Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Juliana Spahr, _This Connection of Everyone with Lungs_

THE GENERALLY ADMIRING notice paid to Juliana Spahr's most recent book reminded me that this one had been on my shelves for a while without my getting to it.  So I got to it, and I'm happy I did.

Only two poems: "Poem Written after September 11, 2001," about ten pages long, and "Poem Written from November 30, 2002, to March 27, 2003," a sequence of dated poems, about sixty pages altogether.

The first poem contains the phrase that gives the volume its title, and is built around the idea that everyone breathes, a simple enough idea, which Spahr elaborates in a way that's a bit like Gertrude Stein writing "The House that Jack Built," but by the end...well, imagine how difficult-to-impossible it would be to write a poem about September 11th that is true to the horror of that day, but is also just, dignified, honest, and in a grieving way hopeful.  But the poem accomplishes that.

The longer poem is about the drum-beating prelude to the invasion of Iraq, and once again I am reminded of Whitman, of all people, as I was reminded of him by Lisa Robertson. Here, I think it's the simultaneity of the intimate and quotidian with the public and historical, the Whitman of "When Lilacs Last...," perhaps.  This makes for some startling tonal jumps ("During the bombing, beloveds, our life goes on as usual"; "When I reach for yours waists, I reach for bombers, cargo, helicopters, and special operations").  Whitmanian too are the catalogues, in this case the avalanche of information the poet finds herself under as she earnestly tries to keep up with the news ("I speak of David Letterman's shingles..." and of Christie Brinkley, Rachel Corrie, Gisele Bundchen, Elizabeth Smart...).

Spahr is trying hard to understand, to determine the right thing to do and do it.  This is political poetry, but it isn't poetry of witness, quite, unless watching th enews is a kind of witness -- Spahr repeatedly reminds us that her own personal situation is pretty nice, living in Hawaii with a couple of people she loves (her solution of the problem of the English language's lack of a second person plural is simple but effective, I think).  It isn't the poetry of exhortation, either.  And it isn't even the poetry of "I sure am a damn sight more sensitive to the world's suffering than you are, you big oaf" -- naming no names.  

She does seem to be asking a lot of herself, and the poem does in some ways foreground how much she is asking of herself, how hard she is trying to grasp her degree of complicity, as an ordinary U. S. citizen, in the approaching war, and I did feel often enough that she was setting an example I should be trying harder to live up to. But she didn't seem to be trying to make me feel that way -- and she was honest enough to admit that in many ways she is in as lucky a situation as a person could be in.  Well, I need to read the new one.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Christian Hawkey, _Citizen Of_

AS A FAN of Hawkey's first volume, The Book of Funnels, I was looking forward to this one, which I have only now gotten around to (it came out last year).  I will certainly be on board for the third.

I have some questions -- why the extra-large "O" in the word "of" on the book's cover?  Not merely an accidental design feature, I'm guessing, since other "O"s centered by themselves on an otherwise empty page demarcate the sections of the volume. "O"s also saliently occur in a few of the poems, not only in its usual (and here obviously self-conscious) rhetorically poetic role ("O my / beloved star-nosed mole / can I clean the soil / from your black, sightless eyes / [...]") but also as an image:

The black hole was not aware it was a hole
until it was uncovered. Then it became

a manhole, through which I fell through,
over & over. I tried to move the hole

but there was another hole
beneath it, which I fell through,

over & over, an O.

That's from "Hour," specifically the poem so titled on p. 82 -- there are eleven others titled "Hour," and another five with "hour" in the title, e.g., "Hour of a Mouth Packed with Flowers."  Is this the "O" a clock face, the twelve poems titled "Hour" the twelve hours marked on a clock face, the five...

Ehnnn.  Never mind.

Cleverness of some description is no doubt going on, but what kept me reading is the sheer power of Hawkey's verbal invention from line to line and poem to poem.  You literally can open the book, plop your finger on the page, and be relatively confident of finding something new and arresting.  One I liked, from "Debouchment as a Form of Stereognosis":

At least the bird's brain was focused
on something, something precisely the size of its brain.
[i.e., "a small grain of blonde millet"]
He closed his own eyes.  He gave it a try,  It was a vague,
gelatinous shape, like a milk-eyed infant king, or a huge collapsed pore
but that was as far as his lens would zoom.

"Stereognosis" means discerning the form of an object by touch -- is our man here trying to achieve knowledge of his own mind by imagining handling it?  It seems a Hawkeyan enterprise, I would say -- "The Enterprise," by the way, is the title of the volume's final poem, separated from the rest by its own "O", and in which the speaker seems both on the noted starship of that name and on a journey to the remoter provinces within his skull.

"Milk-eyed infant king." I don't know why I love that, but I do.

"Debouchment..." continues, "I pulled back / my forehead from the glass." This sent me back to a poem earlier in the volume, "Unwritten Poems," with the lines, "Another was little more than a smudge / left behind by a forehead resting / on a pane of glass."  Surreal Hawkey may be, but he certainly notices a lot -- not just the smudges on windowpanes, but the reasons they come to be there.

Also loved the way "Alien Corn" riffs off a phrase from Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" in a way that uncannily evokes another Keats poem, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci."

I occasionally hear complaints about the quality of contemporary poetry -- those people just aren't looking hard enough. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Lisa Robertson, _The Men_

THE MOST INTRIGUING book of poetry I've read in a while, I'd say.  Is it a long poem, The Men, in five sections ("Men Deft Men," "Evening Lit the Gnat," "A Record," "Of the Vocable," and "True Speech") or a collection titled The Men, containing five poems? I incline to the former view, both because of a variety of internal unities and because I am a man, and as a man I like large projects with many distinct parts, as Robertson notes: "How boring and fascinating the men. / I do this for them with structure and bigness."  And yes, structure and bigness are the royal road to my heart as a poetry-reading man.

The Men reminds me in passing of Ben Marcus ("Prior and excellent head of the boy/.../ I'm ready to believe / when speech slips out of the animal's head / it seems normal") and of Mathias Svalina's Why I am White, which also plays a fantasia on a much-discussed category of identity, but I am above all reminded, of all people, of Walt Whitman and "Song of Myself."

I think this may be because of Robertson's confident and capacious first person pronoun -- "I love it exceedingly and I satisfy my judgement," "I saunter somewhere" -- and because of her catalogues -- "hydromel in wildness and hydromel in the form of the world and hydromel dripping from the face, your face, the face of the men, hydromel filling the boats in the interminable night" -- or even because of some group swimming (62).  

(Hydromel, by the way, is "a mixture of honey and water that becomes mead when fermented." I take the image to function in the poem as shorthand for the relationship between men and alcohol.)

I think The Men most reminds me of "Song of Myself" because Whitman, as a man, felt empowered to speak of all men in general, and Robertson, as a woman, feels likewise empowered to speak of all men in general, in the process noticing some points Walt did not mention:

Let the thought here be planted
That the men want to float
Just the pink tip of their
Thing touching the firmament

My god, how did she know that?  But perhaps Walt did mention this, depending on how you look at the "headland" passage in "Song of Myself."

Robertson tends to give men a break, even when a break is not really merited ("The problematic politics adorable"), but points out some necessary home truths. "They cannot resist their own honour." "Men, we are already people." As someone old enough to remember Robin  Morgan's Monster, I appreciated -- loved! -- Robertson's tone, exasperated but wanting to help if we could be bothered to listen.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Geoffrey G. O'Brien, _Green and Gray_

O'BRIEN, LIKE HASS, teaches at  Berkeley, or at least did when this book came out last year. You wouldn't call him a "School of Quietude" poet, I'm guessing, though on the other hand some of his effects are quite reminiscent of Ashbery...if you model yourself on an avant-garde poet, are you therefore also an avant-garde poet?  Or a just a new species of quietudist? Hmm.

Not that I didn't enjoy the book -- I did.  But doesn't this --

You'll be asked questions, no doubt
will bleed privacy, will be allowed to leave
only the previous moments, may
in next ones be privileged to see
the permanent dissolve, passings
of orders from one hand to another
or by a look; in any event 
a chain that will concern you.

--sound like Ashbery, the parodically officious-yet-trying-to-be-kind tone, the apparently clear phrase that offers an enigma ("permanent dissolve")?  As in Ashbery, the vocabulary is familiar, the syntax elegantly conventional, the phrases seemingly transparent, yet the whole poems resist resolution into any unified meaning.  Which is exactly what I like about them.

In "They Met Only in the Evenings," a prefatory note mentions, all the lines are based on phrases from the Patriot Act, with a word from an English translation of Genet's Querelle substituted for one word in each line.  Which sounds like the sort of thing Ashbery might have gotten up to circa The Tennis Court Oath.  So not exactly a new thing, but a good idea at least.

"Hysteron Proteron" does not sound like Ashbery and is one of the more arresting poems here, as well as the longest.  The title refers to a rhetorical device in which a later event is named before an earlier-occurring one, and the last two pages are a dizzying rewind from 9/11 to Eve via various images from poems and lines of poetry, with Pynchon and Melville cropping up as well. I don't know why Milton's "pansy freaked with jet" is altered to "flower freaked with jet," but the accumulation of lines with towers, jets, falling, and death really sucks you down the whirlpool into the primordial soup...not what you would expect from a 9/11 poem, but it's one I expect to remember.

Robert Hass, _Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005_

ANOTHER PRIZE WINNER, National Book Award for Poetry in 2007.  I am obviously the kind of reader who motivates publishers to plaster those gold and silver medallions on their books.

Well, so be it.  The odds are undoubtedly against the National Book Award winner for poetry being the best book of poetry of the year, but on the other hand the book will very likely have a redeeming feature or two, at least.

I had only read a few anthology pieces by Hass before this (e.g., "Meditation at Lugunitas"), so he was something of an unknown quality for me, and I was definitely impressed.  He seems to be more or less a "plain language" guy, but one capable of stimulating leaps and swift, surprising closures -- an old dog more than capable of suddenly giving you a wink and executing a new trick.

I recently read an essay by Ron Silliman (on Ashbery's Three Poems) that contrasts the poets who seek to reinvent the way poetry is composed with "School of Quietude" poets who generally stick with more familiar or more traditional approaches.  I'm guessing Silliman would consider Hass a "School of Quietude" poet.  Which is OK with me, I think.  I'm old enough to appreciate a bit of quietude, if it's as skillful and intelligent as this. 

I need to scout out the volume with "Meditation at Lagunitas."