July 22, 2008

Motioning: the true keeps calm biding its story

the true keeps calm biding its story
Ahsahta Press, $17.50
ISBN 13-978-0-916272-98-288


hereafter I will apply rules and avoid content stop
(Morrison 15)[1]

To say that Morrison emphasizes the end of her line would be an understatement; depending on how you look at it, Morrison writes the end of each line twice, with two different words, or she writes the end of only three total lines, or she writes the end of absolutely zero lines. Familiarity with Morrison’s form in the true keeps calm biding its story is recommended to proceed through this review; though, even for those familiar with the text, a reiteration of Morrison’s “rules” is important for us to begin. Let’s start with the numbers.

counting is more a stance than an observation please

Each person I have read on Morrison’s poem[2] is quick to point out some of the most prescriptive ways Morrison numbers. For example, each page of the book contains in the upper left-hand corner (just about where you would expect a title, but a little more sunken) the words:

please advise stop[3]

Each line of each poem is right-justified; there are uniformly three lines per stanza and three stanzas per page. Every line in the poem ends with one of the three words in the mantra “please advise stop.” To push the math of all this a step further, consider factoring and powers: lines multiplied by stanzas = a perfect square, three is round, too, right etc.[5] Morrison’s “stance” remains in conflict with the rigidity of its own “rules”: the text grows, generates and self-generates through the repetition of a kind of shape-of-an-idea[6] creating a kind of eerie singularity of gesture that illustrates a repeatable motion in a fundamentally unquantifiable manner:[7]

an unexpected foreshortening of perception is also called revelation stop

The unquantifiable nature of Morrison’s line is created when her desire for each line to reach out to infinity is “foreshorten[ed]” by end words. Unquantifiability becomes echoed in the repeated gesture of creating an image that implies an infinity and ends:

outlines are the limit of each letter which otherwise might reach out to infinity stop

The end of the infinite, or the poetic line, allows us to comprehend a brief meaning, a kind of suggestion of an idea, the beginning of something that could be widely applied throughout the text[8] to lines twenty pages later, the vary same gesture repeated and magnified by its repetition:

my repetitive gesture will eventually wear through its surrounding world please

infinity, singularity, motion and meaning:

how to measure my meaning with lamps and not clocks please

Both Peter Gizzi, judge of 2007 Sawtooth Prize, of which the true keeps calm biding its story was the winner, and Susan Howe cannot resist using the word “infinite” in their endorsements of Morrison’s book. Gizzi, suggests Morrison: “launches line after line toward a potentially infinite horizon of meaning,” while Howe points to the fact “that ‘stop’ can be rendered infinitely open” as a testament to the “striking singularity” of Morrison’s “measure of order.” I want to suggest Morrison seeks nothing less than a re-ordering of the universe into a singular motion; language in this case is only along for the ride, for the motion. Motion is brought to our attention perhaps first by her choice of the common telegraphic endings (“please,” “advise,” and stop”) which conclude each right-justified line of the poem. Motion is pulled through each line, halted, and asked to continue through the same motion again in the next line.

Motion, represented both by the language of her lines (consistent diction, meter recurring and resonating imagery) and their form (numerically potent yet arbitrary), functions for Morrison as prime example of how we think, deal with memory and loss, and construct meaning in our lives. The order Morrison creates is not a “launch toward” meaning and it is not “open,” though. There is incredible focus here, a focus that a reader feels instantly; and, it has a very prescribed meaning: how do we comprehend movement? How is it like cognition? How does memory move? How does loss move? How, most importantly, are all of these movements similar? How are they metaphors for one another? Are all of our movements contained within a pre-existing metaphor, one we starting writing and moving through a very long time ago?

the true keeps calm biding its story communicates this within its own language—a language composed of the placeholders, where meaning is only inserted through the repetitive motion, the shape-of-an-idea. To proceed by looking at specific pages as though they were themselves singular poems, would be impossible and reductive to the project in which every line adds to a singular motion. Consider how this review could proceed by drawing conclusions based on the smattering of lines which in the course of writing this essay I have loosely organized in a file on my computer entitled: “on the repetition of the same motion slowly making an opening for meaning”:

with each perfected dexterity I thin the surface that carries me stop

the accumulation of stains on a surface becomes a site of burials stop

fingers will intuitively test the patches where cognizance is thinnest stop

I add brushstrokes to my vision to thicken their surface courage stop

more fragile concealments merely group around a new emphasis for cover stop

fingertips worrying right through their cotton gloves stop

Some aspects of the motion that Morrison writes about come clear in the accumulation of these lines, which are dispersed throughout the entire poem as their pages numbers note. First, in the idea of something “wear[ing] through,” “thin[ning] the surface,” and “worrying right through.” The motion of Morrison’s lines is shrouded though not concealed by the material world; they create the shape of an idea through their motion. We also learn from the above lines that the surface can only be broken through “accumulation,” “emphasis,” and “perfected dexterity.” There are important implications here for what it means to even read Morrison’s poem. If I read the entire poem, am I reading it to understand one line, one thing, one shape-of-an-idea?

I want to suggest that the language of Morrison’s poem only provides a context (in the most physical sense) for a motion. Everything that Morrison writes is an effort to communicate through the “rules” of the poem because they are in fundamental conflict with the infinite motion (or the meaning) of each line. It is only by writing through this motion, against the rules, that she creates the poem.

on the possibility of the bigger statement:

even incoherent babbling is usually phonetically accurate please advise
If we are talking motion and meaning and saying that it is all just an allegory to a bigger statement, what could that statement possibly be?

wind is winter’s reflection among the branches stop

true likenesses are never planned stop

though magnifications may be choreographed please

Morrison’s lines predominantly take the form of aphorism, as Morrison notes explicitly at least this once, “within the costume of aphorism a thought flees extinction stop” (61). Meaning fleeing extinction. One important point on the “horizon of meaning” Morrison remains in constant communication with is her own writing, the poem itself, and the process of creating a poem in the form that she creates it; this process, as meaning flees extinction, upholds absolutely no hierarchy between lines, between lines and entire pages, between pages and sections, or between possible subject matters. This is a poem that pushes forward with a single stroke, but is that stroke empty?

I throw a stone in the air as if every motion were his motion come back to me stop

point at which I actually say what I think the bigger statement is:

stammered out the sentence till it completely surrounded the singular clarity stop

For Morrison, meaning is brief, it exhibits a momentary opening—everything might rush in and join with everything else in single meaning, or else it might disperse:

there are thoughts he must have entered though they were only half-open stop

Each line needs to come on the heels of another line, to prop it up and to make it disappear. They need to “stop” and they need to be interrupted, but they also need to rush forward into the next line without delay:

how to tell what must be kept and what must be kept provisional please advise

This necessity both builds and tears down meaning, but that is not as important about the poem’s anxiety over the terminal nature of the poetic line:

a silence from which I am excluded can teach me only exclusion’s precision stop

It is not as though we finally must rest somewhere between meaning and not meaning. We do not have to settle. Rather, not only do we push forward, but the meanings of individual lines in poetry always either become secondary to “the bigger statement” or else they become the metonymy for the bigger statement. For example, remembering or quoting a poem for one or a few of its lines to discuss it.Morrison is concerned with the state of the poetic line and the process of reading poetry and making meaning. What constitutes the shape of a statement? For Morrison, by communicating through the shape-of-an-idea about this predicament, she illustrates it (the predicament) to its fullest extent:

brush away the interviewing but keep the intervening light please

Of course, “what must be kept” is the motion of the poem, the resonant images, the sound; “what must be kept provisional,” is reading (as in a reading, singular, or reading in general, the place of words and language in constructing meaning in poetry, et al.) and the extra-explicit danger involved in constructing meaning. So how can we illustrate the meaning of this motion, how it works on us, how it functions—the poem must be doing something, affecting me in some way?The issue becomes not what—because we do learn that we are talking here about the motion of anything and everything in the universe—but how? What does it look like? This is a whole new layer of concern:

featureless is the vault in which I want to hide myself undetected stop

So if the vault itself is a form and motion is underneath, than what of the “featureless” form of which the motion in question is most akin to a hand inside this featureless vault not unlike that of a hand in a puppet? In short, what are you reading when you read Morrison’s poem?

even shapelessness is itself a separate thing but faltering I stare it down to fact stop

Is the assumption then that we will feel discontented, that we do feel discontented by the way that this works, to the point where we will consider the word “vault” in its most concrete terms, that we consider the word “fact” beyond its presence in this line of text inside of this poem, when all we are being asked to do is consider it for just his moment?

fill a page with words never letting a single phrase form stop

Do I truly have to have this thought in a phrase, for example? What am I being asked to do when I read a poem?

in every difference a muffled babbled never predictable of predictive stop

Consider, for one moment, the futility of trying to discuss what the accumulated effect of the above lines are in terms of what they say or they say about the poem. the task at hand (new language within language elucidating the shape of thought within that language—finally, that may be my best articulation of the project)—it would be like trying to discuss the attainment of pure bliss, of movement that is still in motion, that is still becoming.there is this entire other thing that someone could focus on:

my father’s dying offered an indelicate washing of my perception stop

the true keeps calm biding its story does contain a father, perhaps the most (only?) corporeal presence in the book. You could (and you are allowed) to read this whole poem and only take periphery note of the father, the father’s death, and the close resemblance the form of his passing has to the other motions articulated:

staring into the dark like digging a grave for an already existing grave stop

In a very revelatory way, Morrison’s motion could be looked at as the move from life into death, or the stasis of death in life, of the interruption of the thought or presence of death in our everyday lives. At the same time, that thought is as fleeting as all the rest:

with only the slightest effort I might abandon every father stop

And then there are moments when a certain reading is begged, but we no doubt get the sense it (the reading, if we were to proceed with it) would be too simple:

my father’s dying makes stairs of every line of text seeming neither to go up or down

That is part of the of Morrison’s poem. The motion explored in the wake of the father’s death (because it affords a reader the opportunity to read the book in terms of the death) is by no means enforced by its presence in the text. His presence, like our presence on earth or the presence of anything in the poetic line, is not only too quick in its passing, but it is too quick to be absorbed in the expression of its passing in language when it is circumscribed to the poetic line:

there was no moment of his death to see until it had already passed stop

Morrison accomplishes this by showing the motions of memory, grief, linoleum tiles, of course birds, and also each item in the universe subscribes to the exact same rhythm. They are all contained within the same language and the same motion. The father, if you like:
here I place father as if the word could mend itself stop

There is no dominant subject. There is no necessary reading:

gauging the weight of each inherited object ignoring the object itself stop

application of the bigger statement to the kites and thereby the world immediately outside the world of the poem:

a correct word would steady more than itself like a banister please

The moments when a reader might pause, make a note, bask in an image, are completely unplanned, rely on separate but equal probabilities, and are the delight of its (the poem’s) design. The lines below, spread (“a stain spreads under table linen and avoids being caught stop” (29)) over the entire book, present the opportunity to read the book in terms of kites, kite strings, and the inevitability that all kites stop, please advise:

the water puddle sways like an earthbound kite stop

any edge can be sharpened to rip through the sky’s cellophane stop

a sudden wind against my forehead has forever changed my shape stop

the quiet pulls an empty swing until it seems to move stop

The kite and its string and the place of those two things together in the world are indeed a viable opportunity exercised here, in the arrangement of these lines, to an example of their own fullness. The kite as text. The line as loose string. The reader as a pulling in.

the possibility of narrative progress in a world of kites:

to inhabit an absence takes great balance stop

I can say that we grow closer to or experience certain images, themes, and discourses more as I read from beginning to end; though, the fundamental composition of the line, how meaning is created through the shape of the line, and how the meaning of the world is the meaning of the shape of the line, remains the same. Is this always our predicament in poetry?

In writing this review, I have two hopes. One, to approach an apprehension of the motion Morrison produces; two, to recommend the true keeps calm biding its story to anyone and everyone concerned or even slightly interested in what is happening with the line. If you try to talk for a moment about the poetic project of the true keeps calm biding its story you come quickly around (and I have had this conversation with a few people) to discussing again the specific lines and how they work, their balance, their structural integrity and how that points to a gaping hole where meaning (dangerous, ultimately misleading, tile grout) can and will enter. The tiny window of opportunity that each line provides, that is what the numbers, the father, the repeated images and objects ultimately lead to is a motion: the opening for the final statement that when stated is the opening for the final statement.

by Thomas Cook
[1] Hereafter, unless noted otherwise, all parenthetical citations refer to page numbers in Morrison’s book the true keeps calm biding its story
[2] Hereafter, Morrison’s book, or as some have called it, her “collection” of poetry is referred to as her poem, implying it should be read as a book-length poem in either 54 page or 486 lines parts.
[3] In the table of contents, each poem is titled by it’s opening three words: “I add brushstrokes…” and “I throw a stone into the air…” for example. This demarcation in the contents, combined with the presence of the three looming (again, “sunken,” and in a larger type size, I forgot to mention) end words combined in a kind of impossible statement (the words never actually appear syntagmatically like that in the poem) really do complicate the idea of titling, and marked beginnings in general in a way that is, how should I say, central to the kind of bigger true of the poem.
[5] I also like the idea of probabilities with this poem as well: what is the probability of each word in the mantra: “please advise stop” appearing as an end word?
[6] I say “shape-of-an-idea” and not “idea” because the “idea” of an “idea” or the “shape-of-an-idea,” singular, a particular idea, not a universal, is Morrison’s constant gesture or biding.
[8] The very boring idea that each of these lines is in some way a “signifier” of a larger (and relatively unknown) “signified” line (like the title) seems, well, to go only about that far. The notion of the arbitrary sign (end words, etc.) of course haunts the text and creates an atmosphere of complete pliability, where the menaing of any word stabilizes and as quickly unstabilizes in the space of each line. Word. draft 8:56

June 19, 2008

Review: The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine

The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine
Penguin, $18

In the current climate of disingenuous government policies and deceptive politics it’s difficult for any American citizen not to be cynical. And the role of the artist in this troubled environment is to play back the absurdity of the times. Perhaps someone will listen. This is a precarious position, but Mark Yakich soldiers on undeterred in his second book of poems whose choice weapons are intelligent wit and mischievous humor.

From the start, in the poem “Tourist Beware,” the speaker calls to task his own mission, pointing out the futility of the act of writing:

Humorous poetry is published exclusively

One month of the year when everybody is

On summer vacation. More than poetry,

Vacation is protest.
Yet, “sometimes the subject matter is hard to pass up,” the speaker admits in “Holy Sonnet”:
Take Jesus. He was a very secure artist.
He didn’t doubt his talent. He never talked

About it because it was like having blue eyes.
The impulse is more passionately articulated in the post-911 poem “September 12”:
...We didn’t
Intend to provoke a lot of bad feelings in

Its reader. We weren’t even thinking about

War or fear or safety of courage. We know

That you can get those things elsewhere,

That in other arts, say, at the movies,

You can be moved to small tears or that,

Say, at the symphony you can fall

Asleep gently and unnoticed. After all, what’s

A little book of poems going to do

For you?
Indeed, this “little book” does plenty, subverting the reader’s expectations from the poems titled “Patriot Acts” and “New Pathways to Peace in the Middle East” with language that is no less nonsensical, illogical and strange as the one spoken by the national and international leaders. Thus, no figurehead is spared the irreverent axe that Yakich wields. From the spell to locate Osama Bin Laden, to Fidel Castro’s letter to Dear Abby, to the poem “Oedipus” dedicated to John F. Kennedy, Jr., everyone’s getting cut and reshuffled: “Don’t worry, we’ll let you fuck the heroes when we’re done with them.”

The range of Yakich’s reach is surprising, covering a vast range of emotion. Of note is the long poem in response to Hurricane Katrina, “Green Zone New Orleans,” which concludes with the haunting lines:

For once upon a time,
Time. As is is,

Take refuse.
And not far behind are Yakich’s sexual puns like “nothing/ Beats a penis like personal/ Experience” and the poem “Bow Job,” about the speaker’s adoration of the word “defenestration.” Other poems with as much tickle are not so suggestive but inventive, like the poems “I’ll Take ‘Notable Artists of 20th Century in Couplets, Please, Alex” (the answers in the form of questions—as per the format on Jeopardy!—are provided at the end of the poem) and “The Supercomputer Finally Answers Charles Manson” (which is done in computer-speak).

The title of the book suggests that potato-peeling in Ukraine will play a central role in the book (though the poem “A Brief History of Patriotism” traces the potato’s journey through the ages), both the tuber and the country remain out of limelight. This is by design since in “Proof Text,” the second poem in the collection, the speaker let’s the reader know: “The actual lives that are lived in atrocious times and distant places can never be told—out of fear that they will be either too beautiful or too true.”

Not much is done subtly or quietly or without the battery-shock of the tongue in The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine. But then again, this is the era of reality TV, peace missions, War on Terror, and other frightening oxymoron that demand the poet step off the page and into the mix of the world’s theater. It’s refreshing to have Yakich rise above the tame and timid poems that delegate American poetry as apolitical, and therefore inert.

by Rigoberto González

May 28, 2008

Robert Bly at Poetry Daily

Later this week, Poetry Daily will feature Robert Bly's prose poem, "The Transluscent Stone," from the most recent issue of LUNA.

It is one of three prose poems Bly contributes to the issue. The other two are "A Cattail" and "The Photograph in the Second Hand Shop."

March 30, 2008

LUNA Volume Eight

A new issue of LUNA will be released shortly. It will feature the work of Nin Andrews, Dan Beachy-Quick, Robert Bly, John Bradley, Luis Cernuda, Blas Falconer, Juan Felipe Herrera, Major Jackson, Alessandra Lynch, Wayne Miller, Simone Muench, Joan Murray, Nguyen Do (trans. by Paul Hoover), Joshua Marie Wilkinson, and many other poets.

Issues are $10 and can be ordered using the form to the right. Orders are expected to ship by the end of April.

And there are still back issues available of the previous seven issues of
LUNA. To take a look at some of the contributors in those issues, just click on the link below:


March 17, 2008

Review: Keep and Give Away

Keep and Give Away
University of South Carolina Press, $14.95

Susan Meyers’ debut book of poems might as well have been titled “Contraries,” after the name of the poem most representative of the dominant thought behind the volume: the inherently paradoxical nature of desire. Terrance Hayes calls this (in the foreword) “opposing gestures,” the simultaneous need for two opposing things. The concurrent movement and stillness of the birds in “Contraries” and the speaker’s desire to side with both the delicate small birds and the hawk that attacks them resonates through the rest of the volume.

In “Someone Near is Dying,” Meyers explores the possibilities of the “contraries” she sets up with the first poem in a formally elegiac setting: “What does your every move show/ if not, I am still alive?” The poem expresses the tension between the sadness of this dying and the powerful acceptance and even celebration of life in the last few lines: “Listen Mother--/ thunder, out of season: an old woman/ / at the end of her day, humming.” This acceptance evolves in the second of the three sections in the book, where the mother-daughter roles are almost comically reversed. From “Cavities”:

…This was my mother,
now I am hers, wiping spittle from corners,
leaning close to peer past all decay.
Whenever I ask her, like a friendly dentist,
she obeys the same way she taught me
and holds still, cow-eyed
and gaping, as if caught by surprise,
long after I’ve brushed away all that I can
and seen more than I want to see.
Meyers’ poems vary in their individual subjects, loosely threaded with the needle of the subtitles of the three sections, but every poem seems to be dictated by some form of loss, whether it’s the inability to have a child (“Cradle and All”) or the grown woman’s need for a mother (“Selling My Mother’s House”): “I know why children put off sleep,/ ask for juice before bed.” In “My Mother, Her Mornings,” an earlier poem about her mother, the poet reflects on the essential miracle of the mother’s touch, her power almost magical: “With a sweep of her palm…she persuades away wrinkles/ as if brushing off crumbs.”

The first section also cradles a few quite discerning poems about childhood losses even before the image of the dying mother is introduced. “Late One Friday Afternoon” speaks of an early loss, the kind that teaches about desire, and hope. The bird continues to act as a symbol of “contraries,” reflecting the child’s simultaneous desire to keep still and leap into motion:

…I held his hand
nested like a bird in my palm

and with my other hand brushed dirt

from his knee. Then the bird fluttered

and was gone. Tires screeched.

I saw pieces of a toy truck

land in the Lefler’s yard.
The third section “Small Bones of Contention” wraps up the collection with poems that deal with life as it is unrelated to the dying mother or the frail chickadees of the beginning. They retain the domesticity, this time of the speaker’s life, and in some cases, they employ the elegiac stanzas that remind the reader of those poems written about the mother.

In all, Meyers has managed a compelling first collection, one that will earn her a seat amongst other notable writers of the elegiac tradition.

by Gaganpreet Kaur

February 11, 2008

Review: American Music

American Music
Copper Canyon Press, $15 paperback
ISBN 978-1-55659-266-9

I: like American Music 

Of course I flip to the backmatter to read Chris Martin’s biography before I start in on the collection proper, as though somewhere in this paragraph, amid the list of journals I may or may not be familiar with, I might find a constellation communicating something to me about Martin’s poetry a priori Martin’s poetry. Because I have gone to the back cover first (even before the backmatter) I am already equipped with the knowledge that this is Martin’s full-length collection of poetry and that his manuscript, American Music, emerged at the top of more than a millennium of manuscripts as the winner of the Hayden Carruth Award for New and Emerging poets selected by C.D. Wright. So I'm there in the backmatter after the back cover and I flip forward (I don’t read the last poem first or anything deviant like that—I typically respect the order of operations a poet has set out) but in Martin's collection I come across something that betrays what could have have been a more innocent reading of his book. I find another, less-typical page in the backmatter headed by the following:

Words lead double lives: anonymously adrift and tethered to authorship. This book attempts to celebrate both. In addition to those named outright, other voices in the chorus of American Music include:

Underneath this cautionary and instructive note, Martin lists forty-three “voices in the chorus." As far as I can tell, the personalities include filmmakers, artists, bands, and philosophers, but not even a Google/Wikipedia search could help me with some of the inclusions. Some inclusions to the list you might expect rounding out a collection that sports the author's name inside a cartoon ketchup bottle: Joy Division, Modest Mouse, Nietzsche and Ingmar Bergman. Automatically I flip to the contents of the collection and count: there are thirty-seven poems, not forty-three; this saves me the task of compulsively turning back to the voices list, trying to match poems to voices, and attempting to create some kind of master map of the collection. (Cautionary note to reader: it is still pretty tempting to do this, part of the fun of reading the book if you ask me, and I think I’ve got some of it decently figured out.) The two epigraphs Martin chooses (“Plagiarism is necessary” —Guy Debord and “The world’s furious song flows through my costume”—Ted Berrigan) support what I am gathering is the collection’s thesis. All of this before I even get to the poems. I am certainly entertained, excited at the prospect of our narrator wearing dozens of hats, but I am also beginning to experience some anxiety that what I am about to read will fall somewhere between a post-post kind of schizophrenic cacophony and sitting down to a 37-act 2-D puppet show put on with one semi-mobile hand. 

Martin doesn’t subject me to either of these things. His collection is controlled, tightly knit, and formally and thematically cohesive. There is little anxiety that Martin's careful lines do not orchestrate for me. Two formal strategies save him (and me) from the abovementioned dangers. The first is Martin’s totally admirable commitment to form. Each poem in American Music 100% strictly adheres to a three-line stanzas and regular meter; they are short lines, just two to three beats per line the entire way through the collection. (I wouldn’t really say “tercet” here for reasons of technicality and posterity, and though I’ve never sat down with Martin or anything, I kind of think he’d shirk from use of that term as well.) Martin’s commitment to this form offers a technical foothold, providing a constant a rhythm through excessive enjambment. It also establishes a general spatial orientation. I begin to anticipate how to move, when to bob and when to weave. The second strategy is the use of “I” emphatically and often. So emphatically and so often in fact, Martin stretches the lyric “I,” the "I" of ultimate subjectivity in this case, to almost to the point of elimination— he stretches it to its absolute thinnest and enlarges it to its thickest. Martin's goal, as I know going into the collection, is of course to blend “I” Chris Martin and the various “I” voices we expect to find in collection (thanks to the list provided and the table of contents: “I am No Proprioceptivist,” ‘I” “I Am Not a Cinematographer,” “I” “I Ghost,” and “I” “Being-in-the-Being,” etc.). So, the whole voices=plagiarism thing is a bit misleading, in a good way.

Martin takes these two strategies outlined above and combines them to create what becomes perhaps his most instructive and rhetorical device, his consistent little nod to the reader. See below:

At the exigencies of cinema, even at this
Intersection if I
Tremble my trembling divides
(“Toward Perceptual Ensembles”)

Towers toll without
My being there, as my being ebbs only
To erupt in directionless code, I

Storefronts as my sense
Of direction daily rearranges
Itself in heat, so I
(“Allegrissimo, or Not As Hell As You”)

Smile tremoring the air
Into festive throbs, I think I
Hear all the bleeding
(An Introduction to the Mechanics of Deformable Bodies’)

And sinking in the paradox
Of frozen motion, if I
Say I ghost hummingbird-like
(“I Ghost”)

Martin gets so many good miles from the “I” because the predicament deepens, the device begins to traverse the kind of subject/object chasm the collection presents often and with ease, so Martin is able to simultaneously occupy and write in the voice of the new I's and the consistent I of the author without sounding pretentious or insincere.

Any reader of Martin’s collection becomes interested in how the “I” (the “I” Chris Martin, that is) aligns and unaligns with the various voices in the chorus of “I”s. This of course prompts the obvious conclusion at which any reader (myself included) is tempted to arrive at: if “I” Chris Martin is so much a part of so many other “I”s and all of those “I”s (Martin included) are not really a part of anything at all—except the clothes they’re in, the mustaches they wear, the cities they walk through, the foods they eat, etc., (their ultimate subjectivity)—how, in the face of that (ultimate subjectivity) I am supposed to not just throw my hands up and close the book at the utter impossibility of the task of reading, yielding to the pervading-post-post-anxiety-authorial-death-signifier-instability thing that is going on?

If the collection were not—on top of being in tune with these possible discourses—so utterly and completely entertaining, smart, and aware of when and to what degree to take itself seriously, it might not be so loveable. (There’s a whole level of entertainment in this collection that is the laugh out loud kind of entertainment-funny, the kind of Seth Green or American Pie comedy for adolescent males, which it seems someone could spend an entire review with but which I will swiftly address here with the help of one excerpt before moving on to acknowledge there is indeed a great deal of more sort of high-brow comedy here that works in a number of very different ways; from the poem, “Lo”: “MY NUT SACK/ But also like the Nobel Prize/ Winning novelist who.”) American Music is loveable beyond its comedy and I-play because a serious human concern surface through its artifice. This concern takes the form of laments for the trappings of said I's (all said I's). Martin frequently (at least one juncture in almost every poem) comes out directly with lamentation:

Plainly—I am afraid
Of becoming a sad pervert, even
So I yearn for a life of direct

And unfettered humanity, suddenly today
It is the future and the sun
Is a laser beam dispassionately shooting

You in the eye, you
Being I, here, the uncalloused
Observer of daily, nay

Momentary phenomena, such
As the children sledding the crusty
Hill on their little flotilla
(“Misdiagnosis, or Funny Music next to Death”)

Here Martin confronts the situation he illustrates so consistently with the use of the ventriloquized and enjambed I. The line: “Plainly—I am afraid” can be interpreted in two very important ways, right? It can be read ‘I am basely afraid,’ somewhat cowardly or at my core scared; or it can be read, ‘when and where I am plain (exposed, vulnerable, myself, etc.) I am afraid.’ The question of how to interpret one of Martin's lines is important to ask in a collection like this.

Martin’s ability to balance that kind of double-edged emotional transparency with a statement like the one he then makes about the sun being “a laser beam dispassionately shooting” is where he is at his best. In these moments Martin is his most literal and his most transformative all at once—not when he tries on a mustache or a dress, but when he identifies the sun’s rays for what they are, definitively (both very objectively and very subjectively, both "I" Chris Martin and "I" Everybody), when he laments the limitations of his own confessions.

Of course, it is becoming clear that I want to suggest the consistency beneath the Martin’s veil is Martin. That the personas/costumes/accessories he tries on, the voices he adopts, are—purposefully so—the first thing we forget in his poems. They are an entrance only, “In the recurring caveman/ Dream I wear my meat vest/ And I love you,” a façade that is meant to quickly fall away revealing something more genuine:

Of my own desire as it comes
Into being, which is
Why I prefer the hallucinations

Of Neanderthal life, days
Spent inching
Boulders from the ridge
(“There Will Be a Very Meaningful Picture Here”)

Martin loves to take off the mask. The revealing moments in American Music are more important to him than the guise. But the guises keep us moving; they allow us access to worlds and experiences that—dare I say it—if Martin were to explore in a different or less successful way, we might find superficial?

In this collection, a reader is meant to experience a plethora of different emotional states while holding on the that always slippery “I” at the heart of it all; the reader is a complete outsider and part of the inside joke. They are not unlike a listener of the quirky and great band from which Martin borrows his title. American Music references the Violent Femmes song of the same title, of course. (The Femmes, though, are conspicuously absent from the list of voices.) As a teenager learning to play the guitar, I gravitated towards the Femmes songs because of their simplicity, their tenderness, their unabashed pleasure in bouncing back and forth between some of the three-chord melodies. There was always a bit of singing along, somewhat genuinely somewhat ironically. I can’t help but wonder if Martin wouldn’t himself blister in the dispassionate sun.

by Thomas Cook

December 16, 2007

Review: Skirt Full of Black

Skirt Full of Black

Coffee House Press, $15

Transmogrifying Type

In Skirt Full of Black, Sun Yung Shin’s first collection of poetry, our expectation that the collection will entertain a meaningful and creative dialectic between American English and Korean languages is quickly and fruitfully complicated. It is true that almost all of Shin’s poems take language as at least part of their subject, but she is less concerned with a simple contrast of Korean versus English; rather, she is interested in some of the forms in which language manifests (oral, written, in typeface, as icon) and this leads her into a thematic and formal examination of the tension between spoken/written language, written/typed characters, and human/technological voices. She opens with, “MACRO-ALTAIC”:

“Sometimes even the surface forms defy etymology.”

In place of reading, two doors open

Away from each. Door—paper—door—
Because in her opening poem, a reader grasps the relationship between the textures of the first two voices readily and they stand in stark contrast, we might expect the two-voice formula to return to guide us through our reading of this maze-like collection where conjoined twins split and reform, human typewriters work in pork-processing plants and enormous flowers budding petals of countless histories shake loose one message at a time. The first voice, the one in quotes, reads like an out-of-date textbook on how to translate (Korean into English?) but as easily it could be something else (maybe a primer on structural sociology?), but in “MACRO-ALTAIC,” and throughout the collection, Shin does not acknowledge where she cribs the quoted voices or if she is cribbing at all We can call this first voice the “textbook voice,” to help us keep things straight. The second voice, the “poetic voice,” is the image-driven voice that we encounter often. A few lines later, in the same poem:
“Korean contrast structurally with European languages such as English in a number of ways.”

Your sister’s spirit escapes through a pinprick in the paper wall.

The shaman kneels at her side as before a meal.
In the first poem we can begin to understand how the images created in Shin’s more poetic voice operate with the textbook voice. This makes for an engaging play. Anyone who spends time though with Skirt Full of Black, will come to realize that Shin is interested in this play for about three pages.

The poems that follow build on the concept of multiple textures set-up by the first poem in increasingly alarming and rewarding ways. Images fly out of control, across time periods and continents and voices intermingle to the point of assimilation. In the second poem, “KUAI-ZI,” both voices from the first poem return in similar typographic manifestations (“poetic voice” and “textbook voice”), but other voices show up here to complicate the picture. Now we have a voice that appears in italics and dialogue. This voice reminds us of prose fiction and fairytale:

“We are cannibals,” said a man to his wife, in a picture. He took a picture of the page of words and saved it for processing later.
We also have a kind of bold, capitalized computer print-out voice interspersed:
And additionally we have the complication of the earlier voices; that is, they are unstable, they do not return and sound the same. They assume different postures. This voice falls somewhere between “poetic” and “textbook”:
Chinese chopstick, called kua-zi (quick little fellow with bamboo heads) are nine to ten inches long and rectangular with a blunt end.
And I think we have at least a second textbook as well to end the poem:
“Each soldier is an individual.”
I focus on the style and font to lead us to content. Over time, a reader might be tempted to expect certain things when they see a certain style font appear on the page, but a reader with those expectations will be quickly disappointed, because Shin adapts the fonts and styles on a per poem basis. The bold, capitalized computer print-out voice returns in the next poem only to reveal itself as the voice of a very specific typewriter that is important to the collection as a whole. As readers, we begin to understand the necessity of a multiplicity:
By the 1920s, virtually all typewrites were “look-alikes”

only in capital letter: QWERTY: WOMAN TYPING: HARD RETURN

We should not say there are four or even eight different voices at work in Skirt Full of Black; rather there are four or eight or sometimes ten different voices at work in a single poem. Take the book’s longer poem (almost all of section 2), “FLOWER, I, STAME AND POLLEN” for example. Here we see a plethora of styles and voices, from lists to imperatives, stories to truncated lyrics, historical allegory and rules and, perhaps, one might even say, a good old prose poem, but that comes along with a kind of asterisk dance that is dangerously close to a linguistic expression…

The beauty of this book is that we are always slipping into new forms and new styles with and within each poem. Never too far away though is Shin’s disarming poetic. One is reminded of a book like Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, by Marilyn Chin. On the jacket Chin describes Skirt Full of Black in relation to form, things like “collage of ancient fragments” and “catalogue of associative statements;” but these comments I think do not acknowledge the rigor of this project and how seriously Shin’s poems feel rooted in their new and challenging forms. The poems themselves are visual landscapes, typographically speaking, and they are very controlled compositions. On the cover: a monochromatic orange typewriter on baby blue background, where from a sheer dark gray sky letters rain either out from or into the typewriter and solid, in a yellow sheet of paper feeding out from the typewriter, we see the title and the author. The typewriter is a guide throughout the book, a control mechanism, that lets us know our language and our space, however unharnessed it may seem, has been mitigated. The typewriter provides also an early touchstone for some of the other kinds of control.

All Shin’s titles appear in bold capital letters, which kind of loom over the poems as signposts. They do not feel oppressive in their looming though, authoritative yes, but rather like things to take note of on your way by into the body of the poem. Sometimes they are a single word and sometimes we come across something like this as a title:


About two-thirds of the way though the book we find a table of the Korean alphabet, divided into vowels and consonants, with Korean symbols and English equivalents. This table guides us through the penultimate section of the book where we find spare, delicate poems that seem to center around uniformly one-word titles the table invites us to translate and speak. With the introduction of this table, we settle down, the page becomes less crowded and more of a portrait than a landscape. We see in this penultimate section and as well in the last, that there is indeed a place for elegy in the collection. We find poems like “LEFTOVERS,” that have a more typical contemporary American poetic:

“I’m a Gay Dad”
T-shirt on a young Korean man

Holding hands lightly with his girlfriend

“Pity, all of this Westernization”

The English language is true

Nonsense, everywhere
There is a prime number
That begs to be reduced

Resist the beggars

They have no rights

Is this Mass the same everywhere there is God

Even though different people eat differently
When we reach the end of Skirt Full of Black, we do find ourselves asking the question: what is total work of the book? What have I just been through and what has it asked of me? Did I pass the test?

We also find ourselves wondering, what would have happened should we have ended still at the mercy of the out-of-control-many-voiced typewriter? If Shin had pushed us to the brink and never calmed down? Or conversely, what if the Korean alphabet opened the book, grounding us in that aspect of the project?

Part of what a reader walks away with is the idea of the ambidextrous voice: a voice that understands space and time are dangerously out of control in the most sublime sense and can reflect that; a voice that can distill space and time into beautiful, abstract, tight-knit impressions that challenge the relationship between American English and Korean, language and sound. Shin understands we all share a lingua mater, there is no indivisible sound in any language; she dedicates the collection to “the worldwide Korean diaspora—six to seven million overseas Koreans living in 140 countries.” As I walk away from this collection, I take with me a sense from one of the Siamese twin poems in the middle of the collection, “THAT CAME TO BE SPLIT INTO A PLURALITY,” where Shin’s ideas of twinning, conjoined twins, adoption, and linguistics come to a head in the imbalance and symmetry between two simple statements:

That we each have a number assigned to us
That we each have a name, or three assigned to us
by Thomas Cook