Trouble the Water

Derrick Austin

BOA Editions, Ltd.


Monday, February 20th, 2017

TroubletheWater_FinalFront_largeI’m fascinated by the adjective inhuman. Applied to non-human subjects, it is redundant; applied to human ones, it is false by definition. It’s the tautology of how a thing is never more or less than itself that guarantees the falsehood. Nothing that is human can be inhuman. And yet even if you resist the most grotesque and oppressive instances of how we’ve applied the term inhuman (just think of the crimes humans justify against other humans thereby), it’s difficult to deny the temptation to describe human things as more human or less human, even though I know perfectly well how treacherous this can be.

Part of this is just the inevitable consequence of defining things, but part of it is also the desire to preserve the value of some attributes by either affording them a special status or denying that status to anything from which they are absent. To say, for example, that charity is a necessary quality of a Christian and that a Christian who lacks charity is no Christian at all. Compassion, I think, belongs in this category; I want to believe that anything that removes compassion thereby compromises humanity, even as I admit that just isn’t true. I know that a human person with no appreciable compassion is simply a human person I don’t have much use for, not less of a human altogether. Nevertheless, things do get sheared away by circumstance, and exigency, and hardship, and while what remains is no less human, it still might be…less.

I mention all of this because Derrick Austin’s Trouble the Water is the book of poetry that moved me the most profoundly in 2016, and while much of that power derives from its effortless and unapologetic beauty, it moves me mainly by virtue of being sad. Sadness, too, is one of those things that remains meaningful even when its more elaborated or elevated forms eclipse that core: grief, mourning, despair. It’s not as if echoes of these don’t inform the book; it’s that the register of speech occurs not in the immediacy of these states but between them or in their aftermath. Austin’s poems are bounded by conditions of extremity, but unfold, with delicacy and in repose, between those conditions. Sadness, then, is like distant, flickering heat lightning between blinding, explosive bolts. I know there’s no reason why sadness should strike me as more moving than, say, rage; both are justified and both will have plentiful cause for the foreseeable future.

And of course sadness and rage are not mutually exclusive; there’s something of the relationship between the two that reminds me of the relationship between major and minor keys. The latter are famously associated with evocations of sadness, but no agreement exists as to exactly what aspect of minor keys provokes that response. The easiest and safest answer is precedent: notes that remind us of sad songs sound sad whenever we hear them, and, magnified by culture and time, the keys themselves become functionally synonymous with sadness itself.

It’s here, however—how the effect is achieved and the content associated with the effect intersect—the aforementioned “effortless beauty” grows complicated. Consider this small excerpt from the poem “Okaloosa”:

Seaweed and creamy foam

float on the tide’s restless lapping,
licking my feet like a lost dog.

The beauty here doesn’t rest in the imagery, which is general enough to be easily sheared into simpler pictures or torqued into more bejeweled ones. It rests in the small, patient accumulation of easeful sounds: the long e in “sea” and “weed” and cream-y, the consonance of “foam” and “float,” how the possessive s hushes back and forth in “restless” and the stresses of “restless” and “lapping,” how the addition of “licking” almost perfectly doubles the action of the preceding word, how “feet” echoes that prior long e and finally how the lines conclude with “lost dog,” one of the most perfect near-rhymes in common English usage. All of this leavens familiar scenes and references of melancholy (the seashore, the lost dog) with a care that isn’t strictly necessary, but doesn’t strike me as gratuitous. It strikes me as a perfectly calibrated loveliness, neither strained nor facile. It might make more sense, then, to describe the beauty not as effortless but as betraying just enough effort. Anything less and I would suspect the writer of a calculated erasure of complexity, but anything more and I would know the writer was working to make of the moment more than it might readily bear. Each option is as much an artifice as the others, but it’s only that lightly and briefly described middle approach that I encounter and wonder Why bother to do this? and then immediately ask myself Why not do it?

It’s that latter question, the question of alternative approaches, of other ways one could feel, that gives Trouble the Water much of its power. Even if the book never poses the question directly, Austin’s love of beauty and the care he affords each act of description creates a phantom text, one in which the themes—loneliness even in intimacy, of faith despite a silent and inaccessible divine—suggest utterly plausible reactions that the poet eschews in favor of calmer, more measured and yes, sadder and more beautiful responses.

For example, in this section of “Catacombs of San Callisto,” Austin considers the history of God’s body and of queer bodies in a place that invites the former while implicitly denying the latter:

He’s never Himself in the earliest frescoes:
the shepherd boy guarding the sallow lamb
whose fleece might hide the god. Or the fish

and bowl of loaves. Or the phoenix.
He isn’t Himself, yet I trust Him.
I’ve walked alone with a man in the dark

and made much of his body—
you’re with me now, touring the nests of the dead.
We’re told by books as old as these walls:

Filthy, our bodies, yours and mine. Not so.

I love that “Not so.” It’s a refusal, and not a contingent or hesitant one, but it isn’t a refusal born of rage, although rage is justified, nor is it a shout, though the refusal is one that needs to be heard again and again. But here it is simply a denial of the false, confidently and quietly made, informed by a faith so pronounced it acquires peace, which is not equanimity or acceptance. He isn’t Himself, yet I trust Him. I love, too, how the use of the second person and the collective first can encompass both the man and God, equally suspect but also made equal by that “Not so.”

This calmness, rather than have a flattening or numbing effect, enables great tonal variations. In “Byzantine Gold” Austin deploys it to droll effect:

But look:
a mortar leveled Gethsemane,

Visigoths defaced the deposition, and,
her turquoise
hem unraveling, poor Mary’s going to pieces,

pocked by shrapnel from a mislaid bomb.
If the dome
cracked open, what a dry comb it would be.

This is ironic and sharp, but it isn’t cruel; “poor Mary” recognizes the absurdity in conflating the representation with the figure, but the sympathy isn’t illegitimate, and we believe that, all else being equal, a world without mortars and bombs is superior to one with them. Note also how both “Catacombs of San Callisto” and “Byzantine Gold” display the same measure of care in the construction of their sounds, the unfolding of iambs into anapests in the former, the rhyme of pocked and bomb, bomb and dome, pocked and cracked, and the final, exquisite “what a dry comb it would be.”

Would it have been possible to inhabit these ideas with the same emotional resonance without that kind of beauty? I don’t think so, because I think the time and attention the beauty requires is part and parcel of the sadness and the wisdom. One would have to perceive the beauty in the first place, but more importantly, one would have to believe that it was worthwhile to include it, that it would be somehow wrong to shear it away.

Several of the poems in Trouble the Water are given over to the ecology and communities of the Gulf Coast in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and that would seem as good an occasion as any to forego beauty and speak, if such a thing is even possible, plainly. On the other hand, it’s certainly possible to believe that depictions of crimes of that order, and of the people who bear their costs, deserve beauty even if the crimes themselves are ugly. What Austin practices, though, and what his poems convince me to believe, is that any refusal to see or make what loveliness you can faithlessly degrades the very thing you hope to preserve. To that end, the beauty isn’t something you impose, but rather something you are merciful and loyal enough to allow. So even here, in “Dominion,” Austin chooses to call poisons poisonous but to do so exquisitely:


But I have this against you:
subsurface plumes
and lesioned fish belly up in booms.
Men in hazmat and business suits
roped off the coast
and authority was given to them over me.
They said: The spill will clear,
neither will there be tar balls
nor dispersants. These will be washed away.

What is plain is the anger at the violation of the flora and fauna, the grief in contemplation of the local human costs, the contempt for the chicanery and deceit of the event’s authors. Yet the passage is also gorgeous, arch, funny and sad and cruel, drawing equally on themes of subordination and biblical rhetoric. The argument that can be made against this is that pure sentiments should require primary colors and major keys, that there is no room in rage for beauty and subtlety, but I think that is fantastically wrong. I think that to believe such a thing is to believe there is no room in rage for sadness itself, made as it is of beautiful and subtle feelings and complicated tones. Minor keys are not less than major ones; due to their intricacy they are in some ways greater than major keys in that they are composed of more and can encompass more.

If I focus on this theme to the expense of so many of the other extraordinary things that occur in the book, it’s still worth asking if a persistent sadness doesn’t also risk becoming a monotone. But there are features of Austin’s powers of attention that prohibit monotony, especially his aptitude for selecting the optimal, perceptible detail to suggest a whole that might otherwise be too much to register. Indeed, a recurrent sensation in Trouble the Water is of accumulation, of the sometimes overwhelming wealth of sensation the world can offer. In “Pass-A-Grille” the same landscape referenced in “Okaloosa” manifests as a list of distinct sensory treasures that become commensurate with the medium that threatens to make them indistinguishable:

I look for you on the storm-smoothed shore,
glittering where the moon tows itself
across the bay. Cool air fills my lungs with mint

as I walk past sea oats, past sea grapes
in tidal pools. Waves spread
like playing cards—a flush the land can’t beat—

and the sea keeps upping the ante: first,
quartz and chrysolite, then breakwaters
and wooden weirs, then the land itself,

an erosion so ceaseless I too want to give
my body, wholly, to something else.

The desire identified here, which is a desire to be subsumed as a testament to one’s sense of the capaciousness of that to which one would be subsumed, requires a certain bravery to admit. It is no less human to present oneself as infinitely armored, or to sacrifice one aspect of what one loves or believes to allegedly serve another, but it’s still…less. By choosing to remain loyal to everything of which he is comprised, Austin presents another path. In “Vespers” he writes:

Lord in the pigment, the crushed, colored stones.
Lord in the carved marble chest. I turn away
from art. You are between my eye and what I see.
Forgive my errant gaze. Tonight, I can’t sleep
and won’t frighten the deer in my peonies.
Like children who rub their grimy hands over everything,
they only want to touch and be touched by grass.

But there is nothing in this errancy to forgive. It is bittersweet, yes, and sad, to know equally art’s pleasures and its limits. But what is braver, more true, more completely human than refusing to renounce who you are by refusing to renounce how you perceive and make, how you find the Lord in the crushed, colored stones? How you find Him even the grass, which all flesh is, and of which Austin has found a way to weave a glory both mortal and everlasting.

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A Small Story About the Sky

Alberto Ríos

Copper Canyon Press  

Wednesday, May 4th, 2016

I cannot remember now where I first heard it or from whom, but as a dismissal of poets and poetry it made an impression: a poet is someone who sees a bird outside their window and makes a big goddamned deal out of it. The claim neatly if rudely compresses a whole host of ascribed behavioral errors to the poet-type, who inflates the commonplace and mistakes their experience for something of, you know, value.

However, this assessment works differently when it’s not a complaint made by someone with no use for poetry but a judgment made by one poet of another. He who sees the bird and consequently makes the big goddamned deal suddenly shifts from someone grandiose to someone provincial, unsophisticated, basic. Unfortunately, this isn’t merely a hypothetical possibility; poets do talk about each in these terms (and worse), and when they make these judgments they aren’t criticizing how well or how poorly a poet realized her or his ambition, but the shape and substance of the ambition itself. Poets aren’t happy unless they are unhappy with each other, and the cascade of dismissiveness inevitably reproduces generational differences. The young always assume their seniors are in some way less: less perceptive, less aware, less critical of whatever commands the attention of the young. Of course, those seniors cannot complain too much about being placed in this subordinate position, since the honest among them will recall holding their seniors in equivalent contempt.

Still, I’m more tolerant of the outsider’s criticism, suspicious as it is of the entire project of poetry, than I am of the insider’s contempt, which suggests that some poetic techniques are absolutely beneath notice, as opposed to merely being temporarily unfashionable. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the first two poems in Alberto Ríos’s A Small Story About the Sky involve the speaker seeing a bird and making a big goddamned deal out of it.

In the first, “Sunday Dinner at Tuesday Breakfast,” the speaker accidentally spills some birdseed and finds

The day, which had been regular, is suddenly new.
I will not be able to gather back the seed before it is gone,

Happy on its voyage into the air, lifted beyond my reach,
The sparrows, doves, house finches so easily given to,

Their sounds becoming contentment in place of wing-flutter,
The mourning of the doves resonant with probing happiness.

Had this been one of those other disasters, a dam bursting,
A volcano in its moment, an avalanche in the high world,

Things would be different. But today, this small version,
The tragedy of this minute galaxy and its stars

Breaks the day that was, the day that would have been,
The day that will not be, and instead sends this replacement.

See? Bird to world to metaphysics, all in just six of Ríos’s preferred couplets.

How to reconcile those who read these lines and find them ridiculous and those who read them and find them, well, beautiful? And is it possible to find both those reactions simultaneously credible? This is more than a matter of fashion or taste. Yes, Ríos is resolutely and happily unfashionable; yes, everyone has the freedom of their own tastes and preferences. That said, I think Ríos and A Small Story About the Sky establish an excellent case for what might be called old-fashioned aesthetics, not by presenting them as categorically superior to what repudiates them but by demonstrating that they can do just as much, and as variously, as the conventions by which they’ve been “replaced.” When I say “replaced,” I don’t mean that one form of figurative language is neatly and simply swapped out for another, but rather that suspicion about any given technique replaces faith in that technique. For example, unalloyed deployment of the first person underwent extreme suspicion, and the approaches that enacted that suspicion quickly became suspect themselves, so that many younger writers find a refusal to candidly speak from direct experience the exact same red flag the writers who refused it did: a mark of inaccuracy, dishonesty, chicanery, error.

You can tell this story with any technique or approach, but of these suspect and allegedly old-fashioned techniques, Ríos deploys none with greater glee than metaphor. Metaphor is an excellent choice, not only because it has always tempted and alarmed poets in equal measure, but because the ceaseless churn of generational strife sometimes identifies the problem with metaphor not with the technique itself but with the poet’s attitude about its use. Accordingly, a metaphor that might strike a reader who wasn’t a poet as “beautiful” indicates a troubling lack of astringent auto-critique on the part of the poet who made it. A metaphor that destroys or at least rigorously interrogates the idea and value of metaphor is appropriate; a metaphor that doesn’t is worse than no metaphor at all.

Ríos offers metaphors in a riot of glorious abundance, especially in the “Desert Bestiary Sonnet” and “Desert Flora Sonnet” poems—there are a handful of each, and each marries the most familiar literary device to the most familiar poetic form. Ríos simply has fun with these, alternating the beautiful and the goofy in turn:

Hummingbirds are quarter notes that have left the nest of the flute.
Tarantulas are awkward left hands in search of a piano.
Horny toads are Queen Elizabeths of the first.
Cardinals are made from wounds that have not healed.
Ants are grains of sand that have hatched.

“Desert Bestiary Sonnet, One”

This is the kind of poetry that works like magic on children, and while I know there’s no way to say that without it sounding patronizing, I intend it as a profound compliment, because metaphor is very easy to understand as a concept (look at something, think of what it reminds you of) but very difficult to execute as a practice, especially if you want to preserve its value rather than critically erode it. A degree off in one direction, and you have surrealism, a degree off in the other, and you have redundancy. Surrealism is wonderful if you want to suggest likening between the conscious and the unconscious or if you want to make the very idea of suggestive comparison appear florid or deranged; redundancy is useful if you want to argue that all likening is a disservice to the things compared. Ríos isn’t very interested in either of these criticisms, but that doesn’t mean he is mindlessly faithful to metaphor, either. To his everlasting credit, Ríos doesn’t reserve his metaphors for just-so occasions or carefully cultivated epiphany; he’s reckless with them, comically generous, both delightful and delighting.

If the most reductive description of enacting metaphor is looking around and describing what you see by way of what you imagine, even that requires two fundamental components: location and perception. As the desert titles indicate, where Ríos is matters in terms of what he sees and what stories he chooses to tell, and this appears in his attention to the border, a subject for metaphor complicated by the fact that as a base referent, it is already both real and unreal. In “The Border: A Double Sonnet,” a poem that sits right at the center of the book, Ríos writes:

The border is a line that birds cannot see.
The border is a beautiful piece of paper folded carefully in half.
The border is where flint first met steel, starting a century of fires.
The border is a belt that is too tight, holding things up but making it hard to breathe.
The border is a rusted hinge that does not bend.
The border is the blood clot in the river’s vein.
The border says Stop to the wind, but the wind speaks another language, and keeps going.

Here, the potential for comedy inherent in metaphor takes, necessarily, a darker turn, because Ríos appreciates that something can be absurd and dangerous not despite but because of that very absurdity. Likewise, the doubling is a kind of strategic confusion; what you see across an arbitrary line both is and is not a reflection of what you are, something summoned by virtue of your scrutiny, the way any object of attention is a weird mirror of whatever attends to it.

This doubling effect of the border is something Ríos returns to in a handful of subsequent poems. In “The Fence,” he tells the “simple story” of the border’s beginnings as a fence built to sequester diseased cattle, even though it is now “human beings are viewed as the sickness.”  Later, in “The Border Before,” he writes of family members who remember its origins as “a way to keep cattle safe,” and in that memory the border represents a division of time—before and after—as well as space. But here, too, the mirror presents an unstable surface; as Ríos notes, the great-aunts who remembered the “before” time now exist only his own memory of them.

And finally, in “Border Lines” / “Líneas Fronterizas” (it’s the only poem in the collection to appear in both English and Spanish), after likening every map to the diagram of a cow that tells the butcher where to cut by also demonstrating how the parts actually fit together, Ríos flatly states that

Which way we look at the drawing
Makes all the difference.
We seem to live in a world of maps:

But in truth we live in a world made
Not of paper and ink but of people.

Taken in isolation, this may seem like a prosaic observation, made in the plainest possible terms. But in context, it’s far more complicated than it seems. Note, for example, the appearance of the cow, carried over from the historical associations in the prior poems, representing the way living things can be reduced to utilities and then reduced even further to symbols. One very dense poem could do all of that, but by distributing the task over several, Ríos gains the value of that complexity yet without having the complexity obscure the truth as Ríos presents it: basic, meaningful, deserving of clear articulation.

What it isn’t, however, is what many readers might identify as critically engaged, because it lacks the requisite markers of theory-dependent explanation or explicit solidarity with the rhetoric of those committed to addressing the border in terms of its political and social consequences. For me, the question is whether the absence of these markers truly bespeaks a lack of critical engagement. Ríos’s approach is fundamentally humanistic in that he looks at something that does indeed have undeniably political origins and ramifications, but what he sees is human error, human suffering, human confusion and loss. What he doesn’t see is anything he fails to recognize as central to any human experience, even though he regards it primarily via the experiences of the humans he knows best.

This is a thoroughly empathetic practice, one whereby looking at something produces an inconsistent doubling—sometimes Ríos sees himself, or a version of himself; sometimes he sees a self he cannot recognize, even as he admits he should. In “Sudden Smells, Sudden Songs,” he writes “We stand up, familiar to ourselves, // Then sit down strangers. We are / Two people. Maybe more.” As he does with the accumulation strategy of the border poems, Ríos visits and revisits objects of references to establish the wavering, shifting, doubling effect of attention itself. “Winter Lemons” notes “The yellow of summer is not the yellow of winter. / The colors are the same but their stories tell two lives.” And later, in “Lemon-Light,” he likens the lemons to Easter eggs, and writes

Yellow eggs laid by this tree
In its moment, laid and hidden, not for us to see,

So that to see is surprise—to us and to the tree both,
Treasure unexpected, abrupt, our eyes wide, wide,

But then narrowed. We look around.
Foxes and jackals and coyote humans that we are,
Oh, us—
We take the lemons as ours with a dark hard snap, and go.

Ríos’s fascination with how and when we see doubly and how and when we submit to humanistic unity appears again and again in A Small Story About the Sky. In “The Flour Man” (“But who turned and saw himself for a moment / In the broken mirror of her face.”) In the titles of the poems themselves: “Our Second Lives” and “The Half-Brother Sciences” and “Two Men” and “Not Me” and “One of the Two of Me” and others. But I think these concerns have their greatest expression in a poem placed at the center of the book: “November 2: Día de los muertos,” which begins with the admission that “It is not simply the Day of the dead—loud, and parties. / More quietly, it is the day of my dead. The day of your dead” and proceeds to very plainly list who Ríos has lost, who he misses, how time compromises what he remembers even as it magnifies the loss itself. But later in the same poem he writes:

…We feed our memories

And then, humans that we are, we just want to move quickly away
From it all, happy for the richness of everything

If unsettled by the cut pumpkins and gourds,
The howling decorations. The marigolds—cempasúchiles

If it rains, they stink, these fussy flowers of the dead.
Bread of the dead, day of the dead—it’s hard to keep saying the word.

If the word is hard to keep saying, it’s because it’s hard thing to look at, to confront. Metaphor is just what we do with language to balance or leaven that task, just as the decorations and the food and the spectacle enable us to bear the weight of understanding that our losses are both perfectly unique to us and also common, shared. Human. Suspecting or eroding what poetry can do in any given human life doesn’t change the parameters of that life, just as admitting that beauty is highly suspect doesn’t do anything to erase or illuminate our capacity for it. “November 2: Día de los muertos” is a very beautiful poem, and it is also very direct about how we use beauty. It ends with the following:

You miss it all soon enough,
Pictures of people smiling, news stories, all the fiestas, all this exhaustion.

The coming night, the sweet breads, the bone tiredness of too much—
Loud noise, loud colors, loud food, mariachis, even just talking.

It’s all a lot of noise, but it belongs here. The loud is to help us not think,
To make us confuse the day and our feelings with happiness.

Because, you know, if we do think about our dead,
Wherever they are, we’ll get sad, and begin to look across at each other.

What could be more plainspoken than that, even as it is framed with play and delight, just as is the day itself? It’s all a lot of beauty, but we need it, and if Ríos is unfashionable in his unapologetic mirroring of beauty and clarity, that matters far less than that he keeps fashioning. We should be grateful, and hope he does.

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Garments Against Women

Anne Boyer

Ahsahta Press


Sunday, December 6th, 2015

It’s hard to figure out exactly how to praise Anne Boyer, not because she doesn’t leave copious evidence of brilliance, diligence, wit, and ethical rigor, but because I can think of no poet who has less interest in or greater distrust of the ideas of praise, brilliance, and all those wee glittering bourgeois items to be found in the gift bag of literary acclaim. Boyer’s writing is rewarding in the ways it smites the reader for wanting to be rewarded, but the exchange is never a hierarchical one; she’s right there with the reader, thoughtfully guilty even as she makes her charges, assessments, and accusations, most of which manifest as the best questions anyone could possibly ask of the bad situation that is the present moment. Garments Against Women is a rich thicket, one bent of making the cost of its making apparent, but also making those costs worth more than just that report. Indeed, it questions the very idea of cost&#8212whether of money, time, effort or sanity&#8212as measure of experience.

If it’s hard to determine the appropriate register of praise for this work, that difficulty dwindles in comparison to the difficulties Boyer forces language to admit, including the inadequacies of language itself. Out of respect for this insufficiency, aspects of Boyer’s diction suggest a tone somewhere between cautiously vague and authoritatively clinical: she’ll use “attachment” to describe a complex of feelings normally described with words more sentimentally rich; “arousal” for the enactment or inhabitation of those feelings. She often makes the logic behind these replacements explicit:

What is the difference between happiness and pornography? I mean what is the difference between literature and photography? It would be easy at first to confuse that which makes us happy and that which makes us aroused.

Both the terminology and the method of this passage approximate science or history as a form of science: fundamentally impersonal, driven by inquiry, concerned with distinctions, with getting things right. None of these ambitions—happiness, pornography, or photography&#8212is remotely impersonal, of course; Boyer’s use of “I mean” immediately reveals that this is an actual person using a method, not a perfect instantiation of the method itself. The adoption of clinical remove is the desperation of someone in all ways and at all times bottled, baffled, or battered by the systemic conditions that infect their own analyses. A book like Garments Against Women isn’t something that gets written because the writer has a lot of faith in how and why things get written in the first place; it’s a record of the conditions that make it impossible to write.

What are these conditions, that make writing impossible for the person of Anne Boyer, and what are these conditions that make living impossible for so many? Look, their signature attribute is that whatever the conditions are, neither she nor we can get out of them, and the belief that we can is part and parcel of the trunk of the trap itself. Generally or particularly, the conditions look like this: hardship, which is neither just nor fair. We know it is unjust because it is distributed unevenly, so conspicuously unevenly that only a fool or a churl could regard the pattern of injustice and not immediately identify which groups were targeted and why. For example, from “Venge-Text”:

There’s a man. He tells me he does not like the version of the story in which he is like Simon Legree who ties me down to the railroad tracks. This is because he is like Simon Legree who ties me down to the railroad tracks. He is the man who looks at the blue sky and says “Do not remember this blue sky as blue.”

Despite the reality of the sky, that it is blue, a woman with any interior is trumped by a man with any exterior.

This is an elegant and funny and infuriating example of a dynamic that, if we extrapolate out from the initial scene, perfectly encapsulates a mechanism of injustice. Any member of those Boyer calls “the un-free” could offer an equivalent, whether the locus of oppression is gender or race or class or any of many other markers.

But scenes like these show inequity in addition to injustice, because even if the outcomes were distributed randomly, the conditions themselves are paradoxical, perverse, brutalizing.

For anyone with a mind to go looking, our social order presents intimate and infinite opportunities for righteous complaint. An encouraging plenty of contemporary poetry concerns itself with naming these systemic injustices. But one of the most difficult of the system’s traps to avoid is the temptation to describe the condition of the prison while also presenting a perspective that seems… free. I’m suspicious of any criticism that suggests that any condition that isn’t malignant enough to prevent its articulation can’t really be that malignant at all. But I’m equally suspicious of work that leaves no apparent evidence of the effect of the problem it indicts. Craft that so perfectly sunders itself from subject privileges the very idea of making, and the hazards in that idealization are abundant. And contradictory. Especially regarding its effects on our attitude about subjects altogether. Boyer neatly notes this in an examination of how to write about things as things,

But what you really asked was another question: is it possible to write about objects&#8212the way things look and feel, the garments on bodies and in furniture in the gardens and in the rooms without somehow also provoking a desire to acquire more things, or even if one writes about making things it is possible to write about making things without also provoking desire for them?

It’s just as worth asking if writing itself doesn’t create a sort of narcotic aesthetic that inevitably comes at the expense of the thing written about, regardless of whether the thing is material or abstract. If, for example, I want to tell you about the exhausting cost of living in constant fear, there’s always the suspicion that if I’m capable of articulating the fear at all, then it can’t really be that bad; I may even create a pleasure in or a desire for representations of the very thing I’m trying to put forward as not just undesirable but unbearable. It’s a paradox: How do you talk about&#7212through, during, about&#8212having your jaw perpetually broken and wired shut? Silence is an option, but one into which it’s possible to project anything, up to and including an implication that neutralizes the motivation to remain silent.

Some attempt to solve this problem in gestural terms, or (in poetic language) via the lyric. I sympathize with this approach, but it only works insofar as the lyric is sometimes assumed exempt from the bird’s-eye paradox elaborated above. The hope of this exemption is best expressed in the dark thrill of the fragment of Akhmatov’s “Requiem” where she asserts her ability to describe those horrors that allegedly defeats those lacking requisite poetic powers. This places poetry&#8212all writing, really&#8212potentially “above” both its content and whatever occasions it. I don’t think it is. I think “the world” is brutalizing; I think it manufacturers cruelty by teaching and inflicting cruelty. And I don’t think poetry is immune to this cycle. Or&#8212as Boyer herself writes&#8212

Poetry was the wrong art for people who love justice. It was not like dance music. Painting is the wrong art for people who love justice. It is not like science fiction. Epics are the dance music of the people who love war. Information is the poetry of the people who love war.

Twitter and text messaging may not be the best way to gauge the resonance of any given sliver of poetry, but I have seen the sentence “Poetry is the wrong art for people who love justice” recur many, many times, and if nothing else, this suggests that whatever suspicions Boyer has about the possibilities of justice and/or poetry, she’s not alone in having them. As she says elsewhere, “There is no superiority in making things or in re-making things,” a judgment that encompasses art, artificing and analysis.

But the whole sequence of claims is fascinating to examine, initially setting poetry and dance music as opposites only to note that love of war itself can turn dance music, nominally the genre of the justice-loving, into something poetic, something ill-suited to justice. Even poetry itself has a dark doppelganger: information. Subjection to and experience of self–as-data is yet another way of being un-free, but this too raises questions about how one can name a problem without furthering it, since lack of information (or resistance to information) is no better than subordination to information:

Often what is perceived by one party to be an over-reaction to circumstances is the case of that one party not having sufficient information because the information being reacted to is the inadmissible information of the other.

To feel deeply, or to admit to feeling deeply, is also inadmissible, though not as inadmissible as to admit to having been un-free.

If paradox appears here as a pattern, it might help to know that substantial portions of Garments Against Women simply list all the books it isn’t, all the things Boyer isn’t writing, all the reasons why you are reading something composed mainly of elaborations of what she hasn’t done, doesn’t want to do, doesn’t believe can be done. Boyer is extraordinarily good at painting herself into corners with a minimal number of brushstrokes. For example,

I think of all those things conferring authority and exclude them one by one, an experiment in erasing importance. I thought there would be no better game to play than the game set up already, the game called “voice in a crowd of voices.” I didn’t mark a piece of paper all month long. Here, an erasure of whatever partakes of dominion inevitably results in silence, but less radical efforts to avoid reproducing tyranny are no more effective; the downshift in scale from “Some of us write because there are problems to be solved” to the observation that “Sometimes there are specific, smaller problems” identifies something true in that particular, detailed, person-sized problems do in aggregate constitute larger, general problems. But also: trying to solve those smaller problems discretely can grow as absurdly inadequate as trying to solve them in toto, all at once.

And yet. The book that she is not writing and cannot write is the one we are reading; the lives that seem impossible to live are the ones we are living. Impossibility doesn’t prevent being.

It’s impossible for me to see so many problems articulated so precisely without wondering how to solve them, but since all efforts to solve them run, at the very least, the risk of reproducing them and, at the very worst, the risk of inviting new and even worse problems, Boyer doesn’t really try. Or, if she tries, she does so by attempting to do the one thing that does seem possible, which also happens to be the one thing central to bigger and bolder efforts to name and fight these injustices: she tries to communicate what it’s like to live with them and under them, the task so basic and elemental that the paradox of its possible enactment is the very first problem we started with. She writes because she can’t; not being able to do it is her technique.

The key, here, is Boyer’s understanding that the agents of injustice are large, both in that they are distributed widely and composed amorphously or concretely (depending on what serves power at any given moment). But the basic unit of injustice is the self, the person who is harmed, reduced, compromised, imprisoned. Knowing that subjection to injustice creates suffering, but that confronting the asymmetry that enables injustice with a practice that lends itself so treacherously to asymmetry is also a kind of suffering. Poetry is the wrong art for people who love justice, but once you know this, what’s left? In lieu of suffering, happiness? No:

And happiness had always seemed the province of the idiotic and the immoral, which is why I wanted it so-much so-often so-all-of-the-time. There are many things I do not like to read, mostly accounts of the lives of the free.

Boyer puts the problem as simply as she can:

I wanted to be ordinary like an animal. I thought it was my writing that was making me sick.

But even assuming an abandonment of writing could solve one of her problems, it would not and cannot solve the bigger one, which is that while the individual is the unit of suffering, no individual can ignore the reality of other individuals without reproducing the harm she is trying to avoid for herself. Again, one can change what one says by electing silence, but into that silence may rush more of the voices in and of the crowd, and in those voices one will hear what one refuses to say, thereby obviating both the ethos and the utility of remaining silent. Or, as Boyer says of herself, “I am the dog who can never be happy because I am imagining the unhappiness of other dogs.”

Maybe the paradox resolves itself that simply. Happiness foreclosed, but imagination is eternally active, even if resolutely committed to the real, and whatever the real compels that imagination to do.

This concept is brought into action at one point in Garments Against Women when Boyer narrates a brief conversation with her daughter.

Around that time my daughter and I had this exchange:

Anne, imagine if the world had nothing in it.

Do you mean nothing at all&#8212just darkness&#8212or a world without objects?

I mean a world without things: no houses, chairs or cars. A world with only people and trees and dirt.

What do you think would happen?

People would make things. We would make things with trees and dirt.

I think it’s fascinating that the terms of this hypothetical are, for her daughter, so social. She isn’t wondering what she would do in this world she’s imagining; she’s wondering what people would do, and the assumption is that she would do as they did, as would anyone, as will everyone. It’s possible to regard this belief that we would make things with trees and dirt as a grim, prophetic distillation of the impulse that would inevitably result in houses, chairs and cars, but for me, what matters isn’t whether that fatalistic interpretation is accurate. I’m struck more by the equipoise of the belief itself. Whether stupid or dangerous or beautiful or necessary, we would make things. Whether constrained or compelled, free or un-free. We were never going to be free to decide whether or not we are free, and that will inevitably change what and how we make. But the things made thereby&#8212things like Garments Against Women, the book that is because it can’t be&#8212are sometimes the expansion of what freedom we can have. Limits challenged or eased or even broken, by living and making right up against them.

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William Fuller

Flood Editions


Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

It is not a habit I would endorse, but sometimes I read poems as if they were records of actual proceedings, events provoked by circumstances other than those the poet occasioned simply for the sake of writing a poem. In other words, I choose to wonder who is saying this, to whom, for what reason; I make all verse occasional verse just to imagine what occasions declare themselves fit for the verse I’m reading. If it’s a sort of game, it’s one that William Fuller seems to be playing already, achieving mystery by way of exactitude.

If there’s a consistent mode Fuller occupies in Playtime, it’s that of explanation. This particular register appears so frequently it begins to inform even those poems that don’t immediately or absolutely partake of explanatory cues. His speakers seem cautiously and seriously devoted to explaining something, but the more deliberate the language of explication and accounting, the harder it becomes for the reader to deduce what is being explained&#8212or, more to the point&#8212the context for the explanation itself. This, in turn, raises interesting questions about how explanation itself, as a discursive task, profoundly confuses the relationship between context and subtext. When the mandate is to make the terms of the subject explicit, it seems as if subtext could dwindle to nothingness: explanation makes all text equal, because that’s what it’s for.

But this standard is obviously not one every explanation meets simply by way of being an explanation. Some explanations are wrong, and some explanations fail, and some explanations confuse the very thing they are designed to elucidate. When Fuller practices this, sometimes he sounds like he’s trying to recount a dream, and sometimes he sounds like he’s carefully wending his way through a police deposition, and sometimes he sounds like he is speaking to a very precocious but somewhat literal-minded child, and sometimes he sounds like he’s trying to convince you he isn’t crazy, or maybe it’s that he thinks you are crazy and he is trying to convince you that he understands, please come down from the roof, everything will be fine.

When I say “sometimes” I don’t mean that one poem lends itself to one of these occasions, and the next poem another. I mean that Fuller usually slips from one register to another within any given poem, with the effect of making the matter under discussion appear both thoroughly and faithfully considered and totally obscure. Again, I like to imagine the performative coda to each of these poems as Fuller asking the reader Do you understand? to which the reader can plausibly respond with both Yes of course how could I not and No not even a little bit.

Here’s a complete poem from Playtime:


The chances are good you were built from kings like these, whoever you are, so it’s no wonder they’re inside you banging to get out and then regretting it immediately when they do&#8212and I’ve come up from the basement with a stack of leaves and a bent candle, intending to set new rules for accepting appointments, although not today as I fall back on absolutely no resources, and even the kings are sleeping or at most paying attention to nothing but the garden’s gradual self-augmentation. Over time they grow old, die, are buried, rise again with green eyes, plant flowers, negotiate contracts, advocate secular liberation, seek repeal of Section 2(a), and become comfortable with activities that are increasingly hard to define.

I think the cues here are fascinating. Fuller asserts an addressee and then immediately disavows any particular knowledge of whomever he might be addressing; the kings to which he refers are impeccably unspecified, other than to note that they are “like these” with no property of “these” defined well enough to merit likening, but don’t worry, because whatever is happening, it’s obvious, it’s “no wonder.” And into this hastily-assembled tableau of who know what, the speaker inserts his own busy behavior and list of tasks, which stand against those of the still-opaque kings, whose activities over time move from the kinds of things described in epics of nature to the kinds of things that occur in the company of notary officials and actuarial tables. But all of this will occur “over time,” and they will grown comfortable with whatever activities will come next, whatever follows the highly abbreviated chronology whereby all things grow old and then seek repeal of Section 2 (a) and then who knows what. The future is always hard to define, especially as you have more and more of it.

The pace of this&#8212breathless, impatient&#8212suggests that whatever occasions it is a misunderstanding about kings, an error or misapprehension the speaker is, somewhat exasperatedly, trying to remedy. I deduce exasperation here from “chances are,” the sort of marker that appears when one’s interlocutor is of a somewhat legalistic bent; since the speaker cannot offer perfect statistical clarity to an addressee who might be peevishly misguided in even wanting it, “chances are” will have to do. Similarly, “whoever you are” can be read generously (the following is true, no matter who you are!) but here reads more as more irritable (it doesn’t matter who you are, ok?) And in this communication of impatience I think the poem is hugely successful, even as it fails completely to communicate anything intelligible about its nominal subject.

But the “subject” of any poem may or may not line up neatly with Fuller’s subject in Playtime, which seems to be the way we explain, not the explanations themselves. The explanations are just proofs, not the equations that inform them. In this, Fuller strikes me as a sort of meta-Metaphysical poet, in that the perfection of his argument concerns argumentative method itself. What Fuller is yoking together isn’t a set of competitive passions; it’s an array of techniques for getting things right. He demonstrates, beautifully but also sometimes comically, how these techniques operate, and how they don’t.

It’s worth taking a look at how this works when Fuller is more clearly reproducing a common explanatory task. Given both the title and content of “Morpheus,” let’s look at the poem, which appears, at first glance, to approximate how we talk about our dreams:


I went to a place where nothing happened whose effects could not be felt elsewhere&#8212a place for the sleepers and a place for those too rested to sleep. Then my car fell off the mountain&#8212it’s one of those things I can’t explain. After midnight music rose like steam, obscuring the way, but cleansing it as well. And beyond, in the forest next to the vacant lot, a bird made a noise like a bat. Whatever the planets were doing was of no interest to me. Many wore halos of contamination. Most were treading water of some sort.

Here, the occasion is easy to imagine. The speaker has had a dream, and is trying to relay it. The strategies of location are perfectly recognizable: Here is where I was, and here is what is happening. But even with so transparent a context, Fuller makes things strange in a way drawn not at all from the storehouse of oneiric imagery. “A place where nothing happened whose effects could not be felt elsewhere” is a bit of a riddle; just try to insert notional places into that formulation and see what you get. Wherever it is, it’s prescriptively not a dream, for if a dream’s a place it is one whose effects cannot, by definition, be felt elsewhere. Yet from this Fuller returns to a perfectly legible bit of dream-relaying rhetoric: “Then my car fell off the mountain&#8212” something that cannot be explained due to a dream’s common decoupling of cause and effect.

This decay of causal relations, however, soon deviates from things happening for unknown reasons to things asserted for no apparent reason. The planets, previously unmentioned, get mentioned only to note that they were, in fact, not worthy of mention. But then we have “many,” we have “most.” Though approximations, these terms of assessing amount inevitably suggest an effort at accuracy and clarity. Not all, but many; not just many, but most. Likewise, “of contamination” definitely modifies “halos,” but not, I think, in a way that increases meaning even if it does increase specificity. And “of some sort” operates similarly, until we pause to appreciate that while water can come in sorts, the acting of treading in it doesn’t really necessitate that particular explanatory curlicue. Finally, of course, we are returned to the question of “many” or “most” of what. Bats? Planets? Anything the poem offers as a means to complete the equation destroys the completion, even as it leaves the equation standing.

Micro-minded close-reading of this type is, of course, the kind of thing entire catalogues of poetry are designed to destroy. If this is all Fuller were up to, I would salute him for his efficiency and imagination and move on in short order. But I think this work is much richer and stranger than that; I think it elaborates processes we take for granted without merely dismissing their possibility. Metaphysical poems, for example, demand the reader attend to the terms of the puzzle until it becomes apparent that the puzzle is, in fact, not a puzzle at all, but an inevitability. You move through the apparently complex to achieve the less apparently simple. Compare this to something like Pope’s Essay on Man, which is didacticism that does all the work for you. It’s the difference between something that becomes obvious the more you think about it and something presented as obvious that becomes deranged in direct proportion to how carefully you examine it.

What both share, however, is the language of presentation, which sets forth a system of accounting with confidence. Plenty of poetry disrupts this confidence while keeping its form, but I cannot think of anyone quite as adept as Fuller in presenting entire poems that seem like faithful records of real-time attempts to explain something. Their failures do not seem pre-determined; they seem, weirdly, honest, as if Fuller just doesn’t know that what he’s doing must fail. If they do fail as explanations, they succeed extraordinarily as mirrors of explanation itself. Consider “Glidepath”:

How could you ask what is a classical education without syllables to make you attentive to the heart of a word or set of intensities burning to make you aware how desperate we are for water and something to accompany it after diligent search of remembered events divided up among us that turned out to be the same event taking place then and now and to come, with smooth edges, so to speak, so smooth they decline to zero before any voice can sum them up or anticipate the next significant oscillation. The slope of night adjusts toward day, waking the tremulous disc. The spirit of what can happen has changed into the flesh of what has happened, and we make room for it. I have you who have me. I am standing with you but apart. What is the plan.

That first question isn’t a question; it’s a statement, if an oblique one. Yet you could not ask for anything clearer or sufficiently explanatory than “The spirit of what can happen has changed into the flesh of what has happened, and we make room for it.” The last question isn’t a question, either; it’s another statement. Even if we cannot ask of Fuller What is the plan? and expect a perfectly lucid answer, we get a better truth in its stead. “What?” is the plan.

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End of the Sentimental Journey: A Mystery Poem

Sarah Vap

Noemi Press


Saturday, May 31st, 2014

I am old, I leave the house less and less, I don’t go to as many poetry readings as I used to. But I read a lot of poetry&#8212as a reader might hope a reviewer would. But readers of poetry reviews, i.e. y’all, are not like readers of movie reviews; the latter might see a few movies a year, and the former are likely reading as many books as the reviewer. Similarly, the average movie-goer is probably not too concerned with the film she’s currently directing. So I think it is safe and fair to say that whatever anxiety the poetry reviewer feels is akin to the anxiety of the poetry reader, akin to the poetry performer, akin to the poetry writer. I think all but a few of us feel some anxiety about our preferences, our “likes” and “dislikes” and the apparatuses we build to explain and justify them. Those lucky few who feel no such anxieties unreservedly seek what I like to call dominion over the beasts of the field: a set of uniform standards for who says what, and how. The most dispiriting part of this martial quest is how quickly and completely claims of taste become markers of morality. There is no judgment as blissfully severe as that of any poet of any other poet.

All paths into poetry intersect, and thus what occurs on one of those paths likewise determines what occurs on the others. If you ever move up one path, you will surely wander down the others, and you are thus a likely candidate for the crude, sweet, candid and plainly brilliant and brilliantly plain charms of End of the Sentimental Journey: A Mystery Poem. In this book, Sarah Vap is curious about how we come to judge both what we make and what is presented to us. Happily—but also vexingly—my greatest challenge in writing about the book under review is finding something to disagree with. End of the Sentimental Journey starts, as the subtitle indicates, with a mystery, and concludes with its solution (though it’s worth noting that a solution and a resolution are not the same thing). To wit:

First Clue: Difficulty

People often ask me: Do you mean for your poems to be so difficult? Why are they so difficult?

A shadow of response that I always have: Why do you want them to be easy?

But what I mean is: What is “difficult” anyway? and, What is easy?

I begin to feel a little bit worried. (Am I difficult?)

And then I wonder: Does that mean other people are easy?

Hours later I might be asking myself: is there such a thing as “good-difficult” and “bad difficult”? “Good easy” and “bad easy”? And who gets to decide.

Well, that is exactly right. The question of who decides is the question of who will achieve dominion over all the beasts of the field, and the question here is conspicuous only in the deliberately direct and colloquial diction Vap insists on using. She may be conducting a mystery, but she is hell-bent on making sure no one gets confused or lost on the way; as with Gabbert (reviewed here), she puts things as simply as she can, but never any more simply that she has to. From this initial clue, Vap proceeds to identify an argument about an experience of poetic difficulty in terms of access and the feelings inspired by failure to access. Access, of course, is a concept most frequently presented in terms of whether any given poem is accessible, which suggests strange assumptions about what a poem has to offer and what a reader wants and where responsibility lies (if anywhere) for how and whether the reader can “access” whatever num-num treats the poem allegedly contains. The roles implied by this formulation lead Vap to her first big analogical leap: though it seems at first like a small one, it will end having profound consequences for not just the direction but the terms of her investigation. Because she has named a mystery, she names “clues” in the solution of that mystery; the first is “difficulty,” and the second is “sorrow,” and between these two Vap delineates how readers come to find poems difficult or inaccessible and the irritation, sadness and resentment this can provoke in both reader and writer. But the next clue she names is “blueballs,” a condition from which she introduces questions of putting out&#8212as in whether the poem should, and when, and to whom. This reconfigures the conditions of ease and difficulty well enough so that Vap can wonder if “too easy” simply means that “Compared to me, the poem is a little dumb and slutty.”

From here, Vap moves to questions of intimacy, a condition dependent of hope: “There is an unspoken agreement between a poet and a reader that, by reading the poem, we will both feel less alone.”

This sounds simple. It isn’t, and Vap knows it. To this general definition of and desire for intimacy and understanding and acknowledgement, she quickly adds the following list of what she identifies as her needs:

rejection, humiliation, shame, distance, reprimand, being totally ignored, being dumped, being crapped on, being inappropriately solicited, pity, being sought after to no avail, seeking after to no avail, intrigue, mystery, no mercy, make-up sex, fistfights, fisting, being told to put my fucking clothes back on, just a friend, strangers, loneliness, artificiality, superficiality, having the door slammed on my face, not being invited to the party, not showing up to rush, getting kicked out of the honors program, an STD, being the only girl in fourth grade without a friend, being the new kid everyone ignores, travel without knowing the language, dry-humping, pull-out method, born-again virgins, constipation, bad reputations, unconvincing dominatrices, false rumors.

but also

grandparents, parents, children, childbirth, death, ribbons, rainbows, ponies, music boxes, solar systems, summer dresses, blood, guts, history, tradition, no history, no tradition, no human beings at all, no objects at all, God, Goddess, no gods, no goddesses, solar system, no solar system, everybody being nice to me, everybody understanding me, everybody missing me when I’m gone.

It’s at this moment in the book that I was convinced that Vap was going to be a perfectly trustworthy guide through the thickets of want, whether applied to poetry or to life more generally, and it is also the moment where it became apparent to me that she is more concerned with the condition of the beasts of the field and not so worried about how she can come to dominate them. The impulse to dominion is exclusionary: it may express itself as a desire for control of everything, but in practice everything tends to refer to only a few things. The signature of dominion is decimation, right? Dominion excludes, winnows, eliminates, reduces. As the list above makes clear, Vap wants to make room for everything, and of the items included in a catalogue are those that will appear contradictory or exclusive. Generosity, in other words, will and must lead to complication and all form of disagreement: difficulties.

However, it’s quite a commitment to conclude that the best alternative to dominion is a complete lack of discrimination. A world with no room for standards whatsoever is very likely to serve whoever has power already, and Vap would rather figure out and make clear and public who is controlling or advancing the standards and to what purpose than pretend the assertion of standards isn’t part of the process. And recognizing this, Vap proceeds to multiple variations of ease and difficulty, concluding her analogy by saying that

I think we’re talking about that very fine line between putting out, but not being a slut.

And I have never figured that one out!

Having established an axis or continuum whereby to think about the relationship between assessments like “difficult,” “easy” and “sentimental,” but apparently not wanting to subscribe entirely to the axioms that continuum generates, Vap pauses. She has already said, in the early clue about “difficulty,” that she is “more and more inclined to think this is a conversation about gender. And about sex. And about money. Specifically, this is a conversation about you having sex with. And more generally, about poets having sex with each other.” I think it’s absolutely correct that if Vap finds the metaphor of sex especially telling in how it reflects and predicts the language of what readers and writers want, she must admit that sex and gender cannot be divorced. And, in citing third- and fourth-wave feminism, when Vap clarifies her desire for the right and ability to write “exactly what I want write and how I need to write it as the fully complex human being that I am” she is admitting an ambition, the impediments to which concern gendered and sexualized histories and practices of power.

To speak accurately and honestly into and against those histories is no small ambition, of course, though it is hard to imagine any smaller ambition that could possibly be worth pursuing. But in a gesture that is very likely to be the one that will earn End of the Sentimental Journey a fame that belies its extraordinary merits, Vap performs a set of hypothetical responses, a sort of judgment theatre, but one in which the taxonomies are not those frequently associated with poetic responses. For example, see Cincinnati Bowtie, Pasadena Steamer, Angry Dragon, Alligator Fuckhouse, Glass-bottomed Boat, Donkey Punch, Blumpkin.

Ideally, then—using this third or fourth-wave spectrum of human experience, and using an ultra-contemporary vocabulary of intimacy—a conversation about any given poem could go something like this:

Reader 1: That poem is like Tea-Bagging, and I actually prefer something a little more difficult, like a Cincinnati Bowtie.

Reader 2: I had a slightly different response. That poem, to me, is much too difficult and much too dirty. It’s like receiving a Pasadena Steamer or worse, an Angry Dragon. And so on.

At this point I will pause and admit that my first thought, naïve and hopeful, was that Sarah Vap is simply a genius at the manufacture of terms that sound like real things but could not possibly be real things. Ha ha! Oh Raymond. The terms above, which I am sure are familiar to more adventurous, cosmopolitan and erudite readers, do in fact refer to real things. If you don’t believe me, please deploy the Google device, but make sure your privacy settings are ON. However, as with her refusal to admit that being indiscriminate is the inevitable cure for tyranny, Vap doesn’t let the terms or the practices to which they refer go without scrutiny:

Helping the Writer

But if I consider, truly, someone shitting in my vagina, stabbing me with their cock as if I’m a trough, or hitting me so hard I lose consciousness during sex… you can imagine how hated I might feel.

And how the vocabulary of intimacy has failed me!

Some will wonder if Vap’s inclusion of these terms is purely for shock value, but I think she actually uses them in a way that inoculates the reader against shock, because she thinks shock itself is proof of having been subject to one kind of moral and aesthetic dominion. As noted above, her response to the very idea of some of them is brilliantly understated, humane and merciless all at once. I think that anyone who cannot imagine how hated the woman considering such terms might feel is really not prepared to have any human experience at all. That isn’t shocked or shocking; it’s self-possessed.

That self-possession, Vap’s calmness and candor, encompass the whole point of using reference sources (for all their obvious dissimilarity) like Urban Dictionary and Online Etymology: they share a blunt facticity about what they describe. And Vap is using these words and practices to extend the depth and range of the sexual metaphor with the purpose of narrowing her definition of difficulty:

Thesis: When I say that the question of “difficulty” or “sentimentality” in poetry is really a discussion of poets having sex, what I actually mean is that I believe it to be a gendered discussion. And perhaps it is also a discussion about what poetries of certain identities can and can’t say.

I mean that it might really be the discussion about who can say and think what and how they can say and think it.

You see? Dominion, a state under which Vap does not want to labor, for she understands its fundamental inequality and iniquity:


I worry that what is difficult is actually just an internalized alarm that gets triggered when certain people deviate from certain languages and certain subjects.

Particularly in this poem I think that we’re calling poets sentimental or difficult or impenetrable for writing poem’s that touch more on women’s lives than on men’s lives.

Vap goes on to describe multiple continua in an effort to delineate all the factors that inform her own responses, which are subtle and contingent but also secure enough that she can assert the claim&#8212and defend it impeccably&#8212that much of what she is against is just “unreasonable obedience.”

I think that this book describes via negative portraiture the audience that could never abide its manner or its conclusions: this is not a collection for zealots of any stripe. If you cannot tolerate Vap’s use of things like the Cincinnati Bowtie as a metaphor, then this isn’t the book for you. But if you cannot imagine that anyone under any circumstances could respond positively to a Cincinnati Bowtie, then this book isn’t for you either. But I don’t think that means Vap is simply speaking to those who already agree with her. Rather, she is inviting those who are in conflicted dialogue with themselves&#8212about what they want, what they make, what they hope for and fear&#8212to participate in the writer’s articulation of her thinking-through those very questions. And while she faithfully constrains her conclusions to her own experiences, I found her conclusions so sensible and well-reasoned that I could not help but distrust anyone who rejected them, and would in fact suspect them of being one of those whose desire for dominion creates the very environment Vap so craftily, calmly and boldly navigates her way out of. In response to these questions

Should we devour the poem, or should the poem devour us.

Do we submit to the poem, or does the poem submit to us.

Are we to monitor poetry,

or is poetry to monitor us.

Vap decides

I will submit to—and be devoured and destroyed by—some poems,

but not every poem, after all.

And what of the paradoxes and dangerous dichotomies enabled by even the most sophisticated continua? Vap intends to “Pile them on top of each other / like the hexagrams of the I-Ching,” to “add them all to each other to form some kind of neverendingly long thread.” End of the Sentimental Journey concludes not just by offering mystery in favor of certainty; it offers a good mystery in favor of a bad one, and that’s too generous and wise a bargain to resist.

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The Self Unstable

Elisa Gabbert

Black Ocean

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Although The Self Unstable is her third book, Elisa Gabbert’s dominant mode of publication is the tweet, of which she is queen. As of circa right this moment, she has composed almost 45,000 of them, and, happily, she knows no sign of stopping or slowing down. 45,000 sounds like a lot of anything; it is difficult to present that accounting without provoking a sense of an overwhelming number of tweets, a cascade of tweets, a cacophony, a sky darkened by text. But in the same way that Zeno’s Paradox forces admission of how a large thing both is and is not well-explained by thinking of it as many smaller things, the sheer numeric bulk of the tweets disguises the genius of their composition: discretion. One must have latitude, but good judgment within that latitude; the more circumscribed the opportunity for expression, the greater the need to deploy what and how one utters. The fact that another tweet is free, facile and just waiting doesn’t change the mandate of the individual tweet, which is to earn attention disproportionate to the size of the thing itself. In essence, Twitter is an aphorism engine.

If 45,000 tweets cannot share a subject, the assumption is that the person tweeting becomes the default subject, and thus how a self is constituted and how resolutely it resists ordering marks both Gabbert’s title and her angle of inquiry. The Self Unstable is composed of about 70 short paragraphs, some no more than a few sentences. Some of these approach a state of such aphoristic purity that you will be certain you have hear the claims made before: for example, “The more you love someone, the less you like them.” Now, it doesn’t defy belief that one could regard language of such flattened affect and respond with Ew or Ugh or So what, but consider the alternative: an embellished thought? A beautified thought, as opposed to a beautiful one? Her willfully prosaic choices give Gabbert room to provoke these questions without a concomitant obligation to answer them. And that’s for the best, because the readiest answers are the least satisfying: that the beauty of a thought is in the elegance of its expression, that a plain thought is best put plainly.

It is central to the project that most of the poems partake of aphoristic sensibility in lengths that dwarf a tweet but still rarely amount to more than a few moments’ demand of the reader’s attention. If Reader does attend, however, the ease of that initial commitment will slowly complicate, until the clarity an aphorism is meant to provide vanishes into something that comes close to aphoristic certainty while simultaneously and repeatedly denying that such certainties are even possible. The effect works better the more of the poems you consume, but the fundamental dynamic Gabbert is playing with works like this: let’s say that in response to a long-distance love affair, one says “Well, absence makes the heart grow fonder!” Now, one could just as plausibly respond by noting that “Out of sight, out of mind!” Each of these independent of the other seems facile, if potentially accurate; put them together, though, and the way in which they both become more true because of their contradictory aspects begins to describe how extraordinarily subtle observations can flower from the most banal “truisms.” The degree to which being out of sight dislocates one from the mind creates a void into which sentiment or affection might then rush.

Gabbert can pack a lot of weird into very small picnic basket, and the familiarity of her approach – the sort of observational mixture of claim, question, comment and example that often comprises jokes, for instance – conceals, and usefully, some of her genuinely impressive and profitable ambition. None of this would work, however if the individual and collective effect of the poems didn’t inspire thought more elaborate than a simple, genial pattern of agreement or disagreement with what Gabbert has to say, though she must and does first drive the reader through that pattern of affirmation and refusal. As I read any one of these poems, I am impressed by how unadorned and dull it seems, but also how impossible to refute. And then I wonder if I would have a more immediately positive response if the surface of the language provided more in the way of glitter and spangle, and if in fact I would prefer the glitter and spangle because it would obviate or reduce my need or desire to feel as if the language was vehicular of thought. In this sense, at least, the more pedestrian and cliché Gabbert seems to be, the more the reader is forced to pay attention, especially to the machine that turns obscurity (defined as that which prohibits something from translation to a lucid thought) into “beauty” and “meaning.”

Look, I want many people to read this book (and I’m happy to get the impression that many people are) but if you do not have legions of readers who adhere to your every whim and follow your last recommendation, you might have a marketing challenge ahead of you, because the only faithful description of the book is to say that it’s Elisa thinking thinky thoughts, and if your interlocutor doesn’t know and trust her, then they better know and trust you, because there’s no other hook on which to hang what The Self Unstable is up to. It is thus a very good thing that these are very good thoughts because they are not seemly ones in seemly forms, and if you feel as weird reading that as I do writing it, we may be primed to negotiate.

Actual thoughts do not form automatically, though opinions proliferate so quickly, and so often approximate the qualia of thoughts, that it is easy to grow ill at the thought of other people’s thoughts. Of course, that’s just an opinion before the fact, and disrespectful to thoughts, which we often make quite welcome on the rare occasion we encounter them. Still, Gabbert runs the serious risk of alarming the reader who cannot imagine voluntarily subjecting themselves to 80+ pages of watching someone ponder, question and assert without at least the reassuring structure of a pre-defined object of inquiry or comment and lacking the fatty additives characteristic of the more Poetic iterations of poetry. Thus divested of the cream and the sugar, Gabbert has nothing to offer but one cold cup of coffee after another, yet she makes it worth the reader’s while to stay awake. Here are three poems, selected at random, just to give an approximation of the whole:

If luxury is obscene, all pleasure is obscene. The tyranny of matters of degree. Faux fur is cruel by way of reference to cruelty. In the moment, we value stability, but we prefer our painful memories. Happiness as intensity of experience. Don’t you always “feel the way you feel”?

In our pursuit of the new, we must cultivate fear, where there was no need for it historically. We must devalue narrative, but this alone is not enough – we must lose our comprehension, as a man who goes colorblind loses his concepts of color, so eventually his dreams and even his memories are in grayscale. So too the construct of time. So too the one, coherent world. This isn’t for art. It’s for science.

The best perfumes are completely abstract, but as in other artforms, amateurs are more interested in the photorealistic&#8212they are, in fact, more interested in a representational object that is just like a rose (or a woman, or burnt toast) than those items themselves. Art, over time, makes a crude kind of progress, but toward what end? Art may improve our quality of life, but better art does not improve it more.

I delight in each of these, but I treasure them even more the more of them I read.

The book has a loose association of themes (games & leisure, love & sex, humans & other animals; The Self Unstable even has an index) but what strikes me as most consistent across the entries is the writer’s shock at and with time, with how one cannot predict or escape the warping effect of having accumulated enough experience to recall one’s prior thoughts in multiple. Memory’s history as point of contemplation is so long that it might as well stand for contemplation itself. There’s never a lack of theories as to memory’s operation and meaning. And some contemporary theories of memory&#8212primarily the science that suggestions that memories are not recalled so much as inscribed and re-inscribed, so that those memories we recall best are those we have most assiduously invented&#8212have been so well distributed that they now amount to folk wisdom.

Of this particular model of memory and its perverse emotional implications, Gabbert has lots to say, much of it bemused but some of it devastating and cold.

Memory comes first, then identity shortly after, at age 7 or 8. I wanted to be pretty, and now I am. Did wishing make it so? That I am I is less shocking than its opposite, that you are you. One day in my 20s, sitting in a cold car, I realized the self is universal, there is one I – again, the thought arrives, but no longer seems profound.

In that example, is there anything that could be as harsh, as flatly stone-faced and auto-judgmental, as majestic in its use of the comma as “I wanted to be pretty, and now I am?” It introduces a degree of candor that recurs, and subsequently creates a sort of discomfort at how well the writer identifies exactly how to make you experience the perfect ratio of being convinced and being appalled:

I don’t want kids, but there’s nothing else to do.

Her wit in these instances can be mordant…

Youth is wasted, full stop. We trade awe for regret, beauty for truth. I’ll remember forever how Brandon Shimoda threw his half-eaten ice cream cone in the trash: “This is boring.

I used to say I never had regrets. I didn’t realize I just didn’t have any yet.

I regret the mistakes I made in my 20s, though I am the same, and would make them again. In fact I wish I could make them again.

…but as even the abbreviated arc of the preceding examples demonstrates, that wit doesn’t stop Gabbert from being quite explicit in the grim conditions of what we can sometimes still recognize as funny at most and absurd at worst.

When I hear a song for the second time, what I like is its familiarity. It has not become more beautiful, nor have I gained access to its beauty.

Life is tragic in real time, but the memories are farcical. What good does it do to feel the same things over and over, to rehearse the same pains?

Gabbert has much else to observe and discuss, of course; in a book almost entirely stripped of adornment, there’s really nothing else for her to do, and The Self Unstable presents many more small wonders and astute curiosities than I can list here. Taken as a whole, however, there’s an undeniable admission of the way in which thinking itself can somehow be both recursive and unidirectional. Just as a self makes the self to which it must refer, any amount of thinking makes more thinking, and any amount of it is, for purposes of happiness, ease and comfort, too much. That may be why we shrink from it, and maybe why we don’t often anticipate a book of poetry by citing our pleasure at how much we are looking forward to spending time with the poet’s thoughts. Their products, maybe; the curlicues and spandrels of their passage, why not. But the thinking itself? A hard sell, of course, because how do you sell someone something of which they have not and never will be able to liberate themselves while preserving a self at all? Or, as Gabbert puts it:

Animals can think about thinking, a grand failure of evolution. The best experiences involve no thinking at all, much less self-reference, much less an endless/strange loop. Whatever you do, don’t start thinking about thinking.

Too late, but it always will be. You can’t avoid the “you” implicit in thinking; all thinking selves think about…themselves. That’s a sad fact, but one Gabbert approaches with nerve and sangfroid. Life and friends: both boring, and we must say so, or credit Elisa’s efforts on our misbegotten behalf.

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Hymn for the Black Terrific

Kiki Petrosino

Sarabande Books


Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Hymn for the Black Terrific is three tiny books bound together. The first section, “Oiseau Rebelle,” is as close as Petrosino comes to a miscellany, in that its poems don’t bear an obvious relationship to each other; the second section, “Mulattress,” is a ten-poem showcase of her manipulation of select lines from that gifted hypocrite Thomas Jefferson; the third, “Turn Back Your Head & There Is The Shore,” depicts the attentions of “the eater,” a figural stand-in for the very gifts of appetite and attention altogether. Three tiny books bound together. Does that sound dismissive? It shouldn’t. For each is light enough to whip by at the speed of thought, dense enough to achieve percussive consequence, shaped well enough to defy resistance. Three tiny books, a bundle of airfoil projectiles, mercilessly designed and brutally employed. A sort of one-woman poetic special forces squad, Petrosino is a show-off, a fact for which the reader ought be grateful, because the skill and intelligence she brings to bear is literally inspirational: it takes one’s breath away and replaces it with something both intoxicating and clarifying.

My disposition is sometimes inclined to ascetic poetries, those that pretend the world is clean as a desert, that the words of that world are few. But even in that appreciation I know this pretense flatly contradicts the world, which is full and getting fuller all the time, and whose words propagate endlessly. Even the desert is a riot, and while there’s something to be said for carving a near-silence from that chaos, there’s something of at least equal value in admitting and orchestrating it. Petrosino’s gifts, which know no apparent boundary, currently lend themselves to an additive intelligence, a tendency to say yes even to those things she rejects. Any one of her poems is thus like a meal that explicitly includes the histories, recipes and ingredients from which it was prepared, a lavish, extravagant acknowledgment of everything that any given poem could be even as she manufactures what the poem at hand must be. Here is a sample from “Oiseau Rebelle”:


One rages, white as wood.
Another sits ruined at the center of her realm.
One of them broods over a clutch of old combs.
One darkens like an oyster in the autumn smoke.
There’s one the shape of a ganglion, & one like a yawl.
There’s one climbing up from the deep planks.
You find a glass one. A leather one. A salt one.
You watch one dissolve into the embrace of an oak.
Already there’s one drawing a fine grid on your forehead.
There’s one disjoining the cables of your wrist.
One lives in horses. Another in a warp of snow.
One’s a kind of luster in the mouth. You remember one
who taught you to make a kerchief of your hands.
Another came in a nightdress browned with spit.
Sometimes, you glimpse one moving through the woods.
Or whispering through the slits of an iron rake.
There’s one who waits, & one who weeps on the road.
But you choose the one who blooms like a war by night.
The one pulling another sheaf of your hair into her mouth.
That one is always here. That one, the tender
trench knife in the head.

Although she wanders happily and successfully between types and tones of poem, “Ancestors” provides a good model of how Petrosino routinely incorporates a resolute commitment to multiplicity and excess even as she threads a singular path through the thicket she herself makes. You could ask what the ancestral ones who go un-chosen are doing in the poem, if the speaker already knows the choice to be revealed in the last two lines. Well, I imagine they are there because they are there: Petrosino’s choice only has meaning if there are things to choose among, and she won’t pretend that the act of choosing should erase or come at the expense of alternative choices. All are true and all are real, and even if all cannot be chosen simultaneously, each can be named.

This way of increasing the wealth works even better when Petrosino gives free reign to sound. “Ragweed,” another poem from “Oiseau Rebelle,” also makes much out of exploring the idea of less. Do yourself a favor and read the following out loud:


Neither wax, nor egg, nor honey on the knife.
In garden not, nor street nor bus nor bank—
Not sleep. Not word. Nor will-over-will
Not lung. Not hull, or sail. Just crank & tread

in place [no place] & white [not white] gets hot
& seethe & seethe—my sleep like steam
not long, but less. So less, till I am I who cracks
at last, begs air & says Am I such root? Such rot

for rage who scrapes, who darks each swatch of flesh
each branch of mesh & salt & bit? This rag—it rob
& sneak & rob & sneak, my tongue gets pins & pine & less
& less. Can run, but run gets gone. Can bellow, bellow

change. Only most, only half, & less & less get
here, get thick & stick. Not breath.

Like “Ancestors,” this too is accumulation by rejection: each neither and nor and not is a sound-stone Petrosino sends skipping. Not predicts street as bus predicts bank, just in time for sleep to echo street, and the b – consonance predicts will-over-will, and the assonance of lung and hull predicts the traditional association of sail and crank, which returns us to the theme of motility and motionlessness of sleep, and the relationship of speech and song to each. This is showing off, but while there are a few of her peers who could make aural associations as fluidly, I can think of none who can compress an argument (that version of the poem that remains when it is reduced to paraphrase-able content) into that act of virtuosity, much less one that celebrates its own powers while running right up against their personal and historical limits.

“Mulattress” further demonstrates Pertrosino’s astringent apprehension of our shared cultural inheritance. As Petrosino’s notes clarify, the end-words of each of the ten poems recombines the following sentence from Thomas Jefferson, excerpted from his truly horrifying apologia in “Notes On the State of Virginia”: “They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor.” The “they” refers to the African slaves whose admittance to the body politic Jefferson is busily dismissing as a manifest impossibility, and in Petrosino’ choice to italicize the words she has adopted and transformed she makes “they” those aligned with Jefferson, demonstrating how every instantiation of “we” or “us” comes at the inevitable expense of an “us” or “them.” Here are two examples from the sequence:


I don’t trust this body they
wrap like a razor blade in secret
crinolines. They want me bloodless
& soft in the jaws. Can’t recall by the
boudoir light how it felt to have little-kid knees
like moons in the dark, to have hands
alive with sweat & lightning bugs. I’m a Moor
now, I’m a Moor. You can tell by the glance
I use to trouble grown-up mean. Of the skin
I’ve got two square yards & a sob. They say a witch
dug me up from a barrow. I gives them a
smile at that. It’s true, my color’s very strong—
a high & disagreeable
gold. You can’t enter a hall with no door.


My colored body is so clean they
ask to run their fingers over the secret
songlines on my scalp. I crunch on the harmless
glitter left by their love of me. By & by
I’ve seeped onto every flatscreen. I’m the kid
with a talent. Spokesmodel. Young attorney.
Kid, I’m beautiful. Look at my televised hands
pale & polished; they peel in the sun like sycamores.
But: a Florentine once confessed, by the
light of a lake, that he’d never marry me. To glance
yes, of course, but not to marry. He said ‘Of the
women I know, you are not of my future.’ Without skin
there’s little point to love, or roast duck. Which
I learned by trying each thing both ways. It gives
me headaches to explain myself abroad. To them
I’m some dark hatchway, viewed from a very
high window. Storybrook-strong &
carved all over disagreeable
dialect. Who doesn’t love a sealed corridor?

Each of these poems is gorgeous, perceptive, sharp and fittingly cruel to the ethically rebarbative. Of particular note is the barbed use of the italicized “they,” which makes excellent use of the rhetorical coding of the obsessed-over but unheard and unseen “other” the archaic term “Mulattress” signifies. What, then, is the point of ten poems of this caliber, if any given one succeeds wildly in advancing the aim shared by the others? Other than the joy of seeing well-executed verse, of which we cannot have enough, the point is that the dynamic Petrosino writes about is old and persistent, and takes many forms and incurs many costs, felt in many ways by many persons. Given those undeniable truths, why wouldn’t she attempt to capture as much of that complexity as possible? In the same way that the affirmation-negations in “Oiseau Rebelle” operate by providing a richly textured backdrop for the objects of each poem’s attention, the repetitions of “Mulattress” pay heed to how a reductive practice truly effects the person reduced. The variance illustrates the pattern in a way a single articulation of the pattern could never capture.

The poems of “Turn Back Your Head & There Is The Shore,” which Petrosino tells us sometimes take their titles from the English-language menu of Beijing’s Pure Lotus Restaurant, do not immediately lend themselves as complementary to the poems of “Mulattress”&#8212but Petrosino knows what she’s doing, and it’s here that she shows us how these three booklets cooperate. The poems refer repeatedly to “the eater,” a figure no larger or smaller than life itself but one whose presence nevertheless disturbs all those who cannot admit what is central to eating, which is the unmaking of many things to make more of one thing, that-which-eats, the self:

Moon-Wrapped Fragrant Spareribs

Happy is the eater who rules by the cyclone of her face. By the
syrup of her eye shall she drown the clanging earth. For the eater
combs justice like beeswax through her hair, & her hands catch
only righteousness in their fiery mesh. Therefore, lament neither the
appetite that dismasts your cities, nor the emerald in her gut that
spins. I tell you, the eater is more terrible than all your needlework
of lemongrass, purer than aluminum the eater’s hum at eventide.
Fear not her blue-black shadow as she cruises into your airspace.
There’s lightning in the matrix of her marrow. Her teeth make
mirrors of the sea.

If this is excess, a gargantuan presentation of what is only the most basic and inevitable function, it’s an excess that pushes against an artificially imposed constraint, and one that serves only sinister purposes. This resistance to excess, which I suppose taints the word itself, girds the argument that if Petrosino is a show-off, then the poems she displays thereby are flawed in either conception or execution. But what if excess simply refers to any amount greater than zero? I Want More Petrosino, not less, and any call for her to restrain or restrict her powers is one I wholeheartedly reject. Even if the eater isn’t a named presence in the first two sections of the book, we aren’t surprised to meet her when she does appear, because it is her power and desire that advance across the lines of each poem on every page. In “At the Teahouse,” Petrosino seems to take stand that reflects both a principle and an essence. She writes

I can’t / simmer down, & I won’t simmer down. Some people make / a life of straw. Some people get holy / on not much at all.

Whatever gloriously artificed mess this makes, it’s due. Who would want her to simmer down? That holy, who would dare?

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Young Tambling

Kate Greenstreet

Ahsahta Press


Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

In lieu of blurbs, the back cover of Young Tambling simply reads Based on a true story. Thanks to the quality of the design, this humble claim is both comic and sort of sublime. It’s comic, of course, because being based on a true story isn’t the sort of criterion by which one represents poetry. One can scarcely imagine a browser picking up a book of poetry and choosing it for purchase because it was based on a true story. But why not? Because poetry isn’t as much of a story as a story is? If so, we could describe poetry as based on truth. And this would be accurate, but also weird, and in that weirdness we can find something essential about folk art, of which the ballad is a prime example, as is the ballad that gives Young Tambling its title.

Although folk art takes too many forms to lend itself to perfect categorization, one of the ways it is sometimes distinguished concerns the relative ease with which you can replace any one character on offer with an equivalent example of a type, including yourself. The sailor can become anyone who has departed, the bandit anyone who cannot fit in. Likewise, the roles of hero and villain can be filled variously, since sometimes we feel more the victim and sometimes we sympathize with the criminal. This flexibility has limits, however; were there not adequate consistency across tales, we couldn’t recognize them as types. And once we begin to see them as reassembling elements we can also see our preoccupations and, to an extent, our convictions.

It is therefore no shock to note that traditional ballads hardly present a happy picture of women in the world, though it can be hard to say whether they accurately report a standing cruelty or justify and perpetuate it, as well. In any case, when women do appear, they are rarely the agents of their fate, much less the essential author of anyone else’s. This is a hard lesson for any devotee of the form, though one may empathize with the instructional impulse behind any given example (the world is unkind to girls, who should beware) and bemoan the lost opportunity to explain or challenge or reverse that condition.

All of this makes the ballad Young Tambling remarkable in presenting us with a young woman who seems to inhabit a traditional ballad and its photonegative. As Greenstreet writes in the earliest section of Young Tambling, “This ballad is an exception”:

When they meet in the woods the second time, Young Tambling tells Margaret (in other versions Janet, or Jennet) that he has been kidnapped by the Queen of Elfland and he describes in detail how he can be rescued. There are rules, which mainly involve holding on to him tightly, fearlessly, while he is turned into a lion, then a snake, a red-hot coal or bar of iron, and finally into a naked man, whom she must hide with her mantle.

Greenstreet tells us how she encountered a version of this ballad as a recording sung by an artist in whom she has some prior interest, and concludes the introductory section by noting “She will sing it unaccompanied. I will listen unaccompanied.”

This comprises the earliest pages of Young Tambling’s first section (NARRATIVE) and is followed by five more (ACT, MEMORY, FORBIDDEN, SUNG and WE), none of which are easy to predict on the basis of what Greenstreet presents us at the start. Each begins with a page devoted to a partial erasure of a quote, fully revealed after the initial text of each respective section. Thus these initial presentations, between the quote obscured and the quote clarified, seem to offer a sort of airlock, a justification for the section’s title and a preparation for what will follow. Greenstreet writes each in prose, sometimes in the form of an interview or list but more often as simple past tense recollection.

For example, ACT’s lineated quote is from Walker Evans: “It’s logical to say that what I do / is an act of faith. / It came to me. And I worked it out.” The first appearance erases all but the word “act” and the second reveals the remainder. Between stands a prose passage that details domestic conditions from Greenstreet’s childhood and teenage years:

We didn’t have another world to go to, but we had books. We had the library downtown. I think my best friend and I must have read every book in the young adult section by the time we were ten (that word “adult” attracted us), at least all the ones about girl detectives and romance and careers. We liked to sing on the swings, dance to records in the basement, talk about boys, act out dramatic scenes (birth, death). But I also needed to be alone. To think. My mother gave me the tiny room off the kitchen, where I could read and arrange things and listen to music on the radio. My father and grandmother felt it was excessive for a child to have a room of her own (before this I was in the big room with my brothers), but my mother made it happen.

Greenstreet goes on to discuss her initial art-making, especially in terms of arrangement and her earliest literary tastes, but all of this is as prosaic as the details of the passage above: she works at a dry cleaner’s, she devotes herself to novels of the 19th century. What, if anything, does this have to do with the ballad that starts the book, and why am I so comfortable asserting that the speaker is Kate Greenstreet, and not some fictive being?

Some features prove consistent from the topic of Young Tambling the ballad and this part of Young Tambling the book. The girl distinguished from an excess of boys, the fact of her being unaccompanied or alone, the finding of drama and meaning in books and records: all this justifies the poet’s choice of “subjects” if we consider the title and the earliest material evidential of “subject” but my engagement with the writing doesn’t at all depend on an analogy between subject and speaker. I would be all in&#8212even if Young Tambling the referent was a complete dead-end, so what I’m more interested in, then, is how Greenstreet manages to achieve such a perfectly lucid approachability as a narrator.

This attribute isn’t unique to Young Tambling. It’s been apparent since case sensitive, Greenstreet’s first full collection. For lack of a better way to put it, Greenstreet simply sounds more like a person than any other American poet I can think of. In one sense, of course, this is ridiculous: all poets are equally persons (one guesses), therefore, no one poet can sound more like a person than any other. Maybe it’s that Greenstreet sounds more like a person who is not also a poet than any other poet I can think of. Regardless, it’s an effect&#8212or, more to the point, not an effect at all&#8212she puts to good use: for someone whose style of presentation is neither theatrical nor ostentatiously unaffected (the cure for theatricality that often proves even more lethally dramatic than the performance style it wants to remedy), she can captivate a room full of readers like no one I’ve ever seen. And I think it has more to do with her use of language than it does with some essential Kate-ness, though that is of course the impression she leaves.

The prose samples aren’t the best evidence of this effect, simply because Greenstreet can rely on the reader’s default familiarity with prose as a workmanlike form of language. However, the effect remains in her verse, an achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact that she often writes in extraordinarily elliptic fragments. For example, from the remainder of ACT:

We know a little bit about the driver.
The red kimono is wrong.

He had a brother, who died when they were young.
Who was older, and handsome.

I think everybody wants to hear
why it happened – what’s on the other side
of that wall.

Animal to person, person to plant.
Who’s not going to accept a call?

Mostly, we kind of liked each other.

I could remember the life
in the chair, the mirrors hung to misdirect misfortune.
The little one with the little flowers—
something something May…

Now they say Beethoven’s hair was full of lead.

You can relax, enough
to see black. What you’ve lost? I believe
it has frozen the soap to the glass.

What is going on here, and why does it work so well?

Some of the mystery of this passage can be resolved by reference to the immediately preceding pages, but not much. There’s mention of a photographic plate, but no reason to believe that the slivers of narrative we can pluck from the fragments refer to the image on that plate. This proves especially challenging because Young Tambling (thanks to a really handsome and adept design by Ahsahta Press) also contains multiple reproductions of Greenstreet’s own visual art, itself sometimes placed in a fragmentary or capsulated way. All of this taken together should confuse, but the book never loses its tone of calm familiarity.

If there’s a reason for this, it rests entirely on Greenstreet’s deployment of idiomatic, discursive English. Unlike some of her peers, who string together clauses of such extravagant length and variety that they could never be found in nature even if their components declare their colloquial origins. Greenstreet uses the fragment form to balance moments of lyric (could be deliberate lyric, could be accidental&#8212that’s part of the charm) with the more mundane expressions and catch-alls that characterize speech: for example, “the mirrors hung to misdirect misfortune” as followed by “the little one with the little flowers— / something something May”.

She strikes the balance equally well in forms that lend themselves to the technique less readily than do the fragments. Consider this exchange from the dialogue between unidentified interlocutors that begins MEMORY:

The Eucharist. The Host. We never called it “the wafer,” that’s for sure. I think Protestants might call it that. I mean, it is a tiny thin wafer made out of bread. But for Catholics, it’s not a symbol. For Catholics, that item is the body of Christ, no two ways about it.

&#8212And you liked taking the body of Christ right into your mouth.

Within me! Within me, yes. I could go back to my seat and feel Jesus within me. And I would get really, really happy. Sometimes I would imagine dancing over the tops of the pews in my happiness. I remember that. Well, you know, it was a powerful idea.

This is exquisite. The choice of “that” to modify “item,” the blunt emphasis of “really, really happy.” You have to have listened to a lot of people to reproduce the cadence and diction of actual speech as well as Greenstreet does, but she never uses her apprehension of that speech to reduce or telegraph the person speaking. She does the very opposite in that she reminds us of how cryptic, associative and random speech, memory and even personhood can be.

Young Tambling is not a slight book&#8212it’s 155 cut-size pages&#8212but it wouldn’t be easy to summarize were it half that. Like a collection of ballads or folk tales, it tells of many events; characters wander in and out, some named, most not, some real, some conjured. The landscapes are alternately perfect in the pedestrian quality and eerie in their almost-abstract beauty or menace. What puts the book squarely in the tradition of the art that inspires it is an understanding of those forms, particularly in narrative but also in the smaller, slipperier tendrils of language, that shift between specificity and universality, the inimitable and the instantly recognizable. The characters of Young Tambling the ballad are types&#8212the maid, the seducer&#8212even if the focus is contrary to the norm. But the inheritors of that ballad are also types: listeners, readers, the introverted and the curious, the bookish and the in-between. These types cannot be recognized without elision between the individual properties of those who fulfill them, but they also can’t exist without those individuals, specific and peculiar as they are. There’s a music for this paradox, a music that both performs and records, and Greenstreet is its master&#8212though I doubt she would ever put it in such gilded terms. Her closest explanation sounds like this:

Rocks, dollhouse furniture, stuff I’d find on the sidewalk—or make, out of sticks and tin foil. This was almost an impulse toward sculpture, but I thought of my structures as altars, or shrines. I always had an urge to put things together that didn’t belong with each other until they were arranged, by me, in just the right way.

A just right altar: the most common things, special. It could be anyone’s, but it is always someone’s.

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Dear Editor: Poems

Amy Newman

Persea Books

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

It is a pity that Amy Newman’s Dear Editor sounds like such a terrible idea, because it is in fact a smart and beautiful book, one that proves no concept, however halt in principle, is a match for someone hellbent on its execution. In this case, the idea can be summarized thus: here’s a book of epistolary prose poems, half a year’s worth of letters to the unnamed editor of an identified literary journal, that refer to a manuscript of poems that we never get to read.

The only way to do justice to this is to quote an entire letter, for which I beg your patience and Newman’s forgiveness, but you really need to see the whole of one to successfully imagine the magnified effect of a book full of them.

Dear Editor:

Please consider the enclosed poems for publication. They are from my manuscript, X = Pawn Capture, a lyrical study of chess that now seems to have a mind of its own. For no matter what I do, the chess games cadenced by the accompanying sighs of my grandparents pale to the desire I have to make them sound beautiful. More troublesome is that I am so taken by the emergence of the lady saints who show themselves to me at times, although to the workshop class these visitations would be foolish fancy and I should write no more of them. That is a weakness I confess only to you, in response to the promise of privacy I observe in your absolute silence.

Asking for the details of the room in which I negotiated the chessboard with my grandfather, the workshop class would prefer the Victoriana of these itemized journeys to my far-too-indistinct wanderings. That the rug beneath the sink was of braided dishtowels dampened by the unforgiving tears of my grandmother is to me incidental to the blessed hands of Catherine of Bologna outside the window as they flutter like gray exotic birds above my grandfather’s head, gesturing in a wash of light and a hum of crickets, and always accompanied by the scent of the perfume of innocence that as her miracle.

Although my grandmother would have loved to see it, when I gestured toward a similar kind of light, rising, she slapped my hand back to my red blood and my sinning body. Although she loved her saints for the ecstasies, she wouldn’t give mine the time of day. One good whack with her boned palm was enough for me and I knew when to keep my mouth shut thereafter, but if only I had been able to render them in their dimension as I saw them I might have convinced her and avoided the several afternoons of bed rest after what she perceived to as the devil in me: my utter happiness followed by weakness and, I admit, a little perspiration. I wish I had a JVC Hard Drive Camcorder 0GB Everio G Series set up but I would never have known where to direct the lens and at what shutter speed, and the light would have washed out the visions anyway. Though it is advertised as having a clear LCD monitor to cut surface reflection and glare even in bright sunlight, I don’t think it would stand up to the wash of radiance that is Therese of Lisieux as she is praying above the swirling dogwoods and my grandfather’s unperceiving body. Technology is impressive but can it contain that kind of halo and blur of contradiction? I could not convince anyone with a work of chaste white glare.

How maddening dimension is, based on expansion and contraction, distance and nearness, interval and contiguity, length and brevity, layer and filament, weight and support, the exterior and the interior, angles, curves, symmetry, distortion! And don’t get me started on the textures of the ladies, wrapped in their filmy sheers and clusters of halo. These are details I try to support with the blank unholy annoyance of a dictionary, a glum book disguised as enough language, within which I can’t find one word to describe the face of St. Anne de Beaupre, who as you know was the grandmother of Jesus Christ, when she hovers, light and elastic, by the flaking paint of the screened-in porch. Like my grandmother’s, her expression is priceless, by which I mean it says more than words. But that doesn’t work.

Thank you for your consideration, and for reading. I have enclosed an SASE, and look forward to hearing from you.


Amy Newman

What we see as the greeting shifts just enough from letter to letter to justify the difficulty “Amy Newman” has in both writing and writing about this absent project. For example:

Dear Editor:

Please consider the enclosed poems for publication. They are from my manuscript, X = Pawn Capture, a lyrical study of chess I am writing as a response assignment.

Dear Editor:

Please consider the enclosed poems for publication. They are from my manuscript, X = Pawn Capture, a poetic exploration of my grandfather’s way of avoiding my grandmother’s outlook on life.

Dear Editor:

Please consider the enclosed poems for publication. They are from my manuscript, X = Pawn Capture, and you know all about it.

This form is relentless, especially at the start and the conclusion of each poem; Newman breaks from it only a few times, and when she does so the occasion is one of having forgotten a point in the previous letter, not to deviate from the tone. The paragraphs between these hail-and-farewell templates share persistent points of reference, but Newman recombines them to create greater diversity than their syntactically rigid frames might predict. A girl who lives with her grandparents, a grandfather who is irritable and disaffected, a grandmother whose patience for him has worn thin, the grandfather’s daily absorption in the action on his chess board, the granddaughter’s efforts to suffer through the incompetent sexual blunderings of the boys from whom she is altogether detached, the rituals of cheerleading and the protocols of creative writing workshops and the deep roster of martyrs and saints and the calendar on the wall, the days of which flip by as predictably as do the letters to the editor.

It is all cliche, all mortifying, and Newman intends it be. Form may be the way we derive order from experience, but hell is repetition, and thus the membrane between a satisfying recognition and the tedium of cliche is thin indeed. For some of these elements, Newman’s targets seem too easily struck; her narrator’s workshop peers are the lowest common readership, and her instructor seems at least as dim; the framing rhetoric of the submission letter is almost too banal to deserve satirization.

But there’s far more to Newman’s use of these than the clipping of easy targets. She is right to note that writing that lends itself to ready encapsulation&#8212as representation requires&#8212is poorly served by that summary, even (and perhaps especially) when the description is accurate. Apply this logic broadly, and it quickly apparent that nothing that can be condensed can preserve dignity or even interest. What is fiction? Fiction is a sequence of untrue claims. What is eating? A periodic consumption of matter from which matter is maintained. What is marriage? Another person, many days in a row.

From this perspective, the question of why one would do anything more than once becomes paramount. Any game of chess, for example, is exactly like any other game of chess, if one focuses on the persistence of the rules. Yet this is an absurd way to regard the game, because it is the multiplicity the rules allow that define the pleasure. Every game is exactly like every other game, except for the fact that no two games are identical. Similarly, one can make claims of anything that are true but not complete, accurate but imprecise. What counts as difference within similarity is Newman’s concern, and she makes as elegant a case for repetition as emotionally rich as I’ve ever read.

For example, consider her use of martyrology. The gruesome parade of Catholic saints and martyrs seems like the world’s oldest example of the collector’s fetish, whereby the slightest tweaks to a base narrative justify whole cascading ribbons of elaboration. The materials are the same: devotion, mortification, death. These materials, as well as their use: cliche. But Newman writes of them beautifully and humorously and with great specificity, relative to the granddaughter’s assessment of her circumstances:

She had imagined if she wrote out wedding invitations to her favorite saints they might show, to give a blessing. So there are somewhere yellowed invitations to Bernard of Clairvaux (whether for bees or the wax with which he is associated she never said) and her favorite, Saint Lucy, who was so pure that God granted her immobility when the Romans tried to move her to a brothel; this would have appealed to my grandmother for the obvious reasons.


From this distance and in her winter coat, I might mistake grandmother for Euphrosyne, the saint who renounced her possessions, dressed like a man, and for years instructed her own father in the spiritual life, until she revealed herself and her own father broke into blossoms and shook with truth. But above the burning and the smoke of the metal bin where your replies are smoldering is the kind and shining face of Teresa, reading the ash, and a stunning bundle of pale green petals, and many, many patterning birds. I wish you could see this.

In these one finds somewhat traditional apprehensions of religious texts and images, but because the letters are about the poems and not the poems themselves, we are likely to find lyric assessments coupled with a wistful and bizarrely specific wish for “a Motorola V620 phone with Integrated 300K camera with 4X zoom at the ready”. What I find most masterful in Dear Editor is thus the way Newman pivots from one category to another. In any given letter (most of which are no more than a page and a half in length) she turns a proximate assessment of the game of chess into an extrapolation of what her grandparents think of her and themselves, and turns that into a meditation on church iconography or adolescence or workshops or all of the above, and somehow makes all of this seem logical and inevitable and appropriate even as she concludes by thanking us for our consideration and our reading, and alerting us to the enclosed SASE and her anticipation of hearing from us. The Amy Newman who writes these letters has a firm grasp on how the form requires she begin and conclude her address, but in between she loses focus in a way that should read as awkward but is smooth, logical and persuasive.

This discrepancy&#8212between what should be happening given the occasion of the letter and what could be happening in the poems we never get to read&#8212is the best justification for never getting to read them. All the great strengths of this book invite the obvious question: if Newman is as capable of writing about imaginary poems to an effect at least equivalent to actual poems, why not eliminate the artifice of the form and go directly to the poems themselves? Because any poems limited to the obsessions narrated here could never be as good as Newman’s trace evidence of them. For all its droning mendacity, her workshop is likely correct. The margins are not only superior to the text; they achieve the purpose the text would seek better than he text ever could, even were it to exist (which, perhaps happily, it does not). Everyone knows someone whose descriptions outpace, in quality, intelligence and intensity, whatever they are given to describe. You wish you had seen or heard or read whatever they had, even when, in fact, you have. But one rarely encounters this gift at play when the subject is a version of the speaker herself. So I cannot imagine X = Pawn Capture is a good book, but Dear Editor, I am so glad Amy Newman wrote this one.

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Jackie Clark

Brooklyn Arts Press


Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

I am no proselyte for poetry as a category of human effort. I would no more advocate for poetry than I would love or dinner or shimmying. People will pursue or enact these things, and it makes little sense to agitate on behalf of that which you cannot stop from occurring, especially since poetry and love and dinner and shimmying gain meaning in the particular. This does not prevent us from claiming we love poetry when what we mean is that we love either certain poems, which do not altogether constitute poetry, or we love the idea of poetry, which perforce excludes actual poems.

And yet I always find myself looking for books of poetry that solve in the particular a problem that presents itself as a negative generalization. I should not care that many persons dislike poetry without ever having met many poems, but I do, and because I hoard prejudicial criticisms of the thing itself I seek always those poems that neutralize those criticisms, that cause them to disappear or collapse, or transform complaint into delight. This is boneheaded. It is a disservice to the righteous distaste of the many and an unfair burden to place on the poems of the few. I prefer to read so that each book makes a case for itself, but I cannot help but read books as if they make cases they oughtn’t be asked to make.

And so I keep visiting Jackie Clark’s Aphoria, and trying to determine how much of my admiration for it derives from the poems themselves and how much comes from what extraordinarily masterful evidence it marshals on behalf of confusion. Confusion is useful: you cannot exit the condition without occupying it, and the fact that you can be confused about whether or not you are confused is, itself, edifying. It is this latter function that tempts paradox and taunts it, that accounts for how I can read a poem and characterize it as not-thinking even as I admit that the poem certainly thinks it is thinking. Before this degrades into observations better served by set theory, let me just generalize and say that thought is difficult to capture (even the idea that thoughts are discrete enough to allow that metaphor) and that the impression of having attempted to capture thought is difficult to avoid. And maybe this is why I find myself begging poems to stop thinking as frequently as I beg them to please think. Once I engage the possibility, I cannot be satisfied; I cannot but engage the possibility and thus cannot be satisfied.

Reading Clark’s Aphoria immediately activates this pattern. Aphoria itself is a word that solicits and disables its understanding. It has a meaning, but it isn’t the meaning you are likely thinking of, unless of course it does mean what it sounds like it means, which it does or does not, depending on what you think it sounds like, depending on whether you are drawn to aphorism, or euphoria, or aporia, or something else altogether. I’ll leave the details of deliberation to you, but rest assured that here we have a word that gets to the problem of words themselves in a fantastically expeditious manner, as befits one of the meanings it should (but doesn’t) have. And this the word happily anticipates the poems in the book thereby named, which solves the problem of over- and under-thinking in smart and delicate and suggestively rich ways.

Clark divides her Aphoria into three sections: “We Gather At Night,” “The City Salutes Itself,” and “I Live Here Now,” which reverse the process of granting concessions to the reader: the poems become easier to read as the book advances, but that ease is complicated by the uncertainty Clark initially sets. Most obviously, Clark assigns punctuation and enjambment a set of substantial burdens at the start. For example, here is the whole of one of the poems in the first section (Clark dispenses with titles in lieu of closed parentheses):

The coyote&#8212

lemon horizon


I limit

the tea-trade

and disperse


throwing them

by the handful

at everything

I remember

but I don’t

remember much

This takes great advantage of the inevitable fact that every act of lineation or enjambment creates (at the very least) a binary: stop/go, backwards/forwards. In this case, however, it’s like handing someone a handful of hinges and a stack of planks and having them give you a labyrinth in return. The combination of coyote and lemon invites an absurdity which then becomes a recognizable if uncommon descriptor, but the actor implied by that first “I” lends itself unequally to “limit” and “disperse” if we don’t attach “expectations” to “disperse”. “I” can disperse itself; it can also disperse expectations. But if we go with that, then “them” refers to expectations and “at everything” becomes directive and general, unless limited to the qualifier of “I remember” but that, too, is uncertain. Is the speaker throwing expectations at everything? At everything she remembers? Or is she noting that she remembers in general? If so, is she fully contradicting that claim when she says “but I don’t” or is she mitigating it by appending “remember much”?

Speaking of binaries, there are two ways to resolve this problem. The first is to make the problem disappear by insisting it is no problem at all, and the second is to simply read the poem out loud. The latter approach doesn’t solve the ambiguity altogether, but it does resolve it into something approximating the propagation of syntax: the poem comes to sound like thought, even as it forces to confess that thought doesn’t sound like anything in particular.

Clark makes this magic happen again and again in “We Gather At Night” and often concedes to the reader’s default interpretation of enjambment only with the cue of capitalization (“X marks the spot / is a cautionary tale / as with the arrow / that imposes / precision The sun / goes in / and there is relief / What else is the sky / but blue / and yet I love”. This is why it comes as a surprise when we reach “The City Salutes Itself” and encounter full capitulation to lineation, indentation, enjambment and punctuation as discursive markers that speed, rather than slow, certain types of reading. A sample:

We refer metaphorically to the house being on fire, to the obvious

connection between the fire and leaving the house. The metaphor is

easily applicable.

Stocks fall

victim to this thinking, as do those with a strong sense of moral purpose.

What is different about this? The tone differs, but mainly because we accelerate through the syntax with greater confidence than we would have previously. This suggests something interesting about the relationship between authority and aphorism itself, which is that an assertion with clearly unidirectional progressions approximate a quality of thought that seems more determinative than speculative. It’s as if we mark an aphorism by the degree to which it provokes thought, not the degree to which it evinces the process of thinking. But since Clark has already accustomed her reader to a greater measure of uncertainty, the pleasures of this aphoristic authority create unease, a different sort of pleasure. This makes sense, we think, but are forced to wonder if it simply sounds like it makes sense, which is very much like drawing a distinction between essence and appearance by claiming something isn’t red, it just looks that way.

Clark revisits features of poems from “We Gather At Night” to recycle the very confusion she has induced. She writes

Upon introduction

of the knife, the knife

must be used

shortly after.


will again be fortified.

The turning axis reaches the window in bird song.

I am reporting anything

I can remember.

I think this is a fascinating example of what happens by virtue of locating this poem subsequent to a section of poems that necessitate focus on the ambivalent syntax. Given that uncertainty, I should respond to the relative confidence of this with greater suspicion, but I don’t; I feel greater confidence because the authority has demonstrated the mechanism of its own illusion and gained thereby the very thing it undermines. Do not trust me; everything I say is a lie.

From here, Clark strategically overcommits in “I Live Here Now” to the markers of which she previously makes sporadic use. Free of indentation, every line (save the ultimate) in every poem in the section concludes with a comma; each poems becomes a sort of checklist.

Liberty ports adjusting to siphoned rivers,

counting the moments like counting the moments,

everybody has them,

light-headed Monday,

at least goodbye is complete,

at least the personal has been extracted,

has no reason to ever return,

my head interrupts,

sends vertigo behind my eyes,

what is there to revere about porcelain,

I’m not sure what awaits,

perhaps this is an admonishment of the foundry,

exchanging windows for windows,

a higher ceiling,

varying degrees of vault,

I rally to daydream,

it is not a crime to stay until the end,

only a preference,

my brief terminology,

rounding the docks,

the sound of metal bobbing in water,

I will arrive when I arrive,

who knows what it will be like,

how fast the day will pass,

who I will sing face to

Again, what does this enable Clark to do, relative to what she has done before? If the first section floats, the second proceeds at a stately pace, and the third races and almost but never quite tripping over itself. Were this order reversed, Clark would leave us with the impression of something both ethereal and highly distilled, which would, I think, inevitably privilege the accompanying language. The impression would be that of someone who began with scatter, organized that scatter into regimented thought, and then upgraded that thought into “special” thought: aphoristic thought. Mud, mortal, angel. I am hugely pleased that she has resisted that order, especially since she seems concerned not just with how to capture thought but whether that is a practicable effort at all. Her sequencing allows her to resist both didacticism and diffusion, and find a balance that isn’t simply a weak solution of the strengths of each. Aphoria is gorgeously complex without being complicated, and even though she shouldn’t be valued in such reductive terms, Clark proves that the properties that inspire such dislike of poetry&#8212that it either must tell you what it means or else mean anything at all&#8212are neither vices to be deplored or values to be assumed. “All doors do / something different,” she writes: their structural ambivalence is a set trait with endless expressions, and yes, proven here with the fastidious joinery of a door hung perfectly on its frame.

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