Category: Eric Howerton

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

unhappiness:

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: Tradition by Daniel Khalastchi

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by Eric Howerton

No one can accuse Daniel Khalastchi’s second collection of poetry—provocatively named Tradition—of failing to fully embrace its post-modern conceit. At times the risks in Tradition reward the tolerant reader’s pathos, but mostly these poems tickle our sly, inner appreciation for the unanticipated chaos of modern life.

Comprised by mostly narrative poems, this collection is unflinching in its satire from the very first poem to the tongue-in-cheek cover, which features the visage of a rather stern-looking, hatted Hasidic gentleman with the word “tradition” angularly lacing throughout his beard. Rather than revering tradition and the time-honored customs of yesteryear, Khalastchi’s work labors to dismantle the very notion of tradition so as to scrutinize tradition’s relevance amidst the instability of an ever-fluxing, ever-diversifying world, a world where the need for arch-narratives and moral templates seems waning, unwanted and anti-progressive.

The traditions Khalastchi most often deflates are those of Judaism, most notably Jewish conversions for marriage purposes, which here more resemble a weekend with your dilettantish uncle than anything having to do with spiritual tutelage. If the cover of the collection doesn’t communicate a tone of near-total irreverence, Khalastchi ensures that no one misses out on the joke immediately in the collection’s first poem, “I Want Jew So Badly”:

The conversion Rabbi comes to my door holding
a box of unwrapped dildos and a wood-handled

cement chisel…

The conversion Rabbi and his convert appear regularly throughout the collection, though they won’t be caught doing anything remotely “orthodox.” While readers might expect the conversion poems to address the difficulty of reading and speaking Hebrew, familiarizing oneself with holy texts, or psychologically preparing for certain dietary prohibitions, these poems instead show the Rabbi and his ward receiving facials at the Clinique counter and shopping at Costco, as well as committing crimes in public restrooms. While each of the conversion Rabbi poems has a rather unfortunate pun as its title (e.g. “Jew and I Travel to the Beat of a Different Drum,” “Lover, Jew Should Have Come Over,” etc), they do float above their comic origins by asking whether modern consumer behaviors have loosely become traditions in and of themselves? And if so, are these traditions any less deterministic or confining than the antiquated moral restrictions openly mocked elsewhere in the book?

Khalastchi takes jabs not only preservation of tradition, but at its evolution too. How tradition interfaces with and is warped by modern preoccupation is perhaps the collection’s chief concern. In a moment where the Rabbi and his convert are discussing burial practices, the Rabbi offers a startlingly contradictory consolation in order to procure a sale:

When you stop shaking
we can go to the basement and I’ll teach you how to knock clean

Hebrew names into the dark marble of a headstone. Plus,
he says, removing a blueprint of black x’s and circles

from his satin breast pocket, if you commit to buying
your cemetery plot today, I’ll let you sleep for ten

minutes believing in the resurrection.…

For as many blows as it takes, religion is not the only target of ironic entanglement here, as Khalastchi is an equal-opportunity lampooner. In the midst of poems that poke fun at religious practice and custom, Poetry with a capital P receives just as must criticism for the assertion of its own dogmas.

For example, many of Khalastchi’s poems bite their thumb at what most readers and writers of poetry have been taught to regard as “rules” that should be broken only with ample justification. Khalastchi often abandons the strategic use of enjambment as emphasis or to double a line’s meaning, and instead bluntly ends his lines on articles (a, the) and prepositions (on, to) that do little to reinforce a poem’s theme. The aesthetic inclusion of a clumsy tedium does not, however, mean that the poem itself becomes uninteresting or fails to accomplish its aim simply because its enjambment is not of a “recommended” variety. Rather, these poems present themselves as aggressivity in the face of tradition and orthodox method, as alternatives to blind adherence and stylistic rigidity. The 28-line poems that Khalastchi dubs “sonnets” earn their titles by positing romance, however these poems intentionally lack strict meter and make more turns than a revolving door. Time shifts and time leaps that might be a turn in a 14-line sonnet here serve to reemphasize the fact that everything is always turning all the time, always moving away from the patterns of what was into the patterns of what will be. The traditions of tomorrow will be born from the same mouth that chewed on, deformed, and spit out the gummy traditions of today.

For Khalastchi, that rules and traditions exist at all seems to be the only justification needed for breaking them. But to what end? Perhaps in order to assert that the rules are not always broken in the same way, that there are both reckless and systematic ways of bucking the norm.

Still, breaking the rules for breaking-the-rule’s sake begs the question of whether or not a rejection of tradition—wholesale or partial—is an act of liberating oneself from the arbitrary binds of time, history, and the inheritances left to us by the zealous, controlling dead? And if so, once one dispenses with the supposed value tradition, do the world and its movements fatalistically slip into a morass of symbolical emptiness and nihilistic solipsism?

The answer to these questions, I would argue, appears in the numbered “Poems for My Father,” in which the speaker addresses his Jewish father’s exodus from Iraq, a journey necessitated by frightening religious persecution. For nine consecutive poems, Khalastchi’s project pauses the satire and hones in on the historical realities of lived, human experience instead of hyperbolic satires.

When Khalastchi writes in the acknowledgments that “dissonance is an integral part of harmony,” it seems as though he’s speaking directly to the tonal incompatibility between “Poems for My Father” and the rest of the collection. The collection is worth reading for these nine poems alone, as they stand out as the most politically significant, culturally sensitive, sincere, and meaningful poems in the collection; however, their importance wouldn’t be emphasized as such if not surrounded by poems that showcased the extreme and comic manifestations of the “modern traditions” like late-stage capitalism, liberal individualism, and sexual liberation to name a few.

The poems in “Poems for My Father” are a dissenting voice in a collection that largely mocks tradition, and perhaps this caveat is intended to remind us that for those who suffer persecution because of their traditions, tradition cannot be a laughing. As a marker of identity, affiliation with tradition is often involuntary, which means that persecution may be unavoidable despite what one actually believes or practices. Khalastchi powerfully writes of the danger unfurled when traditions grow intolerant of one another in “II.”

You walked until morning. The city was
swollen in throngs of long cotton and the

souqs became veined with lines for raw
meat. Standing in garbage, you needed

new clothes. Back at your house, a police-
man was waiting with sandals by the

door. He asked for ID and if you were
Jewish. From your wallet fell pictures

of a well-dressed man. Before taking you
away, the officer spoke to an onlooking

neighbor. What she said in her garden let
him let you go.

After a series of prolonged gags, Khalastchi reminds us that laughing can itself be a privilege, and it is privilege alone that allows us to question the value of or roll our eyes at tradition. By recognizing this privilege in light of traditional habits, Khalastchi helps us see that—for all its absurdities, hypocrisies, and inequities—the perseverance of tradition both endangers and strengthens us as a people. At the same time, tradition mocks us for participating in retrogrades, while also adding gravity to customs that would—without the context of other people having done the same thing for hundreds if not thousands of years—seem crushingly and foolishly quaint.

Tradition is available from McSweeney’s

Eric Howerton writes fiction, cooks mushrooms, gardens, practices screaming, collects masks, plays poker, skis, and does not believe in the ontology of half sandwiches. His writing has appeared/is forthcoming in PANK, The Locust, Plaza,theNewerYork, The Legendary, Dying Goose, The Higgs Weldon, Night Train, Grey Sparrow, Duck and Herring Pocket Field Guides, Johnny America, and Haggard and Halloo, as well as several alt-weeklies in Texas and New Mexico. He is a former fiction editor of Gulf Coast Magazine.

Flying Over the Fence with Amadou Diallo by Julien Poirier

Screen shot 2014-06-20 at 9.42.10 AMA recent poetryfoundation.org blog post by poet and professor Camille Rankine titled “On My Metatextual Uncertainty” explored the difficulties involved in explaining poetry when curious readers ask what a poem “means” or is “about.” Defining a poem, as anyone who has taught a creative writing or literature class knows, can be exceedingly difficult. The ways in which poetry navigates idea, happening, space, and connotation makes translating the poem’s action into meaning a tall order. Attempting to summarize a poem is often a futile exercise, as one of the beauties of poetry—as both a language and a form—is that its meaning(s) is done a disservice by restatement no matter how closely the determined lepidopterist in us wants to pin that meaning down.

Rankine admits that while she loves reading and writing poetry, “I’m not always eager to analyze something I’d rather just co-exist with.”

I understand Rankine’s position, especially when confronted with a poem like Julien Poirier’s “Flying Over the Fence with Amadou Diallo.” This long poem reconfirms the notion that poetry actively resists being forced into a square hole because often enough the poem is a round peg and a triangular peg and a star-shaped peg at the same time. Sometimes the poem is both the peg and the hole. And sometimes it’s all holes, as is the case here.

Much of the time, the experience of reading a poem is one of those “I guess you had to be there moments,” where any attempt to recreate the movement and the suggestive nature of the work cannot be captured in anything other than the personal act of reading itself. Poetry is phenomenological in this way—it is a language that cannot be expressed in anything other than the direct experience of it.

Surprisingly, for something that operates through the medium of words, words can’t do “Flying Over the Fence with Amadou Diallo” justice. Moderately experimental, “Flying Over the Fence with Amadou Diallo” moves with the shuffling bluster and celebration of sound found in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” only Poirier exercises his clipped poetics with less adherence to structure, form, and grammar. In an identifiably beatnik fashion, Poirier’s poem sonically evocates satirical accusation, political critique, and the profanity of happenstance. The poem is jarring in its intentionally confused juxtapositions, but it remains relatively clear in its intention even when that intention is to resist clarity. As I experienced Poirier’s language, I was reminded of the slippery lyrics of musicians like Beck, and even more so of Stephen Malkmus from the 1990’s slacker rock band Pavement. Pavement’s improvisational licks and pun-fueled double entendres gave the band a certain laissez fare flare that helped merge jazz, spoken word, and poetry with bourgeoning indie rock. Poirier makes similar combinational moves, only without a backing band.

To put the poem in perspective, in 1999 Amadou Diallo became the unarmed victim of an NYPD shooting. Diallo was a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea who was fired upon 41 times when four undercover officers mistook retrieving his wallet from his pocket for the act of pulling a gun. They also mistook Diallo to be a serial rapist who had already been captured. While the offending officers avoided spending any time behind bars, the NYPD retired its Street Crimes Unit in the aftermath of Diallo’s death and paid his family a settlement of $3,000,000.

This poem, which functions more as social commentary than elegy, tribute or homage, originally sold for 25 cents when it was released in 2000. Though out of print, it is available for free through the Ugly Duckling Presse’s digital archives.

The poem is in no way a narrative rehashing of the events surrounding Diallo’s death. Rarely does it directly reference the shooting other than through slant suggestion and innuendo. For those familiar with the tragedy, hidden references can be found jiggered throughout the poem; for those unfamiliar, the poem can often come across as nonsensical, though never purposeless. The opening lines of the poem are tough to grapple with, and even knowledge of Diallo’s fate only makes them slightly easier to decipher:

A tale of herself,
her jet blue bag
My start-up harp
her strut has thrown
–let it goon.

While Poirier experiments with form and syntactic construction, the confusion of being unable to fully decode his symbols and gestures is largely a methodological choice that reflects and emphasizes the nonsensical nature of the shooting itself. Poirier seems to be implying that simply because an event (the shooting of an unarmed immigrant, for example) is phenomenological and able to be witnessed does not dictate that this event can ever be fully understood. An event where there is no sense to be made is still an event, even if it takes place in a building Wisdom and Reason have recently vacated. This seems to be an underlying argument in a poem—sometimes the reservoir of madness has no extractable order—that on the surface cheekily avoids the consistency of concrete meaning while at the same time relying consistently on concrete language. When I read

shard’s tradition
Guessing rights
that skin opposite
should bleed

I glimpse Poirier allusions to the whiteness of the police officers (in contrast to Diallo’s black skin), an undeniable and unfortunate tradition of racism in American power dynamics, the police officer’s “right” to “guess” that Diallo’s actions represented a threat to their safety, and the insensible violence that resulted from all of these variables being stacked on top of one another.

The mathematics of grammar and meaning in the poem do not add up to reveal clear and profound statements, and neither should they. In a roundabout way, the poem responds to the arithmetic of notions like “serve and protect” and “justice” not adding up perfectly either, as witnessed in Diallo’s death and statistics that show minorities in the United States still being marginalized, criminalized, and penalized to an alarmingly disproportionate degree.

“Flying Over the Fence with Amadou Diallo” cannot avoid serving as a discourse that is critical of race relations and power in the United States; however it does so with such an unexpected turn away from direct address that it never feels didactic or agenda-driven even while remaining controversial. Diallo’s name is mentioned only once, and even then the specific nature of his being brutally gunned down is left off the page. (This may strike some readers as sidestepping a much-needed interrogation of the facts, but Poirier seems more interested in writing a quaking response than an interrogation.)

Of her beaks I coast
saliva, beating
Badgers
distressing wealth
in spitters, inter—
Section jitters.
Wealth and well-wishing
to them
their badge
for Amadou. I counsel
fate
Once disordered, ever known.

Encountering the lines

A game that fans
murder. Surely
then, simply
an accident. 41
misty whiskers
In the milk.

I am struck by the suggestion that race-motivated crime is as American, or as traditional, as baseball (“a game”), a sport referenced repeatedly throughout the poem. Mentioning the number of times Diallo was fired upon (he was hit with 19 of the 41 discharged rounds) as “misty whiskers/in the milk” makes me perplexed and uneasy, as it should. There is a coyness in Poirier’s language, and the invocation of milk belies the fact that Diallo’s murder was anything but wholesome. Just as whiskers in the milk are grotesque in an unassuming and unexpected way, so too is the unpunished murder of an innocent man a social grotesquery. However, if it is Poirier’s intention to issue disgust for the police or authority writ large, he hides this fact well, cloaking his radicalism in metaphor. He comes across sounding more like the rapturous madman on the street corner, portending the world’s end in language that conveys its meaning less through sense and logic than emotive energy, than a riot leader.

Their secret
blackface
breaks sharply
down, to keep the batters
of winkers guessing. Legal
gushing.
Strange things happening
To humiliate
the holy

Even after reading this poem four or five times (which you can easily do in 30 minutes) you’ll still have lingering doubts as to what’s being said. And that’s ok. The poem, in its steam of conscious style, is intriguing in the way it asks questions without fully revealing what these questions are. It treats the answers to these questions with equal obscurity, both in the asking and the answering. For example, what does the owl flying over the fence actually represent? The departing human spirit? Fleeing wisdom? The cover of night that both caused the officers to mistake Diallo’s actions, and later—in the courtroom—excused those same actions? Perhaps all of the above. Perhaps none.

What’s important to remember is that “Flying Over the Fence with Amadou Diallo” is, like music, an artifact to co-exist with, not to explain into effeteness. To appreciate the poem is to co-exist with the experience of it without expecting to understand its many aspects. Ultimately, this lack of firm ground is similar to the ways in which we’re forced to co-exist with the phenomena of brutality, tragedy, and innocent death even if we’re at a loss to explain why they exist, what they mean, or what we can do about them.

Flying Over the Fence with Amadou Diallo is available for free from Ugly Duckling Presse

Eric Howerton writes fiction, cooks mushrooms, gardens, practices screaming, collects masks, plays poker, skis, and does not believe in the ontology of half sandwiches. His writing has appeared/is forthcoming in PANK, The Locust, Plaza, theNewerYork, The Legendary, Dying Goose, The Higgs Weldon, Night Train, Grey Sparrow, Duck and Herring Pocket Field Guides, Johnny America, and Haggard and Halloo, as well as several alt-weeklies in Texas and New Mexico. He is a former fiction editor of Gulf Coast Magazine.

Corporate Relations by Jena Osman

osman2If ever there were a poetry collection to entice law students and aspiring Supreme Court justices to read more verse and fewer articles on tort reform, Jena Osman’s Corporate Relations is that collection.

Corporate Relations is a sharp, witty, and politically motivated work that follows the historical trajectory of corporate personhood in the United States, a topic readers might otherwise expect to see explored in a didactic and voluminous manuscript penned by a political scientist. Many of the poems here feel as though they were composed by a barrister with an uncontrollable proclivity for verse, which might strike some as a criticism. However, Osman’s poetic gamble with jurisprudence pays off, and in spades. The collection skillfully balances the intellectual demands of its subject matter with unexpected rewards and provocative insights.

Throughout the work, Osman incorporates verbatim dialogue from judicial hearings, using a mixture of poetry and prose to create invented, multi-genre forms. Even though many of the poems are constructed out of little more than “chopped and screwed” legalese, they sidestep the banality of a courtroom hearing and hone in on the ethical charge. A fine example of this appears in “Marshall v. Barlow’s,” a piece that recalls a business owner’s claim that random OSHA inspections are tantamount to unreasonable searches. (The Fourth Amendment strictly forbids unreasonable search and seizure, and in 1978 the Supreme Court upheld Barlow’s objection that a warrant was needed for an unannounced safety inspection. Previously, OSHA inspectors had not been required to obtain search warrants to inspect labor conditions or work sites.) The poem begins:

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Overtly and unapologetically philosophical, Osman’s collection is both a satisfying literary experience and a crash course in the history of judicial decisions that have, since the Civil War era, systematically granted corporations Constitutional rights at the expense of the private citizen and even, ironically, the government. The conceit that corporations, in some phantasmagorical way, embody or exhibit personhood is an absurdity Osman extends by asking not only what granting personhood to corporations might mean, but also what “personhood” itself suggests when the term is grotesquely applied to non-animate, non-sentient things. In “The Beautiful Life of Persona Ficta,” the collection’s opening poem, Osman drives this point forward with a series of surreal analogies:

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The collection is divided into several sections—each one corresponding to a different amendment from the Bill of Rights—and a number of poems begin with fragmentary judicial dialogue, followed by a contextualizing prose section, followed by more fragments, and concluding with the dissenting opinion of a Supreme Court justice. This back and forth gives each of these poems the feeling of a courtroom hearing in which multiple parties are allowed to speak in various tones, registers, and with different purposes. Despite the incongruity of these poems’ origins and styles, meaning is the through line, and Osman masterfully connects the dots for readers. Even when enjambed lines stand apart from the previous and the following both in grammar and content, meaning can still be gleaned piecemeal. Again, from “Marshall v. Barlow’s”:

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Adding weight to the philosophical nature of the collection, Osman quotes liberally from Russian film director and cinema theorist Dziga Vertov. Vertov is used n­ot to comment on corporate personhood per se, but instead to extend the critique of personhood in another direction: if the highest authorities are willing to sustain a metaphorical leap that allows intangible, faceless corporations to be perceived as having a “body,” what does this say about our changing view of the human body itself? The notion that a corporation has a body is, in no uncertain terms, depicted as a technical and semantic vagary akin to the absurdity of comparing the anatomical functions of living beings to the mechanistic functions of machines. The absurdity of mechanizing humans (and vicariously, humanizing corporate machinations) is felt most strongly in the poem “We,” where Osman heavily quotes Vertov:

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As a collection that is interested both in humanity, law, and business ethics, Corporate Relations succeeds in asking polemical questions about the finicky relationship between American government and American business, a relationship that is historically fraught with misunderstanding, diversion, and reckless ignorance. One of the most remarkable features of Osman’s poems is their ability to invoke distressing human pathos without engaging in navel-gazing tactics or a close-focus on everyday life.

To inject emotion into a collection that risks reading like reportage, Osman uses jaw-dropping and infuriating examples of Supreme Court rulings that protected profits over people. The most startling ruling is presented in the poem “Pennsylvania Coal Company v. Mahon,” a poem that serves as Corporate Relations’ emotional crux. “Pennsylvania Coal Company v. Mahon” sheds light on a 1922 Supreme Court ruling that overturned the 1921 Pennsylvania Kohler Act. The Kohler Act—meant to protect the public from the endangerment of coal extraction—prohibited mining from underneath land that “supported surface-level buildings.” Even though the state of Pennsylvania specifically prohibited such mining, the Supreme Court maintained the Pennsylvania Coal Company’s legal right to mine directly underneath the city of Scranton, PA because of a deed issued prior to the passing of the law. After the coal was extracted, an unprecedented number of cave-ins occurred in Scranton that threatened human life and dignity. Osman details these events thoroughly:

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As an experimental work, Corporate Relations is radical in its expressions and its evocations. It stunningly manages to use the poetic form as a medium to engage in a philosophical debate while still rewarding readers who are patient enough to dissect the poems’ multiple levels. With a similar tongue-in-cheek tone employed by The Daily Show, Osman examines frustrating and laughable court decisions that have repeatedly allowed corporations to evade paying their fair share of taxes, weasel their way out of routine safety inspections, endanger the lives of those unfortunate to live in close proximity to the corporation’s operations, and even defraud the government out of millions of dollars. Though Osman writes with an undeniable sense of humor, the weight of the work is derived from the fact that these laughable decisions are not without tragic consequence.

The poems here are meant to be digested slowly and thoughtfully. The density of the work might be off-putting to some, but for the post-modern reader who willingly engages with bricolage and intertextuality the experience is unique and profound. Osman demonstrates that poetry need not be constrained to lyrical dalliance and observational intrigue, and with this collection she expertly demonstrates that poetic language can serve as an educational tool and a political statement without sacrificing its appreciable entertainment value.

Read Caleb Beckwith’s recent interview with Osman at The Conversant

Corporate Relations is available from Burning Deck

Eric Howerton writes fiction, cooks mushrooms, gardens, practices screaming, collects masks, plays poker, skis, and does not believe in the ontology of half sandwiches. His writing has appeared/is forthcoming in PANK, The Locust, Plaza, theNewerYork, The Legendary, Dying Goose, The Higgs Weldon, Night Train, Grey Sparrow, Duck and Herring Pocket Field Guides, Johnny America, and Haggard and Halloo, as well as several alt-weeklies in Texas and New Mexico. He is a former fiction editor of Gulf Coast Magazine.

Matthew Olzmann’s Mezzanines

MezzaninesFrontCover-copy-200x311Matthew Olzmann’s debut poetry collection Mezzanines—winner of the 2011 Kundiman Poetry Prize and published by Alice James Books in April of 2013—is the type of collection you recommend to people when they tell you they don’t like poetry because its too old-fashioned. Or that poems are cryptic and unrewarding. Or that the maudlin of nature of poetry just doesn’t do it for them. Olzmann’s collection abounds with an undeniable vibrancy capable of converting even the most poetry-averse to full-fledged enthusiasts.

In this wickedly entertaining collection, Olzmann employs the tradition of outlandish short story masters like Aimee Bender, Ray Bradbury, and George Saunders. His poems condense the daring nature of the speculative and the absurd into minute, metric delights. Uniting magical realism with kernels of profound sentiment, the poems in Mezzanine exist in a parallel world, one that is uncanny in its strangeness while still being familiar enough to relate to. Each poem here has been composed with such compressive buoyancy it’s the rare entry that doesn’t bait you and reel you in. The titles are often their own draw (“Planetarium With Deformed Elephants,” “Man Robs Liquor Store, Leaves Résumé,” “Art of the Mime: An Educational Camp for Children”), though fortunately for the reader the titles are only the beginning of the journey.

It’s fitting that the collection begins with an epigraph from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, as many of the poems invoke a set-up or conceit that would be at home on-stage at the theatre of the absurd. However, unlike Beckett’s characters Vladimir and Estragon—existential nitwits doomed to while their days waiting for that which will never arrive—Mezzanines never asks us to sit in limbo without being rewarded. Ozlmann is not an indifferent creator; rather, he’s a warm and inviting poet who sandwiches his humor between questions of ontology and—in poems like “Bigfoot and the Placebo Effect,” “The Hand That Taps the Names Into Gravestones,” “The Size of the Earth and That Which It Contains”—moving finality. This finality is not a melodramatic miring in loss or death, but instead an earnest study of the effects of folly and disappointment. Olzmann manages to treat tragedy as somewhat quotidian without seeming flip or callous, which is to say that instead of hyperbolizing emotion for effect the poems here deal in extreme and unpredictable situations in order to reveal the relatable ordinariness of the emotions thereof.

With poems about Star Trek, Mountain Dew, and the sale of sasquatch meat, it might be easy to write off Mezzanines as silly, but to do so would be as wrong as dismiss the social critiques of Bill Hicks or Lenny Bruce because of their vulgarity. True, there is a childish joy to these poems, but that joy doesn’t mean the poems trade in triviality or deal with small ideas. More often than not, Mezzanines demonstrates that the only thing separating philosophical inquiry from wry humor is which way the lips curl when speaking. No poem better exemplifies this deceptive dichotomy than “Spock As a Metaphor For the Construction Of Race During My Childhood.” In this poem, a bi-racial speaker alludes to the duality of Dr. Spock’s Cartesian mind/body conflict, using the conceit to express the speaker’s own feelings of alienation, bumbling adolescent confusion, and lack of monolithic identity:

It was like this: you knew you could fly

until your first attempt left you with two broken teeth.

You knew you were like all the other kids,

until your best friend said, No, You’re Not.

 

And he was right.

And in that moment, something shifted.

the galaxy became real, and in its realness the asteroids

seemed so much closer than you thought. (5,6)

The collection’s opening poem “NASA Transmission Picked Up By Baby Monitor” shows how confidently Olzmann can weave together the trancelike calm and lofty meditations of a poet like W.S. Merwin with the inadvertently comedic non-sequitirs that so profoundly define the post-modern era, an era in which the unreal becomes more and more verifiably real with each passing day. Consider the first two stanzas, in which the humorous juxtaposition of witnessing outer space on a baby monitor becomes a metaphor for confronting the terrifying reality of the world’s larger agnostic mysteries:

Instead of her little one nestled between the purple

elephant from Aunt Meg and the blanket knitted

by Tricia, the new mother glances up to see a space

station—tattooed by a meteorite—now plummeting

toward Hamtramck, Michigan.

Maybe she feels the same terror that I remember feeling

when I sat in a theater as a child. A man in a black

tuxedo staggered across the stage, removed his gloves

and tossed them into the audience, gloves as black as

piano keys that flapped toward us, became

two fuming ravens that shrieked around the room

and circled the chandeliers. Plato says we live in a cave

and stare at a wall of shadows cast by the light outside.

We name the shapes and believe them real. Turn around

and the sun burns the pupil. I’ve known people, afraid

of the sun, who opened their eyes to God, but found

only a wine cellar lit by a guttering lamp. There’s so much

to be afraid of, so much to gaze and be wrong about. (1)

Readers who are tired of beating their heads against a wall in encouraging friends and family to take up poetry would be well advised to buy several copies of Mezzanines. The next time someone tells you they’re not a poetry fan, simply read them the quote prefacing to “The Tiny Men in the Horse’s Mouth,” which Olzmann borrows from the stand-up comedian Dan Cummins: “Never look a gift horse in the mouth? But what if on the horse’s tongue there’s a little man playing piano? Why would you not look at that? That’s incredible.” Then hand your skeptical friend a copy of the collection and ask, “Why would you not read Matthew Olzmann’s Mezzanines? It’s incredible.”

Buy it from Alice James Books: $16

Eric Howerton writes fiction, cooks mushrooms, gardens, practices screaming, collects masks, plays poker, skis, and does not believe in the ontology of half sandwiches. His writing has appeared/is forthcoming in PANK, The Locust, Plaza, theNewerYork, The Legendary, Dying Goose, The Higgs Weldon, Night Train, Grey Sparrow, Duck and Herring Pocket Field Guides, Johnny America, and Haggard and Halloo, as well as several alt-weeklies in Texas and New Mexico. He is a former fiction editor of Gulf Coast Magazine.