Citizen: An American Lyric

Claudia Rankine



Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Therapy is exhausting. Bringing everything that is uppermost out for someone you pay to respond makes you doubly vulnerable — you relive traumas instead of repressing them, and you rely on a guide for empathy and reason as they support your attempt to make sense of what happens to you and how to change it. Not only do you voluntarily re-experience pain, but also your guide may well resemble a source of your traumas:

When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?

It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.

I am so sorry, so, so sorry.
 (Citizen, 25)

The counselor is a specialist in trauma counseling; the narrator doesn’t specify what sort of trauma she is working through, but the bulk of Claudia Rankine’s fifth book of poetry, Citizen, compiles moments that “send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx.” The second person voice is significant; a black subject speaks to a black reader, with others permitted to listen in on what Rankine overhears a white man say is “like watching a foreign film without translation”—the everyday experiences of black people. If it feels like a category disconnect to try to deal with racism, a systemic failure, with talk therapy, a personal mediation, keep feeling that.

The conflicts Rankine documents include brutal crimes and persistent denials, and if they feel relentless, look at the news. The sixth section of Citizen lists representative events and names: Katrina, Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, the Jena Six, “Long Form Birth Certificate,” Mark Duggan, Jordan Russell Davis. (Mike Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley — all names we’ve learned since the publication of Citizen.) It is beyond heartless to say this is a lot of grief to process.

Rankine’s fourth book, 2004’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, was a visionary essay on cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, and Bush’s America. Before the ineffectual administrative response to Hurricane Katrina clarified for the entire world that, in Kanye West’s famous phrase, “George Bush does not care about black people,” Rankine wrote of coverage of Bush v. Gore:

All the non-reporting is a distraction from Bush himself, the same Bush who can’t remember if two or three people were convicted for dragging a black man to his death in his home state of Texas.

You don’t remember because you don’t care. Sometimes my mother’s voice swells and fills my forehead. Mostly I resist the flooding, but in Bush’s case I find myself talking to the television screen: You don’t know because you don’t care. (DLMBL, 21)

She anticipated the Obama era and its inevitable disappointments, speaking of:

a deepening personality flaw: IMH, The Inability to Maintain Hope, which translates into no innate trust in the supreme laws that govern us. Cornel West says this is what is wrong with black people today—too nihilistic. Too scarred by hope to hope, too experienced to experience, too close to dead is what I think. (DLMBL, 23)

The narrator of Lonely is an author struggling with depression while working on a book about the liver. Rankine calls attention to this deadpan pun, making it somehow possible to ignore that she is literally — explicitly — talking about feeling more dead than alive. Not as a metaphor or allegory, but as narration, as non-fiction. Given that depression is so horrific and pervasive (and that post-9/11 trauma was so openly and depressingly seized upon as a political opportunity) it’s unsurprising so many readers should find Rankine’s account of it reassuring. It is comforting to imagine some hero could walk that lonesome valley for us all. And yet part of what makes Lonely so appealing, with its interspersed photographs and digressions that feel involuntary and therefore real, is that it’s not redemptive, not hopeful, not disclosive. It calls to mind W.G. Sebald, whose books of similarly cool prose about personal and world-historical traumas also draw the reader in while agreeing to keep distance.

At first glance, the prose in Citizen could pass for that detached style. But there is clearly a desire, a wish at work here &#8212 it would be a mistake to call this new book optimistic, but it would also be a mistake not to see, in its narrator’s persistence, a stubborn hope. 

In a pre-publication interview with The New Yorker, Rankine explains how the project got started:

I started working on “Citizen” as a way of talking about invisible racism—moments that you experience and that happen really fast. They go by at lightning speed, and you begin to distrust that they even happened, and yet you know that you feel bad somehow. My husband is a great fan, or used to be a great fan, of Tiger Woods, and so I started by watching a lot of golf tournaments. I am a great fan of the Williams sisters, and I would watch tennis. You began to see a lot of little moments, and they would happen, and they would happen, and they would happen, at the U.S. Open and at various other Grand Slams, and I thought, “I’m going to start documenting these.”

And as I began documenting them in Serena Williams’s playing life, I started doing it in my own life. Then I started interviewing people and asking them for stories in their lives. I specifically said, to people I met and to friends, “Tell me a moment when you suddenly found yourself feeling invisible or internally unsettled by something that came down to a moment that you then read as racism, but I want it to happen between you and a friend.” I didn’t really care too much about what people were doing in Ferguson, at this level. I meant in their day-to-day working lives. And then, as people began to tell me stories, I began to see it in my own life, everywhere, happening, and I just started writing them down.

When she works in this vein, assembling these moments with the ever-intensifying one-thing-after-another logic of an Alan Clarke film, the effect is overwhelming and undeniable. Two of the book’s seven sections are entirely in this concrete, empathy-engaging mode, and most of the other sections segue into it; it is the discursive plain style of Lonely turned not to depressive alienation but the self-preservation that is the positive outcome of crying out in pain. In a tradition stretching back through Anglo-American writing to its Shakespearean wellspring, Rankine alternates between tropes of positive light, whiteness, and visibility and negative gloom, darkness, and invisibility, occasionally returning to repeated phrases to emphasize for the reader the weirdness of these encounters:

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.

To stay alive in these moments of unbelievable conflict, Rankine’s speakers turn the tables with questions: “What did you say?” “There I go?” “What do you mean?” “Exactly, what do you mean?” “What is wrong with you?” “Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that?” “Where were the buses?” “Did you see their faces?” “What feels more than feeling?” “Did you win?” In Rankine’s account, the questions don’t generally succeed in making whites conscious that they are giving offense to other human beings, but they do protect her speakers’ humanity. Under the circumstances, it’s a start.

Rankine is not settling for a start, though. She calls in enough outside material for a graduate seminar — theorists Orlando Patterson and Lauren Berlant, artists Glenn Ligon and Carrie Mae Weems, not to speak of the audiovisual references. Even as she despairs of making any change in the situations she describes, Rankine advertises for films and videos that address her main subject: social death, the constant dehumanization of blacks. The epigraph comes from near the beginning of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. The book is dedicated to the four Akron men who are the subject of her husband John Lucas’s documentary film, The Cooler Bandits; convicted of a series of armed robberies in which no one was injured, they received combined sentences more than 500 years. The first section in the book not in the second person is an account of Hennessy Youngman’s art world satires on youtube. There is a several-page long explication of the video of the headbutt that came at the very end of Zinedine Zidane’s professional career. And the conclusion of the book discusses Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, a film that, like Citizen, attempts to bridge prosaic narrative and lyrical emoting.

It is possible to read Citizen without watching any of these films — the pictures Rankine draws are moving enough on their own — but the films reinforce the points, both general and specific, that the text stakes itself on. Rankine appears to be less interested in creating a definitive artifact than in prompting a conversation that will sustain itself long after the reader has finished her book.

It feels absurd, a category error, to appraise the aesthetics of a book that is explicitly about ethics. To indulge for a moment in the American pathology of caring about prizes at the expense of valuing one’s own judgment, it may be that Citizen has not won all the awards it’s been a finalist for precisely because of this category problem; the National Book Critics Circle has Citizen as a finalist for both criticism and poetry. Appraisal is, however, part of the reviewer’s job. There is a tone change in Citizen, where Rankine shifts back to the mode of her books before Lonely—a lyrical style I have trouble parsing, possibly because the references fall outside of my range of experience, possibly because the shift from the essayistic mode can be bumpy:

Yesterday called to say we were together and you were bloodshot and again the day carried you across a field of hours, deep into dawn, back to now, where you are thankful for

what faces you, the storm, this day’s sigh as the day shifts its leaves, the wind, a prompt against the calm you can’t digest.

Blue ceiling calling a body into the midst of azure, oceanic, as ocean blushes the blues it can’t absorb, reflecting back a day

the day frays, night, not night, this fright passes through the eye crashing into you, is this you? (Citizen, 80)

I’m not moved by “the midst of azure, oceanic, as ocean blushes the blues” but it’s good enough, and besides, it serves a purpose. About 30% of the book is this mode of personal processing of the moments the rest of the book presents, which on my first reading felt considerably too much. I was wrong; these stretches of purely metaphorical affect work do make it easier to keep reading the painful parts. There’s a placeholder quality to these sections, though; I’m not persuaded that the mild dislocations of expected meanings she marshals here make feeling and meaning happen at the level of her prose — “Yesterday” doesn’t usually call anyone, “now” isn’t a place, and the music of “day” “fray” “night” “fright” is halfway to a different kind of suggestiveness than what is evoked by objects passing through eyes and crashing. It’s possible to listen to these passages, and to paraphrase back what appears to be the intention, but I doubt very much that they will be heard as well as when Rankine speaks out. 

These painful parts, this speaking out, are what I imagine will continue to draw readers to Citizen long after the award season is forgotten.

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Liner Notes

Andy Mister

Station Hill of Barrytown


Saturday, October 19th, 2013

The name on my favorite chapbook of 2007, Hotels, is Andrew Mister. For his first full-length collection, Liner Notes, 165 brief paragraphs about music and suicide, Mister has chosen to shorten his name to sound more like another visual artist who wrote a little. I don’t know how I feel about Liner Notes but I know I feel a lot. It is the best book of short prose I know of since Susan Barnes’s Earthquake. That book is an order of magnitude better, but Andy Mister’s book is an order of magnitude more enjoyable than most recent books filed under poetry. It is also a book length work about music and suicide.

WHEN I WAS in junior high a girl I had a crush on told me about a song that actually made you feel like you were on heroin when you listened to it. That evening I asked my father if he knew the name of this song.
“‘Heroin’ is all right,” he said. “But you should really listen to ‘Sister Ray.'”

(note #10, page 6)

Graham Foust helpfully mentions David Markson in his blurb for the book; it’s accurate to say Mister gets something here of the feel of Markson’s later books, novel-length commonplace books interspersed with narrative. With Markson, though, I feel some distance from the narrator, and I register a distinction between the personae in Wittgenstein’s Mistress and Reader’s Block and the authorial presence. I didn’t worry for David Markson’s person while he was alive. Not every paragraph in Liner Notes encourages an alarmist reading either. Most of them have a tender side:

MY FATHER PLAYING “Femme Fatale” for me on the way to school one morning. I don’t know if I realized that the same band&#8212without Nico&#8212had created the impenetrable funk cacophony of “Sister Ray.”
After seeing Oliver Stone’s movie about the Doors at a friend’s house, I asked my father why he hadn’t told me that Nico was so hot.
“Oh,” he shrugged, “Was she?”

(note #19, page 9)

In themselves, Andy Mister’s personal notes are mostly like these&#8212funny, bleak, cool, vulnerable. He has created an endearing persona: a little down but decent, into some messed up things but not obviously self-destructive, not showing off but he knows what’s what. His note about 9/11 (#18, right before asking his father about Nico’s hotness) tactfully avoids talking about the airplanes, the fall of the towers, everything but the reaction of kids watching CNN. It’s spooky but not morbid. His note about the first time he dropped acid (#20, right after asking about Nico’s hotness) ends with him vomiting Robitussin out a streetcar window and someone yelling, “That kid’s puking blood!” He gets gravity and intensity into the work, then steps back to show how it’s no big thing.

The problem for me is when he starts piling up the overdoses, hangings, shootings, drownings and jumpings of the rich and famous. Those are big things, even if there are ways to create distance from them.

DAVID BOWIE’S EX-WIFE attempted suicide. His brother, Terry Jones, was successful. In an interview, Bowie spoke of his brother’s tragic hanging. He was actually hit by a train.

(note #17, page 8).

The narcotic quality of these images of self-destruction compels feelings of dread and excitement. I was reminded of the films of Alan Clarke, such as Christine or Elephant. In Christine, the title character is a plain teenage girl who happens to be full service heroin dealer (she administers the dose). The camera follows her on her rounds. The numbing repetition of brief death narratives in Andy Mister’s book has a similar effect, even when the death is from what we call “natural causes.”

NICO DIED ON July 18, 1988 of a cerebral brain hemorrhage at the Cannes Nisto Hospital in Ibiza. She was taken to the hospital after being found lying unconscious beside her bicycle. She had quit using heroin two years earlier.

(note #33, page 14)

The feeling grows, as with a good song, that Mister is going somewhere with these short scenes of fame and death. The sentences have the brevity and clarity, and this is meant as praise, of the writing in long form public radio pieces. Real fame and its real consequences are worthy subjects for poetry, despite the prevailing attitude of the last forty years that poetry is supposed to be above supermarket tabloids and BuzzFeed; I can’t think of any other serious treatment of the subject by a poet aside from Gillian McCain’s coauthor/editorship of Please Kill Me. I like that Mister took these risks&#8212to speak clearly, to talk about subjects everybody recognizes. It is a good book. It does not give me a good feeling.

MY CHILDHOOD IS a song I can barely remember the words to. They only come back to me when I’m thinking of something else. I could never write a memoir. My father bought me a purple Nerf frisbee made of soft rubber, the size of a personal pizza, limp as dough. My sister, Sarah, was upset because she wanted him to buy something too, but he didn’t have any money left. I didn’t see him as much because I lived with our mother, and I think he just wanted to do something nice for me. I don’t know why this makes me sad, now, almost 15 years later. The mind keeps its memories under glass.

(note #34, page 14)

Almost every entry in the book includes a verbal marker of depression: a negation (no, not, never, don’t, can’t, won’t etc), a qualifier (maybe, seems) or an outright mention of death or suicide. Many entries include proper names, mostly famous people, some family and friends. The narrator doesn’t come right out and say he is as angry at famous suicides as he is at his father, but that’s the feeling that comes through, along with some tenderness and admiration. It never shades into rehearsal or emulation, but I can only imagine sensitive readers feeling concerned for the writer’s person after about the tenth mention of death&#8212and there are so many more than ten mentions of death.

Subjects come up in waves, are discussed for an entry or two, then go away for an entry or two, then come back, sometimes interwoven with other continued topics, sometimes just peppered with random downers. What gets to me is that the going away sometimes involves coming back, sometimes not. This instability is even harder on the feelings than if painful subjects were brought up once and dropped. For example, the story of the art-folk singer Nick Drake is told in four panels. In the seventh entry in the book, Drake delivers his masterpiece Pink Moon to his record label, which doesn’t understand that they’ve taken delivery until he’s left&#8212he’s so withdrawn he’s barely even present at his crowning achievement. This entry is followed by what appears to be a placeholder description of an “impersonal landscape: some trees, a boat cutting a path across the lake.” Then in the entry after that, Mister presents Drake’s suicide, giving the date, the method (overdose of antidepressants), and that there was no note. The next entry is the first one quoted in this review, in which Mister’s father recommends “Sister Ray.” This is followed by another impersonal landscape, this time a city. And then in the twelfth entry, Mister recalls reading about Drake in Entertainment Weekly after the song “Pink Moon” was used in a Volkswagen ad. Mister mentions that he was fond of the commercial (I liked it too), then deadpans, “The article was mostly about the commercial, not Drake’s life.” There’s nothing more about Nick Drake for more than 50 entries, when Mister mentions that the singer’s family believed that his family thought his death was accidental&#8212that he often took an extra antidepressant as a sleep aid. This is hard to take as it is, and even harder coming twelve entries after Mister mentions a day at work when he’d “accidentally taken an extra antidepressant.”

One measure of writing is whether it gives the reader feelings, time and again. On that measure, Liner Notes has to be counted a success. And yet it feels barbaric to review this book, as if debating the aesthetics of cries of pain. The aesthetics are good, though&#8212the writing is clear, direct, with details that stay startling even as the cumulative effect should be bringing on numbness. I don’t see a lot of middle ground for Liner Notes; you’ll either love it or decide instantly it’s not for you. Come to think of it, that all-or-nothing feeling, having to be the best or not exist at all, may well be what led so many of the casualties Mister lists to their ends. It’s painful.

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My Life in Heaven

Mary Ann Samyn

Oberlin College Press / Field Poetry Prize

Sunday, July 14th, 2013

Just as there are not that many ways to feel truly satisfied, there are not that many serious subjects for poetry. (Sorry.) Leaving one companion and finding another are Mary Ann Samyn’s subjects in My Life in Heaven, and though she treats them so lightly it’s sometimes tricky to see them, the seriousness of the situations she describes comes through. While reading I felt at times, wished, that I was holding the prospectus for a less withholding, more Shakespearean analysis of a poet’s feelings of love and loneliness. This is not that book. The book it is is worth reading, with modest expectations.

Samyn has a practically Heian-era gift for restraint and understatement, and I nearly overlooked this book despite being an admirer of her work up to now. I think I noticed that I was reading something unusual when on page 18, I came to the line, “Sweetheart, the man is not lost.” This kind of tenderness is rare in contemporary poetry. I stopped there and went back to the beginning.

Samyn’s fifth book appears to be an account of a marriage ending and what comes after. I say appears because though the book is heavy on salient details&#8212hands on bodies, bodies in mirrors, fears, prayers, signs&#8212it is light on specifics. This slightly maddening aesthetic choice protects both the innocent (“The children drew chalk crucifixes, / two versions; please vote”) and the not-so-innocent (“And yeah, our separate back-thens were bad”). The speaker’s wary warmth keeps the vagueness from feeling unpleasant, while the vagueness keeps the reader from keeping score on anything other than the intense, guarded feeling in the poems.

It took me a while to catch onto the book not because the beginning is indifferent&#8212the first poem is called “Let’s Be Serious Now” and its first line is “Men’s bodies are interesting.” It’s that the first few poems feel spoken into the void. In the second section the poems shift into second person, and the book catches fire:

It was a minor panic, thanks. It was a mirror
over the fireplace and I watched us.
It was the one a.m. train; I know because

I’m lonely. It was the usual awkwardness,
you claimed, though I’m not sure, really.
Rain in the air. And then, rain.

And snow back home; the map proves it.
Six a.m.: ok, if you want. We’ll walk
in the dark. Or, stay here, also in the dark.

(“In Answer to Your Burning Question”)

Poetry that uses fleeting references to sex to seduce the reader usually puts me off&#8212I’m sure it’s a useful workshop strategy to catch the teacher’s attention and let classmates know whose experience is biggest&#8212but this mirror, this walk (or not) in the dark and especially the awkward and lonely panic all feel real and hard-won to me in a way most writing about intimacy doesn’t. From “Burning Question” on, Samyn tries to get as close as possible to someone. To do that, she focuses on what she fears, how she relaxes, what she can and can’t control. To do that, she needs to write to someone.

And just for the record, I made it look effortless.
Behind the scenes was another story.

The photo of this moment would break your heart.
Don’t, not even for one minute, doubt that’s true.

(“You Got Your Wish; I Got Mine”)

The changes in tone from poem to poem gave me pause, particularly the harsh sadness in “You Got Your Wish”&#8212is she always addressing the new lover? The Jean Valentine line “Write as though you’re writing to someone who understands everything” is an epigraph to a poem halfway through the book, and it does appear to be Samyn’s strategy. It got me thinking about writing for that ideal reader, the muse: is an automatically empathetic reader the ideal, or wouldn’t it be better to write to someone who doesn’t get it in advance, but wants to understand everything. In Samyn’s case, it’s certain her muse doesn’t understand everything and it’s not clear whether he has a clue to his ignorance. In “Bluebell Report,” she tries to let him know how his dithering affects her: “Yesterday you said tomorrow. Today you’re not so sure. ‘Only God can make a tree.’ / One report is, I’m crushed if you’re doubting. The other, there were no bluebells.” Pathos. Samyn spares the reader the more tedious kinds of ellipses, keeping her head level while falling.

Maybe just one more was my thought about kissing you while you slept.

Urgency is noisy, sometimes.

Little by little, the next day’s mood was inevitable as geese headed south.

Careful had been my other thought.

The story I caught myself telling myself was loud too, and total bullshit.

Thank God I realized.


I generally like the combination of urgency and plain speech, and when they’re combined with a realistic assessment of a situation, I’m sold. Samyn mentions “pressing record” and getting used to the sound of her voice, and it seems likely that many if not most of the poems in the book were dictated into a voice recorder. Urgency, however, is exhausting to sustain, and plain speech is always in danger of turning out to be ordinary prose. The passages I’ve quoted tend toward self awareness and limit setting, but the far greater part of the book is a reverie&#8212walks by a lake, or an ocean beach, or paintings (in Florence, I think, since Botticelli’s Primavera has a cameo); nights in hotels; drives in the eastern Midwest, during most of which the speaker grapples with intermittent intimacy and feelings of excitement and longing. The structure saves the book from drowning in sameness&#8212each seven-poem-or-so section covers a month or two in the ongoing story, which follows a not entirely predictable arc.

It feels like a spoiler to say where that arc leads, what more the speaker grapples with, but then how many books of poems require spoiler alerts? And more importantly, how does Samyn do it, keep the reader on her toes for the length of a ~90 page book of poems? The calm stretches between intense poems help, as does the possibility that she’s found something true&#8212 “allure doesn’t come along every day” she says in “Flesh and Language,” and “Is there only one great chance?” in “A Quiet Tomorrow.” Or maybe it’s the sense that something is at stake:

There is no safety; your heart may break. Mine may.
I think all art is about this.

Perfection never did much interest me, but I have to ask:
are you seeing this sunset?

(from “She Named It Beauty”)

If not anything like its equal in condensare, this is nevertheless one of the best answers I know to Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.”

My Life in Heaven is far from a flawless object. It’s a clean, slightly down report from a relationship in progress, reserved, more of an outline of miscommunications and mixed signals than a page-turning love story. It’s not salacious or superior. It’s difficult to see who outside of poetryland it might appeal to, and the frequent sincere mentions of Jesus and God&#8212the “Heaven” in the title isn’t only West Virginia&#8212will disorient many possible readers. The audience gets smaller still: there are lines straight out of pop psychology: “Running away now just means someone’s feelings got hurt back then.”

When I first realized what was going on in this book, though, it turned my head. I didn’t overlook the Foo Fighters epigraph, I looked the song up on Spotify. I did ignore the speaker referring to herself as a little girl, did turn a blind eye to the repeated mentions of taking selfies (she doesn’t use that word, thank goodness). After a while, my feelings for the book cooled. I noticed parts I didn’t care to reread. I decided there were other new books I like at least as much&#8212Lee Ann Brown’s In the Laurels, Caught, for one. And then I went back to the beginning and started liking it all over again.

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What It Is Like: New and Selected Poems

Charles North

Turtle Point Press and Hanging Loose Press


Monday, May 6th, 2013

Impatience can be a virtue. It has a quickening, comic effect in the poems of Charles North:

Your recent letter is so stupid so utterly moronic its
a little difficult to believe it was
written by a human being let alone someone
who made it past second grade you
miserable bastard do you eat
from a plate
thanks for your letter of January 5th
I enjoyed getting it

(“The Postcard Element in Winter”)

North, a philosophy-trained clarinetist, suffers from being labeled a New York School poet, third generation. His poems have the consistency of well-steeped tea, Barry’s or Lyons’; they are as energizing as coffee, but they stimulate rather than suppress appetite. Reading them, you become hyperaware of what’s going on around and inside you, the weather, unspoken feelings, difficulty, and sudden ease:


The dream: to have
more time.
And suppose you could have all the time?
Someone walks up and deposits
in your outstretched hand,
not time exactly; but
of all that is circumambient,
all that pure aura, the infinite possibility
that although no one thing is lost
nothing is exceptional.
Leaves pry out the distance
between new construction and the old
bright lights, massed for waterfront
and mixed use alike. The painter
pulls back, shades his eyes.

The New York tag is fair, true, even&#8212those painterly leaves marking and blurring a boundary between a construction site and what I take to be streetlights by a river, may be somewhere on Cape Cod, may be by the West Side Highway, or maybe they’re in a painting by Rackstraw Downes. In any case, I suspect it sounds like plain English for the leaves to be prying anything let alone distance only in the context of poems written by someone who has spent a long time reading the work of James Schuyler, John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. Another example: “mixed use” is a deliciously prosaic phrase snuck into this elevated lyric the way a suitcase of anvils is snuck into the opening scene of The Music Man. Even if immortality were a good idea, there would still be all this variegated experience demanding a response, and only sometimes getting one. Just as only so much of each harvest ends up in jars on grey metal shelves in the basement, painters can only preserve the aesthetic astonishment of so many inexplicably heartbreaking views. But after all each of us has only one heart.

This new New and Selected, North’s second, is sturdier and wearier than the previous version. While it has the benefit of twelve years’ more work, What It Is Like tells basically the same narrative: a hotshot kid, sublime technician of simile, ages beautifully into the role of maker of qualified remarks. But what similes they were, and what remarks now. Here are the opening lines of the book, from 1974’s Elizabethan and Nova Scotian Music:

Now that I am seeing myself as a totally different person
whose interests are like a street covered with slush
and whose every word rings like the ear of a spaniel

(from “Poem”)

The soft, floppy shine of a dog’s ear only seems to ring to me when I read this poem, or remember it, and yet I do remember it, that spaniel ear, have for 25 years now. In their work, North’s close colleagues Tony Towle and the late Paul Violi share this talent for and interest in piling disorienting phrases&#8212it’s a New York thing&#8212but unlike most of their predecessors they care whether the reader can keep up. They get testy when the reader cannot:

brilliant apartment buildings facing west
all the purposes and prospects
none of which are mine, how can
I be so frantic as I sometimes
seem, or do I want to be
thought so, and by whom.
And by whom not, talking
not to talk, to distract
the orders who have our mouths and lingual structure
&#8212or yours, you critical schmuck.

(from “A Note on Labor Day”)

But just as each of us is everyone in our dreams, the subject here is not, truly, some oaf who withholds approval and success from any of us, such oafs though there be. The subject in North’s poetry, which if it has a Bloomian precursor I guess we’ll call it Schuyler’s struggle, is between supreme self-confidence and the agony that comes with watching people who cannot write their way out of a grocery sack, well, write a lot of checks for groceries off work that has no grounding in anything like beauty, originality, or just basic accuracy of detail. I believe this accounts for North’s taste for statements that feel like inside jokes, their pleasant perversity always threatening to turn into chest-tightening anxiety, withholding satisfaction then releasing the reader, sometimes with a zinger, but more usually with a beautiful Hemingwayesque line or two about a natural scene.

Reading North, one wants to reassure him&#8212it’s all there, what you put in the poem comes through. This is something that can be said of most poetry, of course, but in North’s case and the case of any poet worth reading, what he puts in is rather more than a few gross words and a single primary color feeling. I want to say it to North even when he’s quoting other poets, which he does better than practically anybody:

It sort of made me think a bit, that story that you told
All glamour, grace and witchery, all passion verve and glow,
The all-but-fluid silence,&#8212yet the longing grows and grows.
Now wouldn’t you expect to find a man an awful crank!

For the debit side’s increasing in a most alarming way
From the vastitudes where the world protrudes through clouds like seas up-shoaled.

(from “Words from Robert W. Service”)


It wasn’t Wallace Stevens who said, “They have cut off my head, and picked out all the letters of the alphabet&#8212all the vowels and consonants&#8212and brought them out through my ears; and then they want me to write poetry! I can’t do it!” It was John Clare. Wallace Stevens said&#8212something like&#8212the best poems are the ones you meant to write. That has a nice sound but it’s hard to see how he or anyone would know that.

(from “The Philosophy of New Jersey”)


A sense that pleasure is often
pleasure of recognition which doesn’t depend
on prior experience–though one has had that too.
“Oh Winter, ruler of th’inverted year,
Thy scatter’d hair with sleet like ashes fill’d,
Thy breath congeal’d upon thy lips, thy cheeks
Fring’d with a beard made white with other snows
Than those of age, thy forehead wrapt in clouds,
A leafless branch thy sceptre, and thy throne
A sliding car, indebted to no wheels,
But urg’d by storms along its slipp’ry way,
I love thee, all unlovely as thou seem’st,
And dread as thou art!”

(from “For a Cowper Paperweight”)

The consolations of the poetry of the past are not really consolations&#8212they’re harrowing reminders of the fragility of all things, Ozymandian rebukes of our own folly as much as that of idiot monument-makers. And yet, North’s readings lead me to forget the fruitless hours I’ve spent with the works of Service and Cowper and consider trying them again. If impatience is North’s default comic mode, his lyricism depends on a patience the vastness of which I can only guess at, the patience of a painter.

The newest poems here are at the level of his best work. “That the months line up before / they turn back into WW II fighters / and simply take off, / reluctantly but purposefully” is from a brief gorgeous meditation on insomnia. “The horizon / looks slept in” is about as nonchalant an observation as it’s possible to make. The poems I’ve seen here and there since the publication of this collection have this relaxed, intermittently happy and mournful quality about them in quantities.

Any discussion of North’s work must of necessity mention his lineups, which have been collected in Complete Lineups, a separate slim volume by Hanging Loose. It is the only book of contemporary poetry not written by a baseball player I recall seeing mentioned on The point, as North reiterates in the hilarious and poignant “Baseball As a Fact of Life” collected in What It Is Like, is not to identify the nine best examples of any given field, but rather to take a characteristic sample of the field, a few stars, some barely over the Mendoza line, and manage them&#8212who goes in the heart of the order, who pitches:

Pope, ss
Keats, 2b
Shakespeare, cf
Milton, 1b
Spenser, rf
Chaucer, 3b
Jonson, lf
Yeats, c
Donne, p

I can see Milton as a power-hitting first baseman, though I admit I have a little trouble imagining Yeats catching anyone stealing. In “Baseball As a Fact of Life,” North recounts a (fictional) fight with a foreign film critic about a lineup of movies:

I am about to say, to my later and infinite humiliation, that I am willing to edit, at least the movie lineup, when I am stopped in my mental tracks. He is now in profile, hunched over as I first witnessed him, his entire being involved in whatever has produced its current mental and physical state, which has begun to produce in me a tinge of sympathy along with antipathy one naturally feels toward sheer evil or self-promotion (“Good news! I’ve just come out with the definitive book in your field!”), with the same thin strip of curling tape proceeding mysteriously from his hat, underneath his nose, and toward the bottom of his facial structure.

The impatience in this passage, in my lineup of qualities of North’s work, bats and plays third. (The similes lead off and play shortstop; the inside jokes bat and play second.) Closer to an actual ars poetica, a summary and take-it-or-leave-it articulation of his themes and modes, is “Note on Fog,” from 2001’s The Nearness of the Way You Look Tonight:

I like Augustine’s calling lust a “fog.” Of course he didn’t say it in English and didn’t call it embarrassing. I also like the image of the critic who wouldn’t know a poem if it came up and bit him. I picture him, or her, not necessarily an evil person, having finished some minor chore like taking out the garbage, when this thing strikes. The fog of surprise and not, at least relatively speaking, the blood or teeth marks. The utter disorientation, seeing things and not seeing anything.

The book’s title poem responds to Thomas Nagel’s famous essay, “What Is It Like To Be a Bat,” considering not bat-consciousness but two chained monkeys: “We know what it is like for them to have given up hope and to look only inward, while appearing to stare at the ring imprisoning them and the space just below the window in front, between it and us.” Empathy throughout North’s work has tended to be reserved for the disappointed, and it persists even now that the Red Sox have won multiple World Series, and North has had his work reprinted twice. But there are moments of uncomplicated delight and beauty here too, “a gold swath, or path,” and they play centerfield and bat cleanup.

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Okay, Okay

Diana Hamilton

Truck Books


Sunday, March 24th, 2013

Google as a tool for the making of art has had a separate life from Google as a prosthesis for navigating the world and its culture, the way the pencil has had separate lives in the studio and at the office. Taking up the disinterested Kantian aesthetics of the language poets, Flarf and Conceptualists have made a point of providing results for useless searches&#8212unless you have a rabbit with mange, “rogaine bunny” is not something you’d look up to plan a course of action. Diana Hamilton’s first book, Okay, Okay (available both for purchase in hard-copy and for free as a pdf from Truck Books), however, asks a serious and painful question: “how to stop crying at work.” This search leads often to the kinds of message board and self-help material that Flarf has been criticized (unfairly, in my opinion) for appropriating condescendingly. It also leads to Human Resources best practices documents and scholarly work on emotion from before the dawn of Freudian psychology&#8212the kinds of material Conceptualist works present as self-evidently interesting, without engaging the arguments or observations.

How to stop crying at work. It feels heartless to go on with the review without reflecting on the question, not to rehearse one’s own mediocre pro-tips on the subject (breathe, take a walk, change departments or careers, confront the bully, reorganize society) but to try to hear the questions the question hides: what is this agreement we’ve all made to work these jobs, how did we arrive at consensus about how things get done, why does this hurt so much so often, is it just me.

The range of subjects of Hamilton’s rewritten search results suggests it is not just us: crying at work, crying at school, how to hide that you’ve been crying, crying in science, crying in the car, crying outside, crying in the kitchen, crying in the airport, crying in the shower, Craigslist missed connections in which “you were crying” appears, crying yourself to sleep, crying on the train, crying during sex, crying in the movies, practicing replying calmly. I don’t pretend to know whether catharsis has all the health benefits the ancient Greeks claimed for it, but I do know it’s possible to read Okay, Okay a dozen times and feel more each time.


What was Flarf.

I caught up with Drew Gardner, the inventor of Flarf, over wine at Sweet Revenge on Carmine.

“Drew, what was Flarf?”

“Well old bean, if you really don’t remember, Flarf was a bunch of us fucking around with google on the man’s dime.”

“Right, sure: bored-at-work google sculpting.”

“Don’t ever use that phrase with me again!”

“Drew, I’m sorry. Let’s try again: how did you invent Flarf?”

He looked sideways at me. “Gary [Sullivan] had written ‘Huppa Chimp Party’ which was a series of deliberately awful remarks and nonsense phrases thrown together to see if the scam would offer to sell him a $75 book with that poem in 7 pt type in it, and you had written that buff-colored poem [‘On an 89 Ford Taurus Taillight’] to see if a list-poem could be made out of the blandest material on earth, and I got the idea to combine those two approaches and do a deliberately weird cute google search and make a poem out of the results. I couldn’t just use the results straight, though.”

“Because plagiarism.”

“God no! ‘Communism bad, plagiarism good!’ Because the results aren’t a poem. Found material isn’t a poem. You have to revise it.” I thought for a second I might ask him about his revision of Wallace Stevens: “Money is a kind of lettucey Stegner fellow,” but decided against it.


Hamilton’s book carries on the work of the Flarf and Conceptual poets, but the Conceptual poets don’t work, they write time and action plans, and if Flarf involves work it’s analogous to the combining and rewriting that goes on during dreaming. Here’s page 12 of OKOK:

You find yourself having a natural physiological response to feelings that derive from events. Many women cry easily and unexpectedly, especially around that time. Our socialization includes greater latitude than boys to express emotions through crying. In some ways, this freedom serves us well as grown women, especially since September. There is substantial research on “emotional intelligence” saying this ability makes us better, more effective leaders. We are also better friends, family members, and co-workers. You are not alone, in other words, tears make us look bad.

And here’s the source text, “There Is No Crying In Business” by Linda M. Poverny and Susan Piscascia:

Have you ever found yourself crying in your boss’s office when you’re attempting to problem-solve, asking for a raise, negotiating workload, or accepting a compliment? You are not alone. Crying is a natural physiological response to feelings that derive from events in our lives. Many women cry easily and unexpectedly. Our socialization includes greater latitude than boys to express emotions through crying. In some ways, this freedom serves us well as grown women. Crying can provide a built-in emotional release valve—a catharsis. Having access to our feelings can allow us to have empathy and understanding when needed, which makes us better friends, family members and co-workers. There is substantial research on “emotional intelligence” saying this ability also makes us better, more effective leaders.

However, the workplace is one of those environments where most tears are viewed as inappropriate and can have negative or detrimental effects on performance reviews, promotions, and executive presence. In other words, tears make us look bad and lead to a personal undermining of our sense of competence and confidence. As Lois Frankel notes in her book, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, most women know they shouldn’t cry at work, but there are times when you can’t help it.

Here’s Hamilton again, with her interpolations on the source text in bold and reordered text in brackets:

You find yourself having a natural physiological response to feelings that derive from events. Many women cry easily and unexpectedly, especially around that time. Our socialization includes greater latitude than boys to express emotions through crying. In some ways, this freedom serves us well as grown women, especially since September. There is substantial research on “emotional intelligence” saying this ability makes us [better, more effective leaders.] We are also [better friends, family members, and co- workers.] [You are not alone], [in other words, tears make us look bad.]

Hamilton cuts straight to the double-bind of Poverny and Piscascia’s thesis: empathy, the ability that is supposed to give women an advantage in competition for leadership, can’t be given its due in the work environment (horrible phrases!). There is the general perception, verified or no, that a criterion for advancing in the ranks of any organization is the ability to handle potentially emotional situations without acting against the organization’s interests&#8212without appearing weak or getting the worse part of a compromise.

Notice that Hamilton doesn’t question the main premise, that women are more empathic than men. Probably doesn’t have to.


The myth of the world resting on a turtle, who rests on another turtle, and so on. There is the text, and there is the story about the text, and the mystique of the individual author, the won-lost record of the author’s team over time, and some would say, at the bottom of the stack of turtles, authorship itself. Some would say that, but they are a) wrong and b) boring. Even worse are the people who say that underneath authorship itself is the deep structure of language. Worst of all are people who believe that it isn’t just turtles all the way down, but that the last turtle rests invisibly on top of the first turtle, the text in front of us. But enough about me.


The book doesn’t start out with tears in its eyes, but begins with a condensed version of “Quiz: Is the Design of Your Office Space Making You Happy,” by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. I found it by googling a phrase from the page (“there’s no blank wall within 8 feet”). Until I did so, I thought what I was reading was a recent college graduate coming to terms with inhumane work conditions, and not a best-selling author modeling a cheerfully unassuming approach to finding personal satisfaction:

There’s a wall behind you, yes, there’s a wall to one side, yes, there’s no blank wall within 8 feet in front of you, no, I sit right in front of a wall, you work in at least 60 square feet, no, your workspace is 50-75% enclosed by walls or windows, not exactly sure what this one means, you have a view to the outside, yes–no nice view, but I can see outside, you are aware of at least 2 other people, but not more than 8 people, around you, no, I’m all alone, you can’t hear workplace noises that are very different from the kinds of noises you make at work, no, I can hear other kinds of workplace noises, no one is sitting directly opposite you and facing you, no, you can face in different directions at different times, yes, you can see at least 2 other people, but not more than 4, no, you have at least one co-working within talking distance, no.

The next page is an office space layout diagram (three more appear on pages 16, 47 and 62 of Okay, Okay), underscoring the pathos of not having a 60 square foot workspace. Having subtly established that maximizing the workers in an office creates an emotional pressure cooker, Hamilton slowly builds up the tension in the following pages, piling up social and antisocial behaviors in disorientingly linked clauses and sentences:

There’s one girl at my office who is just like you: she says exactly what’s on her mind (today she wore a sleeveless mini dress in a gold color with gold gladiator sandals), so when she hurt her back recently I drew up some flowers and sent them to her via email (the dress code only allows suits or dresses). In response, she started always licking her food before she ate it, she flirted heavily with the dude who waters our plants, she chose a different grocery store, she grabbed my pen and walked away with it, she booked the flight, she snapped and punched me, and only after she got pregnant did I all of the sudden find her irresistible.

The text shifts easily from one-source pages like the Rubin questionnaire to these collaged composites, building force like a narrative and voice like a monologue, though there is no narrative and no unitary speaker. It works just the way the avant-garde said it would&#8212and so seldom does&#8212because it is focused completely, in every clause, on strong feelings and how they are both felt and avoided. I thought at times of Katie Degentesh’s The Anger Scale, another excellent work that uses collaged internet search results to get to the heart of things, and of Kevin Davies’s “Lateral Argument,” which remains the high score on the post-Language poetry video game.

I thought more of symphonic music than of other books of poems, though, and my expectation for modulation, for a crescendo, was not disappointed. About three-quarters of the way through, the first person shifts to a clinical voice, a questionnaire without responses:

Describe a cry with utter abandon. Describe as full as you can how it grew. Describe such a fit of crying, composite photograph. If so, describe a typical case. Describe each symptom of a “good cry” in order. Describe lump in the throat and its repression. Describe vocalization of the cry in old and young, individual cases. Describe its frequency and culmination. Describe stages cry fetiches, i.e. special acts, describe crying as a source of pleasure in power to control others, describe effects of the tears of parents, describe angry. Describe the child spoiled, best described as a state of helplessness. Can you describe cases of crying in persons usually self controlled when the final break down comes as a cumulative effect? Does such crying tend to become hysterical? Is it followed by physical prostration? Is it a cause or an effect of physical weakness? Describe as a persistent symptom a condition that appears temporarily in the preliminary stages of the cry, and more or less throughout its course, namely, a helpless state or feeling of incapacity

These are some of the 200 questions Clark University graduate student Alvin Borgquist used for a study published in 1906, three years before Freud delivered his five lectures there. It would not be entirely just to Borgquist to call these questions superficial; he appears to have been the first to attempt a universal study of the physiology of sadness, and if he was unconcerned with identifying and remedying root causes, he wasn’t the first or the last graduate student to understand the value of a limited scope. The value of his work for Hamilton is to give the reader, who by this point may have sleeves damp from empathetic tears, to step back and consider crying qua crying. Hamilton collages Borgquist for four pages, then segues to “In Women’s Tears, a Chemical,” a January 6, 2011 piece in the New York Times, the science of which may be better, but which feels eerily reminiscent of Borgquist’s examination a century earlier:

When we cry, we do more than express emotion.

We ask men to sniff drops of our emotional tears.

They become less sexually aroused.

We ask them to sniff a neutral saline solution, recently dribbled down our cheeks.

They remain sexually aroused.

Chemical signaling is a form of language.

We’ve found the chemo-signaling for ‘no’&#8212or at least ‘not now.’

We believe that one day men’s tears will also transmit chemical signals.

To reduce aggression in other men.

We could not find men who are good criers, readily able to fill collection vials.

Fortunately, we have a male crier now.

But sleuthing out the sources is as easy as figuring out which phrases Hamilton left alone, and guessing at what searches led her to each page’s subset of the whole is less satisfying than considering the book as a whole. From the apology for feeling in the Radioheadesque title to the ungoogleable narrative that closes the book, Okay, Okay is resolutely not an invitation to share an inside joke or an appeal to intellectual vanity. The feelings may be borrowed, quoted, distorted and inverted; they may take time to come into focus; nevertheless, they are real and strange and there every time the book falls open. Readers who have written off Flarf as either an “oh that” or an “I don’t get it” experience will ignore this new mutation at their cost.

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what is amazing

Heather Christle

Wesleyan University Press


Thursday, October 25th, 2012

In her third book in four years, Heather Christle asks the right question and has the sense to leave it rhetorical. What is amazing is indeed what packs the crowds into the stadium, as opposed to what is sincere, or labored, or beautiful. There’s a risk to the boastful edge to the title, though—better come through with some astonishment, or the reader will be left thinking “what indeed.” Fans of her strong collections from Octopus will not be disappointed. New and skeptical readers, though, may be put off by a vagueness to this new work (or what’s just as likely, the remaining work on hand). For instance, the go-for-the-kill endings of her best poems are gone here, replaced by deflating trombone-slide non-sequiturs. Even her longest-standing supporters may be bothered by Christle’s mix-and-match indifference to memorable lines and experiences, or for that matter, how difficult it can be to tell her poems apart from each other.

The problems with her new book grow out of the strengths of her previous one. In poem after poem in The Trees The Trees, Christle grabs for attention and gets it. Somebody wants something, makes you dizzy, and leaves you wanting more. Will is half of the best time-honored lyric strategy and her tactics are up-to-date (self-consciousness is the trickier other half). One gambit is to declare who the speaker is —a “real bear,” a monster (half-hedgehog), a cat, a handbag, a system. Each speaker sounds much like the others, true, but each has her own wishes and limits, and there usually turns out to be something specific and recognizably important to most humans that motivates the speaker to identify with, say, a handbag:

I am a handbagI am the kind of handbag
nobody weeps intoexcept for when I went to the
ten-year reunionthen everyone wanted to weep
into mebecause we have no jobsand we have
no health insuranceso also we can’t have any

(“The Actual Future”)

It’s not all biology-and-economics-are-destiny, either:

I have a new enemyhe is so good-lookinghere
is a photographof him in the snowhe is in the
snowand so is the photoI put it there because
I hate himand because it is always snowing

There are a few poems in the second or third person, at least one in the first person plural, but it’s will will will driving these poems, leading Christle to relate these short, brutal, often cathartic situations (wouldn’t call them stories). She’s absorbed the main lesson of Dean Young’s work, which is that you can put just about anything in a poem if you talk fast enough and throw a few life and death sucker punches along the way. For example, “Happy Birthday to Me” begins, “I know where I’m going to die.” Not the more familiar concern *when,* but *where.* It works. You don’t find elevated language or the development of character over time, but you do get the satisfaction of listening to someone iterate their loves and hates, the eternal delay of recognizing the one in the other bringing with it the promise of more and more of these satisfactions.

As long as will holds out, that is. The problem with Christle’s new work is that it sounds like extended dance remixes of punk songs; it can probably be done but the virtues of intensity and brevity have to be replaced by other virtues. One possible replacement is the music of repetition. Where the pieces in The Trees usually get to the point in between eight and fifteen lines, the poems in what is amazing generally run longer and get to the point seldom. More parodic description, less knowing where one is going to die. Christle eschews traditional punctuation for the first half of the book, though she leaves capital letters to indicate where sentences begin. The poems feel fatigued and distracted:

As captain of the flowers I tell the flowers Look alive
and they listen They have evolved like an ear I have evolved   
like a piano

(“Such a Lovely Garden”)

Why an ear and a piano? No obvious reason. But then this poem comes at the end of the book’s first section, which opens with a poem that uses the word “captain” four times:

This is a wall of great intensity and furious
it kind of hums yellow and hums
green and never shall it hum purple Captain
when will you relieve me The wall
I love at night is huge and warms me
like a caterpillar or bag but do I also
have a family Captain or is the wall
the only shelter I have known

(“The Seaside!”)

There’s more humming in the poem, and in the book: “The Angry Faun,” which comes halfway through, ends with the deer of the title complaining that “All around me angels / hum their wretched hum.” That poem starts with the deer declaring “I am so angry / I am a faun / I don’t know why I am angry.” Turn back to “The Seaside!” and you get a similar question:

and furious
why and humming brightly why Why
is all the beauty in the wall and not
in me Captain

Turn forward a few pages and find that “People Are a Living Structure Like a Coral Reef” begins with the assertion that “People love to clean their ears and I love people.” A few pages later, “No Light and No Hands” ends:

In the daytime I was a hole
but at night I could be nothing if I wanted
A wakeful part of nothing with an ear

By the time we come to the captain of the flowers in “Such a Lovely Garden,” we’ve been hearing about captains and ears for a while (flowers too). This subliminal return of key phrases should be as satisfying as symphonic music, but instead it feels unplaceably samey, like a broken pantoum. This goes on throughout the book; animals and colors come up the most; light, love, nature, houses and feeling repeat as well. About halfway through the book the hypnotic repetition starts to sound like a comment on itself:

The spider he is confused
b/c I am not killing him
only moving him outdoors
When I die I do not want
to feel confused
No I would rather feel clarity
like I am a pool
and death a chlorine tablet
I want it to feel
not like I am dying
but am being transferred
to the outside

(“The Spider”)

The amazing urgency of Christle’s early work—and we’re talking about a book published in 2011, by the way (“fuck itlet’s become / caterpillarsor uncontrollable blazeslet’s go set / ourselves alight”)—has slipped into a passive wish to be carried. This too could feel urgent, but it doesn’t. I admire the line about the chlorine tablet but can’t forgive the “I am a pool” setup, even as Christle commits to it and carries it through to the end of the poem. It just feels like a wacky distraction, something you’d write to get a good grade on an assignment to write an imitation of our period style.

This is a shame—Christle has a few bons mots at the ready: “It is the nature of things / to be used in some other way” is smart, as is a description of aging as “A long life / lived slowly / in the company / of all our mistakes.” That Christle shows up intermittently, though. She closes the book with an update of Yeats’s Cuchulain, speaking of the ocean, that:

when the idea
of people is over we will
walk right back in there
and make some jokes
toward commanding the waves
like we are long-dead kings
with a knack for rhetorical gesture
and that is how the ocean
will remember us I think

(“All Things Bright and Beautiful”)

The poem owes about as much to Yeats, though, as it does to the Anglican hymn that shares its title. The lines about rhetorical gesture, like the wish quoted above for death to be a chlorine tablet, are good enough to suggest that what this book needed was more time. Only something like a rush to market could have led Christle to invite comparison to work universally acknowledged to have changed the art for the better.

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William Carlos Williams Part III

Spring and All

New Directions


Monday, July 23rd, 2012

At the spur off 71 to 271 up to Erie there’s an old billboard sort of faded for something called Ashbury Estates, with a U, but still. So, thought experiment. What would modern poetry look like without William Carlos Williams. Let’s just put our thumb over him in the picture, photoshop him out. With no Williams, what do you have, let’s look at the immediate impact on his cohort. H.D., Pound, Moore, Eliot. Are there people in the background who would take a greater prominence without Williams. Nobody is coming to mind. Does the Harlem Renaissance increase in importance without Williams. Not exactly the same timeframe but not not either. What about international influences. Was there a way in which Williams’s Americanisms blocked international poetries from taking a greater significance among Americans. Don’t know, don’t think so. What role Williams does fill, he advocates, he’s known for, it’s still the story people tell, but I don’t think it’s the interesting story. That he’s the advocate for plain, direct American speech, he’s against British verse forms, he’s against backward-looking imitation of previous styles.

But it’s clear that he’s imitating Keats. There are others, but that’s the main influence. There’s a strong undercurrent of iambs, Keatsian sonnets and themes. And Keats is the example of the medical student become poet. And absolutely in favor when Williams was, not the paragon but definitely had a great moment and was widely admired, so would have been a safe model for Williams. What’s the main interest of Keats and how does Williams improve upon it. With Keats it’s a focus on the aesthetic as a life and death matter. And with Williams there’s aesthetics and there’s life and death but there’s also a real strong will to survive. Keats, you don’t want to blame him for dying of stomach cancer but really it’s the aesthetics more than the survival. As with Shelley there’s some glorification of the romantic collapse. There’s no such glorification with Williams. No belief in the beauty of the sacrifice. With Williams beauty is surviving and thriving. Not what you will.

An improvement upon Keats in Williams is not willing an object into existence so much as following where attention goes on an object. Following the path of greatest attraction, least resistance. I think that’s much more interesting about Williams than plainspoken American speech. I think part of the reason, two reasons critics minimize Williams are that they take him on his word that he’s the person who brings plain American speech into poetry, which is something but not in itself an extraordinary achievement&#8212it’s an epochal shift and it’s a narrative you can explain, so it works in a critical-historical system, and Williams seems really to have believed in these systems and it seems he wanted to understand in a rigid systematic way what was going on and how he could do something different&#8212but he’s also a very good artist, you do get strong feelings from his work without necessarily knowing how you’re getting them. And that’s not something an artist can accomplish by identifying an opening in art history and walking through it. That’s important if you want to win, and Williams did want to win. His rivalry with Eliot has been identified as a major factor in his development but Eliot also was a great artist and also found ways to prompt feelings as he walked through in art history that he identified.

The reason we look for the new in art is not that we are novelty addicts. It’s not that the new is progress. It’s that it’s a lot easier to write something worth going back to if you’re writing from your own idea and are not simply imitating what’s come before. As Harold Bloom explains, you have to imitate and misunderstand, or have a new idea, whichever way you want to look at it. Williams imitates and misunderstands, or he has a new idea. The art historical change is a way to have an idea, and therefore to write something that has all of your personality, all your energy everything you observe in it. But just having an idea does not mean you have written something that has all of you in it. It means you’ve had an idea. Ideas can be terrible. There are writers who have not really had a new idea who’ve written marvelously and whose work is still read.

All right, who’s an example of that. Who’s a writer who didn’t really have a new idea whose work is marvelous whose work we still read. James Schuyler, hard to say what his new idea is. He’s a gifted mimic of the styles of the generation before his: Auden, not so much the rest of MacSpaunday. But something else, his contemporaries. He learns a lot from O’Hara and Ashbery. He’s not a great innovator. He’s a beautiful writer, is widely admired and will be for some time. His innovation is getting it just right. Hard to say about Schuyler, isn’t it. But with Williams there is an idea, and there is the full force of the personality. One of the limitations on Williams’s reception is that he did put so much on this idea, did make so much of his reception contingent on the proposition that he had a new idea that was significant. Some critics assess the idea and say this is a new idea, it is not as significant as he has made it out, therefore. That’s one thing.

Another item is that he published a great deal and much of it is unsuccessful and sufficiently like the successful work to confuse the question of when his work is and is not working. Writers do not always know when their work is or is not working. Writers also wish to feel alive and as though they are circulating and will publish sub-standard work if somebody’s not telling them not to. That can be themselves, an assistant, a friend. Once there’s demand for the work the writer will go and create a supply or will regard their inventory as containing more saleable work than is prudent. In Williams’s case it’s the lack of prudence that is upsetting or leads some to reject him out of hand. Another issue: his successors, his fans, are often mediocre. Are unclear about what it is that is valuable in his work, and where Williams is hit and miss they are a little hit and a lot of miss. So the historical record is smudged and blurred by the presence of this substandard work in imitation of his work. Part of it is being repelled by people who take up a writer’s work.

So what I see in Williams’s work is Shakespearean insistence on the importance and truth and beauty of what is being said. This is a ballsy Mohammedan insistence that carries its own force. Just saying over and over, this is it. OK, so what is it. What is this that’s so important. So much depends. Something Urgent I Have To Say To You. Power phrasings. Life and death. Making aesthetic matters into life and death issues. Something you have to deal with Williams is, he’s telling you I wouldn’t be telling you about this if it weren’t incredibly important. And that’s an innovation in itself. That’s the most dangerous of his legacies, playing with this Shakespearian intensity. But it works. It’s true for anyone, and that is the liberating aspect of it. It’s not that he William Carlos Williams says it’s incredibly important, but if anyone says it you owe it to them to figure out if it’s true and they’re worth listening to. That’s the burden, where judgment comes in. Where we would all do well to pray for guidance and judgment. More than anything else. To know when our time is being wasted and when it isn’t. I don’t believe Williams is wasting his time but as I say he did publish a fair amount of work that is unsuccessful imitation of his successful work.


An interesting aspect of Something Urgent I Have To Say To You, Herb Leibowitz’s book on Williams, is that he rejects most of the work. He’s interested mostly in the late work, at which point Williams is trying to reconcile himself to a number of things. To unresolved anger at his mother. To guilt at having been a philanderer. To his having devoted his life to the bet that his poetry was good and not having that much to show for it. There’s a lot he’s coming to terms with in the later work. And for Leibowitz that’s the interesting struggle, not the aesthetic innovations of the early work, not the focus in his work on stressing the importance of anybody’s speech and attention, and stressing the importance of beauty wherever anybody sees it, feels it. That for him is not significant. That seems perverse and faulty to me&#8212seems like an error in judgment. But it is a judgment.

For me the significance of Williams is in recognizing that beauty is where you find it. That it’s what gives you a feeling consistently. Aesthetic&#8212it’s in the name. You breathe. You are inspired. It changes you. It’s not perhaps binary on off as arousal by pornography but it’s not completely different either&#8212there’s a change, an inspiration, you feel some spirit when there is beauty. And that it seems to me is a greater contribution to letters than that of any of his peers. And I will be accused of perversity here&#8212with the exception of Marianne Moore. Who makes the same intuitive leap and holds it to a higher standard. Has a much lower percentage of noise in her work. With her it goes beyond beauty. Whatever holds the attention rapt and is surprising every time you look at it, that is the object of aesthetic interest. I think perhaps Moore makes the greatest contribution to letters, of all the modernists. I don’t think anybody gets quite as much into their work as she does. Many others have greater wider ambitions but their ambitions are unrealizable. She may have had a more modest ambition but it is completely realizable and it just works. You have to have a lot of energy and time to devote to developing this sense of attention but there’s nobody who gets it quite as much as Moore. Williams is close. Stevens is close. Stevens, the problem slash saving grace of Stevens is that he believes that one of the things you pay attention to is the wandering of your own mind. And that’s a very significant insight, not just your attention, not just what you are thinking about but how your thinking changes the subject. Williams is not quite interested in that. Moore is only interested in it when it changes the subject to something greater than what she was already thinking about. Stevens is willing to take modulations for the sake of an eventual staggeringly surprising whole, a unity. And this leads directly to John Ashbery and the deliberate shorting out of keeping the attention on the same subject because the way the mind wanders is actually the subject.

Brainard Road. It’s a New York School highway, basically. I’m outside Cleveland and I’m passing the Brainard Road exit.

I don’t think Stevens’s contribution is as significant as Moore’s or as Williams’s. I do think it is easier to make good poems that derive from Stevens’s insights than it is from Williams’s or Moore’s. But facility really doesn’t tell you anything. Quantity doesn’t tell you anything. I think the intensity of Williams’s and Moore’s work is more valuable…There aren’t really unsuccessful poems with Stevens&#8212they all work, they all do the thing he seems to have wanted his poems to do, and they remain satisfying. So Stevens has accomplished something neither Williams nor Moore nor Eliot nor Pound nor H.D. could.

Well now it says Mayfield Road.

Roger Tory Peterson Memorial Bridge. Turkeys, geese, duck flying over the bridge. Then I come to a billboard that says Meat Loaf Mad Mad Mad World Tour, and I remember I am in fact in New York State.

The poorer the region the easier it is to see gymnastics studios from the highway. I don’t actually know if this is a poor region.

Anyway, Williams. I’m developing a resistance to Williams at this late date. Because what I’ve identified as his main contribution is also something I find very susceptible to capture by people with no judgment or invidious designs, which is namely to create a sense of urgency by declaring a state of emergency. [Vis De Man on the early moderns and crisis.] You look at Spring and All it’s creating chaos by declaring an emergency, and how do we feel about that. Not so good. Though, in the run up to World War II, in the aftermath of the Great War, this is a pretty astute warning.

It’s pretty beautiful up here. Doesn’t look poor. Looks like a landscaping center.


Williams: seeing what’s there and acting accordingly is the principle from which everything else derives. A diagnostic principle, as opposed to a prescriptive first principle of how everything must be. Oh, I’m just making a note&#8212

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William Carlos Williams Part II

Spring and All

New Directions


Sunday, July 15th, 2012

There ought to be a terminology for writing that describes without making the scene intelligible to the reader. It’s not that Williams decontextualizes it, he just talks about the experience of it. He doesn’t say, “Here I am at…” That’s a depletion of energy. The interest is in finding a source of energy and riding that energy down to the end of the poem as far as it will go. If it’s sexual excitement or insight, he’s going to front load it and proceed from there. The procession is from one object of attention to the next.

The front loading of the insight with the attraction, with the 100% [all or nothing] bet is not “hey I noticed something” it’s “Oh My God I Noticed Something.” And that’s O’Hara. He starts with what they call in elementary school writing classes “the grabby beginning.” It’s a strange kind of grabbing in Williams, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. In O’Hara there’s more of a will to be intelligible about this usually, except when there isn’t, and then there’s really no explanation of what’s going on. In Kenneth’s flying language poems I don’t always know what’s impelling but I do know I’m impelled. I just don’t always know what the impulse is grounded in. With Williams at the beginning anyway there’s real clarity about the grounding, about what the pushing off point is, and sometimes it’s there in O’Hara and sometimes in Koch, but less so. And I guess in Kenneth’s case I’m thinking of the poems in Sun Out, which I still can’t really believe was published. Was it? Did that book really come out? That’s a strange question.


“January Morning” is the one that ends

All this&#151
was for you, old woman.
I wanted to write a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
if you can’t understand it?

Which is a feint, huh? as Sean Killian used to say. A pointing away. I don’t know that he wanted you to understand; he wanted you to listen to the poem and get all the way to the end. I don’t think you do that by making it understandable. Or rather, I don’t think Williams thought you do that by making it understandable. You do that by setting the reader up. “The beauties of travel are due to / the strange hours” kept to see them. Your usual capacity for contextualizing and intellectualizing what you see, and remaining at a distance and being told what you’re seeing, these capacities are impaired by being out and about earlier than normal. If you’re dazed. It’s the same quality of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Miracle for Breakfast.” That one, there’s a collusion, and a muting of the excitement, a collusion with the reader. In Al Que Quiere, Williams is the crazy friend who’s dragging you along…The method in “Miracle for Breakfast” indicates its author may have been (marginally) easier to be around than the author of “January Morning.” But I think the excitement is at a premium in Williams. Personality, though. There’s a jump. I feel like I just surfaced. I feel sometimes speaking is like surfacing, isn’t that a Margaret Atwood book?

So how many scenes are there in “January Morning”: fifteen. Those roman numerals, a little like Stevens. 1917 is Al Que Quiere. Need to look at Stevens and see if this was happening at the same time.


The chronology at the back of the Library of America Stevens reports that by 1914-15 Arensberg is introduced to Williams at a salon. Harmonium isn’t until ’23, correct? ’24? which would coincide with Spring and All. Ain’t That Something. Pretty good year for the verse.

So this numbered series that Williams is working on comes in after having met Stevens. There are roman numeraled poems before that: there’s “Promenade,” “Chicory,” and “Daisies.” What about “History.” Is that what it’s called? The one about the museum. And Williams did it all before the voice recorder. He just transcribed the hesitations, the remarkable incomprehensible side remarks. Yeah there are some. But they’re not the short sharp shocks of “Sunday Morning.” The ice crumbs. Ice slates. Ice what. There’s a lot of ice. A lot of too cold too bright too grey extreme circumstances, intense sense experiences, not meant to be experienced at length. And therefore short poems. Is that right? Why are the poems so short.

“History” is not roman numerals, it’s a long sequence, each section is rather long compared to “January Morning.” I wanted to call it “Sunday Morning,” it is similar in form to “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and would have been, I believe, of the same vintage.

Oh, yeah, immediately after “January Morning” comes “To A Solitary Disciple,” which appears to be an argument with Stevens, I think.

Rather notice, mon cher,
that the moon is
tilted above
the point of the steeple
than that its color
is shell-pink.

The color would be an interest of Stevens, whereas the angle would be an interest of Williams. This great poem of complementing ends with Williams succumbing to the colors, giving in and agreeing:

It is true:
in the light colors
of morning

brown-stone and slate
shine orange and dark blue.

But observe
the oppressive weight
of the squat edifice!
the jasmine lightness
of the moon.

So what’s “jasmine” doing there, how are we using that.

Anyway. I better get ready for work.


I also note that Al Que Quiere ends with a ten page poem called “The Wanderer: A Rococo Study.” If that’s not Stevens’s influence or presence in Williams’ imagination, I’ll eat my hat. And I do have a hat.


With Williams the question is why is he saying the things he’s saying. With Spring and All it becomes incredibly difficult to understand at any given point why he’s apparently calling for genocide or just looking and telling you what he’s feeling about it. The explanations he gives do not actually help understand. The explanations have been taken up as gospel but they’re dissimulations. Feints. The question you have to keep coming back to with Williams is why is he saying this. What is he feeling. What am I feeling, being led around by this person. He’s leading us around and it’s exciting, but why. To some extent it doesn’t matter; he wins on points, as they say.


Williams’s work is a monologue. His opposition to Eliot is not over prosody, not over subject matter, not really even over tone, though I think that’s where their second sharpest difference is. His real argument with Eliot is that Eliot is not a monologist he’s a dramatist and is constantly changing who’s speaking. Williams is not a dramatist and neither for that matter is Stevens. Williams and Stevens are very precarious but still clinging to the unitary speaker who you can count on for a certain kind of utterance. You can’t count on that with Eliot at all. Although, as Eliot goes on, you can. And “J. Alfred Prufrock,” whatever else you or I might think of it, is a summation of one view of the unitary &#91Unitarian&#93 speaker: namely, why would you want to do that. Why would you want to be yourself. Stevens and Williams both have their reasons for wanting to. And they envy Eliot, Williams more than Stevens, his election to change who is speaking. But they just can’t do it. Moore, Williams, Stevens, really fairly consistent personality being marketed. Whereas in Eliot…there’s some overlap in Williams’ and Eliot’s and Moore’s principles of selection. Not with Stevens, he’s not clearly about the montage, he retains the frame. Whereas WIlliams, Eliot, and Moore are about the glory of the unexpected example and changing the subject as a means of keeping attention, a counterintuitive strategy unless you’re going really quickly which is difficult to do very long without the aid of caffeine or other stimulant. Don’t know about the relation of Williams to pharmaceuticals. I know he prescribed, don’t know if he was a doctor who prescribed for himself. I don’t believe it, though he is pretty peppy and benzedrine was over the counter then, right? The incomprehensible, is there a pharmacological explanation for Williams’s readiness to change the subject as there may have been for O’Hara and certainly was for the Beats and Ted Berrigan and forward.


And if William Carlos Williams had been in a northern suburb of New York City, would he have written a five-part epic about Yonkers? If he had been in Connecticut, a poem called Norwalk or Bridgeport? Stamford? Stamford: The Great American Epic. But Paterson has father and son in it, which I suppose has been remarked upon. But if that’s his point it’s a poor choice since he doesn’t have that much to say about his father or being a father. The mentor figures in his poems are women and the objects of everything else are women. He’s a hard one to feel comfortable with. Robert Coles does feel comfortable with him in a really lovely book that is more an expression of preference for the world view and outlook of Williams than an explication of why his writing is effective. His writing is effective, and there is a lot of it, and not all of it is equally effective. Even the duds have value for his followers and that does not automatically disqualify them. They are duds. And yet with Williams the subject of duds always comes up, whereas with people who are giant duds, Lowell say, it doesn’t come up at all. So let’s leave aside the subject of duds. Pick up truck with an all wheel, four wheel ATV in back and a girl reading a paperback book in the passenger seat. Didn’t see the baseball cap and sunglasses but I can guess, on the driver.

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William Carlos Williams Part I

Spring and All

New Directions


Thursday, July 5th, 2012

Editor’s Note:

The following text, written mostly via dictation on Routes 84, 80, 76, 71 and 70 as they carve through Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio, responds to the New Directions 2011 facsimile edition of William Carlos Williams’ 1923 Spring and All and “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You,” Herbert Leibowitz’s 2011 biography. Originally conceived of as jottings toward a compact review, these ideas took on a life of their own, and I was fortunate enough to get my hands on them before they were cut and pared to review-size. Finding much purchase and suggestion in Jordan’s interstate thinking, I have decided to present these thoughts in their associational state. An informed thinking-through rather than a writing-about here feels apt. Directly related to Williams’ improvisational gestures, this notational manner of engagement circles around the question of how to respond authentically to an iconic author and text, while also taking on such topics as modernism, tradition, and originality.

This is the first of three installments.

* * *

No one seems to know why (let alone how) to read William Carlos Williams anymore.

Maybe nobody ever did.

Everyone is free to read anyone they please.

Isaac Babel’s grandmother to the contrary, you don’t have to know everything.

Cue Bill Cosby on reverse psychology.

If you tell poets they have to read something they won’t, unless they think you know something.

If you tell poets they shouldn’t read something they will, unless they wouldn’t anyway.

Some of the reviews of Herbert Leibowitz’s recent biography of Williams mentioned Randall Jarrell’s introduction to Williams’s selected poems, which is collected in Poetry and the Age, which I think they must give to everyone who included the words “poet” or “critic” or “agrarian” in a successful application to Harvard.

Jarrell really liked Williams, if that introduction is honest. Since he’s not a Whitman-imitator, a verse-liberator, or a teller of homely truths, though many have said so and been satisfied with that. He goes a lot farther toward bringing demotic American speech into poetry than anyone did before him, but so what. A landfill goes a lot farther toward bringing the real substance of American culture into one place than anything else, but the smell! He was famously opposed to Eliot and the sonnet, but that doesn’t account for his frequent successes. Jarrell is quite good about the presence among those successes of incomplete and slightly off material, and I’m pretty sure this is where readers unsympathetic to Williams’s aesthetics and politics are relieved to disqualify him&#8212too many clunkers, they say, and head off to read any of the hundreds of cautious imitators of Williams who’ve found wider immediate success (Pinsky, Levine) or the dozens of imitators even more reckless than Williams whose work stands a chance of being read a hundred years from now (Ginsberg, Lowell).

(And who says there’ll be anywhere safe to read anything a hundred years from now.)


The problem of describing Williams is not unlike the problem of calculating the area of an irregular curved polygon before calculus. There are incomplete answers: is he the president of plain speech, is he the czar of post-iambic pentameter prosody, is he the good doctor, the Chekhovian doctor-short story writer, is he the folksy opposite number to Eliot as a suitor for Pound’s approval. But there are very few accounts of Williams’s affect. He’s the Keats imitator, the Merleau-Pontyesque phenomenologist of attention, the cubist Williams, the D.H. Lawrence-inflected Williams, a Whitmanish Williams. There are a number of ideas. He changed dramatically and quickly in the years running up to the 1923 publication of Spring and All. Poems is 1917, Sour Grapes is 1921.

This is still charged work. This still causes some confusion and hostile response ninety years later. People are still angry about the wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow, out of context, is about being out of context. But that’s not really what Williams is saying. Williams is not really only about decontextualized aestheticized objects as art. It’s about tense almost unverbalizable desire. Acting in his own interest without regard for anything else. Pure id and desire. Will.

He’s so excited about these glass shards, which actually show up way before “Between Walls,” which is the great aesthetics poem (they’re all great aesthetics poems). The first appearance of the glass shards in Williams’s work is in a poem in Al Que Quiere. An account of taking young children for a walk, and their arms turn blue, it’s too cold. Flossie is cooking breakfast and it’s taking a while. So he takes the kids. He does these things that don’t necessarily make sense except as spur of the moment depression-defeating impulsive actions. He records these heart-pounding excitements. The girl with the leg over the railing. This is a brothel, wouldn’t it be?



Well, mind, here we have
our little son beside us:
a little diversion before breakfast!
Come, we’ll walk down the road
till the bacon will be frying.
We might better be idle?
A poem might come of it?
Oh, be useful. Save annoyance
to Flossie and besides–the wind!
It’s cold. It blows our
old pants out! It makes us shiver!
See the heavy trees
shifting their weight before it.
Let us be trees, an old house,
a hill with grass on it!
The baby’s arms are blue.
Come, move! Be quieted!


He’s aware that his idea of entertainment has an edge of really being not-ok, unsuitable.

The first appearance of the broken glass&#8212maybe it’s not true, maybe I misread it&#8212maybe it was grass? There are pebbles through the water, broken leaves. I know there was broken glass here somewhere.


If I get the chance before writing the review I’ll go back and see if there is in fact broken glass mentioned. What is certain about the earlier books is there is a scaffolding that surrounds the work that is coming away in Spring and All. The work is almost finished. The first poems book, The Tempers, is real apprentice work. It might be called Keatsian. Let’s leave that alone.

Al Que Quiere and Sour Grapes are indispensable for understanding the chaos and the withdrawal of context in Spring and All. A number of poems in Al Que Quiere addressed to his child his wife his father his mother the townspeople (a memorable figure in his work). A surprising number of poems about sexual desire, failure to act on same, the desire of trees. This intense awareness that sex sells. A poem difficult to visualize, called “Virtue,” in which some

whirlpools of
orange and purple flame
feather twists of chrome
on a green ground
funneling down upon
the steaming phallus-head
of the mad sun himself&#8212

What exactly? in what now? what is this orange purple chrome green thing, and why is it performing a sex act on the sun. Not explained. But the poem does transition to something possibly taking place in a brothel:

the smile of her
the smell of her
the vulgar inviting mouth of her!

The last stanza&#8212it’s three, the first two are shorter than the third&#8212is a list of men, a parade of men of very quickly sketched

cross-eyed men, a boy
with a patch, men walking
in their shirts, men in hats
dark men, a pale man
with little black moustaches
and a dirty white coat

etc. Starts with this incomprehensible sex act, goes in the middle to a picture of a woman, and just gets farther and farther away from the, changing of the camera angle? A very strange montage, a stag montage.

A few poems in later in Al Que Quiere, a poem called “Smell!” He’s addressing his nose:

souring flowers of the bedraggled
poplars: a festering pulp on the wet earth
beneath them

So he’s excited by the smell of a tree in spring, and theatrically takes his nose to task for this plant sex smell arousing him. There’s continual attention to arousal. Two poems addressed to the father, “A Portrait in Greys,” I think it’s the father it’s a little bit like a riddle. There is a riddle tendency, which will go away. Williams won’t actually want you to answer the riddle. In Al Que Quiere he still wants it to be resolved. What exactly he’s depicting.

Will it never be possible
to separate you from your greyness?

Some figure being addressed in a grey ground. It’s not until you get to the last third of the poem&#8212again, many of these poems are formed in threes&#8212

I see myself
standing upon your shoulders touching
a grey, broken sky&#8212
but you, weighted down with me,
yet gripping my ankles,&#8212move
laboriously on,
where it is level and undisturbed by colors.

So this would then be probably the father. Supporting the idea, the next poem begins

You who had the sense
to choose me such a mother

and goes on to so say

went to some pains
to leave hands off me
in the formative stages,&#8212
(I think you most for that

which is a strange way to talk about fatherhood&#8212thanks for not interfering with my development&#8212but the way he puts it is physical as in fighting and physical as in sexual, which is odd. And then he says

with an iron head, first,
fiercest and with strongest love
brutalized me into strength,
old dew-lap,&#8212
I have reached the stage
where I am teaching myself
to laugh.
Come on,
take a walk with me.

This is a “beginning of a beautiful friendship” kind of poem to the father. Don’t know much about that relationship. The next poem perhaps is not about his mother, who we have no reason to believe is a miserable little woman in a brown coat:

I’ll sing you the while
a thing to split your sides
about Johann Sebastian Bach,
the father of music, who had
three wives and twenty-two children.

This is a dry remark to make to a woman possibly one’s mother. So. I think anybody who has skepticism about the value of Williams’s decontextualizations in Spring and All, the contextualizations are in the process of being reduced by the time of his second volume, Al Que Quiere. They are there and assessable. He’s not merely referring to his previous work, he’s not building on previous work here. He’s focusing on address, the shape of the poem, unlikely changes of subject and tone and finding something to force connections in among these changes of subject and tone. He changes tone least of all, and when he does it’s from an intensity of tone or affect to flattening of affect toward the end. This is a depressive process. I don’t know that there’s a thwarting of desire in these poems exactly, but there is certainly a freezing or a dissipating. (The natural progression of desire?)

“Mustaches” is a funny word he likes to use a lot in these early poems. “January Morning,” the poem Kleinzahler rips off for the title of one of his books, is in Al Que Quiere. This is the phase of Williams’s work that can be reworked for fun and profit. Spring and All cannot be reworked for fun, only for life destruction.

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Some Math

Bill Luoma

Kenning Editions


Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

There were a few years in the mid-nineties when it looked like the poets gathering in New York might fuse a thousand disparate styles and beliefs and wishes into a single beam of classical beauty, rude comedy and what can only be called zen clarity (New York School, Beat, and Black Mountain)&#8212the Newer (American) Poetry. If you have a copy of New Mannerist Tricycle lying around the house, I don’t need to persuade you that this is a true statement, and yes I know one third of that chapbook was and is D.C. based&#8212in the mid-nineties D.C. was part of New York.

I was a baby poet and therefore an unreliable witness, but it seemed to me that of all the stoned geniuses circulating in the time before the hanging chads and falling bodies, Bill Luoma gave off this glow most consistently. His chapbook My Trip to New York City (collected in Works and Days) recounted a series of buddy movie misadventures pitched somewhere between Kerouac and South Park (this was before South Park) that like Ted Berrigan’s masterpiece “Tambourine Life” changes suddenly from picaresque to elegy. It beaned me. A few other chapbooks of roughly the same vintage struck me as similarly serious&#8212Katy Lederer’s Music No Staves, Anselm Berrigan’s They Beat Me Over the Head with a Sack, Lisa Jarnot’s Sea Lyrics. Thinking back on them now (without actually getting hold of my copies of them) I imagine what they had in common was a Jules et Jim light-heartedness, with hard-earned awareness of the effects of gravity.

What most of those poets also had in common, at that point anyway, was a devout commitment to incantation, to a more or less regular, hypnotic cadence. Jarnot went for anaphora (or was it epistrophe?), Berrigan seemed to match up the prose rhythms of sentences, and Luoma headed straight into doggerel:

leafy muncher big time lurk
green belt cincher revlon quirk
darkie matter massive dwarf
blasted bright star mr worf

(from “Swoon Rocket”)

If you’re not hearing these words aloud, are only processing the meanings, you’ve probably already decided to spend your time on something else. I happen to find it enjoyable to follow this exposition of latent racism in Star Trek makeup, but probably only because I start feeling like chanting along to these seven-syllable lines as I read.

Poetry has been mistaken so long for an all-or-nothing proposition that it sometimes feels like more of a hierarchy than the A.P. College poll. If a poet isn’t ranked in the top twenty-five, the feeling goes, why read him or her. Maybe I’m imagining it, this consensus-seeking chasing after the current number one with a bullet; maybe it’s real but also only a reflection of the larger culture. Most of the time I remember to forget it. When I do get that itch to compare compare compare, Bill Luoma’s second full-length collection Some Math reminds me not to care:

A waffle doesn’t mind
when the apparatus is moved
from one location to another.
Hulse 2-3 tonight on a pair of singles.
If I arrange my local effects
in shells of equal energy
like a saddle mounted by a rider
whose boots were made for Tony Danza
in the tap dance extravaganza
then I’ll be humming all day
stuck inside the large hardon collider
with one higgs boson whose primary concern
is facetime on the linoleum.

(from “The Concept of Mass”)

There are readers for whom this mix of broadcast-announced baseball, particle physics and popular culture will read like uncompiled code. I also know from experience that it’s possible to pretend to a “negative capability” poetic license for readers, with which it doesn’t much matter what the poet is saying&#8212or even really how the poet is saying it&#8212as much as whether there are plenty of sudden unforeseeable pleasures hidden in the slurry. As the passage quoted above suggests, “The Concept of Mass” may be about that patient, interested seeking; testing for an unaccountable blip that, if found, will verify the Standard Model, whatever that is. Luoma is unlike most poets who wander into the science terminology shop (myself included) in that he doesn’t much strain to convert learning to a design for moral improvement. He seems to just throw it together, then if something happens, he goes with the results. Something usually happens.

Sometimes what happens is nearly untainted by lexical semantics (that incomplete Standard Model again). “Gobi” and “Swoon Rocket” are collections of quatrains, the lines of which vary in length from nine syllables to five. I’ve read them a few dozen times since they first appeared in 1996, and while I hear the undercurrent of sex and inebriation in the phrases (the title “Swoon Rocket,” for example, sounds to me like a riff on the name of the grimy Providence suburb Woonsocket&#8212a romantic, sexual, aeronautic riff), I’m prepared to accept that the point here is to notice the different physical effects on the reader of these variations in line length. Take this passage from “Swoon Rocket”:

tonset factor enter sten
burns in coma cluster bend
segreganset librium
ripon jessup swansea rum

smoothie wafer produce nox
event  radox bap  sinclair
two point seven degrees kevin
tunnel quantum lamb shift hertz

masker furbo visby ort
gas clouds fronton bilda fort
bright blue knotsa lemming furs
faint arm spoker smedvik kurs

I jump at the one line not like the others, which features the signature Luoma trope of the misheard science term, Kevin for Kelvin here, and the profane version of the Large Hadron Collider in the excerpt from “The Concept of Mass” above. (The line with a difference also mentions what I believe to be the temperature closest to absolute zero recorded under laboratory conditions on earth&#8212writing degree zero, you say.) I notice now that the line comes in the middle of one of the few stanzas in the poem not to deploy end rhymes, and that with nox/radox, the internal rhyme seven/kevin also moves me sideways. But since most of “Swoon Rocket” is in sevens, I think what I’m reacting to here is simple variation from a regular pattern. The term for it from both the visual arts and music is caprice.

The variations come more frequently in “Gobi,” which comes close to Amazing Grace’s 8-6-8-6  a few times, then veers off toward measures I’m relatively unused to, for example, 8-8-7-7:

trawl en horta mey first snapple
raleigh winkle voza baffle
wofat shingle drugga skoun
baler frickle mosie mink

This isn’t subverting the expectation of a pattern, it’s just changing the pattern, revealing how the pattern changes when the unstressed syllable at the end of the line is omitted. The effect turns out to be consistent with that produced by Shakespeare’s witches: double trouble.

I hear a lot of names of poets and sport figures flying by (“clark,” “nada,” “blanche… ricky,” “shula”), and the jujube-like quality of the desert name in the title nudges me toward a reading of the poem as latter-day Ram Dass: GO BE indeed. But I keep coming back to the feeling that this poem demands not a reading, but a hearing.

Despite the title’s hint, he doesn’t lead with trochees every time:

big yeska anna billet
clare voler gringa
lunch docket oui blinker ato
cran nowheres un off

It’s easy to hear why this 7-5-8-5 might be a one-off (un off). Luoma leads lines in other stanzas with one-syllable words, but usually to make a trochee, and not, as here, a spondee (e.g. BIG YESka, CLARE VOler). The spondees bring the rhythm a little closer to the traditional four-feet three-feet of ballad meter, but you have to work to hear it (and parse that second line in three languages, maybe), and then when you do work, you have to work again in line three to get any kind of rhythm back&#8212maybe that’s an anapest after LUNCH DOCK?

If you’re still reading, thanks. And if not, well, that’s the risk involved in stretching a phrase out to notate the simplest vector in a poem’s sound, the pulse. Imagine a review that discusses vowel color and length, consonant places of articulation. Go ahead, imagine it. What did you see? A page of logic symbols, a plage on the Riviera, maybe. Luckily, the rest of the poem goes back to more familiar patterns (8-7-8-7, 7-6-7-6, 7-7-7-7) that prepare the ear for their variations.

I have a weakness for three lines the same length, one line a beat (or two) shorter or longer:

hootie pylon flimsey nylon
border patches volvo ken
klute digiorno salvo falg
lost overno opal calm

There are a couple other prosodically engineered works here, 4-3-4-3 “Nogo,” which doesn’t diverge from the pattern, and “Alystyre Julian Certified Orient Minimal Clothing,” which is entertaining but doesn’t upend the truism that alexandrines are better left to the French. I like them, but as I say it may be nostalgia doing the liking.

I haven’t spent as much time with the other pieces in the book: “Dear Filesystem Panic,” “When the Pathogenic Wind Comes,” and “Some Math.” I recognize “Dear Filesystem Panic” as a new instance of the form peculiar to New York in the 90s in which rapidly shifting identifications and profane connections bombard the reader with semi-familiar sounds:

to the closed out kiln of the north bay
to the last invasions of the new cult
to the nat of dayquill calling out the hordes of bar bar
to the pitted bas-relief of jenna and the optional au-jus of barb
to the mighty singing system doing the tuffa twist
in the blue sea of opoyaz
to the yahtzee of
I saw wings.

It’s a fun instance, in which the horrible routines and jargon of work, their repetition itself provides the means of escape, which leads right back to the horror:

I’m calling the destructor on an iroq layer of inodes
by inserting into the sidebodies of the multiplex of molly
a handsfree ipod wired to the hooded electrodes
/* your wires and my electrodes */

About the other long sequences (about a third of the book) I admit I’m less sanguine. When confronted by several lines beginning “the un the un” I start to wonder if I’ve wandered into the wrong book, despite the familiar variables:

the un the un the disposition of Linus
the un the un of that of it given she of infinite UN of branch
of outside of employee of in the house of pain
the un the un explaining a bursty traforo

(from “Some Math”)

As I recall, this was pretty much the reaction I had to “Gobi” and “Swoon Rocket” fifteen years ago. Given how much I hear in those poems now, I’m prepared to believe I’ll find out fifteen years from now exactly what Luoma is doing in these poems. As for what he means in them, maybe it’ll matter and maybe it won’t. We’ll see.

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