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 The first voice, the one in quotes, reads like an out-of-date textbook on how to translate (Korean into English?)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

December 8, 2007

Review: The Myth of the Simple Machines

The Myth of the Simple Machines

No Tell Books, $15 paperback

Truth is made, not discovered.

-- Wayne Gabardi

Their voices are bringing the trees to their knees
-- Will Oldham

In Laurel Snyder’s playfully perplexing new collection, truth has its way with myth (or is it the other way round?). The “simple machines” of the title are multitudinous: landscapes, games of chess, conversations, grocery store charades, bodies, movements, dreams, thoughts, language, and seemingly everything in-between. The myth is the assumption that the machines are, in fact, simple. Like Snyder’s poems themselves, the machines are part truth and part myth (or perhaps they are always truth and always myth), and Snyder dutifully crafts her narrative across the book’s four sections.

The first section of the book, “The Machines,” is primarily centered around a mysterious, unnamed girl. In the opening poem, “The Field Has a Girl,” we, like the girl, “become” in Snyder’s world:

The sky has a blackbird.
The field has a girl.

The sky is to the field as

the field is to the sky, only

backwards. White is

to the blackbird as fear

is to the girl, despite

she’s small and alone.


“I live

in this,” says the girl.

“Alone,” says the girl.

Things become quieter.

Things become.

“No matter what you

may do with your life,”

says the girl.
It’s not a stretch to draw a comparison between this poem and that most-popular of blackbird poems by Wallace Stevens, but Snyder also shares some of Stevens’ other poetic sensibilities. Her line breaks, her ample use of “to be” verbs, and her command of a simple yet powerful landscape are all Stevens-esque. This isn’t to say that all eleven poems in “The Machines” are Stevens-esque (they’re more akin to off-kilter fairy-tales, more in line with Kristy Bowen’s work in Feign), but there are teacups and clover and, yes, a jar.

The book’s second section, “Their Casings,” shakes things up a bit. The girl from the first section is gone, and we are introduced to a first-person speaker. Is this the same girl, now speaking directly to the reader? It’s unclear. But one thing is certain: like the girl in “The Machines,” this I is vulnerable and endearing. In fact, that’s exactly what she wants us to say:

When my tea gets cold I like to cry,
and there’s a run in my stockings

that won’t ever end. It gets me.

But isn’t it endearing?

Tell me I’m endearing.


At the grocery store, I’m

“That quiet girl in the blue coat.”

I shop alone.

I like myself against the Bartlett pears

and the smell of pears.

Do I look sad

I think I’m very pretty, sad and alone

in the grocery store.

(“Posture Matters”)
Somewhere in this section, though, a question does arise: who is this speaker addressing? She constantly addresses a “you,” and as readers, it seems like we keep coming to the conversations a little too late:
Like it or not, this is for you,
so pay attention.


Maybe you’ve never been wrong,

but then I can’t believe a word you say.

The things that don’t work

are the important things to have wanted.

You should have all this

figured out by now.



But instead I have you. You staring

at that corn field, saying nothing. You sighing

at that huge green sea, with all its tides

like rulers. You tell me they run straight

until a wall happens. To them. Or something.

What’s that supposed to mean?

(“Beast in the Cornfield”)
In the book’s third section, “In Technology,” everything becomes more frenetic. Points of view shift, God makes an appearance, language speeds up and slows down, and the section ends with a trio of triptychs: “Triptych of Useful Rules (Pictures),” “Triptych of Useful Rules (Words),” and “Triptych of Useful Rules (Conclusions).” If image and language are the central concerns of “In Technology,” perhaps their best representatives are the final three poems. Snyder’s triptych of triptychs is one of the highlights in The Myth of the Simple Machines. They’re whip-smart, light-heartedly haunting, and exquisitely voiced:
Sometimes we catch the kettle.

(“Triptych of Useful Rules (Pictures)”)



1.) You’ll know it when you see it. 2.) Anything that lasts longer

than it needs to, look, hand on shoulder. 3.) I mean to

say, it lingers. I mean both things.

(“Triptych of Useful Rules (Words)”)
The book’s final section, “At Rest,” begins with the poem “Half-sleep Segue,” before closing with a cycle of five prose poems. “Half-sleep Segue” sets-up the dream-like prose poem cycle:
On a Tuesday night, the girl dozes and dreams
of a fireplace. She’s a whisper, a murmur in a slip,

dancing in a slip made of diamonds beside a fire.

The walls are close. The air is warm

red wine and there is candlelight, from somewhere

golden behind her. Deeply golden.

She’s hushed in her heavy slip, dancing slowly

on a thick carpet, alone. When she bruises, she feels

like money, like extra money. She’s a full pocket.
The five prose poems, all titled “Night,” are mythical dreamscapes full of sensory bombardment. And in the final poem, “Night 5 (The Bake Sale),” we finally get a named character: Lucy. It’s such a shock to read Lucy’s name that her existence is itself a revelation. But it’s a short-lived revelation, for Lucy quickly exits the poem. There are more revelations, though, once the speaker finds him at the Bake Sale and the little message written inside the smallest circles of the smallest cake.

The Myth of the Simple Machines
is from that wonderful world where poetry intersects with storytelling. And as Laurel Snyder shows, it’s a world of endless possibility, myth, truth, and reward.

by Nate Slawson

November 13, 2007

Review: Cate Marvin & El-P: "The Muse: Wired Live"

Fragment of the Head of a Queen

Sarabande Books, $13.95 (paper only)

I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead


Def Jux, $17.95 (compact disc and record)

The Muse: Wired Live

This summer, somewhere between Staten Island and Brooklyn, Cate Marvin and El-P lip-synch to each other; it is frenzied, contagions rampant, bubbling forth from their mouths and the fire hydrants of the great municipality of New York City. Marvin and El-P are buoyed in this flood only by their insistence on continuing to make lines and phrases as the city crumbles, as if voicing these poems and songs will keep them from the great intangible sinkhole developing in the middle of the road.

Marvin’s sophomore book of poetry, following the Kathryn A. Morton prize-winning World’s Tallest Disaster (Sarabande 2001) is aptly titled, Fragment of the Head of a Queen. The book opens with, “Love the Contagion,” a celebration of common infiltrations, routine adulterations, and unrecognizable disease. Marvin implores her reader, both with the title and the first line, “Quest the contagion, funnel much muck,” and then treats them with an ode to the unsanitary:

master of pestilence, conqueror of white
clothes; mud prints, paw prints, germs

not even the physician knows

(Marvin’s “Love the Contagion”)
Beautiful, for all its grime, this book is a calmly articulated disaster area, not unlike the Arturo Herrera painting (“Study for When Alone Again,” 2001) Marvin selected as her cover: beneath a seeming implosion of red paint (scattered, but seeking-center on the obscured head of a human figure) we can discern a queen in her robes, cherub-like wings and draping cloths, the queen reaching up for her headpiece, in danger of obliteration. Marvin’s poems gather strength and momentum through rhyme and through bold outlandish strokes of imagination. They boil over with provocative and alarming visions from the voice of a narrator whose person is feverishly out of control and in danger of being eliminated by the polluting forces she cannot help but seek.

Similarly for El-P, the wings on his cover belong to a haloed pterodactyl (not far from the crowned queen) also in danger of being obliterated by red light. Following his gold-selling independent debut, Fantastic Damage, from his label Def Jux, El-P’s sophomore solo album, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, opens with his ode to the polluted minds of would-be emcees. Here El-P informs us:
to the ground function I’m munsoned
it’s the dreaded 7/10 split again

the medic made it out to be

epidemic shaded, wow for me

(El-P’s “Tasmanian Pain Coaster)
For all of their allusions to “physicians” and “medics” throughout, Marvin and El-P are consistent masochists, refusing to seek solace in the sterility of anything that resembles a hospital; instead, the defacement of their narrators is a necessary function of their projects. They fly into super and sub-human forms, riding sexual coasters and pets into fantastic deserts of former downtowns, literally decapitating themselves (Marvin’s “Lying My Head Off,” El-P’s “The League of Extraordinary Nobodies”). The reader/listener begins to fear for the narrators of these sustained efforts at self-effacement—will there be a respite? The short answer is, no. But this lack of respite begins to please, this relentlessness, this refusal to untangle; it is through such resolve that these projects succeed on their own terms.

With the hope that not only their content, but the texture of their lines and their lyrics reflect the self-inflicted contamination of living in a confused city, in a confused body (Marvin’s “Your Childhood”: “To walk? We slipped those tubes of pink lipstick up our/ sleeves) and in a confused bodily function (El-P’s “Smithereens”: “I became pure BK/ cause I grew up around the krazy kings and inhaled second hand spray”), both authors insist on communicating through, rather than about their condition. They are afflicted about admitting in any terms but their own what ails them. In one moment it seems like we are hearing the truth, but in the next they confide that it has only been a big lie. In, “Run the Numbers,” El-P laments:

Weak in the kneesy species
dreaming of future faded

seen where the suture stitches knit slipped?

I’m with you baby

let’s get obnoxious with it

I wanna know what brave is

I’m tired of sitting here pretending

I’m not fucking dangerous.

(El-P’s “Run the Numbers”)
To the same tone, in “Muckraker,” Marvin writes:
If you can’t trust people, you can’t trust books, since
books are people and people are books. Shall I ask him

to sign it? Beautiful dreamer, may all your beginnings be true

. You think this unseemly for me to confide?

Reader, don’t mistake me for someone who gives a shit,

or your bride. I have no loyalty and I have no pride”

(Marvin’s “Muckraker”)
Neither author makes concessions to the reader here, or anywhere for that matter. And why should they? Operating at the top of their respective genres, with young, smart followings (they both have cute photos as well!), Cate Marvin and El-P are aware not only of the message they convey, but the medium through which they convey it; and they are both apparently a little weary of that medium and that message. They want a reader/listener to know that they can only ever be liars, in a sense, because of the infiltration of what should be fodder for poems and songs. Further on in, “Muckraker,” Marvin writes:
How do I reply? And how shall I contend with
the fact, Reader, that this matter cannot mean

much to you, and that I, as author, am required

to consider how to tell this tale in a manner that

will entertain you, despite having never met you

and having no way of knowing how to affect you

(Marvin’s “Muckraker”)
To the same end, in “The Overly Dramatic Truth,” El-P writes:
I became for you what you had asked

You’re too young to ask out loud

I’m too old to not know that

I can talk like you’ve not heard

I know weapons

You think words

I’ve exposed you to these terms

(El-P’s “The Overly Dramatic Truth”)
Probably the biggest question that a reader/listener of Marvin and El-P will encounter, if s/he is not completely convinced by the language alone, is: how much posturing before the message am I willing to put up with? Can’t we come out and say anything for sure? Consider the following two moments from Marvin’s “Landscape with Hungry Girls” and El- P’s “Dear Sirs”:
There’s blood here. The skyline teethes the clouds
raw, and rain’s course streams a million umbilical

cords down windows and walls. Every things gnaws,

and the pink polish on their girl-nails chips, flakes

(Marvin’s “Landscape with Hungry Girls”)

If every office empties and all slaves walk in dazes

To a pool of liquid of liquid money where bath blissfully naked

And every open hydrant in a Brooklyn summer moment

Is opened up by cops and folds out into an ocean

(El- P’s “Dear Sirs”)
The cumulative effect of this textured delivery does at times test the reader’s resolve: is beautifully-rendered image of decay and danger after beautifully-rendered image of decay and danger all we need as readers/listeners to stay engaged? Especially considering whenever our voice or narrator appears, this appearance seems only to taunt us with what we would typically expect from the role:
I sold my mind on the street.
I learned another language. It translates easily.

Here’s how: What I say is not what I mean,

Nor is it ever what I meant to say.

You must not believe me when I say

there’s nothing left to love in this world.

(Marvin’s “Lying My Head Off)

I know I haven’t been walking a humble path
I know I cursed at your name and then laughed

And though I found it inane to bend calf

The servitude of groveling framed as pained task

I gotta figure it can’t hurt to ask

Suspension of disbelief in uniquely freak flash

(El-P’s “Flyentology”)
The more I read and the more I listen, the more I feel the answer to this question is, yes. Yet at the end of each virtuoso flight, as each poem and each song comes to a close, I am left with one question: who is the multi-formed “you,” the “you” of El-P’s title, the “you” of Marvin’s collection. When I ask that question and consult the texts, I find my narrators are pretty confused as well. The confusion comes from the convolution, from trying to reach us in a city where the skyscraper is as easily a domesticated animal as a lover, a drug as threat, or a mentor. When the reader/listener longs for a greater emotional truth behind these wreckages and the just finds more wreckage, well, that comes from the bottom of the heart. The beautiful fragments within these works assemble the beautiful fragments of the works themselves. This is what we are offered.

Finally, El-P writes in “Run The Numbers,”: “Five out of ten of these fuses are wired live/ if I’m gonna survive I gotta (find those detonators).” For Marvin, the analogy is clear; she replaces “fuses” with “muses.” Everything is in fact a detonator and we must seek its explosion onto the page and into the lyrics. In fact, the first dozen times I listened to “Run the Numbers,” I made the juxtaposition myself. Though the lyric book contradicts me, I am not certain El-P does not whisper it under his breath. Be leery of muses. Blow them up. See what sticks to the walls: from printer cartridge to skyscraper a sign of decay as quickly a sign of life, confusion as quickly consumption, and contamination as quickly nourishment.

by Thomas Cook

October 22, 2007

Review: Disclamor


Boa Editions, Ltd., $16 paperback

“In time of war the poets turn to war/ each in his best manner,” writes G. C. Waldrep, quoting Thomas McGrath, in his second full-length collection, a book held together by “The Batteries,” a superb nine-sequence poem inspired by the historic sea-coast fortifications in the Marin Headlands along the California coast. Long demilitarized or decommissioned, these batteries have undergone transformations into places of seemingly peaceful recreation, but the echoes of their past functions (“What is defense without a pretty view?”) seep through as the vocabulary of warfare becomes relevant again:


—This is not quite right. The weapons came first,
mass, the destruction; then
picnic table.
Indeed, for this poet, invested in excavating the layers beneath disguise, “every copse hides/ its adder,” but so too comes the discovery of the smaller, overlooked inhabitants that preceded the invasive technology and artificial boundaries of man:
The grass sings in the parity of its consumption.
The lupine,

the sea-fig are singing,

even the Scotch broom is singing
its barbarian song.
The growths on the ground, “the mustard, the tansy,” and “the wither-itch, alfalfa & wild garlic” are the true survivors, and the poet takes note, directing his contemplative mood toward the roots, the true origins and antithesis to the chaos and din of modern politics, the “dis-clamor” of modern-day society.

But, the poet posits, have we contaminated the natural world irreversibly? In the poem “Ode to the Hottentot Fig,” the speaker struggles unsuccessfully to move away from the symbols and metaphors of the corrupt human world:

If you listen closely you can hear the scuffle of each ant:
they’re all Calvinists, they are the architects of small melodies

that flash and tremble in the afternoon sun. Like us,

they demand a more generous explanation.
Waldrep’s preoccupation is the affliction of invasion, and the damage of human greed—authority over environment and declarations of territory: “West, east, the longitudes of war./ This is no place for monuments.”

Bridging “The Batteries” are poems attesting to Waldrep’s skill at crafting similes that are characteristically playful and startling. A sampling of lines:
The dead stood in their corners like silver telescopes.
The bees ferried hunger to their hive.

(from “Soldier Pass”)

I will never achieve a nuclear family. Beneath a distant sunrise
my peccadilloes huddle like sheep.

(from “Retroactive”)

the nape of that moment
set like a sapphire into the scepter
of incident, smooth and cool.

(from “Titus at Lystra”)
Disclamor is a gorgeous collection from a citizen poet in search of the truths beneath the imperialist imagery of the times. Waldrep sifts through its rubble and gives meaning to the numbing aftermath—“the aftersilence”—of illusion and deceit. And the anxiety of that mission is best articulated in the poem “Battery Bravo”:
I will be the poet of broken things.
But what claim have I trampled

into these bare hills?

What fragment have I prised?
by Rigoberto González

September 8, 2007

Review: Blind Date with Cavafy

Blind Date with Cavafy

Marsh Hawk Press, $12.50 paperback

Placing such a quirky title on the cover sets up the expectation that this poetry collection will deliver its share of literary chuckles. A quick browse at the table of contents (“Breakfast with Socrates” and “I Hate You, Too, Catullus”) only builds that anticipation. And indeed the moments of dark levity abound.

From “Deux Ex Machina”:
There have been times in my life I wanted to douse my apartment
furniture in gasoline and light a match. But then I read

the Want Ads and decide to change jobs for the third time

in a month.
From “The Aesthetics of the Damned”:
Who hasn’t shoplifted

a navy blue skirt to match the bruise on their forehead

they got from running into a lamppost

on their way to a Lord & Taylor Clearance Sale?
But make no mistake, Steve Fellner doesn’t write out of easy laughs. Though the speaker comes across as the town chump (in “Epiphanies,” he’s the only one who’s unaware that his monologue is an epiphany), the tone is usually somber, and each poem builds toward a complex representation of a personality that is curious, sardonic and intelligent. And, yes, it is all communicated through a self-effacing humor.

The strategy however doesn’t distract from facing the serious subjects in the book, like mortality and suicide (“Death still eluded me. But life became more clear.”), and the questioning of faith (“Only God likes us unadorned, unadored.”). Indeed it seems to guide the reader to the unsettling revelation that pathos is the most effective method of communicating the everyday dramas of this cold-shouldered world where “miracles are nothing/ more than accidents we like.”

And in terms of exploring sexuality tragicomically, there is something of Augusten Burroughs in Blind Date with Cavafy, especially in the poem “Self-Portrait,” an autobiographical narrative that takes the reader through a twisted tale of an adoption, a coming out, and a coming to terms with the feeling of lovelessness. But it provides insight into the odd contemplations expressed at other moments in the book. In the poem “Criticism,” for example, the speaker dwells over a scathing review of a film:
How relieved I was
that something deemed so unnecessary

could receive attention. I read that review

at least seventy-six times as my parents planned

their trip to Cancun without me.
And still later in the poem “Consider the Fates,” the speaker examines his ill-luck:
Blame the garbage man for picking up the trash
after three. If he had done it earlier, your family wouldn’t have found

your bank receipts. Which showed a zero balance. You gambled

your entire inheritance away at the racetrack

in one Sunday afternoon.
Fellner’s deadpan delivery disarms the reader (The poem “Judgment Day” opens matter-of-factly with “The line is long.”), but he never fails to reel the true sentiment of his poems back in. And by the end of the book, though even the funnier lines don’t seem as funny anymore because the pain underneath has surfaced fully, the reader will come to appreciate and trust this “funny man” as the compelling teller of the hard personal truths:
Forgive me for shoveling dirt into your grave,
imagining the broken earth crushing your body, breaking

your bones, filling you with a happiness you never found in me.
by Rigoberto González

August 18, 2007

Review: Quantum Lyrics

Quantum Lyrics

Norton, $23.95 hardcover

If A plus B = B plus A,
A and B bear the ability to add up:

why isn’t race always commutative?

That is just one of the key questions in A. Van Jordan’s third book of poetry, Quantum Lyrics, a book of explorations about memory, race, history, and identity, each articulated through the language of mathematics and science. The speech of politics and society, it seems, is racially biased and unable to provide logical explanations or even unbendable truth.

That is why superhero comic books like The Green Lantern, The Atom and The Flash contain more accessible lenses to hold up against the mysterious world. The speaker in the poems “The First Law of Motion” and “Remembrance” for example, gestures toward an earlier poem in which the reader learns about The Flash’s ability to travel at the speed of light and reverse time. For the speaker, there is no going back to rectify past mistakes, no outrunning danger, only the burdens of fear, guilt and hindsight:
I remember, as a boy, walking home
from school, I saw Milton McKnight,

a kid we said was a little slow;
he was tied to a tree.
Three guys, for fun, were beating him

like a pedal on a bass drum,
but no music was coming out.
I want you to know, I remember

not Milton’s blood but mine,
how I felt my blood coursing
through my body. This is how I learned

fear, how I had to tell my blood
to keep moving, relax. I did nothing.
Similarly, The Atom offers essential life lessons about knowing when to claim visibility, when to become invisible, and how both can be subversive or evasive acts:
Sometimes shrinking to the size

of a coin is a super power;

sometimes it’s just a way

to find value in one’s life.
But the heart of this collection is the twenty-three part “Quantum Lyrics Montage,” a compelling portrait of Albert Einstein’s personal and political life.

From the troubled first marriage to Mileva Marić, to the brow-arching second one to his first cousin Elsa, and a few extramarital discrepancies in between, indeed prove the assertion that “the action of love and the reaction/ of disappointment are equal forces.” And also that:
Infinite space
is so hard for people to hold

in their skulls, but they believe
in infinite happiness.
Einstein’s relationship to Mileva, his “elegant equation,” ends with heartbreak, an emotion he sums up with a postulate: “the speed of light emitted from the truth is the same as that of a lie coming from the lamp of a face aglow with trust.”

But Jordan’s investment is clearer with Einstein’s political leanings: his warnings about the development of the atomic bomb, and his solidarity with the black population of the his new home, the United States, he himself a brilliant thinker subject to the anti-Semitic furor sweeping Europe, where even men of learning were bringing into question “Jewish science.”

Imagining the contents of a 1931 letter Einstein wrote to W.E.B. DuBois on the issue of race:
Not talking about it will not ease
the pain of questioning who is white,

Negro or Jewish, just to assess hierarchy

over humanity.
And in a 1946 letter to President Truman in support of an anti-lynching bill: “Trees need only to drop leaves to prove gravity./ The gravity of men hanged from trees is grave.”

By the conclusion of the elaborate rumination in Quantum Lyrics, the speaker assesses: “Nothing changes easily.” Yet the potential for change has been established with the revelation and study of the mechanisms that keep systems of oppression in place.

A. Van Jordan has written a significant and intelligent book of poems.

Rigoberto González

August 11, 2007

Review: Perfect Villagers

Perfect Villagers

Octopus Books, $6

The recognition of the inverted world still requires a knowledge of the order of the world which it inverts and, in a sense, incorporates.
-- Linda Hutcheon

The particular world that a poem creates, populates, and governs is, in one sense, an inverted world. Images, lines, and meanings are all arranged according to the ordered world of the poem. This “poetic world” is not arranged in some dictionary-definition, upside-down order of inversion, though. It is a world that has been turned inside-out, its entrails exposed. But no matter how inverted a “poetic world” might be, it must remain, to use Hutcheon's phrase, aware "of the world which it inverts."

Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s chapbook, Perfect Villagers, is a wonderful example of this inversion. Topics are sometimes large—Korea, Kim Jong Il, language, “the insubstantial ‘universe’”—but the poems in which they situate themselves are striking microcosms of playful precision. For example, the book’s opening poem, “Dear Margaret Cho” (the first of two poems with this title), begins:

korea might be gay but I do not think you are.
korea is a peninsula. you and I are people, meaning that we have hair we

comb and things to look at. our lips pout and take on the fullness of an ad-

opted meaning.

the fact of the matter is that relentlessness is a handshake, a limp fish or glass

of lukewarm tea. the fact of the matter is that standing on a stage everything

is comic, meaning small and memorable, of the insubstantial “universe,” a

minor disaster or floating chord.

the darkness is outside when I see you, not in.
What’s funny about this poem (and some of the other poems in Lee’s collection) is that it’s not all that funny. Based on title alone, one might expect a poem called “Dear Margaret Cho” to be humorous, but this is not the case. Expectation gets turned on its head. There is an overwhelming seriousness that permeates Lee’s poems, and it becomes clear that no matter how cheeky the poems might initially seem, they are primarily concerned with memory, place (both geographical and orientational), and the process of language.

The poems are imbricated with these weighty notions in image after image and idea after idea, but it doesn’t mean Lee misses out on having a bit of fun. Language is the process of progression throughout the collection, and Lee’s oft-fragmented lines are playful with their stunted or piecemeal syntax:
a wellspring of thought. moves on without gaps or expressions of ecstasy.
continuous, fibrous, multiple—violet shades drawn down over a liquid vibe.

(“Enter the Dragon”)


this and that. between you and me; between both sides.

make a fire ((in the stove))

smoke. lifelong. one’s lifework.

(“Kim Jong Il: A Reader)
Other lines are straightforward and clear, their images spelled out in simple, subject/predicate declarations, but are no less as playful:
you are where I have left you
every moment that I leave you

(“Toshiro Mifune”)


we aren’t differentiable with bangs and hooded lids.

I know the likeness doesn’t stop right there.

what’s so great about being horny? the joke is insatiable.

it rips and roars between and through.

(“Dear Margaret Cho” #2)
Perhaps the most striking poem in Perfect Villagers is its final one, “Toshiro Mifune.” It is a fitting close that revisits and muses on the concerns that traverse the entire collection. In it, Lee sprinkles some of her most heartbreakingly beautiful lines:
I slept with a woman and woke up as a curse
I slept with a man and woke up silent

I ate alone and clasped hands at the kindness of strangers


mimicking a glint on a drawn edge, a standoff on the beach

these words draw oars from their spaces

treble their volume with a nay-sayer’s dust

she waxes most eloquent

when of her eloquence she speaks


categorically he was a man just as any other man

was born, breathed, one day stood then spoke
In Perfect Villagers, Lee crafts a haunting world of language and memory. There is a freshness and clever sincerity in her work that is, to borrow her words, both “bliss and aftermath,” so dolefully fun.

by Nate Slawson

This is the seventh in a series of eight reviews on the chapbooks from Octopus Books.

July 30, 2007

Review: Dance Dance Revolution

Dance Dance Revolution
Norton, $23.95 hardcover

"In the Desert, the language is an amalgam of some three hundred languages and dialects imported into this city, a rapidly evolving lingua franca," so scribbles the Historian of Cathy Park Hong’s second book of poems Dance Dance Revolution, an unusual journey into a post-apocalyptic landscape that grows more and more familiar with each visit to a different site.

To translate and facilitate the tour, the Historian enlists the help of a Guide, a speaker of this Desert Creole who proudly proclaims her authority as a navigator:
O tempora, o mores! I usta move
around like Innuit lookim for sea pelt…now

I’mma double migrant. Ceded from Koryo, ceded from

‘Merikka, ceded y ceded until now I seizem

dis sizable Mouthpiece role…now les’ drive to interior.
Virgil-like, the Guide spins her poetry and politics into revelations of global conflict, racial tensions, economic instabilities caused by terrorism, corruption and internal uprisings—devastations that resulted in a “dead scald world full o rust puddles, grim service men, / y ffyurious mekkinations.” And though a second world has been built to conceal the broken one, its attraction exists only at surface level. The damaged psyche seeps through very easily via the stories of the “guides who ache for their own/ guides / who mourn / who lead / men from human rinds of discontent.” Here, law is “the sin of choice.”

The Guide weaves the history of the troubled city with her own participation as a revolutionary (“to fightim me yesman lineage”), which compels the Historian to write down her own strained father-daughter relationship set in a more safeguarded, but no less alienating, childhood. She too must come to terms with superimposing truth over deception, reality over memory, and language over language.

By the conclusion of the tour, from the karaoke lounge of the St. Petersburg Hotel to the New Town detention center (a cursory glance “lest ye covet a forkin sinus punch on ye gob”) to the Grove of Proposals where one can toast “to bountiful gene pool, / to intramarry couple breedim beige population,” the Historian (like the reader) has become attuned to the din of Desert Creole and to the spin of “stingy” history. By then, the Historian’s personal connection to the Guide has been disclosed and indeed, the reader can identify with the irony and layered meanings in the Guide’s final statement: “If de world is our disco ball, might I have dim dance.”

As a vision of the present Babel channeled through a futuristic one, Hong succeeds with stunning inventiveness. Dance Dance Revolution is a forthright critique of U.S. meddling (and fumbling) in world affairs, and is unafraid to take a heavy step into the lightly tread arena of American political poetry. This cutting-edge book is a warning to the complacent populations, as well as a “guide” to survival in the apocalypse the world is experiencing at the moment:
You can be the best talker but no point if you can’t
speak the other man’s tongue. You can’t chisel, con, plead,

seduce, beg for your life, you can’t do anything, because you

know not their language. So learn them all.
by Rigoberto González

June 11, 2007

Review: Duende

Graywolf Press, $14 paperback

In an essay examining Federico García Lorca’s well known though not always well articulated concept of duende, Tracy K. Smith writes: “Unlike the Muse or Angel, which exists beyond or above the poet, the duende sleeps within the poet, and asks to be awakened and wrestled, often at great cost.” With such a risk taking place, successful results should be as impressive. Thus it was a brave move to title her second book, Duende, since the expectations will be high. So far, Smith has met and surpassed that promise by winning the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets because Duende is an intelligent and important book, a staggering study of the modern world.

Indeed, Smith’s project aims for a great vision, opening with a stylized epic titled “History” that sets the tone and volition:
This is a poem about all we’ll do
Not to scratch—

Where fatigue is great, the mind
Will invent entire stories to protect sleep.

Dark stories. Deep fright.
Syntax of nonsense.
From this vast starting point, the rest of the poems navigate through the trials of humanity, personal and communal—grief, loss, oppression, war—the pain, but so to the unsatisfactory healing, follies of the modern man, like 911:
The century’s in rubble, so we curl
Around pictures of ourselves, like Russian dolls

Whose bodies within bodies form a world

Free of argument, a make-shift cure

For old-fashioned post-millennial denial.
Taking a personal turn, part II of Duende maps the rift of a disintegrating marriage (“For years, your back to me made a continent./ I roamed it. Like wading the desert after dark.”), and the search for a trope to make sense of falling out of love, or rather, to come to terms with the shifting ground of emotion or being. It’s called moving on. One of those tropes is in the title poem, which personifies the duende, what Smith refers to in the aforementioned essay as “the perilous yet necessary struggle to inhabit ourselves—our real selves, the ones we barely recognize—more completely.” For the Spanish gypsies:
The earth is dry and they live wanting.
Each with a small reservoir

Of heavy music heavy in the throat.
And when they dance flamenco, they make of the body a “parable/ For what not even language/ Moves quickly enough to name.”

Part III takes its cue from Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire, in which he catalogs the atrocities committed against the disenfranchised in the Americas. For Smith, the fabrics of tragedy come as near as Aunt Neet’s admission of a wistful dream at a family reunion, reach as far as the dry savannas of Uganda, where young women were forced to bear children for military leaders. The poem “Slow Burn” offers the connection: how revelation (those personal disconcerting epiphanies or the knowledge of astounding suffering in the world) comes with a consequence: responsibility or madness, and how quick the human is to create a method to sidestep both and inhabit, rather, the unsettling middle ground. The speaker concludes this about cousin Marcus, the madman in the basement: “the same thing dragging his heart drags ours,/ Only he’s not afraid to name it.”

A second concept Smith exercises is the Portuguese saudade, a sigh or longing, often expressed in poetry and song. For Smith, this too, like duende, becomes an avenue for the exploration of “ways of naming the wound,” and then keeping it—like the risk-taking poet, like a citizen in this broken world—exposed, vulnerable and uncertain.

Rigoberto González

June 1, 2007

Review: The Continuing Misadventures of Andrew, the Headless Talking Bear

The Continuing Misadventures of Andrew, the Headless Talking Bear

Octopus Books, $6

In his captivating chapbook, The Continuing Misadventures of Andrew, the Headless Talking Bear, Jonah Winter crafts a wonderful pastiche of mostly free-verse, sometimes-rhymed sonnets. The poems are playfully earnest and cluttered—in a meticulous, dioramic kind of way—with coherent abstraction and illusory “thing-ness” (or, to use Winter’s word, “thing-hood”). Each poem reads like a fractured fairy tale where character and landscape collide in enchanted proportions:
Terrified angels hover in the basement,
clutching on to each other’s tattered wings,

crying ice-cubes, emitting ball-lightning

from their eye-sockets, now just cavernous spaces.

Evil returns again and again

to the little log cabin where It was born.

* * *

Mr. Duck? Are you aware that “time”

is an artificial concept, divined

by humans as a means of measuring

progress, and, too, destroying the dreams of children?

Come back, Mr. Duck. It’s all so clear now,

like counting backwards all the sheep in Canada:

Tundra-esque, remote, one night repeated

ad infinitum, the porch lamp always lighted...

* * *

Then, after the apocalypse is over,

all the animals are wheeled back onstage,

lifelike, smiling. (Note the Siberian Tiger.)

Oh no – here comes Mr. Pitiful!

What sad song bring ye in thine heart today?

Descending spirals, vomit, closed city,

a huge fountain of anti-matter, raining.

Well, we’ll have to put a man right on that.

Meanwhile, if you could just fill out this form...

Thanks! Understanding why you’re sad

blah blah blah negative thoughts blah blah blah corpse.

Okay, first, let’s move everything

back into the center ring. Maestro –

where is thy victory? Death, where is thy –
Winter also waggishly mixes-in referential elements on sonnets, process, and narrative. Perhaps the best example of this playfulness reaches across the two poems that end the book’s first section, “A Certain Argument”:
“We interrupt this poem for an announcement:
Will the man who’s collapsed on the marble floor

please come to the Information Desk,

I repeat: Will the long line of men and women

waiting at Window #7, turn

towards the great bronze doors. I repeat: O wild west – ”


“Shall I compare thee to – ” No, I’m afraid

you have the wrong number...
Here, the halting directive that “interrupt[s] this poem” morphs into additional directives, just like the opening lines of Shelley’s terza rima ode bleed into the opening lines of Shakespeare’s sonnet.

Another sonnet within the book’s first section ends almost winkingly: “This is not to say it can’t be done, / the poem as open-ended as the ocean.” As a whole chapbook, as two self-contained sections, or as individual poems, this notion of the poem’s “open-ended[ness]” is what Winter truly seems to be after. The narratives do lack succinctness, but they are neither trivial nor simply tongue-in-cheek. “The poem as open-ended as the ocean” provides no hindrance to understanding; if anything, the vastness contained in this proclamation serves as a buoyed guidepost as we survey the bizarre worlds Winter creates.

The overall effect of The Continuing Misadventures of Andrew, the Headless Talking Bear is one of esteemed wonderment. The poems are shrewd and amusing, as mysterious as they are precocious.

by Nate Slawson

This the sixth in a series of eight reviews on the chapbooks from Octopus Books.

May 19, 2007

Review: At the Drive-In Volcano

At the Drive-In Volcano
Tupelo Press, $16.95 paperback

The curious finds in nature and human folly, which might otherwise get slumped into trivia or become the odd ingredient in a conversation starter, are skillfully and delicately handled in the much-anticipated second book of poems At the Drive-In Volcano (Tupelo Press, $16.95 paperback) by Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

In “Fugu Soup Blues” for example, the reader’s introduced to the toxic porcupine fish, “the only fish/ that can close its eyes.” But the poem moves beyond reportage of facts and into the terrain of people’s attraction to risky behavior, i.e. the consumption of such a dangerous delicacy. The closing stanzas, however, beg associations to all of those other uncontrollable urges and indulgences:
You cannot stop this hunger. When
something this good can kill you, every pin prick

of white pain just adds more flavor.
The process of taking the unexpected, disconcerting detour from the seemingly charming direction of the poem is found in numerous pieces but most notably in “How the Robin’s Breast Became Red,” “Bee Wolf” and “Planaria,” about the “murderous business” of biology class dissections. It’s as if the poet has taken to heart the ars poetica cleverly ensconced in the poem about a jealous woman hiding a scorpion in her bride-to-be sister’s hair:
Invent a new line
for me, sketch me something

with lots of hair, extra bite. I crave

a new monster, all of its life

and saliva, how it gives me proof

my blood can still slam from one end

of my body to the other…
Nezhukumatathil’s poetic lens is indeed smudged with an anxiety that gives her second book a distinctively sinister edge. Witness the following lines from three different poems:
If you take away my glass before I’m finished, the ice
will cry soft in its melting, without my last mouthfeel.


This is the last hotel where the towels in the corner
of the bathroom (crumpled, dark) look

like someone was shot.


…even peeling an apple gives me

a small happy terror—the bright sheen of blood

and seed-skin.
Though the endnotes explain that the five sections of the book “are divided into specific thematic movements in a volcano’s lifespan,” the ordering of the poems within each section only hint at this larger construction. What’s more apparent is the speaker’s own movement in the first-person poems from one marker of identity to the next: sister, daughter, girlfriend, student, teacher, wife. This succession of roles stays connected by the speaker’s constant examination, volcano in the title notwithstanding, of the small and mostly eye-level encounters with the extraordinary ordinary things. The title poem, with its assertion that “Even in this darkness/ there is so much light,” appears to be addressing a new stage in the author’s poetics—a less innocent, and certainly a more perilous worldview. The result is daring and dazzling.

But fans of Nezhukumatathil’s previous volume Miracle Fruit should not be alarmed since they will find traces of that earlier project in this one, such as in the poem “First Fool,” about those men who rush to the summerwear at the first signs of sunlight:
The pale scissors
of this guy’s legs always cut me up. All

that’s left of me is a paper snowflake—

nothing but folds and tiny diamond holes.
by Rigoberto González