoctrination of the contemporary image. Images abound in Dunbar's writing like cached excess: viscerally apprehended, they keep my sockless feet in tow through negligence, the wrangling of the language wrapped around my body like a whip, or a smart watch. Should poetry be so dominant? Should it steer us away from our mighty reliance upon the Media and the Comfort? Who really is the damned in poems like these? Who really is the sprite? Are we all just burdened by fixation, addiction, and relief? Aren’t we all floating down the same cables of fiber and bitrate, the same G worth of connection? And does it end, in value, or at least the proposition of value, through art like the Dunbarian appeal?
A moment of refraction: in a degree of humility, seriousness, and curiosity, I set down the book, a couple of sections of the 12 between the safety of this book’s covers, and wrote: “Donald Dunbar is one of the most inventive poets living in the United States today, and within that inventiveness is the certainty of, to use an image he uses, pixels.” Of course, I know Donald, and admit a degree of filial spirit bias, the extraordinarily uncanny bias and the resonance, more importantly, the resonance of his work operating via a cultural coordination, almost vacuous in quality, to what I’m used to on my daily, mind-buzzed existence. This is the type of synchronicity described in cyber punk novels of the early 1990s. In other words, his work despite all of the jokes and the profundity and the hushing is still demonstrative of work and embodiment of a truly multiformal, curse-bless ringing. It is a poetry that seems to ring with a truth like the best of work, labor, rings true—hammer to nail, as is so stated in poems like “Ekphrasis Potpourri” where the lines go:
It’s so precise it’s your throat getting crushed
It’s as stupid as physics, as ethical as a hammer
These poems are boundaries and they are emotional. The reminiscence of stress permeates line to line, line to line, in between the depressant references, in between the stimulant references, in between the elongating rush of a memory of blood from an acid-induced platform. They are the defrag for the most sober of readings. I am thoughtful about how my mind felt, thinking of anxiety and its burgeoning inverse. If anxiety has two faces, or is two-sided, or contains any manner of duality, it exists because we exist the same way, a loop, snake eating snake, rabbit entering rabbit (to use an image Dunbar uses). Anxiety's plurality is a sequence of complementary understanding, balance, the tool holding us into position as we push it along. It is the simile, this feeling of anguish and uncontrolled pressure, valves opening to release in sputter. What we do with it, language that sits between the poems, between the subtle flux of the line, as what we do with emotion, the response, the graceful touch, the flipping of a piece of paper in a book. There is the splash of color: rosy lit and limelight. Shell as tomb and sarcophagus, prison and confinement, adornment, astonishment. Book of poetry. The work rips open the reality of spectra, holds the reader through it. There is tenderness. There is godliness. There is dirtiness, and we all get to play.
Play is part of the world we can always live in, and it is a world, I think, that Donald promotes. It is a world of experimentation, but one of foraging, risk-taking, deeply dived. We don’t know how strongly the act of play brings us closer to reality, brings us closer to truth, to reaching the height of progress through a loss and a gain doubly. And it is through it, through process, through orientation toward the unearthing of countering the core concept of the book (boredom) that we find the ultimate answer: play, play, play. Experiment. Find light. Find the light, light, light that Donald speaks of to us. It seems so simple, but it is not.
This world, our world, the world we all live in, today, is far too intricate, too aged and evolving of itself in such rapid fluidity, to be simple, and thus poetry. And thus, pieces like “Organic Shrapnel,” the long prose output penultimate within Safe Word, serve as code, codification, and coda to a world of lavish and excessive and that which is unnecessarily necessary cum exceptionality; pieces like “Organic Shrapnel,” which lead us via fireplace phone app to justice. Justice coming in the form of connecting the dots to push the endless, barely touchable world forward, finding through experimentation the linear progression of idea to idea, image to image, us to us, the world to itself, repositioned, through an actual action of shift. It is overwhelming. It is a sigh. The poems gargle, jarbled, their own identity, and it helps, like a pill, or a click.
[. . .] All I need is large numbers,
vaccinations, and another there. There, there. A fuck-fest
in VeggieTales costumes, organic genitals. Poem plugging a
urethra. All that I need is everything from sonnets stitched into
the play’s text to play-rape overdubbed with field recordings
of insects molting, mornings in clawed bathtubs, missiles
with pouty lipstick, the missionary word for strict pleasure.
from “Cherry Coma”
I move from the effects to the world beyond the effects. I think beyond the book, think about the Poet. Think about the role. Who is it that identifies with the extensible quantity of essence and everything that Dunbar extracts and contracts through the poet’s voice-gaze? Is it the privileged? Is it everyone? Are we all more than we’re willing to admit? Horizontalism? Dare I say equity? These questions of course stand coarsely but require no immediate answer, make me challenged, unsettled, aroused to find the action and move with it, feel comfortable and allowable to see and to pursue and to find the acclimation toward the antithesis and complementary other side of anxiety, burden, the boast. I wonder if we're all so lucky. If we're all so welcome. I wonder at what point to these pages feel brittle. Who would swipe 100%? Who would need more to buffer? Counter fear or maintain uncertainty? Is there conversation in this book? What lag and what connectivity?
It becomes fractal, like everything. For some of us, this is a poetry of coping. For others, it is a poetry of orgasmic relief. And for others still, it is the bridge to the land of the core of the absurd that we sit with, bathe in, smear ourselves sub- and unconsciously on a braying, paisley-lit basis. Perhaps a combination of all, perhaps a nether-region containing none. As I sit here, ponder, stare off into the wallpaper distance through warm shades of screen filters, I think about the gentle ride to understanding of a poetry that is also an ambiguous poetry, a blurry process, of a poetry that lets us sigh with relief, laughter, sex, and mouse (book?) gestures. Perhaps there is all duality here, all similes to be uncovered and shaken, stirred, or kept pure and set aflame. And perhaps that is all there needs to be.
What makes money make money?
Like an applause sign flashing the whole show,
a single red rose, like a plastic bag, digests
itself into a fist.
With Donald’s work, we are bested by its language of openness and its degree of our anti-oppressed exposure to surges of information. We becomes the person who will find themselves reading this book, for whatever reason. I find this work, these writ, remarkable indeed through the process of making a remarking, a return to touch, a gentle mode of reassurance that we can look upon and upon again. And that must make Safe Word the coded language of nothing short of love found before those fractals become understood as fetishes strewn about the forever space of the virtual plains we slug and slog through.
A Skeleton Plays Violin by Georg Trakl, Translated by James Reidel (Seagull Books, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
“Georg Trakl (1887-1914) was born in Salzburg, Austria. As a teenager, he gravitated towards poetry, incest and drug addiction and published his first work by 1908, the year he went to Vienna to attend pharmacy school and became part of that city’s fin de siècle cultural life. He enjoyed early success and published his first book in 1913. A year later, he died of a cocaine overdose owing to battle fatigue and depression from the war-time delay of his second book.”
“Shadows roll on the water with copper beeches and pines, and from the depths of the pond comes a dead, sad murmur.
“Swans meander through the glimmering waters, slowly, unmoving, their slender necks rigidly held upwards. They snake on! Around the dying castle! Day in! Day out!”
(from “Neglect” contained in the section “Published Prose and Poetry, 1906-1909”)
The mountains of all of us, glass and otherwise, start and end with our creations, with our lasting imprints upon the known and unknown realities we find, or which find us. Through time that precedes and proceeds us, our act of creation, generally and minutely, becomes siphoned. There is the desire to find an underlying schism between what we have done and what we are. That many dissect the biographical only to discard it remains a triumph for life, and the life of the artist. And yet the contexts, the characterization, becomes an art in itself: that we might indelibly understand history of the artist and the artist’s world enmeshed is one of the pleasures and supreme functions of that same, contentious biography. I think often the biography is termed stale, or burdensome; a cruel act is to load upon our lives as the interpreter of the art itself the additional gate—both barricade and portal—of the life, and its subsequent, complementary death, of the owner of that creativity.
The “Our Trakl” sequence from Seagull Books (which I’ve covered previously with the publication of parts one and two, Poems and Sebastian Dreaming) is not only a testament to the heavenly spiral of the biographic, and all that it can provide in weight and relief, but a re-envisioning of how that glass mountain may be perceived, in all its archetypal, quest-filled, damnation-evoked glory. The combination of the biographical research and the embodiment/imbuement of it within the text is incredible. I glanced and expressed the functionality of this twirl through the exploration of the first two volumes, though I did not realize the sheer romance and fatigue—the transcendence—as I do now, having read and taken to the fullest-extent-of-the-heart possible this third volume, A Skeleton Plays Violin. It is here, in this collection of beginnings, middles, and ends that we find Trakl’s work in its fullest flux. Trakl’s poetic shimmer, glazed with the harsh, cruel, complex, and fundamentally exposed life that we deserve to see is readily available now, and James Reidel, translator of all of the volumes, is responsible for providing this keystone moment, eclipse peak, edge of the forest. In this weepingly-full volume, we have Trakl in near totality.
A rotting of dream-created paradises
Blows around this mournful, lethargic heart,
Which only drinks disgust from all which is sweet,
And then bleeds itself out in vulgar pain.
(from “To Slacken” in the section “Collation of 1909”)
Pages turn and with them grow worlds, vastly colorful and vastly dissipating in a multitude of directions. The birth of the Trakl image and the death of the Trakl image are rooted in the organic actuality of a world beneath a God that has created, and in this creation, has the capacity for reflection, and refraction. So too is it with the poet. Trakl’s own light, his own writ upon the page, is as much a creation as it is a bound relationship. And then: an addressed biography, and its implications. From the earliest days dealing with familial scattering, disconnection, reinforcement, and reliance, Trakl’s work is crisp and brilliant, resolute and adolescent if only because of a certain waking quality to the poet’s ambiguous naivety. That is, the earlier work is confusingly mature, stark; it is filled with a strong language not fully punished by major loss and turmoil, and yet finds a degree of anchor and solace within quintessentially provocative images.
The preservation-like effects of his earliest writing lead to early adulthood. It is here that is brought the rise of blood and formal education, exploration of vice, and the oft-related moments of incestuous, paradisiacal (and philosophically-explored) coexistence with a synchronous sister (Grete Trakl). This essence of relationship is paired well with a honed craft and an exacerbated sense of self. Selflessness arises through poem upon poem, through all seasons, by way of mimicking the vast literature at the young author’s disposal, and going beyond it into life and death at the doorstep. Greco-Romance mythology meets Judeo-Christian parables meets the foreground and background of the life lived in a pastoral-cum-urbanized Austria impended upon and upended by a hurried global industrialization. It is without doubt that Trakl’s emerging transformations serving as a crescendo lasting his entire, though short, adult life had a potent effect on the subsequent German Expressionism and other, more regional movements. There is a style, and a sensibility, which results from spiritually-confounded senses of juxtaposition and uproarious senses of reality’s cruel extremes.
A branch sways me in the deep blue.
In the mad autumn chaos of leaves
Butterflies flicker, drunk and mad
Axe strokes echo in the meadow.
(from “Sunny Afternoon” in the section “Poems, 1909-1912”)
A Skeleton Plays Violin continues on past the earliest moments into Trakl’s most intense sequences through a personal war of behavior, dissatisfaction, and addiction, and into a global war—the First World War, which leads to the poet’s final moments. And yet, as much as this trajectory is true, I write these words feeling guilty that I must leave out so many of the grimmer and brighter details. The romance. The political entwining with family members and confidantes. The close, filial bonds. The fraternity across distance and border. The madness of location and the security of reservation. There are themes upon themes within the epic A Skeleton Plays Violin that represent that most kaleidoscopic of spines we all face in the bodies of our lives, and to shy from them, as I must for the sake of brevity, does feel disingenuous to the nature of this fantastic volume.
Still. I think about what is included. I think about what was written and how it has made its way forward through time. Near the end of the book, Reidel recounts a public, documented conversation from January 1914 Trakl held with another writer, Carl Dallago. The conversation begins with a point on Whitman, and leads to points on Christ and the Buddha, and later an editorial footnote raises the value of Dostoevsky in the poet’s life and beneath the poet's ideas. The initial conversation holds many meanings and is mostly is raised and concerned with sexuality and the belief systems commonly debated in an Austria very much grounded in Christianity; however, that earliest mentioning of Whitman, and the unfolding conversation’s exploratory nature evokes the indefatigable essence of Trakl as a writer.
As compiled by Reidel, there is a way of knowing Trakl that has not been substantially provided to the contemporary English-language audience before this time—the versioning and relentless experimentation of our German-language poet is here in its textured, amorphous cherished state. Trakl, through a haunting perhaps only understood by himself, was masterfully engaged with language, including the language of the written, documented word that he created. As intimately seen throughout this book’s collection of many versions and iterations of the image, Trakl repeated, pulled, picked, and repurposed lines and poems in their entirety, and throughout various points in his life. A serialization of the self is the resulting image of this book as a whole, where Trak’s form is a form of exquisite, provocative, evolution that moves in multiple directions at once. It is phantasmagoria. It is thanks to the discipline and commitment of Reidel and the many others who have archived and connected the dots of Trakl's writing and life.
Silent evening in wine. From the low rafters
Fell a night moth, a nymph buried in blue sleep.
In the yard the servant slaughters a lamb, the sweet smell of the blood
Clouds our foreheads, the dark coolness of the well.
The despair mourns dying asters, a golden voice in the wind.
When night falls you will look at me with mouldering eyes,
In blue stillness your cheeks fell into dust.
(from “Psalm” in the section “Poems, 1912-1914”)
To regress, let's take a moment to think of emotion. It is hard not to refer to the darkness that sits within Trakl’s core, a dimension that logically enters and exits the liveliness and deathly extremes of his behaviors. From early experimentation with chloroform to the mysterious death a la cocaine, Trakl’s pharmacological profundity is one that revolves, orbits even, the paradigm of the dim and the damned at the heart of his writing. There is the sense of loss and there is the sense of birth, and each one commits to the other. At times nihilistic, there is always the continued emergence and sustainment of morality and beauty, Trakl’s truest essence within his images, that bind the work together and also fail to bring the poet into a sense of complete abandonment, complete loss. There is hope. There is spiritual stability. And things remain complex from beginning, to middle, to end.
This incredibly reality makes A Skeleton Plays Violin one book that is difficult and agonizingly affective in its embrace of the negative as much as the positive. For many, this poetry will bleed and bruise and blunder and capsize. It is murderous. It is tragic. But it is pure, to the point of Christ, in its reasoning with the spectrum of longing, suffering, and enduring we all must face in our existence. It is before, during, and after the essence of war.
Perhaps the immediate environment leading to the global catastrophic war, paired with a familial history capable of incubating an extreme relationship with a precious sister was the perfect recipe for the resulting truths discovered and explored by George Trakl. Perhaps it was that and all the other grains of detail found within Reidel’s efforts. Regardless, the biography speaks these truths, reveals them, in tandem with the momentous quantities of writing that have been translated. And as such, we experience the extraordinary, the paralyzing. A writer of such capacity in such a short burst of existence is a writer of blinding awe. This text of the miscellaneous writings that filled the cracks of the glowing and striking void of Trakl’s existence, and “Our Trakl” as a whole, bears the capacity to convince us of this awe, and transform our own lives, our own biographies, in the process of creation.
“Strange are the night paths of man. As I went forth sleepwalking in stone rooms and a small, still light burnt in each, a copper candlestick, and as I sank down freezing on the bed, once more her black shadow stood overhead, the stranger, and I silently hid my face in unhurried hands. The hyacinth bloomed blue at the window too and the old prayer pressed on the crimson lips of the breathing, from the eyelids fell crystal tears wept for this bitter world. In this hour during the death of my father, I was the white son. The night wind came from the hill in blue shivers, the dark lament of the mother, dying away again, and I saw the black hell in my heart; a minute of shimmering stillness. Quietly an unspeakable face emerged from a chalk wall—a dying youth—the beauty of some homecoming offspring. Moon-white the coolness of the stone surrounded the vigilant temple, the footsteps of the shadow faded on the ruined steps, a pink ring dance in the little garden.”
(from “Revelation and Perdition” in the section “Published Prose and Poetry, 1913-1915”)
All the Spectral Fractures by Mary A. Hood (Shade Mountain Press, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
What are the cross-sections of life? What are the spaces we find ourselves returning to, again and again, despite new paths, new interests, new obligations? In All the Spectral Fractures, the new poetry collection by Mary A. Hood, we find potential answers to these questions. We find the poet, whose life siphons the lives of the vast world, human and non, into the represented form. The image is glistening in this form, an ever-evolving, ever-adapting portal into the swirling channels that carry us through multiplicity in our evocative world of systems, taxonomies, and scientific inquiry.
When the air is that
certain apocalyptic clear,
I think I hear your voice
like the cry the wild boar makes
when trapped in a wire cage.
from “Ellen Youngblood / Lament” (in Opatoula)
All the Spectral Fractures collects eight collections worth of poetry between its vast breadth. At 238 pages, this is truly a tomb of the poetic life that has been explored thoroughly, into countless crevasses and corners, by Hood and her complex interests. Hood, a microbiologist, educator, traveler, and artist, shows her identities and their consistency throughout these books.
White Science, for example, is a book of verse posing the story of the female scientist, Sarah Goodbones, who visits the “renowned Laboratory of Molecular Genetics, Physiology and Biochemistry at the prestigious USA Medical School in quest for the truth.” The book is as ravishing as it is stark in its criticisms of not only the ivory tower, but the dominance of masculine thought. Through moments of absurdity to a cold spiriting through the vacuous environs faced by contemporary scientists, Goodbones arrives to a space of empathy but one that still feels distanced, chilled. Originally published in 1999, this iteration of that critical poetry remains relevant, fresh, and truthful still.
Where pink flamingos drink, cement blocks inked to look like
rocks and vinyl emerald lily pads line plastic wading pools.
from “Yard Art” (in In the Shadow of Pelicans)
The opening sequence, a book called Opatoula, is perhaps the most remarkable of all Hood’s poetry, both in concept and in elegance. The work describes through individual poems the lives and stories of the women of a place called Opatoula, which exists “on the Southern coast.” While the place and its women carry spotlight that may be fictional, the stories read like exquisite preservations of lost voices. Lost amongst the town’s din of bars and churches, which Hood recognizes right from the beginning, but also lost (like many voices) through the noise of the everyday. Hood’s work here is undeniably feminist in its counteracting toward the patriarchal norm of the image, of the American grain, of the world that has been constructed over hundreds of years. Hood’s work here is also captivating merely in its essence of narrative telling: the lives of these women are incredibly intricate, textural, and offer a reality of small town life that often escapes from the common, anticipated experience of the average reader. This book was originally published in 1993, but appears to offer a degree of significance in the era of the ghostly virtual world that uplifts, arouses, connects. That it does so through the bond of extraordinary women is fantastic.
Those who have learned
the language of stars
of bees of genes of atoms
are unable to speak the language
of the heart.
from “Songs of the Laboratory” (in White Science)
These cross-sections of feminism and anthropology are carried along into spaces of the marvelous. Hood’s background as a biologist reinforces that variety of image presented in the book, and there is an entwining with ecological principles that extend from the early works well into the later books So as Not to Go Unremembered (2015) and Love of Land and Lake (2014). With clarity of place and identification of the ideal, natural community, Hood arrives to additional critiques of industry, pollution, and a terrorized landscape. It helps that Hood can write of that ideal image, from the birds to the beaches to the universe of insects, as the portal returns to allow for a tweak and corruption of that image. This polarity exists, of course, on a spectrum, and morphs throughout Hood’s various poetic periods and publications. But through the course of All the Spectral Fractures, as the title of this collection implies, the book offers huge prevalence of and assertion for juxtapositions of the natural across time and space. To see the reoccurring elements of Hood’s vision, of her world, as patterns that emerge like tides rising shorelines leave additional context and meaning. Here again we have the cross-sections of life as a construction through and of time. Here again we see the bounty and the beauty of the return, of the reassessed, and with Hood, it is palpable through those value systems alluded to above. There is feminism. There is ecological activism. There are offerings of hope, of struggle, of work.
How can I think of death when my thoughts
are filled with the texture of hickory bark,
the rasp of dried milkweed, the crackle of Queen Anne’s lace
when turkey tracks write Sanskrit in the snow
and deer tracks quote the poetry of Zen?
from “The Juxtaposition of Being” (in Because Time Diminishes)
This writ would be truly lacking if a comment on Hood’s language was withheld. The language bobs up like buoys in the ocean. The language erupts like steam from boiling water. It comes and goes like sunlight. And yet, when it is present, when it is noticeable, it provides constant enticement. Reading “In the waters below undulating parasols / drift wit the current, the medusa with tentacles / that clutch or float free like umbilical cords cut.” is the type of sequence that evokes incredible visions of incredibly familiar though exotic spaces and situations. These moments, these snips of the vine of Hood’s poetry, are mesmerizing. They channel so much energy into the reader, yet are poignant while being concise. They are injections but they feel calm. They are scrapes but through scratching feel soothing. To read Hood’s verse is to become surprised through its elegance, yet churned by its force. The vocabulary of science meets the heights of a trained poetic ear. This collaboration of two areas of the artist’s mind is calm and will be taken for granted, but offers so much bite and grip that I imagine each reader being jerked into the poems at extraordinary moments of fixation and relief.
The black bird’s stringy twang
The spoon playing of spring peepers
The high percussion of creek running
The snare drum of rain
The brassy whine of robins
The oboing of wood frogs
The piccoloing of wood thrush
To this spring music
from “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Mailbox” (in So as Not to Go Unremembered)
Much of this collection is about a demonstrated breadth. All the Spectral Fractures indeed offers a significant and awe-filled space to not only read great poetry, but read through the visions, that image, of Mary A. Hood. It is a book to return to, to covet, to pull ideas and language from over time. As its older works demonstrate already, the poetry ages quite well, and yet there is new poetry within that could offer additional arousals in decades to come. That Shade Mountain Press has offered this collection to the world is gracious, and will alter the lives of many readers of American poetry.