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.
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