Category: Peter Vanderberg

REVIEW: Mimer by Lance Phillips


by Peter Vanderberg

Mimer is a riddle told by the sphinx. Read “riddle” as spare, enigmatic poems that confuse and seduce. Read “sphinx” as ancient quandary, primal question, mortal dilemma, classical figure, myth, author.

One can say opal until one’s tongue swells.

One hawk may not mean mouth at risk.

Those two lines comprise the entire poem entitled, “From Nietzsche’s Bed” and that is the same title given for eleven poems, all from the section “From Nietzsche’s Bed.” So many questions spool out from these two spare lines. Is this an instruction for reading the book? Is this a truth about the body? Is this a warning? Such is the dilemma and pleasure of Mimer.

Stay with me for a bit on the sphinx — of Egyptian origin, but in this manifestation, I think our sphinx is Greek. The poems in Mimer continually reach back to Greek mythology for reference and figure. The title poem is a dialogue, or an erased dialogue, between Aristotle and Alexander, presumably the great Greek philosopher and conqueror respectively.

Aristotle: wind over those crows
Alexander: rhinovirus
Aristotle: foot the arch
Alexander: one must possess protection as one’s own skin

The dialogue takes place in these short bursts over six pages. The feel is of a duel of perspectives, dual perspectives, evolving definitions, associative play, disconnect, connect. The pages that contain these interactions are mostly blank. I believe Phillips invites the reader to stay with each page, to linger in the blank silence allowing associations to grow and connections to be disrupted.

As any great philosopher or prophet, Mimer breaks our linear-leaning thought processes. One must approach this book (really any good book) with intent to consider; with intent to search. In his brief author statement (found here), Phillips offers, “I think of the book as a

collection of parables, but in the sense that Crossan uses the term, as disruptors.” That said, the book certainly disrupts. The syntax is unfamiliar:

Semen & mint from the basin

One indicates eye with grinding teeth, sun

Entitled, “The Human Is Over,” the poem ends there. One can say this poem until one’s tongue swells, but any meaning wrung from it must be invented through a new grammar. The images are rich enough to invite one to try. The confusion we are left with invites us to the next riddle.

Eventualities honeycomb out mouth
Besieged have am silver sill peck
Under curtain moon propriety
Moan his ear due again
Moan a shriller value a one
Must simply accept as to money
The world below Sybil tearing
A squash an apple beating her
Breast before him marked domicile

This from the section “SUB-” is representative of Phillips ‘disrupted’ syntax. The words must be thought through singularly, then as combinations that may or may not invite reordering. The poem is a three-dimensional thing and so forces the reader to think along several axis. Sensuality is here. As is the natural world and a few human concepts that attempt to force sense from it all.

Back to the sphinx: a threshold keeper that is said to have devoured those who could not answer its riddles. This raises the question: what is at stake in Mimer? Certainly not death, yet perhaps Phillips suggests something about consciousness here. If we do not allow our concepts of self, other, world to be disrupted; if we do not experience fracture, can we ever have a life constructed on purpose? Perhaps Phillips suggests disruption is necessary so that we can rebuild authentic methods of understanding. Perhaps not.

This reader at least remained in a liminal state throughout Mimer: on the threshold of understanding, but not passing through the gate. I may have pocketed a few “meanings” by the end of the book, but they are too uncertain to mention here. Phillips disrupted my way of thinking, and I am grateful for that experience.

Get Mimer from Ahsahta: $18.00.

Peter Vanderberg is the founding editor of Ghostbird Press. He served in the US Navy from 1999 – 2003 and received a MFA from CUNY Queens College. Recent work has appeared in CURA, LUMINA, The Manhattanville Review and in collaboration with his brother James’ paintings in their book, Weather-Eye. He teaches art and creative Writing at St. John’s Preparatory School and Hofstra University.

REVIEW: Bribery by Steven Zultanski

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by Peter Vanderberg

Steven Zultanski is a poet grounded in the Conceptualist movement and his fourth book, Bribery, tends in that direction, yet feels like something more. The book is composed of one long poem that reads like the confessions of a psychopath, but in the rambling narrative is layered engaging and disturbing commentary on violence, politics, society, human behavior, love and time.

Over the course of the book, a strange character is revealed and develops in an anticlimactic way as a narrator on a mission to become the worst person he can possibly be. Indeed, heinous crimes are confessed, but as the book progresses, the insight and razor sharp perception of human behavior exhibited by the narrator reveals a multidimensional persona that challenges the reader to consider the observations of this alleged psychotic mind. Throughout the book, there are moments when the insane narrator seems to grasp a kind of truth. The power of the book is in its deceptive wisdom — if King Lear’s fool wrote a book, it might be something like Bribery.

The crimes our narrator confesses to include petty theft, home invasion, murder, sexual assault, stalking and harassment, but in each confession, the mind of the narrator is revealed in dark and interesting ways.

a woman wakes up one morning in her Upper East Side apartment
to find deep scratches

dug into her face, and she doesn’t know how they got there or
remember the pain because there’s something mysterious and not
entirely of this world about them:

I did that too. And then every subsequent morning

for at least a month she wakes up to find new scratches on her face
in different arrangements […]

[…] But the problem with this crime is that it’s too generous: the
person who endures it might then be convinced that they’ve been
specially chosen […]

The narrator engages in these acts of criminal violence, but his deliberation about the methods of his crimes, his focus on how the crime will effect his victim’s psyche, his intense drive to create the perfect series of acts that will make him the worst person he can possibly be, beyond grand visions of glory or notoriety, renders a narrator that achieves a kind of anti-nobility. Even as I write this I cringe to say it, but there is something admirable in the narrator’s dedication to his strange mission.

Do be warned however, the crimes confessed to in Bribery are not cute. Tricking someone into surrendering their cell phone is one thing, but at one point the narrator confesses to having not only killed, but also dismembering and beheading one of his victims. But the real anti-beauty to this crime is not in the act itself, it’s in how the narrator sees the act, and what he does with “the item” (the victim’s severed head).

[…] I throw my voice
so that the item seems to talk to me and beg for its life. I’m not
trying to be crude, but I figure

if I’m going to do something that other people think is so
obviously bad, I might as well be moral about it. If I get a bit
moralistic, then at least I don’t run the risk of simply celebrating
whatever shitty thing I’ve done, plus I get

the added benefit of being just a little shittier for feigning a high-
and-mightiness about how bad I am.

Zultanski’s narrator is evil, psychotic, vile, cruel, etc. etc., but he’s so damn good at being that thing. And this is a madman with opinions. He rants about how “The US president is literally guilty of pretty much everything: he traverses time and space with bloody glee …” He later makes an insanely convincing argument about how, “there are more male professional athletes in the US that are rapists than there are male professional athletes in the US…” Even the English language itself is torn apart by the narrator who asserts that it

deserves to be denounced for its role as an increasingly universal

flattener of meaning and crusher of spirits…insofar as its
straightjacket phraseology

binds every attempt at an overflow of passionate verbosity to an
ugly cascade of hackneyed cliche…

It just keeps getting better.   The very act of quoting passages for examination of this book trivializes the cumulative effect of reading the whole poem, which I wholeheartedly suggest be done. I haven’t even gotten into the penetrating insights the narrator reveals about the subtlest body language gestures or why “Bribery” is the perfect title for this book. Be prepared to feel at times incredulous, disgusted, and even sympathetic to this confessor of crimes against the human psyche. By the end of the book I had decided that I liked the crazy speaker so much that either his crimes were all made up in his head, or justified by his own twisted logic and the insane / tragic world in which he (we) exists.

Zultanski’s narrator is the most disturbing, insightful, loathsome and hilariously interesting hero-villain in literature. A bold claim? Maybe. But chances are, if you don’t agree, you’re not interesting enough for your opinion to matter.

(That was a shitty thing to say. I’m not normally the type of person to say something like that. Reading Bribery made me do it.)

Bribery is available from Ugly Duckling Presse

Peter Vanderberg served in the US Navy from 1999 – 2003 and received a MFA from Queens College, CUNY. His work has appeared in CURA, LUMINA, The Manhattanville Review and in collaboration with his brother James’ paintings in their book, Weather-Eye. His chapbook, Crossing Pleasant Lake is forthcoming from Red Bird Press. He teaches at St. John’s Preparatory School and Hofstra University.

REVIEW: Belladonna* Chaplet Series // Anne Waldman

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

by Peter Vanderberg

Anne Waldman’s chapbook is primarily composed of the single, long, title poem. The book is a fragmented meditation that approaches questions of war, conscience, feminism, art, history, and other subjects. It is a book that at once confuses and invites the reader to create meaning. The experience of living with this book for a while was like what I imagine Zen students experience in their search for no-meaning.

First, an epigraph from the New York Times dated Nov 18, 2001.   A site recovery worker writes about ghosts and what he sees, unseen by others. Waldman’s book is now placed in that context: under the specter of 9/11/01. The effect is that now, the book is grounded in that memory of 9/11, but it becomes also about the unseen, and somehow this makes the poem bigger than any fragmentary visions of that day and its aftermath.

Waldman’s opening poem appears to be a prose poem, the entire piece italicized, which for me suggests a voice, either in one’s head or being yelled in defiance of definition. The cumulative effect of the poem is an announcement of self: though it seems to contradict itself at times, its terms at once powerful:

I am the toil of all Jerusalem my eyes are firebrand meteors to light your way…

then dabbling in cliche’:

I am here living the good life the sane life the yuppie housewife life…

I think of Whitman: “Do I contradict myself…then I contradict myself, I contain multitudes.”

Next, the title poem: [Things Seen] Unseen, which is typographically separated by a line. The poem is a Ginsbergian free-verse piece that at times bewilders and then comes clear, momentarily. The ephemerality of the poem’s sense of itself suggests a consideration of the nature of reality. There are, undeniably, things unseen. What then is the relationship between the seen and unseen? What questions arise from that relationship and what answers, if any can be found there?

Again I am reminded of Allen Ginsberg in that Waldman, as Ginsberg usually does, sends me researching the terms of her poems –

snake wrestler
Ofra Haza singing “Galbi”
La Pitture Etrusche di Tarquinia
A Bar At The Folies-Bergere

My footnotes:

Ofra Haza singing Galbi refers to a 1984 song that set a 17th century Arabic poem to music.
La Pitture Etrusche di Tarquinia – Etruscan murals from 8th – 2nd Century B.C.
A Bar At The Folies-Bergere is a painting by Edouard Manet of a girl behind a cafe bar staring directly at the viewer.

From these notes, I glean a setting: the Arab world, its history…then, I am in Paris, and the beautiful girl behind the cafe counter looks at me accusingly, enticingly. I do not know what this all means. The effect is like notes of music that create an emotional tone beyond literal translation.

The poem is also fragmented in terms of its typographical layout. Phrases and ideas scatter and are separated by a physical break in the form of a bold line cut horizontally across the page. Waldman uses this visual break on every page of the book. The effect is an invocation of the title:




This polar relationship, at once contradictory and complementary, invokes the idea of the other. The effect on each page is akin to that of the octave – sestet relationship in the Italian sonnet: the call and response that creates a dialogue of thought and meditation.

This charged energy drives the reader on through Walman’s poem. Each fragmented idea leaps to the next with the reader in search of continuity. As the page is broken by the line, so to is the thought process, and so it must begin again.

Page four begins with the parenthetical “(seen).” A clue to which side we are on? Perhaps the reader can now feel grounded in the physical, the real, the observable. But what follows begs a search for meaning, a salve for a reality that does not ground us well:

the rational
the retinal
the Camps
The Camps & Genocide
2,000 lbs of laser bombs
a white male Chief of Staff smirks
a vice-president dodges his odds

Waldman does not shy from making political statements. These things seen, lead to questions and a search for meaning (redemption?). A bold line drawn across the page is the gate through which the reader passes into the “(unseen).”

it depends what ends you are on
terrorism? or eternalism?
cash deficit
(mortar rounds)

sun & rain of a dead civilization
her debit card
works like a ghost

These metaphysical fragments prompt us to consider the cost and the remains of the “seen.” We search for answers in between, in areas of overlap between seen and unseen experience.

Personally, I found it difficult to unravel [THINGS] SEEN / UNSEEN. Perhaps that is the experience Waldman wants us to have. The questions that arose in reading her work led to meditations, uncomfortable thoughts, feelings of anger and despair, even self-accusation. The work Waldman gives us is like a koan. We are invited to unravel the poem, trace its meanings, draw our own lines and raise our own questions.

This chapbook is free. The experience of reading it is bewildering, powerful, uncomfortable and invigorating. Through her poetry Anne Waldman offers a spiritual exercise. It’s value is somewhere between mantra, spell and prayer. As she says towards the end of her book, “this document keeps the demons at bay.”

Peter Vanderberg served in the US Navy from 1999 – 2003 and received a MFA from Queens College, CUNY. His work has appeared in CURA, LUMINA, The Manhattanville Review and in collaboration with his brother James’ paintings in their book, Weather-Eye. He teaches at St. John’s Preparatory School and Hofstra University.

This Last Time Will Be The First by Jeff Alessandrelli

Screen shot 2014-08-05 at 11.15.22 AMIn his poem entitled “(Father)” Alessandrelli writes:

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These lines offer entrance into this book of poems about identity and place. Alessandrelli’s poems examine identity from multiple perspectives, while also examining the nature and pitfalls of self-awareness as a pursuit. The poems in This Last Time Will Be The First are imaginative, enigmatic and inviting.

The book is organized into four sections, each offering a unique voice and set of images while returning to the central question of identity. The first section, People Are Places Are Places Are People, invokes a series of poetic characters based on actual artists, writers and thinkers. Some of the poem titles take the form of “understanding” a person, as in the first poem, Understanding Marcel Duchamp, in which the speaker, presumably Duchamp, trashes a neighbor’s bicycle, only to discover that he has created something entirely new:

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Throughout this section, Alessandrelli channels the creative impulses of Duchamp by taking historical figures and transforming them into “heretofore incalculable realities.” The non-fictional basis for these personages is a beginning point, but the poems always surprise and reinvent the poetic identity.

Another poem from this first section is entitled, “We Are Told, For Example, That Ralph Waldo Emerson, While He Disapproved of Laughter, Did Occasionally Allow Himself To Smile, But He Did So Only With His Eyes Closed.” −Julian Hawthorne. Yes, that’s all the title. It is a title worthy of analysis and savoring. The reader enters into a story, a lesson on Emerson, a humorous anecdote, a parable even. The poem’s speaker is vague. Does Hawthorne continue? Does Emerson retort? The poem’s speaker suggests that we:

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The reader is invited to let go to a certain extent, to go inside oneself and see what bright revelations wait there.

All of the poems in this section, which comprise approximately half of the collection, begin by either trying to “understand” a person or with a quote by or about a person. This process of making poems raises questions of how identity is created and perpetuated in the first place. The poems intrigue and confuse just enough to invite the reader to participate in the shaping of their meanings.

The second section, Jeffrey Roberts’ Dreamcoats, explores the character of Jeffrey Roberts and while I will not claim that this persona is a poetic version of the author himself, the names are close enough to suggest as much, while many of the poems evokes a confessional feel. From Understanding Jeffrey Roberts:

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So who is the impostor here? Regardless of the question of authenticity in identity, the character of Jeffrey Roberts comes alive through the vivid texture and language of these poems that both speak for and from him. Again, I’m not saying that Jeffrey Roberts IS Jeff Alessandrelli (turns out Robert is Alessandrelli’s middle name! See interview at Vouched Books). I’m just sayin’.

It Is Especially Dangerous To Be Conscious Of Oneself is the third section of the book and it begins with a brief excerpt from The Book of Lieh-tz’u, a classic Taoist text. Again, Alessandrelli’s titles are working overtime. Self-awareness is generally considered to be a good thing, but what if it isn’t? Alessandrelli writes, in his poem (Spring):

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If identity is a created thing, what if we are off track? A classic Taoist axiom states: The way that can be spoken of, is not the true way. Perhaps the self that can be spoken of, is not the true self? In this section Alessandrelli continues to explore questions of identity, but now with a keen sense of imagery that eclipses self-awareness, even warns against it. From (Zombies):

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The speaker says he does not believe that, but the sense is more of desperation not to believe what is suspected to be true. The poem warns against becoming a zombie, against being lost inside your own head. These poems suggest that we forget about ourselves and pay attention to the now, the other, the Here.

The last section of Alessanrelli’s book, You Can’t Discover The Lost Treasure If The Ship Didn’t Sink, is comprised of the single title poem, This Last Time Will Be The First. We’ve come full circle in a sense. I’d like to think we sunk ourselves so that we can find the lost treasure of identity. I like to read into titles though, and Alessandrelli gives such good title. The first lines of the poem read:

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Alessandrelli offers his readers ways to render the world and its inhabitants imperfect so that they can see more clearly. Spend a few days with this book and you’ll see what I mean.

This Last Time Will Be The First is available from Burnside Review

Peter Vanderberg served in the US Navy from 1999 — 2003 and received a MFA in Poetry from CUNY Queens College. His work has appeared in CURA, Assisi and Newtown Literary among other journals and is featured in collaboration with his brother James’ paintings in their book, Weather-Eye (Ghostbird Press, 2011). He teaches at St. John’s Preparatory School and Hofstra University and lives on Long Island with his wife and three children.

Right Now More Than Ever by Nate Pritts

RNTMEI met Nate Pritts at a chapbook festival in NYC several years ago. He was representing H_NGM_N, the small press he created in 2001. We spoke briefly about the poetry of William Heyen, the possibilities of the lyric essay and chapbooks. I remember feeling totally at ease in our conversation. It was honest: no academic fencing, just two people talking about what poetry could be. Since then I’ve been interested in his work, and when the opportunity came to talk about Nate Pritts’ most recent book (he has five previous full-length books and many chapbooks), I couldn’t resist. Like our brief conversation, Right Now More Than Ever is honest, engaging and inspiring.

The title suggests an urgency that charges the entire collection and is repeated as the heading for each of the book’s three section breaks. The primary concern for Pritts here is the ephemerality of existence — the need to know things in their layered presences, and love them, before they’re gone. I was reminded of the “saints and poets” from Wilder’s Our Town: those who “realize life while they live it…every, every minute.” This is a standard poet’s call, to carpe diem, to love life, but in Pritts’ hands, it achieves urgency with a tenderness and luster that makes it real.

In his words, from the longer poem, “Rise Time”:
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Here Pritts invites at least three perspectives: the speaker’s (presumably his own), the friend’s, and the reader’s, who in turn might assume the role of the speaker seeking “deep attention” or the friend that takes in all at once. These multiple perspectives enhance the layered feeling of the poem while inviting the reader to participate in its meaning. Pritts’ juxtaposition of real and abstract elements and his use of fractured lines, takes in everything from toys to planets while making a place for us at his kitchen table.

The images in these poems also extend an invitation. They are clear and accessible while achieving a kind of universality that allows the reader to claim them. From “Locomotive In Autumn”:

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Simple concepts are enflamed by the setting sun as we have all seen our world aflame at the end of the day and wondered at it, more perfect in its passing. Pritts enters the poem as goldenrod, then as a tree trying to stave off the inevitable, or at least hold on to what he can for as long as possible. The language is sincere and affecting; it achieves the quality of late afternoon light.

Pritts best offers and celebrates his world as a layered experience, lived through multiple perspectives at once. These lines from “In Memory of My Feelings”:

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Again, Pritts invites the reader to participate in the poem, hold and breathe the poem along with him, to exist with him “right now more than ever.” Because…

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The poetry in this book drew me in and held me for several todays of reading and thinking. That’s what I want every book of poetry to do — to inspire me to “deep attention,” to make sense of right now in my own way. The book is full of epiphany and rapture and the quiet falling of leaves. Get two copies of this book. Give one to a friend so that when you have both read it you can talk about what you’ve found. As Pritts says in the brilliantly titled “Origami Bird in October Monday Light”:

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This book is one of those things.

Right Now More Than Ever is available from H_NGM_N Books

Peter Vanderberg served in the US Navy from 1999 — 2003 and received a MFA in Poetry from CUNY Queens College. His work has appeared in CURA, Assisi and Newtown Literary among other journals and is featured in collaboration with his brother James’ paintings in their book, Weather-Eye (Ghostbird Press, 2011). He teaches at St. John’s Preparatory School and Hofstra University and lives on Long Island with his wife and three children.