REVIEW: Sand Opera by Philip Metres

By Eric Howerton

The title of Philip Metres’ newest collection, Sand Opera, derives from a strategic redaction of the military term “standard operating procedure” (“standard operating procedure”). The use of a title built from redaction—a practice most often employed by governments when “releasing” sensitive documents to the public—sets the stage for a dramatic battery of poems about the Second Iraq War, a skirmish enshrouded in and tainted by misguided and misleading origins, murderous Blackwater mercenaries, secret prisons, and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” aka torture.

Many of the speakers in Metres’ collection are victims of torture, and in this way we are often confronted with the imposed ugliness of torture on individual personalites. After continued episodes of torture, the inner spaces of the collection’s speakers frequently become fragmented and less operational on a human level. For tortured speakers, logic, time and language unravel in ways that communicate a sense of disappearing order, meaning, and sense of self.

The fourth poem in the “Hung Lyre” series illustrates how the disorientation of being a victim of tortured can be symbolically illustrated through the tools and methods of the torture itself. We see this below in Metres’ collagist couplets, as the Thanatos-driven lyrics of the song “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor” (performed by Drowning Pool, a Texas metal act who supports the use of their music in enhanced interrogation) are confusingly spliced with the theme song from the popular children’s show Barney and Friends. (Loud music as a form of sleep deprivation was one of many enhanced interrogation techniques used during the Iraq War, and some government officials have argued that this was not traditional torture and therefore not a prohibited practice because it did not induce physical pain.)

In the cell of else / in the pitch-white

someone’s hands shackled between ankles

in the nights & sunny days keeping the clouds

shaking the rib cage & no way

to keep the music from entering & breaking

the bodies hit / Let the bodies hit the /Barney


is a dinosaur / this is the touching without being

touched / this is the being without

silence / from our imagination / in wave upon

wave / in a shipping container & I love you


in a box of shock you love me / in a cemented

dream / we’re a happy family /

with a great big hug and chains that leave no mark

Won’t you say you love me too?

The effects of extended torture on the will to live are seen in “tried hanging myself…”, a poem told through the persona of another torture victim—Mohamad Farag Ahmad Bashmila. Bashmila was a Yemeni citizen who, after several years of imprisonment and torture, was released only to later be spoken of as being “wrongfully detained” by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Here, we see him in the midst of his detention, in between bouts of torture.

tried hanging myself

with strings I pulled

out of my blanket

this chain had 24

links in it tried by

swallowing pills I was

this chain had 110

third time I slashed my wrists

the doctor with disfigured

hand who shined a light

my head against the wall

I trying to lose

a diagram of the body

myself by concentrating

on the smallest details

A major thrust in Sand Opera—emphasized by the use of not only redaction, but also caesura and contrasting font shades—is the inability to know or understand the true human cost of torture. This inability stems from the presence of differences in perspective and narration, the muting of the stories of the deceased, and the gaps that still exist between what the people have been told and what those in power know. The provocations of war, capture, and torture have since generated countless stories of harming and harmed, stories that continue to bleed into the fabric of our present reality. These stories emphasize our national and humanist responsibilities for victims of the invasion. Sand Opera leaves no room for the propagandistic narrative of “war as solution.” Instead, Metres shows us that while war physically destroys cities, the people who are peripherally dragged into the war by being erroneously suspected and arrested, by losing family members, or by even being a low-ranking American soldier with little authority, are all equally damaged by the tumultuous violence surrounding them.

In the poem “The Blues of Charles Graner,” Meters adopts the persona of a real Abu Graib prison guard who—along with Lynddie England and others—was dishonorably discharged after the Abu Graib photo scandal of 2003. In taking on the persona of the American soldiers who posed with detainees, Metres allows for those doing the torturing to have a voice and an opportunity to address the complexity of their situation. Through this we see that even those in charge of the situation were profoundly confused as to how their personal principles were to be integrated with their roles as authority figures and cultural imperialists.

the Christian in me

knows it’s wrong

but the corrections

officer in me can’t

help but love

making a grown man

piss himself.

This short poem, in all its graphic bigotry, clearly and succinctly embodies not just a perplexing issue for Charles Graner to reflect on (perhaps as he served a six-year prison sentence for a list of heinous acts that need not be repeated here), but it presents a perplexing issue regarding our national character. The articulation of the question is not particularly complex, but the answer is: How can we be a spiritually responsible people if we are also a people who lust for power and feel wild glee in the misfortune of others?

Presenting us with more civilian preoccupations, the eighth poem in the section title “Hung Lyres” posits the perplexities of war as affecting not only those involved, but also those spectators trying to make sense of what their country is doing abroad.

She asks: is that man crying

or singing? How should I answer?

War takes him in its fingers,

raises his body, a punctured bone

flute, to its lips, and breaths

the living dust

to dust alone—

this is the air we scull

air of ancestors & ashpits

just five, the child’s baptized into this


she corrects the voices

she hears the butcher

the name of the country she’s never

seen—it’s “ear-rock,”

not “eye-rack.”

This poem is as much a question of whether the man is crying or singing as it is a question of what America, as a nation, is doing? Are we crying ourselves to war, lamenting that such an enterprise will costs billions of dollars and countless lives? Or are we singing ourselves to war, marching to victory with a smile and squinted eyes that make it that much more difficult to see who we’re marching on and what we’re marching for?

Metres’ collection is at once vibrantly uncomfortable, horrifyingly stimulating, and urgently needed. I say “needed” because even though the official paper trail might say the Iraq War ended in December of 2011, this bureaucratic decree does little to ameliorate or repair the effects of the tragedies that occurred. I say “needed” because even many Americans who lived through this period of American history are still unaware that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the 9-11, or that much of the initial intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction reported by major media outlets turned out to be fabricated. I say “needed” because with an estimated 400,000 to one million dead Iraqi citizens killed in the conflict, the conversation about what happened and why it happened cannot be allowed to fall into silence. We need works like Sand Opera to remind us of the shameful, disfiguring truth—that America tortures—while also trumpeting the reparative truth—that we don’t have to and that we can choose to stop—in the hopes of advancing our understanding of these tragedies to more stable ground.

Alice James Books: Print $16.95, eBook $9.99

Eric Howerton is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, a graduate of the University of Houston’s PhD Program in Creative Writing, and a former fiction editor of Gulf Coast. In addition to teaching and writing, he is Vice President of the Salt Lake City non-profit Writers @ Work, an avid skier, and vocalist for the loud-music project Crisis in Consciousness. His work has appeared in Juked, The Masters Review, Treehouse, Revolver, PANK online, Night Train, and many others.

REVIEW: Fantasy by Ben Fama

by Nicky Tiso

If the confessional is at some level about dramatizing oneself, being able to produce a version of oneself that is manipulative in its very slight untruth, then it is either about producing an entirely unreliable personage . . . or about collapsing a self and a fantasy of self. – Trisha Low on Steven Zultanski’s Bribery and Brandon Brown’s Top 40

In Ben Fama’s Fantasy, there’s a difference between speaker and author subverting the confessional’s purported self-expressive function, which is what’s so great and what’s so terrible about its glamorous aesthetic that never really lets you in, but lets you know what it’s wearing (spoiler alert: Uniqlo). Fantasy puts the “mod” in commodity fetish. The poems are short, terse reflections on the simulacra of virtual life, from the perspective of a meaningless bourgeois retro haute leftist nihilist first-person young adult that comes so familiar to us millenials more comfortable texting than communicating face-to-face:

I think I’m in love with the world of billboards and magazines

It is so intrepidly based in fantasy

Like things online

And literature, all the immaterial world

I mean the actual world we live in all the time

Like mp3’s and visual art

That replaced painting

I dunno

Midway between Low’s theorized confessional extremes, Fantasy dramatizes the collapse of the self into the fantasy of the self within a hyper-real sociality where entertainment and politics, reality and the Internet, are indistinguishable. These are the fantasies borne of the cultural logic of late capital, not outside it: fantasies of popularity, wealth, youth, sex, and glamour. Rather than interiorize or express, the lines read like they could be repasted Google searches that reveal lifestyle habits, implying a psychology without making it knowable, and instead of a narrative its more of a text installation.

Satanic physical allure

Tropical contact high

Diane Keaton young

Diane Keaton hot

Celebrity impersonators

Soba noodles

Salmon wraps

Sushi rolls

The metaphorical emptiness of the language and lack of imagery make it as materialistic as the consumerist desires it conveys. You might say, why pay money for this book when you can just get this literature online for free in the comments section of your local Facebook feed? But one could just as easily say, why pay admission to look at Koons’ Hoover art object when you could just as easily go to a vacuum store? The book acts as cold reflection of technologically-mediated human alienation (“I know you about 3% / We’ve hung out / Then you moved to Los Angeles”), but it’s also lyrical and nonchalant about it. The diction is so anti-romanticist that the one simile I found in the book referencing birds stood out like the one fuck allowed in the scriptwriting of Breaking Bad.

I also want to ask the book the same thing the speaker in one poem asks a woman of her profile picture of Justin Bieber: Is it ironic? The pomposity of the tone is entirely contrived and desperately obsessed with its presentation within a privileged shell that wants not your sympathy, as most narrators do, but your envy – like a French rap song, cocaine and Perrier replace any sensitive discourse in what becomes an egotistical fantasy (“Aren’t you even curious / To see my hotel room / After I swim?”) that is simultaneously liquidated into a “thoroughly franchised landscape” of corporations, advertisements, and brands. As such, it inherits the New York School’s gossipy style while carrying it to its aporia, where the “numb, vulgar emotions” of the poet cannot be separated from the marketplace.

I share Georges Perec’s militant leftist stance regarding “literature’s real potential not to reflect the world as it is but ‘to make the radical transformation of our world appear obvious and necessary.’”[1] In contrast, Fantasy intentionally falls short of this imperative, more worried about attention and ‘likes’ and instant gratifications (“I’m gonna go shopping all afternoon / Then I’m gonna need to have sex with someone”), so that we the audience are faced with reconciling this affective or political incapability and alienation ourselves.

If such an aesthetic “fails to disrupt the boundaries between the worlds of fashion, art, poetry and performance, and engage new media,” as one reviewer critiqued, it falls short intentionally. This is either clever or lazy, or both. Because in the wake of so much white conceptual carelessness from Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, and on the heels of the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo’s postcolonial critique of white poetics, I find Felix Bernstein asks an important question in his article at Lemonhound: Is this bunch of self-consciously complicit yet still leftist bohemians [who are] somehow also a resurrectionary Marxist faction important to the avant-garde canon? 

 Well, are they? I find the book’s desire to be disembodied via the internet troubling in an era of so much embodied pain from PoC that don’t have access to these fantasies of the white imagination, and for whom rhetorically asking with a wink at the end of your poems, “Do you have access to that?” isn’t helpful. I want the book to do more than wallow in this contradictory space of the commodified art-object or the depersonalized person, which would ultimately require a kind of solidarity or political affiliation or engagement that this book is too busy being bored to undertake. Yes, that’s the point, but my point is, I don’t need the book to make that point anymore than I need Vanessa Place to quote Mammy for me to know racism is bad.

Ugly Duckling Presse (2015): Print $14, PDF free

[1] Perec, Georges. “For a Realist Literature.” Trans. Rob Halpern. Chicago Review 53.2-3 (2007) : 28-39.

Nicky Tiso teaches English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout and received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota in June 2015. His first poetry manuscript was a 2014 finalist for 1913 Press’ Prize for First Books, judged by Claudia Rankine. His writing can be found in TYPO, N+1, The Volta Blog, HTML Giant, Tripwire, and other places.

REVIEW: Industry of Brief Distraction by Laurie Saurborn Young

by Katherine Faigen

On the back of Laurie Saurborn Young’s Industry of Brief Distraction, H.L. Hix compares the book to Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much with Us.” Barbara Ras calls it “Madly inventive and wildly original.” Carrie Fountain says the poems are “Sometimes brutal, always stunning” and “very often funny.”

Before reviewing, I admit that I might not be this book’s best reader. In my effort to assemble meaning, I found myself struggling to tune my ear to Young’s use of image and language.

Industry of Brief Distraction takes poems from Young’s chapbook, Patriot, and intersperses them within a series of “Industry” poems and other politically themed, mostly lyric works. The book’s cover – a black and white photograph of a veiled, but otherwise nude woman set against a colorful highway photo – alerts readers to collage within the poems themselves. Throughout her poems, Young references photographs, films, current events, and popular song lyrics. She often writes in a sequence of unexpected subjects and image shifts.

In “Talking to My Hat” Young begins with, “What could happen if clouds/ undressed themselves at night instead of knocking on our door…” and leaps to, “My dog is blind and most/ stars are as well, so we can get/away with anything.

Many poems in her Patriot series contain the line “This is America” and exist mostly as juxtaposition of declarations and definitions:

Mastiff eating 2x4s, as a child unafraid I pet you.
The marriage is in the house, he said.
Yet somewhere she is eighteen…

Here, on page thirty-two’s “Patriot,” ideas slip through a changing lineup of subjects and foci. Young moves her reader through medical dictionaries, Wyoming farmland, Ridley Scott films, El Paso, and snippets from Gertrude Stein. At one point in the poem, the speaker, self-aware, asks, “Where is it we are?”

Before reading the book a second time, I revisited Robert Bly’s essay “Looking for Dragon Smoke” where he discusses the poetic leap as a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again” (1). He connects leaping in epic poems to “Great Mother” mysteries and discusses contemporary poetic leaps as having evolved into an increase of “speed of association” (6).

Reading Industry of Brief Distraction this way, Young’s “Great Mother” is America. By investigating her leaps of association, we find Young’s America to be an unfailingly bleak place, characterized variously throughout the collection in lines such as

“Line of Thunderstorms on the weather map.”

“Forever men taking a break with grease
Under their nails

“Emergency room nurses debating
Glocks versus 22s while my husband cannot
Breath again…”

“Guessing a medical term for meaningless

“Someone always in the process of taking over
With orange beak angled wide…”

“Collarbone broken & then I am pushed
Hard off the boat

“Whose child sank in the muddy pond.”

“Missile seeking the same” and “domesticated wolf just along for the ride.”

“Paternal riots,” “Hooves of starving horses.”

There are a few moments of levity interspersed, but an overwhelming cheerlessness weighs heavy throughout these poems. It is often difficult to understand the structure of darkness without seeing it against a light, and comprehending the bigger picture of Young’s intentionally fragmented definitions poses a similar challenge. As Young examines America’s wastefulness, hypocrisies, and mistreatment of its citizens, American becomes a vision of hopelessness.

Young’s diction, too, is intentionally erratic. In “Upon Learning of the World Everlasting” we move between colloquial speech – “Dogs don’t feel this guilty” – and archaic language – “They falleth apart in great haste” “yea verily we cannot contain our celebration.” Throughout her poems, language becomes something unexpected and puzzling. In “Modern Political Thought” such, we encounter such thoughts as “Does not taste the heart chakra’s grass-green” and “Does not know flight is our foot mantra. In “Collage of my Best Intentions” Young bestows action, taste, and sight to something intangible when her speaker “Paint[s] the air over my eyes/ salt and azure.” In “Abortion” she replaces an abstract concept – “linear blessing” – with a series of seemingly unconnected but concrete visuals: “pink paper umbrella,” “tanked Lobsters” and a “friend who stops calling.”

While I can appreciate the presence of mystery in a poem, for me, the most affecting moments were those in which the image and intention seemed clear. Moving away from the political, Young’s other poems contain a self-defeating and lonely speaker. In “Primary Industries” we are pulled a bit closer to someone who introduces us her great grandparents. She locates us firmly “In the bath” where she recites “…Longfellow’s /Lost youth” and ignores “the new world for this.” At the end of the poem, when “…cicadas / pull of blistered shells & ride out” we can understand their ability to part from their past and the speaker’s inability to part from hers.

Saturnalia Books (2015): $15.00 paperback

Robert Bly’s essay “Looking for Dragon Smoke” can be found in his book Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translation, available from the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Katherine Faigen lives near Boston where she writes, coaches rowing, and teaches at Emerson and Babson Colleges.

REVIEW: Heliopause by Heather Christle

by Heather Brown

Heather Christle’s fourth collection of poetry is named for the outermost boundary between our solar system and interstellar space. It is the theoretical boundary where the interstellar medium and solar wind pressures balance. It is maybe the last predictable place —that is, of places we can know (or think we know) from our vantage point on Earth.

The language of Christle’s collection—more specifically the weight and emphasis of words, the slightly off-kilter syntax and the line breaks—also suggest a last knowable boundary. Punctuation is theoretical and less important here than rhythm and precise arrangement, both of words and lines, and forces of nature seem to be held in balance, right on the dividing lines between human and human, human and animal, human and object.

Object and action too, seem interchangeable, as in the first poem “A Perfect Catastrophe,” nine lines in three sentences that come out all in one breath:

What’s in charge here is the scattered light all over
and how it pulls my very blood into my hands
until they graph a fat what the sun likes holding
and some dumb mutter good and nails me to the bone.

Here, Christle makes active forces of the intangible (light, mutter, a fat what) and brings them to bear upon the physical body (blood, hands, bone). We are challenged to see active and passive in reverse, the immaterial as container for the material.

This is also a collection about simultaneity, about an action that is transcended (perhaps canceled out?) by its own contemplation, and vice versa. In these poems we are both present and absent, both already and not-yet. We are particles and waves, energy and matter, all interacting with one another and outside of time. She begins the poem How Long Is The Heliopause” with this fatalistic observation:

They say before you know you want
to move your hand
                               your hand
is already about to move
They say in advance
                               these things
are decided

In “Such and Such a Time at Such and Such a Palace,” the representations of language are depicted more as taxidermy than taxonomy as Christle bemoans the lack of a single-word infinitive in English and likens it to a poorly stuffed exotic bird

Previously on this show they put
a peacock back together wrong
after its demise
there was in the syntax
Poor bird could feel it in his bones

Again and again, boundaries are blurred or challenged, between victim and culprit,

Today you find yourself guilty
as the rim you split
an egg against

between active and passive,

Through the window
the grass tells you
to give up
and you are trying

ultimately, between the efficacy and inefficacy of words,

So much can’t be
put back together
To burn the house down
to burn the house up
It’s the same problem
in any direction
You’re matter
You turn on the light

Some say this is a collection about grief, and I suppose it may be, but even more, perhaps it is about the inability of language to capture grief, whether it be caused by the destruction of our monuments, or by any daily, monumental experience. In the epigraph, from W. S. Graham, it seems Christle, while acknowledging the task is impossible, is attempting in her collection to make a place for language and to make it “a real place/Seeing I have to put up with it/Anyhow.” She is in no way resigned to the inefficiency of language, she is merely attempting to put it in its place and to make that place more real than language can be. This is what good poetry means to me.

To Christle, perhaps we are each our own solar system, perhaps we are reaching out to our own farthest boundaries, to collect what data we can about the galaxy that surrounds us, knowing we can only theoretically conjecture and hope the messages return to us intact. Perhaps we are staring into the glass eyes of animals and trying to imagine them back to life, or alive for the first time. As she says of the Voyager spacecraft,

                                               perhaps having left our solar system
perhaps about to leave it very soon
                                                          They cannot say
The message takes so long to drift to reach us.

Even in this last line, “they cannot say” may refer back or forward, making the meaning go two different ways. Begging the question, what can’t they say? And what can’t we? And inside (or outside?) that question, what can we say still?

Wesleyn University Press (2015) : $24.95 Hardcover, $19.95 Ebook

Heather Brown lives and writes poems in Portland, Ore, where she works as a copywriter and freelance literary publicist.

REVIEW: Streaming by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke

by Matthew Pincus

Streaming, by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, is concerned with the interconnectedness of historical moments that are enmeshed with the personal and global spiritual consciousness of the present world. The speaker says in the title poem, “Impressions strummed today / incite future impulsion, / create past prophecy” (6). Global warming, the changing climate, September 11, street children in Medellin, Colombia, the rights of indigenous, the Dust Bowl are all issues in the forum of the text. Historical or current manmade problems are evoked: “Along an echo-wrinkle in existence / your presence permeates swaying” (6). That is, the many folds or moments of experience echo in the spirit, or emotions of others, and permeate the many swaying moods of society, culture, and politics.

The collection is tightly structured, starting with an elegy to her mother, and having each successive section dedicated to family – wavering between past, present, present and past. In an interview with Jan Beatty Hedge Coke says, “I am a person who often thinks in music before words materialize.” Hedge Coke’s rhythm in Streaming is apparent with lines like, “Summer rain in reggae balm / below heat, here in / banana cherry slide—just right” (22). The playful opening from “Summer Fruit” morphs into a more philosophical tone in its conclusion with, “Light streaming in all directions / fanning rays as heat spread, / sunshine through sweltering shade, / shadow dark embracing” (23). The image reminds one of Borges’s “The Aleph,” where center is not an origin but a sphere, almost like Earth’s ecosystem in a season Hedge Coke’s poem is evocative of.

Hedge Coke works with lyric, verse, and prose poetry along with short and long poems. “Campos” is only half a page, but evokes deep feelings about the disconnection Americans, and Westerners have with the food they eat, and those that pick their fruits, vegetables, and raise livestock. This is reminiscent of the Los Angeles Times Investigative piece last fall on Mexican “Superfarms” supplying produce to American grocery stores. The last stanza is both searing and poignant: “reverent to tastes, savory, / clutched, cradled, caressed / for someone else’s table” (44).

“Burn” is the longest and also one of the more powerful pieces in the collection. It details the multiple Marfa fires in Texas in 2011. She uses the experience, material, now historical event as seeing fire’s great strength, and destruction. The latter is shown with the lines, “Chihuahuan and Sonoran, now both carry largest wildfires in colonial / history, both heated harder, spreading / further than pictured / in recent times. Everything from Tucson through Texas a rage” (115). This could translate to the land, but also the political values of two conservative states.

Again though, as “Burn” evolves, it comes back to one’s experience, connection with other individuals as well as the land around them. The speaker says, “Yet, fire is the birth of life, the spark there and we / were with spark, ignited. / My life emptied into the banks below mounds they now lay within” (132). Streaming is a strong collection, and Hedge Coke is a poet with a remarkable voice in the saturated landscape of poetry.

Coffee House Press, 2014: $16.95

Matthew Pincus is an English doctoral fellow at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette with a concentration in literary and cultural studies. He holds an MFA from the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University. His essay, “Unpolished Friendship: Dodie Bellamy as Novelist and Kathy Acker’s Enduring Influence” appeared in Coldfront and he is a regular book reviewer for Bookslut, RainTaxi, and Pank.

REVIEW: Touché by Rod Smith

by John Most
Poems defy definitions of defiance. They aren’t anything while they’re everything, et cetera. All too often, poets try to control paradox. They try to dress up words in order to present a polished product. They try to correctly play what’s unplayable for a carefully selected audience. Rod Smith has no time for that. He’s too busy doing something altogether different.

What follows are some of my haphazard reactions to Smith’s latest collection, TOUCHÉ. Before writing this review, I intentionally reread Deed (University of Iowa Press) and some of Robert Creeley’s letters and emails in The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley (University of California Press).

TOUCHÉ is a book that’s not a book. These poems are housed in a beautiful book, no doubt, but they came to be by travelling through different conversations, communities, interactions. I could list a dozen or so pieces of evidence that I’ve collected to support this point. Instead, I’ll choose one–”The Good House, etc.” The original long poem, “The Good House,” first appeared as a chapbook that was published by Spectacular Books in 2001. That poem then appeared in Deed. The “addition” to the poem, “The Good House, etc.,” appears in TOUCHÉ and is dedicated to Peter Gizzi. Why is it important for poems to exist or come to an ending or beginning outside the covers of a single book? One possible answer–by living outside a book, a poem is yielding to the nature of poetry, yielding to its paradoxes, its unclassifiable defiance.

Place and theory are pieces to the puzzle. It’s far too easy to say that Smith’s book is politically charged, since Smith and his work are inextricably tied to Washington D.C. It’s far too easy to say the book is overly theoretical or abstract, given its subtitle–in memory of my theories vol. 2. Politics is but one of many bases. And theory isn’t the dominant force behind these poems. One of the few places where theory jumped off the page was in “manIFpesto,” when Smith directly quotes Chomsky. The surface clues are much less important than the subsurfaces. The only way into the poems is by carefully perceiving why these poems are explicit and naked. You must pay attention and put in the time. In “The Lyric Republican,” when the reader expects a straightforward political statement, we instead receive, “maybe their worshiping their oaths / has a kind of shaking hook bed index we can flame.” The tone, the message, the experience, the poem is underground. Beneath the surface, Smith’s lines subvert by subverting subversion.      

Prolonged exposure is revelatory. So, you’re thinking “shaking hook bed index” is simply pure nonsense. You’d be wrong. The non-referential qualities of the poems turn out to be highly referential. These strings of words are nonsensical, but they aren’t pure nonsense. Eventually, the reader starts to pick up the rhythms and forces and ways of Smith’s poetics. Read “frame” for “flame,” or jump across and through any number of words. The reader starts to have expectations and starts to read contextually and across poems and between styles. The reader starts to read many words in one word. The reader begins to read the multiplicities and duplicities of language in “mine is the unmunched cointelpro-pop of cointelpro-pops.” It’s funny how scary language can be. Eventually, the reader is reading in spite of the words. (cointelpro is an acronym for a shady FBI counterintelligence program).

Perception isn’t a pure utility, because there are fields. Smith’s aesthetics is not found by reading the poems, by enjoying the poems as products on a shelf. It’s not found by identifying all the different styles and approaches Smith employs– appropriation, phonemic flip-flops, manipulative humor, colloquial speech, grammatical and lexical inexactitudes, predictable flarfiness, the repetition of words. It’s not found in how language is abused through its own functionalities. It’s not found by holding up a mirror to the languages used by the powerful and the powerless, the classy and the classless. It’s perhaps fitting that Smith includes a poem about LSD that’s titled “Poem,” because it seems, to me at least, that Smith’s aesthetics is found in the hallucinogenic haze, the electric in-betweenness of words and contexts and poems. To find it, you must read around, above, and through the poems. You’ll inevitably find yourself making cross-connections and free associations that endlessly unravel and entangle Smith’s own abstractions and insights.  I’ll end/begin with a poem from TOUCHÉ–“win.”

the world which taut

the wink how to smash–

tri-grid winds successfully

smell causation, perk in

branching on the soft blamed

clammy. a waif

studiously mooches or else

strums. bodily

triumvirate like a broken

book’s pulsing on the


Available from Wave Books: $18.00

John Most is a poet. His latest book of poems is What Thoughts. He lives in Crozet, Virginia.

REVIEW: Sleeper Hold by Jibade-Khalil Huffman

by Chris Caruso

With the issue of racism, violence, and inequality at the forefront of national attention, Sleeper Hold, Jibade-Khalil Huffman’s third collection, adds another voice to the discussion. Huffman’s poems avoid much of vitriol and political opportunism and grandstanding found in the news. Instead, an “I” offers up flecks of narrative and antecedents and, unlike so many other texts that deal with these subjects, his vernacular doesn’t require one to have an advance degree to access his work. While the language might be simple, the poems themselves are complex in how the philosophical is mixed with “low brow” culture. The “I” that speaks is in a process of searching for place and value amongst the distractions found in media, catch phrases, and the addictions of daily life. The awareness of a discussion on race does not exist in a sealed off environment, sterile of the lives and experiences of population in which they relate to.

On the first day

of the poem

we perform

a trust exercise

These lines that open the collection allow Huffman to address the limitations of poetry and at the same time speak to the necessity of poetry to accomplish his task. He is aware that despite how the poem allows one to “start dancing in the street,” there is artificiality present. Even if one is writing a poem, there is a system in place that forces one to “adopt the speech/of a telemarketer”. Despite the illusion of assimilation, the “I” is still an outsider where 

the Star Spangled Banner.
On the surface of nature

is an argument

for crying your eyes out.

It is in this tension between the ideal of America versus the reality which the title of the collection addresses. Sleeper Hold draws upon the desires of a compliant populace to be distracted through entertainment, scandals, and various political actions perpetuated through the media, to keep distractions at the forefront instead of an awareness that might alter the condition that infects society. The title also refers to a trope found in professional wrestling. The sleeper hold is a modified choke hold performed by flamboyant characters in spandex battles between archetypal roles of heroes and villains. It is used to subdue the opponent, strangling them into submission. The title also alludes to racism, in that non-white wrestlers were often found to perform characters as savages or minstrels. This theme of being strangled and beaten into submission is found throughout the book. What is disturbing is not that this occurs, but how willing the citizens are to accept it:


wrestling is an interesting case

because it can provide a spectacle

we can at once ignore


come back to.

At once ignore

and devote

our complete attention

Socially the title draws on corporate and government desires to keep the populace placid through the distractions the media. Much like in wrestling the populace finds themselves being strangled into submission to accept their roles and continue on the path for which that have been following. It falls to the “I” of the collection to disrupt this cycle, not through violence, or protest but through a questioning of the self and how the “I” fits into these various roles and ruts. “Poem for Cedric The Entertainer” encapsulates this tension between entertainment and a striving to address the underlying racism found in society. A dichotomy begins the poem between “White people/love the 1980s/Black people/can’t help/but strive for/more declarative sentences…My live/in the bush of ghosts” Huffman builds on these two declarative sentences where White people become jokes in and of themselves with absurd novelty hats, where Black people strive for more important concerns such as caring and supporting their wives. The short lines and declarative statements create a tension between the perception between races.

The main question of collection is, how can American society escape from the sleeper hold it finds itself in? The sleeper hold that attempts to choke out the importance and relevance of Black experience and struggles. It also looks to offer a path for which those bombarded with the sleeper hold of media and trivial can perceive the world and their actions, and break out of a cycle of cute ads and a rhetoric of oppression. These are poems of protest, not against certain groups of individual or races, but instead protest against a system the encourages and wishes to continue these divisive practices.

Fence Books: $15.95.

Chris Caruso is a poet with MFA’s from Rutgers Newark and Boise State University. He is fascinated with the limits and transgressions of borders/boundaries especially the margins between words and images.