We Press Ourselves Plainly

Nathalie Stephens

Nightboat Books


Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

In a review of Touch to Affliction, Meg Hurtado describes Nathalie Stephens as “a tragic poet, in the word’s truest sense.” Stephens’ most recent book, We Press Ourselves Plainly, asks what happens to a body, a mind, a landscape that has absorbed the history of tragedy and then manifests that history within itself. It’s not a comfortable question, nor an easy one, and the speaker offers few answers, but rather attempts to embody that tragedy in a speaker’s voice. From the book’s brief post-script:

If one of the active functions of this work is compression, it is the compression not just of a body in a carefully controlled space, but of all the possible spaces pressed into that body, upon which the pressures of historical violence and its attendant catastrophes come to bear.

I’m honesty not sure I can say what it means to have “all possible spaces pressed into th[e] body” of the text (an ambitious project), but one feels in the voice of this text the “pressures of historical violence,” in the mind and body of the speaker, which are then pressed into the body of the text.

The book is composed as one 97-page continuous prose block, fragments of thoughts delineated by ellipses reminiscent most famously of Celine (also recently employed by Chelsey Minnis, though with sparser text and more abundant ellipses, and perhaps others I am forgetting or are unaware of). The effect of the ellipses is very much one of atemporality, by which I mean that the fragments feel snatched out of time and atmosphere; there is no feeling of progression in the prose, or consistent context, which NS’s* post-script indicates is part of the book’s theoretical design:

Spacially, the room is finite. But what enters, through the body of the speaking voice, orients thought away from its confines toward an exacerbated awareness of endlessly forming breaches.

One of the confines of thought is temporal relation to other thought, disrupted here by non-sequitur and repetition. NS’s employment of the word breach implies the intent to transgress&#8212here, both time and space. Technically prose but not narrative, assuming many of the liberties we associate with poetry, this book slips between and out of generic expectations, another breach.

The world of We Press Ourselves Plainly is one in which the seeming whole of humanity’s history of violence has come to bear in one traumatized voice; “we stand on one side of violence and it is the same violence,” NS writes, succinctly. Also: “We stand on one side of history and it is the same history.” The collective pronoun “we” feels expansive and inclusive&#8212who is on the other side of violence and history? Someone with a different relationship to both, I’d imagine, but the author seems to implicate a whole swath of humanity in the “movement” of violence, which is the “movement” of history. Just as the “I” of this text is anachronistic and geographically un-pin-down-able, so is the “we,” so that the reader feels included in this history and its attendant traumas.

The feeling of apocalypse that pervades the book is not a promise of some future demise but the fact of our own insistent violence in this time and this place. It’s not coming, it’s been here all along. The evidence is all around us.

It is the same warning… The same war… I attend the funeral in Fallujah and in Hyde Park… Nothing happens and it is written down… There are manifestations… The regional differences are deprecated… I prepare for it clumsily… The groans rise off the moors and out of the hospital beds…

The notion that all the wars are tantamount to one long war is iterated again as the speaker announces, “For the sake of simplicity the wars become one war” and “The wars are indistinguishable” (an astute and timely observation, as the rhetoric of any warring country tends to try to justify its war by distinguishing it from the other wars). As the text moves through time and space with its elliptical fragments, the speaker also invokes Chernobyl and Charonne,* as if to assure us that we cannot pin violence to one single geography, one time, one place. If the catastrophes of violence are “compressed” (to use NS’s own language) into one physical space (the book) and mental space (the speaker), the effect is dramatic and heartbreaking. What mind is strong enough to endure that much horror and not break? And then, as the semi-concrete artifact of the mind, what happens to language?

… We stand each on one side of other of a violence and it is the same violence… In the mouth… The mouth foremost… I make a signature of it… A fount of praises and they are immaculate… Immaculate and catastrophic…

So language itself becomes broken, as is both formally and substantively enacted by this work, but it also perpetuates violence, becomes an artifact and instrument of it. (Et quel dommage.) It is perhaps for this reason that the speaker pleads, “… Stop speaking… Just for a time…”

Here, there is nowhere the trauma of violence doesn’t reach. The body, the singular, human proxy for the physicality of the world in general, continuously vomits, as if in a constant state of rejection (rejection of that which poisons us). It is overwhelmed by toxicity:

A small overburdened liver… A mangled spleen… We bear… Bury… Heart spilling blood into the weakened parts… Vomit it into me… []… How many times bereft… And swollen… Lumped grievously together… Striated and torn… It spreads indiscriminately to other parts…

The notion of contagion is an important one, the idea that sickness spreads: from one part of the body to another, from one body to another body. This is clearly writ politically and geographically as well: it is said that violence begets violence, contagion on a global scale. NS represents the body as macrocosmic proof of this. (As I will suggest more fully below, it is possible the reverse is true as well; if shadow is contagious, why not light?)

A small promotional insert in the book declares that the project of this book yields “a kind of nihilistic courage.” The books insistent nihilism is perhaps most succinctly articulated in the final words of NS’s post-script: “Sisyphus, outdone.” A feeling of futility underlies much of the text, and for understandable reason. To flatten the time and space of history so that the totality of its atrocities feels immediate would indeed “overwhelm the spleen.” And yet, as the speaker comments, “if only it were otherwise.” It’s a lament that reads as if our suffering were absolute; but I can’t help but read the desire for a different world as the promise of it, or at least the promise of its possibility. Not that I think the speaker of NS’s book would be so optimistic; this is a philosophy exclusive of hope: “I make some progress… You blow on it and it goes out…” At the same time, I can’t help but think that the attempt to make art (like poetry, like this book), even out of the most egregious suffering, is always, in itself, a hopeful act, an act of endurance and an affirmation of applied intelligence, those things which have the capacity to change a damaged world.

It’s well understood that when we write, we choose our focus. And because our focus is finite, something is necessarily excluded (if I choose to write about Medieval London, I am probably not therefore writing about globalization in India). A few reviews ago, I wrote about the romantic pastoral as critically problematized simply by virtue of all that it excludes about the natural world (it prettifies that which is not always pretty); reading this book, I wonder if the reverse is also true, and what its implications are. What I mean is, if the pastoral is felt to be problematic because it excludes the ugly, is work which makes its focus catastrophe, disease, etc., problematic because it excludes the beautiful or wonderful or sublime? And if not, why not? Can we say that one exclusion is truly to be preferred over the other? Or that one is more responsible?

Here is a probably woefully poor analogy: let’s say there is a terrible car accident. Twisted metal, mangled bodies, blood, injury, death; the bodies are in distress, there is fear and unimaginable pain (you could insert a scene of bloody violence here if the car accident analogy isn’t working for you). Now let’s say that people gather around this car accident holding large mirrors in front of their bodies. For those inside the accident, their whole world becomes a scene of horror. Everywhere they look around, there is only suffering. I wonder if the world we find ourselves in isn’t a bit like that&#8212there are scenes of unimaginable horror; but what we hold a mirror up to multiplies the original horror manifold.* As NS writes, “It is the same violence… in the mouth.” I am not saying we shouldn’t hold up these mirrors, but I am saying it’s interesting to consider the implications of them, and whether the imperative to witness might include bearing witness to those things that help us endure the historical and personal traumas we are compelled to endure.


* The front matter of the book uses “NS” for Nathalie Stephens, which I have preserved here.

* Known for the Paris Massacre of 1961, in which at least 40 (and as many as 200) Algerians were slaughtered.

* This seems especially the case given how many different kinds of mirrors we have available to us via television, internet, poetry, art, photography, film, journalism, etc., etc.

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The Last 4 Things

Kate Greenstreet

Ahsahta Press


Monday, September 27th, 2010

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Kate Greenstreet read from her first book, Case Sensitive (Ahsahta 2006). It struck me, at the time, how much her reading style conveyed the sense of thought in real time, as opposed to language that has been permanently crystallized and is now being rehearsed. The poems, in her mouth, carried a certain elusive feeling of spontaneity. I wondered if the poems on the page felt quite so alive, and was forced to admit, upon reading them, that while they did feel alive in a way, it seemed an inescapable quandary that once locked into the page, a poem felt, well, fixed.

Kate Greenstreet’s second book, The Last 4 Things (Ahsahta 2009), finds a loophole in this quandary by including an accompanying film, inserted into the back flap of the cover, over which Greenstreet reads poems from the book. What impresses me about the film is that it does not act as simply a vehicle for the poems (i.e., poems read against a backdrop of images), but feels very much organic to the text, as if they were created in tandem, the images growing out of text and text growing from images (to see a short excerpt from the gorgeously composed film, click here.

As so many of the images are black and white (many in negative), I found myself wondering if they mean to visually correspond to type set (word as image, image as word). The images themselves are often composed in locked-off shots, a still frame with a moving image inside of it (Greenstreet writes, “all these images are locked down,” language that suggests the frame as a kind of prison). That images of train tracks and trains recur suggests to me an explicit narrative of journey, time and place rushing by, even as the eye remains fixed; the word, the camera, become attempts at preserving that which is always already slipping away.

Greenstreet’s voice in the film, rendered largely in voice over, is barely more than a whisper, reserved and slightly nasal, like a librarian speaking into the spine of her favorite book, unsure if she even wants to be speaking. The voice(s) of the poem accomplishes a similar effect, as one of the tricks of this book/film is to construct language that feels terribly private inarguably public, and one of the questions Greenstreet’s project proposes is how the word and image differ with regard to this endeavor. If it’s true what Pound says, that “it is better to produce one image in a lifetime than voluminous works,” what is the work of the poem if the text is not the primary vehicle of the image’s presentation? *

The first part of the book, a long poem for which the book is named, feels as if it were composed from pieces of language snatched from a restless mind, a mind turning itself over and into moments of poetry. It is written in fragments, but fragments issued with a consistent feeling of voice that acts as a current under them&#8212almost as if someone spied on a brain speciously convinced of its own privacy, and then grabbed patches of thought from different moments through out the day and wrote them down.

If we haven’t beauty
or wealth
or even goodness to save us…

Be brave but—
say there was a fire

We should not shamelessly trample
upon one another.
I said, “He’s my brother”?

I don’t know why I would have said that.

It is in part by virtue of the inwardness of this expression that these lines do not grate on the reader as oppressive moralizing, so much as an introspective meditation on the obligations of human beings toward one another (“He’s my brother”?), even as the question mark and the poem’s final off-hand caveat suggests we’re not sure why we feel as bound to our fellow humans as we sometimes do.

In the film, these lines are spoken over close up shots of abstract paintings, a close up of the outline of an eye, a close up of red, yellow, and orange paint brushed into fire. The frame of the camera re-situates the frame of the painting, redirects our attention to one piece of it. In the film, as well as in the poems, one gets the feeling that the speaker is trying to digest portions of experience. Our lives, the lives of others, the vastness of our impressions otherwise feeling so unmanageable.

The second part of the book, a long poem called 56 Days, plays with this public/private boundary with prose poems written as if extracted from a diary. As the poems accrue, so does the speaker flesh out as a character, a woman in a war against forgetting; Greenstreet uses the diary construct as a way of foregrounding the attempt to record the impressions of our days; it also performs the convention of privateness (a child’s diary often comes with a lock, etc.) even as a) it is offered as literature to the public and b) it is then used as script for a film. One even feels, from the speaking personae, an occasional embarrassment arising from the presumption of an audience for these thoughts:

I was enthralled with my black room, and the equipment and the chemicals. Even the names: the Fixer, the Stop Bath, the Orbit. Shaking the tray in the safe red dark, I was happy— watching the image come up— gray shapes collecting into streets or faces—

I’m not sure I can give you these sentences.

As this passage suggests, these poems are infused with the language of camera and frame (as is appropriate to a book-cum-film). The camera operates consistently as a metaphor for memory, our attempts at preservation; at times, Greenstreet suggests the camera as an apparatus for illumination:

&#8212The camera has two purposes: one is to help the person holding it to see. The other, simply to draw light to itself.

This poem plays with the knowledge that without a frame, the world would simply be too much to take in; the camera helps us not only apprehend something otherwise sublime, but also “draw[s] light” (a language of transcendent understanding), as it preserves the impression of time.

To speak of method. Empathy. Our times, time.
Disappears with me. Sleeps a minute.

What Greenstreet posits here is the idea that time “disappears” with us when our consciousness disappears; time is therefore not something we share, it’s something we absorb. And when we lose a person (“Sometimes he is the camera”), we lose the time that person has absorbed.

The Last 4 Things reads very much like a love letter to the lost&#8212a lost brother, a lost world (as some poems project apocalypse), a lost time. The speaker confesses, “We don’t know what it means but we know that the person disappears.’ If not elegaically commenting on loss, these poems seem constantly aware of the immanent possibility thereof:

Let’s decide where we’ll go I the house catches fire.
What we carry? Big shadow of a fly, years of pining.

At twilight, haunting the old homes.
Looking for the lamps once lit in rooms.


To bring to a stop and keep standing on the edge, when death won’t take you. Hundreds of children.

The camera turns the corner. We’re never any closer.
Sometimes he is the camera.

In the film of 56 Days, Greenstreet uses a series of images of a house obscured, or else revealed (if you’re a glass half full kind of audience), by large, wintery branches; the branches themselves visually render the bind spots of memory, the way our memory never preserves something in its entirety in our consciousness, but instead offers us digestible pieces of our experience. As Greenstreet writes, “Everything is slightly hidden from me, all the time.” And from us, as readers, as the audience that only sees in the frame of someone else’s eye.

It is now a well-worn convention to offer the caveat that the eye (“I”) itself, in a poem, is a construct&#8212and fair enough. But what does this mean when we pull that eye into film? It would seem that, at least in a practical way, the “eye” corresponds to the body behind the camera (though in this film, as in most, there are multiple camera-persons shooting footage), even as the frame is consciously constructed. But then, in film, there’s never been any question but that the image is a construction (often, though not always, built around a pre-existing script). To call it a fiction would be, even in the case of documentaries, like calling wine “grapey.”

Greenstreet’s project is interesting for the integration of mediums, the layering of fictions on top of fictions, non-fictions on top of non-fictions. The text/poems may have been constructed from an idea of a fictional personae, working out ideas that the less-fictional Greenstreet finds compelling. But is the eye behind the camera also intended to be a character, or is there some conflation of fiction and truth that is more subtle, more complex, than is comfortable to admit? Because it seems too easy to say everything is a construction or nothing is. And if we find ourselves in a gray area, then we know we must be looking at something made by humans.

* If this book acts as a proof against Pound’s dictum (which I’m fairly certain hasn’t been treated as proof for well over half a century), that is in itself a reason to recommend it, to my mind, as it’s always interesting to find proof against dogma in action. And anyway, poems do lots more than make images, even spectacular ones, and there are too many worthwhile poems doing other things to make an especially solid case to the contrary.

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The Dirt Riddles

Michael Walsh

University of Arkansas Press


Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

I watch cows, like small, sleepy dinosaurs, swish their tails as they masticate grass in the field across from my house. Every day the same. Swish, chew, swish, chew. I confess: I have been charmed by a vision of rural life that requires no spit, sweat, no blood or shoveling shit. I look happily on, from my kitchen window, at a safe and seductive one hundred yards. A flock of geese fly over a hill staggered with bales of hay, and I’ll admit, I feel sentimental. It’s a register of emotion that the city version of me would have sardonically mocked, but I’d be a liar if I said that I didn’t find it all rather lovely, in a genuine if largely aesthetic kind of way.

I am offering myself up as a classic example of the problematic idealization of the bucolic. Much critique of the pastoral is rooted in the feeling that our pastoral poets, in their idealization, fail to see what is. Worse, what is is eschewed for an aesthetic of what we would prefer (pretty lambs on a hillside; wolves kept at bay). In preparation for this review, I reread Virgil’s Ecologues, a few poems by Thomas Gray and Wordsworth’s more famous pastoral poems, and in all of them I honestly failed to find a representation of the bucolic that was unmitigatedly idealized (though surely they exist, just not by very good poets). I found, rather, poems haunted by death, apocalyptic in tone (Virgil), or at least acknowledging the roughness of the natural world:

Alas, the mountain-tops that look so green and fair!
I’ve heard of fearful winds and darkness that come there;
The little brooks that seem all pastime and all play,
When they are angry, roar like lions for their prey.

&#8212Wordsworth, “The Pet Lamb”

I wonder if, in many cases, we have been persuaded by our idea of what the pastoral is, rather than specific, complex readings of pastoral poetry. In other words, what the pastoral is may be much richer than what we imagine it to be, and much more fraught.

Michael Walsh’s first book, The Dirt Riddles (winner of the 2010 Arkansas Poetry Prize) offers a corrective to the hyper-romanticized vision of rural life that has long dominated the American imagination. He does this through short, delicate lyrics that observe life on and around a dairy farm, crafting an anti-pastoral pastoral marked by an attitude of tenderness towards their land, even as our speaker(s) eye does not flinch from the ugly, gross, aggressive or uncomfortable. It’s possible that many poems we consider classically pastoral contain these anti-pastoral threads. In this light, Walsh does not eschew a tradition as much as he simply updates its expression. Furthermore, while the pastoral is indeed aesthetic, “farm life” is experiential, and these poems write through the latter even more than it adopts the conventions of the former.

In these poems, bales of hay smell, not of “sweet, green field” but “mold” (“Haying the Fields”). Walsh’s unsettling next and final line, “I feed the herd this bread,” invokes the classical symbol of bread as nourishment even as it subverts it. Earlier in the poem, the speaker watches his father:

…high on the John Deere,
the baler chewing row after row
to cut alfalfa, mustard, thistle.
I can’t tell, as I lift and stack,
how many small lives
die here, mangled under twine.

Here, the speaker recognizes the disruption of the human in the natural world, the casual violence of machines. Sympathy is one of the book’s most pervasive emotional motors, and here we see the speaker’s tendency to see the unseen, and to feel with them. It is, in part, this sympathy that drives the speaker to treat the pastoral with a guarded skepticism.

In a poem unambiguously called “Against Pastorals,” for example, the speaker tends to newborn calves:

plastic tags popped through their ears
and black scabs in between
where I burned off their horns,
white nubs soft as roots.
That scorched fur stank like human hair.
I turned and knew what I had to celebrate.

As in “Haying the Fields,” the speaker’s role on the farm feels somewhat discomfiting. That the fur “stank like human hair” suggests an unsettling empathy (would we feel comfortable doing this to a human?) and makes the language of celebration that follows feel ironic, hollow, inexplicably sad. It is one of the conventions of the pastoral that the animal/human relationship is symbiotic and uncomplicated (the lamb may eventually get eaten, but we don’t have to see the mess of killing). But Walsh suggests that the relationship is complicated at least in part because humans intervene&#8212not for the animals’ own interest&#8212but for the humans’. Unlike the happy lambs of the 19th century (at least, so we imagine), Walsh’s cows seem to lament something:

Now here’s sorrow
pushed from young ribs.
One part bassoon
two parts howl…

And again, the speaker feels something of himself in the animal’s bellow:

to rest in solar plexus
long enough for you
to bellor likewise.

This is not the pastoral rendered through the eye of an idealizing observer, but someone who knows this world too well to idealize it; this is particularly potent in Walsh’s poems that foreground the queer, poems that see this world through the sometimes anxious eye of a man whose sexuality targets him for potential violence in a homophobic world:

It’s a dirty peck
quick as a feather.
And now no one else in line
can bear to look at us.
Their gazes flutter to bottles
or keys they clutch, careful
until we step to the counter.
Then their eyes lock
hard and blank on our backs.

(“On Kissing My Husband at a Gas Station”)

The homoerotic is certainly familiar to the pastoral, dating back at least as far as Virgil’s “Alexis” Ecologue. But whereas Virgil effuses unabashedly to his beloved, Walsh’s poems are anxiously infused with the barely submerged threat of violence:

He lifts me to his brother’s face
Those sweet and full lips.
I love Tim’s fist.

Queerness, in these poems, radically disrupts the cultural vision that one might expect from poetry concerned with the agricultural Midwest. In this way, the vantage point of Walsh’s speakers seem as much outside as inside, intimate as foreign (would that this were not the case; it seems a shame we identify rural America with staunch heterocentrism). By writing the queer into his poems, Walsh foregrounds the popular idea of the rural United States as excluding the queer (and, by extension, emphasizing cultural homogeneity). Perhaps this explains the intensity with which Walsh’s speakers “see the unseen,” and empathize with them (see Reinhart’s A History of Shadows for a discussion on the history of invisibility of homosexuality in the rural Midwest). Walsh thus conceives the American pastoral as a genre that witnesses complexity of many kinds (social, cultural, economic, and personal).

A blurb by Paul Zimmer on the back of the book contends that these poems are “about strong, feeling people as they sense their way of life slipping away, even as they struggle to maintain themselves and find their own identity.” This sounds pleasant, but not entirely like the book I read, which does not seem to lament the slipping away of a way of life at all, as much as simply recount the moments and days and artifacts that make a life, letting them resonate with the reader according to the reader’s sympathies. Moreover, I wasn’t sure what this “way of life” means exactly, and honestly, I’m (gratefully) not sure Walsh does either. It is, in part, what makes reading this book a rich experience.

Despite the fact that these poems explicitly and consistently treat encounters with the natural world, Walsh does not render a world entirely outside the modern, the industrial.

Rust blooms across my land:
Spots like mold on white cars,
Their spark plugs cold as insects
Poisoned in orange powder.


What is interesting is that Walsh doesn’t fall very easily into the common dualism of natural/unnatural (often manifest in rural/urban dichotomies); in fact, the rural world never quite feels as natural as our cultural imagination might have us believe. In a poem called “Surrogates,” for example, the speaker writes of the impregnation of a cow:

Mother would push her hand inside the cow
slow, up to the elbow,
make the animal arch its back

to the right curve
for her silver gun
steady and quick as a stud.

This is hardly “natural,” but it doesn’t condemn or place a value on the natural over the unnatural either. We live in a world where easy delineations between the natural and unnatural quickly blur, and we adapt to the landscape we shape as much as we are shaped by it.

Reading these poems, I was struck by the fact that aesthetically, these spare, delicate lines may act in analogy to our popular imagination of the bucolic. They speak plainly, often narratively, they employ music that is subtle (“iridescence spinning, /holding still”) rather than hard or cacophonous. It is for this reason, I suspect, that Zimmer gives them the bizarre compliment of not trying “to dazzle us with poetic footwork.” At times, they can tip a bit into the precious (“I say, River, let me breathe you.”). But much as Walsh never writes the pastoral in too easy or clean a way, he is also inclined to disrupt the prettiness of his lines with a surprising sound, syntax, or image (“Even my skinny/chest would wobble/fake with breasts/ until I got comfortable” or “Spare parts,/ I lay experimental in his place” or “In storm light, everything’s hinge”). I often think that one of the unique gifts of the poem is the ability to surprise, both to let us see a thing in a new way but also to surprise the poem itself with a word or image that recasts what came before. Walsh’s poems, at their best, deftly accomplish this.

* * *

This most recent cycle of Constant Critic reviews has undertaken, in various ways, a critique of the genre of the review. The most pragmatic function of a review, it seems, is simply to give a reader a sense of whether or not he or she would like to read a particular book. But it strikes me that the review can also be a site of guerilla literary criticism, using a single book as a lens through which to say something about literature or poetics more broadly. Of course, as Karla noted in her most recent review, our aesthetics and ethics are as much implicit as explicit, and surely sometimes masked by the endeavor of rendering the book’s concerns (which may not, actually, be our own). I have never felt especially connected to the post-confessional voice (which Walsh arguably employs), but I appreciate a book that challenges me to think about a genre in a new way (which The Dirt Riddles most certainly does).

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The Smaller Half

Marc Rahe



Sunday, May 30th, 2010

When I used to read submissions for the Denver Quarterly, sometimes more than a hundred in one week, I would often notice recurring aesthetic patterns or gestures, executed with more or less sophistication, in poets of seemingly different substantive interests. Were they just reading the same poets? Surely this was the case for some. But cover letters revealed another common thread, and over time, I came to associate these identifiable aesthetics with particular graduate programs.

If, for example, I was reading a poem with an air of classical control, and gentility of expression, I might attribute it to the University of Virginia. If formally ambitious and influenced by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, I might think Brown University or Buffalo; if the poem was slightly narrative, with the occasionally surreal image twisting our sense of time and place; if it employed explosive, Donne-like openings followed by short, well-crafted lines, and an ending that lifts off the page as the poem gently but firmly settles into heavy silence, I might suspect the poet as a graduate of the Iowa Workshop.

As a recent Brown MFA graduate who had subsequently immersed herself in Denver University’s PhD program, perhaps this attention to program aesthetics arose in part from my anxiety about being too much a product of my own academic environments. I was unnerved by the possibility that my work was being shaped in ways that I, and perhaps others, were not consciously aware of. As I began to predict the “program” from the submission (and I was wrong at least as often as I was right), I wondered if it was the teacher’s influence I was seeing (the mentor/mentee relationship having surely been endemic to artistic endeavor since cave drawings), or a more nebulous gestalt that exists in a department, that withstands shifts in faculty: a strange amalgam of former faculty, current faculty, former graduates, current students, and simply whatever idea of the program dominates in one’s imagination, if indeed there is such an idea.

It has been years since I read for the Quarterly, and years since I thought much about writing programs and their aesthetics (living somewhat at a remove from such programs or even many other poets), until I picked up The Smaller Half, a very good first book by poet and Iowa graduate Marc Rahe, and the first book issued by Rescue+Press.

In The Smaller Half, I indeed found some of the stylistic hallmarks I had come to associate with the Iowa Workshop: almost cinematically observed moments that cut in and out of perspective, bold first lines (“All the people are naked;” “Coincidence is a spring of romance;” “I’ve signed the petition against me”), and those last lines that very much feel like last lines:

And the passing motorists will have
the gift&#8212left along the shoulder&#8212
of so many snow angels.


Inside the car I couldn’t hear
The gutter water running to drain.

Though, to be honest, I rather like a line that convinces you to stop breathing as the poem stops breathing; it’s not the only way to end a poem, but it can make for a satisfying reading experience. So does it matter that these endings remind me a bit of Levine (who often writes quite beautiful, quiet endings to his poems)? Is it foolish to expect us not to absorb something from our teachers, or our teachers’ teachers? To offer a somewhat grandiose example, do we balk to see traces of da Vinci’s style in Raphael’s frescos? On the other hand, is something lost when we can anticipate the “move” a writer is about to make?

These poems also possess a wry, almost disaffected humor that punches up their genuinely compelling pathos, a pathos that often finds its roots in the psychological relationship between the speakers of these poems and their bodies (or the bodies of others). The book’s first poem, for example, finds the speaker waiting in a hot car, while someone runs an errand for him/her:

I shift my feet from pain to pain.
I think how she will return again
and bring cigarettes and gin.
This is a kindness I’m waiting for,
this errand I’d rather run
myself and see no kindness in it.

&#8212″Quality of Life”

What strikes me here is the astute psychological observation that when one is forced into a position to have to accept kindnesses, it can be difficult to embrace them without a bitterness infusing the sweet, as they remind us of our inability to function as we might prefer. On a technical note, it is worth noting the slanted rhyme of the first three lines: pain/again/gin, three words that dryly suggest their narrative relationship to each other.

Rahe’s technical and thought-provoking execution in this poem goes a long way in limiting how much one cares about this or that stylistic gesture; it seems important to engage these poems on their own terms as well, because there is honestly quite a lot in these poems worth chewing on. For example, in a neatly compact poem called “Summer,” Rahe’s speaker observes:

Always I notice the entrances to homes
where a wheelchair couldn’t go.
They are the shoulders of these houses
raised in apology.
As if they couldn’t help
but to offend. As if to say:
it is how we were made.

There are at least two bodies in this poem: the body in the wheelchair, which is denied access to the body of the house (“the shoulders of these houses/raised in apology”). The house, now personified, suggests the indifference of the people who might build such a house, what one suspects is a broad and persistent failure to consider how our spaces might invite or prohibit invitation to others (I feel as though there might be an analogy that extends past the body here: that is, the ways in which we construct our spaces&#8212our lives&#8212that might prohibit relationship).

And yet the house itself is somehow fixed in its state. The ironic tone of the last line reverses itself as we realize that the house cannot change its condition, though it speaks to the offense of the people who have created an architectural work of separation (for what could symbolize separation more acutely than a home that does not invite someone in).

Relationships, in these poems, are often marked by an apprehension of separation (the language of “strangers” recurs in a number of different poems), an apprehension that often begins and ends in recognition of the body:

…Surely her knee is not cold.
The knee straightens and bends.
Its kneecap slides in light
reflected there. The knee right there.

Each instant contains possibilities, each
its own future universe, each
real as the last. Could be, and really
is, any stranger. Could be
or the girl herself. Strangers,
so real they are imaginary
people, figments, ghosts, light tricks.

&#8212″Infinity’s Grains”

What fascinates me about these lines is the way movement is rendered as flexible in its possibility. A dancer-friend of mine once described bending the knee as following “the trace of movement,” suggesting that the movement has begun in advance of our bodies following it. Here, the potentiality of movement gives the knee many paths to follow, and compels one to wonder what index of thought inspires one choice over another. It also highlights, in the context of surrounding poems, that some lack this choice, in ways. The body might limit the potential of the mind&#8212though perhaps this is the nature of the material in general, and some feel it more acutely than others.

In these poems, the bodies of others (often female, and in “Infinity’s Grains,” the knees of a woman) take on an erotic quality&#8212sometimes simply by virtue of the quality of attention given to them. The image of knees crops up in a few different poems, perhaps importantly, as they are the hinges that allow movement of the legs. As in other poems, a focus on mobility and immobility motivates these poems, and often seem to create the conditions for desire in our speakers.

When the body is eroticized (see poem entitled, “Nice Ass”), it might be tempting to read the speaker’s gaze as objectifying; but the context that the surrounding poems afford these erotic moments suggests something deeper in the emotional relationship of one body to another body. There is longing, to be with, to be as, to dissolve separation:

breasts behind
a V of cloth

where fingers could enter;

And, from later in the poem:

a V narrowing
to an almost V-like shape
suggestive of one open
hand approaching another.

As I hope these readings suggest, Rahe’s poems are doing unique and interesting work. While one might detect the influence of Mark Levine, James Galvin, James Tate and a few poets of the New York School, the poems of The Smaller Half, while perhaps influenced, do not parrot. They are not like the man in “Life Without Boxes” who “manipulates his body/ until his difference goes away.” On the contrary: these poems engineer their bodies to render something surprisingly singular in sensibility, a unique combination of archness and wonder, guardedness and receptivity, nonchalance and surprise, and it may be evidence of the potentiality of movement in a poem that we never know which register the line will hit, until we find ourselves a little stunned in its wake.

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Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg, Editors

Saturnalia Books


Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Gurlesque is an anthology of contemporary poetry by women that subverts cultural concepts of heteronormative sexuality. Arielle Greenberg and Lara Glenum, the collection’s editors, maintain that the anthology rose out of an observation of growing tendencies toward certain representations of the female body and female identity that Greenberg coined “Gurlesque.” These representations tend, as the name suggests, towards the grotesque, the carnivalesque, the burlesque. The first two of these three “esques” take as their modus operandi distortion and exaggeration (sometimes hybridization), to the ostensible end of subverting expectations (though exactly what these expectations are, it is hard for me to say, as they must vary from person to person, culture to culture). The burlesque operates similarly, though in a way more overtly concentrated on gender issues, and with the added dimension of performance. Glenum, in her introduction, refers her idea of the burlesque back to 19th century shows in which “female performers…literally usurped male power by taking on male roles onstage…ultimately emphaiz[ing] the constructed nature of both genders, calling into question accepted gender roles themselves.”

So, to put it rather simply, what the Gurlesque attempts is the radical questioning of what it means to be a woman, or a girl, and a man or a boy for that matter, and to do so in a way that explodes cultural convention (1).

Lara Glenum writes that the anthology is “intended as a portal, as the beginning of a conversations whose end remains unseen.” In this spirit, I want to voice some questions I have about the Gurlesque. I would like to say, in advance, that I have no interest in a valuative critique of these poems (2); my interest is in the Gurlesque as an idea, an attitude, an aesthetic. I would like to think through whether or not the anthology succeeds on its own terms (are the editors clear enough about their terms?), as well as some of the potential problems of the Gurlesque’s way of conceiving the female body and identity.

The Body, The Abject: Arielle Greenberg, in her introduction, cites Kristeva’s idea of the “body as a site of horror.” The idea she refers to here is abjection, that which is “cast out” or “jettisoned” from the dominant symbolic order; for Kristeva, the mother’s body was a site of abjection, as could be anything the body rejects (poison) or society rejects (garbage, or the female body, or cultural minorities). It might be interesting to discuss the Gurlesque treatment of the body in light of Kristeva’s ideas, though Greenberg drops the reference quickly without critically bearing out the thought. This strikes me as a shame, because the Gurlesque, it would seem (3), seeks to shed light on the abject, to let those who would feel abjected give expression to the feeling of that state (4).

Thus, for reasons connected to theories of abjection, Greenberg embraces a language of horror in the Gurlesque, which presents the body distorted, violent and violated, pissed-off and powerful. It is what Greenberg calls “a feminine, feminist incorporating of the grotesque and cruel with the spangled and dreamy.” I can see why the grotesque would be a marker of the abject, but not the cruel. Does the dominant symbolic order reject the cruel? (And here, what is the dominant symbolic order? American culture? Popular Andro-American culture? Well, this certainly does not reject the cruel. Gyno-American culture? What is that, exactly?). It might be true that women have long rejected cruelty from dominant female culture (or at least has often expressed it less physically), but is this really a bad thing? Is the appropriation of the worst qualities of those (women and men) who have subjugated women for centuries upon centuries really feminist? Or wise?

Ariana Reines, in a poem that begins and ends in sexual violence, writes, “Liquid shoot into her skull and leak out her eye hole/ Thick book like his fat head when I sit on it and fart.” The language here is clearly fragmented and unapologetically violent (it’s an “eye hole” instead of an “eye socket”&#8212this isn’t anatomical, it’s emotional, as “hole” connotes emptiness, void, and of course, the vagina). It is ostensibly intended to shock and disgust, and while it may not do the former (what shocks us nowadays?), it might trigger the latter. My question is, why, and to what end? What is disgusting? Is it the body? Or is it the violated and violating body? The poem itself suggests the latter. More to the point, it performs the latter.

Glenum writes that if the burlesque “is always about the body on display (i.e. the gendered surface of the body), the grotesque engages the body as biological organism.” This strikes me as only marginally true: the body as biological organism is just configuration of atoms into tissue (a friend of mine who is a neurologist told me once, as we flipped through photographs of extreme skin diseases, that there is nothing of the body that she finds disgusting, only healthily or unhealthily functioning). The grotesque, then, distorts the body as biological organism (which is a kind of engagement, yes; but the word “engage” is imprecise to the aims of the grotesque). The anthology contains photographs, for example, of an oyster shell cradling teeth and tongue – and it’s not the tongue or teeth that makes it grotesque&#8212it’s the fact that the tongue and teeth are not in a human mouth. But “grotesque” does not just denote distortion; there is almost an emotional or valuative register of the word. As if we should shudder. But what if we don’t (5)? It strikes me that the body is only a site of horror if we find it horrible (6).

The bodies in Gurlesque never quite manifest as grotesque to me, in the way that feels emotional or valuative, but they do appear, at times, disfigured (7). Take an except from “Fleshscape” by Nada Gordon:

To make a cape
of flesh, take
the labia minora
between the thumb
and forefinger, s-t-r-e-t-c-h
downwards and back
over the buttocks, then
upward along the ribcage,
curling them over

The vision of the body here is one that is malleable, undoes its own shape and makes a “cape” out of labia (a vaginal superhero?). What would constitute this as a grotesque gesture is its distortion of the natural, which of course has been a historically problematic notion, since notions of naturalness, particularly with the body, have been used to pigeonhole or violently exclude far too many people for far too long. But there’s something about the anatomical language of “labia minora” or the instructional tone of the poem that seems to sidestep the grotesque (although I acknowledge that were this scene rendered visually, without language, it might feel more grotesque).

The Gurlesque’s appropriation of ideas like the grotesque or carnivalesque suggests a penchant for defamiliarization, particularly in relation to the body. If we follow Kristeva’s idea of the abject, we are reminded that “abjection is elaborated through a failure to recognize its kin; nothing is familiar;” so if the female body exists in an abjected state, then there seem to be two options: the body is alienated from the “I” that wears it, or the body is alienated from other bodies. I certainly do not discount the very real experience of feeling that the body is somehow alien from us, grotesque or somehow constantly performed without our willingness to perform it. But at the same time, I can’t help but feel that all of this alienation is somehow, at its roots, psychological illusion. Bodies are not alienated from one another: they breathe the same air, they share an astonishing amount of DNA, they rely on one another for survival. Nor is the body alienated from the mind (except in rare neurological disorders); the two are in constant communication, at least until the death of the brain.

The tragedy of trauma, to which the female body is unfortunately too often subjected, is that it creates psychological fissures that lead to these feelings of alienation. Lacan, or even Kristeva, might argue that we all experience this trauma the moment we are ejected from the mother’s body: my question is, how helpful is this Lacanian framework? Are there other ways of conceiving the body that do not always already assume trauma and alienation?

Identity: At the forefront of the Gurlesque is a mish-mash of conflicting identities: virgin, whore, mother, soldier, punk, bimbo, intellectual. We are all familiar with the stereotypical tropes of female identity; here, the subversion of these stereotypical, heteronormative tropes is undertaken by excluding nothing. A woman can wear a tutu and combat boots, lipstick and chains, be mother and sadomasochist and poet all at once. Brenda Shaughnessy writes, for example, “there is an argument for the dull-chic, the dirty olive and the Cindarelly,” positing a vision for femininity that is at once delicate and magical (Cindarelly) and cosmopolitan (“the dull chic”) and perhaps even militant (“the dirty olive”) and somehow all superficial (all of these images refer us more or less to costume – a not unimportant point).

Or as Catherine Wagner writes in “All Bar One,”

nigh am so sick of doubting
myself an thinking I am bad
nigh bore myself
anyway trying to be like the udders…

First, let’s face it, the pun on “udders” is kind of hilarious, especially as the image itself conjures sacks of milk, as if to say, I don’t want to be like the other mothers (read “udder” in “mother” as well as “other”), I don’t want to be a cow, I don’t want to have my identity as a woman handed to me. There is something genuinely funny and even almost touching about these lines. At their core is an assertion of identity: to say I do not want to be what you want me to be is to begin to shape one’s identity in an autonomous way.

But then, Glenum notes that these poems are not like those of second generation feminist poets, insofar as they are not “persona poems;” the persona poem, she argues, assumes “there is a face beneath the mask,” while the poets of Gurlesque “assume there is no such thing as coherent identity. There is no actual self, only the performance of self.” So then, there is no attempt at shaping an autonomous identity, only the performance of shaping an autonomous identity. We could also observe here that identity itself is a kind of performance, though it may be useful to distinguish between identity, which is constructed and often superficial, and self, which seems to have more to do with the kind of psychological glue that unifies the concepts of mind and body, and perhaps soul, if you swing that way.

I understand that the lyric “I” can perform many things beyond the poet’s conception of his or her self. But when we say that there “is no actual self,” do we mean in the poem, or there is no self writing the poem? And if there is no self, then there cannot be a violation of that self’s autonomy. Are we again thinking ourselves into justification of the dehumanization that grieves us? How do we argue against the dehumanization of the female that these poets seem to rightly reject, but assume there’s no human to oppress? I don’t write this glibly: I really want to know.

There’s an argument to be made that the performance of self exists purely to question assumptions that being human requires a concept of self (I think we do, according to the definition offered above). But I also wonder, after we’ve questioned and questioned and critiqued and critiqued notions of self and gender and identity, then what do we do? And maybe we have not exhausted ourselves in these questions quite yet – but at a certain point, don’t we have to look up and say, “Okay, we deconstructed all of that nonsense. What now?”

I think Gurlesque offers itself as, among other things, an occasion to ask questions worth asking; in this way, as Lara Glenum suggests, it is the beginning of a conversation – with some funny or surprising poems in the mix as well, some more or less interesting, as will be the case for any anthology. I don’t believe, however, as Arielle Greenberg remarks somewhat wryly, that these poems “are just words.” I think these poems are evidence of and reaction to a culture that still cannot conceive of what a woman is, and so creates neat narratives and costumes for her and hopes that she’ll buy it.

I’m not sure the Gurlesque, as an idea, attitude, or aesthetic, successfully throws off the mantle of old thought or cultural patterns; I’m not sure either embracing or rejecting the girly, the hard-core, the violent and/or feebly passive poles of possible female action or identity is quite as radical a response as the situation requires. I think it’s possible to discover what we are in a way that our culture, perhaps any culture, has never imagined.

I think we can be new.

(1) The collection has been critiqued for excluding queer experience; other critics have also pointed out that the anthology’s representation of cultural experience tends to be limited to American experience. Both of these critiques strike me as reasonable.

(2) I don’t quite think it’s fair to use these poems to defend a term they didn’t write with in mind, nor seemingly had any interest in, though it is helpful to cite them as elucidating certain aspects of what the Gurlesque attempts to do. And, of course, this is one of the difficulties of this anthology; it frames poems that might otherwise have framed themselves differently.

(3) One of the challenges of this book is really understanding the editors’ framing of the concept of Gurlesque, particularly in Greenberg’s introduction. Ideas were sometimes dropped like a point on a map with no arrow. It does seem that there is still quite a bit of thinking to be done around the Gurlesque.

(4) Interestingly, the Gurlesque, which by its nature is performative, assumes abjection as a kind of costume, something you can put on, something you can appropriate. If you can put perform this abjection (as part of the burlesque or carnivalesque), what are the repercussions of this?

(5) Kristeva’s idea of the abject relies on a visceral experience of revulsion. But what happens if there is no experience of revulsion? Is there no abject? In Kristeva’s example, a corpse is the “utmost in abjection.” But what if, as Cicero and the Stoics suggest, we accept the corpse as a marker of a death that we do not fear? Does the corpse then cease to become abject? Is abjection contingent upon certain emotional responses from the “I”?

(6) In other words, the grotesque relies on a subjective experience of horror; and like the abject, if there is no register of this experience, there is no grotesque.

(7) I actually had a very hard time finding poems that seemed to clearly employ or even play with ideas like the grotesque, carnivalesque, or burlesque (though there might have been a little riot grrrl in there somewhere…). There’s some sex, there’s some profanity, and there’s some body, but not necessarily in ways that I would categorize as any of these “esques.” The first poem I cited, “Blowhole,” was a rare, more or less clear example.

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Liz Waldner

Cleveland State University Poetry Center


Sunday, March 21st, 2010

Can the dialectic between poetry and philosophy resolve itself into some kind of Hegelian synthesis? It seems the efforts of Plato and Aristotle to cast a suspicious eye on the value of poetry, or to taxonomize it, was at least in part a reaction to the assumption that the two were naturally conflated (Homer being the poetic titan with whom ancient philosophers had to contend). And so a line was drawn, with poetry being the more human intellectual expression and philosophy being the most divine.

Poetry                           Philosophy

Sir Philip Sidney, nearly two millennia later, makes an effort to turn this on its head, writing, “All philosophers (natural and moral) follow nature, but only the poet…does grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better than nature brings forth, or, quite anew…” So the poet is both an imitator and a creator; the philosopher may not be an imitator, but he doesn’t get to create either. Furthermore, poets get to create something better than nature, which is, perhaps, not terribly sensitive to the astonishing complexity of the natural world, but c’est comme ca. And so Sidney attempts to reverse the hierarchy of the species:

Philosophy                       Poetry

Eventually, it seems, even philosophers gave up arguing for the primacy of philosophy, as Wittgenstein remarks that, “philosophy should only be written as a kind of poetry,” a comment that I’ve heard echoed at least a dozen times by at least a dozen different poets, often with an underlying sense of satisfaction or relief. I have no idea if the philosophy community even cares about this debate any longer, except insofar as philosophy has branched itself into poetics, and the poetry community by and large seems content to let this current model stand. Poetry is philosophy but, you know, prettier, or stranger, or more abstract, so what if the actual thinking in our poems is not, at times, particularly impressive or profound? While poetry, to be clear, is certainly very capable of eunoia, if a poet wants to do the work of philosophy (which is not to say all poets should or do), shouldn’t he or she at least make a serious effort to think as rigorously as possible?

This question, having haunted me for some time, felt temporarily assuaged when I came across a small collection of poems by Liz Waldner, called Trust, winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Open Competition. This book foregrounds poetry as a thinking art with impressive intensity and historical scope, weaving through Platonic thought and biblical texts, marrying metaphysics, philosophy, and poetry in a way that is neither dogmatic nor obsequious, neither dismissive nor smug. This book takes philosophy seriously, but not to the exclusion of experience, emotion, or poetry.

Waldner begins her seventh collection of poems with a short poem that strikes me as a uniquely apt and elegant example of the integration of poetry and philosophy. “Truth, Beauty, Tree,” epigraphs itself with a passage from Plato’s Symposium, which lays the foundation of thought for the poem: “…only when he discerns beauty itself through what makes it visible will he be quickened with true virtue.” At issue in this poem is the Platonic notion of virtue (areté), which is determined by the optimal functioning of a thing (so, for example, we would say that a virtuous knife is one that cuts well). The poem reads:

Such embroidery of the green

Body. The sky

Is a beautiful wound

In it. I

Would like this not to be

True but it is.

Nor is it useful—like the eye

Itself the sight

We hope to see through (to)


The poem does not act as exegesis of the Symposium passage, exactly, but more like intelligent reverie set against the backdrop of the notion of beauty as virtue (but not just “beauty” in particular; the form of beauty, that beauty of which all beautiful things partake). “Nor is it useful” challenges the idea that beauty is indeed virtuous (that is, fulfilling of its perfect function); in fact, the poem seems to argue that beauty’s virtue lies in its lack of utility.

Of course, “function” and “utility” are not quite the same things: the function of beauty, in a Platonic sense, is to direct our minds toward the divine. Whether or not this is its utility is another question. What is the utility, for example, of the staggered rhyme of “sky,” “I” and “eye” (which slants into “sight”), or the slanted rhyme of “green” and “be”? And yet, these sounds do have function; these sounds create a sonic tapestry that contributes to the feeling of reverie, in addition to drawing attention to the relationship between “eye” and “I” and both to “sight” (see below), as well as preparing us for the idea that the “eye”/”I” looks towards expanse (“sky”). It is this kind of work on the level of sound that reminds us of the unique work that poetry does and can do, as do the lacunae between lines and within lines (Body. The sky). This isn’t philosophical summary, but an artful thinking with.

Waldner terminates the poem, “like the eye/ Itself the sight/We hope to see through (to)/Always.” The eye, like beauty, becomes its function (if it does not see is it an eye? Or the material that becomes an eye when it has sight?). The hinge of ambiguity in the last two lines poses the question: do we see through eternity as a mirage/illusion, or is it that, as Plato argues, we can see through whatever mirage/illusion we are looking at to eternity? Waldner does not fix us with a preference, but poses the question with subtlety of expression.

A number of poems in Trust take up Platonic themes, not to rehash what Plato already hashed out at some length (and many, many philosophers after), but to provide a possible lens through which we might begin to understand the complex experience of a life. These poems neither hold Plato’s thought on a pedestal nor do they dismiss it out right:

Is the slave
Of the visible;
The visible
Is shackled by
Our eyes.

When at night
Your eyelids fall—
You must believe me—
The book beside
Your pillow sighs,

Visibly relieved


These lines begin by inverting the Allegory of the Cave, which suggests that our eyes are shackled by the visible, and the visible is the slave of fire, as it cannot exist without the fire that makes its shadows. Here, Waldner has us asking how we make the world a prisoner by our perception of it. These images are then followed by a tender moment in which the book expresses relief that the reader is resting. What does this suggest? That literature itself is tired of our constant searching? And if we remember the Allegory, we know that the eyes/light are redirected toward the good; and yet here, we feel an intense exhaustion about the whole endeavor.

Most of these poems are intellectually engaging, though not all to the same extent. Waldner indulges her funny bone in a poem called “The Au Pair Girl’s Speech” in a way that is certainly clever and playful, but didn’t inspire the same intensity of thinking in me as a reader. The poem begins:

Her secretary recorded it:
“Avocacro, alligator, palm;
for Monsier Stevens a squamous psalm.”
Peeling Wallace with her tongue
The Lizard allows as how she knows a way
A shady way to say alway…

The clipping of “always” to force a rhyme with “way” is funny, but I had the feeling that I was missing something, other than that the poem was paying homage to Wallace Steven’s own riotously silly poems, like “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” Elsewhere, a similar moment, where the sounds of words seem to joke with themselves:

Mr. Jing-a-ling, how you ring-a-ling,
keeper of the keys…Married to the maker
of The Key to All Mythologies—Miss Bronte,
how could you do it to Dorothea?

Again, I feel as though I might be missing something. Is the poet mistaking Bronte for George Elliot, in whose Middlemarch Dorothea is married to a man who writes The Key to All Mythologies, or is this simply a continuation of the non-logic of “ring-a-ling”? In other words, is she teasing us? And is this silly song specifically intended to remind us of how texts become garbled in the minds of those who spend too much time looking for answers in libraries? In other words, does it have a constructive function in the poem? Is it virtuous?

While it may be strange to think of a poem as a virtuous art object, it is less strange to think of its parts as functioning (just as one might feel strange saying that a person is virtuously functioning, but we might say that their mind is sharp or their hands capable of picking up a pair of glasses). That said, areté does not simply designate function but optimal function. And as a reader, it is difficult if not impossible to say whether a line, image, sound, etc. functions optimally, since we can’t conceive of all the other possible lines or images the poet might have employed. So instead we simply ask what the poem is doing, and whether or not the parts contribute to this effort. It’s not virtue, exactly, but it may be as close as we’re gonna get.

Which returns us to the poem at hand. The lines quoted above interrupt a longer poem in which the speaker leaves a library, thinks about Euclid, and remembers “Daphne in Albuquerque” recounting the story of the shoemaker’s elves as they “waited for doctors/to come collect from her body/signs of its rape.” The question implied by the juxtaposition of the library, Euclid, the myth of the shoemaker and the violent rape of Daphne (who herself recalls the story of a woman who tried to run) is whether or not these stories, geometry, or the vast stores of libraries prepare us to deal with something as starkly, oppressively violent as rape. “I want the key,” the speaker says; and reading this, I want her to have it, though I am forced to admit that it may not hide in Euclid’s pocket. And if not there, perhaps not in philosophy either, not in the libraries, though the poem ends with an affecting determination to continue the search: “I hurry when it starts to rain—/ but, okay, it’s stains you can read.”

On some level, trust is at the very center of the issue of the search for meaning in text (and I don’t necessarily mean didactic meaning)—the trust that a poet has to afford her poems, the trust that a reader has to afford the writer, or a trust on the part of both writer and reader that somewhere, somehow, ideas like truth and beauty will yield something if we continue to read, despite the blur of rain. This is the ancient promise of philosophy (whether or not it has consistently delivered), and Waldner’s Trust supplicates this promise in the form of poems that ask philosophy, theology, literature, etc. to answer to the violence and difficulty we live with day after day.

Waldner offers poetry that is not so much concerned with hierarchies of poetry and philosophy as much as the possibility of sublimation, such that these two endeavors almost holographically fold into one another. Just as the empirical properties of light cannot be explained if it is considered to be a wave or particle, but must be considered both, neither can poetry be considered either a formal/material/emotional expression or a philosophical one. It is capable of being all of these, which is perhaps what distinguishes it as an intellectual endeavor, and an artistic one, at its very best.

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Theory of Mind

Bin Ramke



Sunday, February 14th, 2010

“Theory of mind,” as a concept, is ontologically and epistemologically concerned with both the ability of the mind to observe itself, as well as to analogize the existence of other minds. It seems fitting, then, that a book of poems would invoke a discourse primarily concerned with how we know the instrument by which we know (the mind), since one immediate way of apprehending the mind is through language. That is to say, language becomes a reflection of the mind’s operations—a correspondence, perhaps—and a poem, like any artifact of language, is a small window into these operations.

Bin Ramke’s Theory of Mind, comprised of poems from his nine previous collections, as well as new work, is a record of the mind longing to know itself, and the poet making art of this longing. As a collected, the reader can catch a bird’s eye view of the evolution of Ramke’s thought over three decades of writing, the slow progression into the stylistic features that now define his work (fragmentation, intertextuality, dense repetition). The “theory of mind” that the book offers is thus dynamic, a picture of a mind in motion. That so many of these poems are marked by references to ancient and contemporary philosophical thought (and I use the word philosophical in a slightly Pythagorian way—that is to say, inclusive of physics, mathematics, literature, and any other aspect of human existence that can come under intellectual study) suggests that Ramke’s approach to knowing the mind is one that looks outward as much as inward.

Theory of Mind begins with a collection of new poems entitled Anomalies of Water, and then jumps back in time to The Difference Between Night and Day (for which he won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1978) and progresses forward in time to his more recent work. The little space allocated to Ramke’s earlier work (a few pages for each of his first five books) may short-shrift poems that are, in their own right, quite lovely. For example, a poem from The Difference Between Night and Day:

…We love because
it grows late and the tomatoes
are ripening. A morning glory
climbs one stake, mingles with
green and pink-striped fruit: tomorrow
we will look at what’s been done.

Certainly I would die for you:
that is the easy part, like falling
from grace or off a log.

(from “Martyrdom: A Love Poem”)

Yes, these lines are perhaps more conventionally lyrical than Ramke’s later poems, yet there is something satisfying about the intuitive balance of the lines, the subtle assonance of “late” and “tomatoes” which the poet picks up again in the word “stake,” or the soft “o” of “morning glory.” The poem’s final maneuver of undercutting the familiar language of “falling /from grace” with humor (“or off a log”) shows a quick wit and the kind of language play that we have come to expect from Ramke’s work. It may be easy, as a poet, to either disavow one’s early work, or else to cling to it like a former high-school quarterback reliving his glory days. I think, in the case of Ramke’s poetry, one should do neither, but as we do with our children, accept their differences and assess their success according to somewhat individualized criteria. This is all to say, simply, that on a global level, I think the book would have benefited from a more balanced treatment of Ramke’s oeuvre.

As we move through these collections, perhaps beginning with Wake (1999) but most certainly with Airs, Waters, Places (2001), we begin to see some characteristic features of Ramke’s poems—particularly what I will call musical and semantic causality. Consider, for example, the following lines from “The Naming of Shadows and Colors” (from Matter):

Me, I like them all, all colors, shading
into each other, you know, the spectrum,
a spectacle of itself, oh like a ghost. Specter,
inspector Ball provides the names…

We see here how spectrum becomes spectacle, which becomes specter, which becomes inspector (each word derived from the Latin specere, meaning “to look”). In Anomalies of Water, we witness a similar pattern, as “a place/a placement, a kind of depositing—deposit as in precipitate—/a life a precipitate of events and attitudes and biology” (“Was It Fallen It Was a Floating World”). A reader feels as if she is witnessing a game of semantic dominoes, as one word falls into the next, and so on and so forth. Or perhaps a more precise analogy would be that of Theseus following Ariadne’s thread to find his way out of the labyrinth, where the thread is etymological, and the labyrinth is thought. The fact that we do not find our way out of the labyrinth (which I suppose would imply “no thought,” the cessation of discursion, or at least the termination of a particular thread) but simply into different terrain is indicative of Ramke’s broader tendencies, which are to keep the reader in a state of extended journey, and even as a poem ends one has the feeling of simply pausing to catch his or her breath before taking up the road once again.

Among the themes that consistently arise in Ramke’s work are memory, the physical world, and what we construct (art and otherwise) from that world:

I could make that world clouds
of wax and a sky of honey and flora
and fauna of wings and
bees do love me and are honey for me
and make babies of wax which come to life come
home and immortal as the hive the
swarm which is a cloud stinging.

(from “What Did You Make the Clouds Out Of?”)

Here, in tumbling, associative language, Ramke foregrounds the “poet as maker,” a maker who is beloved by his creation (“bees do love me/and are honey for me”). And yet, the final image of the poem is one of hurt—the cloud of the initial creation is now a thing of violence. One can extrapolate this movement from love to hurt into an analogy of the age-old question,  how could the creator of a world make a world so violent? Poem after poem in this collection focuses on the presence and function of pain, violence, and grief, but not without a wistful longing for a trauma-less world: “a silence of happiness the forests of my childhood are/ stories, songs silenced by/my own poor memory” (“Possible World Semantics”). If the possible world we live in is beset by misery, perhaps there is a possible world that is not, that offers us the “silence of happiness.” One doesn’t feel hope in these poems as much as longing, which perhaps is proto-hope, that which cannot quite imagine something better but desires it anyhow.

The characteristic that most famously defines Ramke’s work is his distinctive employment of intertextuality, often incorporating long passages of texts woven into these poems in such a way as to suggest they are at least as important as the parts of the poem that the poet himself composed. These referenced texts, in other words, don’t seem to operate in service of the poet’s thought as clarifying or elaborating structures, so much as they feel integral to the composition process itself. “The Naming of Shadows and Colors,” for example, quotes De Rerun Natura (“… semblances and thin shapes of things/are thrown off from this outer surface”), which initiates a series of thoughts about surface, matter, and light:

The sincerity of surface suffices as
dream is a shadow cast by Mind
shading into itself, the little mind
making itself seem large in the hope of frightening
itself into resolution…

The poem, which considers our perception of the material world (incorporating the work of Pliny, mathematician Richard Dedekind, and physicist Philip Ball, among half a dozen others), becomes something of an interdisciplinary conversation between minds—ancient and contemporary—all seeking to explain similar phenomena. Here, the speaker’s claim that the mind can only delude itself into resolution by “frightening itself” begs the questions: what is it the mind seeks to resolve? Why would delusion be necessary to this resolution, or would it in fact be ultimately preventative? It is difficult even to ask these questions, nebulous as they are. The poems, honestly, do not seem to want to clarify the questions, so much as to express the ideas that produce them, and which they produce.

It is my impression that the engine driving these questions is often emotional, as the tenor of these poems seems to tremble on the shore of suffering, as we encounter heart-rending lines like:

We do destroy ourselves daily
And dream it away every night
To watch such shadow-birds fly moonward…

(from “Knowing Better”)


…the humiliation of symmetry plain and

periodic agony not agony but a ghostly monotony

behind the arras a mother not uncle, standing

breast forward awaiting a blade and a piercing peaceful

as desperation in a phone booth

(from “Lies”)

As Ramke’s poems often evidence a pervasive melancholy, an exploration of alternately acute and diffuse suffering, the texts that these poems grow into and out of become active participants in the machinations of thought and emotion that the speaker wrestles with. Pascal once famously wrote that “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas” (the heart has its reasons that reason doesn’t know), and in Ramke’s poems, the mysteries of emotional life are brought to the fore, with the addendum that the heart may search for explanation of its reasons, or at least resonance with them, in the experience or thinking of others. Furthermore, if we apply “theory of mind” to the way Ramke approaches the integration of external texts, one might say that it is an act of empathy (which involves the assumption of a mind outside of our own)—both the willingness to extend his empathy to others, whose texts he takes up and writes through, and perhaps to seek it even from those who have long since passed.

As I was reading Theory of Mind, I had a recurring vision of a person traveling down a river, hopping from raft to raft, boat to branch, searching for something that would carry him to less turbulent waters, if not to some sandy shore. Each boat or branch was a piece of text, an idea, a series of sounds, which he would rest on for a while, before leaping to the next vessel. Whether or not this is an accurate reflection of the work of the speaker in these poems, I cannot say with certainty, though I began to think about ideas as having, like boats, various degrees of integrity. The ones we travel with we hope are sturdy enough to survive a few storms. Regardless, it is at least clear enough that Ramke considers poetry a safe place to explore and test ideas, both his own and others. I will borrow from Ramke’s own words to say that poetry, like sleep, may be “a place you can dive into water and not drown.”

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Missing Her

Claudia Keelan

New Issues Poetry & Prose

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

missingherA few years ago, in an interview with Poets and Writers Magazine, Claudia Keelan recounts teaching Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as the first plane hit the Twin Towers on September 11th. She writes, “…the insistence of self being other—it was the only word for the moment and continues to be, I believe, no matter what polarity you describe: man-woman, citizen-nation, nation-world. Any definition that does not take the Whole into consideration is an incomplete one. Radical freedom is the only whole measure—that’s what I hope to teach, to reach.” In her sixth collection of poems, Missing Her, Keelan indeed keeps her eye on the “Whole” or what she calls the “Beloved Plurality” as she writes of loss as both a private and communal experience. As in Jacques Roubaud’s Some Thing Black, or Kristin Prevallet’s I, Afterlife, we find in this book the poet using intelligence and sensitivity to grapple with death as a personal, philosophical (and here, political) event that marks the outside boundary of living.  Keelan does not treat this boundary as absolute, urgently writing, “You are not an elsewhere!/ Passing through me/ Passing through you” while  at the same time showing that such permeability does not negate the difficulty of loss. In this book, memory, history, and the conviction that human beings are deeply connected make absolute loss something of an impossibility.

The underlying philosophy of these poems recalls Spinoza’s assertion that “above all things it is profitable to men to…unite themselves to one another by bonds which make them as one man,” and proceeds from Keelan’s keen observation that the self is “such a small arc in the tapestry.” Thus, there is a genuine humility of thought in this book, an imperative not to let our suffering alienate us from a world that needs our attention. In fact, the book’s first poem presents the reader with a reminder of one loss we would, in fact, all experience—the loss of the planet. The earth, in this poem, is reduced to “a ball you could hold in your hand,” while an unspecified speaker ambivalently remarks, “I died I guess free.” This line shrugs its shoulders so hard that the reader is compelled to ask what it means to be free, and if it is a state or action that can ever be qualified with a mitigating “I guess.” The resonances of this strong first poem are global, ecological, and underscore the fact that Keelan’s interests are indeed ethical as well as aesthetic or philosophical, which is born out in prior collections like Utopic (Alice James Books, 2002) and The Devotion Field (Alice James Books, 2004).

In the eight-part series “Everybody’s Autobiography,” that constitutes the middle of the book, Keelan gives historical context to the life and death of her father, beginning with a painful and intimate description of “fire men and paramedics,/ the coroner from Chicago smoking on the porch, and the captain saying/ would you like to pray?” She then proceeds to recount the beginning of her father’s life, offering a broad historical context to the moment he “fell into this world from a woman’s body,” citing Lenin, Coolidge, and Miss America 1924. Keelan applies the lesson that one should “distrust/ distinctions that separated the simple subject from/ the compound subject,” as she weaves the birth of her father into the history of the Southern Pacific railroad, the deaths of eight farmers, and finally the rising power of the oil industry, which culminates in 3,000 dead on September 11th, which occurred just a few months after the death of her father. These poems offer a remarkable vision of the collective and the individual existing within, without, and alongside one another.

Just as “Everybody’s Autobiography” directs the reader’s attention to the events surrounding the birth of her father, in her poems “Little Elegy (Eros)” and “Little Elegy (Eve),” Keelan expands her vision of connectedness to one that includes the startling beauty of birth as a corrective for violence. After wryly recounting women wielding the word “cunt,” she writes:

No heart, no bone

No sister enemies

No source or power

In the middle of me

Though sometimes, something true

Which is agape

The tenderness and vulnerability implied in these final two lines is the kind of surprising, deeply moving moment that marks the series of elegies at the beginning of the book. The Greek agape, which we understand to mean an unconditional, parental love, doubles as the English “agape,” the opening of the woman in birth, the opening that births love where so many have imposed violence. Elsewhere, Keelan’s observation of violence against women feels more outraged:

The world says she wants it
She says she wants it—
All to disappear
But she’s on her knees
She’s on her knees in a series
Of billboards…
(“The Sister Worlds (Antigone)”)

Here, Keelan draws attention to the commodification and degradation of the female body; when she refers to motherhood later in the poem (as a disembodied speaker asks, “Are you my mother?”), it is not affirming or corrective to violence, but rather leaves the reader with a feeling of being haunted by nightmarish experience of violence and loss.

On the whole, however, these poems treat death not as an end in itself but as a way of understanding the whole tapestry of human experience, the vast and worthy question of what it means to be alive through a meditation on death. In one of the book’s most unique turns of thought, the speaker positions herself subtly as moving from subject to object, first person to third person, the natural abandonment of “I” that occurs in death. In the book’s final poem, she writes:

So you can see me   As you see her

As I give up me   For generations   To prepare by


As the first person (me) becomes the third person (her), Keelan reminds us of the natural passing of the subject, the “I,” into object when a person dies (and importantly, one that has consequences for future generations—again, recalling the ethical dimension of existence). It is an interesting thought experiment, to imagine this passing of “me” into “her,” and one advised by Petrarch when he claims “constant meditation upon our own mortality” is necessary in the pursuit of happiness. Of course, happiness does not seem the goal of the speaker (though one poem intelligently observes that “women of my generation don’t say joy/ Playing with (t)he (i)r happiness”—in such a way as to suggest that the inability to say joy is itself worth mourning) so much as to ask, if the self is implied in the other, if our human experience is, on some level, deeply communal, what does that mean for death? If “self” is not totally discrete, and likewise “other,” then can death be as absolute as it sometimes seems?

In Missing Her, Keelan gives the reader occasion to consider these questions and to reflect on what recognition of humanity as a “Whole” might ethically demand of the small selves that constitute it. In a world that is increasingly isolated (communicating more and more at a virtual remove), yet increasingly interconnected via the same technology that removes us, I deeply admire work that insists on the importance—perhaps to our survival as a species—of actively remembering the Whole of which we are a part, allowing that to guide us toward meaningful action (as action without reflection is likely to perpetuate violence—and reflection without action has no capacity to intervene). Whatever the myriad roles a book of poems might assume, to encourage critical reflection on the ideas that help us move away from a selfish destruction of a planet, as well as the oppression and degradation of its people, is a worthy endeavor. One may find oneself attracted to or repulsed by a certain aesthetic—fragmentation or traditional forms, abstract language or pop-culture references and concrete language—but while we may have different aesthetic preferences, there are books that, for the quality of their thought and the urgency of their observations, make themselves worthy of our attention. Claudia Keelan’s Missing Her is one such book.

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