REVIEW: The Market Wonders by Susan Briante
by Connor Fisher
The Market Wonders begins, begins again, and reinvents, continually readjusting itself. The book, the third by poet Susan Briante, takes as its object the titular economic structure, and demonstrates a series of engagements—political, biographical, conceptual—with the contemporary capitalist market. Briante’s innovative engagement includes a sequence of personifications that imagine the Market’s own life structure and daily routine. Through the book’s sections, the market emerges as a complex intellectual and material figure, constantly in numerical and temporal motion: Briante indicates the ever-shifting closing value of the DOW on the top margin of the page in two long sections—e.g., “July 2—The Dow Closes Down 9686” (45). The text begins with a foundational group of quotations and invocations: Briante draws from John Ashbery, Lyn Hejinian, Charles Olson, Brenda Hillman, and Bernadette Mayer. Mingled with this literary constellation, Briante adds two other quotations:
The theoretical physicist says, ‘I’ve always wanted to find the rules that governed everything.
The theoretical physicist says, Deep laws emerge (5).
Through the collective gathering of its sections, The Market Wonders poses similar epistemological questions: although the market behaves in a variety of (often contradictory) ways and inhabits multiple social registers simultaneously, Briante’s collection probes into its varying natures, to examine what underlies the market, what motivates it, what grounds it?
The answer emerges through poetics as much as through economics. Many of Briante’s pages dexterously mix registers of speech, types of language, and challenge the margins of the page itself to hold headnotes and footnoted text, compounded by long lines or abrupt jumps of syntax within the main “poem” sections. A strong example occurs on page 16 (I have omitted the Dow closing data and the footnoted text):
What if I write it all down, track it, if I consult tickers
and windows, measure blood flow, monitor the rise and fall
of my accounts, the tarnish of leaves
will a veil tear, will a web sparkle dew-strung, a rope bridge
between the dead-living-unborn?
Can I feel these numbers in my hands
like Whitman at the rail of a ferry?
The Dow rises above 10,000.
My dog scratches his ear.
A lamp buzzes on its time. Rains
clear and the cold
arrives. The unborn
keep their distance.
I make a dinner of brown rice, butternut squash and kale:
some [thing/event] or my 3000
nerves bristling in the air.
The implications of Briante’s use of the page and of a complex poetics manifests themselves over the course of the book: the market is not relegated to a specific layer of our lives (the financial, the economic), but pervades every aspect of daily existence. The food on the dinner table is complexly related to the market—in both its most abstract and most concrete definitions. The market, and its concerns (what could be termed the “market-functions”) are often surprisingly material. As shown in the quoted page, Briante makes this refreshing turn and often sidelines ephemeral conceptions of the market as a placeless, groundless entity. Not only does the function of the market pervade objects and implicitly alter the “windows … bloodflow … leaves … veil … dew … rope bridge … dog … ear … lamp … unborn” of the quoted passage, but it also is, in some measure, constituted by them. Material is complicit in market, and serves to ground it; to make the market physically, poetically, and affectively real. Other helpful descriptions of the materials-of-the-market occur on page 44, as Briante invokes “the names of 62 birds,” as well as “bluegreen dragonflies [and] tomatoes,” and on page 67, where she states that “dark matter thinks.”
The aspect of materiality furthers the book’s inquiry into the idea of grounding the market: a base that provides stability to the market’s often unpredictable or senseless actions. Briante’s poems initially parallel the theoretical physicist’s search for “deep laws”—in aspects related to the economy, Marxist labor economies, and personal life. The Market Wonders asks itself and its readers what motivates and drives the market—barring that, it asks, in a phrase borrowed from philosophy, if the market is in fact market “all the way down.” In a telling passage late in the book, Briante asks:
An invisible calculus exists
beyond the page, a second story
leaf tremble, that view exactly
with the powerline running through (80)
The interspersed language of science bears significance; it does not indicate objectivity, but rather a sincere epistemological search.
Briante materializes this concern with the underlying, the hidden causal mechanism, by including, at the bottom of the page, a ticker tape homage: two lines of subscripted text run along the bottom of the page in most of the book’s ten sections. The ticker tape meanders in a wonderful ramble which allows Briante to stretch her poem format into page-spanning long lines—although here, as in the book’s numerous prose sections, Briante emphasizes the unit of the sentence over the unit of the line. She writes, “A pattern imposes form on cloth … behind a screen, brand on a body, current routed, stitched across countries: 42 months 1,260 days, 2 olive trees, 2 lampstands, .27 of US households live in ‘asset poverty’ ” without savings to cover 3 months of expenses (61–62). In these subscripted passages, Briante suggests that numbers, as a quantifiable, substantially firm means of qualitative knowledge, underlie the market structure and are in some aspect causal; numbers provide sequence, create data, and allow the discourse to branch from the historical to the imaginatively biographical. But the stability of numbers becomes false and misleading, as Briante acknowledges; if numerical stability is the “ground” of The Market Wonders, it would seem that this ground needs its own grounding. While numbers provide “everything patterns” (“12 stars, 7 heads, 10 horns, 7 crowns … 3.5 days, .1 of the city, 7,000 people, 2nd woe, 3rd woe” ), at some level these patterns break down and fail to account for the workings of capitalism, of the market, of personal relationships and one’s children. For Briante, the ground has always been ungrounded.
The Market Wonders catalogs a personal and cultural crisis of economic knowledge. For Briante, the breakdown between the “political” and the “personal”—already an unwieldy division—has dissolved. Whatever would formerly have been relegated to either category is now, outside of categorization, in the space influenced by, and influencing, the market. The last section of The Market Wonders, titled “Mother is Marxist,” adds further complexity to Briante’s argument by considering ways in which her radical responsibility as a mother forces engagement and sometimes complicity with the market. The personal and political collide in the home: home of the market and home of our children. “Mothers attempt to erase the integers, to move decimals, to point out discrepancies in the ledger, disrupt the protocols of exchange” (98). Here, couched again in the language of numbers and mathematical function, Briante places herself and a collection of radical mothers working in tandem to disrupt the market’s overpowering function. The mother is hyper-aware of her political and socio-economic status, military growth and deployment, racial incarceration, and the history of children’s insurance. While these issues do not ground the market itself, they allow Briante to display the incisive—and often introspective—perception that does ground many parts of this collection.
Briante writes on page 8, “The poem and the stock market welcome speculation.” Any speculation (including The Market Wonders’ clear grasp of history) is impossible without imagination. And it is this same imagination which allows the market—which finally exists as an infinitely constituted network, ungrounded or self-grounding—to continue the influence and expansion so well challenged and documented in Briante’s work.
Ahsahta (2016): $18
Connor Fisher lives in Athens, Georgia. He has a MA in English Literature from the University of Denver, an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and is working towards a PhD in English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia.
a princess magic presto spell by Lisa Jarnot
My nephew loves Lisa Jarnot’s a princess magic presto spell. Forget Thomas and all his train friends, the family and their bear hunt, the caterpillar no matter how hungry he might be. Sixteen months old, Nephew full-footed baby-runs his chubby legs down the hall and into the room I’ve invaded in my sister’s home the past several weeks. In a stack of books whose tower has been made vulnerably by the lack of any consistent shape, built more by timing than anything else, he always – always – whether by size (a respectable square of 7.5 inches tall and wide, barely half an inch tall), texture (a cover-binding of paper nothing like suede but with a softness that reminds me of middle school choir robes all the same) finds this triptych.
opening Part Three’s Every Body’s Bacon. In between such lines and language, now and then we land on artwork by Emilie Clark punctuating sections of the poems throughout the book. What he is in awe of, he can’t tell me yet. But Nephew points, vocalizes the ooohs and wows I’m also thinking of when I encounter these images which seem, in a sense, to be the cellular constructions of somethings enlarged, enlarged by a kaleidoscopic microscope. They are bright in a muted watercolor scale, intricate and smooth as line-drawings.
Admittedly, I find myself more easily understanding of Clark’s images than Jarnot’s poems. Another confession: I am an engineer’s daughter. I find safety in logic and order. On any given day when I go to the page, I most go for the opportunity to trust in means of communication I grew up with. It is far too easy for me to point at a collection like Jarnot’s and ask the mundane question along the lines of how do we as readers make sense of the pieces put together. This is a limitation of my reading, I am aware.
At this point in my reading history, I’m far less interested in these more obvious inquiries. Or – I see them as, in fact, so very important they risk and then lose meaning. While the impulse I still have is to find sense-making markers through Jarnot’s work, which presto spell is my first encounter, and poets writing similar verses, it leads to an unproductive thought-game that gambles with the beauty and wonder which ultimately makes this a book I’ve come to keep close.
Of course the child is how I came to better understand presto spell.
After a few times through the collection, I most looked forward to page 26 not only for the large Clark image on the adjacent side, but in particular for these lines early on in Every Body’s Bacon –
These statements feel grounded, pointed, but not without sincerity or an intimacy. Much of Jarnot’s collection refuses personhood like this, but only so much as I-ness creates. Personality, without personal pronoun, is full and rich and palpable here in presto spell in a way that, once I noticed the omission – the revision – made me realize how much we rely on personal pronouns as stand-ins. Use of I or he or she, they can be shortcuts, allowances to leave out small details that Jarnot’s writing flourishes with.
A few times more than those, a small child on my lap reacting to and interacting with the language rolling off my tongue, off the pages of presto spell, I better understood to remember something not necessarily foreign but so fundamental about the aurality of language.
I will line up in the sentences of this lonely vehiculate, a day leaning toward evening, a
midsummer cacophony of peaches, hydrangeas, and bees,
We end with wonder, an incantation to call ourselves home, or away, wherever will make us imaginative to lose and then regain ourselves with awe.
a princess magic presto spell is available from SOLID OBJECTS
Christine Holm began writing poetry while employed in social services and continues to find spaces where creative work overlaps with community service, from writing with palliative care patients through Poesia del Sol to teaching inmates with The Writers in Prison Project.
So I Began by Lisa Lubasch
If you read Lubasch’s poems backwards you find the erasure of meaning, a starting again:
The spirit of reproduction enters a new mode. It works forwards, too, but the spirit of becoming is the return; to truly begin we must learn to begin again.
And before, on page 9, “Not a telling, but a faltering. Through trees her sight fell, upon” — Beckett said fail again but fail better, and if dialectics is a movement from nothing through nothing to nothing, where the spirit finds no resting ground, then the mode of poetry is the tracing of these gaps. It is clear in the faltering, in the stuttered prose poetry with its double-stop of caesura and period.
So I Began opens with something of an Ars Poetica, a delicately-crafted meditation on the Word that strikes me as in the mode of Oppen’s Of Being Numerous, the struggle with being-in-the-world, being-of-the-world:
Good poetry can be a prayer that frees us from the duty to pray, not in the protestant sense of returning the power from the priest to the Book, but in the Mallarméan-modernist sense of writing a new book altogether, of renumbering the constellations, that space “Where the stars would signify”. And the beautiful moment of opacity — “What, in words, would stifle, / What would lend / The no and yes to universal things // These suggested ends, how ends would speak / Them and be heard”.
This is difficult poetry, dense poetry. Lubasch uses images sparingly, like a chef at a fancy restaurant. Her mode is intensely philosophical, but the form is poetic to the end, more in line with Mallarmé’s playful philosophical quest than some more unfortunate metaphysical meditations set to line breaks. There are no end-of-poem punchlines, no satisfying reveal. Indeed, each poem seems to hang off the page, unfinished, and the effect of reading multiple pages in a row is a growing anxiety, that sense you’re entering into a domain that is not reserved for you, yet Lubasch has invited us. Something like the feeling of transgression while reading Sexton.
This is a book spare in text; good, because every line is a gift and a burden:
Here we see layers of re-writing, of that post-modern mode where things are shifting, unclear, frightening:
Language is for this book a last refuge, a resting place of the One (I plus Other?), but it is constantly in danger, falling away–do we hear the substance or the distance from it? What is the dialectic of language?
Obviously, Lubasch loves language, despite (or because of) her wrestlings. Listen to the music of these lines:
And this only continues:
There is something satisfying and voyeuristic in tracing the drama of writing, this sort of modernist tradition of analyzing what the hell our art is doing, and for whom? Here we have the self, the stranger (masculine?), the stars, the blood, anxiety, Open and Cheat.
On page 28 is the beautiful entering of the discourse of power, something obscene in its categorization, its attempt to conceptualize:
It is “Entering. Into you.” It is “A brutalizing structure”, that which classifies as victim, Something lingers, something resists, perhaps the feminine, the Spirit.
The analytic and scholarly language of the poetry is constantly breaking down, with its overmuch periods, with its redactions and silences.
By section 2 things fall into place, the body begins to take shape around some un-named trauma, something unclassifiable with which language must struggle.
What stifles, what betrays? Is it the Word or is it the Body? The poet is Athena with her feet on the earth and her scalp touching heaven. It is, in the end, the word “bleed” that seems to guide the reading.
In “The Situation/Evidence”, forgive me for reading the character “Open” as “Oppen”.
The speaker’s name is Cheat. The redacted lines are obviously cheating — “The second thing I notice is that I–I– / The third thing develops as the light moves down the tumbling place…. / The tumbling place is my name for– / One of the things that tumbles into the tumbling place is our–” (5). One cannot be mad; the lacuna has its function, the breath of a human in the midst of so many words.
This poem has the feel of speculative fiction. What is the “bondage suit”, the mystical and always-not-yet-arrived medications and provisions? The levers on the spine? The medicine is paregoric, which comes from Greek for soothing, from the verb “to speak in the assembly”. Of course the role of speech returns, and it is a soothing thing, a soothing thing we lack and so we are willed to speak (note “we are willed”, not “we will”).
There is always something mechanical in science fiction; the technology that grinds up humans, but then the protagonist busts through the machinery with her humanity. Or maybe not, or maybe not.
The forms shift from musical lines with white space on which to feast, to prose verging on short story, to something like a stuttering journal of a psychotherapy patient.
And “Getting Around It” is one of those unsettling poems that reveals a mechanism of the mind so quickly that we find a new thing breaking loose from something so old and well-worn, as old as our Imaginary and our Symbolic. There is something scientific about poetry like this; because the poetic gaze is upon the detritus of society, but when we turn that gaze inward.
In any case, there’s a reason confessional poetry scares people (men).
It’s funny; it’s funny — the poem passes like an analytical philosophy argument through a series of mental exercises that build the self, and they all hit against the hard rock of something, and thus are rejected, and in the end one has no toes and can barely stand but at least we are done with that traumatic notion of progress, that 19th century dream and that 20th century monster-in-the-shadows. We are nervous. We are hysterics. We are cutting off our own toes, but it’s okay because we are looking for a beginning, hovering between standing and falling.
This is good old-fashioned poetry of the New. Which is fortunate considering the title and that the cover art is a heart cut in half; or is it eyeballs trapped in a heart?
So I Began will be released by SOLID OBJECTS in October 2014
Liam Swanson is an MFA student at the University of Arizona. He writes on/studies communism, feminism, the politics of the apocalypse. His work has recently appeared in the Sonora Review, Cabildo Quarterly, and the Platypus Review.
Juliette and the Boys by Sueyuen Juliette Lee
Wrapped in its iridescent pale blue cover, Lee’s Belladonna chapbook (2014) offers an intriguing collection of messages from “the boys,” whose character, age, even gender floats unstably across the fluxes of the poems. Casting the speaker of the poems, the eponymous Juliette, into the role of recipient—is she friend, lover, teacher?—the messages come from near and far. Texts, calls, questions, and letters are funneled through the point of view of Juliette, these “boys” seeking or offering news, contact, comfort, and affection.
Sometimes oblique, in vain, or attenuated, the messages signal a desire for contact as much as its reality: “P texts / writes / calls / calls again / apologizes / quits” (6). Sueyuen Juliette Lee slices these poems into short lines, often no more than one, two or three words in length, heightening their urgency. Almost utterly absent of punctuation and interleaved with Juliette’s responses, the lines are brief, elliptical, partial, offering the reader an awareness of the dynamic between senders and recipient via indirection. Lee invites me into Juliette’s experience, the “chatter” of these “boys” and her juggling of the vertiginous energy channeled at her.
what isn’t happening
between us anymore
terrains can tell
the future, too
like oxygen it’s
there all the time
so cry and let him
for class, Juliette
and the boys (13)
Eighteen “boys,” each identified only by a unique initial, and eighteen poems, these former lovers, friends, students, and would-be lovers are kept at a distinct distance by their designation as boys. Lee’s characters form a belt of comets or asteroids, shooting through the orbit of Juliette, each appearing but single time. Diminutive and energetic, they home-in on Juliette, “that strange gold dark / goodness you / already knew” (17), seeking comfort: “I look like / just like / his mother” (12, “R”); “he’s been / watching those videos / am I around in October / covered in honey” (3, “C”); “crossing / no bridges / just suffering re-theorized” (10, “X”). Only once is the “boy” is literally a child, “H”. Only in the final poem does the sender offer Juliette comfort: “T says,”
it’s too late where I am
he’s going to think of me
for the next hour
all night so sleep
in his thoughts
and just stop it
close my eyes and (20)
It is on that trailing note, Juliette gone to sleep, perhaps, as the flight of comets closes, the messages stop, the chaplet ends. Who gets to say, Lee asks, “Juliette”, “the boys”, Lee?
It is in Lee’s syntactical ruptures, or perhaps, collisions, that her lines obtain their potency, the strange attractors of juxtaposition:
and a steel bike or
a bible somewhere
near the panhandle
in a stab and run
was it okay
am I (6)
Confounded and delighted by a sense that unmoors itself from ordinary syntax, I enter the play of language, the quite literal gaps of communication, itself always partial, always moving, like “the boys,” shooting through the atmospheres of these poems and Juliette’s life.
The potent, readerly pleasure of these poems lies in the geometry they make, the arcing vectors of conversations that reach, or fail to reach, Juliette, her gravity holding them in orbit, however briefly. Like “H” and “X” and all the others, I am drawn to this Juliette who speaks yet reveals almost nothing of herself.
Juliette and the Boys is available from Belladonna*
Marthe Reed is the author of four books of poetry: Pleth, a collaboration with j hastain (Unlikely Books 2013), (em)bodied bliss (Moria Books 2013), Gaze (Black Radish Books 2010) and Tender Box, A Wunderkammer (Lavender Ink 2007). A fifth book of poems will be published by Lavender Ink in Fall 2014. She has also published chapbooks as part of the Dusie Kollektiv, as well as with above / ground press and Shirt Pocket Press. Her collaborative chapbook thrown, text by j hastain with Reed’s collages, won the 2013 Smoking Glue Gun contest and will appear in 2014. She is Co-Publisher of Black Radish and the Editor/Publisher of Nous-zot Press chapbooks. Her reviews have appeared or are forthcoming at Rain Taxi, Jacket2, Galatea Ressurrects, Openned, Cut Bank, New Pages, and The Rumpus among others.
Interrobang by Jessica Piazza
Sonnets are one of the poetic forms that people whose poetry knowledge ends in high school can still name. When a poet employs a commonplace, canonical form across a lengthy sequence, it’s always worth exploring how she expands or subverts its conventions. In her debut collection, Interrobang, Jessica Piazza punctures the typical self-contained essence of the sonnet to address love, fear, and how they inform identity.
“Muchness” kept springing to mind to describe this collection. Piazza’s poems are dense with sound and emotion; there’s a weighty muchness to each one. With the exception of three longer sequences of linked sonnets, all the poems are titled after a phobia or a philia – a fear or a love. This duality resonates with the book’s titular punctuation mark, the combined question mark and an exclamation point that means “an exclamatory rhetorical question” (according to the Merriam-Webster citation at the front of the book). Interrobang’s poems contain their messiness, overflowing with fragmented images, questions, and exclamations. The poems’ speakers often veer between extremes: fighting and fucking, loud and quiet, familiar and strange. A rhythmic undercurrent propels them through these contrasts, as in these gleefully alliterative lines from “People Like Us”:
…I’m already un and raveling;
this scanty hope swan-songing my integrity.
(But maybe also, just a little, reveling?
Piñata pricked, unpilfered? Tamed tsunami swell?
An overflowing loving cup?) Tut, tut! Too cursed. Too much. I won’t allow it. …
Here, “too much” disavows the “un and raveling,” as well as the “overflowing” –demonstrating how form and content counterbalance each other, in another set of contrasts. This balance answers the question “why sonnets?” – the form is a kind of fulcrum supporting each poem, giving it a necessary weight. This weightiness, this verbal density within a compact form, is a common effect in other sonnet collections that tend towards the experimental, like Karen Volkman’s Nomina or Bernadette Mayer’s sonnets. Rather than the received sonnet setup (one train of thought, then a revision of, or commentary on, that beginning angle), experimental sonnets create their own rhetoric. They abandon thoughts midsentence, or pursue them into an unresolved question, or cast them into a Choose Your Own Adventure, or stretch them across successive pages.
The three extended sonnet sequences in Interrobang, “People Like Us,” “The Prolific,” and “What I Hold,” punctuate and balance the collection. Each of these sequences contains five sonnets, linked to one another by shared words from the last line of one to the first line of the next. Here’s the transition between the third and fourth sonnets in “The Prolific”:
…Instead I found the spot
on 23rd where, when the sun struck clear
glass buildings, streets appeared to multiply.
Then a thousand of me walked away.
A thousand other men could walk away
from me a thousand times, and yet I’d pay
them hardly any mind. The only one
who matters is the one I left. …
The extended length and patterned repetition, along with the layout – fourteen lines to a page – positions each sonnet in these sequences as something in between a standalone poem and a stanza. Their length allows themes and images to develop more richly, forming micro-narratives of a relationship (in “People Like Us” and “The Prolific”) and a personal epiphany (in “What I Hold”). This isn’t to say that the individual sonnets are lacking, but the three sequences are especially accomplished pieces of poetic craft.
The descriptions of colors, glass, and transparency threaded through “The Prolific” give shape to one of the collection’s consistent themes: being visible in a female body. A body moves through a city, seeing and being seen. Elsewhere, mirrors and windows reflect a body’s performances, as in “Eisoptrophobia, Fear of mirrors,” a sonnet in two seven-line reflected pieces that ends “Reflected, I am never at my best.”
A mirror again in “Panophilia, Love of everything” shows another warped reflection of the speaker’s identity:
…So I don’t understand
my drunkenness on scribble scrawled above
the mirror in the ladies’ room: You’re doomed.
Ecstatic that it’s almost true.
Here again is what I mean by muchness, a (traditionally) unladylike excess of it: drunk, scrawling and scribbling, the speaker emphatically embraces a dire almost-truth. Framed this way, it seems brave to be doomed, and to admit “I don’t understand.” There’s some excitement to being beyond understanding in the drunkenness and doom reflected here.
A truth-seeking spirit animates the collection. The choice of Latinate words to name all the poems brings to mind classical philosophy; in particular, Platonic ideals that things have a real, knowable essence. In this vein, “Anablephobia, Fear of looking up” describes roadside memorial signs:
Some read just: THINK. Those mark an accident.
Others: Why Die? And those mean someone did.
One day I heard a man say that his wife
gave up the ghost. But he was like a ghost.
Maybe that’s the truth. We die to leave
the losses that we cannot give away.
Compared to many poems in the collection, “Anablephobia” uses less enjambment and more complete, unfragmented sentences: “Those mark an accident.” The effect is assertive, but it’s tempered by uncertainty and abstraction. “Maybe that’s the truth” tells the reader something about what death could mean, what reality could unite all deaths.
It seems risky and brave to venture such broad ideas in the space of a fourteen-line poem. It’s an appealingly anachronistic approach: rather than privileging a thorough description of subjective individual experiences, as many contemporary poets do, Piazza’s poems grasp for the universal. They dare to move from an “I” to a universal “we.” “Anablephobia” ends with:
We die to tempt the edges that we fear.
We die to rise. We die to travel up.
“To tempt the edges that we fear” is rich with an appealing assonance. It also summarizes the rhetorical aims of some of the most memorable poems in my mental canon: think “Ariel,” or “Howl,” or “The Glass Essay,” all poems positioned on the edge of something fearful, potentially annihilating. Piazza earns her poems’ universal “we” with fierce intelligence and fearless expressions of deep feeling.
Interrobang is available from Red Hen Press.
Erin Watson is a Southern person living in Chicago and online at torridly.org. Her poems appear in Anthology of Chicago and in the self-published chapbooks No Experiences (2012) and Instax Winter (2014). She was a finalist for the 2014 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award.
O New York by Trey Sager
In a rare 1966 radio interview in which he discussed “These Lacustrine Cities” in great detail, John Ashbery said “We must draw the line between obscurity and incomprehensibility. I firmly believe that poetry must communicate. It’s true that some of my poems are obscure, but this may be because I feel that one can communicate more things more directly, obscurely—at least at certain times—than directly.” While reading Trey Sager’s chapbook O New York, this idea of obscurity and its value came to mind many times, because just as much as Sager’s poems are obscure, are they also brilliantly systematic and intensely provocative.
O New York is divided into 4 sections. While the first section is introduced by the book title itself, the second is entitled “The Agreement,” the third “The Economy,” and the fourth “The Member.” These section titles and their edifice are pivotal, not only as applied to the poems they introduce, but as archetype of the mechanism that operates beneath the very fascia of this book. Separately, these sections are self-contained limbs of consideration—digits of surveillance and response. Collectively, this book is a body, a schema, a technical “how-to” manual. How-to see place. How-to see relationship. How-to see condition. How-to see individual:
The above excerpt is extracted from the full-length poem that solely comprises the first section of the book. Sager’s formulaic slant nimbly mingles with the unskinned vulnerability which ripples throughout the speakers voice. The salient complexity lies both within the lines themselves, which are heavily enjambed and almost entirely without signifying punctuation; as well as their content, sparsely packed with metropolitan inference, tender address, and obscure reverie. This maneuvering of figure and feeling elicits a host of meanings, and continuously forces the reader to direct and re-direct their attention toward the poem—which shifts course frequently without hint or hesitation, and resolutely thrusts forward without so much as a water break.
Much like its totem city, O New York can feel congested and overwhelming when one first arrives (especially if you are a closet introvert like me.) Accordingly, Sager aptly provides his reader with a warning which reads just as ominous as “swim at your own risk.” Contrary to the preceding section, “The Agreement” contains this one, very succinct poem. While remaining true to Sager’s veiled aesthetic, one can discern a clear, even terse, message—however uncomfortable things are about to get, the reader is culpable in the discomfort:
This poem instigates a sizeable degree of self-examination; one cannot help but magnify the fourth line “You agree.” While this poem functions as a near-ironic disclaimer of sorts, it also succeeds in drawing the reader into its municipal ecosystem at just the right moment—were it to happen any sooner, we would be spooked; were it to happen any later, we would be screwed—because the subsequent section, “The Economy,” is a whole new scaffold of intricate heads-or-tails making.
As if delivered through morse code, the sequence of obfuscated clicks in this poem require keen attention and discernment. Just as one idea builds momentum a new idea intercedes. Just as soon as that idea pushes forward, it too is usurped and taken elsewhere. The three pages of this poem can feel crazy making, like being stuck on a crowded subway car, or trying frantically to hail a cab only to have each one swiped upon approach. The best thing a reader can do in the midst of this poem is embrace the traffic. Grab on, be a part of it, honk your horn if you must but whatever you do, don’t pull off the street. The mobbing will be just as bad when you try again and it will be ten times worse attempting to merge back in:
Brenda Hillman, one of my most inspiring professors at Saint Mary’s College, once told me that “every good poet is a mathematician.” This notion ping-ponged about my mind as I noticed the particulars of syntax and form in O New York. “The Economy,” in particular, requires an absolute willingness to participate on the part of the reader. One must regard and respond to the poem’s concerns, persisting when the poem beckons, pausing when a line is drawn. In reading through this paradigm, the poems skin becomes transparent: “the money needs a body…the word you I understand the least…I want to handle being with conditions…every time to time I sense how little I have saved…your voice reflects a future of a blue & less penetrable earth…decisions amount to statements in the system we joke about…the imagination is the one address the country cannot send us…this is this again…”.
These poems resonate just as polemical as they do surrealist. While the conscious is a lively and thriving presence here, the unconscious leaps are undeniable as the stream of thoughts move fluidly through both cognitive and cavernous mental landscapes. Allusions to economical and societal cognitions are made clear, as is the management of monetary structure deeply intertwined with the effectual grieving of personal connection, or lack thereof. This paves the way for the book’s final section, “The Member”:
“The Member” contains three discernibly separate poems that operate as a syndicate, much like the overarching skeleton of the book, the first lines of which are direct addresses to the poem itself: “Hello poem,” “Thank you poem,” and Good-bye poem.” Similar in line and form to the title poem, “The Member” is without doubt the most personal and available. Close to confessional, the reader will feel the great and tangible power in the speaker’s admission of quarantine, loss, and confusion.
The notable shift to this disrobed tone gives way to an unrestrained approach to the “you.” In a solemn plea, the speaker reveals himself as the feral, dismayed product of the city, the agreement, and the economy. In this final section, the originating obscurity has lifted. There is no point in masking the reality. W, X and Y have happened…and now, here is Z:
Much like Allen Ginsberg’s “America,” these lines shout off the page of the violation in consumerism, the confusion in consumption, and the often painful stirring that comes with awareness. O New York is a work of nerve, distress, and engagement. By the time one has made their way through the buildings, the cars, the lights, the sounds, the masses, the book has become a byzantine city centre and the reader one of its civilians. When approaching this book, be prepared to pump the brakes a bit. These poems are not to be rushed through and probably are not best suited for “light reading” just before bed. They are however highly cerebral and inspiring—constantly challenging the reader to let go of how they think they “should” read a poem, and in turn, let go of how they “should” see their environs and within such, themselves. This book is one of intimacy, albeit cryptically so. I highly recommend reading O New York (as well as Sager’s other online chapbook with Ugly Duckling Presse Dear Failures) to those who are interested in seeing what happens when the lights burn out, sound depletes stability, and the strictures of a city—a person—become permeable.
O New York is available for free from Ugly Duckling Presse
Melissa Burke is a poet living in San Francisco, finishing her MFA in Poetry at Saint Mary’s College of California. She is a Poetry Editor and Social Media staff member at Omnidawn Publishing, as well as an Education & Children’s Events Assistant at Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA.
A Hotel in Beligum by Brett Fletcher Lauer
The title of Brett Fletcher Lauer’s debut collection—A Hotel in Belgium—embodies the aesthetics of the poems, a shimmering alloy of detail and abstraction.
The book opens with a frontispiece titled “Poem.” The speaker sets up some rules of engagement for what is to follow:
A poem is a “room made/ of chance.” Indeed, the collection is very much concerned with the idea of “chance”—both in terms of the arbitrary nature of life and in terms of the predetermined nature of privilege.
In a poem titled “Stockholm Syndrome,” the shape-shifting speaker is hard to pin down, switching pronouns, and distancing himself from himself with each new line:
Such a voice seems risky, even problematic, as poets don’t get the carte blanche of fiction writers, no matter how many times we repeat that the poet is not the speaker. Yet that moral ambiguity is also what makes the poem so startling, and the title “Stockholm Syndrome” has you forewarned.
“Work Product” also enters dissolute territory. The poem opens with the speaker “breathing heavy / into one end of the receiver”:
The “stranger” in the poem may either enjoy, or feel disturbed by, the voice “breathing heavy” on the other line. “Work Product” winks at gender by referring to the “stranger” as a gender-inclusive “he or she.” Beauty and surprise and intrusion all seem to blur into one another in “Work Product.” The suggestion of a telephone “receiver” here feels like a throwback, and that is one of the poem’s insights. I thought of Ariana Reines’s experimental play Telephone. Lauer similarly explores how technology can wreak havoc upon both consciousness and communication.
How does one write poetry when images are losing their meaning to memes? We can’t stop. We feel compelled to watch, and re-watch, say, a video clip of “a rabbit befriending a red fox / somewhere in Montana or Europe.” That’s from Lauer’s poem titled “The Collected Poems,” which continues:
I appreciate the humor here, and the new normal of hating the constant smart phone notifications, while also craving them like candy. There’s a merciless wit here, a wit the speaker also turns upon himself.
A Hotel in Belgium evokes Holden Caulfield’s yearning for refuge and recovery from shadowy traumas. The last stanza of the titular poem, “A Hotel in Belgium,” contains some of the book’s most luminous lines:
This moment emits a glow and feels like a break-thorough. “I must be a little horse” is a lovely line, humble and aching, all the more moving in contrast to the other, sharper voices.
In “Model Community,” the speaker turns his critical eye to a suburban utopia: “Filled with wonder and California weather, the historic/ architecture indicates streets worth walking.” Yet again, the speaker doesn’t spare himself, making the following admission:
He’s stuck in a languor from which he cannot rise. And that last image, “cloudless days our imagination required,” conjures up the traumas of 9/11 in a way that meshes with the remove explored in many of the poems. It’s a self-saving detachment that seems to define our time.
As Timothy Donnelly helpfully suggests, Lauer’s various speakers may be read as “one single melancholic hero.” Like the best kind of heroes, they have their foibles, which makes them all the more human.
A Hotel in Belgium is available from Four Way Books
Safia Jama was born and raised in Queens, NY. A graduate of Harvard College, she currently teaches writing and pursues an M.F.A. in poetry at Rutgers-Newark. Her poems appear in Reverie, The New Sound, and the forthcoming Cave Canem 2010-2011 Anthology. She is currently a guest-blogger for Bryant Park’s Word for Word poetry series.
The Tales by Jessica Bozek
Jessica Bozek, in her collection The Tales reveals how our desire to write a story, to tap true events for emotional resonance, comes at the peril of reality itself. Her collection’s success lies in its deployment of the absurd: it’s a disaster story about violence wrought through the whispering of stories. The Tales relates the aftermath of one nation’s military annihilation of another nation by means of a single soldier, who accomplished his mission by storytelling. As is characteristic of good weird fiction, precisely how this went down is left mostly to our imagination.
For years afterward, people talked about the first
soldier to fell a nation with bedtime stories. They
wondered if it was better to be stilled into atrocity or
surprised by it.
The collection takes the form of a series of short prose-poem “tales”, the accounts of various individuals involved in the disaster: the historian, the revisionist historian, the seismologist, the dog, along with multiple installments of the tale of the disaster’s Lone Survivor. Punctuating the tales are pages entitled “The Saving: A Fairy Tale”. Each of these offers what appears to be an alternative plot, a scenario which may have resulted in the preservation of the victim nation. “The Savings” often come from animals. The loon’s lesson is that all communication must happen underground:
Now under a funerary green, the citizens are cut off
from the surrounding lands. A loon teaches them
that they can dive down into their own small lake and
come up in another lake. The cost of this transport is
that all communication must happen underground.
Perhaps, what the loon teaches is that we must practice communication not by bangs and flashes but by burrowing deeper into the tales of our neighbors and ancestors, by refusing the temptation of the old familiar tale.
The first section of the book focuses mostly on the tales of others, on accounts of the disaster itself. The middle section, which consists of italicized and lineated text, stirs up something metatextual:
the enemy is often
Which makes me wonder: is it that what we identify as enemy is often merely an adjunct that represents a different and larger whole… or that the figurative device of metonymy can in fact, be the enemy. An intriguing and sort of worrisome thought, given that I’m supposed to finish a degree in creative writing pretty soon here. But I’m not saying Bozek’s collection is a denunciation of figurative language or, by extension, tale-telling; just that she troubles the endeavor. From Seismologist’s Tale, we learn that only those outside of stories survive the soldier’s attack:
The leaves were thin on the trees. By the time the
soldier made his final circles, only children
who hadn’t learned the words remained awake. Without language
the felt the leaves and the leaving.
Disaster stories are attractive because they can furnish us with a morally simple universe. It’s easy, when reading or writing disaster, to reduce the history to simplistic human muck, and to get down and wallow in it. This attractiveness undoubtedly poses a dilemma for artists and architects commissioned to create war monuments. And indeed, this is what is asked of the Lone Survivor toward the end of the book – the victorious nation seeks to compensate him through means of a contract that includes a Total Replacement clause, and through the construction of a memorial to his dead compatriots. So: How do you commemorate horror without glorifying it? The Public Relations Consultant’s Tale articulates a depressing truth about many monuments: that they either bore us or thrill us, but rarely educate us:
They keep the Lone Survivor alive as a specimen. On
field trips, their children visit the New Permanent
Demonstration of the Untenable Existance of
Destroyed Peoples at the State Museum for the
Justification of Military Action. The teachers use their
pointers and speak sternly. The children yawn, but at
night and for weeks to come they wonder about the
man who lives alone on this 3.2-mile tract. The brave
ones vow to return at night.
I looked up “tale” in the OED. Its various definitions share in common a mention of the verbs “tell” and “relate” and “say”. That is, “tale” means more or less the same thing as “story” but with a stronger indication of vocal agency. The tale is not as much the sequence of events being told as the action of telling them.
What’s you point, Sally? A monument is an edifice constructed for the purpose of relating a story. The edifice is the tale we tell. But the thing that happened still happened; its remains and its survivors persist on earth. (And they almost always do. Despite the stories, destruction is rarely total). They remain, occluded by the tale of their destruction. Appropriately, the book opens not with The Historian’s Tale, but the Revisionist Historian’s Tale, and the first detail it relates about the soldier is his white museum booties. Perhaps what’s being suggested is that the persistent packaging and display of disaster in museum and memorial, in book and lesson, can make us numb to the fact that the disaster is ongoing around us. The Historian’s Tale follows the Revisionist Historian’s Tale, and is more concise:
The citizens covered their heads, sitting down to sleep.
I closed the book wondering if what we need is fewer stories, or fewer metaphors, really. Because those things make sense, but disaster doesn’t. This book is sequence marvelous tales, and of parodies of political speech and absurd bureaucratese, punctuated by the dry accounts of the Lone Survivor of his life in the aftermath. In the end, he chooses a memorial made of fabric so that it will fade. The Seamstresses’ Tale relates how they made the memorial and how it was picked apart by birds and used for their nests.
Eventually, some birds took portions for their nests.
We liked the metaphor of it.
What could be so damning as that?
The Tales is available from Les Figues Press
Sally McCallum is from Tucson and studies at the University of Arizona.
That We Come To A Consensus by Noah Eli Gordon and Sara Veglahn
In an exchange of what is and isn’t said, That We Come To A Consensus meets in the antiplace where the cult of the author—and his or her ego—is dethroned. As a collaborative work, the fingerprints and audible identifiable gestures of voice are smeared, scrubbed. And the possible problem of attribution begets a kind of envy: Who wrote that? That’s a Gordon line. That’s a Veglahn sound.
Poetic collaboration, in recent history, is perhaps exemplified by the mid-twentieth century so-called “New York School” of writers. The shared art-making practice codified a gesture towards art’s potential but more so, the friendships made in mutual admiration based in that same act. A Nest of Ninnies by John Ashbery and James Schuyler; Bean Spasms by Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett and Joe Brainard; The Altos by Barbara Guest and Richard Tuttle—to name a few.
As David Lehman suggests in his compelling chronicle of the inner sanctum of New York School poets, The Last Avant-Garde, one of the many great lessons that poets learned from Action Painters—like Jackson Pollock or Willem DeKooning—was that “it was okay for a poem to chronicle the history of its own making—that the mind of the poet, rather than the world, could be the true subject of the poem—and that it was possible for a poem to be (or to perform) a statement without making a statement.”
In TWCTAC, the minds of Gordon and Veglahn enact a kind of sympathy for the possible poem and its making. The resulting poem offers a record of the dynamism of exchanges between poets. This work is not only a gesture toward art but also a record of that transmission in understanding and, of that relationship.
Lehman also suggests, “all poetry [is] the product of a collaboration with language.” To that end: all writing is collaboration—with not only language, but with other writers. As the voice of these poems are the voices of Gordon and Veglahn as much as they are the voices of other writers, overheard conversations, magazine headlines, etc.
What connects people in language is the result of the trial and error of communication during communication: the understanding of how we mean when we try to say what we mean.
TWCTAC happens in a transit of hidden exchanges—perhaps a letter or an email, a phone call, notes on a napkin. The behind-the-scenes is not visible in the poem. What is visible is a suggestive text that occupies Gordon and Veglahn simultaneously. This is a collaborative poem about collaborating and dissolving the authority of the author. This blurring of boundaries makes a mask for many faces.
I’ve been inside a vault
could say we meet at the airport
as an appendix to an apology
you arriving in a sombrero
me wearing a white carnation
a kind of greeting
The romance and the strangeness of partnering in language is perhaps not sexy but sensual, as this scene connotes a kind of first-time-meeting where the other needs to be visually identifiable by wearing “a sombrero” or a “white carnation”—regardless of the fact that the “we” is both the “you” and the “me”—such that, the person we find is wearing both a sombrero and a carnation.
In addition to words of transport—planes, trains, elevators, etc.—the voice of this poem speaks in a mid-transport where the traveller finds herself. The speaker asserts, “it’s my hotel face” and “I’ve never been to that hotel.” The poem and thus the documentation of the poem is the “hotel” or the temporary space for this voice/these voices to inhabit while in transit.
Say I have a hotel of catastrophe
in a fiction the hotel collapses
boots & rags branded & back tomorrow
one way to assassinate the newly canonized
It is a kind of “bird migration” done together and, to do so, means to be on the same schedule: on time and in time.
Dream a watchmaker & make him tangible
don’t say that because I’m using it
which clock is correct when the mission bell chimes
what divisive thought when dancing alone
And yet, how do we talk about collaboration for fear of the penalty of being wrong in attribution, in meaning—lest we run out of ideas of ideas of ourselves to project on a work.
A collaboration in poetry is perhaps the permission to be impractical. How will this poem hold up to my canon? The Canon? In this sense TWCTAC affirms that poetry can be a way of life between people. To nurture a life in art when the artist might “[h]ave nothing to say” or when the artist feels they “haven’t said anything.”
The poem climaxes in a litany in which the refrain “that we” rings and rings like an anxious child at a doorbell.
That we come to consensus
that we cling to a key
that we turned on the light
that we rained down our glances
that we exist in intervals
that we didn’t quite agree
that we recognize many faces
that we are not fast like machines
In a circus of subjectivity the poet and poem perform to practice life in a particular way, to “cling to a key” to make meaning and relate—not just a poet to a poet but, to the world and everything in it. Yet, life is a clumsy thing, and although we can be machine-like, “we are not fast like machines.” TWCTAC acknowledges the validity of the “many faces” of meaning and embraces the fallible yet generative potential of collective capital.
That We Come To A Consensus is available for free from Ugly Duckling Presse
Douglas Piccinnini is the author of the forthcoming book of poems, Blood Oboe (Omindawn, 2015) and a novella, Story Book (The Cultural Society, 2014), as well as numerous chapbooks, including Flag (Well Greased Press, 2013) and ∆ (TPR Press, 2013) — a bilingual book of poems with Cynthia Gray and Camilo Roldán. His work has appeared or will soon appear in Antioch Review, Aufgabe, So & So, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Lana Turner, Vanitas, Verse, Vlak — among others. He is a winner of the 2014 SLS Contest for Poetry, judged by Dorothea Lasky.
Baby-Doll Under Ice by Katie Jean Shinkle
Rather than lyric or imagistic intensity, sometimes it’s the all-out fierce trajectory of a collection, fueled by mystique, intrigue, pacing, etc., that wows us. Baby-Doll Under Ice, from Hyacinth Girl Press, delivers the aforementioned qualities, but at heart it’s the momentum, or descension—the continually downward spiral—of the poems’ two personae (Charotte and Baby-Doll) powering Shinkle’s collection. This mood of decline establishes itself early in the first prefatory poem, “Shades of Sub Rosa”:
So the being-sucked-under begins. But sucked under what? The poem, “Baby-Doll’s Descent Into,” offers some insight:
Here I have to pause to draw attention to Shinkle’s great ear, particularly the long drawn out mouthiness of “swallow,” “woman,” and “submerge,” and the way the submersion, sounded out by the acute vocabulary choice, is followed by the audible fragility of pairing “ice” with “create.” And notice how the breaking of the ice follows the submersion; it’s the little details like this, the narrative non-linearity of sensorial experience just ahead of the consciousness of physicality, that demonstrate Shinkle’s devotion to detail down to the propulsion of its very minutiae.
But lyrical acrobatics aside, these lines introduce the dichotomies that truly drive the collection: that of mind vs. body, consciousness vs. sensorial—manifestations of capital S self continually chasing each others’ tails in the hopes of reaching a higher understanding: thus the recurring circular imagery. Baby-Doll and Charlotte never explicitly interact, but they do appear joined by the symbiotic impulse to cycle through one another. Often their relationship is understood by comparing facing pages, making this an almost living book, in some ways. On one page:
And on the opposite page:
One wonders whether a unified Baby-Doll/Charlotte persona is yet another circle, a sort of Heraclitean step into the same yet ever differing river. There are many possibilities here. No matter the answer, the personae continually recede into each other like a matryoshka doll, and there is pleasure in that.
Yet the poems conscientiously recognize that there is a sort of eternal regress built into this design, and it doesn’t escape Shinkle to expand the poems well beyond self-study. In “Machicolation,” for example, Shinkle zooms out and examines the larger ramifications of ouroboros-like ideologies:
Where it may seem trite to leave the downward spiral in the purely personal realm, Shinkle pushes herself to larger critique, one that is, of course, well open to interpretation, but is assuredly an understanding that, if we want to fully mine our personal cyclings and sinkings, we must also mine those of the interpersonal—and vice versa.
Baby-Doll Under Ice is available from Hyacinth Press
Jake Syersak is an MFA Candidate in Poetry at the University of Arizona. His poems have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in Cutbank, Phoebe, and Ninth Letter. He is the author of the chapbook Notes to Wed No Toward from Plan B Press. He edits Sonora Review and Cloud Rodeo.
Particle and Wave by Benjamin Landry
I’ve been encountering a lot of what I call “science poetry” lately. These collections delve into a variety of science or scientific principles to act as the impetus for the poetry. On a theoretical level it is intriguing, this usurping of science’s logical claims to truth to reformat them into the uncertain and undefinable realm of poetry. These “science poems” when successful present the abstractions of life and experience hidden amongst the definable mechanics of the sciences. Benjamin Landry’s first collection Particle and Wave attains this metamorphosis. The Periodic Table acts as an exploration of mythology, family history, and an interrogation of poetry. Landry’s poems offer an experience that is not rigidly fixed in one defining moment. Instead his collection shows a constant erasing of boundaries and negation of accepted knowledge. This destabilization erases what is believed known and calls into question the history leading to the present moment. The structures of the poems enhance this. He cycles through verse, prose, and erasures in a crafting of a theory which can ground his explorations.
Landry’s book is building the world which he inhabits. The atoms of the Periodic Table become much like the phoneme, a base component of creation. Whether is it a construction of language or the material world both atom and phoneme are the means to explain the existence of their respective objects. The poems however, subvert that and instead these origins are not viewed as proven fact, but more as a means by which to inquire. They reach towards uncertainty and hope for revelation. They accept that there are moments of history and memory that are absent or that never existed and it is this place the poems speak.
The sound from the culvert
was not nothing.
It might have been the sound
of solider ants
clenching their mandibles
in their sleep, dreaming
of swaths of leaf
for cutting. Or
Landry practices manufacturing mythology as a way to come to understanding, much like the Greek gods explained the sublime phenomena of nature. The first poem Hydrogen poses for the reader to:
“Imagine the heat generated/by Daphne transformed into laurel/and you can begin to feel /what the electron feels/in renouncing its steady orbit./…Daphne was, of course, an ordinary girl:/desires not especially volatile./ She, too, forgot her terror, nodded off/in the glow of a star appearing/to explode for billions of years. “
Daphne exists as both a person and the myth. She is the laurel tree and a symbol of poetry and the poet’s desire that cannot be possessed. Landry offers a passionate plea to close the gap between memory and the present, the poet and the poem, as well as the lover and the loved.
Metamorphosis becomes an engine through which these gaps can hope to be filled. The human experience becomes a series of crafting theories and the testing and rethinking of these theories. The poems avoid didactic and pedagogical pitfalls which could threaten a detached stance of a statement as opposed to immediacy of exploration. Instead, these poems are always struggling and interacting constantly maturing as the collection progresses.
I am particular drawn to the poems which explore poetry is and its role in society. They constantly draw attention to the malleability between physical and emotional experiences. It is in these poems; especially Ununoctium, where inquires posed by Landry about the human and the unknown meet on constantly shifting borders.
Everywhere one turns:
You speak to the dresses
in your closet as though
they were children.
The subconscious goes
and makes a deliberate mess
of things; and theory…
theory will have to suffice
Particle and Wave is availalbe from the University of Chicago Press
Chris Caruso is a poet with MFA’s from Rutgers Newark and Boise State University. He is fascinated with the limits and transgressions of borders/boundaries especially the margins between words and images. Chris is currently working on Fairy Tales interpreted through the Fibonacci sequence and a poetry collection that juxtaposes the anxiety bound in artistic creation against American Anxiety Post 9/11. Chris is also in the process of creating a blog to host a yearlong conceptual poetry/visual art project.
BESTSELLER by Adam Braffman
As the Republic edges toward disaster, Anakin Skywalker falls for Senator Padmé Amidala. A private eye’s search for a missing cat takes him on a trip through space and time. A woman law student seeks to discover the truth about the murder of two Supreme Court justices. A British boy’s life at a school for witchcraft is menaced when an infamous murderer escapes from prison.
The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read. Have you heard this before? Conceptual poetry’s mouthpiece Kenneth Goldsmith says so. You don’t have to read it. (I didn’t read Adam Braffman’s BESTSELLER. Not all of it. Didn’t have to. Still loved it.) All you need to know is the concept behind the book. Here’s every word I spoke for a week. Here’s a year’s worth of weather reports. And without ever having to read these things, you understand them. So, in a weird way, if you get the concept—which should be put out in front of the book—then you get the book, and you don’t even have to read it. Such things are better to talk about than they are to read, so it is said.
But that isn’t to say that there is no reading taking place, for in talking about conceptual poetry, you are, in a way, reading it. (This is one of the many notable perverse accomplishments of the genre.) And in reviewing conceptual poetry, you are effectively taking said reading (your think-talking) public.
Of course this isn’t a word for word reading—though, for what it’s worth, I do wonder whether close-reading conceptual poetry isn’t a completely useless tactic—but more in line with how you read the proverbial room, how you read a painting (the expression on her face). Both goal and process are fundamentally Cubist: you want to bring the hidden component out from behind and unfold it so it rests boldly in front, right there on the same plane as what was already visible (the rear cheek and eye in line with the face out in front, the shaded poetic material in line with its outward facing source text).
So approaching a conceptual poetry becomes not unlike solving a riddle, in which an interlocutor is challenged to pin down the name and nature of a hidden object by probing its comparisons to some better illuminated things (The soldier who attacks me with his sword will cry, says the onion; and of the iceberg: it is water become bone). The significant difference, it seems, is that with conceptual poetry the familiar points of comparison (the soldier and sword, the water and bone) are so familiar, so ‘better illuminated’, in fact, that it encroaches upon—and is!—a moment of plagiarism, an exact duplicate. So when Kenneth Goldsmith transcribes and publishes a complete radio broadcast of the longest nine inning Major League Baseball game on record and calls the book SPORTS, we read it (sort of) and find ourselves thinking about and probing into some other indeterminate something (idea? feeling? understanding?) about art, of all things, despite the fact that we’re essentially just listening to the radio (play-by-play, commentator filler, cheesy local ads, and all). Art theory, for God’s sake, from the shitty off-the-cuff jokes a baseball analyst makes about the way an outfielder steals second! What movement!
–I want to localize this before the wheels come off.
A woman’s long journey to self-discovery. The five-year relationship of two women, a teen-age patient and her analyst. An ex-President and his Congresswoman wife investigate four crimes in the capital. From India to England to Africa: the travels and travails of a writer as he struggles to achieve a coherent self. The complex relationships of a family in New York City and South Carolina’s low country. Blackford Oakes plays his part in the race with the Russians to get a satellite into orbit.
I was eager to probe Adam Braffman’s BESTSELLER (sometimes titled BEST SELLER ⌘ V) in a public review because I think it links up in an important and efficient way to a complicated relationship we have with beginnings. While first dates are exciting, first date conversations (as my Tindering coworkers might tell you) become dull, routine fixtures of establishing who, what, where, when, why… before getting into the good stuff (not sex, mind you, but longer-term companionship). It’s undeniable: there’s an insufferable component to beginning again, no matter the potential upside. After all, doesn’t it take more energy to accelerate a resting object than an already-moving one?
At play is the same factor that determines our growing preference for television to movies (and sequels to original productions). The time spent investing in new characters’ names, personalities, relationships to one another, work-places, home-places, school-places, drinking-places, the direction of the show, the genre of the show, even, (what balance of comedy and drama, of romance and danger): in television, this takes, say, half an hour (the pilot), and the next 20-50+ hours are then fairly beginning-free (you start episode six of season four and you hit the ground running), whereas with movies you are obligated to restart completely every 90 minutes (unless you’re a sequel!), because no sooner have you gotten the equivalent of two or three episodes into “the series,” so to speak, than you’re wiping the slate clean, introducing a new movie with new actors, characters, settings, plots. It’s exhausting, really, and it doesn’t play to our growing greater interest in the culture-stuff with higher substance-to-time ratios (not sex, but companionship).
So when Adam Braffman culls together between two- and three-thousand single-sentence summaries of two- or three-thousand of our generation’s top-selling books featured in the New York Times Best Sellers archives and then strings them together end-on-end across 88 text-stuffed pages, we experience the sentences taking part not in the satisfying brevity of a tweet, text, or Snapchat, but in the intolerable sensation of endlessly flipping channels, scanning Netflix suggestions, rifling through StumbleUpon hits, and nexting in Pandora, which is to say: there is no resolution, only regeneration.
So no, you don’t have to read BESTSELLER to understand how it works as a seemingly-infinite cycle of flashcards dotted with cursory trivia on the subject of Popular American Fiction and Memoir (more or less), but maybe you should anyway. I was determined to read it in such a way, word for word. It’s an obsession I believe became ingrained in me as I struggled to read another tremendously rewarding piece of conceptual poetry—Angela Genusa’s TENDER BUTTONS (also from Gauss-PDF)—which itself likely stemmed from my desperately clung-to belief that all poetry, narrative, lyric, or conceptual, is fundamentally a time-art, one that must be slogged through to know well. I would recommend reading this way—one single-sentence plot summary at a time—despite the fact that you will likely give up at some point (as I admittedly did at least twice) because it turns you on to an experience of the text that your conceptual knowledge of it simply doesn’t offer.
Inspector Richard Jury must identify two skeletons found at the site of a bomb attack on London in 1940. The romance of an American Indian princess and an Englishman, told in words and pictures. The second volume of “The War of Souls,” a fantasy saga. The President is kidnapped; fella says he wants million.
What I mean to say is this: in reading it all, every word, one detects periodic glimpses of charm in the otherwise-muddling challenge of interacting with BESTSELLER. If the 88 pages are broken down into paragraph-long chunks, reading said chunks feels not unlike keeping up with an episode of Game of Thrones or some other episodic ensemble-cast television saga, where so many disparate balls are kept up in the air, each getting its turn in the passing juggle, that even the most incongruous of storylines begin to inform a larger composite narrative. We begin to imagine BESTSELLER describing (or behaving as) a hyper-maximalist novel in the vein of Infinite Jest or White Teeth, but larger and more inclusive, that couldn’t possibly exist as a real book, but very well may exist in the cloud, so to speak, with these various summaries functioning as plotlines directing us toward and hinting at it, the bestsellers being but individual books of the BESTSELLER Bible’s Old and New Testaments.
And though these charmed moments are fleeting, no sooner appearing in their eight-to-ten sentence groupings than yielding back to the frustrating “begin afresh, afresh, afresh” mantra that echoes throughout the book—didn’t I say our relationship to beginnings was complicated?—they do pepper a difficult manuscript with enough regularity as to reward a careful reading of an otherwise (supposedly) unreadable text. It’s why I can say both that I didn’t read all of BESTSELLER and that I didn’t not read any of it, that I was endlessly beat-up by it and in love with the bruising.
BESTSELLER is available for free from Gauss-PDF
Michael Gossett is from Memphis, Tennessee. He tweets a commonplace book of poetry, riddles, comedy, and basketball at: @michaeljgossett