February 4th, 2016
I didn’t necessarily expect to really really like an epic poem/novel in free verse about rival werewolf gangs/packs in Los Angeles, but I really really liked Sharp Teeth. It starts with a nod to a Homeric invocation of the muse, but modern, and slips in at least one nod to “rosy-fingered dawn” that I caught, but mostly the style is its own, and it works. The book starts with Anthony, a guy who’s looking for a job and finds one as a dogcatcher at the city pound. (You can read the beginning of the book on the NPR website.) Then we switch to Lark and his pack, Lark and a bunch of guys and a woman, and then Lark sends the woman (whose name we never learn: I read in a comment on a Goodreads review that Barlow meant this to feel mythic; I found it mildly annoying) to meet the new dogcatcher. She’s not sure why: she just knows Lark has plans.
Meanwhile, odd things are happening at the pound, and also meanwhile, Lark is trying to figure out what’s going on with two other packs in the area, and also meanwhile, two guys from Lark’s pack are sent off to Pasadena to play bridge (which is somehow also part of Lark’s plan). Things happen. Lark finds himself in a potentially dangerous situation; Lark decides on an interesting way to wait it out. (I like Lark a lot.) We see those two other packs, and so, eventually, do Lark and the woman (who, by the way, has started dating Anthony: a dogcatcher and a werewolf, yes). There’s also a police officer named Peabody who starts out looking into what’s going on at the pound, and ends up looking into rather a lot more, and part of what he’s looking into is tied up with the story of one of the other packs. There’s vengeance and betrayal and desperation and violence and loyalty and love and a little bit of humor, and it shouldn’t necessarily work, but somehow, it totally does.
December 27th, 2014
I picked this book up at the library several months after reading Dan Chiasson’s piece in the New Yorker about Zucker’s work. I think it was Chiasson’s characterization of Zucker as a city poet that made me want to read her: he compares her to Frank O’Hara, and says this: “A city poet is a conduit for things said, actions observed, behaviors noted. Gossip, for a city poet, is really a form of passivity, part of a larger open-border policy toward whatever comes her way.” That open-ness is evident in poems like “please alice notley tell me how to be old,” which includes these great lines:
I think the rookie cops are graduating today
Times Square is a sea of blues there’s a secret
staircase at the end of the shuttle platform that
takes me right to my therapist’s office but you
don’t live here anymore anyway Alice I haven’t
got much time or maybe I have no one knows (96)
I like how writerly and everyday that poem is, the way it mixes city-moments with musings on gender/work/motherhood, what kinds of poems women write, or don’t. I also love “pedestrian,” another long-ish poem with a stream-of-consciousness style that’s full of great New York things, shopping and meandering and people-watching on the subway, like:
the woman next to me is reading an FSG book
can’t see the title the man on her left snores
& leans into her please someone remind me what’s
the point of literature? 72nd St & Cathy Wagner’s
book My New Job includes the word PENIS frequently (107)
In prose pieces, like those that make up the first section of the book, or like some of the dream-poems in the book’s second section, Zucker reminds me of Lydia Davis: a similar matter-of-fact tone, a similar sly humor, like in this passage from “mountains”:
In the town she bought two avocados, red grapes, two kinds of soup, kale cakes, two teriyaki chicken thighs, a chocolate bar with almonds and sea salt, a whole kabocha squash, wasabi rice chips, peanut butter, and a loaf of bread. At a different store she bought another soup. Soup seemed important. She bought a small salt grinder filled with pink salt. She bought a d’Anjou pear. If anyone asked her if she wanted bread with that she said yes. She said she did not need any plastic spoons. (53)
This book turned out to be the perfect length to read on a flight from Atlanta to New York, and its combination of intelligence and approachability made it a lovely in-flight companion: I definitely want to read more of Zucker’s work.
October 13th, 2014
I have a hard time with John Ashbery’s poems, but I keep trying anyway. I think the problem is that I like to read poems that are more recognizably set in this world; I like poems that are “about” everyday life but told in a way that focuses on luminous detail, or that somehow makes things sing—I’m thinking of poets like David Lehman and Mark Doty, who are stylistically different but who both, I think, do this. Ashbery’s poems are doing something else, and I’m not sure what. His tone is often conversational, and he’s got a great ear for speech patterns, for everyday language; he sometimes uses bits of other texts (from a line from Gammer Gurton’s Needle to a phrase from “Mary Had a Little Lamb”). But poems that start by feeling straightforward end up going elsewhere. Look at the first poem in this book, “Words to That Effect”: that great “slow then fast,/then slow again,” and the image at the end of the first stanza, and how at the end, in the third stanza, things veer weirder.
There are some striking passages in this book, things like this, from the title poem:
the landscaped sucked in its breath,
taking its time as always.
And there’s humor, like this, in “Recent History”:
They were early, as usual. Can’t you guys ever
be late, we wondered, though one wouldn’t
necessarily want that either. […]
My favorite poems in this book are probably “How I Met You” and the prose poem “Homeless Heart”. I smiled at the wordplay elsewhere in the book, “census” and “sensory” in one poem, and “cavity” and “caveats” and “tocsins” and “toxins” in the poem called “Far Harbor,” which ends with this:
[…] The broad petals of language
are stiff and may get very bad.
They make it very bad
in our language tutoring.
but I often felt like, in any given poem, I couldn’t quite find my way in. “Everything remains invigoratingly at sea,” writes Charles Bainbridge, in this review in the Guardian, but I’m not sure I found it invigorating.
June 17th, 2014
This book takes its title from a phrase from Henry James, which features as the book’s epigraph: James wrote, in The Sacred Fount, about “the liaison that betrays itself by the transfer of qualities” from one person to another. Ronk writes about this idea more broadly, applying it to things as well as people: what marks do we leave on objects, and how do the objects we live with/use/love mark us?
I like the sense of life in this book, the sense of dailiness, of experience, as in the first phrases of the first piece, “The Cup”: “The cup on the shelf above eyelevel, the reach to get it for the first glass of water, the running of water now clear after the silty water of yesterday” (13). Other pieces, like “A Paper Crown,” use the object as image/metaphor: that piece starts like this: “You realize some piece of you has to be pierced in order for the almost unbearable desire to be slotted into place” (19). Other pieces meditate on images: “Branches” describes part of this photo; Man Ray’s “rayographs” and paintings by Manet and Sargent are mentioned. Other texts are quoted, too: there’s more James, and Maurice Blanchot, and Georges Perec, among others. There are sections about the relations between image and object (particularly in photograms: traces of objects, shadow-objects); there are bits about the book as object, and the book as experience. There’s an expression of a sense that we are drawn to objects, or they to us, with a kind of fate: in one piece, the narrator asks, of a plate: “how did it come to be there by chance just when I also was there? How did it survive all the careless sinks and hands, earthquakes and upheavals?” (42).
And then this ties into other kinds of survival: what survives of relationships when they end or change; how we deal with death/loss/grief. There’s also a lot in this book about the body: in a piece called “Talking to Things,” there’s this, which I love:
In some ways objects “speak” directly to the body and alter a route through the room creating slight vectors of pressure. The drawing I’d make of it shows thin ink lines from each object in the room to each other object, door, person, rug, crayon, phone, paper bag, plant—until the page is crisscrossed with lines. (48)
Possibly my favorite piece in the book is the last one, a short essay called “Posada,” which is about doing kung fu for seventeen years, and about what having a physical practice is like, and also about grief/fear.
April 27th, 2014
The 44 poems in this volume are a mixture of city-poems and myth-poems; characters and allusions (Orpheus and Eurydice, Dante) recur, along with images (two different poems include the image of “a tree half aflame” inside the speaker). Phillips’s language is one of gorgeous rhythms, whether the syntax is straightforward or more complicated: “Tonight I touched the tattooed skin of the building I was born in,” the speaker of “Tonight,” the opening poem, says. In “Tabula Rasa,” a poem that’s all questions, addressed to the Poem itself, the speaker asks: “Are you what’s gold in the mind’s gray-green/Weather?” I love stanzas like this, from “Hell Gate, East River, New York” (and love this opening image, too, Manhattan as body):
Over the shorter shoulder of Manhattan,
Under gilded malts and molten-gold clouds, birds,
Lowering, seen as they were, lit by first light
Some poems are, explicitly or allusively, about 9/11; my favorite of these is “Embrace the Night and Get Thee Gone,” wih is forward-then-backward structure and beautiful phrases. Phillips is great with similes, like this, from “Music for When the Music Is Over”: “We live like the one sequin/In a sequined dress that thinks it’s the dress/Although it merely blurs from other lights/Ablaze and bending.” Or this, from “Aubade, Vol. 2: The Underground Sessions”:
As when a drinking collared deer
Hears a noise and
Although safe by being Caesar’s
Feels a strange freedom there in that second,
Some sense in the gut, a thunder of ribs,
A surge in the blood, some cinched memory
Of not being Caesar’s,
March 25th, 2014
I like the humor and matter-of-fact tone of a lot of the sixty-five poems in this book, like the great simile below, which comes from “How we came to live where we live”:
as when you stand before a painting
in a museum for as long as you hope
says something good about you, even
when you’re not sure what that good thing is,
that you’re considerate of red or appreciate
the historical significance of the brocade
or know that the woman in the foreground
holding the scythe was the painter’s lover
Many of these poems are elegies, or include death in various forms, but never in ways that feel heavy-handed, and often in ways that are surprisingly lovely: in “Excerpts from mourning,” the speaker talks about
Carrying ash of you to the Atlantic
(Kittery), bonebits to the Pacific (Point Lobos), giving you
to seals and otters and pollution, to waves and forgetting
Other highlights for me were Pilgrimage (that last stanza especially), Desire, and Equine Aubade. I was less fond of the poems where sound and rhyme are more prominent, like “Owe is to ode as whatever is to I don’t know,” with rhymes like “I owe the crow, I know” and “When I’m dead, I want my head/to be ashtray/in a bus station, tagged/at will by slugs and mugs,” but when Hicok is writing more prosily, while still playing with poetic form, he’s great, like in this bit from “The days are getting longer”:
[…] it’s hard
to help the dead be dead
before they are. Mourning
doves, cardinals, chickadees
strip the cupboard bare
in a matter of hours,
January 23rd, 2014
I. I’ve never seen any of Chris Marker’s films, but this book made me want to. (You can watch La Jetée online, or it’s available on DVD, along with Marker’s 1982 film, Sans Soleil.) (I’ve never read Moby-Dick, either, and this book made me want to do that as well.)
II. Howe’s book is mostly in prose: nineteen numbered sections ranging in length from a paragraph to twenty-two pages, with images from films interspersed with the text: an airplane seen from below, a woman with an inscrutable expression, a scene of dismay, a fuzzy image of, what, a shadow on water? Soldiers cross a frozen lake; a balloon hovers/wavers. Another blur; three blonde children walking; that woman, again. There is one other image: the return address on an envelope, postmarked January 1943 from Roswell, New Mexico: a letter from Howe’s then-future husband, now deceased.
III. Don’t worry: this isn’t going to be nineteen sections long.
IV. What’s interesting and challenging about this book is the way Howe brings together so many different strands. She’s writing about the films of Chris Marker, sometimes in detail, scene by scene, but also writes that she “was drawn to the project because of the fact of [her] husband’s death and [her] wish to find a way to document his life and work” (5). Other filmmakers make an appearance: Dziga Vertov, Andrei Tarkovsky. Howe writes about Ivan’s Childhood and also about the movie-going experiences of her own childhood, and also about her husband’s life as a pilot in wartime, and also about the death of Lenin and Three Songs about Lenin, and also about American literature she knows well: Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, the idea of montage in their work.
V. The word “fact” keeps recurring. “Without words, what are facts?” (7). The idea of “the primacy of the “factual”” in Vertov’s work (9). Poets and nonfiction filmakers as working by “factual telepathy” (7). The world is “flooded with facts” (13).
VI. There’s something so satisfying about the kind of close-reading that Howe is doing of Marker’s films. Like this:
La Jetée, composed almost entirely of photo stills, begins abruptly with a violent out-of-field-movement-sound-image, the roar of revving and hovering jet engines. Sometimes I think I hear sirens, until the whine or scream of aviation doubles and dissolves into cathedral music: voices in a choir sing passages from the Russian Liturgy of the Good Saturday. In northern Russia, Iceland, and other northern places, the sun never goes out of sight in summer. La Jetée’s aborted soundtrack takeoff evokes technicist and eschatological worldviews.
Immediately time could be going either way. (13-14)
VII. There is in this book a sense of “oscillating between presence and absence” (10). Howe writes about her husband; Howe writes to her husband. Howe writes about her husband’s image in photographs, in a home-movie; she writes about his studio, now gone: she “can only perceive its imprint or trace” (25). Her husband’s daughter, from an earlier marriage, “remembers listening to the noise of waves breaking over pebbles in the cove at night, how tides pulled them under, how they swirled and regrouped in the drift and came back” (25). “A documentary work is an attempt to recapture someone something somewhere looking back” (50).
December 25th, 2013
I picked this book up at the library based mostly on the cover art (a collage by the author) and the back cover blurbs, which talk about how these poems are, in the words of Joshua Marie Wilkinson, “trafficking in the near-spoken, the peculiar particulars, and in the unseen textures of lived experience.” The twenty-three poems in the book are mostly short, generally a page or two long, though there are three longer works as well. The edition I read doesn’t have an author statement, but this blog post by rob mcclennan quotes from one in which Leslie talks about how the book uses collage as a technique, about how collage may “convey instability and collapse” but can also be “a kind of visionary or metamorphic medium.”
Mostly what I liked in this book were fragments, bits that cohered, rather than whole poems (though the poem called “I Meant to Write You a Letter” is an exception: it’s eight lines long and totally satisfying). I love the tightness of the language in the first numbered section of one of the longer poems, “Margaret Fuller,” which you can read in rob mclennan’s aforementioned post. I like this, from “The Age of Parts”:
One can take details from a still life
and render their motions
the hip of the glass
the body of the paint
“My desire is to argue/on behalf of the world,” says one pair of lines in “That Obscure Coincidence of Feeling,” and I like the bits of other poems that feel most like that, like bits of the world caught in words in ways that somehow resonate. I love the first three lines of “Something about Bundles”:
This is what you do
with a list
let the air in
And this, from “Poem with Moveable Parts”:
the newly emergent
like a crush
a perfect piece
how we dive into vessels
with our hands
July 23rd, 2013
I was going to say that “so what?” is the question of this book—it appears twice in “Blizzard” and again in “Your Body Down in Gold”, and I do think there’s something to that. Phillips, in these poems, is concerned with what matters and what doesn’t, with the vagaries of love and desire, with the things people say and the things people mean, and with the everyday world, the natural world as well as the human, the world of starlings and cottonwood trees and crepe myrtles. The poems themselves are an answer to “so what?”: so here we are, so here we are in this world, so let’s pay attention.
But actually, these poems are full of questions, not just that one: in 35 poems I counted 29 questions, and that’s not even counting the ones not phrased with question marks, like this, from “Shimmer”: “When did souvenirs of what happened start/becoming tokens of what/could have been becomes/one of those questions that, more and more, I keep/forgetting to stop asking.” Some of the questions are succinct: “Has it come to this again/already?” or “I love you/means what, exactly?” or “why do we love, at all?”, while others meander and sprawl, like this stanza-and-a-bit from “Distraction”:
You know how, when the light flashes off water, then passes through it, then rubs against, it can seem just like the mind in a fix thinking its way out of a fix, or at least trying to, the way Virgil in his big poem describes it, and for a moment you think everything's new that's been known forever—swamp-thistle, bull-thistle, touch-me-not, red clover?
I like how many questions there are, and I like the uncertainty or ambivalence that Phillips captures in other ways, too: there are multiple poems in which something is or isn’t, or happens or doesn’t, or is and isn’t. In his review of Silverchest in the April 15, 2013 issue of the New Yorker, Dan Chiasson writes of these poems as Phillips’s way of “tracking the heart’s false starts, close shaves, and dead ends,” and I think that a major way Phillips does that is through the language: the questions and ambivalence and ambiguity that I like so much.
If you’re curious to read more, several of the poems are available online in one form or another. You can watch/listen to Phillips reading the book’s first poem, “Just the Wind for a Sound, Softly,” here: I really like the mix of concrete and oblique, and the sense of time passing: a season, many seasons. I like “Bluegrass” for the crispness of the image of the second stanza and the conversational tone of the first. And I already linked to “Blizzard” but here it is again: I love the lines about the starlings and their shadows on a frozen pond, and also the last ten lines, which are a translation of/variation on a poem attributed to the Roman emperor Hadrian.
Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 by W.G. Sebald
Translated by Iain Galbraith
Random House, 2011 (Originally Hamish Hamilton, 2011)
August 18th, 2012
In his Translator’s Introduction to Across the Land and the Water, Iain Galbraith lists some of Sebald’s concerns (in both his poetry and prose) as follows: “borders, journeys, archives, landscapes, reading, time, memory, myth, legend, and the “median state” (Edward Said) of the exile, who is neither fully integrated into the new system nor fully free of the old” (ix). Journeys and landscapes, in particular, are present throughout the book, starting with the very first poem, which is as follows:
For how hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish. (3)
Galbraith talks about the muteness of the landscape in his introduction; Ruth Franklin also quotes this poem in her review of the book in The New Republic. It’s a striking image, the twist of the landscape watching you, not just you watching it, and the landscape and its silences and the secrets it holds are another thing that Galbraith and Franklin both discuss in depth: Sebald’s work has a lot to do with the troubled history of the twentieth century in Europe, particularly with the horrors of the Holocaust, though not necessarily in a straightforward way: his poems move through the land where horrors took place, and that history is an undercurrent, not a focus.
But the poems I liked best in this volume aren’t the obscurely allusive ones, but rather the more apparently allusive ones: the ones that are lists, that are “found poems” (as Galbraith puts it), and also the images in some of the poems about cities and journeys. I like “Nymphenburg”, about a palace-turned-museum, and I love “Baroque Psalter,” below, which Galbraith notes is “taken almost verbatim from a review by Heinz Ludwig Arnold […] of the Baroque poet Quirinus Kuhlmann’s […] so-called Kühlpsalter of 1684″:
Geneva Smyrna and
he was burned at the stake
in Moscow (50)
I like poems drawn from life and from texts, poems collaged together from bits and pieces from newspapers and historical snippets and things seen or overheard. “Donderdag,” which quotes from a Dutch newspaper report about some murders in the city of Venlo and has the speaker reading about the murders while on a plane, is one example of this kind of style; there’s also a really pleasing poem that draws from events near the end of Chekhov’s life, and a great list poem that features the titles of books “assembled/by chance/in the display/of a junk shop/near a railway/underpass” (101). “My ICE Rail-Planner” is another collage-poem, which quotes bits of various advertisements, with a humorous tone, juxtaposed with lovely landscape-images: it starts like this, and continues similarly:
Herrenhausen is offering
a cruise to Denmark two
visits to the seawater wave-
bath thrown in someone
will be waiting at the station
& will say how nice
to meet you & how
about a Fitness-Week
in Eckernförde. Outside
the light is thinning the
ribbon of a road glistening
in the drizzle […] (123)
Other highlights of this book, for me, were “Day Return” and “New Jersey Journey”, both of which feature really great city-scapes, wonderful observed or invented detail of things/places/signs seen from a train or a car.