REVIEW: Alkali by Craig Dworkin

dworkin-cover-1.jpg

by Michael Gossett

Writing out of the saline oikeios of Utah’s Great Salt Lake and informed by a career-long cultivation of non-expressive, constraint-based poetics, Craig Dworkin, in his new eco-conceptual compendium Alkali, has landed on the figure of the crystal as the site of recent experimentation in a way that borders on the teleological. Dworkin’s crystals—whether taking the form of mined quartz sitting on a desk, as in his restaging of Clark Coolidge’s sustained meditation “The Crystal Text,” or kept in the ground, as in the “spathe filtered fields” of the desert pastoral “Feldspar”—are rendered in a densely textured and amalgamating language that accrues in equal parts by Objectivist, Language, and oulippean strategies. As such, these crystals inform not only the subject of each of the book’s six poems, but a kind of syntax as well. If Alkali is thought of as a kind of glass case of such crystals, the beauty of the collection lies in the range of size, dimensionality, and opacity contained therein.

At the smaller end of the range are two of what the book describes as “geometrical exercises exhausting the limits of two particular oulippean constraints.” “Feldspar” is the resulting text from a paper-folding exercise Dworkin began in 2000 in an attempt to see if a text could be written in three columns and read in a plurality of ways—down one column, across and down two columns, and across and down all three—while sustaining the cohesion of both the poem’s grammar and its subject. (Note: Limited by the standard, unfolded pages of the book, the version of “Feldspar” captured in Alkali is a list of all available permutations of the columns.) The result is a line like “Over path — fulled filtered yielding spats of foliage fall to to fill” unfolding and evolving into “Over march of path: fault of fulled runs filtered by spare yielding spart spats; sprattle of foliage and felt fall to sparging to fill a scaf” and further into “Fold over march of grown path — fault of feldspar fulled runs in spathe filtered by spare fields yield spart — sprat spats sprattle pleats of foliage and felt, failing to fall to sparging pare to fill a scaf.” What was already difficult by virtue of its unexpected word choices and usages—a dictionary is absolutely a necessary reading companion—becomes increasingly more so as words shift parts of speech, relationships between ideas change as new ideas are thrown into the mix, and the echoing of sounds disorients us and even tricks us into misreadings. We are forced to parse sentences at a glacial pace, and are expected to hold multiple lineages together in our minds as if committing to memory a family tree. It is hard work, but the payoff is in the feeling of capturing the many faces of a vast mountain meadow as one zig-zags along a meandering path beside it.

The second geometrical exercise, “All Saints,” is so short it can be recreated here in its entirety:

I.

Ored arches ern
inky rivers out
rust-raddled rows
ranged even over
aging riven rove-
ringed axes — randed
ewers raining ash,
raked eye ruts uttering reams.

II.

Eves addle ere
our ender annum
ages air rung
under riper eaves.

Taking as an epigraph John Dowland’s “Weepe ye no more, sad fountains,” the first part of “All Saints” figures the “inky rivers” flowing under the “ored arches” of the Utah desert as tilted water jugs (“randed / ewers”) emptying out their contents as if “raining ash,” an image aligned with the Elizabethan ballad’s pair of crying eyes that find its correlate (and comfort) in springing fountains and melting snow. But where Dowland merely compares the short-term sadness of human concerns with events taking place on a geological timescale, Dworkin locates the sadness in the earth itself. The signs of age and fatigue (“rust-raddled rows”) associated with the rivers’ flowing (they have “riven” “ring[s]” with their “rov[ing]”) are amplified by the constancy and duration signaled in the depths of “rake[s],” “ruts,” and “reams.” These ecological tears are, in fact, scars: scars further carved with each “e” and “r.” The poem pivots into its second part around the word “eves,” which both alerts us to a temporal transition and prepares us for a frame of nesting rhymes that ends in “eaves” and contains the “addle”-”under” and “ere”-”air” pairings, further concentrating the textured sound patterning. In sifting through these pairs, we come to understand the synecdochical relationship between the human and the fountains in Dowland’s poem to be parallel to that between the rivers and the earth in Dworkin’s, a relationship extended ultimately to that between the discomfort brought on by the end of a day (“eves addle”) and that brought on by the end of the world (“our ender annum” aging “air rung under riper eaves”).

The linguistic play and ecological concerns of these two minimalist poems are extended and developed further in the expanded pastorals “In the Dark Wood / Nella Selva Oscura” and “Haligraphy,” two limited-edition letterpress pamphlets Dworkin created in June and July of 2012. The former takes its bilingual title from the opening lines of The Inferno, wherein Dante finds himself in an indeterminate forestscape that proves ripe for a disorientation both physical and psychological. And though we know Dworkin’s dark wood to be the landscape surrounding the Great Salt Lake, such knowledge does nothing to undermine the sense of intellectual and spiritual uncertainty. As if Samuel calling out “Here I am” to an unseen voice in night, Dworkin here seems particularly attuned to the sonic qualities of the space around him, following the question “Who hears the sound in the dark wood damping?” with a recognition of substance that is there, has always been there: “to hear / in the (her) // of what inheres, inured, / innate in names (in yours).” And yet, what is there seems also simultaneously not there, is both at-home and not-at-home, is Uncanny, as when the salty molecules of a woman’s cry are all at once “petrified, revenant, dissipating,” that is, solidified, ghostly, and disappearing, a fixed “static addenda” on the ever-expanding fractal “dendral record.” Like a “glistening and resinous” light flickering in its presence, what is “whole” is “in rounds, repealing,” vanishing.

In “Haligraphy”—Dworkin’s neologism for the study of halation, the way light forms a foggy halo around a photo or screen—light, like sound, demonstrates its equally transitory nature with dramatic consequences. “Halation at the lake’s horizon,” we’re told in one section, “occasions the visual collision of the distant hills; the granulate behind a scrim of calinated haze.” And in another, “the calice of the Great Lake’s basin salinates in an evaporative slake; sky, draining, etiolates; haze shades to hazard the azure’s hue.” Our attention is drawn time and again to “shallow light” and “laquered glaze” and things “lost to shimmer,” and yet it is only when the “night air rarefies” and “dissipate[s]” and the “accruals of shadows under boulder-curves merge” that we are allowed to see the way that, in the dark, “everything radiates, cools and quickens.”

Finally, the two largest pieces in the collection: “The Crystal Text,” the aforementioned restaging of Clark Coolidge’s poem of the same name, and “The Falls,” a long lyric essay on the concept of falling as it appears in French Modernist texts. “The Crystal Text,” easily my favorite poem in the collection, is an attempt at acknowledging the infinitely withdrawn nature of an object by exhausting its descriptions, uses, and resemblances. A kind of cubing exercise, Dworkin locates a crystal on his writing desk and, in the tightly controlled language we have come to expect from the collection, sustains his attention until the crystal takes on an oblique life of its own. “A rose quartz quarters on my desk,” he writes. “It obligates. It obliquates. Around an axis the crystal twists. The crystal finds an assectation in this text.” Dworkin’s later observation that “the crystal riddles” turns a key for the subsequent fourteen pages of the poem and brings an important literary tradition into the fold, effectively linking the long history of the riddle in English poetics—the monstrously alive riddle-objects and their alliterative accentual-syllabic distiches date back to the tenth-century Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book—to bear directly on two hot contemporary traditions in object-oriented ontology (“The rock is loud, though it resounds too low for me to hear… The crystal can only transmit, but no one is listening.”) and constraint-based conceptual writing (“The crystal is a lens. The crystal lends. It colors. The crystal as a prism imprisons certain shades. Its polar optics set selective spectra free.”). And like the riddle-objects of the Exeter Book, the crystal in turn is rendered as a writer (“The crystal is a scribe.”), a household object (“The rock is a clock.”), an erotic subject (“The crystal winks and lustres… and underneath the finger feels slick.”), a judge (“The rock is just.”), a crustacean (“The stone scuttles…”), and a storm (the stone “stirs the waves of the sea”). But despite the potential for a seemingly infinite series of comparisons, and though each comparison seems to open up some facet of the crystal in a new, undiscovered capacity, in the end Dworkin acknowledges that he is left no closer to truly understanding the small noun in front of him than he was at the beginning. “Only it can know how accurate and imprecise I have been here,” he writes, “the extents of my unfaithfulness and simultaneous fidelities.”

The book concludes with “The Falls,” a long lyric essay that, when premiered, was described as “part lyric catalogue of the sculptural condition of everything beholden to gravity; part essay on French Modernism; part elegy; and part grammatical investigation into how we speak of falling into abstractions (love and sleep and illness) with concrete consequences.” The meat of the essay, like that of many of Dworkin’s other pieces in this collection, is made up of several dozen quotations and fragments of quotations culled from sources ranging from Plato to Proust to an article on the photographic techniques of processing reversal film. Dworkin writes into and out of this material in a kind of lyrical annotated bibliography, allowing the line of thought to reel out a bit in exploration before bringing it back in again with a quasi-anaphoric structure reminiscent at times of Juliana Spahr’s this connection of everyone with lungs. The end result of this activity amounts to a magnificent juggling act in which disparate, but not unrelated, ideas, sources, structures, and themes are kept up in the air and treated one-by-one in passing en route to the formulation of argument and instruction common to the essay form but noticeably lacking in the lapsing cliches characterizing contemporary conceptual practice. “The Falls” resists summary in a way that is difficult as a reviewer but is satisfying as a reader, with its combination of encyclopedic research and associative poetic movements ultimately amounting to less of a singular text that can be mastered and captured than an illusive event than must be reexperienced from multiple angles for multiple unveilings.

The bring the crystal analogy full circle, Alkali is a wonderfully refined hunk of work, one slowly formed over the course of more than a decade. As a stone, it has weight, is lyrically dense and intellectually complex. As a prism, the light passing through it breaks out into spectra identifiable in conceptualism, object-oriented ontology, ecocriticism, and information/archive theory. This makes it an important book. It is an object as stimulating to peer through as it is to turn over in your hands. It is “always more important, more interesting, more capable.” Its “grid ranges, and will continue until something gets in its way.” It is “generous.” It is “generative.”

The difficulty with difficult work is that one rarely knows how much effort to put in without a guarantee that the effort will be rewarded. Difficult work often appears to be at best unintelligible, and at worst completely indulgent. But what distinguishes Dworkin from other conceptual writers and Alkali from other difficult works is the generative generosity embedded at each step of the way, and the clarity and intelligibility of ideas once encoded. The key is always there, in other words, and once unconcerned with the viability of access, one is freed to enjoy the movements by which the pins fall into place.

Buy it from Counterpath Press: $18.00.

Michael Gossett is from Memphis, Tennessee. He tweets commonplace books of poetry, riddles, comedy, and basketball at: @michaeljgossett and @theebigsir

REVIEW: Motherlover by Ginger Ko

71-phj7CpYL-330x337

by Jennifer Fossenbell

What if you wreck your ship in the middle of a dangerous/wavy prairie? What if “I” submits to the power of “you”? Ginger Ko’s debut book, Motherlover, asks these questions in a voice that serves as an audible beacon: staid but urgent like a whispered shout. Hers is a work of reckoning with its own flashing ambition to make dark/light.

Ko’s first full-length collection was republished recently by Bloof Books after appearing briefly through Coconut Books, shortly before that press’s dissolution. In an interview with Grace Shuyi Liew of The Conversant, Ko speaks more about those turbulent events surrounding the book’s origins. Bloof is a fitting new home; their catalogue of poets includes the powerful and peerless likes of Danielle Pafunda, Elisabeth Workman, Jennifer L. Knox, and many others probing language in and through feminist genealogies (among others).

In her conversation with Liew, Ko talks of her writing as resistance to “silencing and repression.” She was, in that moment, speaking of her own, within personal contexts – though recent events and conversations/arguments across literary communities have been echoing that same urgent theme on a public and social scale. Ko: “I was frozen-over and latent for almost a decade. Then I started writing, and this manuscript is what I got from just beginning to take account of all that’s going on…” This narrative surrounding the book’s origins, plus the fascinating/romantic tidbit from her bio that she wrote it in Wyoming, for me saturate the poems with an extra aura of personhood that poses, or maybe is disguised as, the figure of the prairie lighthouse featured in the third part.

Motherlover progresses through three sections, ranging drastically in tone and form, but orbiting around common subjects, among them relationships (and relationship trauma), emotional repression (and the backlash against it), violence (and what it begets… and a person’s surreal, underwater recognition that those things are fucked – even when they have been grossly normalized.

In the first section and long poem, “GASLIGHT,” we find early on a reference to “folie et deux” – literally, madness shared by two, or in psychological terms, shared psychosis – yet in the very next breath, something is already breaking through/into that corrupted bubble: “Suddenly a difference / Sent to illumine the insides”

In “GASLIGHT,” the speaker revisits childhood experiences, including several that speak to a “you” implicated by “folie et deux,” stating at one point nakedly:

I’ve been sorry to you my whole life
that you couldn’t prevent bad things from happening to me

The voice often takes on a blasé tone, as if growing desensitized in the cycle of reckoning:

Again and again I bury you after

I find you cold in the morning.

And at a few striking moments, it becomes almost extravagantly grotesque:

When you slice me open
cutting the bright perfect rind,
you see the insides green and black,
putrid little girl bangs swirled inside with other rot.

The tonal patterns established in the first part – alternating with scary precision between poetic/pretty and menacing/visceral – intensify and continue through the books’ middle section, “BODY.” Here a significant other is often addressed, instead of a parental figure, but we see the eerie recurrence of loathing of self/other informed by what one inherits, told by close-up speakers in first- and second-person that is somehow both intimate and chilly:

I am disgusting. Raised to be a bride, to hate myself for it, I come to
you full of brides.

There is no room in my heart for important men who
surround themselves with flowers. Take the garland of wives
and daughters from around your neck. That you feel safe they
would not choke you makes me sick.

The section generates kinetic energy through its oscillations, lifting and dropping from concrete image to interiority, from kinda joking to dead fucking serious, from brevity to expansiveness, from prosaic language in regulated lines to sonically-centered inventions. Even from the back-and-forth between simple, one-word titles, such as “Flora” quoted above, and those that strain their boundaries, spilling out into texts of their own, as in “Crouching Down to Crawl Beneath, Letting the Desk Enfold Me, I Curl Up For Secular Dreams. Where Is My Legacy? Not Here.” Here the title carries its own distinct voice and serves almost as a short counterpoint poem to the poem that follows:

In dreams I am no one’s lover. I wake up, find my fingers do not
meet when handling your throat with both hands.

Through moments like this, where the speaker fantasizes choking or some other violence against a lover, the poet and reader are pulled along in what we are used to calling a circle or cycle of violence. Though I say slinky is a more apt metaphor: it pulls its own weight. The force acts upon the mass, until the mass acts upon itself. In “I’m Wide Awake in This Recurring Dream,” a speaker recognizes neutrally but can’t alter her own participation in this:

I can’t stop watching myself from a distance
As my splitjaw gapes

Like a triumphant snake’s

In “Nine-Tailed Fox Is Reborn in the Wrong Country,” one of a few centerpieces of the collection, we go through a catalog of cruel imperatives in terrifying specificity. Mother, father, car mechanic, school-bus driver, ex-boyfriend, supervisor, and others are commanded to do her harm, with the alarming but it-makes-perfect-sense effect of putting the power back in the hands of the one commanding: “overpower my lap with your smooth heavy hips” and “break my nose with hardback books” and “twist my shovel teeth around in their sockets so the little / curves face out.”

Ko outlines a few different territories of wanting, from romantic relationships (wanting/loathing to be a bride) to family (fear/guilt/grief), from traces of childhood to presages of motherhood – to which the book’s title makes us give special attention. “Baby Shower,” an understated and powerfully affecting piece, meditates on the speaker’s brief pregnancy and its end, with Ko’s expert cool-cum-poignant tone:

So many years preparing. For nothing, it turns out.
[…]
Afterward the skin on my cheeks frescoed hard and glossy. It could be a tragic Greek mask but I’m actually OK.

Later, in “Prayer for What’s Close,” she returns to a list of wishes, the prayers of a body and soul grown in and among unavoidable cultures of harm:

Let me feel safe enough to have a child someday

It is here, at the book’s center, that something close to resolution is found. In “Prayer for What’s Close,” the speaker buoys herself through acceptance: “I’m ready for the sharpness of this because now I know that it’ll be sharp” and in “Starve the Beast” stirs up some encouragement in the form of a brief manifesto on going forward: “… Heart!     Parcel out what ails you so that we / can start living well.”

Empowerment lies in choosing: to welcome the sting of “sharpness” while rejecting the deeper/uglier threats of evisceration, drowning, being swallowed whole, of neglect, shame, and erasure.

The third and final section of the collection, “PRAIRIE LIGHTHOUSE,” consists of twenty-seven poems titled “Day Mark” and “Night Signature,” a reference to the system of signals used by lighthouses during the daytime and nighttime. Maybe the code-breaker in you can uncover a message in the sequence of titles themselves, accompanied by their simplified symbols, which remind one of full and new moons, of signs for “on” and “off,” even of the “dit” and “dah” of Morse code, and other binary structures that play so significantly in this work.

In one of the “Night Signature” poems, we find an example of Ko’s pairing of precise image with personal experience, often leading to a dreamlike effect with its pedestrian strangeness:

I float prone and try to forget I’m prone. My sinking feet keep
kicking up silt clouds from the bed,
and I do not wash very far downstream

Finally, with a striking move toward minimalism, the final two poems of the book (spoiler alert) are pared down and quieted to a single line each. It’s as if Ko has pruned the shrub to its base, to start again calmly, with a reverberating message of optimism, another prayer: “May this range be one of work and love” and facing it, an answer: “From the top of the fortress two leaps of light take turns.”

There’s a kind of fish that has a bioluminescent belly. Its underside lights up so that when predators look up from the depths, it is camouflaged against the sunlight above. These poems have that kind of protecting/uncanny light: a kind of brilliance against carnage. Glowing as a way of hiding, giving off your own light in the attempt to preserve yourself and the small beauties around you.

So we’re asked again: What if you find yourself wrecked/reckless in the middle of an inherited continent? Let the lighthouse be your body. Let your voice throw the light. How many and what kind of shipwrecks we will avoid in this way. In Motherlover, Ginger Ko is strobing sharp/tender signals into the dark – for her own safety and for ours – if we heed them, if we know how to read them.

Bloof Books, 2016

Jennifer Fossenbell lives in Minneapolis, writes poems, teaches composition, tends a toddler, and is getting ready to move to Beijing. Look her up if you’re in the area: fossenbellj@gmail.com

REVIEW: “I forgot algebra can become orphaned”: Eileen Tabios’ The Connoisseur of Alleys

 

ConnoisseurofAlleys-Cover-JPEG

by Marthe Reed

Eileen Tabios’ most recent collection creates a meditative, immersive experience for the reader, spelling the persistence of memory out of a litany of loss. Part of her series of work driven by the “MDR Poetry Generator” (Murder Death Resurrection), a database and program which draws upon material from Tabios’ earlier books, selected lines from each text shape a new poem; the lines recur according to a pattern of eight series, transmuted by each new juxtaposition. Integrating the collaged assemblage, Tabios opens each line with the assertion “I forgot,” playfully upending the meaning of loss. Anaphora and repetition give rise to an incantatory feeling, the lines’ extension and mutation resembling jazz in the seeming improvisatory movement of each re-appearance.

Though the lines insist on the loss of memory, the logic of the generated poem—the recursion on which the poems are founded—asserts that nothing is ever forgotten. Each poem is composed in eight paragraph-like stanzas, the returns both familiar and new. Tabios’ algorithmic work depends upon the vivid imagery and emotion of the original lines and the wonder to which each new configuration gives rise. Reading these poems, I entered a durational space, a state in which time flows otherwise, according to the orbits of the recurring lines. I lost track of where and when in the drifting patterns the poet has construed, finding myself midmost a language journey: “I forgot the empty chair that awaited us, its expanse the totality of a planet still unexplored.”

Each line recalled again and again rouses the reader to listen for those returns, to feel grateful when the absent reappears like a prodigal child. “Ecstatic Mutations”, composed from lines from her 2001 collection of essays and short stories, begins “I forgot love is always haggled….I forgot truth is disembodied….I forgot my bones became hollow, flutes made from reeds….I forgot green calyx emphasizing the burden of generously watered corollas.” Gradually the opening line, though often paired with the second, is pulled into the orbit of new lines: “…I forgot drowning in the air…I forgot love is always haggled….I forgot tipping Bing cherries into a blue bowl until I lost the sky to a crimson moon’s overflow” until eventually, by the eighth permutation, “I forgot the stance of cliffs meeting water….I forgot I began drowning….I forgot love is always haggled…”

The book itself is beautiful, the cover art of Advaita Patel moving in syncretic sympathy to Tabios’ lines. The meditative child reading on the front and the tesselating boxes and circles on the back, wind into one another, mapping the experience of reading The Connoisseur of Alleys and the activity of memory. Flashes of awareness and the heat of repetition-as-translation, like the vivid patterns of the cover, stack, collapse, and regenerate in an ecstasy of memory made manifest.

The gradual permutations the MDR Poem Generator accretes move in shell-like spirals from the material of their origin. As the language reshapes itself, the lines are re-encountered, remembered, re-remembered, nothing ever forgot. Rather each line is understood in manifold new associations. Eileen Tabios has created gorgeously meditative, beguiling language from the ressurrected ‘bones’ of her earlier works.

Marthe Reed is the author of five books of poetry: Night Reading (Lavendat Ink, 2014), Pleth, a collaboration with j hastain (Unlikely Books 2013), (em)bodied bliss (Moria Books 2013), Gaze (Black Radish Books 2010) and Tender Box, A Wunderkammer (Lavender Ink 2007). She has also published chapbooks as part of the Dusie Kollektiv, as well as with above / ground press and Shirt Pocket Press. Her collaborative chapbook thrown, text by j hastain with Reed’s collages, won the 2013 Smoking Glue Gun contest. She is Co-Publisher of Black Radish and the Editor/Publisher of Nous-zot Press chapbooks. Her reviews have appeared or are forthcoming at Rain Taxi, Jacket2, Galatea Ressurrects, Openned, Cut Bank, New Pages, and The Rumpus among others.

REVIEW: “The Music of White Phosphorous”: Emily Carlson’s Symphony No 2

Symphony-no-2-cover-1024x1024.jpg

by Robin Clarke

“I felt like a number I couldn’t count to,” concludes one poem in Emily Carlson’s new prose poetry chapbook, “Symphony No 2” (Argos, 2015). “Symphony” sets out to document Israel’s 2006 air war on Lebanon from the point of view of a North American poet visiting Beirut during the bombing. In the tradition of Mahmoud Darwish, the book dramatizes how war disintegrates the most basic activities of everyday life. Carlson collapses the syntaxes of prose as the rituals of daily sustenance collapse around her:

WHILE SUPPER SHOOK to the floor from constant shelling potatoes and peas stuck to my spoon I sat it down in my reoccurring dream
and begged be good over a number of lines, you’re no more related
to me than birds who flock at the close of day some here some there corner is to hide and open plain to see what’s coming I held
my breath between seconds as if there’s anything but in between. (11)

The dinner that shakes to the floor indexes the force of a violence we don’t see. What else is shaking, collapsing? Carlson’s project is also to chart war’s psychological toll: who else is shaking, collapsing. Hence it is exactly on this phrase—“I sat it down in my reoccurring dream”—that the sentence loses it’s boundary; the real shell-shocked spoon migrates into the speaker’s dream, put down again, again in the way trauma is reiterative.

Describing Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 features an extended fantasy about making a cup of coffee: the ritual of preparation, the human agency to begin a day in one’s own way, the sensory pleasures of a beverage that ultimately cannot be made because a sniper or bomb could strike at any moment. Through the disintegrating possibility of a cup of coffee, Darwish patiently and painfully documents the impossibility of remaining recognizable to oneself while under siege. In her opening poem, Carlson quotes Memory for Forgetfulness: “I measure the period between two shells. One second: shorter than the time between breathing in and breathing out, between two heartbeats.” Like Darwish, Carlson holds her breath between bombs in Beirut during an Israeli-sponsored bombing. Like Darwish, Carlson aims to show how human dignity is stripped away in the face of deadly air space. If not even a cup of coffee is possible, if not peas and potatoes, how writing? How love?

Carlson’s chapbook foregrounds the physical and psychological space where the capacity to bear witness has been compromised, “when a dusk to dawn curfew collects the faces of anyone moving” (16). As with the collected faces, the observer’s body is marked by danger: “Lasers crisscrossed my nightshirt” (10). Leaflets rain down terrorizing messages. Bombs that look absurdly like Frisbees appear in the air, everywhere. The poet as witness does not know herself: “WHO DID WE BECOME enduring words refused their referents FORCE YOU TO STAY HOME LIKE RATS (27). What happens to a human being upon whom war has been waged? And to what degree is that by design? To what degree are most wars actually a form of state-sponsored terrorism?

Carlson finds a surprising escape from the psychological terror of constant shelling—not by her eventual evacuation, but by those who refuse the terms of their bombardment:

Clubs lit in phosphorous glows radio, active local DJs play volumes we can’t hear, explosions, bass bass….did you hear Salam Pax a famous Iraqi blogger put it nicely in 2002, WHAT DO YOU EXPECT US TO DO, RUN INTO THE STREETS SHOUTING WAR IS HERE (21)

Carlson watches with awe as those around her cross uncrossable spaces of danger in order to refuse their psychological and spiritual deaths, all the while human pleasure is slammed against the crashing of bombs. Carlson’s supple syntax, as in the comma between “radio” and “active,” holds the absurdity of war like a dance partner with the miracle of resistance. She repeats this technique in another poem of resistance, using interrupted syntax—“air, force”—to signal and challenge the violence of the Israeli state:

We returned to the beach to say to the air, force you haven’t scared us for the future of our mis, to arrive at mistake, missile sent, here I did try, to walk through sound shadows (26)

The initial “mis” here always reads as “misery” for me, and, in the place where Saussure meets death-dealing aggression, can also easily be future missile or future mistake.

According to a simple Wikipedia paragraph about the 2006 invasion, the group Human Rights Watch stated that

‘the IDF struck a large number of private homes of civilian Hezbollah members during the war, as well as various civilian Hezbollah-run institutions such as schools, welfare agencies, banks, shops and political offices.’ Although Israel maintained that the civilian infrastructure was ‘hijacked’ by Hezbollah and used for military purposes, but Amnesty International identified the destruction of entire civilian neighbourhoods and villages by Israeli forces, attacks on bridges with no apparent strategic value, and attacks on infrastructure indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, and questioned whether the ‘military advantage anticipated from destroying” civilian infrastructure had been “measured against the likely effect on civilians.’ They also stated that the Israeli actions suggested a “policy of punishing both the Lebanese government and the civilian population. (sic)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_Lebanon_War

Carlson’s poems seek to present “the likely effect on civilians” through a language unable to stop itself and unable to order itself properly. Like the broken measures of a scrambled song, these poems, which communicate some of this war’s psychological aftermath. To render trauma bearable, the mind may forget the worst. And yet, there is no real forgetting without a way “to feel the size of it,” to process and release the trauma. Without such work of feeling, the lived experience becomes both unacknowledged and destructive, which is one way of reading the problem in the book’s final poem: “I waved goodbye to what I couldn’t wave goodbye to.” And as with Carlson, this line is also stating a material fact: part of the land is now physically gone that was once there when she first arrived. Carlson’s book seeks to make this loss palpable.

Buy Symphony No 2 from Argos Books here

Robin Clarke divides her time between teaching, reading, writing and activism. She is the author of Lines the Quarry (Omnidawn, 2013), winner of the Omnidawn 2012 1st/2nd book prize for poetry, judged by Brenda Hillman. With Sten Carlson, she co-authored the chapbook Lives of the Czars (nonpolygon, 2011), which imagines what might happen if intelligent machines decided to write poetry. Her poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in Conduit,  CounterpunchCritical QuarterlyDenver QuarterlyFenceIn Posse ReviewA Joint Called Pauline, LABORLafoveaSentenceVerseThe VoltaWhiskey and Fox, and word for/word

REVIEW: Azure: Poems and Selections from the “Livre” by Blake Bronson-Bartlett and Robert Fernandez

9780819575807

To translate the spirit is an intention of such enormity, so phantasmal, that it can well turn out to be inoffensive . . . —Borges, “The Translators of The 1001 Nightsby

by Jerome Keeler

I

I had Borges’s writings on translation in mind when I picked up Azure: Poems and Selections from the “Livre, the recent translation of Stéphane Mallarmé by Blake Bronson-Bartlett and Robert Fernandez. The book’s reputation preceded it. It aims to convey a sense of the peculiar energies a reader of Mallarmé’s time would have perceived in his work by rendering this work vital to our own time—that is, by creating translations that work as contemporary poems. Previous renderings, the translators feel—they single out the highly-regarded efforts of the Henry Weinfield (University of California Press, 1994) and E.H. and A.M. Blackmore (Oxford, 2006)—are too academic, too antiquated in their diction, and, most importantly, too occupied with preserving meter and end rhyme at the expense of other poetic qualities. The present version, as the translators’ note explains, “privileges a certain music—a striking music—that is integral to Mallarmé’s poetics.”

These are admirable aims. But they introduce a new set of challenges in tackling Mallarmé, who is justly considered the least translatable of French poets. This is all to say that Bronson-Bartlett and Fernandez had their work cut out for them, and I confess I found it hard not to go in rather skeptical of the project.

To lend some concreteness to assessing the collection, I would like to focus on important parts of two of Mallarmé’s most representative poems. Here, then, is an excerpt from the early and relatively accessible “Azure,” in the more faithful rhyming translation of Weinfield as well as the present translation.

Weinfield:

—The Sky is dead.—Toward you I run!

Bestow, O matter,

Forgetfulness of Sin and the cruel Ideal

Upon this martyr who comes to share the litter

Where the happy herd of men is made to kneel.

 

For there I long, because at last my brain,

Like an empty rouge-pot on a dressing stand,

Has lost the art of decking out its pain,

To yawn morosely toward a humble end . . .

 

In vain! The Azure triumphs [. . .]

 

Bronson-Bartlett/Fernandez:

 

—Sky’s dead.—Toward you I run. Give, o

Heaviness of all things, forgetfulness of the Ideal

And of sin, to this martyr who sojourns

Among the sweat of mortal cattle.

 

I want out. My empty brain, empty

As a pot of face paint at the wall’s foot,

Dry, empty, it can’t face paint, mask, a weepy idea

Shuttling some girth toward pinned eyes . . .

Vain! Azure triumphs [. . .]

There are many interesting points of comparison here. The most noticeable, I think, are the differences in the treatments of the second stanza. Certainly the longing and the morose yawning of Weinfeld’s rendering, and even the rouge-pot and the dressing stand, feel mannered by contrast to the touches of the present translation. The wordplay of “it can’t face paint,” for instance, strikes me as just the sort one might encounter in a contemporary poem. The enjambed free verse of the present translation feels fresher as well, especially in contrast to Weinfield’s base of rhymed iambic pentameter. The decision to abandon end rhyme and regular meter, in fact, seems much more significant to this collection as a whole than any updates in diction. But this brings me to what I find the more interesting points of comparison: the first stanza, and the thought that follows the second. Here, in terms of contemporary feel, there is, I think, little meaningful difference between the translations. This sort of unevenness from stanza to stanza and also from poem to poem reflects the general situation in the first half of this collection.

I intend this not as a major criticism but simply as an observation about the challenges in rendering a late nineteenth-century poet contemporary. Mallarmé was heavily influenced by Baudelaire, and his early verse, composed in the 1860s, has a decidedly Baudelairean atmosphere: “Ennui,” “the Ideal,” and “Azure,” often apostrophized and capitalized, are invoked repeatedly. Consider “Azure.” For Mallarmé, this is not simply a color that sounds like it belongs in a poem but a conception, an atheist alternative to “ciel,” which, in French, can mean both sky and heaven. This is lost on us. And if “Ennui” can’t necessarily be called antiquated, it’s hard to imagine anyone today blissfully cultivating it in the manner of Baudelaire and the Decadents. “Boredom” isn’t really an update, but it’s also not so intimately bound to a particular historical context. And it is, at least, a translation. I wondered why it, or something like it, did not appear. Occasionally, in fact, the translators conceive an ingenious solution—I particularly enjoyed “infinite whatever” as a rendering of “langueur infinie” (literally “infinite languor”) in the poem “Sigh.” It’s a wide departure from the original but a perfect expression of contemporary sensibility. For the most part, however, the vocabulary of the Symbolists and their precursors remains untouched. The presence of such content in one stanza or poem, then, with an update such as “night cinema,” “Oxys” (for Oxycontins), or “Gravitrons” in the next, seems an indication of an unfinished battle—or perhaps simply an unwinnable one. In any case, I found the issue intriguing, though sometimes distracting, and I wondered if more might have been done to address it.

I don’t wish to give the impression that nothing in Azure feels truly contemporary. The shorter poems toward the end of the collection are remarkably so. These are drawn from Mallarmé’s mature verse of the 1880s. The Baudelairean influence is diminished. The translators are in their element here, and they take more liberties in departing from the French. Certain gestures are masterful and can be appreciated without comparison to the originals, as in the final stanza of “Scrap, as for an Album”—

Such a raw, clear

Childlike laughter

Releasing air-Valentines

—and the opening stanza of a section from “To you colonist”:

No lace

Can’t believe this incredible joy

And won’t ironize it, open

No more than a tossed mattress

And it would require a separate review to do justice to the 108-page selection from the “Livre,” Mallarmé’s manuscript notes toward a book-of-books that would reveal “all existing relations between everything.” This selection, translated into English for the first time, is a significant contribution to Mallarmé scholarship. But it is much more than that. I was pleased to find that these notes, fragmented and unfinished as they may be, and in fact precisely for that reason, read as a kind of postmodern concrete poem in the form of an outline for a book/stage play, complete with crossed out words, diagrams, arrows, and equations.

II

I would like to shift focus to the translators’ goal of conveying the music integral to Mallarme’s poetics. This seems to me a much more interesting aim. It is also one in which they largely succeed. For Weinfield and other translators, end rhyme is the most important property of Mallarme’s verse. It’s hard to say they are wrong in this. However, this is also the property most difficult to do any justice to. Mallarmé’s end rhymes are often far too complex, and too spectacular, to be transferred into English. The results are bound to be disappointing. This is particularly true of two of his greatest achievements, “Prose (for des Esseintes),” which contains a series of masterful homonymic end rhymes that cross word boundaries, and the delightfully inscrutable sonnet “Her pure nails,” also known as the “Sonnet en –yx.” The latter is far and away the most significant offering of Bronson-Bartlett and Fernandez’s collection. To understand why, we must know a bit more about the poem.

The “Sonnet en –yx” consists of two quatrains followed by two tercets. It contains an intricate scheme in which end rhymes are “crossed” between the quatrains and the tercets, playing on the cross of the letter x itself and on the image of a cross that occurs at the beginning of the first tercet and that is central to the meaning of the poem. The crossing is achieved through an inversion of the gender of the rhymes between the quatrains and tercets: the first and third lines of each quatrain end with a rhyme in the masculine yx or ix (onyx, Phénix), while the second and fourth lines end with a rhyme in the feminine ore (sonore, s’honore). Each tercet contains one rhyme ending in the feminine ixe (fixe) and two rhymes ending in the masculine or (septuor). The centrality of the poem’s sounds to its meaning is signaled by the wordplay of its opening phrase, ses purs ongles (her pure nails). When said aloud in French, the sounds of the first three syllables of this phrase are nearly identical to the sounds of the phrase c’est pur son (it’s pure sound).

This feat is impossible to reproduce in the absence of gendered nouns. The best a translator can do is preserve the rhymes ending in x sounds and skip the other rhymes altogether or offer some less satisfactory substitute. Weinfield tries the latter, other translators the former. Bronson-Bartlett and Fernandez realize that English allows for wordplay of other sorts.

Here is the final stanza of the poem in the original, followed by a fairly literal translation by Patricia Terry and Maurice Shroder, and then the present translation.

Mallarme:

Elle, défunte, nue en le miroir, encor

Que, dans l’oubli fermé par le cadre, se fixe

De scintillations sitôt le septuor.

 

Terry/Shroder:

She, in the mirror, nude, defunct, although

Within the framed oblivion at once

Appears, all scintillation, the Septet.

 

Bronson-Bartlett/Fernandez:

 

She, stripped, dejected mist in the mirror, even

Though in this oblivion, frame-enclosed, is fixed

The coming cinquefoil, sext chiming, for our septet

 

The masterstroke here is the last line, which plays on the interactions among the sounds and appearances of French and English words. Most obviously, the line mirrors the sibilance of scintillationssitôtseptuor through “cinquefoil,” “sext,” and “septet.” And it is not only the s sounds of “scintillation” and “sitôt” that are evoked but their initial vowel sounds: the san of “scintillations” is suggested through the visual “cinq” of “cinquefoil,” while the si of “sitôt,” is conjured, one might say, through substitution: the French six is pronounced cease, and “sext,” one of several ecclesiastical terms central to the poem, designates noon, the sixth canonical hour. The line goes even further when considered on a strictly visual level, playing on the French five, six, and seven (cinq, six, sept), openly through “cinquefoil” and “septet,” and obliquely, again, through “sext.” Thus the translation renders explicit a counting that is essentially subliminal in the French scinsisept. This counting is significant: it prepares for the culmination in “septuor,” the revelation that the “pure nails” referenced in the poem’s first line are the seven stars of the constellation Ursa Major. In terms of the actual words, with the exception of “septet,” Bronson-Bartlett and Fernandez’s line is nowhere close to the meaning of the French. I can only imagine how long it took to conceive. I would not have minded more like it.

There are many more qualities that distinguish this collection from previous translations. This is a surprisingly visceral Mallarmé, still largely impenetrable except through close study or previous knowledge, yet easier to appreciate for the immediacy of its imagery and the beauty of its language. Those with purist tendencies are sure to object to the collection’s many departures, and those who have not read Mallarmé previously will need to turn to exegesis. But I think that, despite all of this, and rather miraculously, the translators accomplished much more than could reasonably have been expected.

Wesleyan University Press (2015): $17.95 

Jerome Keeler is a freelance writer living in Princeton, New Jersey.

REVIEW: The Age of Virtual Reproduction by Spring Ulmer

ulmer_cover

by Bethann Garramon Merkle

In weaving together contrasting memories, archived photographs, and contemporary fashion fetishes, Spring Ulmer stitches a narrative in which humanity’s closet is rifled through. “I am interested in how clothes fit us or don’t. I like to be able, for instance, to hide in my clothes,”[1] she discloses.

Ulmer begins with fairly tranquil vignettes which share a fashion-as-identity theme; clothing is what makes the people on Ulmer’s pages vivid. After “trying on a few outfits,” Ulmer trades out a silk dress for her father’s sweatshirts plus pants with dragging cuffs. Her reverie accelerates into an imaginary triste with a rustically dressed Italian farmer she fancies from an old photograph. It is a subtle, mundane, romantic episode that doesn’t actually happen,[2] though, thanks to Ulmer’s vivid prose, you can almost believe the encounter is real.

Ulmer walks an imaginary donkey down the pictured road, envisioning a liaison comes to be. In the vision, she writes, “My farmer lifts his arms and shakes off his coat…the ripped armpits endear me. He covers us both with it as we recline onto the cold, slightly damp ground.” Fixated on the photograph of her fellow and his companions’ clothing, Ulmer muses, “I find their unfitted wear beseeching. I want them in these ill-fitting suits, enjoying their outing, looking so ephemeral.”[3]

And then, she drops you off an emotional cliff.

Abruptly, you land in the milieu of Spring Ulmer’s meditations on torture, slaughter, and the severity of so many human relationships. Epitomizing these nightmarish circumstances is her preoccupation with the ‘Made in the USA’ chairs that are used for controlling violent inmates (at prisons and mental institutions alike) and also for force feeding prisoners of war attempting hunger strikes. Driven to see for herself, Ulmer seeks out the retired military officer-turned county sheriff who makes these chairs in his basement workshop. In a poignant-yet-bile-inducing noninterview, Ulmer asks him:

“…the same questions I am asking myself about the roles we play in other peoples’ suffering, because I can’t sit in my room fearing that people are being tortured and not do something. I’m not sure I believe in a just war.”[4]

Essay snippets reflect on lynching films, an array of war atrocities, and occasional rest stops near Ulmer’s non-reproductive status. Piled in amongst these recurrent themes are snapshots of a circus elephant deliberately fed cyanide-laced carrots, shod with copper shoes, and publicly electrocuted; a pet pig starving itself after being separated from its lifelong companion, an autistic boy anguished over the mutual loss; mass graves in Rwanda.

Ulmer builds jagged teetering stacks, bleak discomfiting moments of social unrest and individual trauma and tragedy layered upon each other. Through it all, Ulmer compels the reader – by herself unflinchingly facing a web of contemplation – to concede how powerless words are. Powerless in the face of tragedy. In the face of terror. In the face of blind violent patriotism. In the face of radioactive waste – waste tallied as much in sickened humans as in stores of nuclear byproducts.

Although she resists this impotence, trying to perpetuate the notion that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword,’ Ulmer struggles mightily. Candidly. And, she fails. Fails to convince herself, never mind the reader, that words can change, that words can compel justice, that words can conjure empathy where only suspicion exists.

And yet, she advocates writing. Doggedly. In particular, Ulmer carries on a one-way correspondence with Jumah, a Guantanamo Bay detainee. In one of her many officially refused never-reached-the-prisoner letters, she maintains, “…my not writing would imply that writing doesn’t matter, and I cannot stand such a thought. Even if what I write is simply a record of barbarism […], it is still a record.”[5]

In the wake of the walking-nightmare tone that dominates most of the book, Ulmer’s final chapter, “The age of numbing,” comes as the kind of relief she may be seeking. It is here, with the reader immobilized by the relentless desecration of decency Ulmer has exposed, that her parents’ role in the narrative becomes explicit. Throughout the book it seems Ulmer’s parents are equivalent to her dragon-and-pheasant emblazoned mug – moments of mundanity sprinkled in, not as respite, but to remind the reader that, yes, this whole wide world weighs down, even on the most ordinary souls.

However, in her final chapter, Ulmer’s parents evolve into a metaphor which reunites with the Walter Benjamin quote which prefaces her book: “There is no difference between a human life and a word.” If humans and words are no different, and words are powerless, where then does that leave Ulmer in her grieving and atrocity-grappling? Like her memory of her father, she, too is working “like a madman, hauling stone here and there, hammering, sawing.”[6] And yet, as she says of her own mother, within Ulmer’s text “there’s something in her manic energy these days, though, that isn’t always practical.”[7]

Ulmer’s book was published in 2009. That year, Barack Obama became a Nobel Laureate and president of the United States; Slumdog Millionaire won Golden Globe and Academy Awards; countries on every continent declared recessions. Bombings, assassinations, and powerful storms and tsunamis rocked the world. The Iraq war was not over.

Yes, the events leading up to The Age of Virtual Reproduction were grim. And yet, political and pop cultural events since have demonstrated the power of people and words to make change, which is why Ulmer’s concern about impracticality will likely stand out to contemporary readers. Although bleak events dominate the news, there may be more practical reasons to hope for change. Since 2009, diplomatic relations have been re-established with Cuba. Massive protests around the globe have demonstrated extensive citizen backlash against financial inequities in the US, corrupt governments, and other injustices. And, in keeping with Ulmer’s penchant for moments of mundane relief, since her book was published, Lady Gaga and Will and Kate became household names, and “Gangnam Style” reached 1 billion views on YouTube (the first such video ever). Still terrible things keep happening, including enough suicide bombings and mass shootings that these awful incidents have lost some of their urgency and claim to noteworthiness. 115 men are still imprisoned in Guantanamo. Garment factory collapses in southeast Asia graphically demonstrate how ugly fashion can be.

Through it all, words have had the last word, despite Ulmer’s articulate well-founded doubts about the efficacy of writing. Social media is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. WikiLeaks caused a massive whistleblower uproar, Edward Snowden leaked extensive US state secrets and went into exile in Russia, and Pope Francis continues shocking and thrilling the world with edicts and encyclicals.

We swim in a vast sea of words. According to one study cited by Forbes magazine in 2012, the average adult can read and comprehend 300 words per minute. Another, cited by The New York Times in 2009, reports we absorb 34 gigabytes of content (some 100,000 words) every day. At more than 5.5 hours of reading every day devoted to processing the horror and opportunities surrounding us, that’s no minor time commitment.

In the face of all this tragedy, joy, and banality, perhaps it is worth reinterpreting Ulmer (and the Benjamin quote she starts with). If a few of those daily reading hours were devoted to provocative witness prose like Ulmer’s, perhaps we readers would find words and humans are interchangeable because their very presence is power.

Essay Press: $13.95

REVIEW: Arboreal by Barbara Tomash

arboreal

By Kelsy Thompson

Barbara Tomash’s Arboreal is a study in the tensions of everyday life. Within its pages, Tomash has crafted a lyrical journey that asks unflinching questions about one’s existence, such as “isn’t living the tension between container and force?” and invites the reader to answer for herself.

Through the lens of sweeping, natural imagery, Tomash creates a fascinating counter narratives in her poems “Light Source” and “Against the Glass.” The former depicts an idyllic scene overcome by a storm.

wild lilies budding, tree bark striated

blue tufts of grass …

now she looks up into swirling …

sky not so much hidden as forbidden

This is a metaphor we can all relate to: the challenges and conflicts that go hand-in-hand with life’s best moments, the troughs that inevitable follow our highest peaks. Change is life’s only constant, whether you’re a budding lily on the cusp of its first storm or a human being chock-full of optimism and dreams. This reminds me of the adage, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass—it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

Look at any of those motivational quotes set against a grand, natural backdrop and you’ll see evidence of our visual biases. Storms equate with strife, while cloudless blue is a sign of better times. Tomash deconstructs these visual tropes in “Against the Glass,”

here comes a break in cloud cover …

a certain kind of happiness, or a different kind of pain

blue prevailing now, momentarily

Uncertainty reigns in this stanza. The break in the storm is ambivalent at best, and that brief peek of blue remains fleeting. In that moment of reprieve, there exists equal opportunity for pain and happiness, and both are conditional. Just as we cast the budding lily as a victim to nature’s contrariety, we like to see that shift from swirling storm to prevailing blue as a change for the better. The counter narrative in these two poems scrapes out a different kind of truth—that change is neither inherently good or evil. The pelting water that bruises one lily can, in different circumstances, bring it to full bloom.

There is so much of that uncertainty, that tension between hope and reality, within Aboreal’s pages. In “Relict” Tomash speaks to the innate strength that is required to survive life’s challenges while maintaining the hope that one’s situation can always improve.

when the wolves come into the city to keep warm

she has to go back to choosing words

the small watery ones, the narrow arrow slits

it is a time of bitter cold …

girdle of walls, tangle of reeking streets

In times of challenge, we are so careful with ourselves. We know how sharp and unyielding the world can be, and somewhere in our DNA we possess the survival skills necessary to weather those challenges. I know when I’m in the midst of my own bitter cold, I focus on the now, the necessary, those things that I cannot live without. The future can wait. But when that situation improves, as many situations do, I suddenly regain that sense of “what if?”, that desire for more and better and brighter things. Tomash echoes this sentiment in the next stanza:

she miraculously recovers the conditional tense

conical roofs with lacy ridges, pointed spires

and some glamour of spirit

It is that miraculous recovery of the conditional tense that makes being human so very wonderful. Perhaps reality is stark compared to one’s glamorous fantasy, but without the bridge between those two binaries, we could never hope for progress, for the blessed opportunity to land somewhere in between.

If the only constant is change, then the only inevitability is death. Tomash speaks to our terminal existence in “Floating Gardens,” “when we are called, we must go.” Despite the seemingly bleak message, this is where Aboreal shines brightest. “Leaving Eden” comes next and leaves us with this message:

she opens the book to the last page and reads the last paragraph—it makes

no sense to us, we who were not present at the perfect balance of the

beginning, absent at the cadence of the first sentence

Like this poetry collection, life is not about turning those final pages. It is about the journey between covers, between the first sentence and last paragraph. It’s not an easy path to travel, and it’s even harder to strike that balance between container and force, but life’s most poignant moments are found within those tensions, within those compromises between reality and fantasy, between budding lily and swirling storm.

Apogee Press (2014): $15.95

Kelsy Thompson lives in Ogden, Utah, where she spends her days worshipping the written word and wrangling her clowder of cats. Follow her on Twitter @kelsythompson.