Earth Tickets by Jerry Martien (Bug Press, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
Some old and beautiful things were lost.
Even things made yesterday—new-glazed
pots, promises, unyielding decisions.
Earth Tickets by Jerry Martien breaks little global poetry ground but does a great deal of reconfiguring and shattering amidst the overall voice of the poet. Martien brings forward a language that is straightforward, captivating, and endearing through the experience first and foremost. It is also a language brought forward to be elevated. With poets like Pound and Spicer mentioned across the pages, this book is a series that pays homage to a lineage of distinction, intellection, and elocution. For that, Earth Tickets serves as an enjoyable read that can keep the reader captivated, intelligibly engaged, and fully immersed in a world that is of and yet also beyond its bare self.
The book is divided into five sections, each with themes that are at once blunt and ambiguous: Getting to the Hard Part, Earth without Borders, the Book of Gates, the Road to Heaven, and the Promise of Rain. These miniature books, or sequences, are long enough to create cause and effect through the lyric and the narrative, while also achieving the course by way of flight. The poems read quickly. Martien’s short and playful style is also erratic but also still to the point. There is an atmosphere of the optimal established from poem to poem. The words run off the page and the poems evaporate only to precipitate a moment later. It is very weathered, this poetry, a texture that is knowable but difficult to trace.
But then o god. It stops. Some inner thing
Upheaves. Core melts. Down. Valve sticks. Open.
Lights flicker. Dim. Go out. The whole free wheeling
Dynamo winds down. Goes silent. Stops. Convulses
Briefly to life. Stops again. The salmon can’t make it
Upstream. The earth will not stay still beneath your
Feet. Your lungs can’t breathe the air. Something
Weird is in the water.
(from “Prayer for the Wild Heart”)
It would be difficult to describe the exacted themes within Earth Tickets, but I believe that the name of the collection itself speaks to the “ticket to earth” as a metaphor for the human experience. Of all the subject matter discoverable within the book, it is arguably life, suffering, and death which reign supreme and are directly explored. In some cases, mortality and the afterlife are experienced through ancient mythology. This includes familiar Greek Myths (turned abstractly toward the contemporary lives we lead). In other moments is the displacing effect of the presence of Christianity. Even still there is the spiritual underbelly of the Western coast of the United States, and the calling of Cascadia. Other elements of other religions and spiritual practices beat across the page like an organ connected to reality by blood. The benefit of such consistency is a degree of purpose that never fully emerges but is always recognizably rooted at the book’s core, a core that Martien, I imagine, carries around in his daily practice and general, poetic livelihood.
To think of the personal in poetry writing is something that, based on the writing, can be completely difficult to the writer, or could come naturally. A tension emerges when the personal is involved: a tension of relevance to the reader. Martien is the poet who writes not only for the self, and also not only for the world at large, but for those in the immediate vicinity. These poems tell the grander, autobiographical story that sheds light on a poet who brandishes the lived experience as the source of art. To bring into the mix a sequence of names and voices, much like the sequence of poems themselves, is a risky perpetuation, but in the case of Earth Tickets, this intimacy supports those abovementioned themes. Life, and the idea of living, is one that is supported by other life, by confirmed connections and relationships, the touch and the tender that keeps our reality in check, that is as provocative as it is charming.
but the bomb
bright human kind
outshine its shadow
(from “The Book of Gates”)
When I began reading Earth Tickets, I was confused. In one moment, I held a nasty desire for more. There was on one page a moment where I wanted more risk. On another page, I desired grander sound. But wrapped up neatly, as the poems in this book are almost always, the art becomes something of stability, of awareness, and of completeness. I am reminded of the keystone in the historic arch, and how it holds so much structure together. The poem, perhaps, does this in Martien’s life, and it is a keystone, the structure it supports is not larger than life, but is life, large enough but difficult to understand or imagine out of a context. And so, the poems, then, are the providers of context, describers or access points into the life of a man, Jerry Martien, whose individual experiences, when collected into the whole, ramble on in some epic journey. And when the paradigm shifts into this degree of comfort, it is curiously entwined with (reminiscent of, even) the ferocious, alarming resolutions of those mythologies Martien directly describes and utilizes (as analogy) in these spurts of verse.
Crystalline or even pure glass, the reflective nature of Martien’s work ultimately translates across the obvious connections to his life, forming a certain degree of mythology on its own. I found myself, complacently reading in a calm, abrupt manner, relating to these stories and tales as though a familiarity couldn’t be undone. While not universal by any stretch of the word, I think for some readers Martien will strike a chord that reinforces the essence of life and love within us. That beating, that blood, which codes the poems into the system that is this book, is directly comparable to our own selves. Martien has done well to not veer off too many paths in his design of the book, to keep that message of soulfulness and visceral application clear and responsible. To that, we owe Martien a severe degree of thanks.
The wind picks up. Some kind of
song is building down there.
The mallards splash. In the black water
armies of the underworld singing.
A storm overtaking the earth.
(from “Beneath the Imagin’d Earth)
Mannish Tongues by jayy dodd (@deyblxk) (Platypus Press, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
“jayy dodd is a blxk question mark from los angeles, california, based on the internet. they are a writer & editor & performance artist. antagonistically queer & unapologetically blxk, they were raised to be a preaching cowboy—this is the next best thing. their first collection of poems, [sugar in the tank], was released on Pizza Pi Press.”
The words we molted between each other,
pleasant & unpleasant offerings, regifting
unpackaged clutters we know as limbs.
How extremities betray—being the first to numb.
from “An Excavation”
The words of jayy dodd stipulate excitement through arousal. They are fiery words. They flicker brightly. Smoothly. They warm, heat, and burn. These are the words of an edge that knows retribution, satisfaction, and consolation. These words represent prosperity through elevation. Through mind. They molt through the aches of transformation and the quakes of oppression. They move through and beyond to a space of universal care: the gift of the art of being alive is aroused in dodd’s fantastically straightforward, yet brutal, and yet even further ecstatic new book of poems, Mannish Tongues.
“Trading Lunacy” is a poem as much about cycles as about the pull of the eyes on flesh, the heart on mind. On love.
Their words move through familiar but electrifyingly personal contexts. The names of the sections found within the book are: Confessions, Prayers, Interrogations, Testimonies, Myths, Eulogies. Anchoring through but remaining unpossessed by the concepts of organized belief appears exquisite in dodd’s greater, autobiographical context. These sets of knowing, these bodies of knowledge, these reference points to morality and to reflection and to truth are to be reconfigured by a poet who has seen, and continues to see, where the fire will recreate.
my mouth be a reminder,
how saltwater suppose to stop the tongue from swelling,
how teeth be bones too,
how my voice sounds of needed haunting.
if this body be a land,
its language be howl & debris.
I’m sitting here in Seattle, reading Mannish Tongues at a wooden desk with a window filled with gray clouds. I read “scene: waking up next to John Keats after a pleasant evening” and flag lines about body, taste, and awareness. I’m reminded of Baldwin half a century prior, am reminded of the queer black experience being incredibly mindful, extraordinarily flexible, and carrying relentless energies. I’m reminded of Frank O’Hara and the responsiveness toward that burning love dormant within or bursting from us all. There is that responsiveness. There is a blend of respect and cynicism. There is critique and there is praise and the swollen merge bridges each poem and its particularity. “speak louder” evaluates flesh. “Black Philosophy #3” finds the conflict of solace between beauty, Blackness, and death. There are words. Energies. Responses. Engagements.
If we think of it as “energies of engagement,” then these poems that inform dodd’s craft, from form to tone, also inform their grander, splayed and displayed, poetics. This is a poetics that startles, reared on the page but leads to perform upon the page shortly after, words upturned to sit upright. The result is a smuggle of form, a shatter of the reader’s perceptions, an enlightenment by way of doing. I think of the act of poetry involving the act of reading, an intentional sounding and an application as individual as it is swallowed by the collective. I think of what dodd would want their readers to read. And then I think: to read Mannish Tongues expresses the fulcrum of dodd’s representation, the beauty of their intersecting identities.
“When Momma Was God” as a poem I read as the profound subtext of the mother, the profound instillation that must be distilled.
Whispers: try to find the symbol. Whispering: try to find the metaphor in this Seattle-lit bedroom. Let’s try: Mannish Tongues is a multidimensional mirror, available to be held at multiple angles at the same time, by the same reader. Though it comes out of dodd’s own incredibly courageous mind and voice, this is a book that features an open, impeccable, interpretable design. The experience of this book is an experience that will challenge and also complement its experience in the hands of any other. It is a book about unity as it is a book about education. Most poetry, it could be argued, serves to provide unity to its readers through accessibility, openness, relatable qualities. Most poetry, it could be argued, serves to provide education to its readers through the mere act of an author’s freshest language placed into a publishable format.
No doubt Mannish Tongues succeeds in both of these statements as it represents a poet’s craft that is indeed accessible and indeed fresh; however, dodd’s poems are drastic in a contemporary culture of division, a culture of a country that is (and has been) on the verge of dipping (again) into the rift of abuse and silence. Their drastic qualities are those that cause shaking, that cause reverberations through the proximity of the poet’s life and livelihood. What strikes me is where dodd’s own words touch angles of that mirror I never knew could exist, new understood did exist despite how different I am from dodd.
And this is that moment where I digress, that moment where I acknowledge that difference. As a cisgendered white male, there are aspects of the writing I identify with and aspects I do not. Of course, that is how difference, not necessarily a binary, works. The curiosity aroused is a curiosity of partiality. There is a schism between the work here, the poet and their collection of ideas, and the liminality and limitation of my perception. There is a desire to know all, a courageous voracity to understand, and yet the fullness will never be able to fill my cup, will never be able to be contained. This effect is magnificent, only uplifts the voracity to idealist proportions. A scrape of expectation stings to know that there can be more: that there can be growth. This sweet sting is exactly what is needed in this era of poetry. An era of discourse bridging the gaps between similar but unaware voracities, hungers, desires to express and love the expression wholly, knowing fully those paths, following the relative respite of emergence from own isolations.
Each day begins with burning, with
sacrifice. Such as dawn breaks,
the sky opens for toxic testimony.
Begin the offering, release vile sacrament--
fleeting pleasure. If ritual is morning,
is ceremony: the cloudy eye, the kindled throat,
it is discipline & sabotage & elixir.
dodd’s reverence towards the swells, swoons, swallows, and swelters of life are utterly imperishable. The aesthetics of these poems forms, cloak-like and distinct, in my inspection of them. All readers and writers differ. How often are they given the opportunity to discern so much beauty and uplift of the proximity through such difference? An intimacy in the learned words shared. A living tenderness in the opportunity to explore this gift.
I’m thinking of the age of authority. Authoritarians. I’m thinking of the era of a plateau of exquisite voices. Or a constellation. Or an archipelago. What is the best image? What is the best way to describe this inverted chamber, not of echoes but of explosions?
The age we live in brings the writing of Mannish Tongues into greater, more significant relevance for all. Like much of the population of the United Sates, new levels of awareness over the last 24 months have surged through all medias and information sources. Topics that expand the narrative of our hideous past and present include systemic marginalization and oppression, white nationalism and supremacy movements, a sequence of actions by local and federal governments capable of taking an already-false democracy and further pushing away equity, and the divisions that exist between and within communities. For many individuals, myself included, the language of the United States today is a language that causes conflict but is representative of growth. For many individuals too, that language has been told for decades, and it is not new to those who have suffered significantly in their lives here.
I am reminded of the fire of dodd’s verse. I am reminded of the fiery mirror being held by all of us together and separate at once.
I was born between earthquake & riot / of a goddess called mother who forged me like sweet cornbread from the warmth in her hips / she say I widen her / say eighteen hours of labor / say my head split her body / say black clouds of nappy hair & eyes of fire in her arms / this is not a mythology
from “An Origin Story”
It is fortunate and deserving of gratefulness that the worlds of the lives of many who, in our culture, had previously had to hide, were repressed, and silenced, can become symbols of power, growth, and extraordinary resilience. These new symbols, these new heroines and heroes (and perhaps we need new vocabulary for these gendered terms?), are the new mirrors with the new angles that all of us can peer into, learn from, and transform the world thanks to; new visions as expressively born as flesh from the flesh of poetry.
dodd and their art of recognition is an art that contributes homage and tribute through, it is one that understands that closer degree of permanence through the act of language, and it is an art that can allow what is otherwise overwhelming in the world—to those who have historically known overwhelming and those who have not—to better understand, be ready, be structured in interception.
Some Black boys wake especially feeling you mourning,
feeling birth & grave & concrete & fresh air
wake their own bones, their own tongues, their own fists,
especially the docile, the slight, the soft.
from “Some mornings you wake feeling especially Black boy”
Ghosts Still Walking by Do Nguyen Mai (Platypus Press, 2016)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
I cannot live in a world of
suffocation; you cannot live
in a world of restraint.
We all have our histories, and as they overlap we find ourselves in moments of assertion and crisis, individualized and collectivized at once. There is liberation in our autonomy just as there is burden; there is a body of hope within the group just as there is an entrapment. In many ways, Ghosts Still Walking is a book of poems that approaches the epiphanies that explain these moments. Poet Do Nguyen Mai carefully maneuvers around her own history, the history of the people and peoples she identifies with, and those people and peoples that in many ways represent her history, distanced as they may or may not be.
Maneuverability comes in the form of precision: a poetry that at times embraces these moments as explorations for personal growth, but also understands the critical power of representation and removal. Stories told, abstractions applied, and truths unraveled, these poems are waypoints for the reader offering a series of outlines for possible outcomes. But the book is not so easily mapped, not so explicit, and that is where Do’s craft, layered, translucent, permeable, demonstrates its power as staging, as a framework or radiance from which to find a foothold or further illumination.
Daughters, sisters, mothers, sit mending
tears in their aprons, the sounds in their souls;
gathered together in quiet homes composing letters,
piecing fragmented memories into ink stains
resembling words they do not know.
Even the girls dodging bullets to stay in school
are too afraid to learn the language of war--
from “Post Denied: Address Unknown"
As I read it, Ghosts Still Walking became as much a book of poetry finding ways forward through the bloody histories of Vietnam as it became a book of poetry seeking to prevent similar, personalized histories from further developing within the speaker’s life. It is thus a poetry about tracking survival and applying it, relating it, triangulating it to daily life. It explores the many concepts of the “other” distanced but knowable, the Vietnamese person as an archetype, as a ghost that breathes and exists far from its source, far from its ideal space of life.
A fracturing occurs through the displacing, darkened resolution of geographical distance, of decayed time, and of decontextualization. Do’s work confronts the tensions between being there then, and her poems border dreamlike between the worlds of Vietnam and the United States of then and of today, nearly mythologized in their epic retellings and reimagination, their descriptions and minimizations.
While many books within the past several decades have explored the similar trajectories of these modes of survival and migration, Do’s work contributes to the canon by breaking down certainties and boundaries. A mesh of light exists in Ghosts Still Walking that blurs and blends the past, present, and future of a united and disconnected Vietnamese existence, consistently uncertain and yet also filled with potential, with possibility.
with their wolf fangs, tear the pearls
from your plum-blossom lips so that
they may steal the words of your melodies
and call your own war songs theirs;
from “For Khán Ngọc”
Being an outsider whose own relationship to conflict is unique and disconnected from Do’s own intimate roots, I read the book with many moments of pause. There sits within these poems astounding, paralyzing moments of awe for its readers. I found it remarkably invigorating as I built the capacity to understand the poet. Do’s process for reconstructing images of value and influence, for elevating the life of the women, children, and men whose worlds all contribute to her own, exhibited a stuttering and enlightening effect. Storytelling and capturing the many moments that bind us, that allow us to find forgiveness and catharsis, is a strong quality to Do’s work.
This book is a shocking first release from a writer whose mature mind is capable of positioning deft lines of verse into limits that give a profound respect for the atrociously endless series of conflicts and tensions filling both Vietnam and the Vietnamese American identity. But it is also a book coming from a writer whose mind is awake to the profound drive for love and understanding in a world that, as described in these poems, offers so much challenge and difficulty.
Roses, even apart from their roots, still have thorns, and removing them does not erase the memory of pain.
from “Tongues of Fire”
Reading through the book in its entirety is much like walking up a broken mountain staircase, inspiring us to look down at our own feet as often as we look around ourselves in our continuously-elevated existence. To read Ghosts Still Walking is to see those contexts and peoples immediately around us who inform our decisions, in that we might better find the greater resolution for them and us, and all that such a resolution demands.
Kholin 66 by Igor Kholin (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017)
Translated by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
“Igor Kholin was born in Moscow in 1920, ran away from an orphanage in Ryazan, and eventually enrolled in a military academy in Novorossiysk. He barely survived World War II (a bullet that grazed the corner of his lips came out of his back). In 1946, he was exiled from the military and Moscow for slapping a drunken comrade-in-arms. Kholin landed in a labor camp in Lianozovo, a suburb of Moscow, where one of his friends was the guard and would occasionally let him out to visit the Lianozovo library—he'd started writing poetry. When he asked to check out a book by forbidden poet Alexander Blok, he aroused the interest of the librarian, Olga Potapova, an artist married to the poet and painter Evgeny Kropivnitsky. The two of them hosted a Sunday salon out of their nearby barracks apartment, encouraging the work of young artists and a few poets, including Genrikh Sapgir and Vsevolod Nekrasov. Along with Kholin, they called themselves Kropivnitsky's students and formed a loose poetry collective known as the Lianozovo Group. Kholin's early work took the rough edges of Soviet life—the poverty, brutality and alcoholism rampant in the barracks—as his primary subject matter, while lampooning formulaic Socialist Realist poetics.”
I haven’t felt this enlivened by the poet’s lens in recent memory. Igor Kholin, of the “Soviet thaw,” is a dynamo of the 20th century human experience in Russia. His work, seen here in two-parts-diary and one-part-poetry, is ridged in wit, humor, and a gruff sense of reality. The book in its sequences is a guide for the 21st century. It is a tracing of lineage. A retrospective. A reminder of how writers lived and lived fluidly before the eras, our current eras, of the streaming and the fluid. It is a book demonstrating the life of the scenes of life, where conglomerations were webs of intricate relationships and histories, agendas and social politics.
Rearranged and toppled, it is also a book of personalization and some incredibly concentrated levels of intimacy between individuals, as seen through a provocative man’s fully-textured and elongated mind. The frailty, the abrasiveness, the inquiry, and the boldness of Kholin’s perceptions are all major qualities of Kholin’s self, so easily accessible, so easily ripe, in this nigh-100-page collection of translated work.
This pile of
Is for Kholin
It was laid
To read Igor Kholin is to read a distinctly individualized voice maintaining consistency throughout the generative, biting August/September/October/November/December months of 1966. A diary and poem series, it was translated by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich, whose introduction paints a scene of conceptualized, contextually-driven translation, a process deeply imbedded within the source, within Russia. The translations into English account for names, diffusion of detail and prominence of the occasional ambiguity. Throughout the work, the endurance of Kholin’s writing and the discoverable details were responded to with vigor to provide countless footnotes (and “side notes”) helpful in indicating what was going on in the writing. Such research does not sit lightly, and is admirable throughout this work.
As antithetical to the realm of the usual and expected and revered as it is respectable in its earnesty and honesty, this English is an English of unabashed joy. There is life here as there is also death: to read of Kholin’s adventures throughout the literary communities of Moscow is to feel like being implanted in a world of constant frenetic energy. In fact, the way of Kholin’s descriptions feels almost hyper-urban and ahead of its time simply through its calm-yet-vivacious focus on Moscow’s inner parts.
“The room I’m living in is dark. I assembled a bed out of a mattress that I bought for 2 rubles, there’s a 1 ruble table, 2 chairs for 50 kopecks each. Everything was so cheap because in Moscow there’s a store at Preobrazhenka that sells confiscated goods.” (From November 5, pages 49-50)
Honesty in the grit of a reality that is struggling but not glorified as such, complicated but not honed as such, disastrously pressured for and against the flow of freedom remains an honesty that readers of Kholin will admire. From poignant critiques of fellow writers and their surrounding circles, habits, and personas, to descriptions like the one above of the mandatory and meek modes of societal life, Kholin is charming and fully-flourished.
The language is carried by a localization that may be difficult for some, and maybe appear pointless and droning for others. Kholin spares no exceptions to his acute memory, details spun like individual fibers of a singular web. As he describes the women he has been involved with, the collaborators and close friends he spends his greatest time with, and the acquaintances at parties and social functions, Kholin never lets his eyes fall. And at those moments when he is most alone, with his diary, the splendid fatigue that we beg to know of, to understand in lieu of his drinking and relentless capabilities, shows its face.
“Sapgir has developed yet another stage of drunkenness. Reading poetry. We recall the three previous stages. One: kissing ladies’ hands; two: I’m a genius; three: talks shit about everyone; and now there’s poetry, too, a drifting stage.” (From September 2, page 25)
As the translators make clear in their introduction, Kholin’s poetry was fairly unpublishable until the late 1980s, due to their being qualities “too coarse and inglorious to be considered poetry by official standards” (page 6). Though much of the 2017 era of publication allows for a certain spectrum of availability and acceptance when it comes to poetry (or at least the poetic act), the limitations and restrictions of artists and writers like Kholin, whose contemporary voice gets muffled, disregarded, and even discarded is one that serves a valuable lesson.
Ultimately, there is a major benefit to the work that’s been published here, which will finally become recognized for, at the least, its existence, and at most a keystone to a larger structure. Or perhaps the lens is the better analogy, where Kholin has constructed a four-dimensional observational tool, through his diaries, that gives the world so much in its collection of, inspections of, so much life. I regret to say that early conclusions will look at collections such as Kholin 66 as minimal, small, and lacking major substance, but the level of concise, focused effort displayed here works to Igor Kholin’s benefits. His poetry, both through the prose of his diaries and the verse of his individual poems, reflects a world entire his own and entirely beyond his own, and that level of beauty, thoroughly social, occasionally admirational, and wholeheartedly absurd, is an entirely unique gift for its readers to be more informed, and joyfully so.
At the same time
But that’s not the thing
Is that I’ll see you anyway
If not tomorrow, then yesterday
Tumult by Hans Magnus Enzensberger (Seagull Books, 2016)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
On the periphery: Voices of Dust by Demdike Stare
I drink my tea, close the door behind me and rub the sleep out of my eyes. A girl in rags and tatters is waiting for me outside between two Cadillacs. We walk to the bus stop. Each of us puts five centavos in the payment box. The journey lasts three-quarters of an hour. We get off in one of the suburbs. It’s still pitch dark, the streets are deserted. We make our way through rubbish, banana plants and goats tethered to a water tower. We ask an old peasant who’s squatting there, ‘Where are the writers?’ His only answer is a vague wave of the hand.
From Memories of a Tumult (1967-1970)
How to make sense of the precision between the glory and the monotony of the bounty and retraction of life within a given historical period? Within a scope of complexity? How to promote significance while also acknowledging the meandering breakdown of one’s textured ebbs and flows of the everyday? One approach is through craft, like a slow, chiseled piece of material: slowly, methodically, and through the intimacy of the relationships with individuals. Another method: the testing of the material across time, across length, across a body, liquidous, filled with the urgency of semi-identifiable forces. These qualities are uproarious in the context of the global middle of the twentieth century, politically and economically and culturally and geographically, and in Tumult, revered poet, poignant leftist, and ambitious traveler Hans Magnus Enzensberger finds a foothold in his own life to explain the lives of so many others.
The book in question follows the form of layers: a book that is divided into five major works, Notes on a First Encounter with Russia, Scribbled Diary Notes from a Trip Around the Soviet Union and Its Consequences, Premises, Memories of a Tumult, and Thereafter. All translated from German into a furtive English by the award-winning Mike Mitchell, these works take the author’s autobiographical journeys and bridge (or triangulate) them through many chapters of his significant relationship with Maria Alexandrovna Enzensberger (“Masha”), which carry the weight of a self-proclaimed Russian novel.
However, my interest in writing an autobiography leaves something to be desired. I absolutely have no wish to make a mental note of everything that happens to me. It is with reluctance that I leaf through the memoirs of my contemporaries. I don’t trust them one inch. You don’t have to be a criminologist or an epistemologist to know that you can’t rely on people’s testimonies on their own behalf.
From Premises (2015)
The book in its entirety, an entirety that’s bound to lose and loosen its own identity through gigantic, wavelike rhythm, is thick with description, overwhelmingly so, but as such becomes successful through an achieved accessibility by its own curves. Narrative moments blend, blur, peak, bounce, and slap up against one another, and through a powerful proclamatory style that creates harmony between the macro and the micro, Enzensberger achieves a whispering peace. The book is fascinating in its array of lenses and magnitudes that are as scrupulous as they are forgettable. The interweaving and networking of the narrative are incredibly overwhelming in their highs and lows of ambiguity; a certain edgy value system dictates qualities of flow and tone but remains implicit as subtext.
Who is Enzensberger in these diverse sequences of positioning, and where is there humanist connection, intimate conduction, and the overall action that undoubtedly draws in the reader? I felt compelled while reading this with the same emotional resonance of a quasi-serialized popular mystery novel, or Bolaño: that is, put simply, the effects result in a quirky unpredictable knowability, like the entering of a labyrinth, the approach toward a vivid landscape of walls with boundaries and growths and decays. Pushing forward while pressuring memory to uproot and upturn through reversal.
It’s very hot and his guests are suffering in their dark suits. Our host invites us to go for a swim. He’d like to get into the water himself. His visitors haven’t brought bathing costumes with them. Shock, horror! What does protocol say? Some are at a loss what to do, others don’t feel like a swim. Can one take a dip in the nude, as the head of state suggests, and that in the presence of the author of The Second Sex? Most prefer to sit down on the steps, chatting cautiously, while our host disappears into one of the two bathing huts. Only Vigorelli, an unknown author and I feel like a swim. We get changed in the other hut where we find three pairs of oddly shabby bathing trunks laid out for our host and in his size. They come to our knees. I have to hold mine up with both hands. The 10 minutes I spent in the Black Sea were possibly the only comfortable ones of the day, for our host and for us. Only the bodyguard in his boat, ever-ready to save his master, showed any concern for our well-being.
From Notes on a First Encounter with Russia (1963)
As a person who did not live to see the Cold War, to see mythologized Soviet Russia, to see the tensions between the right and the left, between capitalism and communism and socialism, most of this book for me was a surprisingly enthralling experience looking at the lives of individuals overwhelmed and inundated with systems of rhetoric and resolution. From the sanctuary-esque Norway to the thrashingly on-edge Germany to the vast (endlessness) of Russia to the pressurized turbulence of Havana to the quaint USA, the world of the 6th and 7th decades of the 20th Century is one that is flourishing and fully realized by a man who lived through them. And exquisitely, Enzensberger did his share of living to reflect his share of writing. No landscape was left unexplored, and in this exploration there was a serious commitment to the detail in-betweens of each image.
There exists an underlying empathy that is supported with both coordinated arrangement of people and sheer lists of descriptive information of the objects surrounding him. The presence and distribution of a thorough representation transformed this book from a spirited autobiographical description to a fantastical world. This hyper (hyperized?) realism, filled with trepidations and alleviations of truth, brings new faces to the world of unknown. Oddly, I think about Enzensberger taking on a role of relative neutrality and emotional responsibility that becomes offset through a degree of coldness from an intellectualism, and how what results contributes to an accessibility. Can such accessible writing, a production and a respectful body of compassion, expose greater waves of empathy that exist beyond (after) the text?
The person is made from old newspapers that have been soaked and are then pressed into a hollow plaster mould and dried out. Once a day the mould is opened and the human being is born. It’s full of holes, fully grown, rough and empty. Brain and lungs, heart and spleen, bowels and sex organs are all missing. It’s open, hollow, unprepossessing; leading articles from the Party newspaper can be read on its skin. Then it’s scraped smooth and polished. At the next table a woman dips it in garish green paint: that’s the primer. Next an eerie pink is slapped on.
From Memories of a Tumult
“Tumult” is defined in Google as “a loud, confused noise, especially one caused by a large mass of people.” Oddly, and perhaps with slight irony, and perhaps with slight intention too, this book pauses before the realm of the “tumult” of which it is named. Following the granularity and texture of the world and its spectrum of perspectives and inspections, a greater thematic curve extends out of a unison of the sections of the book (reinforced by the poet’s interjections and reflections). The bursts of energy out of that curve tempts the levels of noise, the confusion, the booming, but there is a consistency of comfort through the breaking down of intensity by a strict, authorial control.
As much as Enzensberger jokes about his work being distinctly Russian (he even mentions, in a blink, Dostoyevsky as one of the greatest writers), the book indeed blossoms into a quintessentially Russian mode. And, without being too self-aware of itself and its format, it does provide gentle critiques of systems that have previously and concurrently exist, fail, and continue to operate. Despite it all, human romance is what holds the author, and the life around him, together.
A mid-weekend review session: two new books by above/ground press.
“Advancing negligible inches, the reeds are porous barriers, beige poles sharp tall, we are not soldiers, this is not a battlefield at present, but was it?” In Brenda Iijima’s SWAMP SWAMP, a response to the 1971 film SWAMP by Robert Smithson, concepts of terraforming and terra-informing lead to better knowing the form of humans. Feminist, postcolonial, journalistic, what starts at the beginning of the swamp leads through it, the element of the surprise, the unexpected, and the unpredictable binding us to new relationships with knowledge, besieged by and through white settler imperialists, entire systems of militaries, and the shadows of society that rear their head through and through by a revisiting of recent and subconscious representations. Released in 2017.
“If you cannot be honest with yourself, how can you get the truth out of anyone else?” Life’s ride’s most enjoyable moments are enjoying the moments of life. Livelihood and the inclusion of experience is a theme erupting from the strands of language threaded together in Carrie Hunter’s Series out of Sequence, which collages together lines from at least a handful of contemporary and nearly-contemporary films and television shows, from Minority Report to Daredevil. The result is a book of poetry that feels as alive as the maximalist culture we live within, an ecology of its own. Here, in this anti-sequence, there is the sense of the ecological, but also the sense of the chaotic, as contexts morph and blend and merge into one another. And yet via Hunter as the peripheral artist of the craft, the language feels universal and total, allowing an experience wholly unique and of itself, but beyond itself, magnetically envisioning the limits (and limitlessness the same) of our world. Released in 2017.
Recommended listening: "Endangered Species" by Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman.
Sans by G.L. Ford (Ugly Duckling, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
On the periphery: Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating into Space by Spiritualized
To have found loss
promised in the promise
of all fulfillment [. . .]
What is memory to a poet? What is time to a poet? What is that briefest moment, feeling so frail and vulnerable, to a poet who describes it as fully as possible? There is still recklessness. There is still absence. There still remains the challenge of coming to terms with the fullness of our reality. In Sans by G.L. Ford, I find a degree of sorrow that is overturned by a degree of complacency that is overturned again by a degree of power exhibited by the sake of the poet for the sake of the poetry. It represents a valiant core with frilly, vigilant edges, and yet, like the best and most provocative and equally successful, equally failed poetry of the everyday, of the every time, this is poetry that is confused, represents a challenged and perplexing realm of liminal servitude. The poetry is the result of undertaking the vastest realms of the possible, and that is the horrific, deadpan flatline of the question of humanity.
The categories I’d invented
to justify my
treasons gnawed at
the deep and gathered
reservoir of breath my
flesh had [. . .]
As I read Ford’s work, I couldn’t help but think of more romantic notions of the human, of that spirit that pervades us, that energy which spurs us on toward a sense of enveloping light and dark, cascading or crescendo, transient or crisis-complete. The definitions of this verse are excellently stark, with voices behind the poems that feel bold and daring and rupturing of the current milieu of the contemporary voice. This is work that is craft-laden, but evokes a respect for an egalitarian sense of the heart, of that which humanity once worshipped but has long abandoned. A book of time, a book of memory, this book is existentially offbeat and living in a world that has surpassed it. Which is why it is like gold within a pit of rust. Which is why it sits with the reader uncomfortably. Imagine holding a gold nugget while sitting in a pit of rust. Imagine the awe, and that horrific menace of the gleaming light of beauty that cannot do anything other than oppress through imprint of impression. Ford’s poetry glints and gleams disruptively in a world of image-obsessed droning and dreariness. Sadly, not even the reverberations of a pertinent poetry are ever enough to shock reality into new complexion and composition—just as the golden nugget exists, so it will never be more than an object that can be sold, or inevitably sold through immense, obsessive planning.
Water flowed beneath the ice
and ice beneath the water
and all I forgot, I forgot
by choice [. . .]
In a more practical sense, the poetry in Sans is hardly without, though it certainly stands in its own right on a platform that notices emptiness. The form of the poems is crisp and shuddering: short lines that wrap down the page in lingual maneuvers that remind me of the first time I read Susan Howe, the first time I read Rae Armantrout. That is not to say this poetry is like that of those writers, but there is a jolt, a door left ajar, a burst of light that drags the target in, like moths burnt crisp by that soft buzzing electric light. There is a sense that what is being read is not what it seems. That there is much being left out, and perhaps that is directly in line with the perch of memory as a motif sitting upon this book, or perhaps not. Nothing is totally explicit, another benefit to Ford’s work—the upbringing of the obscure is one that rallies. There is a warping of time and the perception of all the energies through the psychedelic-level of hypnosis existing within these lines. They are horrifying. They are monstrous. They are enchanting and distracting and impervious and they brighten the page, let the day of the reader become more kind, sit like an unkindly idol in the corner of the page, in the corner of the room, the eye directly facing outward, filled with belief, filled with mystique, filled with the trance of the unassuming, the unassumable.
Like worship stripped
of prayer, the relics I chose
to keep took the place
of moments lost [. . .]
Another Ugly Duckling author, Alan Felsenthal, wrote a similar collection of works earlier this year: Lowly. But in Lowly, Felsenthal evoked the image of the fire handler, the warrior, and the alchemist. The aims of these masculine figures, driven by the balance of Eros and Thanatos, are carried by the creative impulse. That alone corresponds with a significant beauty, a true ringing of the ears, pulling open of the eyelids toward the burst. But where the impulse and impassioned exploration of creativity’s edging and ownership sits with Felsenthal, we have the line drawn with separation from Ford. With Ford, there is warning, and “weeping” (to take from Ford’s “Enkidu’s Lament (5)”). As archetypal and magical these pages sit, they are still pages in Sans and there is a desperate sense of wonder and retrograde that spins all sense of knowing and leadership within the poems’ tones themselves toward dead-ends and graying zones.
I spent a week
cataloguing mouths, all
of lips and teeth [. . .]
Like with a 2017 read through the bodies of Lautreamont or Mallarme, I know little of what to do to resolve my understanding of Sans, which is where its sequence of inspiration becomes more and more fabricated, instilled (or distilled), a product of satisfaction through its grotesque level of unhandling. It is pleasurable but distorted. It is fulfilling but wrecking. It is settled but filled with the echoes of writhing. These qualities reflect through the grubby mirror of literary landscape as powerful, outlasting, and antagonistic in the grand scheme of the canon, which means they are served forth as an offering of cryptic goodness, messy rebellion, and a vague representation of a reality that is certainly before and bleeding into that reality of right now. The weeping, I think, is the true harmony of Ford’s poetry which is destined to continue, to continue, to continue, the algorithm corrupted, Sisyphus in unfazed agony, the full moon missing from the sky.
Nihil by Alfredo de Palchi, Translated by John Taylor (Xenos Books, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
On the periphery: Coral Rock by Archie Shepp
“More generally, such a poetics represents still another aspect of de Palchi’s search for what is primary, rudimentary, that is, for whatever underlies our experience of ourselves, the sexually desired Other, humanity, and the cosmos.”
(from John Taylor's introduction, page 8)
it’s my mythical river and I intend to drift down it, with anecdotes and poems, into the youthful years before my life was hunted down [. . .]
(from Nihil 1)
I read the words of an author whose realm of existence is one of absence, whose realm of absence is one of existence. Pendulums we’ve known from a godless, egotistic damnation swing. The 20th century moves into the 21st, and none of the tensions have been relieved. The grand lights of forever turn on only to turn off and bring us a black, blank space, and then, flip the page, and there they turn on again. There is balance in the universe as there is balance in this book, Nihil. A causeway of varying energies and reciprocations. Yin and Yang. Open, closed. Closed, open. Stomping about, or dormant. Presence and the presence of abstained presence.
Italian Alfredo de Palchi’s Nihil is a complicated book that evokes the substance of something arriving at and through the power of nothing, where nothing may be but does not need to be emptiness, negativity, suffering, or violence. It is all here, in this autobiographical manifest claiming life as what cannot be claimed. Here we have a heart wrenching naturalism for the 21st century. It is one that relies on the empathy of the reader, and is leveraged by the undiminishing necessity for human bondage. Its core is a sinking grit that sits beyond the skin, impressing itself into muscle tissue, bone, and the spell-dazed marrow of our walking throws and waking abatements.
where are you, and me, where am I in the morning as my mind explores the reason why we have to perish because of the return from nothingness?
(Nihil 3, #14)
Translated by the smoky, casual tumult of John Taylor, a skilled and ongoing poet of his own verse-mind, this book’s three-section sequence (composed of Nihil 1, Nihil 2, and Nihil 3) is an ouroboric burst wrapping within itself, creating patterns, passageways, and ambient scenarios that are fascinating doorways into the grueling, effervescent transience of de Palchi’s migration to and duration with an American reality. Nihil contains marveled subtext, elongated entwining vocalism, and a stirring of emotional endurance that wraps the book up neatly from cover to cover.
With this collection’s writing ranging from 1998 to 2013, the reader is capable of being substantially absorbed in the conflux of de Palchi’s experiences through life in the US, as well as his earlier years living in a world-stricken Italy. The experiences are represented through short emergences of image and narrative with each pass from one page to the next. As the nature of the book through its title and thorough introductory text suggests, much of Nihil deals with an astute and antagonizing degree of nothingness, and nothingness becomes idealized through the white space on the page, through the poems themselves.
Not always on my knees and spitting out blood . . .
I’m the battered old tower
of the caved-in local church
--from the worn-out bell
from the electrified crackling
(from Nihil 2)
The poems themselves are like inhalations and exhalations in a gaseous world of forever. They are the vacuum before the cosmos. These poems are the disheartening fleeting of time. With everything there is, there is also lack. There is nothing, and there is everything all the same. What is being left out in any given poem becomes part of the challenge in better understanding the foundational, spiritual tones of the book.
I find that de Palchi’s use of form is where we find these effects most clearly. This experience arrives through a harmonious presence of prose poems and verse poems, and those that blend both together. While the forms do not have blunt intentionality, their duality (and triangulation when brought together) reflect the craft in this poet’s practice. The shifting and shaping of the image between prose and verse often feels like a rupture or furrow that one becomes drawn into, entrapped by. It is maddening and beautiful. It is unstoppable and ecstatic. The reading experience, by extension, is one of intense pressure. There is an outstanding quality to the inclusion of prose and verse that results in a mind on the verge of both curiosity and confusion, but also at the mercy of presence: the poems continue, and they continue, and they continue. We hope to find more meaning, and perhaps we will, but nothing is certain.
with a syringe in my vein, you’re staring with your oriental eyes, you’re transfusing the poisonous serum into my blood to banish the evil poison; I call you Leukemia [. . .]
(from Nihil 3, #49)
Nihil is a bold and daring book. It is one of blood and ether. A book of trial and the damnation of witness. It is a book of residue and result, but also a book of assuage and critique. That hidden vortex of meaning behind each of the poems, from their levels of biography to the reason behind such brilliant emotional resilience, is one that can be interpreted, making this not only a fantastically challenging void of poetic work, but a fantastically impressionable sequence of writing to be enjoyed. All of its qualities spin it into the fever dream today’s maddening world of everything and nothing demand.
Actualities by Norma Cole and Marina Adams (Litmus Press, 2015)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
On the periphery: Didn’t It Rain by Songs: Ohia
a woman looks at the toe of her boot inventing the present
(from “The Dream I Had Ended”)
In the collaboration notes at the back of Actualities, both Norma Cole (the contributor of poetry to the book) and Marina Adams (contributor of visual art) discuss ideas of being. Cole references the startling quality behind Adams’s work, and “startling” may be the perfect way to describe the book. Within are peaks and glances, emerges and submerges, echoes of experience, and drips and drops of engagement with the world, but outside of the flow of the book itself, a lack of stability and consistency allows the book to startle, and startle again. The effects are surprising and enjoyable.
Red flowers on our left, his right, in the background, some apples and green grapes. “That’s not why you sent me here.”
The book is a large format for poetry, with engorged fonts and visual smatterings. Cole’s writing is often (though not always) sparse and concise, occasionally delicate and occasionally pointed, and the effect of seeing such language is one of enveloping presence. When paired with the line drawings and greater, colorful paint smears from Adams, the effect brings forward additional startles: emotion is an intricate weave of push and pull, paper lift and nudge, pupils dilating and constricting.
As the visuals often feel like they are serving as buffers, medians, or padding, there is a sense of containment within that fulfillment of flow. The poems, which are each uniquely constructed and offer limitless paradigms, thus feel contained and isolated for greater accessibility. Cole’s language benefits from such structures and support mechanisms; the collaboration transforms what would otherwise be a scatter of ideas and images and moments of experience, and disconnected beauty sent into a channel, funnel, or pathway. Though Cole’s writing is unforgivingly vague, and, despite roots through epigraphs and locales, challengingly mysterious, the thorough splicing creates a generally enjoyable poetic experience.
crystal of resistance
mountain of desire
A closer examination reveals Cole’s deep concern and reverence for transcription of space and the things that inhabit it, which is an appropriate extension of the exploration of being. What is “to be” within the world is accentuated through an exploration of things transitory through travel, exotic through discovery, and often very specific. The sense and tone of the personal wraps each poem up quite neatly despite the fleeting quality of these works. Indeed, the level of personable reflection makes these works almost feel like a day book, though where they are being written and when is left to the reader’s imagination.
Throughout Actualities at key, pivotal moments, the concept of being is explored directly. When Cole speaks “materiality of language / & / defamiliarization” (in “Roger One”), and it is paired with Adams’s textured-while-abstracted streaks of turquoise, magenta, orange, purple, green, black, and white, an unlocking effect occurs. It appears like the book is formed out of the tools and materials of language (and poetry) itself, and yet there is a certain degree of distance from it. And yet, oddly too, I would not describe the effect of this writing as “ethereal” or “transparent” or “ghostly.” The use of the language is very tactile, enduring, and openly visible. Perhaps Cole writes “defamiliarization” as a form of loss or disconnect between the act of the poem’s creation and the resemblance of it after the act has been completed.
What is that boat behind you? Just the moon. Stars’ gaze. Not the moon. A clock face. An hour a month.
(from “In Myriad Store”)
In this book, there are problems and there are solutions, and the exploration of the actualities of life, of the building blocks of existence, are touched upon with grace. And yet beneath all the ideas, there are strong poems waiting to be read just as poems, as the visual art sits and plays throughout as something pleasing to look at without significant analysis. The power of the book to make itself casual is perhaps the hidden power, the hidden beauty, in an otherwise complicated work. Perhaps this book in all its collaborative angles is a lesson to take lightly more artistry that we pass by in our lives, for more diverse understanding and enjoyment.
There are two brief reviews today, both books of poetry, both very suitable for serving as inspiration, illumination, evocation this weekend, or otherwise.
First: This Glittering Republic by Quenton Baker. Charged and driven by the harsh and enduring realities of race, inequality, and identity, Baker's voice and persona is one of utmost will. There is an independence, a brightness, that illuminates in these words, a tear across the page knowing the brutality and societal failing at this book's thematic core. Released in 2016 by Willow Books.
Second: Inherit by Ginger Ko. Upturning and unrelenting, this book captures many essences in a single space, and does so without withstanding, withholding, or covering. It is a book of revelation as it is a book of invitation: Ko brings the reader into the challenging, brute truth. Despite its difficulties and rigid clarity, this book and its poems follows Ko's trajectory through precision, persistence, and power. Released in 2017 by Sidebrow Books.