Category: Heather Brown

REVIEW: Heliopause by Heather Christle

by Heather Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

between active and passive,

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

ultimately, between the efficacy and inefficacy of words,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW: Neighbors by Jay Nebel

by Heather Brown

Jay Nebel’s Neighbors turns everyday moments into epic adventures, and every backyard haunt is holy.

In a poem called “Altruism,” Molly Peacock asks what would happen if we “got outside ourselves,” to understand the existences of others, beyond a vague awareness like we might have of our neighbors’ yards, through the waves of heat emanating from our own patio grills. Jay Nebel’s debut collection of poems, out now from Saturnalia and chosen by Gerald Stern for the 2015 Saturnalia Prize, turns its lens on just those other existences, the ones that surround us daily, unnoticed and fragile, yet indispensible to our understanding of ourselves. His poems are peopled with mothers, sons, lovers, and neighbors, those who—because they live closest to us—we often see only in the periphery. Jay’s poems also grapple with the past from the vantage point of an ongoing survivor; of adolescence, of addiction, of love, of marriage, and of parenthood. His poetic sensibilities are steeped in the contemporary American literary traditions of Denis Johnson, Richard Hugo, Joseph Millar, and Frank Stanford. When I read Jay’s poems, I sense their danger, and I sense myself staring it boldly in the face with the courage it takes to look outward, to look beyond. I sense the poet’s voice casting itself backward, through the decades of his own life and the centuries of human existence, turning mundane moments into epic adventures and stumbling, daily encounters– both with others and with other, alien selves–into holy pilgrimages toward redemption.

In “Queen Anne’s Revenge” Jay addresses both the epic courage and the epic vulnerability it takes to be a parent, specifically a father:

I’m dying with eighteen holes in my chest.
I’m watching, one open eye to the ground,
as my son rips free
from my arms, teeth bared, the breeze lifting
his thin black hair, the ghost mast
wavering above, the Queen Anne gone,
only this ship now, a rusty steering wheel
with snot and apple juice stuck to it,
and packs of four and five-year-old pirates
pouring over us, their gangly arms tangled in the chain rigging,
exploding from the red play structure
with fists full of bark dust.

For further perusal, I recommend “Monk’s Prayer”:

let me ask/what has conjured this book
of shadows, or this city covered
and uncovered daily
,
this dream of ashes I wake to
each day, ho
lding a life
under my knuckles?

or “Science Fiction and Fantasy”: 

Then I stripped down to my boxers on acid
and snuck into the Grant High School pool
and became another creature entirely
after I entered the water, horned and pearly,
throat gilled like multiple stab wounds
. Stories of seeing Jack Gilbert read, who looked exhausted
in his oversized wool sweater, cheap
blue raincoat and thin white beard
,
standing before his audience
like a crumbling
masterpiece
from the Renaissance

or poetic explorations of Robert Frank’s photo-essay The Americans:

The road bends through the land, worn and frayed
as a pant cuff torn by
a dog,
stretches between the luncheonette and backyard,
between the end of the rodeo
and the funeral for New York,
between the public park and the bar.

It’s not coincidental that Jay’s burgeoning Instagram feed (@innerweather) turns the same lens upon the natural and built worlds of his day-to-day life. Jay works on the road, delivering juice from a refrigerated truck, and in recent weeks and months of documenting his daily routes has expressed a visual sensibility that juxtaposes the sublime and the horrific, the brilliant and the base, in unforgettable contrast and heartbreaking relief. His photos, like his poems, often bring the impression of collage, alongside the stunning realization that they are in fact cohesive and naturally-occurring scenes. Whatever the medium, Jay records what he sees, in frames and from angles that we wouldn’t see unless he showed us. Often his poems begin by feeling jumbled or directionless, only to fall into fearless focus at just the right moment. Gerald Stern says of the book that he loves “both the clarity and the abandonment to mystery that occurs. . . it moves from the literal to the figurative to God knows where easily and seamlessly.” Often as a poem begins, I’m not at first sure what I am looking at, but once recognition sets in, it leaves its indelible mark. Not coincidentally, the last sentence of the poem “An Inner Weather” by Denis Johnson in the book of the same name (Graywolf, 1976) holds more clues to the indelible marks left on Jay by poetry:

The snow descends in a sparkling light but many are blind,
walking out without jackets as if into the sun,
and they would not say anything of the snow,
but would say only this
of the weather, that s
omething falling burns on them.

In the spirit of Peacock’s “Altruism,” these are poems that have endured an endless walk through the self, in the end, not giving, but coming to know/someone is there through the wavy vision/of the self’s heat, love become a decision. Neighbors brings a wondering poet’s eye to all these fires. The backyard grills, the something falling that burns; pixels, as we see them now, or light burned onto slices of silver halide, like in the old days. We are the ones the poet is seeking on the other side, in the “outside out there,” and in all—including himself—that he has found to love.

Available from Saturnalia: $15

Heather Brown lives in Portland, OR where she moved after graduating from Oregon State University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. She’s been a high school English teacher, and now she writes poems, reviews manuscripts, works part-time at Powell’s, and helps to develop instructional and promotional materials for the Portland-based press, YesYes Books. She also manages social media for the Vinyl Poetry Journal (periodical arm of YesYes Books) and for Tavern Books, a nonprofit poetry press specializing in revivals and reprints of works in translation.

REVIEW: Belladonna* Chaplet Series // Eleni Sikelianos

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(This is part of a series of reviews on titles from Belladonna*’s chaplet series, many of which are now available as free PDFs)

by Heather Brown

There is my father
in the doorway. What is he

doing there?
He stands. He happens

again and again. I happen
to be here, where my father is

tonight, standing in the door-
way. I happen to be trying to fit him in

to the size of this room.

In her film-script/poem/memoir The Book of Jon, an excerpt of which Belladonna Books has put into one of their downloadable chaplets, Eleni Sikelianos has created a visual time stamp that retraces the lines of her father’s life and presence and records the impressions he has left on her. In the process, her commentary grows to include the way humans have left their stamp on the earth and thus lost track of the earth itself. In this selection, it may be easier for the reader than for the poet to tell where she ends and her father begins. She begins by addressing her father as “you,” in an epistolary fashion, then moves—removes—to the third person and refers to him as Jon in the section entitled “Notes Towards a Film About My Father (Jon).” This section is part script/part prose, but is broken by the slashes that normally indicate line breaks in poetry. Throughout this section, Sikelianos spotlights single shots, makes bracketed notes, and sets scenes apart to recreate her experience of her father. This is a form (or merging of forms) that Sikelianos develops even further in her book, You, Animal, Machine, a scrapbook-memoir-essay from Coffeehouse Press, about her grandmother Melena, who worked as burlesque dancer in the 1930s and ‘40s.

Following the script notes section about Jon, more fully-formed poems draw all the previous threads together into a braided, cohesive direction that propels both reader and writer through a final return to pages of directive prose that zooms beyond both the poet and the father into

Houses and houses and houses and houses. Houses and houses and houses and a pool. Then the bigger buildings rise up out of the Earth’s surface at the radiating axis of the city. Cars move around, people inside them. (Watch) from the window as the city changes from a sea of houses laid out in sloppy grids, splattered across the valley, creeping into the mountains, falling off right into the sea. (But there is no sea here.)

Through these scenes of the larger world, Sikelianos—now more deliberately and confidently—flies parallel at 30,000 feet to the earlier father-daughter narrative. She seems to be commenting on the ways we are marked, the ways we mark each other and the world. Her final images call forth the desolations of privilege, once we remove ourselves from it to more plainly understand the impositions and superimpositions that we visit upon one another and our environments.

Heather Brown received her MFA in poetry from Oregon State University. She lives and writes in Portland, Ore. and works for Powell’s Books, Inc.

REVIEW: Almost Any Shit Will Do by Emji Spero

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(This is the first in a series of reviews focused on titles released by the Oakland-based small press/poetry cult Timeless, Infinite Light. TIL is currently on a West Coast tour.)

by Heather Brown

Even before I read Emji Spero’s acknowledgements at the back of almost any shit will do, I was predisposed to apply the ideas of Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia) to the premise of this unassuming little perfect-bound book. Spero is attempting what Deleuze and Guttari call, “lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories; but also lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification.”

The progress of the poems alternates between blocks of text “the movement (v.)” and “the individual (n.).” These sections are further connected and interrupted by “lines of flight,” small stanzas connected by looping black lines that deterritorialize and destratify the lines of text, connecting certain words across wide spaces while also separating them from the linear systems in which they are embedded. It is an ambitious project, with a message immensely relevant to “the shifting boundary between the individual and the movement” as this boundary plays out in collective and individual ways.

Spero is concerned with how a single person’s experience connects to the movements of the whole, and how social movements spread and grow beneath the surface of the social structure, sometimes bursting out, but always existing as an integral and unseen force on which all life depends. The book can be very quiet at times, using language borrowed from mycelium studies (mushrooms, they grow in shit) to build a network of words which Spero re-appropriates and expands to capture a felt experience of the human individual in the midst of a riot, the outburst of a societal network that has been building and moving over time, just below the surface of everyday existence.

At first I attempted to follow the lines of flight across pages, but later I allowed myself to experience the “variously formed matters” and “comparative rates of flow” in the collection as a consummate effect. This book reinforces the Deleuzean claim that “there is no difference between what a book talks about and how it is made.” Incidentally, it was made during am artist’s residency, part of a collaborative installation, and attributes itself to a long list of editors. It also finds its meaning in its relationship to “other multiplicities into which the book’s own are inserted and metamorphosed.” That is, it works as a machine, which must be plugged into other machines in order to work; thereby both demonstrating and justifying its own premise.

It is obvious to anyone who reads further that this book was born of a deeply personal experience, which it finds impossible to extract from a certain philosophical awareness. The tone is simultaneously laconic and urgent, from a self that attempts to detach from a painful memory at the same time as it is compelled to share its message publicly. In this way, its forms and patterns gather to a satisfying end that is both dense and decentralized, like the networks upon which it builds.

almost any shit will do is available from Timeless Infinite Light

Heather Brown received her MFA in poetry from Oregon State University. She lives and writes in Portland, Ore. and works for Powell’s Books, Inc.

Living! Go and Dream by Julian Poirier

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In Living! Go and Dream, Julien Poirier imagines what newspapers would be if souls had no bodies to contain them but simply sloshed back and forth under the moon, roaring and howling, sometimes whispering or crooning to one another. It’s musical instruments made of reptiles on rocks. It is both prehistoric and post-apocalyptic.

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Perhaps this book is grown-up nursery rhymes, what children would have written if they wrote the New York Times. Perhaps it is poetry disguised as breaking news. If Ferlinghetti had A Coney Island of the Mind, then this book could be A Times Square of the Soul. It takes and embodies Marshall McLuhan’s statement as both teaser and disclaimer:

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It is both disorienting and grounding to read poetry this way. As a poet myself, I at first felt slightly traitorous, and then profoundly vindicated. Of course this is “All the news that’s fit to print.” Poetry always is. This paper is all poetry, all the time, and it reinforces the understanding of life as poetry, that there is no more important thing you could be engaged in, here, today, at this exact moment.

Despite what you now may be thinking, I believe there’s something for everyone here. I didn’t really get into the Fortinbras-as-medieval-storm-trooper-fighting-a-fetal-war piece, but I really loved all the appearances of the fiberglass tattoo blonde on St. Mark’s Place. One I accept that every news story is a poem, I can pick up anywhere and immediately become absorbed. Every word is an entry-point. I’m reminded of a recent review of Judith Kitchen’s Circus Train in the L.A. Review of Books. The author notes in Kitchen’s essays,  “the accretion of meaning gained, not through linear narrative, but through the space and reverberation of the author’s collection (and recollection) of language, image, and scene,” and I would say the same of Poirier here. This book is a collection of fragments that pulls at the reader from the inside so that the insides reach it first, and we are all turned inside out. The present surrounds us, and past and future are swallowed up.

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With all its fragmentation, Living! Go and Dream creates a universe that unapologetically broadcasts the plausibility of a life that runs concurrent with the dream, a life that is itself a dream, an Earth on which Poetry never sleeps.

Living! Go and Dream is available for free from Ugly Duckling Presse

Heather Brown received her MFA in poetry from Oregon State University. She lives and writes in Portland, Ore. and works for Powell’s Books, Inc.

The Dial by Chris Nealon

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Taking all of fifteen minutes to read aloud, Chris Nealon’s chapbook-length poem is a book of visions. Nealon plays a modern-day Daniel, reading writing on a wall, or Plato, recording cave-shadows. At times the eye is internal, at times it is trained on a circle of friends and acquaintances; the speaker’s hand is constantly on the dial, receiving, translating, and interpreting voices–his own, and those of the dead and the living alike.

Although the poem (or part of it) has already been examined for its Modernist marks, I would add a layer of Romanticism, either under or over this reading, and I don’t think it much matters which, since really Nealon is “dialing time around an axis,” giving it a continuous, simultaneous quality, drawing all of history into his orbit. His things do exude ideas–a bright red book of prophecy, the dollars in his pocket–and yet there is also a deeper magic at work, one of dreams and fleeting moments, where poetry is not only object, but drama. “Like little tercets everybody staggered into place.” True to its own statement, Nealon’s poetry takes people and places as its building blocks and then animates them, noting that we are “in a landscape like a landscape painting–/we all were–an extensive one–and we could/move around–” Whether he is wandering through airports or mobile apps, checking proximities physically or digitally, walking alone or sitting around a table with friends, Nealon relates his waking dreams, with all their interruptions and digressions. He conducts his own tour of Xanadu, his own walled gardens, his caves and waterfalls. It is a poem full of symbols, but also full of visions, such as this one:

I couldn’t turn the dial–I reached for my notebook

–I hunched over and wrote,

In a complicated cross-breeze
Kept from where the tides go

Two times you appeared to me

“Once as a woodcutter with an axe about his
neck”

Later unencumbered as a boy

Perhaps to serve as current political commentary, the voices of prophecy in The Dial have been reduced to small talk, have been truncated or abandoned, with no expectation for revival. This is as Nealon wants it; his aim is to delineate new systems of value, to restructure the economy of poetry around the stolen moments of conversation with friends, the stolen moments of enlightenment during times of transition, and to show that life itself is constant transition– and transmission.

Nealon’s narrator also loves to turn the scope of a scene inside out and back-to-front, especially toward the end, when the voice begins to surface from the depths of its dream and to assess it from a distance: “With you in the square that day I saw the thimble/where the mind is/Like the briefest waterfall behind my eyes I saw the/ocean where the thimble was/And on the final page of the bright red book that/dropped into the plaza I read the words,/’true freedom will always lie in the ability/to make friends.’” The poem is peopled with friends–too numerous to name–some who also people the contemporary poetry world, such as Andrew Kenower, curator of A Voice Box, an online collection of poems read aloud by their authors. With these scenes and orations, Nealon opens an endless series of Russian nesting dolls, each one containing something bigger than itself.

It is often unclear whether Nealon’s tone is sincere or ironic, and this too seems intentional. The Dial twists back and forth wildly, both laughing us off and holding us close, reminding us of the true value of everything–and nothing. Reading Nealon, one feels as though Homer has been reincarnated in sound bites, or as though Coleridge has succeeded in reviving the song of the damsel with her dulcimer, and we realize it is both as delightful and as laughable as we could have imagined. Nealon is both god and jester, beckoning us close even as he warns us to beware.

Download The Dial for free at The Song Cave

Heather Brown received her MFA in poetry from Oregon State University. She lives and writes in Portland, Ore. and works for Powell’s Books, Inc.

Sarah Mumolo’s Mortar

Mortar-Cover-200x300-Pixels-RGBThe title of Sara Mumolo’s collection Mortar suggests the spaces in between, the cement that holds the structure of brick together. The epigraph also, by Barbara Guest, expresses sorrow for the “blank moments,” and I wonder upon first reading if there is a connection, a shared sorrow throughout the book, for these blank moments and for the liminal, connective spaces and characters of existence and experience.

 Upon close examination, I notice these blank moments in almost everything Mumolo writes. Often they arrive quietly, as unspoken connections or linguistic unravelings. Lines fall off into silence or fray into wordplay like “break the blank” or “Last glass of champagne before your lie.” The book’s heartbeat seems to be a continual exploration and affirmation of these blank spaces, lifting them up, acknowledging and examining them from all sides, as dimensional and active.

 Mumolo applies tense and perspective as her primary tools, purposefully shifting between past and present in the voice of a speaker who addresses herself reflexively as naturally and as often as she addresses others or takes more distant refuge in third-person observation. It is her flexibility, especially with point of view, that I believe emboldens her to suss out an identity for these blank spaces, both individual and collective, and to make empathic but detached observations of both self and other, moving among states of matter in a world where objects and concepts play alongside the human voice.

 From this prismatic perspective, one of Mumolo’s central messages seems to be that at one time or another we all try to be what we’re not, either for ourselves or for others. The result is a canceling out, a blank. Early in the collection, she adopts various perspectives in an epistolary form, addressing first, “Dear you,” then “Dear I,” and “Dear first principle” in turn. Mumolo confronts ideas of “right” and “virtue” alongside memories of bodily and earthly experience, as in the lines following, from the poem “March:”

First principle of the doctrine of right:

When dancer makes a puppet of her

breasts with invisible strings

Revolt sees redwoods

a cleft where

empire stops:

trucks wasted with goods or trees.

Dear first principle

we should’ve made you

Caterpillars bristling,

cocoons recede from feet:

You pretend to be a wave

I try to seal into a jar

A fascinating ambiguity lives in the perspective shifts of this passage, especially in the last two lines, which by turns give off airs of command, resolution, frustration, and mistaken identity.

This book also concerns itself with habitation; the voice inhabiting the body, the body inhabiting the world, the lines of a poem inhabiting the confines of a page. Mumolo intersperses traditionally-lined lyrics with experimental arpeggios and prose meditations, often fixating on the naked body, or the snake shedding its layers of skin. I also find in her images and attitudes a delightful blurring of ontological lines, embracing objects and ideas as independent, vital agents of being.

Often it is difficult to assign antecedents to Mumolo’s pronouns, which contributes to the prismatic effect of her perspective. It’s not always clear when her “you” is another, whether intimate or removed, or the speaker herself. I find that pondering various possibilities changes the shade and tone of the poems and definitely enhances my enjoyment of the added nuance. Indeed, on one of the final pages, one of three left blank but for words at the bottom, Mumolo seems to acknowledge the deliberateness of this choice:

our cipher-eyes

—impotent antecedents—

do not survive to ration

a real that happens.

This stanza seems to point out that assigning any antecedent, or perhaps by extension any ownership or causality, is a fruitless exercise, since all of existence is so integral as to render our specific assignments powerless against the real.

The book’s second half lives under the heading “Money On It,” which implies a wager of some sort, and which recalls the spontaneous compositional forms of Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day or C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining in its ramblings, sans titles, from page to page, and its periodic blank silences. It turns from exploration of the blank spaces to a pronouncement of their value, beginning with a sort of surrealist manifesto that opens from the point of view of a rock:

I can’t hide you—the rock cried out.

Because the mechanism of surrealism is an activity

not an image—I find embrace in description.

Where a staging of hours counts closer stars

and fails capitalism.

There are more lines that I love for their subtle irony and wit, which have to do with exposing and overturning established perceptions of bodies, nature, and politics:

the main ability of a nude is how her figure triumphs

when earth rehearses her irrelevance

***

I step into your voice, its outfit. I watch you wear your voice as an outfit. . . .This one has a body to zip up. This one is a reel around the baby. A bird’s wingspan in a museum, its echo on my tear.”

***

a nation’s shoulder

makes a profession of mute things.

Throughout this entire collection, Mumolo develops and perfects a style that is at once spare and sprawling; carefully-wrought, but confident of itself and its liminal, traveling vantage point through seemingly sorrowful and abandoned “blank spaces,” which she proceeds to throw into assertive and triumphant relief.

Buy it from Omnidawn: $18

Heather Brown lives in Portland, OR where she moved after graduating from Oregon State University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. She’s been a high school English teacher, and now she writes poems, reviews manuscripts, works part-time at Powell’s, and helps to develop instructional and promotional materials for the Portland-based press, YesYes Books. She also manages social media for the Vinyl Poetry Journal (periodical arm of YesYes Books) and for Tavern Books, a nonprofit poetry press specializing in revivals and reprints of works in translation.