Category: Matthew Schmidt

A Table That Goes on for Miles by Stefania Heim

A Table That Goes on for MilesAttendance at a smorgasbord is liable to lead to gluttony. Sitting at Stefania Heim’s A Table That Goes on for Miles doesn’t lead to gluttony, or isn’t full of itself, or the smorgasbord is not the usual panoptic affair. In fact, this may be the reason the table continues—one thinks everything is available, in sight, and then realizes there is much more offered. It has to do with the approach Heim takes in her poetry; cerebral more than imagistic, sparseness where one would expect many more necessary words to produce the intended affect or situation. A nutshell might consist of: lonely, deliberate poems, austere and searching for meaning in the wake of childbirth. Nutshells are simplistic items though and this is a strange journey through balances in the poet’s life, or maybe how things can be seen as unbalanced, have gone awry and how. As seen in this opening paragraph, it is not easy to describe Heim’s first collection—it refuses easy confines.

For perspective, the book is situated around three recurring poem types/art. The cover and several pages surrounding the multiple iterations of “The Dream is About Us”, is courtesy Rachel Farbiarz. This artwork is all in black and white within the pages, but vibrantly colorful on the cover. As can be seen, realism is not the objective of the work; rather spatial relativity collides in a stream of dreamlike images. These pieces appear as if collaged and morph into something more than its components—the art lends a surreal quality to the words. From the first section of the “dream” sequence:

Attempted to pilfer the definition of homesickness.
Grass level, gentle slope. To those plagued by guilt,

may there be continuous planning
for the unimaginable. (21)

And what appears across from these opening lines is unimaginable: an old woman three-quarters encircled by flowers (somewhat like a halo, though the axis is two dimensional) with one flower over her loins. Similar to the cover, the reader should have planned for unimaginable poems and further art. Look at the first line of this poem though; it posits that the speaker tried to steal a definition. Earlier in “Misericordia,” Heim has situated the reader for this occurrence:

The country is only one language.

We say comfort and mean
that though there are more stars here

than we can imagine,
there is still one small, cream room.

It is small enough. (1)

Continuity plays a major role in this work. As the poems progress, so too does the reader’s knowledge of understanding the speaker. This country only has one language. There are other languages in the world, yet they are mostly translatable to English. Even though there are other languages and they can be translated, we (the people) have agreed upon definition. Does definition define what we attempt to communicate to each other? Heim believes it does not, that language is an inadequate way to confer feelings, emotions, reactions, or blame.

The third running sequence of poems, titled “Moving Picture,” is peppered throughout the book. As Heim states in the notes they reference and mix various films and texts. In answer to the aforementioned question, Heim gives us these examples or reinterpretations or emotional attachment as an audience member to a given work. She doesn’t simply recapitulate a specific story, but tells us how she interprets the tale, where her interest is. As these words don’t do justice to what she is doing, there is no simple way for me to state that where one is looking from the understanding is different. Heim knows the story continues, she’s aware of her “constant miscommunication” (79), and is still interested in working through the language to convey “A voice that thrills, a killing” (77). It’s the voice that knows how to put language together and push the message through the colander of distance.

This is a serious collection that deals with heavy topics. A cliché-like line like that is part of what Heim might call “retroactive inevitability” (9). I know that I feel that and thought it in my mind, but it’s been used so many times that it is not worthy of a book review. The freshness has gone and we’re left with pieces (words) to sew together into quilts (sentences). So, yes, this is seriously concerned with wants, relationships, motherhood, honesty, change (in a multiplicity of ways), fear, vagaries, guesses, will, and experiments. However boring that description is, Heim’s writing is that much sharper as in “Saturday, and Getting Colder”:

All my new estimates are proving to be right:
A life is as assembled out of thin

birch branches. Now you know
everything: I was unnaturally lit from within.

There,
that’s my handbag at the scene of the crime.

Do not “look to me.” I will not be prepared. (65)

So, what is known and what is controlled? Are a woman and a man going to feel similarly after birthing a child? What is the plausibility of one thing happening? Would obsession obscure the aperture of the viewer? These questions and more are considered within the book. It would be easy for me to say I have the answers to interested potential readers, that I read the book and understood, or that I can’t really teach anyone anything. Yet, that would be the easy route. The route that I want to take is to say that I feel this is an important book. What I know is that Heim did not simply “box up what living deforms” (33), she has taken a journey and she has been shaken by it. Her shaking has shaken me. The quiver is still pulsing and the table is long and set for many people. You should join us at the table. The discussion is good, the poetry is better.

A Table That Goes on for Miles is available from Switchback Books

Matthew Schmidt is pursuing a MFA at the University of Arizona. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Asinine Poetry, Down in the Dirt and Eye On Life.

Hope Tree by Frank Montesonti

Montesonti-Cover-Hope-Tree-250x354An erasure poem of R. Sanford Martin’s How to Prune Fruit Trees, Frank Montesonti’s Hope Tree (title an erasure of Martin’s title—see cover picture above) is interested in growth, procedure and wonder at accepted societal constraints. This is not merely a cute pruning of an instruction manual, but an investigation on humanity through precise cutting.

The opening page illustrates how Montesonti snipped words away. A single page of Martin’s text is present with the bold chosen words which appear in the subsequent page harboring only those words and blank space. Already the question forms concerning word choice: were words erased or chosen first? By definition, it may be assumed that erasure is the primary function of this type of poetry, yet quality erasure poetry is judged only on what is available on the page. Thus, the argument for choice to provide growth through deletion prevails. Perhaps this is too bold a statement, for as Montesonti points out, “There are no set rules” (44). Still earlier, he acknowledges his presence as writer/constructor: “The writer has witnessed // this book is devoted to / average / instructions / confined to methods” (18). All this to say that indeed there are agreed upon methods to erasure poetry, but they are not as strict as many other formal poetics.

With this in mind Montesonti chooses to direct the content toward humanity through the careful selection of procedural tree pruning. Much of this direction is highly successful. Although there are a few small sections I was unable to follow, I am not Frank, we are not the same person or tree. These sections did not subdue my pleasure in following the trajectory of training. In fact, because the original manuscript by Martin is not specific to a single climate, there are varied approaches to when and how pruning a fruit tree is most successful. Thus, as Montesonti suggests, there is not one appropriate way to live. Although this is not blatantly stated, many passages defy logic and expectation: “Remember that / for many years, / the coarse / frameworks / may be very beautiful // as they // choke off the circulation” (32). Beauty by death or progress through removal, when related to the human form becomes something else entirely. The relation to humanity is subtle, but present: “the young / erect and slender to open and spreading. / Observe your particular tree” (11).

Scattered throughout the book are drawings which interpret the original sketches in Martin’s book. These drawings too do not provide in-depth understanding, yet are intricate. It is through the repetition and accumulation of text and drawings that the reader pieces together the disparate meanings. Because there is ample white space, one may read a page as standalone or a continuing section for several pages. There are cues given to the reader on how to read much of the work (headings, bold titles, end word on a page), though there are times when the space provides the break in flow and movement to another thought or description. Also, the drawings are not spaced evenly throughout, thus sometimes they will break up a would-be continuance (though the reader decides what page to look at). This pace is in place to let the reader consider the ideas and images presented, to not rush through the book.

It is through this precise ordering that Montesonti achieves depth. He grows his own tree through words that are hopeful, in that they express the opportunities available to each person. This is a training manual of an entirely different breed. Instead of following a step-by-step list to improvement, the reader is given many concepts to mull over. This book demands attention be paid to placement of words and space, as well as, why a procedure is followed only to its most useful point: “few / will stand, and be better for it // this must be thoroughly understood.” (57). How does one navigate the system of expectations inherent in civilized living? There is a science to most organisms including properties that enhance and detract from optimum functioning. Should we follow the trusted path to greatest fruition or would it be better to attempt an unorthodox existence? These choices are not clear regardless of intelligence or study: “ornamental / our gardens today / if not usually ignored. // only / the dead / noticed.” (75).

Overall, this amazing book plants itself securely in poetry (great line breaks, subtle rhyme, sneaky sibilance) while challenging the convention of manual learning: “consider / the dead / crossing branches, / rubbing one another // in an overcrowded manner. / This cutting / into the main body // from old age or disease // become too tall for convenient picking,” (62). Simplicity in understanding oneself and how to proceed through life is not as easy as training implies. One can train themselves to do one thing and re-train themselves later to do another. Is continually pruning trees through intervention and sometimes questionable procedures the proper care needed to grow? Maybe it is best for each of us to inspect ourselves; that we each thrive in different environments. Maybe we should look fear in the mouth and smile (knowingly or unknowingly). Any way a reader decides to absorb this book is alright. However, Montesonti might advise: “The main thing to remember / is that / though one summer / will not set another / will appear” (23).

Hope Tree is available from Black Lawrence Press

Matthew Schmidt is pursuing a MFA at the University of Arizona. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Asinine Poetry, Down in the Dirt and Eye On Life.

Whittling a New Face in the Dark by DJ Dolack

Layout 1DJ Dolack’s first book, Whittling a New Face in the Dark, is an impressive debut of rifts and ruptures. This isn’t to say that the poetry isn’t readable, understandable or obscure. Far from it, Dolack uses space and sparseness to capture the difficulty of clarity. Beginning with three quotations from Stephen Millhauser’s “History of a Disturbance,” a foundation is built upon the idea that words are not enough. Space between words, meaning, putting one word next to another and the inability of words to completely or ever capture the essence of something is Dolack’s focus. Operating under this conceit, an examination of self and other, how even though information is readily available, it is still impossible to connect with each other consistently.

Broken into four sections, the book opens with the first of eight poems (spread throughout) titled “NYC Postcards,” (either denoted with the opening line in the poem or parenthetically topical) which alerts readers to just how little can actually be communicated via postcard. Sometimes each line of a poem can be a postcard, at others an idea threads through, yet all of them are cohesive as a whole. After the opening poem the first section is titled / and subsequent sections add a forward slash (e.g. // for section two). Even here there is a resistance to encompassing a section as a coherent body. However, the titles of individual poems are specific, leading the reader on a journey through comprehension.

Opening section one, “What They Want Me To Tell You,” enumerates the ordinary and expected gestures of poetry. Spanning pages 5 – 10, it covers lists, relationships, emotion and popular poetry tropes. Certainly this sounds like a long poem and in certain respects it is, but not in word count—in blissful brevity. Dolack selects words arduously, makes them count for more than many poets. The first page establishes a scene lacking any particular affect and at the top of page six strikingly surprises with, “But I suppose something could happen in there.” And happen it does—ordinary scene is transformed into a wistful contemplation on what could happen in this space, ending with:

If I sit up long enough

it becomes mourning;

if I

say abundance, tell me

what do I mean? (10)

This poem asks what the difference between a thing and a word is. Pauses strafe the logic that the reader must not rush and potentially miss something. One must read between the lines even if the line is a space. Carry the weight of argument to the finale of question. How is it possible to determine what abundance means coming from one specific person? Although a dictionary provides an agreed upon (at least if one plans on using English properly, conventionally) definition, without context how would it be understood from a strange mouth?

From words the book continues to address issues of what people do with themselves (through repetition of actions), the inability to know what to say, divisions in learning/understanding, the size of the world versus the self (what survives and what doesn’t), what people make themselves out to be (now that one has done something, what it means) and where talk really gets us. Some apropos examples:

          The weight
you carry
until what you ask for

is there: your name
inked on some pulp,

pressed into plastic,
settled into bone

and you look up

and think
these hands
these

hands, and
say it aloud. (12)

and,

Sometimes the metaphor
is too good—

So much that it becomes expensive:

the ambulance

spinning its weight
in the mud

while the body bleeds out. (21)

and,

Dawn is a color
I am condemned to describe (24)

Because communicating properly is oppressive, many people tend to disengage, act as machines which churn out continuous drivel or apologize for a lack of directness. In order to confirm the world, does one have to be appreciated? Needless to say, it is unfathomable to be appreciated without recognition, which leads back to perception of words/ideas/names.

Speaking of names, in what sense do they serve a purpose? We name objects, cities, mountains, people, events, and even then we use acronyms (NYC). Necessity of place and person, an ability to attempt description are tantamount to converse. Still, we invented them, called this that and called it a day. The unknown is palpable.

You wait for a phone call
in the only world
worth sifting through fingers. (42)

[…]

Point out the coward in me
and I will bring you his head on a matchstick.

[…]

Now I’ll ask you again, and then I’ll go. (43)

The above lines from the eponymous poem beg to know what to do in the dark. Based on the conceit laid out, one whittles their face in the dark to become something else, to find a better façade: original face isn’t working, we’ll cut down closer to the core being, the skeletal, or that other face, that new face that is not a face in the world now, but one which if we work at it we can hone, which will show us the way. The way is not certain for Dolack, though that is hardly a criticism. People are reluctant to share with each other, time passes, death occurs, things happen (school, work and children) and it’s a struggle to meet someone and know them well enough to divulge privileged thoughts.

However, Dolack “want[s] to be present,” (55) he wants to find happiness, to forgo posturing, scale and the awful things people do. This is about connection and how the ears and mouth interact. If it’s possible to overcome the exertion it takes to speak, it must be possible to understand as well. The question is clarity, how to arrive, from “In Wind & City”:

The water off a body like                .

A voice off the        .        is        .

I want to hear you
explain it

to a child.

Whittling a New Face in the Dark is available from Black Ocean

Matthew Schmidt is pursuing a MFA at the University of Arizona. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Asinine Poetry, Down in the Dirt and Eye On Life.

Hymn for the Black Terrific by Kiki Petrosino

Petrosino.Hymn.largeTaken in part from a description of Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Kiki Petrosino’s second collection of poetry—Hymn for the Black Terrific—is a sharp, intellectual book thick with words which callous the tongue. Often in the dense blocks of prose an expected word is slightly different—looking so much like the expected word that a reader may initially believe the expected is there, only to find instead a much better word, a weightier word, a surprising word. These surprises indeed add to each poem and the collection as a whole. Much like Ahab’s final appearance in Moby Dick, Petrosino invites readers to taste the blood of a harpooned whale, to have the coiled knot around their throats and plunge into the fathoms of sea. Words are the blood and they roil in the water, returning with the tide.

If these metaphors sound trite or over-indulgent it may be that after reading I found myself buoyed, no buoyant with emotion. And if the aforementioned metaphors have missed I am still in the swirl of centrifugal force Petrosino’s poetry embodies. Early on repetition of words and phrases boil up to spin the work further from the origin only later to be connected, looped, strung, woven into a cohesive structure. It’s as if she takes a knife to peel back the layer of epidermis and slowly stitches the skin together, needling her way through. This isn’t to say there is a bow around the book, far from a bow, a scar, several scars, reminders of why it is we must look deeper into dark, why we must sing with what is available in the machinery of our bodies, our teeth bordering our voice as light upon the echoing darkness emerging.

Divided into three sections, the collection opens with “Oiseau Rebelle,” or “rebellious bird”. Most likely this is taken from the aria “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle,” which is the entrance aria of the titular character in Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen. Beginning with a short staccato poem of intention Petrosino appraises herself in “Personal Style Monologue,” by describing that which is “in” and which is “out”. Important here is simplicity of movement, a guide for the reader to understand how the poetry following will operate, how to understand shifts within poems and across sections:

To be in is out. To be out is still out.
Blondes are in. Blades are in.
Vampires are in. Gullets are out.
The power is out. Darkness is in.
America is out. America is out.
The dark is here.

This is noticeable in the pushing and pulling of “To be in is out. To be out is still out.” Essentially, in the hip style of modern culture there isn’t any place one can be that isn’t “out.” However, Petrosino isn’t as caustic as that, she lets us know that “Darkness is in,” that we the readers are in the darkness, the terrific darkness, that “The dark is here,” and in the dark there is plenty to see. For, shortly after the opening poem is “Allergenesis,” which ignites a flourish of prose opening the dark bodies of words (which in-print are almost always black):

They come in their millions, breaking open in the muck. They come with their barnacle bodies blooming. In white, in sulfur colonies they come. Rising from radial engines of dark, from millions of low hatcheries they come, unfolding their jaws sequin by sequin. They come hot & star-limbed & buzzing, with their wire bones, with their names turning edgewise in the mouth. Bloodweed, Chestbane, the names. Knifeclock, Mulehook, the names. They come lifting themselves long as sentences in air, spiraling down the rifled barrel of the windpipe.

Such elegant prose observes many tropes of the collection: propulsive movement of poetry, the black in white and vice-versa, names as signifiers in the mouth whose mechanics offer distinct interpretations or attempts at parsing letters/meaning and a violence motif as a situational hinge which opens and shuts, “spiraling down the rifled barrel of the windpipe.”

The middle section entitled “Mulattress,” (as noted by the author is [no longer in use today] “a woman with one black and one white parent.”) takes a sentence from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia as its muse. Yet, muse is not the proper term, it is a meditation on the state of America then and now, Petrosino’s mother, race, skin, frivolous ideas related to propriety in this respect and her relation to color as something which continues to factor in America’s blood. Jefferson’s sentence—ostensibly about African Americans—reads “They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which give them a very strong and disagreeable odor.” Each of the ten poems comprising this section uses a portion of the sentence as end words (in italics) for lines in a poem, at times forgoing accuracy for sound:

[9]
I live in a country they
didn’t leave for me. My color secretes
like taffy through my pores, or should. But I’m less
polite when pulled. Try to tell by the kidneys
where I’m from, or who made me, & more
lunatic moths race by.
Do you think the glance
of a colored woman is a glitch of the skin
or the proof of a witch?
No one forgives
me for sitting beside them
at lunch or for wearing a very strong
set of thighs. In this country, we’re all sad & disagreeable
to each other. Someone, open a door. (35)

This section makes me think of the possibility of the opposite of an apology. Seemingly it is a statement, but the italicized portions of Jefferson’s sentence, speaker’s tone, and action within the poem push into a different territory than benign expression.

Serrations, slices, swatches—the first two sections cut into the third section “Turn Back Your Head & There Is The Shore,” many poems titled with English translations of a Beijing restaurant menu (also from food stalls or fabrications), as lonely spaces of tin where pieces of pie no longer reside. Poems in this section focus on “the eater,” a personage followed through a Chinese smorgasbord. Although it may sound tame compared to the previous two sections, it’s not. For me it was the most emotional section, a contemplation of loneliness, of our shackled brains or how each one of us must live within our own thoughts and how even when our minds seem to grasp something it isn’t always as it seems.

Who says the eater must halve herself to heave through lace & eyelets? Let her be large & engaged to anything with blood in it. Shall she marry? Yes, down to her last atom. Shall she travel on the sea? Yes, & her huge parasol shall break like chitin in her jaws. See how she chomps through trash & tempests, how she gallops toward the next good time. Her bridegroom? Rather her sea-shanty. Rather her opera, agog with gongs. Here she plummets, my hearties. The very world’s reversed. (52)

Hymn for the Black Terrific is available from Sarabande Books

Matthew Schmidt is pursuing a MFA at the University of Arizona. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Asinine Poetry, Down in the Dirt and Eye On Life.