Ursa Major by Yves Bonnefoy (Released by Seagull Books, 2016)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
Casual periphery: Black Origami by Jlin
Yves Bonnefoy was one of the greatest living voices of French poetry. In Ursa Major, his sixth book published by Seagull Books, he explores in profound new ways the mysteries of human consciousness.
[. . .]
Yves Bonnefoy was a poet, critic and professor emeritis of comparative poetics at the Collège de France, Paris, and received several major international awards for his work, including the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca (1995) and the Franz Kakfa Prize (2005). In addition to poetry and literary criticism, he has published numerous works on art history and translated into French several of Shakespeare’s plays.
[. . .]
Beverley Bie Brahic is an award-winning Canadian poet and translator. She has published two collections of poetry and translations of French writers including Guillaume Apollinaire, Francis Ponge and Hélène Cixous.
I would like to speak with you. / Who are you? / Red, a sky that is all red. / Have you another name?
(from “Hello? Hello?”)
It starts with the keys. Black keys sticking like jammed locks. Barricades, nonplussed segments. We sit together, clasping strange and immutable objects, those that combat the static quality of keys, as portals, objects repositioned, hard to describe, or even imagine, in a world so unrelated, this world we have, so stable and solemnly stagnant. Swirls of dust. Shudder of stars. Blankets upon blankets: new depths to the yawning in the night paired with the structures that give us access, and there is dulling, and there is bluntness, and there is meekness. And so now a book: a new object to be placed beyond the keys, and beyond everything else, to generate afresh the world right before us, a world that looks anew, spinning, the fragmented coin of our own world, shattered, shot, in multiple directions. Yves Bonnefoy’s invisible hand seen careening cordially into the future.
She? It was night. She knocked at the window. I opened, her huge head filled the window, the whole window. I was afraid.
(from “You, Again!”)
There are moments and then there are emerged moments to match the mourning of those previous: topical, traditional, noticeable. Beyond the keys there is the book and then the breath races, gently, quietly, with the heart: images as quintessential. Paramount. As problematic: the fluttering sensations of words transforming worlds beyond the lids: luring, alluring, and so on. A rhyme meets the rhythm that the French poet would know were he alive: jubilations whirring, a weirdly episodic and catastrophically clandestine beauty in this book: shatter open the glass baubles, rupture the density of lenses, burnish the meticulous unknowns with reinforced language.
Have we, do you think, existed?
(from “Oh, Divine”)
The translator, Beverley Bie Brahic, has a tongue saintly stoic and wildly rupturing: a test pressuring the secret, softly-lit poetics out of the reader, awareness, sweat on brow, tightness within the skin, the movement present, ever so, and yearning. Translations of translations of time and space. Translations of translations of the indefatigable complacency towards the burden of thought: a burden so bright and bountiful, we have pride in knowing its presence, its persistence, its faculties and fruitfulness. A reminder: color, questioning, and existence. All the things we want, need, know: palpitation of consideration. A naturalness to the dialog, gutting open the conceptions and bluntly blown, there it stands, outlasting the moment that tries to capture it.
Hard, harder, hardest: to imagine I’d never been exposed to A piece of stone, with its marks, its cracks, all its colours—that’s true infinity, don’t you think? (from “What’s That Noise?”) And now, here we go, here we are, present reader, affixed reader, afflicted reader of the dainty and the spell cast, in isolate, in isolation of intention. Myself as ignoble but invited, flapping but wound up, resisting but still spun across the fabric of these strange, captivatingly ambiguous stretches of art. The landscape. The passage of time. The narrative bombardment, a bereavement highlights or as subtext sits and brings us closer, it is temporary: to think of the magic, and the transformation. Where once transformation was possible, now it is certain. Where once the magic was held to pause in a blank state of being, now here it lies at the base of our feet, slowly making its ascent. Bonnefoy, crafter of the splendid, for this book is like a wish held up and opened, opened to mean expanded, as inviting as it is surrounding. As coldly shaking as it is warmly forgiving.
A book with four parts: “Ursa Major” and “Inside, Outside?” and “The Bare Foot, The Things” and “Oh, Divine” and it is a book that will press and press, standing on its own in acute transparency. These are the things we do not see, and these are the things we should see, and this is how to go about it. Playfully. Perceptively. Purposefully.
Thinking slightly further: fractals of childhood. And the spiral grace too, spinning in the circles as we blush ourselves past magic, wonder, daze, and the drama of knowing more, and more, through less and less space: minimal to bring that tightness back, objects clasped to be released, the keys touched down upon to be forgotten. In Bonnefoy, the language is one of grace, but too, it is one of humility. An innocence crashing like waves against cliffs, fresh succulents moaning against the sea’s swollen air.
Look down and then up again: keys, and they are replaced. Long since. To the old guard, the old regime, the mechanical keyboard itself opening. Alas, I can breathe again, as I could write again, inspired by this collection, Ursa Major, a bear, of witness, of energies, of representation. It does little to describe what can be best said through reading in silence: the arch, the archetypal, the buoyancy of the overwhelming met with the underwhelming in harmony. In this little blend of procreation, we have the realm of possibility. Bonnefoy as the bringer of enchantment: an imbue of the chromatic, of the perceptional, of the pressure to soften the challenge to linger.
Do you think I’d want to let go of you?
No, but where are you? Where are we?
I don’t know. In the sky.
(from “Ursa Major”)
ASTRAL PROJECTION by Kyle Flemmer (Released by above/ground in 2017)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
Causal periphery: Short Passing Game by Davy Kehoe
VISITATIONS OF / THE AFTERLIFE / (SEMI- / PERMANENT)
A musing on permanence. A musing on muses. Permanently fixed as paper can be, as the folds into the book. I’ve read this of Kyle Flemmer as a poet in 2017, and here privileged as pinnacled by a sober chaos, the rumble of the essence spoken aloud of becoming, being, in transit, the reader as the fix and as such fixed, or the post-transit, above and through, this book too understated, is a book of how to move, how to be open and up, whether the breath rises or falls, and we focus. And strumming around I’m diving left and right, page to the right first, then the left, hands go to fists, thinking about the line, the flux, the certainty to mark the page. Right or wrong but under no knowing of moral obligation or a mindfulness that begs to know better, I imagine the author as we always do: hunched over a thought, peering into it, examination roomy and complex, but no complaining, magnifying glass over book, the projection of the voice amplified by the echo of its own voice, its own owning of substance.
But here the other layer, the layering is the act of placing up and up, positioning and uttering. This work as the enhancement process, the prepositions and the postpositions, and the knowing of the directions, alchemical or at least ancient, a logic, an arithmetic, cold and to the touch, but the paper is warm. The paper worn from me flipping, though not much to flip, this title is as obviously a sentiment as it is a notation, my breath slowing as I am on the verge of realization of attitudes in the age of inquiry needing the crux of the curious: the parked press of a spark as we read: “ASTERITE: / GEMSTONES KNOWN / TO ANCIENTS” and lights light though it also was the bedding to the cheeks, kept swollen and worn, warmly, through the star, and the hunch is the night, peer looking at peer through the flight of a narrowly open set of words and meanings. It is a gasp of air flushing through. ASTRAL PROJECTION a morph of our own positions “IMPACT EJECTA / LOCKED INTO ORBIT” the way the family spins out of control, family of controlling mechanisms, the knobs and dials and turns and spins aloof, spinning through bound and unbound laws and sets of laws.
As hypnotic in flush as hypnotic in pensive as a thorn’s embedded brush, the notifications in Flemmer’s work are tame but hushing and their effect is a result of the symphonic influences of the everyday, mirrored with the mire of the deluge of the unknown, a deluge as invocational as performative, a quest to peek, a question of peaking. In this case I imagine the self, an utterly incomparable being of universality, who is as much spearheading a vision of the iceberg floating across our climate-changed-oceans, as the self who stares upward into the oblivious cosmos, mapped stars a bouquet of bold guidance. Or perhaps we’re all frozen through the quaking malcontents of beings beyond our boons and brazen shims and slams: “GORGON’S HEAD / UPON HER BREAST” as the locomotion to get up, feel right, push better. Flemmer, with his diagonal poetics, offers the sour spatula from which we must rest our lazy, equitable tongues, and move forward like frolicking mimicry into the dust, like dust, as dust, once more unto a breached midnight blue sky.
Propped like a crypt of imagery, fastened like knobs and dials to the machine, which is a map calling your name, therapies of folding engagement, the hissing beep of the oven made ready, the historical nuances of what could be said to be kept tight, and what could be tossed, relieved, into the older space beyond, that distance which we know of, refer to, rely upon. Spiral bodies are these reliances, often referential, and often confronted. Utterances. “NATURE IS / REVENGED / BY NEMESIS” and “NATURE IS ORDER CONTORTED / REVENGED / BY NEMESIS” as the way it should be an utterance, the way it should break open with egg-like ooze resting upon the surface of your eyes, that dangling splurge, the effect of your eyes, twin sponges in the gangway, calmed by a fresh wheeze of the poetries that boost, boutique indexes of “RUBBLE PILES, BINARIES” toppling over the comfort of the cheeks.
First, 2016's Once in Blockadia is the anvil we've been waiting for. Political and ecological, civil and riotous, Stephen Collis has crafted work demonstrative of a poetic system that contends beautifully all the damning systems around us. From Talonbooks.
Second, 2017's Meadow Slasher, not to be confused with Meadow Thrasher, is the fourth item in Joshua Marie Wilkinson's No Volta pentalogy. It is rapid, earnest. It is raw, but concentrated. The poems in this book extend the poet's life for us viewers, just as previous poems have. From Black Ocean.
Lowly by Alan Felsenthal (Released by Ugly Duckling in 2017)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
Causal peripheries: Juliana Huxtable
If I can remember the moment before I forgot, I will know I am a mystic now.
[. . .]
The true light is the loneliest light there is.
(from “Like Someone Once Was”)
With time and story as two major motifs that delicately structure Alan Felsenthal’s Lowly, this book is a humble one. Containing 32 poems often (through diverse thematic premise) expand and contract, the result of the overall book is equal parts excitement and accessibility. Within his first published full length collection, Felsenthal examines, with remarkable fullness, new approaches to mysticism, the arrangement of image, and the pinnacle of experience (via storytelling) through flits of emerging lyric, tousles of prose, and the occasional acrobatics of an otherwise boundless form. A rather tight-knit collection, Felsenthal's rather young voice is startling: it appears timeless and gives us premises by which an examination of the human life lived in 2017 becomes more possible and more enjoyable.
From cover to cover, Lowly is a book of beauty. The pieces range in shape and size, but maintain a degree of tone, a tone of tone, so to speak, successfully capturing and holding in place the essence of Felsenthal’s poetic interests. This is a poetry where the speaker is personable and present, reliant and reliable, and utterly fascinating. Voice wavers. Content bends. The historical and contemporary circumstances dance. And yet the mood of these poems, the texture of these poems, is consistent. A beauty abounds and, just as Ariana Reines claims to have reread the poems over and over, the beauty begs to be cherished over and over.
the river wears a waste apron,
grades the rocks to steeper slopes,
grows mossy of a saintly hue.
(from “The Last Traces of Bluffs Fading Out”)
A fascinating effect comes through the natural array of image and statement. The poems blush with the psychedelia of certainty in what is easy to define as their author’s core; and yet they are vacuous, liminal, and distanced from one another. This collection, then, is as much about its abundance of the beautiful as it is about its range of style. There is an implicit value of wandering that explains the logistics of the waver in Felsenthal’s work. The waver of the narrative of the poems, that they may engage on one premise and then surprise through their own twisted pathways. Never do these works explore to the point of the grotesque; limitations hang over them like veils, modes of intention placed to the point of exasperation by the artist positioned above.
The notion of the “above” is one of height, and it would be wrong to disregard the presence of both God and “the godly” in Lowly, which ironically or not still, in its naming, counterpoints a distinct actual or potential otherness. With obvious nods to a Jewish heritage through parable and language and symbolic characters, and also an appreciation for the archetypal and ancient in storytelling, investigation, and preservation, Felsenthal demonstrates a passion for expressing collected knowledge. In this collection, such expression includes is actuated through demonstrations of reached wisdom, clarity of interest and inspiration, and the effort necessary to knowing.
I poked a worm with a twig
the wind made shudder, the wind
I invented to stop me from poking the worm.
(from “The Mind’s Eloquent Hotel”)
That otherness mentioned above, the being or state of being that is not quite knowable, not quite attainable, is one that is undeniable in Felsenthal’s work. Like Duncan, or even Rauan Klassnik, this lingering source of life and death in the poems of Lowly is one that cannot be shrugged off. It is inspiration. It is reasoning. It is the beck and call and sobering capacity of the poet here. A Brother Antonius blended with a New York hedonist’s agnosticism. A Gary Snyder afforded the epistemological luxuries of the era of the Millennials. In reading Felsenthal, I was also healthily reminded of the themes and worldviews of Rexroth, Blaser, di Prima, and a more controlled and contented Olson.
As an introductory offering to Felsenthal’s poetics, Lowly fluidly reflects the nature and youthful energy of dabbling. Because of the book’s relatively unconstrained structure, the poems within are fractured glass with a multiplicity of story. Some poems are small fragments of image. Other poems offer significantly explored and intensely pristine moments carrying weight, context, depth, prelude, and a prolonging conclusion and totality. Dabbling and experimentation also presents itself in form. Many poems are tightly wrapped, often heavily aware of enjambment and breath. Others are narrative poems that wind serpentine down the page, often escaping the poet’s control for a more extensive and encompassing presence of language, natural and wild, as open as the mind of these poems’ speaker.
upon a time before our eyes were rocks, before the columns broke
off and fell into the center of the earth
(from “Alternate Zoo”)
Even still, Felsenthal has included poems written in straight prose, which is arguably one of the stronger forms in the book. The lack of projective writing and full exploration of the page indicates a degree of stillness and formalism that aids the themes while also carrying a degree of maturity, artistic conservativism, and (as mentioned earlier) humbleness. And yet, curiously, how this book might look if greater risks of form were made, with particular regards to a poetics packed with shards of image and bendings of tone through themes of witness (even omniscience, arguably) is an image to ponder as Felsenthal continues his work.
On a final note, I found it very enlightening to consider Felsenthal in our present age of newness, an age where creativity is constantly fleeting, where trends are instantaneous, and where permanence is unapproachable. With Lowly, it seems, we have potential emergent ways of looking at this world context capable of counteracting flight and thinness of the contemporary life within. Though not defiantly antique, Lowly is a book that gathers its power from tangible and abstract tokens of the sacred, tokens capable of drawing out the value of memory and perseverance, continued presence that is nearly arcane. Susan Howe, the other major writer whose quotes are featured in the book, uses the word “metaphysical” to describe the Lowly poet, and I would have to agree. But, beyond Howe’s description, I believe Felsenthal represents a metaphysical consideration that is even more valuable in our newest contexts, and thus should be approached from them first. Felsenthal is capable of starting forward and reaching back, rather than starting from history and attempting to integrate forward. Such situating and spread is a fascinating examination of a poet who can linger in multiple time frames at once and, with a hint of irony, show the value of the full spectrum while also giving value to its parts. Metaphysical, or just straight meta, in this book we have a profound voice that may be quite close to the metaphorical heavens after (and before) all.
Invite instead the arcane. Hello.
From: Sunny girls by Sandra Moussempès, translated by Eléna Rivera (Released by above/ground in 2017)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
Causal peripheries: R3hab, Phil Ochs, Flying Lotus, Young Marco, Burial (1, 2, 3)
In above/ground’s published translated selection of Sandra Moussempès’s Sunny girls, we have 12 pages of poetry collected into a shared reflection of sensation. Here there is the sensation of the emerged emotion; the incoming flux, epiphanic, startling, arousing. It is the sensation of possibility, where Moussempès establishes, unleashes, and releases context. Beneath the banner of the image of the line cast into water, this is poetry that is the line, the throw, and the water altogether. It is beautiful language of the unknown, of the potential, of the radical.
Undeniably a small pamphlet of verse, From: Sunny girls is the type of book that explores the possibility of itself. Thanks in part to the incredibly skilled work of translator Eléna Rivera, as well as, of course, the included original French writ of Moussempès, what is a small pamphlet is also a sequence of induced cravings to read the full work, the original French, abound, are harmonious, encourage salivation, a seeking of salvation through new words. The voice of the speaker within the text evokes a full poetic range: there is the breath, and it is short, and then it is long. This is performance and engagement, with profoundly subtle hints of feminism and naturalism, in unison: “Poetesses who bet on the banal don’t ride mopeds despite appearances”.
Lines move in staggers, and then splice across the page like lightning. The lines are fully human, fully realized, full actuated; and yet they are at odds with each other, for the sake of being at odds before the reader. With equal parts maelstrom and finesse burst spirited instances of balance-cum-counter, crushing the impasse of maladroit forms and “banal” formulaic intentions.
Yet there is surprise. There is unknown and it is consistently furthered. Flip a page and Moussempès shows the extended reflex of repetition, and bulk, crushing blocks of prose, where punctuation has been subsided for rhythm, where speed is harnessed and funneled into the extraordinary. Whereas the space of the before was chiseled, here there converges elegance and literary force into spectral vibrancy, cloud-like, expanding and contracting at once: a new image of the breath for the reader. Like a Gertrude Stein or, fifty years later, the ongoing abrasions of the language poets, there is a thickness to the life in poems like “Momentary Resurgence of Visual Sensations,” which contains lines like: “I smile but without thinking reflect on the fact that thought speaks for itself speaks the sound of my lips doesn’t exist if it isn’t in the sonic fiction”. And this thickness is uplifting, ravishing, peculiar and inducing of life.
The cinematographic qualities of Moussempès should not be ignored, especially in this selection. The quasi-described elements of the human body, its parts arranged in and out of focus, are captured and referenced but not relied upon. The performance of balancing back and forth between movement and eruptive mental declarations is balanced with maturity, elevated arrangements, and a very concentrated fulcrum of expression. To be “sunny” is to be impacted by the sun, by the light, in all its weight and substance. The world Moussempès has crafted for her speaker is one where the realms of possibility of humanity are explored; and yet also, more precisely, the realms of possibility of the poet too: “I ask myself and my answer is a question that becomes a remake of my supposed previous life”. The cyclical underpinnings are a gift of challenge and revelation at once.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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