Continuing with the theme of “books I bought while traveling but hadn’t read yet”: when I opened my copy of Dime-Store Alchemy, I found the receipt and was reminded that I bought this at Dog Eared Books in San Francisco in December 2012. Nearly eight years after having bought it, I can say that I have now read it and am happy with my purchase. This slim volume consists of short pieces/prose poems about Joseph Cornell and his art and the larger context of his work. Some pieces of Simic’s writing are about specific pieces by Cornell, and the book contains color photos of those works, some of which I’ve seen in person and others of which I haven’t. Images and themes recur: dreams and daydreams and memories; labyrinths in general and New York City as a labyrinth in particular; secrets; chance juxtapositions, especially the chance juxtapositions of the city. “The commonplace is miraculous if rightly seen, if recognized,” Simic writes (19), and the book proceeds by that logic. There are so many good images: “A white pigeon pecking on the marble steps of the library watched over by two stone lions” (5); “the chalk lines of hopscotch in the late afternoon sunlight and shadow” (36); “A phantom palace in a forest of bare trees, hoar frost and night” (54). (That last phrase is about one of Cornell’s boxes – “Untitled (Pink Palace)”.)

Simic writes about Cornell’s art and practice as being “divination by contemplation of surfaces” (26): it’s about finding “objects that belong together”; about walking (through the city) and looking to find those objects (14). I love this:

Early Sunday morning in June. It had rained after midnight, and the air and sky have miraculously cleared. The avenues are empty and the stores closed. A glimpse of things before anyone has seen them. (22)

And this, from a piece that also talks about “The Man of the Crowd” by Poe and the allure of people-watching, the mysteries of strangers:

I myself remember a tall man of uncommon handsomeness who walked on Madison Avenue with eyes tightly closed as if he were listening to music. He bumped into people, but since he was well dressed, they didn’t seem to mind. (10)

And this, which Simic quotes from a journal entry of Cornell’s from January 24, 1947, about the view from the train to Penn Station from Queens:

Just before going under tunnel looked up at freight cars—the word Jane scrawled on a box-car in large letters, red with a touch of pink, then touches of primary colors mingling with a scene of men working on the tracks with a long crane mounted on a car. (8)

In that same journal entry, Cornell talks about taking the bus to 11th Avenue and 42nd Street: here is that intersection in 1940:, eighty years ago, seven years before that journal entry of Cornell’s. I walked through that intersection just this morning; in 1947 Cornell wrote about a cafeteria there, coffee and apple pie. He walked up 11th Avenue that day, like I did this morning; later today, I’ll walk to MoMA and pay a visit to Taglioni’s Jewel Casket and Untitled (Bébé Marie).

The poems/prose pieces in SoundMachine are largely concerned with writing and parenting, and as a result I think I liked this book a bit less than I liked the other book of Zucker’s that I’ve read (The Pedestrians). But there’s still a lot of interesting stuff in SoundMachine, even if I find it less personally relatable. Writing and parenting, as Zucker talks about them, share a concern with/anxiety about attention: paying attention or not, what things we pay attention to or don’t, how we pay attention or don’t, speaking vs. listening, communicating or failing to communicate. I like how other books find their way into this book: Zucker talks about reading Laura Ingalls Wilder aloud to her kids, and about reading Tommy Pico to herself; she talks about To Kill a Mockingbird and the work of other poets. And there are pleasing phrases throughout: “The cars on Amsterdam Avenue are long waves of sound” (3). “What I like is the long, underwater glide as I push off from the wall” (34), “I watch the ride go on & on knowing it will stop” (48). “There’s a now to write into, a continuous present that the act of writing stretches across a canvas so to speak” (252). I mostly like the longer pieces best: the first piece, “Song of the Dark Room”, about a child who can’t sleep, is one of my favorites, as is the last piece, “Residency.” I find the diaristic nature of these and pieces like “Seven Beds Six Cities Eight Weeks” satisfying; I like how they incorporate so many everyday moments alongside the larger themes.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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,

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
and whales.

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,

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).

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”:

there is
the newly emergent
like a crush
a perfect piece
of air
how we dive into vessels
with our hands