Monday, August 30, 2010

Indexical Elegies -- Jon Paul Fiorentino

I knew I would come to a point in this blog where I couldn’t recommend something, and now I find it hard to do. Of all art forms, it’s hardest to dismiss poetry, unless one dismisses it entirely from the start. But if you are invested in poetry, you always suspect that somewhere, deep down, it’s not that a particular poem is bad, just that you are missing something. This comes, I think, from the experience (often in a classroom) of reading a poem that is initially unappealing, and then watching as a favorite teacher makes the poem unfold into something beautiful, and what was once insignificant suddenly becomes profound. It comes also from writing poems and holding them up for approval, only to have others dismiss them. A friend of mine once had a poem passed over in a student poetry contest because “it had too many big words”, according to the reviewer.

So I applied myself to Jon Paul Fiorentino’s latest work, Indexical Elegies, with the honest intention of finding something moving and special, and I have to admit I didn’t find it. I fully recognize the omnipresent possibility that I “just don’t get it”, but here’s what I looked for and didn’t find:
• Lines that stick in my head
• An organization that intrigues me
• Images that stay with me
• A physical reaction: smiling, my stomach churning, my throat catching
• A demonstration of expert skill

Sorry, Mr. Fiorentino.

Here is a poem I found representative of this collection:

Manage to in syntax
Xerox massage it

Bedsores soothe, bedsitters swoon
Back when X cared about things

Intentions pulped or stapled

So close to sleep
yet so closed

The epiphany changes
whenever the font does

It’s easy to look down on you
from this basement suite
I’m sure it has meaning to him, and I don’t intend to dismiss personal significance. But if it has no meaning to us, too, there is no point in us reading it. As rare as I hope reviews of this type are on this site, this is an example of where it feels a lot of poetry ends up these days (and by “these days”, I mean in the last century): fractured prose of personal significance that doesn’t manage to matter to anyone but the poet.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Clockfire—Jonathan Ball

A spotlight appears onstage to light a large, ornate grand-
father clock. The clock displays the correct time and is in
perfect working order.
     The actors sneak behind the audience and set the theatre
on fire.
This, the title poem of Jonathan Ball’s new collection, is tucked discreetly in the middle, but it is a perfect example of the strange and engaging work that Ball has created. In “Creation”, the lead actress is a Goddess, who creates a world on stage. In “A New History”, a play reenacts an alternate version of Earth, in which life never comes about.

Each poem is a tiny vignette having to do with the theater, and in each a bizarre scenario unfolds: actors repeat everything each audience member has ever said; the audience slowly dissolves; the actors dig a never-ending hole through the stage. Each somehow involves the audience, and blurs the line between theater and reality, actor and audience, possible and impossible. In many vignettes, the actors commit some prank on the audience, though this prank inevitably involves something impossible, fantastic and usually destructive.
The Doppelgängers

Patrons file into the theatre, but before they have a chance
to sit down, they are confronted by their doppelgängers.
     This cannot be.
     Only one from each pair may exit the theatre. The other
must remain, dead or alive, to attend the next performance.
An overriding theme is death and destruction. In one poem, the audience members watch themselves age until dead; in another, they are killed immediately. In another, the rest of the world is destroyed. There seems to be no message or significance here, merely a fascination of Ball’s. If his purpose is to unsettle us from our typical expectations if the theater, then the contemplation of our demise does the trick. The theater, as a concept, is filled with expectations, prescribed roles, social mores and comfort, yet there seems to be a lingering discomfort with peering voyeuristically into the lives of fictional characters or the performance of the actors, and Ball exploits this, and take it to its extremes. The sense of strange and unsettling scenes involving history, literature, acting, the self and doubles, the mind, perception and the cosmos reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges. So does this poem:

A messiah comes. And performs miracles, to prove divinity.
     All the world gathers around the stage to inspect this
new savior.
     But will the audience accept her? Will the audience
accept him? Will the audience accept this, what is now so
clear, so plain to see?
     Crosses are already being built. Fires kindle. Pockets fill
with stones.
The verse style itself deserves comment. I appreciate that Ball writes in prose. It’s not free verse, it’s lyric prose. I always find it a bit pretentious when poets write prose and then chop it up into lines of “verse” with no particular reason for a line break in one place or another. Ball writes in paragraphs because that’s how you write prose; in this he is like Carolyn Forché. I appreciate it. He lets his words and images do the work, without relying on extra “poetification”. One more before I must go. This, too, reminds me of Borges and his mirrors:
The Mirrored Stage

The lights dim. Then come up as the curtain rises to reveal
an empty stage, its back wall a giant mirror. The audience
looks upon its own reflection, enraged. What pompousness!
     Betrayed, they file out. A joke has been played on them,
an artless joke. Some have looked forward to this play all
week. They mutter and complain. The play a failure, a ham-
fisted attempt at profundity. They will warn others and
demand a refund.
     Finally, the theatre is empty. Silence, then an eruption
of applause. Although the audience has left, their reflec-
tions remain. These reflections rise, cheering – delighted,
finally free.

Recommended if you like unpretentious lyrical theatric phantasmagoria.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Porcupinity of the Stars -- Gary Barwin

Gary Barwin is an imagist, and an unapologetic one. An adherent of the “show don’t tell” school, he relies on nothing except image to communicate ideas, thoughts or feelings. The poetry is purely visual, and pretty cerebral, too. Maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t strike a chord emotionally, just intellectually. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It feels a lot like haiku.

What is intriguing about Barwin’s work is the strangeness of the image. Simply the act of picturing some things—for a brief moment imagining them to be true—is effective because of the oddity.

Daddy said
Son you have to make your own dog
if you have none

and I said
I have a fire hydrant
so I can just imagine

The fun of the poem lies in looking at it from all angles. It’s like holding up an unfamiliar kitchen utensil and wondering, “What in the world is this?”

Barwin is confident in his style. His writing is exactly what he intends it to be. The closest he ever gets to an explicit message and opinion is

a poem doesn’t have to have fourteen perfect lines
or else you’re spitting on graves

maybe you’ll slip up and tell a truth
stick your elbow into something

The question, I suppose, is whether the images resonate with you—whether they stick in your mind or get under your skin.

ants gather around the barbecue tongs
gasoline rainbows on the tarmac
a seven-year-old tries to run along the curb
man with the face of a pelican
squeezes out greatness
late in the afternoon
Most poems concern everyday life, but I think Barwin is at his best when he lets the surreal fantasy that pervades his work really manifest into something that disturbs the tranquility. In this he reminds me of Ted Hughes.

don’t do it, I said
choosing a piece of toast
a perfect fried egg

but she unhooked her jaw
and swallowed the sun

now it was really dark
and she stood up from the table
breakfast was over

I couldn’t find my running shoes
or my briefcase and
my dreams were of the moon spitting
as I tried to play chess

my abdomen was a sand dune
shaped by the wind
into the grains of a million
directionless games of beach volleyball

an infinite number of piglets
gnawed on my fingers, which were sprouting
uncomfortably from every orifice
there was no coffee
The line that makes the poem (the excerpt, actually) is “There was no coffee”. What is otherwise mundane gains significance when abutting a domestic Ragnarok.

Poem by poem, we get a slide show of everyday life seen through the prism of strangeness and fantasy. I think the proper way to enjoy Barwin is the same way I would enjoy just such a slideshow: I’d relax, zone out, and let the pictures click by me, one by one, not trying to understand, just looking intently.

Recommended if you like Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Mina Loy, Amy Lowell, the British Martian Poets like Craig Raine, or haiku.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Playing with Words--Christian Bok and John Fuller

I substituted at a middle school a little while ago, and the teacher had left a lesson that involved reading and discussing a poem (it was “The First Book”, by Rita Dove) and then writing a “found poem”, based on words that the students found around the room. I knew that I would have to sell it well for the lesson to have any chance. After we established, with only little confusion and resistance, the poem’s message, I steered the discussion to the poem’s poetic qualities. I tried to emphasize what made the poem a poem, which is hard sometimes when so much that is called “poetry” is simple fancy prose with irregular line breaks. So we talked about image, figurative language and double meanings, and I suggested, as I suggest with every class on the subject, that poetry is essentially playing with language.

(I had had difficulty with a previous definition that had confounded a class of sophomores, that poetry “is words doing more that just meaning what they mean.” Try as they might some students couldn’t repeat that sentence back to me. One was convinced that I had said that poetry “doesn’t mean anything”.)

When it came time for the assignment to write a “found poem”, I anticipated some resistance. They would certainly ask why they couldn’t just write about anything they wanted. So I told them about Christian Bök, and I reminded them about “playing with language”. Christian Bök wrote the book Eunoia, in which each of five chapters uses only one vowel, each in turn. The first page goes thus:

Awkward grammar appalls a craftsman. A Dada bard
as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls an
alpha (a splapdash arc and a backward zag) that mars
all stanzas and jams all ballads (what a scandal). A
madcap vandal crafts a small black ankh — a hand-
stamp that can stamp a wax pad and at last plant a
mark that sparks an ars magna (an abstract art that
charts a phrasal anagram). A pagan skald chants a dark
saga (a Mahabharata), as a papal cabal blackballs all
annals and tracts, all dramas and psalms: Kant and
Kafka, Marx and Marat. A law as harsh as a fatwa bans
all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark.
In addition to that constraint, Bök requires that each chapter must refer to writing, a banquet, a “prurient debauch”, a “pastoral tableau”, and a “nautical voyage”. Each must “accent internal rhyme through the use of syntactical parallelism”, exhaust as much of the available lexicon as possible with minimal repetition, and avoid the letter y.  To top it off, the E chapter is a retelling of the Illiad.

The effect is fascinating. Far from limiting interest, Bök’s syntactic limits heighten our fascination. We wonder how he will pull it off, and what the result will be. Furthermore, Bök does not ignore the importance of sound. Although he does indeed accent internal rhyme, the fact of the vowels themselves creates a distinct articulatory mood in each chapter. One would never think that somehow the letter u was so linked to the letter s in the English language, but try reading this out loud. The combination creates a phonetic pattern that reminds me somehow of a washing machine:

Kultur spurns Ubu – thus Ubu pulls stunts. Ubu shuns
Skulptur: Uruk urns (plus busts), Zulu jugs (plus
tusks). Ubu sculpts junk für Kunst und Glück. Ubu
busks. Ubu drums drums, plus Ubu strums cruths
(such hubbub, such ruckus): thump, thump; thrum,
thrum. Ubu puns puns. Ubu blurts untruth: much
bunkum (plus bull), much humbug (plus bunk) – but
trustful schmucks trust such untruthful stuff; thus
Ubu (cult guru) must bluff dumbstruck numbskulls
(such chumps). Ubu mulcts surplus funds (trust
funds plus slush funds). Ubu usurps much usufruct.
Ubu sums up lump sums. Ubu trumps dumb luck.
So, back to the middle school class. I asked who liked to do puzzles, and got a few hands. Some mentioned sudoku or crossword puzzles. I told them that what they were about to do was much the same thing, and much the same as Christian Bök had done: they were going to try to solve a puzzle and write a poem. They were going to play with words.

They had five minutes to look around the room and write down any word they saw. I encouraged them to plan ahead, and consider what words might be useful. After that, they were limited to what they had written down (after the time expired, a few students who had been watching their peers run around the classroom and write down words found themselves in a bind because they “didn’t realize that they were supposed to write down words”; this was middle school, after all). Once seated, many found that they couldn’t write a “poem” with the words they had. It turned out that they were defining a poem as “something about how you feel, or about love or something.” I encouraged them to remember the sole criterion: playing with language. In the end, few students got beyond a sentence. One came up with something quite interesting, because she hadn’t bound herself, as most had for some reason, to using each word only once. The repetition and inversion she employed was actually pretty novel and engaging. One small boy was very excited to read his poem to me—a freestyle rap the length of the page. He was disappointed to find out that that wasn’t what he was actually supposed to be writing, but hey, at least he was writing.

The innovation of new restrictions purely for their own sake, or if you would rather, for the sake of pushing poetic innovation to its limits, intrigues me. Writing in a form often feels much like doing a sudoku puzzle or a crossword, and is satisfying for the same reason, with the added result of—hopefully—a new image, phrase or idea that never would have been arrived at without the self-imposed restriction. I sometimes wonder what extremes could be attempted, like alpinists who having heard of a climber summiting Mt. Everest without oxygen bottles, feels the need to do the same backwards on a pogo stick. What if you wrote a poem using only adjectives? Or a sonnet in which each line could only have a specific number of words? Or a poem in which reduced its available letters by one every line? Or all of the above.

John Fuller did something interesting along these lines. In response to a contest to write a poem using only three-letter words, Fuller decided to also write only in lines of three words and stanzas of three lines. Here is the result:

“The Kiss”

Who are you
You who may
Die one day?

Who saw the
Fat bee and
The owl fly

And the sad
Ivy put out
One sly arm?

Not the eye
Nor the ear
Can say Yes:

One eye has
Its lid and
Can get shy;

One ear can
Run out and
Off the map.

One eye can
Aim too low
And not hit;

One ear can
Hug the air,
Get too hot.

But lip and
Red lip are
Two and two,

His lip and
Her lip mix
And are wed,

Lip and lip
Can now say:
“You may die

But not yet.
Yes you die
But not yet.”

The old lie.
Critic Jonathan Barker calls it a “metric invention in search of a subject”. Poet James Fenton calls it “extremely beautiful”. I would simply like to insist that a beautiful metric invention is in no way an oxymoron. And what do you know—Fuller’s poem is even “about love or something”, as the middle schoolers would have it.

Note: John Fullers Collect Works from Chatto and Windus is not available from Amazon.  I found "The Kiss" in this book by James Fenton.