by Matthew Schmidt
Possibilities. It bemuses me to consider the many and varied. It seems there are umpteen doors to open immediately upon entrance into Kristi Maxwell’s fourth poetry collection, That Our Eyes Be Rigged. As readers we’ll all begin in/at the same place; so let us consider the first stanza from “In Which We Ask, Exist”:
Light chews on the patio
a jawbone of light invents a countenance
to settle its valley, to climb scalp-ward
a jawbone of light exposes the whole
juts out over some poor domain
some poor dark domain
I’ve taken a bar into my thought
barred my better thoughts
thought better of
doing that one thing
I’m rather disoriented, unsure where I am or where the poem is (and/or taking place). Usually I would consider this an issue, but don’t feel an overwhelming need to know specifics or see images here. Mainly—because there are multiple parts of the poem to latch onto—it provides enough interest for reader participation. We’re given a super-fantastic line concerning light gnawing concrete. Then, a semi-retraction, though not really. Following, a subtle shift to a half-question, “or could / a jawbone of light” (chew on the patio), half-creation “a jawbone of light invents a countenance.” So, now the jawbone of light is able to create a space for itself in a place (and it may or may not have masticated man-made materials to do so). We’re still contemplating light on a patio at the end of the first stanza, though it seems that the light (which the speaker is contemplating) climbs the speaker’s face. In essence, there is the face of light and the speaker’s face, like dueling Pac-Man creatures, jawing at one another. Of course, this is only my reading, and as I’ve stated there appear to be other avenues of access.
The first stanza is provided as proof to support the following statement: in this collection Maxwell articulates several meanings, imaginings, alternate takes, and restructuring through diction replacement and an admixture of syntactical arrangements. Simply look at the light in the opening stanza: does the light eventually and naturally morph into the speaker’s thought so that it is both physical and mental? Whether I’m the only reader to ‘see’ this in the poem matters less than the fact that there is an evident attempt to carefully place or replace words to mean differently or slightly different. A variation of “thought” appears in four consecutive lines while meaning something different than previously or more precisely re-stated to capture the speaker’s observations/thoughts.
While the above is more of a critical/theoretical approach to Maxwell’s poetry, I feel it’s important to confront the reality of the work to become excited about the work. Sure, I may have read too deeply into the first stanza, yet a simple formula allows an exchange of ideas and definitions through the speaker to the reader. As if watching a person meditate on how to connect with a fellow human through communication, a reader may assess the thought process of the speaker, literally map the synapses firing in their brain.
Throughout the book multiple forms are implemented into the experiment of word/meaning transformation. Maxwell uses long lines, center blocks, mid-line slashes, extra white space, sometimes confusing capitalization and punctuation rules, extended-page poems, and sound.
A prime example from “Post”:
What isn’t ensued by viewing and proven
after. Water muscled by waves
caught in the tide muzzle. This intended restraint
our tending is the refrain for. Swoosh
that drug-busts muteness again.
Speak it aloud. Do you hear the careful assonance and consonance? Sometimes there are direct rhymes, but more often there is a combination of slant rhyme/pun/homonym/repeated word (section) that develops as a poem moves along. “Intended” becomes “tending,” “muscle” bites into “muzzle,” and the “refrain” is “restraint.” That is, it isn’t just sounds/words that move the poems, but that at times these are the major transportive vessels.
A portion of “Plaisir/Minus (+/-)”:
discarded roll toilet paper scrolled to
empty. Though this was empty. Little
concussions of the heart that resulted in— not
loss, not the golden floss memory shows off
Taken from a center-blocked portion of the poem, this section showcases the syntactical acrobatics employed. “Roll” is shifted from it’s usual position behind “paper” to before “toilet” in order that the rhyme is not too close to “scrolled.” Short of grammatically breaking-down the sentences, let’s content ourselves with recognizing the rhyme of “loss” and “off.” Or even the fact that before a rhyming word loses a letter another rhyming word (“floss”) gains a letter while keeping the -loss. When we arrive at “off” the l has dispersed and the esses have risen to the attention of f’s. A veritable magic act to add/subtract letters and keep the rhyme.
It seems to me the focus of the book is centered around how human eyes see and interpret data. We’re trained to stereotype in order to deal with the onslaught of information that is daily life. However, it is necessary to pay close attention to even the smallest things that we may understand and through understanding join/harmonize/get along with. Maxwell challenges us to view the world from more than one angle, as having more than one possible outcome/meaning. Instead, she champions the idiosyncratic lay-person. We all have our quirks and ways of doing and seeing and being. In “To Exercise This Astonishment,” Maxwell says
I have photographed my birthmark from five angles to submit, and I watch to
see my submission scrutinized with care.
Or later, one of my favorite metamorphoses occurs in one of five poems entitled “Every Time I Want To Write You, I’m Going To Write A Line Instead:,” where words turn to fighting before worth is found (I’d cite it, but I’d want to cite almost the entire poem). Thus, if you’re looking for a book of poems with an edge to its ideology, this should be on your radar.
Buy it from Saturnalia Books: $15
Matthew Schmidt studies English at The Center for Writers, The University of Southern Mississippi.
by Katherine Faigen
On the back of Laurie Saurborn Young’s Industry of Brief Distraction, H.L. Hix compares the book to Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much with Us.” Barbara Ras calls it “Madly inventive and wildly original.” Carrie Fountain says the poems are “Sometimes brutal, always stunning” and “very often funny.”
Before reviewing, I admit that I might not be this book’s best reader. In my effort to assemble meaning, I found myself struggling to tune my ear to Young’s use of image and language.
Industry of Brief Distraction takes poems from Young’s chapbook, Patriot, and intersperses them within a series of “Industry” poems and other politically themed, mostly lyric works. The book’s cover – a black and white photograph of a veiled, but otherwise nude woman set against a colorful highway photo – alerts readers to collage within the poems themselves. Throughout her poems, Young references photographs, films, current events, and popular song lyrics. She often writes in a sequence of unexpected subjects and image shifts.
In “Talking to My Hat” Young begins with, “What could happen if clouds/ undressed themselves at night instead of knocking on our door…” and leaps to, “My dog is blind and most/ stars are as well, so we can get/away with anything.”
Many poems in her Patriot series contain the line “This is America” and exist mostly as juxtaposition of declarations and definitions:
Mastiff eating 2x4s, as a child unafraid I pet you.
The marriage is in the house, he said.
Yet somewhere she is eighteen…
Here, on page thirty-two’s “Patriot,” ideas slip through a changing lineup of subjects and foci. Young moves her reader through medical dictionaries, Wyoming farmland, Ridley Scott films, El Paso, and snippets from Gertrude Stein. At one point in the poem, the speaker, self-aware, asks, “Where is it we are?”
Before reading the book a second time, I revisited Robert Bly’s essay “Looking for Dragon Smoke” where he discusses the poetic leap as “a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again” (1). He connects leaping in epic poems to “Great Mother” mysteries and discusses contemporary poetic leaps as having evolved into an increase of “speed of association” (6).
Reading Industry of Brief Distraction this way, Young’s “Great Mother” is America. By investigating her leaps of association, we find Young’s America to be an unfailingly bleak place, characterized variously throughout the collection in lines such as:
“Line of Thunderstorms on the weather map.”
“Forever men taking a break with grease
Under their nails.”
“Emergency room nurses debating
Glocks versus 22s while my husband cannot
“Guessing a medical term for meaningless”
“Someone always in the process of taking over
With orange beak angled wide…”
“Collarbone broken & then I am pushed
Hard off the boat.”
“Whose child sank in the muddy pond.”
“Missile seeking the same” and “domesticated wolf just along for the ride.”
“Paternal riots,” “Hooves of starving horses.”
There are a few moments of levity interspersed, but an overwhelming cheerlessness weighs heavy throughout these poems. It is often difficult to understand the structure of darkness without seeing it against a light, and comprehending the bigger picture of Young’s intentionally fragmented definitions poses a similar challenge. As Young examines America’s wastefulness, hypocrisies, and mistreatment of its citizens, American becomes a vision of hopelessness.
Young’s diction, too, is intentionally erratic. In “Upon Learning of the World Everlasting” we move between colloquial speech – “Dogs don’t feel this guilty” – and archaic language – “They falleth apart in great haste” “yea verily we cannot contain our celebration.” Throughout her poems, language becomes something unexpected and puzzling. In “Modern Political Thought” such, we encounter such thoughts as “Does not taste the heart chakra’s grass-green” and “Does not know flight is our foot mantra.” In “Collage of my Best Intentions” Young bestows action, taste, and sight to something intangible when her speaker “Paint[s] the air over my eyes/ salt and azure.” In “Abortion” she replaces an abstract concept – “linear blessing” – with a series of seemingly unconnected but concrete visuals: “pink paper umbrella,” “tanked Lobsters” and a “friend who stops calling.”
While I can appreciate the presence of mystery in a poem, for me, the most affecting moments were those in which the image and intention seemed clear. Moving away from the political, Young’s other poems contain a self-defeating and lonely speaker. In “Primary Industries” we are pulled a bit closer to someone who introduces us her great grandparents. She locates us firmly “In the bath” where she recites “…Longfellow’s /Lost youth” and ignores “the new world for this.” At the end of the poem, when “…cicadas / pull of blistered shells & ride out” we can understand their ability to part from their past and the speaker’s inability to part from hers.
Saturnalia Books (2015): $15.00 paperback
Robert Bly’s essay “Looking for Dragon Smoke” can be found in his book Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translation, available from the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Katherine Faigen lives near Boston where she writes, coaches rowing, and teaches at Emerson and Babson Colleges.
by Heather Brown
Jay Nebel’s Neighbors turns everyday moments into epic adventures, and every backyard haunt is holy.
In a poem called “Altruism,” Molly Peacock asks what would happen if we “got outside ourselves,” to understand the existences of others, beyond a vague awareness like we might have of our neighbors’ yards, through the waves of heat emanating from our own patio grills. Jay Nebel’s debut collection of poems, out now from Saturnalia and chosen by Gerald Stern for the 2015 Saturnalia Prize, turns its lens on just those other existences, the ones that surround us daily, unnoticed and fragile, yet indispensible to our understanding of ourselves. His poems are peopled with mothers, sons, lovers, and neighbors, those who—because they live closest to us—we often see only in the periphery. Jay’s poems also grapple with the past from the vantage point of an ongoing survivor; of adolescence, of addiction, of love, of marriage, and of parenthood. His poetic sensibilities are steeped in the contemporary American literary traditions of Denis Johnson, Richard Hugo, Joseph Millar, and Frank Stanford. When I read Jay’s poems, I sense their danger, and I sense myself staring it boldly in the face with the courage it takes to look outward, to look beyond. I sense the poet’s voice casting itself backward, through the decades of his own life and the centuries of human existence, turning mundane moments into epic adventures and stumbling, daily encounters– both with others and with other, alien selves–into holy pilgrimages toward redemption.
In “Queen Anne’s Revenge” Jay addresses both the epic courage and the epic vulnerability it takes to be a parent, specifically a father:
I’m dying with eighteen holes in my chest.
I’m watching, one open eye to the ground,
as my son rips free
from my arms, teeth bared, the breeze lifting
his thin black hair, the ghost mast
wavering above, the Queen Anne gone,
only this ship now, a rusty steering wheel
with snot and apple juice stuck to it,
and packs of four and five-year-old pirates
pouring over us, their gangly arms tangled in the chain rigging,
exploding from the red play structure
with fists full of bark dust.
For further perusal, I recommend “Monk’s Prayer”:
let me ask/what has conjured this book
of shadows, or this city covered
and uncovered daily,
this dream of ashes I wake to
each day, holding a life
under my knuckles?
or “Science Fiction and Fantasy”:
Then I stripped down to my boxers on acid
and snuck into the Grant High School pool
and became another creature entirely
after I entered the water, horned and pearly,
throat gilled like multiple stab wounds. Stories of seeing Jack Gilbert read, who looked exhausted
in his oversized wool sweater, cheap
blue raincoat and thin white beard,
standing before his audience
like a crumbling masterpiece
from the Renaissance
or poetic explorations of Robert Frank’s photo-essay The Americans:
The road bends through the land, worn and frayed
as a pant cuff torn by a dog,
stretches between the luncheonette and backyard,
between the end of the rodeo
and the funeral for New York,
between the public park and the bar.
It’s not coincidental that Jay’s burgeoning Instagram feed (@innerweather) turns the same lens upon the natural and built worlds of his day-to-day life. Jay works on the road, delivering juice from a refrigerated truck, and in recent weeks and months of documenting his daily routes has expressed a visual sensibility that juxtaposes the sublime and the horrific, the brilliant and the base, in unforgettable contrast and heartbreaking relief. His photos, like his poems, often bring the impression of collage, alongside the stunning realization that they are in fact cohesive and naturally-occurring scenes. Whatever the medium, Jay records what he sees, in frames and from angles that we wouldn’t see unless he showed us. Often his poems begin by feeling jumbled or directionless, only to fall into fearless focus at just the right moment. Gerald Stern says of the book that he loves “both the clarity and the abandonment to mystery that occurs. . . it moves from the literal to the figurative to God knows where easily and seamlessly.” Often as a poem begins, I’m not at first sure what I am looking at, but once recognition sets in, it leaves its indelible mark. Not coincidentally, the last sentence of the poem “An Inner Weather” by Denis Johnson in the book of the same name (Graywolf, 1976) holds more clues to the indelible marks left on Jay by poetry:
The snow descends in a sparkling light but many are blind,
walking out without jackets as if into the sun,
and they would not say anything of the snow,
but would say only this
of the weather, that something falling burns on them.
In the spirit of Peacock’s “Altruism,” these are poems that have endured an endless walk through the self, in the end, not giving, but coming to know/someone is there through the wavy vision/of the self’s heat, love become a decision. Neighbors brings a wondering poet’s eye to all these fires. The backyard grills, the something falling that burns; pixels, as we see them now, or light burned onto slices of silver halide, like in the old days. We are the ones the poet is seeking on the other side, in the “outside out there,” and in all—including himself—that he has found to love.
Available from Saturnalia: $15
Heather Brown lives in Portland, OR where she moved after graduating from Oregon State University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. She’s been a high school English teacher, and now she writes poems, reviews manuscripts, works part-time at Powell’s, and helps to develop instructional and promotional materials for the Portland-based press, YesYes Books. She also manages social media for the Vinyl Poetry Journal (periodical arm of YesYes Books) and for Tavern Books, a nonprofit poetry press specializing in revivals and reprints of works in translation.