Pink Noise

Hsia Yü


Sunday, December 9th, 2007

Pink Noise is a must-have one-off, a self-published, literally plastic, literally transparent volume turned out in hot pink and black ink by post-modern semi-expat Taiwanese poet Hsia Yü. Hsia Yü’s deadpan, nimble poetry is increasingly anthologized here in America, and may be consumed in large quantities in Steve Bradbury’s translations, collected under the evocative title Fusion Kitsch and published by Zephyr Press. But if you know anyone on the Taiwanese second-hand book market, beg and cajole that person immediately to find you a copy of Pink Noise. You will want to read this volume in the flesh.To see one’s face liquefied, sliding and slipping off the stiff, slick, polyurethane leaves is to be confronted with such vertiginating quandaries as, how can transparency equal privacy? One thinks of huge flat panes of glass climbing story by story into heat-and-light-capturing pink-washed urban skies. There is text on every level, written backwards in the flux: a billboard here, a news ticker there, in one darkened apartment screensaver kittens go polyhedron, and here you imagine yourself close enough to a neighbor’s bare shoulder to read whatever she’s reading–an instruction manual or a credit-card bill. She’s closer than ever in the mind’s pink eye. But this tide of surfaces may flex again, instantly, and place you in the mise-en-abyme of your own bathroom mirrors, or kneeling before the computer screen reflecting your own wide-parted, penetrable eye.Pink Noise is startling on so many levels, most distinctively in that, lost in its cloudy voxbox, you can’t tell what level you’re on. The book consists of more than sixty poems, “written noise,” printed in Chinese and English, in hot pink and black ink, and on plastic see-through pages so that one poem becomes inscribed on and entangled in the others, a staticky, antic, space-aged polymer palimpsest but without the ordering, temporal implications a palimpsest implies. The bound pages are then tucked inside a stiff transparent sleeve, which is wrapped in a transparent band, each of which is printed with text in Chinese and English in thin, precise white and black ink.The outermost levels of the book provide two contradicting origin myths–do they compete or somehow elaborate each other?  The ceremonial-feeling band enclosing the whole bears the following text:

I’ve always wanted to make a transparent book, and after I had finished composing the 33 poems gathered here, I knew the time had come to make this book of poetry filled with “written noise”… Then I put it in an aquarium and a swimming pool and left it in the rain for days… This is a book that knows no limits and thus knows not to go too far.

The comma and the ellipses are the signature gesture of this annunciatory yet barely legible statement. The first sentence proceeds apace, conventionally encommaed and not ‘noisy’ at all, explaining the book’s provenance in light of the “I”-poet’s supposed intention and design. The first ellipses then begins warp this account. Does it represent a leap in chronology, omitting all the steps between ‘knowing’ a time has come to make a plastic book and the time at which the finished, waterproof book is “put in an aquarium” etc? Or is it merely a pause in the performance of this utterance, does it suggest that the next step after ‘knowing’ is ‘to put it,’ the transparent, perhaps non-existent book, through its various wet trials? The paradoxical final statement has already been enacted by the temporal paradoxes of the previous sentences.That a whole swath of Chinese text is printed on the back (or front, or reverse) side of this band is utterly beside, and thus contingent upon, the point.The band must be slid off to clamber further into this space. The matte plastic sleeve is blank on one side; the other holds the ISBN (that’s 978-957-41-4521-8, if you want to try and find a copy of this dispersed and sold-out book) and barcode, two more visual manifestations of coded identity which only computer and light beam can read. On this level, the Anglophone reader must wade in among the Chinese characters to sift out, in toothpastey, toothpick-thin writing, an English description of the book’s content: “A gathering of words, sheer swarms of them rise out of depths of light–the primal crime scene of a linguistic serial murder…” This swarming, sheerness, and rising-out-of-depths speaks of the murky experience of reading the multilingual and visually accumulative work, while the queer figuration of the serial murder anticipates the fata morgana aspect of the book, in which repetition and reiteration results in now accumulated, now emptied coffers of experience, so that the serial activity must begin again. Oddly it is again the punctuation, the ellipses and the dash, that pegs the English tentatively to the Chinese, inviting us to dream of the equivalencies that might fall in between them.But before we can make our way into the interior, we get one final hefty chunk of prose. This provides yet another version of the book’s inception–a technical account of collecting English “from the Net or from links I found in spam,” and then feeding them multiple times through a software called “Sherlock” to create Chinese and new English texts: “I lineated them both to look like poetry, placing the English and Chinese face-to-face in the semblance of a bilingual volume of translation.”The obvious instability being proposed here among various versions of the text–if selection and translation are at the incipience of this text, then what and where is the ‘original’? Can two separately generated texts have parallel ‘faces,’ and pretend to exhibit a family resemblance?–deranges conventional hierarchies of reading we normally apply to texts. The various accounts of the text’s conception (as recounted on the band) and inception (as recounted on the sleeve) also refuse to be anything but multiple, clinging to us as we wade into the text’s crystalline murkiness. But the canny sleeve anticipates this, imagining a “machine poet”– presumably the Sherlock software?–responsible for the text that follows:

[…]like a lethal lover, it tells you from the start that it is not to be trusted. […] Still, I’ve always felt it understood poetry’s clandestine mission […]I’m anxious to consummate this romance, to bring it to the pink of perfection before these machine poets evolve into an all-too-prosaic fluency.

In the above quotes, all bracketed ellipses are mine. The sleeve (who else is talking? Can a literally marginal fabric ‘speak’?) works from two separate philosophies about poetry, one that it is the combination of symbols from a field of possibilities exterior to human consciousness, the other that it has an interiority, a ‘clandestine mission’, a “pink” inside which is the “pink of perfection” and derives from the insideness of human consciousness.  To “consummate this romance” with the ‘Romantic’ notion of an interiority from which poetry’s “clandestine mission” derives produces the book’s anxiousness, its urgency not directed toward a particular urge. But what act could such a consummation entail?In this erotic-intellectual uncertainty, this pink noise, we reach the end of what the packaging can provide; for more, we must enter the slick space of the book. Inside, the text piles up and confuses; black writing overlays with pink, we move into the black, we move into the pink, it clots and separates, and at intervals only a hand thrust between the pages will make any given text come into focus. Then one’s own hand seems so clear, stuck between plastics as if on a laboratory slide, one’s own hand not figuratively an author but just another specimen in this catalog of what might be specimen language. The overall effect of these poems is that of loneliness, the self being a continually lonely site to which language recurs and occurs. Viz. “17 Will you dare to be bare?“:I slowly opened one eye and then the otherBut that’s a story for another timeDo the words “beach season” fill you with excitement?Or dread at the thought of baring it all?This summerDaily indulgence:Easy treats, delightful ideasDid you bring protection? […]The resolutely transparent yet stiff, hard nature of the pages in <i>Pink Noise</i> evoke screens and hypertext; one may pass through them in all ways except bodily. That dynamic seems replicated in the poems, in which the enjambed lines both follow and detach from each other. One ‘clicks through’ one line to get to the next, with the capital letter at each line’s left margin enacting this separateness. Isolation is the theme of nearly every poem, as well as its currency; it’s there in the line and stanza breaks, there in the ephemerality of the consumerist abstractions, there as the thin layer which is the only effective ‘protection,’ and yet a fraught and flexible one. The radical materials, design, and conception of Pink Noise as an object, then, introduces a new way of reading the textual lyric, as ever-deepening layers and levels more akin to hyperspace than to a dramatic performance of a succession of singular temporal instances. It should be remarked that the only terminal punctuation in this book seems to be the ellipses or the question mark–uncertain, evasive terminals at best. Moreover, the thematic and tonal consistency of Pink Noise. when taken along with the paradoxical uncertainty and multiplicity of the text as a site, revises the lyric itself, stressing not its desire to communicate and be persuasive but its status as an entrant in a capacious, multivocal record of lonelinesses. Just so the poems in this book, clotted and massed together, a global field of inseparable solitudes.

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Tonight’s the Night

Catherine Meng

Apostrophe Books


Friday, October 26th, 2007

With the figure of the fugue at its heart, Catherine Meng’s addicting, reiterative Tonight’s the Night explores art’s ability to arrest time and subsume both precedence and subsequence into its revisitable, expansive present tense. It’s a mighty debut and a neat bit of prestidigitation, too. The forty-odd lyrics which pursue and embody this theme through recombinating motifs are themselves folded inside a postmodern frame of references and allusions, including a discography and bibliography, a set of notes which precede rather than follow the poems, and even a Nabakovian narrative frame in which these poems and their annotation turn out to be themselves annotations of “a portion of the liquidated library of the Professor, who, in the later stages of Alzheimer’s became consumed with underlining & re-underlining the numerous books in his collection to the point of destruction.”

This writing of note-upon-note suggests an obsessive macrostructure, and the pun between scholarly and musical note evokes a similar overinscription. The annotations, drawn from diverse sources but oscillating for the most part between Bach and Neil Young (whose reiterative album gives the book and the poems their titles) themselves iterate the kinship (if not twinship) between the mathematical paradoxes of the fugue (“simultaneously one in three and three and one”) and those of the creative process (“‘Everything decisive arises as the result of opposition.’—Frederick Nietzsche”) Moreover, by seeming to annotate the poems which follow, the opening notes create a disorienting achronology for the book, in which what follows seems to somehow have preceded what has come before.

These themes and sources piled atop one another, we are ready for our fugue. With each of the forty poems titled “Tonight’s the Night,” the structural multiplicity of the sequence challenges the doubly-inscribed singularity of the titular claim. And yet if the poems interact on a macro-level with the frontmatter’s overinscriptions, in and of themselves they have a meditative rather than fugal quality. If anything, the intensity of the opening notes denatures the lyrics which follow, calling attention to the potentially decoupled status of one sentence or one line from the next. So, in an early poem,

The eye dallies beyond asphalt
where juniper churns in the wash
of the weirdest wind known
to this open window. Drift to the right
to feel time:
the paint is mined with reflectors
& the light reflected back
keeps time in the eye. Creosote
& wandering notes.

In this passage, the movement of the “eye” precedes that of the mind; punning on ‘I’, it may mime a peceptual or cognitive action, or that of a camera which can only record. It is rewritten as “this open window,” which does not only frame but also “know[s]” wind. The eye meets another double in a reflective, painted surface; looking on its “mined” (mind) twin is how it “keeps time.” The eye is the ‘dallier’; “Wandering” it “notes.” The musical sense of “wandering notes” is synesthetically produced by the wandering eye. The trace of ampersands also mime musical notes, visual but only lightly semantic ,and hurried over by the reading eye. These ampersands produce a visual trace of a metronome hitting one endpoint and ‘reflecting back’ the other way. The rhyme of “creosote” and “note” also suggests the repetition of the metronome, or at least the musical element replacing the vision of the ‘eye.’

Reflection is a motif of these poems; by means of pun, the term makes material and measurable the immaterial actions of cognition and revision inherent in creation. Literal reflections within the poems are also a device for implicitly doubling images, the doubling itself enacting the surplus of artistic production. So “geese glide toward a shore/confused with a shore reflected,” the unreal shore of art being the one toward which these geese intuitively verge. In one poem, the motifs of birds, hands, reflections, notes, glass and misleading surfaces come together quite magically:

[…]what rattles
the pane now, throwing back some shook reflection
of a room lit with pale hands or pale birds
alighting on ebony, from which strange notes lift
awkward & fall back sprained from the glass.

Is it real, or is it Memorex? Or is it memory? Or is it melody? Meng’s prodigious ability allows her to make one thing become the next in a chain of analogies, then shift the ‘pane’ and reveal the contrary or constituent inside each element. Under her writing hand, “pale hands” evoke “pale birds” as they “alight on ebony” piano keys; both are converted and rise up as “strange notes,” implicitly black in musical notation, then crumple with that mimetic ampersand and “fall back sprained from the glass,” birds again, but also, given the “sprained,” human hands.

Such wonderturning suggests the recombinant energy of the fugue, certainly, but it is also the special province and perhaps the product of the lyric. Meng’s have a passing lightness, the surface pulled together by the most ambivalent of structural tensions. Most of her figures are in fact quite traditional, her geese recalling the icon of the bird in ever so many poems, from the raven and dove in Genesis to the Nightingale to the Wild Swans at Coole. In Western lyric, birds always figure inspiration (at least) and the poet’s special coronation as artist, but in Meng’s poems they are also humorous and ungainly and passionate and can’t help but remake the world’s tabula as a sort of goofy, accidental art. “The lawnmower makes the geese shudder up at an angle/then settle. This false entry leaves the sky stripped” and “Shitting troops of geese/bellow toward an ugliness which wobbles weird,/the bald tire they make of the sky.” In reflective moments they “arrange their feathers.” Frequently, as in the passage above, they are transmogrified into artist’s hands: “Where/the two hands sever into bass & treble, they flew, they do, sprang back from flight. ” At the end of this poem, we see both startled geese and applauding hands when “the grass grow[ing] so loud the hand/must leave it & meet the other stunned & gasping.” That grass is another motif of the book, standing for mortality, it seems, and, Whitmanishly, for cannier life than that of humans. Grass twins the expanse of the sky and also serves as yet another page or canvas across which music, poetry, and art may be made.

So great are the lyric (lyric!) pleasures of these poems, with their inventions and reinventions, their pursual of motif and theme, that the postmodern apparatus of the book seems hardly necessary. Meng is perhaps the one contemporary writer who doesn’t benefit from Beckett’s help, or Heidegger’s or Nietzsche’s, or, implictly, Kinbote’s. Yet there is something entirely satisfying about the nesting of these lyrics, the many hands of which grapple with the big themes of Art and Creation, Failure and Inspiration, within those of the battered archangelic Neil Young. His reiterated lyric announces the moment of Art’s arrival again and again and again.

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Puppet Wardrobe

Daniel Tiffany

Parlor Press


Saturday, December 2nd, 2006

To gather a frame of reference for Daniel Tiffany’s critical and creative output, one could begin with the list of illustrations to his 2000 volume on the lyric, Toy Medium. This list includes "1. Von Kempelen’s chess player," ,"2. Mechanical birds," "5. Hans Bellmer, drawing of First Doll," "8. Painted-glass fireworks theater," "9. Animal electricity experiment by Sir William Watson," "11. Finale of 1936 Olympic ceremonies in Berlin," "12. Cloud-Chamber photograph of nuclear disintegrations," and so on. The list is interesting both for its quasi-scientific, quasi-occult contents and for the way it yokes this arcana to an epistemological tool (the list) itself made up of epistemological tools (illustrations). This dotty jostling among would-be orders of knowledge is at the heart both of Tiffany’s critical propositions about the lyric and of his lyrics themselves—and this image of a leaky double heart is just the kind of sweetly fatal grotesquerie that might find itself the object of Tiffany’s prose or verse speculations.

In Toy Medium, Tiffany seeks to shift critical discourse on materialism and the lyric by investigating what we talk about when we talk about matter, about material substance itself. In doing so, he locates a discussion of 20th C. poetry within a speculative tradition comprising the Epicurianism and atomism of the ancient Greeks, magnetism, optics, Mesmerism, toys, games, meteorology, and other areas of alchemical, philosophic, and occult speculation. As Tiffany leads the reader through the bizarre images and elaborate metaphors, unlikely thought experiments and still more unlikely physical experiments, models, marionettes, gimcracks and automata which make up over 20 centuries of striving after the nature of matter, corporeality, life and the soul, one can’t help but sense a gleam in his own authorial eye akin to that of the scientists, cranks, poets and seers he traces on his pages. Indeed, Toy Medium is striking because Tiffany’s ultimate goal is not just to establish a new vocabulary for discussing poetry but to suggest that poetry itself, properly considered, might turn out to be the very substance that will provide insight into the nature of matter itself:

Further, if we could produce a model—a picture—of lyric substance, might it not, despite its illegitimacy, have a place in current debates about material culture and the nature of corporeality? More specifically, is it possible that the "soul" of lyric—the technical apparatus proper to its effects—plays a more substantial role that we suspect in the institution of material substance?

In its Poe-like tenor, its phrase-by-phrase intensity, its flying-buttress like interrogative structure, and, of course, its outlandish allegation, this is easily the most outrageous and thus persuasive response to Gioia’s "Can Poetry Matter?" yet forwarded.

Tiffany’s first book of poetry, Puppet Wardrobe, has just been released by Parlor Press, and it serves as an eerie, tandem body to Toy Medium. Many of the illustrations in the previous book appear as allusions in this volume; Toy Medium‘s whimsical frontispiece drawing of a cupid driving a butterfly chariot, explained in that book as the production of an 18th c. mechanical drafting doll, is alluded to (but visually absent) in "Master’s Gone Away,” the first poem of the new book:

Supposing a doll of mysterious origin,
a mechanical marvel, falls into your hands
And suppose the doll, restored to life, signs the name
—the very signature—of the chemist who made it,
long dead. And now recall the print pulled in 1793
showing the toy, a girl today, richly dressed as a boy.

Thus far, the poem provides a synopsis of the information provided in the critical book, but it also begins to activate the special agencies of lyric. The bodiless speaker-as-raconteur, the implication of the addressee through pointed injunctions ("Supposing," "suppose,", "recall,") creates a tense and tensile space in which the substance of the poem reaches out to charge the addressee even as the mechanical doll "falls into your hands." The poem continues:

Suppose all that—for the doll is a writing machine—
and suppose it held in its periodic mind,
long before it went astray in the world,
a cartoon of the ship that would take it abroad
and a sketch of its maker—some say—or a self-portrait,
a study of Eros in chariot pulled by a butterfly.

The torturedness of this locution, heaving effortfully from line to line, makes material the chain of removals, doubles, fore- and afterimages making up this odd proposition, a chain which includes not just "doll" and "maker" but a system of text and sketches that also double for, mirror and replace each other, including the present poem, which in its textual markings is a trace of the butterfly sketch and of the doll itself. As the poem concludes,

And now suppose it scrawls—for a penny—these words
for you, announcing its return as a god:
Without eyes I see, without tongue I speak.

the axis of doll-to-reader becomes paramount, casting the doll as god, the reader as visionary to whom the god appears. The paradoxical immanence of the last line is flooded with all possible speakers at once; the maker, the doll, the poet, and the spectral speaker can all make this claim to speak and be present despite the absence of "real" bodies, and they all speak in one stressed and uncanny voice.

The thought experiment so pointedly raised in this opening poem is presented throughout the book in a variety of guises, yet the poems are also delightful bagatelles, ingeniously strange dramatic monologues propped up, often, in Baudelairean tableaux (an image that itself conjures Bellmer’s living dolls). In "Nightspot," the siren/automaton, saucily posing, makes a corresponding automaton of the addressee:

You’ll like my big-girl outfit—
just make sure you get the signals
right: once the collar’s set
and the cuffs, nod once to put ice in

my veins, twice and your kisses turn
to riddle—say who I am—to favors
punished […]

The doll-like speaker’s mechanized functions and identity are scripted both by a presumed programmer and by the "you" who controls the doll by nodding, yet whose nodding and kissing are in turn scripted by the doll who cajoles the addressee to perform these actions. By the end of the poem, after an S-and-M-cum-Dickinsonian tableau ("They harness me—for breaking") the balance of humanity seems on the side of the doll-speaker, while the addressee, rendered silent and passive by the exigencies of the lyric, can only listen and not respond to her plaint:

I don’t understand who’s there
in my place, a star like a blueprint
spreading from nail to calf,
an image of the engine. Say who I am.

This pile-up of images, blueprints, and doubles recalls "Master’s Gone Away," but the final sentence inverts the gesture of the earlier poem’s close; the speaking voice wishes to give over godly agency but cannot receive an answer, while the addressee, charged to respond, finds herself mute and doll-like, without the power of speech.

It is tempting, then, to read these poems as object lessons for the theories and models of "lyric substance" forwarded in Tiffany’s critical book, calling attention, through their tropes of dolls and automata, makers and masters, scripts and double portraits, artificial voices and code languages, to the ways in which the lyric functions as both automaton and smart-substance, manipulating the very reader whose action of reading brings it to life. But that would seem a reduction in scale from what Tiffany is really after. I submit that to give Tiffany’s poems their fullest measure, one would have to engage their properties, perhaps by weighing oneself before and after each reading, or measuring the static cumuli thrown off by one’s brain, or gauging the salinity of one’s sweat, blood and tears, to see how one’s corporeal dimensions have been altered by contact with these gemmy dynamos, these lyric bodies.

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Organic Furniture Cellar: Works on Paper, 2002-2004

Jessica Smith

Outside Voices


Saturday, September 16th, 2006

Back when this review was just a gleam in your reporter’s eye, a brouhaha was, well, brewing on Ron Silliman’s blog. Silliman praised Jessica Smith’s Organic Furniture Cellar for its "ambition," calling it "the most important book of 2006," and this brought about a predictable slew of negative reactions from comments-field trolls with mostly male blogger profiles. [It should be added that Smith also started her own press, Outside Voices, to publish Organic Furniture Cellar, and the fact that she snuck around the gatekeepers also brought out a snobby outcry from the comments-fielders. These protectors of poetry should be relieved to learn that Smith has since gone on to augment her authors list with up-and-comers Charles Bernstein and Susan Bee.]

What Silliman found fit to praise about Organic Furniture Cellar was the fact that, unlike her twenty-something peers, and like a certain twenty-something who once penned a bagatelle called The New Sentence, Smith has the gumption to both build and climb the ramparts, to identify, which is to say, launch, a new movement for poetry, namely "plastic poetry." Smith appends this, her first book, with a 9-page introduction laying out the tenets of plastic poetry, its goals and how it builds on and departs from related poetries of the past. Silliman calls Smith’s introduction "the most serious theoretical discussion I’ve seen at the front of a book of poetry in some time," which admittedly makes you wonder how long he’s been holding his telescope backwards, as does his conviction that writers younger than himself aren’t trying to make much happen with and through poetry. Still, "The Plasticity of Poetry (A Poetics)" yields much under careful consideration, though not necessarily what Smith intends. Instead, her essay raises interesting questions and exposes still more interesting flaws, and if in the end its relationship to the poems that follow seems not entirely apt, it is in itself a compelling piece of provocation, well-dosed with moxie and rhetorical flair.

In laying out just what plastic poetry is supposed to be, Smith begins with an analogy to architecture, and a reference to Gins and Arakawa’s Architectural Body, with some Enlightenment-era German aesthetics thrown in for good measure. Just as Gins and Arakawa imagine that users create space by moving through it, and thus envision architecture as "a site of reciprocal becoming,"

With plastic poetry, I want to change the reading space in such a way that the one who reads is forced to make amends for new structures in his or her virtual path. The words on a page must be plastic in virtual space as architecture and sculpture are plastic in real space. Thus, while plastic arts disrupt an agent’s space: plastic poetry must disrupt the reader’s space. This rupture does not stem from, as in the ordinary plastic arts, a real physical occupation of space, but rather from the disruption of the virtual space that one moves through when reading a poem.

All italics are Smith’s here, as is the emphatic colon in sentence three, a colon I wholly ratify. Apart from these typographical flourishes, however, I am already beginning to take issue with Smith’s approach. For one thing, I am not so certain why she insists that poetry is somehow apart from"real space," or why she insists that "reader’s space" is a virtual one and not a real one.

After all, in the next paragraph she insists on the material reality of plastic poetry, in that it "usually has a fragmentary visual component" and thus "calls attention to the physicality of reading." Meanwhile, plastic poetry "interferes with syntactic continuity by disrupting what the reader expects to find, or by suspending her memory of a word by breaking the word into unrecognizable fragments." The end result is to draw "attention to the way a reader uses the virtual space of memory to syntactically organize language into meaning."

It is at this point that plastic poetry begins to feel a bit tautological, or at least redundant, an anxiety Smith tries to refute somewhat lamely in various places in the essay. I mean "lamely" in two directions—lamely, in that I would prefer for her to ignore the haters and just trod on with her gumbooted brio, and also lamely, in that her parries are rather lame. She defends against plastic poetry’s redundancy thusly: "To be sure, the interdependency of space and time characterizes all reading, but the distinctive trait of the following poems is that they reinforce this condition"; and "I recall my high school teachers saying that books are never read the same way twice, and that each person brings something different to the text. This is reciprocal becomng at the basic level, but in my poems I really mean it […]."

Smith’s anxiety that she might not be laying out anything particularly new is evidenced in the strained way she makes straw men of both calligrams and concrete poetry, in order to brush them aside and usher in her new and improved Plasticity. She skewers the calligram on two points—firstly, that "the calligram’s ‘playfulness’ is simply a joke," a riddle that, once solved, closes its doors to meaning-making. This seems a suspiciously sweeping statement; equally suspect is the fact that as an example she references only Apollinaire’s much-anthologized chestnut "Il pleut, and that not once but twice. Secondly, Smith asserts that a calligram’s ‘obviousness’ means that there is "no syntactical (virtual) space for the reader to explore; the reader is not forced to hesitate between the memories and potentialities of meaning." This may be obvious for Smith, but it isn’t so for me, and I’m curious as to why a writer supposedly so invested in the spectrum of approaches to reading any single text would be so adamant in insisting there is only one way to read any text, including a calligram. By the time she argues that " [u]nlike the calligram, the plastic poem makes the reader aware of her eye’s movements across the page," I wonder whether Silliman, or blurbsters Bernstein, Spahr, and Bok, or even Smith herself believes this trumped up boast (one wonders if the blurbsters even read it). Certainly, whatever pooh-poohing one may feel for "Il pleut," calligrams depart from conventional printing techniques and thus require unconventional eye-movement across the page, a movement which radically combines looking and reading and which must be reconfigured by each reader, each time. If there was one moment in the history of literature where people were forced to become aware of their eyes’ unconventional movement across the page, it was Apollinaire’s.

Concrete poetry fares slightly better than calligrams, but eventually it, too, must fall on its sword so that plastic poetry may have its day. "Like calligrams," Smith declares in a closing salvo which still shocks despite its being so predictable, “concrete poems do not allow the reader to enter their syntactic space like plastic poems do.” But what concrete poetry is Smith talking about? Brazilian concrete poetry? Swedish concretism? Whole movements of 20th century avant-garde poetry are being not just dismissed but blithely ignored here, pre-20th century traditions notwithstanding. Since she gives no examples at all, her argument seems arbitrary at best. In the footnote she refers us to two poems by Steve McCaffery and bpNichols, but if this is the extent of Smith’s experience of concrete poetry, I wonder what they are teaching them up in Buffalo these days. At any rate all this bluster about concrete poetry becomes a bit quixotic since Smith also admits that she has included concrete poems in her book, namely a map of islands made up of ‘Ö’s, the Swedish word for ‘island’. So sometimes, it would seem, concrete poems are plastic poems, as long as they are by Smith, McCaffery or Nichol, and as long as they are never, never calligrams.

The most contradictory aspect of Smith’s general argument, however, is that while it feints in the direction of radically opened texts, texts which challenge the reader to forge their own paths for reading in would-be "virtual" space (I’m still not sure why it’s virtual), her ideas about reading itself, its ends and its means, seem limited, even conservative. Her footnotes doff their caps to the usual formally radical suspects: Fluxus scores, Futurism, LangPo elders, etc. But these hardly seem absorbed into the body of her thought, not if she is so ready to dismiss the visual dynamism of the concrete movements that have preceded her.

Smith seems very ambivalent about the task of meaning making in the reading of plastic poetry. On the one hand she asserts that with plastic poetry, "the reader can choose from many possible syntactic paths. She is not forced to follow just one path that makes sense; many methods and routes make sense in a more complex way than linear syntax does." Elsewhere Smith asserts that even if her reader "should encounter only nonsense, the labyrinth of fragmented words itself becomes meaningful (if only because taking a certain path will lead to nonsense, thus warning the reader to choose a different one)." Why this prohibition on nonsense? Why must the end of reading be to ‘make sense’ at all? What else and why else might we read? Opening up the text to these types of questions is not in Smith’s program. Instead, the reader of the plastic poem "becomes aware of her memory’s activity of putting fragments into letters, letters into syntax, and syntax into narrative." And further, "What is at stake in the plastic poem is […] the logic of syntax and its relation to the workings of memory." That’s a pretty prescriptive formulation of reading for a movement so supposedly opened to multilinear readings, so supposedly radical in its openness, so supposedly new.

The problem with plastic poetry is not what it does, but what Smith thinks it’s for, which is to say, not much more than making us self-conscious of our reading. With her whistling-past-the-graveyard absolutism, Smith seems afraid of nonsense, afraid of jettisoning narrative and memory and vague spots-in-timish "virtuality" in which syntax becomes apparent to us. She seems afraid to consider the implications of a truly opened and undetermined text for a reader, for reading, for event, for temporality, for politics, even. In this sense her program seems incomplete, and, for now, shallower than that of the Language Poets she reveres, shallower than that of the Fluxus artists, particularly Jackson MacLow, who had a functioning theoretical framework for his indeterminacy and who is nowhere referenced here. A reading of his recent volume of performance texts, Doings from Granary Books, might add some nuance to this nascent movement.

My favorite part of "The Plasticity of Poetry (A Poetics) " is the infloration of terminology that takes up its last few pages. Here Smith provides a kind of roadmap to the poems that will follow, including a taxonomy of their fragments, which include "spines," "nodes," "splits," "shards," "splinters" and "ghosts." Here it strikes me that Smith is really onto new ground, pronouncing a new system of categories for thinking about poetry, entirely idiosyncratic but joyful as well. It is provided as a guide for readers (which again seems a bit deterministic in this context) but reconceived of as a theory of process might add some dimensionality to Smith’s discussion of temporal dynamics in her texts.

As for the poems themselves, as examples of plastic poetry, as sites of "reciprocal becoming," they are hit or miss, as even Silliman seems inclined to admit. In a poem such as flores para los muertos, I enjoy the action of reading that creates a double path through the text when read vertically and yet glimpses words alternately lifting off and being pegged back down to the page when read horizontally

at any moment
everythingcould be lethal […]

On the other hand, so many of these poems deal with travel, memory, leisure time, and nature that I can only wonder just why Smith built such an elaborate frame on which to mount this latest version of Wordsworthian subjectivity. Is the plasticity of plastic poetry meant to denature this naggingly conservative content, to suppress it, or just conceal it? A descriptive poem about leaves seems a case in point:

fire explosion
yellow burnt
bursts of
bright musky
soft green with
orangeyellow […]

Not only is this a fairly conventional descriptive poem on one of the most conventional of all poetry topics (autumn leaves), but to my eyes all those random falling letters are making the whole thing look more than a little (gasp!) concrete. Even her less overtly concrete pieces still exhibit the old subterranean tug between form and content that plastic poetry would theoretically have no need for—poems about train journeys, canals, locks, slanting rain (il pleut indeed!), walking on bridges, looking into a lover’s eyes, all of which are linear vectors inevitably mimicked in the linear vectors of the page.

I’m not sure which is most dismaying, to arrive at Smith’s extremely reductive treatment of Ulysses(if there was one text that does not need to be made more ‘plastic’ it’s Ulysses; what’s next, a more ‘open’ version of Finnegans Wake?) or at her touristic treatment of the Swedish language and landmass. Smith makes limited use of the Swedish language, exploiting its funky-looking vowels and resultingly funky-looking place- and flower-names while at the same time ignoring a poetic heritage which includes an entire movement of concrete poetry (including the invention of the term ‘concretism’ by Swede Öyvind Fahlstrˆm in 1953.) She even ignores a contemporary poetry scene which is rewriting that same countryside along lines much more radical than those Smith has as yet taken up (to wit, Aase Berg’s most recent volume, Uppland, among others.) The Sweden poems are the worst examples of the travel-journal tendencies of this book.

So why has this review grown so long—longer, I think, than the infamous essay which spawned it, "The Plasticity of Poetry (A Poetics)"? I think enough of Smith’s project and her chutzpah to want her to succeed. I’m perplexed by both the unstinting praise showered on this project by Silliman et al, who seem to have accepted Smith’s rhetoric at face value without considering its lapses, limits, and contradictions, and the player-hating on the part of those who are jealous of this praise. At a time when many young writers are pushing against the boundaries of the page, the single poem, and the genre of poetry itself, I agree with Silliman (!) that it’s a good thing when poets take the time to actually think about and try to theorize what they’re doing. I also think that while this essay and volume fall short, the lapses point the way to a more interesting and complex theory of plastic poetry, one that makes a consideration of process, one that allows for the lapse and the ellipsis, the reading strategies which are truly open ended, which do not seek after meaning, but rather to be always arriving at a state of radical becoming.

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Skinny Eighth Avenue

Stephen Paul Miller with Noah Mavael Miller, illustrator

Marsh Hawk Press


Thursday, July 20th, 2006

If the screaming red hue of USA Today‘s colorcoded weathermap is any indication, the dog days of summer have set in early across the lower 48. But fear not, swelterers: to every season there is a poetry book. The heat-fatigued and heart-woozy can kill the long stretch between breakfast and cocktails with a tart yet sweet, lemonade-hued copy of Skinny Eighth Avenue.

Skinny Eighth Avenue is a lively, brainy, probing and variform collaboration between the latter-day New York School poet/critic Stephen Paul Miller and his artist son, Noah Mavael Miller, who was in third grade at the time of the book’s release about a year ago. Miller’s erudite, humane, and yes, talky poems are punctuated by young Noah with exuberant drawings of mastodons, turtles, and other fauna, often climbing into and out of computer-generated holes (the most cheerfully loony of which is a large drawing of a grinning sea turtle which appears under the title "Hustling"). The resulting book, at once a capsule of private life and a contemplation of such public themes as the Iraq war, the Sixties, the Holocaust, and the collapse of the New Deal, mixes the zaniness, purposefulness, and frankness of kidhood with the zaniness, emotional nuance and intellectual range of an adult heart and mind at work.

Skinny Eighth Avenue includes a number of the lengthy, cascading, digressive poems you would expect to find in a New York School book, and these amble nimbly along on the strength of Miller’s ear, waxing academic, chatty, goofy, or diaristic in diction and tone by turns. The short lines form precarious slanting columns or cut strange swathes and snake around the pages, inviting the reader to scramble after them and get caught up in their runs and snares. The following passage comes 11 pages into a terrific long poem cataloguing a trip to California and mulling over the nature of power, politics, and modernity, called "I’m Trying to Get my Phony Baloney Ideas about Metamodernism into a Poem":

And then when my wife gets sick,
the university
human resources dept. backs the college
of conservative arts and denies
me a family leave because they
say my wife’s too sick
and needs care outside the home and hence I’m
not caring for her. Huh? It allows them to, as women
so often experience, wash their hands
of harmless special accommodation for dire needs
and screw up childcare
for the good reason
of them winning. That’s 10% of it.
In another poem I’ll be more specific, I
guess, or, oh, forget it.
They’re just doing
what they’re supposed to do.
I shouldn’t take it so personal[ly],
but focus instead on
eating pizza on the beach with Noah.
He asks me what I’m thinking.
I lie and substitute my last thought: "1968 and
what would have happened?" "Huh?"

The line breaks here do not call attention to the semantics of the words or to the faux-organic marking off of breaths by an inspired typewriter(!) but to the illusory status of the poem, its ability to construct its own temporality which occasionally tags up with or darts away from an apparent or experienced readerly ‘present tense.’ Absorbed by the digression regarding the wife’s illness, we are temporarily moved away from poem’s constructed present tense on the beach. We come back to it when Miller’s speaker does, then experience his riffling through time when he "substitute[s] [his] last thought," a meditation on Bobby Kennedy which we know to have proceeded this vignette on the previous page of this very poem.

Time in these poems is shown to be illusory and malleable. The effect produced is like a dream in which one suddenly realizes one can fly or breathe underwater: one can move forward in the present-tense-simulacra of this book. Miller seemingly reflects on this temporal quality in a subsequent poem, "Pleasure," a rumination on what Jewish poetry is, or might be. Regarding Kenneth Koch, Miller states

By ongoing discourse, I mean talk
flowing to and fro like dovening yet also
seemingly endlessly forward.

This double quality of moving to and fro while also hurtling forward forms the mesmerizing double character of Miller’s own work.

In addition to the hefty digressive poems, Skinny Eighth Avenue also includes some Looney pieces in dramatic form, including "George Whatever Bush, or, It’s in the Bagh, Dad" which lampoons the haphazard hazards of our contemporary miasma via a dialogue between "AMERICAN ECONOMY" and "RIGHT WING"

Hey, it’s only infinite justice.
I forget why now, but I need absolute
control and some uh money. Who could
know the terrorists would fight so dirty?
Terrorists used to be so nice! (PHONE
Uh oh, the Chinese are dumping bonds.
You’re in default, bitch.


Admittedly this is a bit broad, but then its target is not exactly a miniscule one, nor richly nuanced, so maybe the big stick is appropriate. The corny title certainly warns us of the gags in store. More subtle is “You Think Your Dream Is Real/Because You Can’t Feel The bed: 35 Plays by Noah and Stephen Miller”, which consists of brief stanzas of lines in dialogue:


If you eat another of my M& M’s
I’ll cut you open to get it back.

Don’t be so violent.

I’m not being violent.
I’d put you back together.


These self-contained segments, like those making up the renga-like title poem, ask us to use a different attention than the long skeining meditative pieces, to consider how line hooks into, prepares for, or recalls another line. At the same time, they remind us that the apparent single-sweep of those longer poems is also artifice, knit from smaller units, even if, as Miller remarks elsewhere, "I edit before I write from decisions I never/think of." Indeed, Miller’s capacious tonal flexibility is not based on possessing a miraculous medal blessed by O’Hara or Koch but on his sensitivity to the base material of all poetry, language itself. It is this that allows him shift shapes, to write not only digressive lyrics but quasi-flarfy found poems, persona poems, spam-inspired politico-erotic fantasias, skits, and a goofy yet persuasive essayistic poem entitled "’The Hustle’ and Its Liquid Totems of Holocaust, Suburb, and Computer." Miller can construct and conduct all these different phantasmagoria because they are made of the same stuff that makes up the self-erasing brevity of the eight-line "Photo Post":

The white of your shorts pocket lining
matches the little Frosted Flakes bag.
You are nothing but birth suspicious
the grounds of your birth have been
lifted, you stay at the corner
of the picture and
away from me,
connected to a thread.

Skinny Eighth Avenue is as packed, fleet, worldly, busy and exhilarating as any New York thoroughfare, neither cute nor particularly skinny, a hurtling and compelling book to breathe life into an airless afternoon.

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Irregular Numbers of Beasts and Birds

Cecil Helman

Quale Press


Tuesday, June 13th, 2006

Almost 150 years after the release of Paris Spleen, subtitled Petits po’mes en prose and agreed by most opinionators to be the early landmark of the form, Baudelaire still offers the best definitions of the prose poem going (excluding the endlessly applicable "I know it when I see it.") In the preface addressed to Ars’ne Houssaye, Baudelaire writes (per Louis Var’se’s translation for the 1947 New Directions edition):

My Dear Friend, I send you a little work of which no one can say, without doing it an injustice, that it has neither head nor tail, since, on the contrary, everything in it is both head and tail, alternately and reciprocally.

So much about the prose poem as we know and love it is encapsulated in this remark. A poem in prose is a paradox, "both head and tail," but it is the kind of paradox that typifies the universe. It’s particle and wave. Everywhere and nowhere. "On the contrary" and "both." The prose poem even has a sort of fractal quality, to switch metaphors, since "everything in it" seems to replicate the paradoxical qualities of the whole.

Not only that, but Baudelaire anticipates that the prose poem will endure as poetry’s most gassed-about form, with wags pitching mots juste at it with the wild determination and variable aim of lit-up bluebloods tossing horseshoes in the sere Kennebunkport dust. For all this, the definition of the prose poem, its rules, its properties, refuse to stabilize, and critics and anthologizers alike are driven back to the "Know it when I see it," myth of origins, or care-and-feeding approach.

To my mind, the prose poem continues to confound because we do not know it when we see it, not exactly. We see that block of prose hanging there on the page or screen and we don’t know what kind of prose it’s going to be until we’re at least halfway through it, if ever. As if that weren’t enough, the prose poem calls into question our ability to "know" other poetic forms "when we see them," to know a poem at all. Q: What is a poem? A: That which holds stiff on the left side and breaks on the right—unless it doesn’t.

Which is to say that, like that of Gertrude Stein and perhaps L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the poetry of Baudelaire might be much imitated, but it is not wholly digested. Describe it as we may, refer to it, opine in whatever shrill or resonant tones we must, we don’t know quite what it is yet, we haven’t made it into something else, and we certainly aren’t done with it. That’s why a book like Irregular Numbers of Beasts and Birds by doctor-poet Cecil Helman is so tonic, so gratefully received. Here is a book of petits po’mes en prose which, despite occasional feints into Edsonian orbits, is Baudelairean in its kernelized intensity, its pen-scratching pace, its ironies, even its rainy, urban images and personnel. These poems hardly seem written in the 20th century, let alone the 21st. Witness


Take these flowers, my love. Think of me. Hold their petals up against the light, like you once held me. Feel the warm light flowing through them, onto your cheek. Through me, your stained-glass window, onto your cheek. Warm reds and oranges caressing your skin. Cerise, purple, dark greens, sometimes shades of blue. Feel the warmth. Feel the play of my light on your body. The intricate stories I tell, the images that glow in the dark. Take this bouquet, my love. It’s for you.

To be sure, this is less splenetic than melancholic, and perhaps Helman’s medical training prevents him from relishing excess of spleen. But the mode of address here is Spleen-ishly disturbing; the ultra-conventional opening address to the lover ("Take these flowers, my love.") establishes not a romantic intimacy but an uneasy proximity, like a stranger on a subway suddenly whispering past—or into– one’s ear. If the Baudelairean mode often leads Helman to queer arrondissements, it allows him to circumvent the small ess surreality of the Edson-imitators or the dutiful syntax-smashing of those boarding indefinitely at the School of Stein.

The unit of composition here does not seem to be the sentence so much as the poem, the gem-like whole. The first sentence of each of these poems is like the raised baton of a conductor: "Old man with a white beard, who are you?"; "Oh dear Mr. Palette, I am so particularly pleased to see you today."; "See that artist over there, with beret, brushes?" The rest of the short poem is the entire symphony elapsing in one dense, dynamic chord. The sentences do not seem to displace each other so make the same gesture again and again, to darken and enrich its hues. The punchline, even, as in this "Bouquet" poem, merely rewrites the first sentence, drives its trajectory out of the poem and into unmarked, uneasy space.

In distinction to Baudelaire’s poems, then, the best of Helman’s are not marked by a capricious twist, breakthrough or acte gratuit. They merely continue, with dogged oddness, doing what they do.

Poetry Reading

Three poets in an empty house. A poetry reading. There’ve been adverts in all the papers, announcements on the air. They’ve stuck up posters, handed out flyers. Everywhere in the city. Yet still they wait. Still the rows of empty chairs. Frantically they pace the bare floor-boards. High above their anxious heads, naked light bulbs dangle from the ceilings. Soon sonnets echo plaintively among the cavernous spaces. Bouncing off dusty window-panes, bare unpainted walls. Staggering through empty, echoing rooms, they mouth their verse. Beautiful, finely-crafted poems. All about Loneliness. And Alienation.

As with the poems in Spleen, the serious irony of this poem is a challenging flavor for the contemporary reader to negotiate. The poem stages the mundane occurrence, the unattended poetry reading (ahem), as an ultimate artistic triumph, a success-in-failure, in which the empty house serves as proscenium, stage and audience for the poems "about Loneliness. And Alienation." The last two phrases, which would be laugh-line in the hands of 99% of contemporary poets, seem utterly serious here because they are of a piece with what’s come earlier. With these final capitalized abstractions, its as if the poem finally hoists its two mauvish sails to coast permanently off into Oblivion.

Given the, well, sublimity of moments like these, the more Edson-lite

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Doings: Assorted Performance Pieces, 1955 – 2002

Jackson Mac Low

Granary Books


Monday, May 1st, 2006

Stephen Spender may have thought (and continually!) of those who were truly great but I think pretty frequently of those who get things going. Which brings us to Jackson Mac Low’s posthumous verb of a collection, Doings. If you and your list-servmates can drum up fifty bucks, go in on a copy. Published in workbook format with an accompanying CD, Doings features fascinating, often hand-drawn rule- and chance-based texts for DIY improvised performances, extensive notes for performers, as well as sidebar commentary from Mac Low about the conception or imagined execution of each piece. The CD includes performances of texts from the book, most performed by Mac Low and collaborator Anne Tardos, as well as five additional mindboggling numbers(I direct you in particular to "5th Bluebird Asymmetry"). But because the performances are guided improvisations, there are no canonical or correct ways to perform the texts; with one other partner you can speak, sing, rattle, chirp, dance and attend these texts into new pieces of art. So for $50 you get more than just 264 pages of theories, scores, maps, notes, drawings and poems —you get a body of ideas and energies that will keep multiplying and changing as it comes into contact with new materials, i.e. your life, your voice, your body, your brain, and the sound and silence all around you.

Doings is arranged chronologically, tracking Mac Low’s work from the mid- Fifties, when, as a young man, he wrote verbal performance texts for John Cage’s experimental composition workshops, until 2002 (Mac Low died in 2004 as Doings was in production; Steve Clay saw the book through). At this early stage, Mac Low identified with Taoism and with Cage’s Zen-derived strategies for escaping intentionality in composition. As the introduction notes,

Among these methods were the use of chance operations and the composition of works "indeterminate as to performance." These methods were designed to allow fundamental elements, such as sounds, to "be themselves" unencumbered by “personal expression, drama, psychology, and the like."

Out of this effort to redistribute agency from its traditional seat—the author—to the performers and even to sound itself, came ‘simultaneities,’ texts to be read simultaneously by a number of performers in which unison, contrast, euphony and dissonance arrange according to non-intentional and unpredictable systems. Sidebars inform us as to the particular rules by which each piece was written; the texts for 21.21.29, the 5th biblical poem(for 3 simultaneous voices)the 1st biblical play were written numerically according to throws of the dice which determined the number of events (words or pauses) in a given line. The performers themselves decide on a tempo at which to perform their various texts—say, according to pulse beats—or they may choose indeterminacy. The resulting texts look like a puzzle that does not quite cohere. For example, for line 1, voice I reads

/__/ /__/ /__/ one Lord children /__/ /__/ My the /__/

while, simultaneously, voice II, line 1 reads

/__/side:/__/ the/__/children/__//__/ My the/__/

The virgules mark off silence. At first glance, any given line of these erased-looking texts may resemble the pointedly airy work of a young post-avant, but the difference is that silence in Mac Low is not the frame for musings, or a glyph for the absence of God, or the white flag of the poet’s profundity, or the mark of ineffability, or even just punctuation. Instead, it’s a material in itself, part of the composition, a means of organization, measurable, a site for conscientious attention to the goings on around one.

The powerful properties of silence become apparent when one listens to a performance of Mac Low’s pieces—silence is the exuberant über material, the one on which all else is written, which gathers and shapes the dissonance into short-lived, quickly mutating forms. In these pieces, silence is muscular, resourceful, active. It’s no wonder that Mac Low is so careful to annotate his silence, both in the texts and in the notes to these performances. He cautions, in italics, "Silences must never be hurried." If, in another piece, two readers double up on a single part, then silence should separate their performances— "one reader doubling her initial silence." It is refreshing to see such a non-drippy, non-portentous approach to silence. It is, after all, just another building material for art, albeit an exceedingly durable and flexible one.

Works from the first two decades of Mac Low’s career show great variety in visual realization. Scores for performance take the form of bird-like tracks which performers can ‘play’ in any way they wish; random letters scrawled in various sizes on index cards which performers must find a way to pronounce, pausing for the amount of time signaled by a random integers also scrawled on the card; "gathas" or mantras arranged on quadrille paper, challenging the performer to get from phoneme to phoneme while progressing one square at a time; asymmetries, in which a performance must be determined from a painting of scrambled words and syllables; a fascinating play activity in which words and actions (actions such as "SEEMING TO COME BY WING" or "GIVING FALSELY") are listed on a card and dealt out to performers for the spontaneous composition of dozens of miniplays. Most striking visually in this period is the score for "Om in a Landscape," which appears as both a casual pencil doodle and an aerial map representing a huge field full of performers. The nebular, biological or topographical nature of this image is hypnotic, while the instructions for performance place a typical emphasis on kindness and comportment:

Om in a Landscape may be performed as they see fit by any number of people who have enough good will to listen intently to each other and to everything else they hear while they perform it and to relate with what they hear by speaking or singing or both and observing plenty of silence from time to time. Please don’t make your Oms too holy-holy.

The experience of reading such instructions and the accompanying scores is absorbing, even transporting; as one tilts and rotates the page to track the writing, one can feel time and sound bend in one’s own head. After some strenuous imagining, one can play the CD for an example of what a performance of such a wild text might sound like. A trippy multiplicity leaps up.

By mid-career, Mac Low developed his "vocabularies," in which he took the letters of friends’ names, painstakingly generated lists of anagrams, and arranged these words in elaborate free form or gridded systems which speakers, vocalists or instrumentalists could then encounter and perform. In some cases the composition was complicated by the addition of other vocab lists or rules based on randomly generated integers. Though this form occupied Mac Low, he continued to write gridded mantras or gathas as well. Through the Seventies and Eighties, Mac Low’s instructions for performance grew more and more complex and detailed. For most texts collected here, he stipulated the possible conversion of words or phonemes into musical notes, discussed pitch sets, suggested a variety of amplitudes and attacks performers might choose from, proposed alternative approaches to tempo and time keeping, even suggested rehearsal strategies. It is to this proliferation of suggestions and alternatives that the term "guided improvisation" truly seems to apply; as Mac Low notes in the instructions to "A Vocabulary for Vera Regina Lachmann" (1974),

Having a repertoire of such procedures [i.e. those derived in rehearsal] available may often add more (in richness and multiplicity) than it detracts from spontaneity, especially since the use of those procedures is subject to in performance choices arising out of the immediate situation, including choices to modify some of the previously worked out procedures as the moment (and/or the performer’s reaction to it) demands.

The later decades of Mac Low’s career were marked by the striking introduction of technology into his work. For "A Vocabulary for Annie Brigitte Gilles Tardos [1980]", the wordlist was prepared by a "computer printout of random groups of entries, " and an elaborate complex of visual and performed realizations were imagined. A subset of the realizations were pasted on the windows at P.S. 1’s Poetry Room, and later performances incorporated video, films, photos, photostats, drawings and other media. As a sidebar notes, manifestations have "progressively proliferated.” Surprisingly, the interest in computer-assisted art is accompanied in this book with a renewed interest in traditionally notated musical scores. The book concludes with a split movement towards computer-assisted vocabularies and gathas on the one hand and handpainted, gestural verbal scores, called "phenomicons," on the other. Mac Low, it seems, was diversifying up until to the very end of his mortal career.

Progressive proliferation is, finally, the most stirring aspect of Doings— the idea that, as the title suggests, these texts and Mac Low’s art are not fixed in time but have, as a body, literally survived him. This body continues mutating, unfolding into new performances, inspiring new texts, moving outwards like a giant, unfixed, lopsided but maybe eventually symmetrical mandala. To think this way is to be touched by Mac Low’s evident optimism. Since his metier was performance, which is action, his poetics is ultimately an ethics, or a code of action. His notes and instructions constantly enjoin his performers to behave decently, forbid "ego-tripping, " and declare, " ‘Listen’and ‘Relate’ are the most important ‘rules.’" In the 1968 instructions to "A Vocabulary for Carl Fernbach-Flarsheim," he insists

ALL PERFORMERS must be able and willing continually to listen with complete concentration and to modify their actions, sounds, and silences in accordance with the changes in the total aural situation as they perceive it. All should often listen silently and only add new sonic elements when they feel the latter may add positively to the aural plenum. Notions of what is "positive" will, of course, differ from individual to individual.

It is relieving to recall that if Mac Low anticipated or wished for good behavior from his fellow or future art travelers (and perhaps he could expect it among his friends and peers or the Cage set), he did not imagine perfect harmony. In fact his work mostly depends on the dissonance, flaws, departures and irregularities produced even by likeminded humans pursuing similar goals in an improvised context. This is where life is, and art itself. As instructions to the book’s first text read, "In simultaneities, all must begin together. In all methods except 2a, they’ll get apart soon enough."

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Strange Elegies

Mac Wellman

Roof Books


Sunday, March 26th, 2006

The title Strange Elegies both says it all and hardly enough about this indispensably disturbing volume. Indeed, Mac Wellman’s new book includes fourteen long, enjambed, frequently centered thingamajigs made out of words and orthographical markings that look like lyrics and are titled to recall elegies, not of the funereal variety, but of Donne and his audacious ilk: "ELEGY UPON THE SAYING ‘SHIT FLOATS’"; "ELEGY: ON HUMAN HAIR."

Yeah, I said ‘centered.’ One of the Strangest, by which I mean creepiest, things about these poems is the way in which they streak down the middle of the page like a scream escaping directly from the inner crenellations of a madman’s brain or a piece of deadly metal plunging from a disintegrating spy plane and into the kiddie pool in which the reader is taking the air. Needless to say, the Constant Critic interface won’t let me create this effect here, so you’ll have to imagine the weirdness dispensed in "ELEGY AGAINST THE ARGUMENT FROM DESIGN," when

I encounter my fur
I’m flying from.
Furious and were
wolfish. What
irks me
furs me, foldingly
transparent to the poet’s weird.
Ravel to riddle
to end king cheese’s
domain. Do it
Star. Go
to floor and hurry
debouchment. The true linear
horizontal’s a
fruitless impact. My
eyes tickle

We may hear a slew of poets colluding in this passage (Auden, Berryman, Dickinson, Alfred Noyes and Philip Jenks) but the queer mood, swoony enjambment across brief phrases, metaphysical declarativeness and pinched dimensions give these elegies their own shuddery identity. Though the poems have the density of dramatic monologues, or maybe of letters both written and read in dreams, their speaker seems an illusion of the syntax and the poems’ strange properties, more than the persona these serve to illustrate. He is the thing called "I" who exists in (and as?) a vertical universe populated by such agents as "Rider," "X, " "Y," "Five," and other appellations bestowed according to syntax’s (poet’s?) whimsy. In "ELEGY UPON ANY ITEM OF WHICH THE SPEAKER DOES NOT KNOW OR HAS MOMENTARILY FORGOTTEN THE NAME,"

So: I’m
not an
I know the name of anymore—
; nor dare.
up to here in absence
of there &
climbing inside
the porch-
wall, without a
fur of care…
& Rider
an "it" now. Ouch!

If we sense a speaker here, we sense he speaks from a place made of paradoxical coordinates— "here in absence"— which change shape as we read across lines— "here in absence/of there." Given the bonelessness of these poems’ wendings, and the acrobatic tricks they play on the reading eye, one begins, after many readings, to wonder if the entire volume is populated by cats.

It would be more apt to say the volume itself is feline, made of felinity, dexterous, fungible, keen, slightly unnatural, resourceful, and maybe (to think Poe-ically) undead. This world seems an inchwide, vertical version of our universe, both anywhere and nowhere, moonlit, and, in the (left-justified) "ELVIS ON THE MOON," both Styxy and planetary:

All care to the windy
coast cost
is banished by thought’s bone,

Round the hard, chill
charred hill of change,
from under my feet. Just
the fur hears the bare fly.

A furry turns to asphodel…

As that "furry" suggests, this is also a world made of threads of ink and sound, rising and falling, in which a "fury" hides inside a "furry," "cost" is banked up in a "coast," in which "thought" has "bone" and "fur" can "hear." Maybe sound, then, is this river’s deciding current, and logic the enthralled rider following just behind, on shore:

Night with rider in its
ripcord for a tentflap
bollide colossus
ups the ante.
Moon stolen by a whip
for a cap’s bill. Stone
saving up a
crazy day.
Rider still assails the


Again, it is Wellman’s special knack for the lunacy of language that lets us see how close that second-most-generic of articles, "the," is to that most sacred, lyrical, and intimate of addressees, "thee."

It’s possible to read Strange Elegies as mini-theater for the cochlear and optic nerves, or perhaps as duets played upon them, performances not interior to a monologist but to our reading selves. Our own silence is strange in this dimension, even furtive. Are we voyeurs, eavesdroppers, assassins? Are we landlords, demons, demigods? Aren’t we, at least and at most, complicit, always already implicated in the real events of this language? Is ‘Rider’ ‘writer’, or is he ‘Reader’? As "ELEGY UPON A SUSPICION OF UTTERANCE" insists, "This, too, is a reality." Shudder.

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Petroleum Hat

Drew Gardner

Roof Books


Sunday, February 19th, 2006

Perhaps you have been following the recent folderol surrounding Flarf, its adherents and its discontents, in the blogs, list-servs and electronic journals. Those of you coming late to this party may view a cache of origin myths and working definitions on the EPC site. There, core Flarfists Kasey Mohammad, Gary Sullivan, and Mike Magee provide at least thirteen ways of looking at Flarf, as a technique, as a movement, as a concept, as a collection of attributes, as none of things ("There is no such thing as Flarf!" —KSM, channeling Tzara). Of course, formulations like these begin to smell like post-mortems. One begins to suspect that Flarf has left the building.

There one would be wrong. Flarf, dead, alive, or trussed up for action like Miss Emily’s corpse-groom ("Flarf isn’t dead. It isn’t even Flarf.")cum radio star is hurling out some of the most kinetic, attractive, sort of honest, cute, cutesy, apt, angry, and despairing writing in the American spectrum. The Flarfy Petroleum Hat by Drew Gardner has got all these attributes in spades, and his poem "Chicks Dig War" deserves all the nervous accolades being spilled like martinis onto its open flames.

But first, let’s climb back onto the dubious teeter-totter of defining (or describing) Flarf. I like Sullivan’s description (see EPC), only half of which is quoted here:

Flarf: A quality of intentional or unintentional "flarfiness." A kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying, awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. "Not okay."

Flarf (2): The work of a community of poets dedicated to exploration of "flarfiness." Heavy usage of Google search results in the creation of poems, plays, etc., though not exclusively Google-based.

This definition (which goes on for two more sub-definitions) brings out the multiple identities of Flarf. On the one hand, Flarf is an nth generation Dadaist method in which text is collected by some random technique and then arranged according to the poet’s eye or ear. Flarfists are reported to use Google and other search engines, spam, or word processing features such as spell check and search-and-replace to arrive at first versions of their texts. Most critics seize on this aspect of Flarf in their analyses, but method, to me, seems only half the Flarf equation, and, anyway, I suspect many of the Flarfsters create texts without corporate tools, out of fluency in, rather than quotation of, the Ur-speak of techno-corporate culture.

The jangly, cut-up textures, speediness, and bizarre trajectories of the Flarf poem, while fetching, are not the source of Flarf’s originality. Folks, it’s just a species of collage. To my mind, it’s the other aspect of Flarf that distinguishes it. I love a movement that’s willing to describe its texts as "cute," let alone as "a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness." The Flarfists may have the ultimate defense mechanism in calling their work "wrong" or bad writing, but at least they accurately describe it. This is utterly tonic in a poetry field crowded by would-be (small ess) sincerists unwilling to own up to their poems’ self-aggrandizing, sentimental, bloviating, or sexist tendencies.


The latest setback in the Flarf story came at the hands of one Dan Hoy, yet I would argue the damage done to Flarf comes more in Flarfists’ reaction to Hoy than to his critique. In Jacket, Hoy characterized Flarf’s reliance on Google as an unwitting, unexamined complicity with corporate nefariousness, and took the unfortunate tack of lecturing the Flarfists on just how a Google search works, how it dresses the mutton of corporate prerogatives as the lamb of democratic access. In response to Mohammad’s post ‘Hoy on Flarf’ on his {lime tree} blog, Flarfsters scoffed at Hoy’s didacticism, and pooh-poohed his corporate critique, and this, dear reader, disappointed me. How can a group of writers that describe their work as pointedly "Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. Not O.K." react so defensively to a charge of Un-P.C.-ness? The more thoughtful, well-argued responses that have appeared since are no consolation. Certainly, it would be more fitting to rip yet another page from Tristan Tzara’s playbook and ride the pony of would-be corporate complicity all the way to the deranged highlands of Absurdity itself(Ryan Daley’s post is along these lines). Hopefully, by the time Sullivan publishes his collection of ripostes to Hoy in the next Jacket, the Flarfsters will have their neo-Dadaist bona fides (which is to say, non-bona-fides) in place.

Another line of attack which applies more directly to the review at hand is the pro-Flarfers complaint that Hoy didn’t address Flarf poems, but rather Flarfster rhetoric, in his essay. The charge is accurate, but I wonder what it is that makes Flarfsters and their apologists expect conventional, New Critical analyses of unconventional, absolutely anti-New Critical writing. Is it appropriate or even productive to wrestle this writing down into digestible, regurgitatable discourse(that metaphor being atrociously mixed)? Unfortunately, it must be admitted that the published products of Flarf are poems. They read like poems. Poems that could be critiqued. Perhaps this is a shortcoming. On the other hand, the poems themselves are great. In Petroleum Hat (the book, you will recall, that I am reviewing), you will find spammily titled pieces like "Skylab Wolverine Bunny Cage Nub" in which short stanzas create a ricocheting, B.B.-gun-in-the-living-room effect:

Phoenix is the land of milk dowsers,
and I’ve always been
a wolverine bunny cage xenocide forum asshole.

John Denver is nonsensical.
Good morning Skylab!

These people are for people’s amusement
in the Jack Palance Malice Palace.

I hate the high levels of jerk war around here.
Morons of quietness…

In the first stanza, the confessional-feeling "and I’ve always been," with its poor-me "and," works like a hinge between the surreal claim of the first line and the manic non-syntax of the third. Reading through this stanza, I feel picked up, swung around, and slammed down. But rather than repeating this act in the second stanza, the poem makes a different gesture, shooting arrows off in the direction of pop culture and kitschy national ambition. In the third stanza, an aural chiasmus keeps the lines from progressing; the repetition of "people" in the fifth line and the mashing up of "Jack Palance" into "Malice Palace" in the sixth keeps snagging the heel of the sprinting reader, so the lines can’t quite reach their endings. Finally, the seventh and eighth lines return to statement, and it would be hard not to read these as commentary on both exurbia and its double, the crowded inan-o-sphere of American Internet culture.

As the poem continues, it recycles its keywords and phrases, and the sum does have a parodic thrust, sending up, I would guess, the desire to make prettily-paced epiphany poems amid the catastrophe of contemporary life. In its final stanza,

I sent some smutty fragility to a waterfall
gently teased the
wolverine bunny cage by touching it
with a copy of Frogger.

The final line ruins what was *almost* a poeticized moment, but in another way completes it by overheaping nostalgia on its sentimental, I-steered lines. The poem also has an ecological angle; nature is sliced and diced, decimated and pixilated as it bleeds through this interface.

The politics of Petroleum Hat works both on the level of the individual poem and in its overall gesture of milking the pornographic solipsism of hypermediated reality for all it is (or isn’t) worth. A more conventionally political poem is "Money," which comes appended with a false-n-Flarfy epigraph. "Money is a kind of lettucy Stegner Fellow," ‘writes’ Wallace Stevens, with typical sagacity. As the poem opens, Gardner riffs like a demented Herbert:

Money, the long pink scorpion semaphores,
cash, stash, Chairman Mao, extra hard cheddar
just listening to Terry Gross.
I just killed the Pillsbury dough boy.

The deflating energy of the last line reminds us that, however zany and humorous the diction and juxtapositions of a single line, Flarf exists at the level of the stanza, because it is here that the rhetorics of gesture, statement, exposition and continuity can come tumbling down. Despite such acts of sabotage, this poem achieves epigrammatic status by its conclusion:

Money. You don’t know why it’s floating in front of you,
but you put it where your mouth put it.
And it talks to itself.

Perhaps in this iteration, Flarf is a kind of koan, engaging absurdity until it releases its wisdom.

In a poetry-sphere flooded with wishy-washy antiquated responses to the political moment, Gardner’s "Chicks Dig War" should be notorious. I am willing to look like a moron and place this poem up there with "Howl" for the capacity it gives to the dismay of the Abu Ghraib generation. The lunacy of this poem derives from the obsessiveness of its motif and the variety of ways it is reiterated, so that we can’t hoist ourselves out of the critique by something as consistent as tone. Fear of feminism, female strength and male weakness are conflated with each other and with the antithetical heterosexism of militaristic propaganda to create frightening, porny ideations: "God Made Girls Who Like War." Other stanzas seem tapped from the fetid ditch that is the brain of Karl Rove:

The pacifist wanders through life in a state
of psychic castration,
his heart scarred by the talons of female avarice
and flawed psychology. He is a poor fool who has
listened too literally
to the women who lie and say that what they want
from men is adoration and understanding.
What they want is war.

As the poem trammels on through the chatrooms of existence, it is the pseudo-rational tone of its concluding lines that is most disturbing:

women are an anti-civilizing force,
actively creating more male aggressiveness.
It would seem that a wise society would have an
interest in creating a counter-force to oppose this.

Here is a chilling reminder that suppression of women is a neat fit with almost any hegemony. Though this poem is overtly about gender, its methods could be applied to any subject on which its particular phobic fractal is writ large or small.

The humor, chilling glee, whiplash variety, and pugnaciousness of Petroleum Hat truly distinguish it. This is a topical book, although its Flarfy ventriloquism undercuts concrete political statement or parable. Sloganeering, as this book would have it, is definitely part of the problem. Flarf dismantles and remounts our current anhedonic mediascape without presuming that one might actually, in this way, defang it. This may strike Hoy or others as reactionary, as might the writing of the poem qua poem, the use of stanzaic form, and the publication of conventional poetry books, complete with blurbs. I look forward to reading more from the Flarfists and to seeing how their rhetoric circumvents and disables this critique—or whether they manage, like Tzara, to frustrate both their critics’ and supporters’ efforts to digest them.

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Assorted Chapbooks


Sunday, January 15th, 2006

In preparing my review of Yunte Huang’s Cribs last month, I went out of my way to consider the book’s layout and non-verbal textual markings in developing a reading of the book as a whole. I credited Huang-the-author for the distinctive irregular stripes running up and down the book’s pages, along and amid the words. Since the review appeared, communication with Huang and with Tinfish editor Susan Schultz revealed to me that these non-verbal elements of Cribs were in fact the invention of Kristina Bell, the book’s designer.

I stand by my reading of Cribs, but I wonder why, with Bell’s credit in the book’s interior, I was still unable to ‘see’ her contribution for what it was, even while I was preoccupied with ‘seeing’ it on the pages. I’m particularly struck by my failure to see because, as the editor of my own new press, I’ve learned that a designer’s selection of typeface and layout becomes the first interpretation of the poem, the medium through which the book’s readers encounter that (perhaps?) immaterial entity, the poem itself.

This shade of thought has in turn colored my reading of the chapbooks that have accrued around my house and in my field of vision as of late. These include Own Your Own by Mike Topp, from (apparently?)Future Tense; ma(I)ze Tassel Retrazos by Carlos M. Luis and Derek White, published by White’s Calamari Press; Lucent Amnesis by Marianne Shaneen, published by Brenda Ijima’s Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs; and the gorgeous online The Border Triptych featuring poems by Eduardo C. Corral, essays by Rigoberto González, and artwork by muralist and activist Noé Hernández, published by Web del Sol.

Each of these works establishes a unique dynamic, not only between words and visual art (or artisanship) but also among the writer’s hand and those of the printer, publisher, designer, and other contributing artists in producing the text as a whole.

Mike Topp’s Own Your Own is whisper-light, a nifty eight pages, and about the size of a deck of cards. Its blue-on-cream lozenge-patterned cover evokes the paper that might line the drawers in a rooming house habited by Willy Loman. The pieces inside may be described as ‘bits’, not only for their brevity but also in that they resemble comedians’ patter; the inventions of Messers Edson and Tate would be at home amid the hucksters who speak these poem-lettes, such as an auctioneer who chews his way through a description of a zither before realizing the object before him is a dulcimer. The longest and strangest bit is "Easy Lobster Rabbit," in which the speaker(s?) gets hilariously tripped up in looping and loopy recipe-speak: "You’re going to need a small pan with a handle. So you better have that&#151that little pan with the handle. You’re going to need a small pan with a handle," the speakers insist, before moving on to the need for hot toast points. A note on the copyright page credits the "support" of Future Tense in producing Own Your Own, but the book’s ephemerality and McSweeney’s-esque typeface suggests that this pamphlet-like number was a joint-production of Mike Topp and the Zeitgeist itself.

If lightness in all senses of the word defines Topp’s chapbook, ma(I)ze Tassel Retrazos by Carlos M. Luis and Derek White has an evident heft, and bears the luminous, ripe-to-the-point-of-decaying colors that typify Calamari Press productions. The images created by venerable Cuban visual poet Luis are hypnotic and layered; blotted watercolor fetal forms are torn away to reveal partly-legible writing, diagrams, bone- and building- structures underneath. The prose of Derek White’s hyperbolic dream journey thus seems not so much written next to as inside or underneath Luis’s images, occasionally bleeding through. The first installation is called "Going Through Puberty in a Foreign Tongue," and this redolent title serves as an apt figure for the protagonist’s scramble in and out of mother tongues, Mothers’ Holes, courts, courtyards, lakes, buses, houses and closets, chasing after a lover/sister occasionally named "Corn Tassel" who eventually becomes indistinguishable from the speaker himself. He, we suspect, supplies the "I" in "ma(I)ze Tassel." If the journey resembles the creation myth of a First People, it also serves as a creation myth for the first person, as ‘I’ struggles to locate his origins but becomes increasingly tangled in the roots he unearths:

Beneath the Hole was yet another thrust fault. I could feel the surface with my fingertips. It was chock full of chards of pottery, seeds, biological matter and a secret technology I knew ‘I’ could never understand during my lifetime, even with a proper education. I recoiled and tried to speak, but my voice only cracked a notch. Was ‘I’ a witness or participant to this specialized propagation? My own genetic line of red ants was visible in my perpetually peeling palms.

In the final image, the speaker’s body seems to be decomposing, becoming one with the compost in which he digs. And yet this passage appears at the beginning of the book; decomposition, it seems, makes this protagonist either porous or essential enough to pass through his journey’s many borders.

ma(I)ze Tassel Retrazos calls up the etymological meaning of the word "text," a piece of weaving; not only does the narrative fray and reknit itself, but word and image have equal weight in weaving the text as a whole. Both are changed by their proximity, which makes their separate borders seem to bleed and dissolve. The whole evokes a world larger than the protagonist’s knowledge or experience, as the images close over his story, just as the earth itself decomposes and closes over the individual. In this regard, the book’s informal construction (though 44 pages, it is saddle stapled with a cardstock cover) speaks to both its theme and its process; this text is always about to break down and be made into something new.

Beyond transformation and transportation, there is a transgression at the heart of ma(I)ze Tassel Retrazos: Derek White is the publisher of Calamari Press, and thus the publisher (egad!) of his own book. The historically transgressive status of the chapbook, which is both pre- and post-corporate, may be appropriate for this kind of punk-publishing. Which leads us to another question about chapbooks: does chapbook publishing break down the authority of authorship, while elevating design, or does it make the several authorities of author, designer, and publisher more visible? At the very least, the artisanal chapbook admits the presence of the designing hand(s) on every page. The buoyantly collaged, single-color covers that grace the chapbooks of Brenda Ijima’s Portable Press read like exuberant endorsements of the texts inside. These plus the scrappy black-and-white interior pieces create a certain live motion around the poems’ margins that make the reader anxious to dive in and find out just what Ms. Ijima is so excited about. The effect is particularly felicitous in the case of Marianne Shaneen’s Lucent Amnesis, itself a collage assembled from "deciphering notes scrawled in dark movie theaters" during films. This fragment-based poem creates a kind of continuous pun between the written text and a cinematic one; clearly both are figured when "this illuminated manuscript/can be read in the dark." At other moments, the poem takes advantage of cinematic illusion and, perhaps, errors in transcription to create imagistic double exposures like this one:

optical illusions of a deer
leaping through traffic on the golden gate bridge
captured and killed
people being led from a hole in the ground
you have to be very careful
propelled backwards through double exposures
of buildings, now invisible

Risk and beauty pervade the imagery of Lucent Amnesis, and the oddness of the poem lies not just in its juxtapositions but in the way Shaneen makes the invisible cinematic medium perceivable in the images it relates, as when buffalo graze "with a light-sensitive coating on their tongues." Turning from Shaneen’s delicately poised images to Ijima’s vivid cyan back cover is like stepping from a theater into bright day.

The hand of the designer is both visible and somewhat wanting in the on-line chapbook The Border Triptych; frustratingly, the texts may only be read through a list of links, and the format does not allow the reader to leap from author to author, among texts, or even back to the mainpage easily. Still, Triptych, a substantial collection of poetry, prose, paintings and interviews with the poet Eduardo C. Corral, the poet and prose-writer Rigoberto González, and the activist and artist Noé Hernández, is richer in images and ideas than most conventional books by a single author or in a single medium.

If one works through The Border Triptych sequentially, according to the links posted on the site, one begins with Eduardo C. Corral, and, in fact, with the interview which precedes his poems. Corral’s interview is absorbing, smart and various, and includes both family anecdotes and soundbites such as "Mexico, like the Western canon, must be voraciously consumed, and occasionally regurgitated." His poetry ranges from the warm and confidentially shocking ("I learned how to make love to a man/by touching my father"), to the painstakingly descriptive, to the formally achieved. Sonnets recounting border crossings are nimbly controlled while touched with the absurd; a related elegy notes "After a storm saguaros glisten/like mint trombones." Humor is always surreal in Corral’s work; like a finger touched to a live wire, it unlocks his exactitude and knocks some welcome excess loose. My favorite poem in this selection is "Poem after Frieda Kahlo’s Painting The Broken Column." Though description carries the ekphrasis, arresting moments of fragment, quotation, revision and repetition give the poem its, yes, queerness:

Under the cold scaffolding of winter my love took me for a walk through the desert. My breath crumbling like bread.
Under the cold scaffolding of winter my love took me for a stroll through the desert. My breath crumbling like bread.
Under the cold scaffolding of winter my love took me through the desert. My breath crumbling like bread.

This poem has the riskiness and boldness of gesture everywhere apparent in Corral’s interview.

Rigoberto González contributes ‘The Essay Chapbook’ to this triptych; his series of essays recounts a single bus journey with his father. The narrative is fluid and compelling; psychology, metaphor, and description ride easily together on this elegant surface, and the allegory of constant transit speaks both to the immigrant condition and to the always-arriving quality of the text’s electronic medium. The same may be said of the linguistic border crossing of Noé Hernández’s dual-language interview, which profiles his breathtaking youthful exploits from Mexico City into revolutionary El Salvador and, more recently, into the wilds of North Carolina. The translator of this article is not identified; is it Hernández himself? Meanwhile, Hernández’s paintings propose yet another kind of border crossing; his muscular, glowing figures are at once mythic and palpably real. They seem ready to leap from their linen and canvas backings, their Dali-informed tableaux, and cross into the 3-D world with their strangeness and strength intact.

In his interview, Hernández speaks of his current goal of making a Latino cultural presence in North Carolina, where a growing population of immigrants is present but invisible. The Border Triptych may work analogously by presenting not just the New Critical objects created by these three artists but also their voices, photos, backgrounds, philosophies, and email addresses. If the conventional chapbook makes visible the collaborations that bring texts into published form, this type of electronic chapbook poses a new possibility. It is published, but not finished. It invites its readers not only to view the text but to enter into literal communication with its authors. The Border Triptych hopefully portends not just further collaboration by Corral, González, and Hernández, but also a network of potential collaborations raying out from this site.

POSTSCRIPT: Since the posting of this review, it’s been made known to me that the designer of The Border Triptych is the novelist Bino A. Realuyo, who also serves as Web Del Sol Chapbook Editor and Web-Designer. Realuyo conducted all three interviews and translated the interview with Noé Hernández. The Border Triptych may be accessed at

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