Category: micro-review

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” [63]), 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

Jarnot400_1024x1024My 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.

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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 –

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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,

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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:

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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:

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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.

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This is a book spare in text; good, because every line is a gift and a burden:

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Here we see layers of re-writing, of that post-modern mode where things are shifting, unclear, frightening:

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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:

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And this only continues:

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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:

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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

chapletsWrapped 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
doesn’t matter
so cry and let him
cuddle me
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:

K messages
there’s Japan
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

indexSonnets 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 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

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 9.29.28 AMIn 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:

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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:

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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:

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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”:

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“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.

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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”:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.