Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
Like Bits of Wind by Pierre Chappuis, Translated by John Taylor (Released Seagull Books, 2016)
A poem is entirely momentum towards the Other, love, though it is but absence.
(from “The Other,” in The Proof is in the Void on page 322)
I believe I failed. I believe I read Like Bits of Wind in an entirely inappropriate manner. The book is huge, and represents hugeness. Nearly 400 pages densely laden with verse and prose of the most incredible poetry, a poetry that fills land and mind in ways that go beyond spirituality, beyond practicality, and yet encompass both. I read the book in just a few days. This is the wrong thing to do.
Swiss poet Pierre Chappuis, with the daunting assistance of translator John Taylor, has given the English language a gift. This book of books is an arousing and arresting blockade of meditations, insights, and critical commentary on a world of language at once pristine, concise, and disturbingly present. This book of books pervades the core with an immense energy, while giving significant credit to a writer whose aesthetic and poetics is focused, chiseled, alarmingly bountiful in its beauty and clarity.
Mountains of dream, of haze:
words unburdened of their meaning.
(from Full Margins, section 2, on page 25)
The translated books included in Like Bits of Wind are: Full Margins, Blind Distance, Abstracted from Time, The Black of Summer, Within the Voice’s Reach, Cuts, and selections from The Proof is in the Void. The original publication dates of these books range from 1992 to 2014. Each book is so significantly unique that to fully explore their individual identities in this writing here would be a disaster, but I will touch upon their core qualities. Full Margins and Cuts provide sparse verse described by John Taylor in his introduction as Haiku-like and skeletal.
The heart of Like Bits of Wind is filled with longer, larger, sprawling poems taking up form through prose, written in both the traditional paragraph and in staggered sequences of lines. Finally, The Proof is in the Void, which is remarkably the earliest book included, closes this collection. In it Chappuis explores a poetics that is transfixed on developing an attitude toward the nature of language. He writes of the void and absence. He explores silences and egos. He records questions relating to the trembling and reverberation within. Though his references are numerous, and his homages and respects are indefatigable, I found his critical work undeniably similar to Rene Char and Paul Eluard, the work of Chappuis being equally as illustrative and varied.
It speaks for itself! A gesture, a landscape, a photograph, a revealing blunder, a style of dressing, etc.—the expression always designates that which escapes words, takes place ore expresses itself apart from them. Moving water, passing clouds, a piece of music, a face all speak for themselves without us having to wonder how they occur or what they are saying to the world.
(from “Speaking,” in The Proof is in the Void on page 358)
And yet Chappuis is distinctly outerworldly compared to the mystique and inquisition of Char and Eluard, and the countless other 20th century European writers. Though I would never hesitate to label much of the poems in Like Bits of Wind as avant garde, I would be more elevated to label them natural, of nature. A nature poet at his core, Chappuis brings the bounty of his poems inward through the very immediate and majestic spaces around him. These are broad stroked spaces. This is an expressionism that unlocked an image rather than crystallizing it. These are descriptions that touch upon the relationship between the heart of the individual and the heart, equally beating, of the earth, air, and water nearby.
And by “nearby” I mean Chappuis explores space and existence via close proximity. Like reading the work of Bei Dao or even Li Po, reading Chappuis, no matter how condensed or how expansive the piece, brings an immediate space, an exquisite environment, through the voice of the speaker and plants it, a seed or greater, into the mind of the reader. That he has even called out 18th century haiku poet Fukuda Chiyo-ni gives further to this point. The work of Chappuis, unique to himself, feels like a blend of linguistic philosopher and Zen Buddhist—though to classify him and his work as such would only damage the even broader potentials found in his poetry.
For the time being, breathtaking chilliness and transparency.
To go, over random paths, like someone on the lookout for an echo, through the forest assailed by a thousand flame tips.
(from “Noon Fanfares” in The Black of Summer on page 186)
At the beginning of this writing, I mentioned that reading this entire book in a few days is the terrible way to do so. The overall feeling, the milieu, found within Like Bits of Wind is containment through very singular, pensive moments. Some of these moments are more temporary than others; however, they are still spaces of the heightened mind. They start at the core of being: the heart’s beat, the lungs’ breathing, the eyes and their zeroing in on what is present and what is not.
Though there is never an instruction to approach these poems slowly, my body’s reaction to reading the book quickly was, on the whole, negative. As soon as I fell back, the last page flipped, my reader’s hands urged itself to return, to start again, to take the pace of a slowness Chappuis has offered. Indeed, much of the gift of this book of books is Chappuis’s own landscape, map, which contains fundamental exercises in the construction of the image. In truth, my first reading was exaggerated by a sense of nostalgia. I remembered encountering William Carlos Williams for the first time. Remembered encountering Ezra Pound for the first time. Remembered seeing the image for the first time. Chappuis in this book has provided another opportunity to relearn how to see—no, how to feel—through the image in new circumstances and situations, and it is extraordinary.
Clearness seemingly letting herself be carried away with regret, sliding along languidly, joyously, cheerfully, lingering in hugs and kisses, in love with herself, scattering her reflections that fragment as soon as they are gathered; soon she dives headlong into the rapids, emerging with each lash of the water, impatient for the heights of pleasure.
(from “Weather Clearing Up, April” in Within the Voice’s Reach on page 213)
When you visit Like Bits of Wind, you will find yourself entering a world that is essentially relevant and yet uniquely its own. Through an exploration of what is possible, and how it is possible, the poems here will arrive to you and transform you. These writings carry aesthetic consequences, in the best way possible. How Chappuis and Taylor have managed to do so much in a single collection, and yet remained accessible and inviting, is a feat unto itself. With its receipt, with its encounter, I feel only joy in offering it as a recommendation to readers of any form of poetry.
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
Tender in the Age of Fury by Brandon Pitts (Released by Mosaic Press, 2016)
How do we deal with history? How do humans assess it and keep it in their thoughts, or remove it from their thoughts, as they move through their daily life? How do artists appropriate stories and images from the most ancient and the most recent histories? Tender in the Age of Fury is a strong example of how to actively answer these questions. Brandon Pitts provides in this book 35 poems across 4 sections, which hone in on the immediate and not so immediate pasts, and for the most part, these poems are insightful, honest, and thorough examinations of cultures that came before us, and the lessons they carry, and how the themes and power of those visions are still relevant today.
in the shadows of my sanity
where neurons fire static
and the mystical storm is wet with distortions
the sun had just set
on the final millennium
(from “The Apocalypse of Weeks: Vision the First” on page 35)
After roughly a third of the book was behind me, I asked, roughly, what might necessitate writing through the eyes of the indentured and the guttural in the Americana heart of the last few centuries? “Legba: The Prophesy of the Coming Mannish Child” explores through allegory and symbolism (to use Pitts’s own words) early folk spirituality of the continent. These poems are filled with characters unique and forgettable: from witches to everyday individuals to the faces of the monstrous unknowns. These characters are presented in rather scattered verse, lines that cross the pages representative of work, mystery, and a lack of fluidity—ultimately geographically relevant and evocative of communication and life “back then”—an effect which sucks the reader in, as through a warp of time, or mystical vision.
she sang songs about the old times
in that far off land
(from “Delilah Went Cold” on page 6)
The ritual of reading poetry and learning through reaches greater relevance here with the contexts of each of the poems. From potion-making to observations of the decay of the flesh, the descriptions within this first section are marvelous and fantastical, yet feel contemporary and fresh. Like Cormac McCarthy or Tom Waits, the images crafted here by Pitts are the shadow of a sense of Americana often dominated by major political events. In a way, Pitts brings forward smaller stories and has done an excellent job of re-envisioning histories through a more precise lens.
and the came
walking up the knoll
a lone sheep
who turned to the people and said:
while you were shopping
these men of means took control of your mind
(from “The Apocalypse of Weeks: Vision the Fifth” on page 42)
Derived from the culture jamming techniques used by African American slaves, the second section in the book, “The Apocryphon,” explores an appropriation and re-use of apocalyptic religious scripture. Not being well-learned in anything biblical, I went into this section with a certain fear. What could I possibly take from this area? Though Pitts does not explain every story as presented in his poems, which arguably could have helped or detracted from his unique creations, I did not find the lack of footnote or explicit subtext a derailing. In fact, the broadness of the works, and their immediacy (Pitts merges the dusty biblical storytelling with contemporary references) piqued curiosity and greater inspection. The largest swath of success from this style arose through the intersection of vocabularies:
Let them ignore the ringtone
as the cellphone vibrates across the table
like a planchette spelling out doom
I will take pleasure in the storm
(from “Nimrod” on page 50)
Relatively shorter are the two sections following: “The Carbon Age: Poems: 2011-2014” and “The Labours of Spartacus Baptist.” Though the poems in the former of the two sections by no means fall out of line in tone and craft, I did wonder why they were included in the book. Oddly and wonderfully, including a section as short as only a handful of works brings about questions related to the form of contemporary poetry collections. Whereas the expectation is for an equal divide between sections in these books, Pitts follows his own interest with this inclusion of the miscellaneous. Ultimately this section serves the reader well, and allows for a look at Pitts as a wide-ranging author, the poet who has the capacity to look at themes in brief and succinct concentrations.
See Spartacus Baptist standing at the baptismal font
on the shores of the Rivers Commerce
washing sings from the brows of the toilers
(from “The Labours of Spartacus Baptist: Labour of the Third” on page 90)
The closing section of Pitts’s book is an homage to Bernie Sanders, utilizing the name Spartacus Baptist for yet another allegorical reappropriation. Sanders presented as champion, as both gladiator but also reverent leader is what I took from this set of two poems, the first seven sub-sections, and the latter one sub-section. Once again, I found my fear based on an ignorance of history and context; ultimately, however, Pitts has provided a strong set of poems that crystallize the idea of Sanders as a strong and enduring individual through an older, epic style of storytelling. For those who feel oppressed by the way systematic media presents the qualities of political candidates and the political spectrum generally, these poems will be a strong alternative approach to thinking about symbolic heroes such as Sanders.
Tender in the Age of Fury is a book that is delightful and telling. There are so many distinct and fresh images throughout that regardless of the context, the poems represent incredible journeys and are fascinating opportunities to be included in new and old histories. How this book fits with the larger milieu of Pitts’s work is curious. As a conceptual artist, Pitts carries a capability to look forward very specific, awe-inducing works. Where will he evolve requires us to turn around and look toward the future.
Review by darth
Hi, it's darth. October brings us monsters, effigies--always has. I looked at a party napkin with Frankenstein's monster on it: his eyes were closed, he didn't need a cell phone camera to captures memories. Frankenstein's monster is already dead, look at his green, sleeping face, stitched together by a selfish parent who wants to see if it's possible to create life. When his monster eyes open and he's got the job, of confronting the intellectual who made him, of asking if the intellect is capable of love for its creature, of compassion and possibly a long-term dental plan, lower carbon emissions, and some sort of habitat arrangement . . . things get fraught. One of the Karamazov brothers got so appalled by what appeared to be a moral disconnect in the construct of divine workings, that he invoked the devil, who showed up to illustrate a fiasco of nihilism. The devil always sounds a bit like Albert Einstein, explaining what will happen to all of us if we continue to split the little atom. An atom is really just an apple on the tree of what we know--call it the tree of knowledge, if you like. You don't have to believe in a god to understand, that biting into the core of structures which hold us all together . . . can result in a situation which blows us all apart. The closed eyes of Frankenstein's monster compelled me, as I stood staring at them in the grocery store, the way an image on a party napkin can, to imagine the party this green-faced, bolted together guy was invited to. It's the party we're all in: life. Somebody chose to put him on the guest-list. Just a little lightning and the whole thing starts up. Bombs exploding. Pitchforks in the night, moral imperatives gone awry. In a laboratory right now, scientists in China are shouting over Skype to scientists in New England, of the possibility that the ancient Woolly Mammoth could be revived, vis-a-vis his reconstituted DNA. For realsies! Just because they can. When offered the technology, sometimes we choose the black helmet, the cape, and the voice-modulator and we keep on trucking--and sometimes somebody makes that choice for us. Either way, what I want in my treat bag when I knock on your door for Halloween, is to get love taken off of the Endangered List. As that guy who paints the whales on public busses likes to say: "Extinction Is Forever." Makes you wonder what the code for love is, swirling in that apple core at an atomic level. Hope it's present when the lightning strikes, for all of us here on Earth. Happy Halloween. darth
Review by Judson Hamilton (@judson_hamilton)
Heidegger et al.
Hammer and House and Houses and Hammerz
The impossibility of possibility
Gasp at the
(so much) open
.....can you hear me?
Imagine her body as a barrel of gunpowder, uncorked,
spilling black along the ground behind it.
When she spreads her arms and sinks down, she brings a
detonator into the world.
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
Cities at Dawn by Geoffrey Nutter (Released by Wave Books, 2016)
In an age of excess, what better task for a poet than to figure out proper organization of images both past and present. The corral of the image is a proper analogy for the poetry found within Geoffrey Nutter’s latest book, Cities at Dawn, which is following in the great American vein of "the list poem." It was impossible for me to ignore the Whitmanesque plateaus and cascades presented in these short but punctual, defiant poems. Poems of breath and breathing. Poems that call forth the lives and lifestyles of worlds Americans urban and pastoral held dear to their souls: machinery, industry, a revolution of commerce, a modernization of a country. The counterpoint of today’s reading environment, where we sit and wonder of ghosts and histories that have been outsourced, abandoned, transitioned, or evolved, Nutter’s poems become an effective staging ground for describing, through nostalgia and romance, the realities that have passed for many.
For this life is lived in fragments, made of fragments,
remembered in fragments—even before they bring down
the retributory cudgel to smash the thing that you have made.
(from “A Pythian Ode” on page 34)
Following the pre-Anglo and Anglo traditions out of Europe and earlier Americana, we have tones and settings that are worked through with lists of image and circumstance, assertion of an understanding of the icon and the highlight. Nutter’s ability focuses to sort through the countless fragments of the archive of a country’s spirit, from the individual inhabitants whose lives are folkloric if not legendary, to the landscapes and venues of liveliness, activity, and progress. Where breaths exhaled outward were the results of (reflections of) labor and the marveling sighs of various successes. Though some interpretations might result in a somber recollection (isn’t such a morose state always the potential case with memory in general?), the poems in Cities at Dawn are reflective of the book’s title’s core symbol: the beginning stage of a congregation or gathering of people and the onset of development, when the light is first arriving to show us ourselves, and who we are, and what we amount to in this rapid (and rapacious) whirlwind of society, hub of potential.
Will they rebuild something on the far
horizon of the snows, the rusted-metal
golem of the snows? And as the choir
of the landscape sings about the beauty
of the land with the land’s voice,
and the beauty of the bare and shredded trees,
the freight car passes us, passes bridges,
headed toward the sun.
(from “Class E Ordinary Open High-Sided Wagon” on page 3)
The book progresses from the industrial to the inner worlds and closer portraits of the peoples and places of generations distinctly pre-digital--an age where, arguably, images of all the senses were more distinct and the vocabulary to describe them significantly vaster. Through this succession, the book becomes its own microcosm, its own portrait of qualities of life of the individual and the collective. Contemporary poetry, though beautiful to the original beholder (its poet-owner(s)), has the potential to fall flat in the graces of aesthetics. Nutter’s shines through the aforementioned vocabulary (sublime but subtle), situations of arousal (historic but enlivening), and the rhythm of lines upon lines opening up (visionary but not epic) through rhythm and form. These poems are the multi-angled jewels whose light is derived from the fragments Nutter calls out directly about a third of the way through the book. And their gleam, their shine, forms a successful brightness in the context of the book as a whole.
. . . The paths there
were long, and the hours pressed apace,
their permutations were disorganized
and it seemed all friends of friends
had been replaced by changelings, and we
had fallen among the smoldering embers
of our living kindred spirits, just outside
the city that was all things to all people:
superstructures leaned above the thoroughfares;
and were we living in some fool’s paradise,
and did we take apart the radio and put it back
together in reverse order, treasure up the crystal?
(from “The Harkening Knell” on page 29)
Did I ache for anything in particular while reading this book? Was there any degree of lack or disagreement? I approached Cities at Dawn rather openly, finding joy in how the pages flipped quickly, and in the stories of these poems and the lessons therein, as there are always lessons, whether from the images collected themselves, or direct and slightly didactic personas and speakers within. I saw such lofty descriptions, such intensive inspections, and imagined a book of constructions more explicit in its purpose. Reading this book with little context, as an open reader, has many joys, and the mystery within from poem to poem, where questions like “who is this person?” and “why does this object exist next to that?” abound, creates for an engaging experience. And yet, this could be an early iteration of roughly forty poems that could grow and manifest itself so much further. I know not what Nutter has in store, but I imagine a future where a Maximus-sized tome carries the worlds upon worlds of history, anthropology, and reverence for humanity Nutter truly situates as author. An edition where the the lives of the people described are suddenly described in total, together. And yet perhaps that vision is distinctly my own, and Nutter’s charms and will is driven in smaller, more manageable chunks. Such an approach would emulate my initial point in this review: that here we have a significant distillation of the image and description in a world where images and descriptions are in desperate need of distillation.
. . . Every man on a bridge
made of rag and glass is born, and some in a comet
year, some in a year of wonders, some steeped in marl for widows,
some beneath a mushroom, some beneath the vulcan furnace,
some in a garden pink-tinged with bees and amarayllis near an ornamental
fountain, some near the sea. This is where he can be everything at once, . . .
(from “Six Records of a Floating Life” on page 66)
Review by Joshua Blackman (@josh_blackman)
Ostentation of Peacocks by Daniel Kane (Egg Box Publishing, 2008)
Of all the poets, the nature poet is perhaps the most risible, being the most concerned with seeing and the least able to really see. S/he observes the ferns, the foxes, the darting swallows and fluttering daffodils and hammers them into order, recreating nature’s majesty. Yet this model, for all its romance, its apparent rationality, involves assumptions which are deeply problematic. What, for instance, constitutes seeing? How subjective is subjectivity? What is out there, and more importantly, what is ‘out there’? In Ostentation of Peacocks, the first collection by Daniel Kane, these questions are posed in the most exhilarating fashion. Rules are transgressed, dichotomies demolished, the ‘natural’ is questioned, sparrows are ‘lubed up’ and ‘fucked in the ass’--everything, from fish to Battlestar Galactica, is caught in a joyous and anxious state of flux. The material world, so often taken as a given, here figures as a thrilling and tenuous possibility. It’s a flurry of shapes, colours, feelings, a swirling interplay of abstractions, in which subjectivity finds no anchor, is endlessly fractured and rebuilt. Poems proceed not according to some preconceived metrical scheme, but on impulse, by a process akin to free association. As Kane writes:
A group of peacocks is called an ostentation of peacocks a muster of peacocks there is mustard and there is stuffing oh the beef we kill the cow to eat its meat I render a cloud a buzzard hornet whatever the sky knows what to do as long as I tell it to […]. (page 3)
Rather than being recorded by or invited into the poem, nature is brought jaggedly, ecstatically into being--partly by the incantatory powers of language, partly by the reader’s own personal distortion of that language. The world alters Kane’s voice and Kane’s voice alters the world, so thoroughly that the two become all but indistinguishable. Yet it is not (as is the case in much Language poetry) that subjectivities are lost to gratuitous poststructuralist play; on the contrary, they figure prominently, in partial, agitated states, invigorated by the world’s beauty and yet oppressed by its complexity:
The fly doesn’t flap her wings she doesn’t flutter them
what does she do what does the fly do what does the
hummingbird do for I have seen the hummingbird
suck from the bluebell or is it even bluebell […] (page 6)
Whereas typically, the nature poet trusts in language, believing it to adequately encapsulate reality, Kane worries excessively about the precision of his poetry, and whether it can really do justice to what he sees. Do verbs accurately describe movement? Does language reflect or distort the world? What distinguishes a bluebell from other similar flowers? Such questions go unanswered because they can’t be answered. To think that they can is perverse. Indeed, in those rare instances in which the poet does ‘read’ nature, the results are not just bizarre, but conspicuously parodic:
Swans are violent creatures. Never approach a swan for a loan.
A parrot is practically designed to entertain. (page 8)
Which is true: for all their stateliness, their pride and luxurious plumage: swans are lethal, just as parrots are great fun. And yet, at the same time, they’re not. They’re just birds, vibrant matter, systems of drives and instincts lovingly assigned human traits. Kane, throughout this book, is clearly mindful of such problems, unravelling the assumptions that poets so often make, yet at the same time he manages to rise spectacularly above them, expressing a distinctive and pleasurable worldview in a distinctively pleasurable way. Like Lyn Hejinian, to whom his deconstructive tendencies are indebted, he recognises that ‘language is nothing but meanings’, while at the same time believing ardently in the potency of voice--its ability to impress the reader, to demystify experience. As such, we hear, in ‘Ostentation of Peacocks’, a plethora of other voices from throughout the American canon, including the breeziness of O’Hara, the meditativeness of Williams, and even, now and then, the garrulousness of Ginsberg. Yet here, they sound altogether different--funnier, more playful, drained of their usual hubris. This is because, for Kane, poetry is not a serious endeavour, a grave and pensive craft which culminates in Truth; it is rather a light and mysterious activity, which like nature is dynamic, unmasterable and, crucially, fun.
Review by Scherezade Siobhan (@zaharaesque)
Fire Sign by Katherine Osborne (Released by Electric Cereal, 2016)
In a world full of loud woundings, a poem erupts in the quietest blur, swells into an amphora for both grief and bliss, leaves a feeble ablution of footprints, makes a home in the space that once was reserved for the wound. This is the rootsong of Fire Sign: its reluctant kindling, its opalescent appetite.
Katherine Osborne writes like a single hurricane lamp left in the bluest desert. Her poems blink within the smallest eye of a mirador tutoring ships through the profound black language of the night. In a world so glossed from its own salamandrine sheen, crouching in some sighing blur, she devastates the hubris of cognition with the sharpest kindness.
First : Interior
Because we are creatures of guttural demarcations. Because we are always measuring the offenses of Time in rudimentary thresholds. Because we forgo the awareness of exits that allow us our first interiority.
I bet you are really good at untying knots. (pg. 11)
A diorama of flashbacks. A disjointed supplication. As if to say – we suffer from intent even when dissociating from it; its dauntless reversals thinning us into wisps of wishes that never settle, just swim in the air like shorn wings of short-lived fireflies.
I am delirious with ideas because I want to be
Another kind (pg. 12)
The interior expands itself, first as awareness then as amnesia. I know this desire to mutate, to remould the crude terra cotta of my brain into something neater, softer.
Alejandra Pizarnik has confessed this as burnished evidence – I have been born so much / and twice as much have suffered / in the memory of here and there.
To be born so much is the blunted meniscus of this repetitive Interior. Look at the blood you forged through your own two hands. Look at how much loss you can touch without turning into a ghost.
The pulse of each poem lingers in the shape of a question-mark. I juxtaposed my reading of this book with watching a series of documentaries on forensic psychiatry. I surmised that a good poem sometimes carries the brevity of a karmically launched bullet.
You put summer up for sale in my mouth (pg. 20)
The door to the Interior and also its exit wound – the mouth. A mouth nearly marsupial in its holding, mothering even the least clement of memories. A single line shadows the embankment of hunger dressed as ambition.
but I imagine you sighing afterward
the whole mercy of it (pg. 27)
Always the rough forgiveness of a visceral history.
Then, Living Proof
To be a darkening
When you have entered fully, the act of accumulating witnesses, the act of residence in residue.
I erase mouths with my own mouth. (pg. 55)
Swallowing the key to the first door. The way Alice Notley incants suspension as her only state. To be held in-between, indecipherably, argent in a delicate vice.
Hold me still. An undercurrent.
god leans in. (pg. 55)
You can’t undo the anatomy of God from your own swollen cadaver even after they have extracted it from the two rooms of the ocean. The black pearl diver. The chthonic fin of intangible sacredness. God leans in because of tiredness? Or just to nudge us a little into the gaping jaws of unforgetting?
He is fireproof coming down the stairs, a vertebrae of night dialing for me. (pg. 63)
Therefore, Fire Sign – leonine flames slithering through the attic of a loosened childhood, the apologetic horoscope memed in this-could-have-been-us-but-you-playing, the stripped yet unbroken body of loneliness that knows about the grayness of inseparable hours, that asks for nothing but a knowing tenderness.
Review by Judson Hamilton (@judson_hamilton)
Eruptions spry grass
Magic enough unabashedly
worth 100 novels.
This (slant told)
Gaslight street lamp
; some old russian stuff.
becoming telephone wires, becoming - -
explain to our children: if the farm is a burgeoning
snowglobe, then the screaming’s a legend like glass.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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