Ghost town. Tumbleweed. Ain’t
got not home. Ain’t got no home.
But an echo. A stutter. The land
like magic shit. Behold the
dustbowl. That Damn-ward sun.
Big as your fist. Sit on Plymouth
Rock. I’ll sit below. Con-
templating West. Forget-me-not.
This lyric starts off Jim Goar’s The Dustbowl, a book comprised mainly of the title poem, a long lyric sequence that, as the book cover explains, “intertwine[s] Arthurian legend and Dust Bowl Americana with fragmented memories of Arizona and California.” The description intrigued me right away, imagining a whirlwind of narratives. As evidenced in the above lyric, what guides and shapes the emotional tone of the sequence is the poet’s use of short, elliptic phrasing as well as his choice in what fragments to bring together. In a lyric that begins with “Ghost town” and ends with “Forget-me-not” the stakes are made clear from the beginning.
This kind of evocative lyrical selection is exhibited throughout. The following lyric, for example, derives its charm from not only what it brings in but what it does with it:
Shook The Tree. No knowledge came
tumbling down. A great gift of snakes.
Here today. Gone tomorrow. Naked
as the day I was born. And then
there was night. A dustbowl blown in.
Drank from that cold bitter cup. The quest-
ion remained. Un-answered. Voices
in the other room. Mirror Mirror th-
rough the wall. Green apples fall like rain.
While the biblical connotations of “Tree” are followed through with “snakes” in the first two lines, the surprise in reading is the echo at the end of the lyric, the phrase “Green apples fall like rain” shocking the reader’s senses both in a narrative and sensorial way. The break in the preceding line (Mirror Mirror th-/rough the wall) also works to not only turn a fairy tale phrase towards a new meaning but also to evoke the storm. By breaking up the word (th-/rough) the speaker brings in the verb “rough” and thus the sound of hard wind against the wall, which then leads to “Green apples.”
Goar does a great job throughout the sequence of inhabiting the multiple narratives through idiosyncratic turns of phrase and typography. Goar also brings in various allusions – from Woody Guthrie to The Wasteland and Cylons – all of which add their respective colors to the expansive work. Despite these added meanings, not everything needs to be caught to be caught up in the work. What the short phrases of the lyrics do is give a sense of wind gusting by. Add this effect to the shifting narrative, and you get a reading experience of tumbleweed caught up in various stories. The pleasure in reading this sequence comes as much from keeping up with what the poem’s narratives are doing as following Goar’s poetic efforts, at turns intellectually as well as physically evocative:
Found the table set with bitter eggs. Rode
until they were no more. The Holy Grail
fades away. This is my body. Her tongue has
turned to dust. Once upon a time. Called
everything stone. It was not so. Camelot was
something else. A city in my lady’s hand.
Lick me, she said. Liquor, I did. Removed her
glass slipper. A voice I’d heard before. This
woman without end. Wrapped inside my armor.
The book also contains an “other poems” section, a series of lyrics that give keys into Goar’s style and sensibility. The highlight for me, “Chasing Thomas Hardy,” stands out not only for its craftsmanship (Goar takes on Hardy’s penchant for self-made forms as well as the maestro’s diction) but as well for its relation with the rest of the work in this book, solidifying the impression of a poet whose sensibilities of form allow for praise, wit, and dirge.
The Dustbowl is available from Shearsman Books
Jose Angel Araguz, author of the chapbook The Wall (Tiger’s Eye Press), is a CantoMundo fellow. Hailing from Corpus Christi, Texas, he has had poems recently in Barrow Street, RHINO, Hanging Loose and Poet Lore. He is presently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati. He runs the poetry blog, The Friday Influence.
Ark Codex +/- 0 (Calamari Press, 2013) is one of the most ambitious works of experimental poetry I’ve ever seen. If your interests include visual poetry, collage, the history of the book, textual materiality, eco-poetics, or the poetics of disaster, this book will haunt you from the shelf, because it never stops unfolding, and every time you put it down, you know you have left many crevices uninvestigated. (To give yourself an idea of what’s going on with the book visually, along with some insight into the author’s process, watch the book’s trailer video, which might be most metal book trailer ever made.)
While I was reading Ark Codex +/- 0, I couldn’t help remembering when, a few years ago, my boss at my first job in publishing tasked me with reading the Chicago Manual of Style from cover to cover. As I slowly churned through its hundreds of pages of explanations of what is to be done in every conceivable literary corner a writer, editor, or publisher could paint herself into, I found there was something eerie about its all-encompassing approach to what had seemed to me to be a field with limitless possibilities. As Ed Park put it, “It’s as though, in the wake of some crippling apocalypse, everything you need to restart civilization could be found between its covers.”
Ark Codex +/- 0 is a poetic collage narrative of just such an attempt, though it goes out of its way to disregard literary convention, as one might find it in the CMS. The authorless book—that is, no individual’s name is found anywhere on the binding or cover, and there is no title page or copyright page—represents an attempt by a fictional future scholar to decode collage texts left behind by a civilization restarting after the Anthropocene period, in which we now live.
As Miami is currently being swallowed by rising tides, as catastrophic storms of every sort have become the norm, we see more and more writers contending with what will happen to civilization in the wake of climate change. We have seen the rise of documentary/activist eco-poetics, phenomenological eco-poetics, and we have seen many variations on elegiac, lyrical eco-poetics. Disaster poetics began with the advent of the atomic bomb, and the neurosis caused by the constant presence of potential annihilation lead to the publishing of many volumes of poems that imagine the effect of nuclear holocaust. Now that almost all evidence points toward a much slower, more inevitable cataclysm, it only makes sense that we wonder what will happen to intellectual culture in the aftermath.
Ark Codex +/- 0 presents itself as a series of found documents, the captain’s log of a post-Anthropocene version of Noah’s ark. Each of its 154 glossy pages features a hi-res image of an earthy, muddled collage of language—some handwritten, some typed—painted imagery, and scraps of book pages, all obscured to varying degrees in the palimpsest. Below each collage is a prose translation of the image and language above. Each translation is roughly 100 words long, always on five fully justified lines, with consistent word spacing. The consistency of the printed text contrasts with the wild inconsistency of the language found in the collage, which is assembled to approximate English (with bits of French), but often strays from the use of the Roman English alphabet, utilizing in its stead various particles of Cyrillic, Greek, superscript, subscript, and French. However, these variations are relatively consistent, allowing the reader to quickly adapt to this idiosyncratic sign system.
Reading this language actually requires the reader to perform a sort of translation, though the non-English language is itself, essentially, English. The process feels simultaneously alien and familiar, not unlike the popular cinematic depiction of post-apocalyptic landscapes, where familiar landmarks point out that this used to be New York, Los Angeles, London, etc. Similarly, the language in Ark Codex +/- 0 used to be English. The ark’s log seems to be a document of reconceiving language in a world that has been not just physically destroyed, but intellectually and culturally decimated as well.
Just as the alphabetic frame of reference is wide and eccentric, the diction borrows from various fields. Mathematical language is combined with the language of genetic biology, biblical allusion, computer programming, and sea-faring. Likewise, the collages include pages from anatomical, botanical, cartographical, mathematical, musical, and dictionary texts. In these collages of we find evidence of an attempt to capture everything that is needed to begin again; hence the title Ark Codex.
However, just as the book documents an attempt to capture the entirety of civilization, there are signposts along the way warning the reader against any kind of certainty. In section 0:1:9 (the pages aren’t given traditional numbers), the translated text reads, “<<Don’t believe a word edgewise to anyone claiming authorship>>-the ark writes itself.” On the following page, the collage reads “<<HERE LIES <<RED HERRING>>” and the translated text reads “<<I>> am telling you straight that I’m not telling you what to think.”
By insisting upon its own indeterminacy, Ark Codex +/- 0, can feel extremely obscure. The language is disjunctive, allusive, and punning. Much of the language in the collages is unreadable, and seems to only correspond in part to the translated text offered below. The source texts excerpted in the collages are not named. What lead to this apocalyptic state of the world is unclear. While there is a somewhat track-able narrative in the text regarding the building of the ark, the collection of species, and the navigation of the flooded landscape, what actually saves the book from coming across as a needlessly opaque is the seemingly endless rewards in viewing any single page. Each collage is so dense, and features so many different lingual and graphic forms of signifying—i.e. utilizing red text for emphasis as was done in the medieval manuscript era, thereby identifying itself with handmade, arcane practices—that the book seems increasingly meaningful the more time you spend with it, in spite of its indeterminacy.
Ark Codex +/-0 is available from Calamari Press
Michael Flatt is a PhD candidate in the Poetics program at SUNY Buffalo. He is the author of Absent Receiver (SpringGun Press, 2013) and with Derrick Mund,Chlorosis (Bon Aire Projects, forthcoming).
“These poems are works of great optimism,” Ron Silliman writes in his introduction to the second edition of Complete Minimal Poems by Aram Saroyan. In a quick flip through this book, one might find such poems as:
– with its orderly, symmetrical structure and its implied reminder to maintain an awareness of something much larger than yourself.
Or the infamously NEA-funded single-word poem
which Ian Daly in his article at the Poetry Foundation aptly describes as something you see rather than read: a poem at light speed. Like many of the minimal poems, “lighght” blurs the distinction between viewing and reading. These poems share as much with text-based visual art, like Christopher Wool’s large stencils or Ed Ruscha’s OOF painting, as they do with other concrete poems.
Each of Saroyan’s poems confirms Silliman’s assessment of their optimism: why write like this without trusting that even a tiny unit of text can carry great semantic weight? And why write a not-quite-anagram poem like:
My arms are warm
– if you aren’t having fun? Complete Minimal Poems offers a compelling reminder to write poetry playfully, joyfully, and with abiding faith in the tools at your disposal.
Ugly Duckling Presse compiled Saroyan’s poems written between 1964 and 1972, including the contents of four out-of-print volumes and a section of “Short Poems” previously uncollected. Complete Minimal Poems is an ideal addition to UDP’s catalog of lost works and art books. The order of the book is curious: not purely chronological by either publication or composition, with the fine addition of “Short Poems” stuck right in the middle of the five sections. It seems Saroyan and the editors were creating an anagram in the book’s form.
Although more information about this sequencing could helpfully orient the reader to progressions in Saroyan’s minimal styles over time, the collection rewards intermittent browsing. A close reading of poems like “children children,” from the last section in the book, induces semantic satiation – that sensation when you read a word so many times that its sense becomes decoupled from its form. This experience provides new perspective to revisit other poets who lean on concrete poetry and repetition, like Saroyan’s contemporary Hannah Weiner, a favorite of mine.
It’s in the newly published “Short Poems” that the volume reaches its peak. Poems like
A B C
Louder in the dark.
display the unique transcendence in these minimal works. The unwritten is a dark space, where these spare poems speak louder.
Or take the final poem in the “Short Poems” section, which appears under the title (or first line: it can be hard to tell) THE COLLECTED WORKS:
” # $ % _ ‘ ( ) * ! 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 – ¾
Q W E R T Y U I O P ¼ q w e r t y u i o p ½
A S D F G H J K L : @ a s d f g h j k l ; ¢
Z X C V B N M , . ? z x c v b n m , . /
This collection of every key available on his typewriter illustrates Saroyan’s assertion of its primary influence over his poetry:
I write on a typewriter, almost never in hand (I can hardly handwrite, I tend to draw words), and my machine — an obsolete red-top Royal Portable — is the biggest influence on my work.
Seeing “THE COLLECTED WORKS” nearly half a century after “lighght” was first published, now that a typewriter is more of a quaint artifact than a common tool, I wonder whether my iPhone isn’t an important influence on my poetry. And a poem like “waht,” resembling a frequent typo, seems even to prefigure the current practice of adopting online syntax into poetry.
While Complete Minimal Poems is an enjoyable and surprising reference for the smallest poetic forms, Saroyan eventually exhausted this minimalism. Richard Hell’s review suggests he may have exhausted his optimism, too:
[Saroyan has] written, in fact, that the disillusionments of 1968 — Vietnam, the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy — had a lot to do with why he stopped writing for the subsequent five years, and why he permanently dropped his minimal mode, which he associated with the innocent spirit of pre-’68.
As playful and perception-shifting as the minimal poems may be, this context underscores some other possibilities open to poems. Concrete text-objects like “lighght” or “children children” or “THE COLLECTED WORKS,” with their instantaneous visual availability and their resistance to interpretation, bring to mind the “poetry koans” that Kathleen Rooney cites in her essay at Coldfront on poetry post-Rumsfeld: “The point of a koan, of course, is that it’s unresolvable and leads to contemplation. An unresolvable poetic utterance does no harm, or does it?”
Do optimism and playfulness in poetry undermine its opportunity to be political? Is language play itself a political stance? Reading Complete Minimal Poems in today’s pretty dismal political context is a reminder that poetry offers novel ways of experiencing even the smallest units of text, expanding a reader’s receptivity to unresolvable koans or maddening rhetoric. Or it’s a break from rhetoric, an oasis of pure form. Either way, it’s a volume well worth its space on the shelf.
Complete Minimal Poems is available from Ugly Duckling Presse
Erin Watson is a Southern person in Chicago. She writes poetry slowly and lives online at torridly.org.
Today’s special featured book is Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of New Latin@ Writing, edited by Carmen Giménez Smith and John Chávez
Buy it from SPD for $35