A mid-weekend review session: two new books by above/ground press.
“Advancing negligible inches, the reeds are porous barriers, beige poles sharp tall, we are not soldiers, this is not a battlefield at present, but was it?” In Brenda Iijima’s SWAMP SWAMP, a response to the 1971 film SWAMP by Robert Smithson, concepts of terraforming and terra-informing lead to better knowing the form of humans. Feminist, postcolonial, journalistic, what starts at the beginning of the swamp leads through it, the element of the surprise, the unexpected, and the unpredictable binding us to new relationships with knowledge, besieged by and through white settler imperialists, entire systems of militaries, and the shadows of society that rear their head through and through by a revisiting of recent and subconscious representations. Released in 2017.
“If you cannot be honest with yourself, how can you get the truth out of anyone else?” Life’s ride’s most enjoyable moments are enjoying the moments of life. Livelihood and the inclusion of experience is a theme erupting from the strands of language threaded together in Carrie Hunter’s Series out of Sequence, which collages together lines from at least a handful of contemporary and nearly-contemporary films and television shows, from Minority Report to Daredevil. The result is a book of poetry that feels as alive as the maximalist culture we live within, an ecology of its own. Here, in this anti-sequence, there is the sense of the ecological, but also the sense of the chaotic, as contexts morph and blend and merge into one another. And yet via Hunter as the peripheral artist of the craft, the language feels universal and total, allowing an experience wholly unique and of itself, but beyond itself, magnetically envisioning the limits (and limitlessness the same) of our world. Released in 2017.
Recommended listening: "Endangered Species" by Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman.
Sans by G.L. Ford (Ugly Duckling, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
On the periphery: Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating into Space by Spiritualized
To have found loss
promised in the promise
of all fulfillment [. . .]
What is memory to a poet? What is time to a poet? What is that briefest moment, feeling so frail and vulnerable, to a poet who describes it as fully as possible? There is still recklessness. There is still absence. There still remains the challenge of coming to terms with the fullness of our reality. In Sans by G.L. Ford, I find a degree of sorrow that is overturned by a degree of complacency that is overturned again by a degree of power exhibited by the sake of the poet for the sake of the poetry. It represents a valiant core with frilly, vigilant edges, and yet, like the best and most provocative and equally successful, equally failed poetry of the everyday, of the every time, this is poetry that is confused, represents a challenged and perplexing realm of liminal servitude. The poetry is the result of undertaking the vastest realms of the possible, and that is the horrific, deadpan flatline of the question of humanity.
The categories I’d invented
to justify my
treasons gnawed at
the deep and gathered
reservoir of breath my
flesh had [. . .]
As I read Ford’s work, I couldn’t help but think of more romantic notions of the human, of that spirit that pervades us, that energy which spurs us on toward a sense of enveloping light and dark, cascading or crescendo, transient or crisis-complete. The definitions of this verse are excellently stark, with voices behind the poems that feel bold and daring and rupturing of the current milieu of the contemporary voice. This is work that is craft-laden, but evokes a respect for an egalitarian sense of the heart, of that which humanity once worshipped but has long abandoned. A book of time, a book of memory, this book is existentially offbeat and living in a world that has surpassed it. Which is why it is like gold within a pit of rust. Which is why it sits with the reader uncomfortably. Imagine holding a gold nugget while sitting in a pit of rust. Imagine the awe, and that horrific menace of the gleaming light of beauty that cannot do anything other than oppress through imprint of impression. Ford’s poetry glints and gleams disruptively in a world of image-obsessed droning and dreariness. Sadly, not even the reverberations of a pertinent poetry are ever enough to shock reality into new complexion and composition—just as the golden nugget exists, so it will never be more than an object that can be sold, or inevitably sold through immense, obsessive planning.
Water flowed beneath the ice
and ice beneath the water
and all I forgot, I forgot
by choice [. . .]
In a more practical sense, the poetry in Sans is hardly without, though it certainly stands in its own right on a platform that notices emptiness. The form of the poems is crisp and shuddering: short lines that wrap down the page in lingual maneuvers that remind me of the first time I read Susan Howe, the first time I read Rae Armantrout. That is not to say this poetry is like that of those writers, but there is a jolt, a door left ajar, a burst of light that drags the target in, like moths burnt crisp by that soft buzzing electric light. There is a sense that what is being read is not what it seems. That there is much being left out, and perhaps that is directly in line with the perch of memory as a motif sitting upon this book, or perhaps not. Nothing is totally explicit, another benefit to Ford’s work—the upbringing of the obscure is one that rallies. There is a warping of time and the perception of all the energies through the psychedelic-level of hypnosis existing within these lines. They are horrifying. They are monstrous. They are enchanting and distracting and impervious and they brighten the page, let the day of the reader become more kind, sit like an unkindly idol in the corner of the page, in the corner of the room, the eye directly facing outward, filled with belief, filled with mystique, filled with the trance of the unassuming, the unassumable.
Like worship stripped
of prayer, the relics I chose
to keep took the place
of moments lost [. . .]
Another Ugly Duckling author, Alan Felsenthal, wrote a similar collection of works earlier this year: Lowly. But in Lowly, Felsenthal evoked the image of the fire handler, the warrior, and the alchemist. The aims of these masculine figures, driven by the balance of Eros and Thanatos, are carried by the creative impulse. That alone corresponds with a significant beauty, a true ringing of the ears, pulling open of the eyelids toward the burst. But where the impulse and impassioned exploration of creativity’s edging and ownership sits with Felsenthal, we have the line drawn with separation from Ford. With Ford, there is warning, and “weeping” (to take from Ford’s “Enkidu’s Lament (5)”). As archetypal and magical these pages sit, they are still pages in Sans and there is a desperate sense of wonder and retrograde that spins all sense of knowing and leadership within the poems’ tones themselves toward dead-ends and graying zones.
I spent a week
cataloguing mouths, all
of lips and teeth [. . .]
Like with a 2017 read through the bodies of Lautreamont or Mallarme, I know little of what to do to resolve my understanding of Sans, which is where its sequence of inspiration becomes more and more fabricated, instilled (or distilled), a product of satisfaction through its grotesque level of unhandling. It is pleasurable but distorted. It is fulfilling but wrecking. It is settled but filled with the echoes of writhing. These qualities reflect through the grubby mirror of literary landscape as powerful, outlasting, and antagonistic in the grand scheme of the canon, which means they are served forth as an offering of cryptic goodness, messy rebellion, and a vague representation of a reality that is certainly before and bleeding into that reality of right now. The weeping, I think, is the true harmony of Ford’s poetry which is destined to continue, to continue, to continue, the algorithm corrupted, Sisyphus in unfazed agony, the full moon missing from the sky.
Nihil by Alfredo de Palchi, Translated by John Taylor (Xenos Books, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
On the periphery: Coral Rock by Archie Shepp
“More generally, such a poetics represents still another aspect of de Palchi’s search for what is primary, rudimentary, that is, for whatever underlies our experience of ourselves, the sexually desired Other, humanity, and the cosmos.”
(from John Taylor's introduction, page 8)
it’s my mythical river and I intend to drift down it, with anecdotes and poems, into the youthful years before my life was hunted down [. . .]
(from Nihil 1)
I read the words of an author whose realm of existence is one of absence, whose realm of absence is one of existence. Pendulums we’ve known from a godless, egotistic damnation swing. The 20th century moves into the 21st, and none of the tensions have been relieved. The grand lights of forever turn on only to turn off and bring us a black, blank space, and then, flip the page, and there they turn on again. There is balance in the universe as there is balance in this book, Nihil. A causeway of varying energies and reciprocations. Yin and Yang. Open, closed. Closed, open. Stomping about, or dormant. Presence and the presence of abstained presence.
Italian Alfredo de Palchi’s Nihil is a complicated book that evokes the substance of something arriving at and through the power of nothing, where nothing may be but does not need to be emptiness, negativity, suffering, or violence. It is all here, in this autobiographical manifest claiming life as what cannot be claimed. Here we have a heart wrenching naturalism for the 21st century. It is one that relies on the empathy of the reader, and is leveraged by the undiminishing necessity for human bondage. Its core is a sinking grit that sits beyond the skin, impressing itself into muscle tissue, bone, and the spell-dazed marrow of our walking throws and waking abatements.
where are you, and me, where am I in the morning as my mind explores the reason why we have to perish because of the return from nothingness?
(Nihil 3, #14)
Translated by the smoky, casual tumult of John Taylor, a skilled and ongoing poet of his own verse-mind, this book’s three-section sequence (composed of Nihil 1, Nihil 2, and Nihil 3) is an ouroboric burst wrapping within itself, creating patterns, passageways, and ambient scenarios that are fascinating doorways into the grueling, effervescent transience of de Palchi’s migration to and duration with an American reality. Nihil contains marveled subtext, elongated entwining vocalism, and a stirring of emotional endurance that wraps the book up neatly from cover to cover.
With this collection’s writing ranging from 1998 to 2013, the reader is capable of being substantially absorbed in the conflux of de Palchi’s experiences through life in the US, as well as his earlier years living in a world-stricken Italy. The experiences are represented through short emergences of image and narrative with each pass from one page to the next. As the nature of the book through its title and thorough introductory text suggests, much of Nihil deals with an astute and antagonizing degree of nothingness, and nothingness becomes idealized through the white space on the page, through the poems themselves.
Not always on my knees and spitting out blood . . .
I’m the battered old tower
of the caved-in local church
--from the worn-out bell
from the electrified crackling
(from Nihil 2)
The poems themselves are like inhalations and exhalations in a gaseous world of forever. They are the vacuum before the cosmos. These poems are the disheartening fleeting of time. With everything there is, there is also lack. There is nothing, and there is everything all the same. What is being left out in any given poem becomes part of the challenge in better understanding the foundational, spiritual tones of the book.
I find that de Palchi’s use of form is where we find these effects most clearly. This experience arrives through a harmonious presence of prose poems and verse poems, and those that blend both together. While the forms do not have blunt intentionality, their duality (and triangulation when brought together) reflect the craft in this poet’s practice. The shifting and shaping of the image between prose and verse often feels like a rupture or furrow that one becomes drawn into, entrapped by. It is maddening and beautiful. It is unstoppable and ecstatic. The reading experience, by extension, is one of intense pressure. There is an outstanding quality to the inclusion of prose and verse that results in a mind on the verge of both curiosity and confusion, but also at the mercy of presence: the poems continue, and they continue, and they continue. We hope to find more meaning, and perhaps we will, but nothing is certain.
with a syringe in my vein, you’re staring with your oriental eyes, you’re transfusing the poisonous serum into my blood to banish the evil poison; I call you Leukemia [. . .]
(from Nihil 3, #49)
Nihil is a bold and daring book. It is one of blood and ether. A book of trial and the damnation of witness. It is a book of residue and result, but also a book of assuage and critique. That hidden vortex of meaning behind each of the poems, from their levels of biography to the reason behind such brilliant emotional resilience, is one that can be interpreted, making this not only a fantastically challenging void of poetic work, but a fantastically impressionable sequence of writing to be enjoyed. All of its qualities spin it into the fever dream today’s maddening world of everything and nothing demand.
Actualities by Norma Cole and Marina Adams (Litmus Press, 2015)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
On the periphery: Didn’t It Rain by Songs: Ohia
a woman looks at the toe of her boot inventing the present
(from “The Dream I Had Ended”)
In the collaboration notes at the back of Actualities, both Norma Cole (the contributor of poetry to the book) and Marina Adams (contributor of visual art) discuss ideas of being. Cole references the startling quality behind Adams’s work, and “startling” may be the perfect way to describe the book. Within are peaks and glances, emerges and submerges, echoes of experience, and drips and drops of engagement with the world, but outside of the flow of the book itself, a lack of stability and consistency allows the book to startle, and startle again. The effects are surprising and enjoyable.
Red flowers on our left, his right, in the background, some apples and green grapes. “That’s not why you sent me here.”
The book is a large format for poetry, with engorged fonts and visual smatterings. Cole’s writing is often (though not always) sparse and concise, occasionally delicate and occasionally pointed, and the effect of seeing such language is one of enveloping presence. When paired with the line drawings and greater, colorful paint smears from Adams, the effect brings forward additional startles: emotion is an intricate weave of push and pull, paper lift and nudge, pupils dilating and constricting.
As the visuals often feel like they are serving as buffers, medians, or padding, there is a sense of containment within that fulfillment of flow. The poems, which are each uniquely constructed and offer limitless paradigms, thus feel contained and isolated for greater accessibility. Cole’s language benefits from such structures and support mechanisms; the collaboration transforms what would otherwise be a scatter of ideas and images and moments of experience, and disconnected beauty sent into a channel, funnel, or pathway. Though Cole’s writing is unforgivingly vague, and, despite roots through epigraphs and locales, challengingly mysterious, the thorough splicing creates a generally enjoyable poetic experience.
crystal of resistance
mountain of desire
A closer examination reveals Cole’s deep concern and reverence for transcription of space and the things that inhabit it, which is an appropriate extension of the exploration of being. What is “to be” within the world is accentuated through an exploration of things transitory through travel, exotic through discovery, and often very specific. The sense and tone of the personal wraps each poem up quite neatly despite the fleeting quality of these works. Indeed, the level of personable reflection makes these works almost feel like a day book, though where they are being written and when is left to the reader’s imagination.
Throughout Actualities at key, pivotal moments, the concept of being is explored directly. When Cole speaks “materiality of language / & / defamiliarization” (in “Roger One”), and it is paired with Adams’s textured-while-abstracted streaks of turquoise, magenta, orange, purple, green, black, and white, an unlocking effect occurs. It appears like the book is formed out of the tools and materials of language (and poetry) itself, and yet there is a certain degree of distance from it. And yet, oddly too, I would not describe the effect of this writing as “ethereal” or “transparent” or “ghostly.” The use of the language is very tactile, enduring, and openly visible. Perhaps Cole writes “defamiliarization” as a form of loss or disconnect between the act of the poem’s creation and the resemblance of it after the act has been completed.
What is that boat behind you? Just the moon. Stars’ gaze. Not the moon. A clock face. An hour a month.
(from “In Myriad Store”)
In this book, there are problems and there are solutions, and the exploration of the actualities of life, of the building blocks of existence, are touched upon with grace. And yet beneath all the ideas, there are strong poems waiting to be read just as poems, as the visual art sits and plays throughout as something pleasing to look at without significant analysis. The power of the book to make itself casual is perhaps the hidden power, the hidden beauty, in an otherwise complicated work. Perhaps this book in all its collaborative angles is a lesson to take lightly more artistry that we pass by in our lives, for more diverse understanding and enjoyment.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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