Cathy Park Hong’s third collection of poems, Engine Empire, is remarkable in its scope—of historicity, sound, and its view of human potentiality. Written in three sections of separate but related poems, the book moves through the California immortalized by old Westerns; a fictional Chinese city placed in present-day; and finally ends in the “far future.” The “fiction-ing” of Engine Empire along with its movement through time—the Western cowboy past of the first section, the technological modernity of a fake city in the second, and the watery, sci-fi distancing of the last section—places the collection in our consciousness as legend and warning, as history and possibility.
The second section, entitled “Shangdu, My Artful Boomtown!” presents the fictional city in China that we are told is loosely based on modern-day Shenzhen, a place undergoing extreme, almost violently fast change. The particular appeal of the second section is in the language’s texture. This is felt most intensely in a set of prose descriptions under the title “Adventures in Shangdu.” The ten pages, mostly packed with two descriptions on a page, act as glimpses into life in Shangdu. The readers’ senses are flooded with imagery: “Vendors line the promenade … they sell pinwheels, pancakes and roast meats of all kinds, even sticks of prickly little seahorses.” The prose poems rotate around living in a “Lucky Highrise Apartment 88.” 88 is a particularly fortuitous number in Chinese; in Mandarin, the character for ‘8’ bears sound echoes of the characters that imply wealth. The poems are buoyant in tone, but what they reveal inside are suicides and death, intense surveillance of citizens in the community, the often un-humanizing social tensions caused by too-rapid industrialization and the reach of cultural imperialism:
Officials used to dump all the cripples from the Capital into Shangdu. Now that Shangdu is booming, they have rounded all the cripples and exiled them to a remote outpost up north. That outpost is also beginning to boom.
(from ”Of the Old Ukrainian Embassy That Will Be Torn Down for the Hanger Factory”)
Hong’s form of using the prose poem as flash fiction and/or film vignette is not particularly revolutionary, but it is highly effective for this section in particular, where the disconnect between humanness and humanity is most highlighted. Men are presented as interchangeable with machines, and machines are elevated to the level of man:
When Officials ignored their strike, the crane operators decided to be more aggressive. They worked all night. The next morning, train carriages, buses, limousines, bicycles, boats, and even helicopters swung lazily in the wind, magnetized by cranes. Negotiate, they cried, and we will free your vehicles.” (from ”Of the World’s Largest Multilevel Parking Garage”)
In the third section, a collection of second-person poems brings characters that peer at us eerily from the future, and though the collection is set up chronologically, moving from past to present to future, nothing is ever truly left behind. The last section sees Hong turn personalities from the first two into specters:
Lately, you’ve been fascinated by a user-generated hologram:
an ethnically ambiguous boy who pretends to drop dead from a shoot-out.
The boy wakes up when his mother comes home.
She scolds him and turns off the camera.
You blink to go offline.
Then in a later poem:
You wake up from a nap.
Your mouth feels like a cheap acrylic sweater.
You blink online and 3-D images hopscotch around you. … After your husband went on roam, you received one message from him:
I am by a pond and a coyote is eating a frog. It is amazing.
What is amazing is not the strange synesthesia of a “mouth feel[ing] like a cheap acrylic sweater” or that human beings “blink online” and go “on roam,” but that there are, in this un-real reality, still ponds, and coyotes, and frogs. What do we do with a world that is both beyond human but still operating within the simplest law of nature: survival?
Hong’s skill with wordplay and sound is admirably virtuosic; the first section’s “Ballad in A,” “Ballad in O,” and “Ballad in I” are obvious poems in which Hong’s words dance off each other with such ease it’s almost tempting to skim through them: “O Boomtown’s got lots of sordor:/ odd horrors of throwdowns,/ bold cowboys lock horns, forlorn hobos plot to rob/ pts of gold, loco mobs …” or “Marshal’s a marksman, maps Kansan’s track/ calm as a shaman, sharp as a hawk,/ says that dastard Kansan’s had/ and gnaws fatback.” But not surprisingly, taking the time to work through the poem yields what makes much of Engine Empire appealing – the discord that lies just beneath. Reading these ballads aloud prove more difficult than tongue twister; there is something discomfiting about the way the vowels knock against each other, the way one possible sound of the vowels scrape against other possible sounds of the vowels, like each word is locking horns with the next and refusing to let go. The poems transform: the eye expects the vowel repetition to sound as pleasing as it looks, and once this is disputed by the ear (and the tongue in vocalizing the words), the jarring competition between tones, sounds, words on the page, becomes almost unbearable.
But the unbearable is effective; there is something post-human about Hong’s Engine Empire, in the descriptions of surveillance and performance, and the way the subjectivity of Hong’s poems throughout the collection refuses to be pinned down. She works "we" into "I" into "you" and back out again: “I suffer a different kind of loneliness” or “We lost a brother, axed in the head by a rancid trapper,/ so we pluck one boy from the litter.” And as Hong reminds us in “Fort Ballads” of the first section, with subjectivity, there is relationality;
“All around us forts lie built and unbuilt, half-
walled towns as men yoke themselves to state,
but we brothers are heading through fields of blue rye and plains
scullground to silt sand” (“Fort Ballads,” 19)
What of the motion from “built” to “unbuilt” to “built,” and what of the yoking when the yoking will cause us to become undone? This is the United States, and it’s the Twenty-First Century. What is engine and what is empire, and which one is at the heart of the other? Engine Empire is concerned about our collective humanity, our possession of citizen-ness and nationhood. Ownership and responsibility of actions elide; they are cast aside, ignored, and eventually, by the last section, somehow acknowledged and relegated to a minor shadow status—an uncomfortable memory no one wants to talk about, and so by not talking about it, did it happen at all? Engine Empire may simultaneously deconstruct and reconstruct empire as activity as well as structure, bringing us to question what happens to our human-ness as it leads us toward the boundaries of humanity. ~AVW
Contemporary poets have long undertaken the practice of adopting roles—Frank Bidart channeling Nijinsky or the child-murderer and necrophiliac Herbert White; Anne Carson’s red-winged Geryon of her verse-novel The Autobiography of Red
; Monica Youn’s Ignatz
, after George Herriman’s comic-strip villainous mouse—because, as Bidart writes “we are creatures who need to make.” In Bidart’s poem “Advice to Players” he says that “making is the mirror in which we see ourselves.” This making that Bidart writes about is an artist’s ability (or need
, even) to construct and manufacture frameworks or roles through which to view themselves, and consequently, the world around them. Brenda Shaughnessy, in her unsettlingly beautiful book, Our Andromeda
, goes further to create a type of parallel universe, Andromeda, “this other us,” a galaxy that “bears children/who become us, year after ancient//ridiculous year.”
Shaughnessy was born in Okinawa, Japan and grew up in Southern California. Our Andromeda
is her third collection; her debut collection Interior with Sudden Joy
, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1999 and her second book Human Dark with Sugar
(Copper Canyon Press, 2008) won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. Her first two books, paeans to romantic love and the sweltering syntax that surrounds it, braided her multi-dextrous abilities as a brash, improvisatory lyricist and an amazingly inventive vocabulist. In the opening poem, “I’m Over the Moon” from Human Dark with Sugar
Better off alone. I’m going to write hard
and fast into you, moon, face-fucking.
Something you wouldn’t understand.
You with no swampy sexual
promise but what we glue onto you.
That’s not real. You have no begging
cunt. No panties ripped off and the crotch
sucked. No lacerating spasms
sending electrical sparks through the toes.
Stars have those.
Her startling rhythms and sassy vernacular presaged contemporary gurlesque
poets such as Ariana Reines and Chelsea Minnis, yet in Human Dark
, as in Our Andromeda
, Shaughnessy remains wedded to formalist conventions, writing in tercets and duplets, and often wonderfully off-setting her jumpy syntax with fluid enjambments and internal rhymes. Our Andromeda
, published in September 2012 by Copper Canyon Press, sees Shaughnessy ascertaining new roles—if not grown up, then slouching towards some semblance of adulthood with its gamut of responsibilities (husbands, breast-feeding, birth); the lyrics are sometimes laced with hints of reluctance, yet still packed with her familiar pluck and verve. Writing about her young son and husband in the poem “Liquid Flesh,” she intones,
I was here way, way first.
I have the breasts, godawful, and he
the lungs and we share the despair
For we are a we, aren’t we? We split
a self in such a way that there isn’t
enough for either of us.
The father of the baby is sleepy
and present in his way, in the way
Dan Chiasson, in his New Yorker review of Our Andromeda
, wrote that it is “a book about family life, a hard subject for a poet who seems to thrive on sexual brinkmanship. If you crave the incessant newness of erotic adventure you may find yourself stumped when life starts to become a set of routines.” Chiasson refers to roles or life states which the writer writes through,
but Shaughnessy takes it further in her new book, by virtually placing her self, and consequently the reader, in a counterpart biosphere, the Andromeda of the book’s title.
In Andromeda, her real-life son, Cal, plagued with disabilities since birth, will be able to “read so much more easily there.” “You’ll be able to see the letters better in that atmosphere;” “we will find our kind in Andromeda, we will become our true selves.” Andromeda, in Greek myth, is a daughter punished for her mother Cassiopeia’s hubris. Later she was placed among the constellations in the northern sky, which contains the Andromeda galaxy, christened by her name. And so Shaughnessy plays out this saga—the mother, punished for her arrogance, giving birth to a son “hardly alive, hardly you/horribly slim-chanced.” Therefore, this book is not just
about family life, it circles around the Sisyphean tasks and the poignant rewards of giving birth to and raising an ailing child. Our Andromeda
is not a feel-good collection, but it thrills; it moves through the writer’s joie de vivre
and her sufferings in a type of bittersweet dervish of maternal fatigue and bliss that echoes the raw confessionalism of Sexton and Lowell while retaining a modernism that those two poets only touched upon:
LOVE. Over and over that voice told me
what to think and do and what to use
and finally, it worked.
It cracked me open with the muscle
of a Roman god’s shattering
fist and it was the god of war or the sea
called in for the emergency, on alien
wires by some Andromedan operator.
That is how you were born.
(from the title poem “Our Andromeda”)
And while Shaughnessy’s poetry has been repeatedly compared to another “ferocious mother” poet, Sylvia Plath, the writing in Our Andromeda
attains more of an essayistic flare than Plath ever had. Another important dissimilarity between the two is that even Plath’s most positive poetry toys with death
in a way that Shaughnessy’s never does; even in the abysses of her rage and aggression one reads in Shaughnessy a poet who is supremely wedded to life; even, in her words, with its “whirling and weeping,” its “blacksound water,” its “rush and fall of lonesome no form can contain it.”
If a book of poetry can be classified as “essayistic” it owes its genre-bending aptitude to poets like Bidart and Carson, who are able to weave narrative into long poems or prose poems without really sounding like “narrative poets.” This works in part because they are able to inhabit so convincingly the personas they choose (just as Shaughnessy thoroughly inhabits her Andromeda), and through which they can explore their ongoing inquiries about human experience.
Those historical characters are the “mirror in which we see ourselves” that Bidart writes of, as Shaughnessy’s mirror is the Andromeda of her double world with its confluence of reality and fantasy:
Duplicity after all takes many, not merely two, forms,
and just the very idea
of doubleness, twinniness, or even simple, simpering
regret, or nostalgia, implies
a kind of Andromeda,
a secret world, the hidden draft, the tumor-sibling.
(from “Why Should Only Cheaters and Liars Get Double Lives?”)
Throughout the collection Shaughnessy channels this twin-galaxy, but it is only in the title poem, spanning over twenty pages, that she pushes the poetic form into a type of verse essay, spinning hypothetical planetary possibilities while simultaneously addressing her son Cal and the circumstances surrounding his birth. She rails at “the sleepy midwife who doesn’t know her own weakness;” the close friends who “shit the most toxically on a sad new family struggling;” the parents “so stunned (as if by a stun gun) by their own fear that they receded into an ether;” and Dr. Shtep in the NICU, who upon examining Cal, asked her whether she had taken street drugs. If there is anger in these characterizations, a type of ragged culpability, it only adds to the staggeringly beautiful tonal palette: a work that can move from vengeance to a quasi-romanticism in the span of a tercet.
“We are creatures who need to make,” Bidart writes, and Shaughnessy, like the maker in Bidart’s poem, is both “author of/this statue, and the statue itself. She spins a dazzling web that renews faith in parallel galaxies, as well in our own tenuous place on our world. At the end of the “Our Andromeda” she writes:
…I am so tired
I cannot beat my own heart anymore.
Cal, shall we stay? Oh let’s stay.
We’ve only just arrived here,
rightly, whirling and weeping,
freely, breathing, brightly born.
The “ghoul” (Chicago Review), “phallus-man” (Boston Review), “Laureate of the Louche” (New York Times) “a rampaging steroid-cocktail of a poet,” (Chicago Tribune) are but a few of the epithets given Frederick Seidel, the author of fifteen books of poetry, including Nice Weather, published in September by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. Seidel’s station in contemporary poetry is a curious one; he is known yet unknown; he avoids readings, seminars, signings, educational institutions and any other outpost of literary convention. But there is nothing elusive about his poetry, which chronicles his love affairs, political views and his penchant for fast vehicles with an audacious flair:
I impersonate myself and here I am,
Prick pointing to the moon, teeth sunk into your calf.
I ought to warn the concrete that my passion dooms the dam.
The poem I’m writing looks up at me and starts to laugh.
The poems in “Nice Weather” retain the same cocksure, pointillistic voice that Seidel has developed over the last half century. His lyrics often rhyme and he continues to capitalize the first letter in each line, but this collection feels loose, both formally and tonally. Part of this owes to the subject matter of the seventy-three year old Seidel, who writes not only of beautiful women and motorcycles, but also about the death of friends, poor health and the convolutedness of race and patriotism in a post 9-11 America. In the poem “The Yellow Cab,” Seidel goes as far as to identify with a Muslim terrorist:
Tree-lined side streets make me lonely.
Many-windowed town houses make me sad.
The nicest possible spring day, like today, only
Ignites my inner suicide-bomber jihad.
“The Yellow Cab” is not the only poem where Seidel takes on the persona of a terrorist:
Now it’s time for the plane I’m on to come down
In pieces of women and men.
The anxiety increases in Yemen when
They pat me down in case I have something under my Muslim gown.
Not only does Seidel seem to sympathize somewhat with the terrorist, the title of the poem above is “Baudelaire,” as if juxtaposing historical and cultural notions of an artist/poet on that of a terrorist: the ultimate outsiders.
Much has been said of Seidel’s treatment of the female sex in his poetry. Take the poem “Hair in a Net,” from his 1993 collection, My Tokyo. The poem begins unforgettably with the line, “Every man’s a rapist until he’s done.” While that sentiment seems to be the gist of the otherwise graceful poem (written in polished tercets), Seidel juxtaposes the “rapist” with images of Jesus Christ and suicide:
Oh, the tiny furs and the red stench of the fox
Of all those white girls taking cold showers
And then lining up to jump
Hair in a net in a hat over perfectly maintained fences.
Everything male is a rapist, certainly God,
Except for Henry James.
The writer provokes, but can’t carry through; Seidel’s lyrics are only offensive to a point, after which he often swerves away into satire (“except for Henry James.”) There is an amazing duplicity in Seidel’s writing—he is a misogynist but an elegant one; he is a nihilist but a romantic one; he is suicide case, but one that makes us laugh. It is a duplicity that stems from his ability to step outside his own persona, this cold distance where he writes from that lends his poems a type of silliness:
The second woman shines my shoes.
The other takes my order, curtseys. Thank you, sir.
Others stand there in the rain so I can mount them when I choose.
It’s how protective I
Can be that keeps them going. Look at her:
She clicks her heels together, bowing slightly. Try
To put yourself in her shoes: boots, garter belt, and veil.
To be a piece of tail.
In Nice Weather Seidel proves that he is still the Père Provocateur of American poetry. ~TSJ
Dalkey Archive Press
Translated by Lorin Stein
A series of photographs feature an array of fully-clothed characters in a pale grey room. Their attire is business-casual and inconspicuous: button-up shirts, no ties, pleated denims or twills. One woman wears a simple black dress and pumps; another is in a knee-length coral skirt with matching jacket. A faceless male takes a woman from behind as she bends over a wooden table, his hips pressed against hers. In a different frame, the woman in coral kneels on the floor, her face between the legs of a man who sits, head thrown back, on a red velvet sofa. Two men stand in front of the couch and look down at the action. The photographer is Edouard Levé.
The series, “Pornographie,” is not explicitly pornographic. None of the characters involved are naked; there is no view of sexual organs, no exchange of bodily fluids. The actions suggest sex, but the contours are misleading. A title like “Pornographie” warps the viewer’s perception of the subjects, just as a novel or a poem is tinted by its title. But do works of literature operate on the same level as a photograph? John Berger, in his book The Look of Things wrote:
A photograph celebrates neither the event itself nor the faculty of sight in itself. A photograph is already a message about the event it records. The urgency of this message is not entirely dependent on the urgency of the event, but neither can it be entirely independent from it. At its simplest, the message, decoded, means: I have decided that seeing this is worth recording.
The same can be said about a piece of literature. It is unlikely that a reader would not interpret the titles of Levé's books (Suicide and Autoportrait) in the same manner as they would the title "Pornographie." But Levé’s writing seems to function not as a diffraction of reality, but as the narrator’s reality itself. What differentiates his photography from his writing is the negation of inference. It is not simply portraiture; it is self-portraiture.
Certain works of literature seem to summon critical discourse, and others, like Levé’s Autoportrait appear to defy it. Translated deftly by Lorin Stein, Autoportrait is amazingly anti-melodramatic. Levé transcribes humdrum banalities such as “When I sit with bare legs on vinyl, my skin doesn’t slide, it squeaks” or “I can sleep with my arms around someone who doesn’t move.” What distinguishes Levé’s prose (made up entirely of first-person, declarative statements) from say, a census record, is the reticular nature of the non-narrative, non-chronological text. The sentences expose the constant flux of an isolated mind, the pronunciations a type of modern day soliloquy which reflect the dislocated nature of reality, and life in general:
I play squash and ping-pong. When I lie down after drinking water, my stomach makes noises like a water bed. I cross certain streets not breathing through my nose to avoid pollution. I am not for or against painting, that would be like being for or against the brush. When I am happy I’m afraid of dying, when I’m unhappy I am afraid of not dying. If I don’t like what I see, I close my eyes, but if what I hear bothers me, I am unable to close my ears. I cannot predict my headaches. I empty my memory. Squeezing a sponge is fun like chewing gum. (p. 48)
Throughout the text of Autoportrait, the emotional pendulum swings back and forth between intimacy and remoteness, hotness and coldness, a seemingly random compositional method which lulls the reader into a whirlpool of sensations. In one section, Levé writes, “The girl whom I loved the most left me. I wear black shirts. At ten I cut my finger in a flour mill. At six I broke my nose getting hit by car.” This dissolving of the temporal experience creates a bizarre emotional palette. Often the statements border on ridiculousness (“I am not looking to seduce a wearer of Birkenstocks. I do not like the big toe. I wish I had no nails”) and a frequent topic is boredom (“The highway bores me, there’s no life on the side of the road,” “I never quite hear what people say who bore me.”) yet the onslaught of the sentences—written without chapter or paragraph breaks—are never static enough to generate ennui. It is as if Levé uses prosaicness, often laced with absurdity, as an antidote to boredom and despair.
Levé's book Suicide, published in France in 2008 and translated in 2011 in English by Jan Steyn for Dalkey Archive Press, was delivered by Levé to his editor ten days before the author took his own life in 2007. Reading like a companion book to Autoportrait, it evokes the suicide of a childhood friend. It is compiled of similarly articulated statements, but is written in second person. In contrast to the succinct, disjunctive aura of Autoportrait, Suicide often elaborates more decidedly on experience and phenomena:
When you came back you noticed that you had left the doors wide open, and that a casserole was burning on the gas stove. This spectacle disheartened you. You sat down on the couch and felt a violent pain in your temples, as if a caliper were slowly tightening on them. You tapped your fingers on your head; it sounded hollow like a dead man’s skull. (from Suicide, p.77)
In reading both Suicide and Autoportrait, one conjectures on the identity of the “you” and the “I”; it is as if Levé—whose voice is profoundly controlled in both books—is undertaking a loaded exploration of the self, the “tu” in Suicide deputizing for the narrator’s own convoluted self in order to write with affectless clarity about his own metaphysical and emotional inquiries.
In its treatment of the "je," Autoportrait has a good deal in common with writers such as David Markson and Thomas Bernhard, and for that matter Samuel Beckett, whose short prose works such as Texts for Nothing (a rather apropos title) also feature a bombardment of first person statements:
“I’m not deceived, for the moment I’m not deceived, for the moment I’m not there, nor anywhere else what is more, neither as head, nor as voice, nor as testicle, what a shame, what a shame I’m not appearing anywhere as testicle, or as cunt, those areas, a female pubic hair, it sees great sights, peeping down…”
While Beckett and Markson are considerably more digressive and pleonastic than Levé, their shared particularity is in the self-obsessed and convincing voice of the narrator. This is true of Bernhard also, though Levé seems antithetical to Bernhard; where Levé is unduly self-possessed, Bernhard is gloriously wild.
Stein, in an interview in BOMB magazine, spoke about preserving “the slight artificiality” in Levé’s writing; this exists not in the sentences themselves but in the somewhat ironic tone of the writing. The fluidity with which Stein translates Autoportrait seems to stem from Stein’s ability to disappear as a translator, letting the dry, controlled tone of the narrator radiate through the work. One of the remarkable qualities of the text is that even though the tone is consistent throughout, the voice itself is emotionally inflected, at turns regretful or capricious. Stein captures this well.
Ultimately, a writer’s intentions—and especially those of a deceased one—can only be presupposed with semi-precision. But the beauty of Autoportrait is that the stark, sometimes farcical announcements could be uttered by almost anyone during the course of a day: “I often have trouble sleeping,” “I have sometimes made love to one woman while thinking of another,” “Hearing someone whistle annoys me, especially with vibrato.” Fittingly, near the opening of Autoportrait, Levé describes a “compulsive collector” in his family, after whose death they found a shoebox labeled “Little bits of string that have no use. Levé describes his own effort to accumulate a “book-museum of vernacular writing” in which he reproduced handwritten messages, classed by type: flyers about lost animals, announcements of a change in management, home messages, messages to oneself. “I have thought,” Levé writes, “listening to an old man tell me his life story, ‘This man is a museum of himself.”’ Italo Calvino wrote: "Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.” Massaging the prose form, Levé writes, in pointillistic fashion, a “museum of himself.” The brilliant amalgamation of his sentences give the book portent; it is as if Levé, while writing, thought: these are the only things that make sense to me, at this moment.
Nicole Brossard’s poetry enlivens the physical body with an intimate sensuousness as she writes of the whispered proximity of one body to another, or of one body (via the senses) to its world: “and here again I find an author too abstract
/ supplicating in space / body itself intensity”. Barthesian intimations aside, the quietness with which she writes the body juxtaposes the tendency for her work to be read as the body under the authority of the politick. It may take a bit of squinting to read her work for these political runs it makes with feminism and the political structures of identity writ large, but the larger implications of aesthetic—beyond literary theory, gender or sexuality—open her work to a more poignant reading. Political poetry is hard to survive. A propagandist agenda in the lyric typically does disservice to the full experience of the aesthetic. When a poem’s reading tends to adhere to such limitations of scope as the propaganda can only afford, staleness becomes an unfortunate virtue. And what, ultimately, of the political struggles that embody the time in which the writer writes? Such was a problem to W.H. Auden, one that he considered thoroughly and which led him to denounce his two beloved poems, “Spain” and “September 1, 1939”, later in his life.
By mostly avoiding explicit relating of the body and its political subjugations, Brossard’s writing has the potential for a more lasting presence which falls beyond the scope of her avant-garde epithet.
Brossard is considered to be an important French avant-garde writer, which may come as a surprise given her high lyricism. It is true there remains a resistance to the norm in her writing considering her disruptions of linguistic sense and her forthright textual experimentation. The poet Susan Howe, once very obscure, has been able to stay her path thanks to her fixity on the greater philosophical queries that lay at the heart of language. She has done so by creating a genre of her own; reexamining, though not necessarily revisioning historical figures and their impact on a collective ideology (Protestantism, Transcendentalism, et al.), and using language to embody the experience
of communication as much as the communication itself. Obscurity does not delimit artistic merit, and like Howe’s work, Brossard’s poetry borders on linguistic shimmying with what can only be an assumed purpose of dissolving “the patriarchal knowledge and…its symbolic hierarchical/dualistic fields.”
In fact, Brossard herself has a great deal to say in essays included in this Selections
about where her interests with language and sexuality lie. It is in her poetry, however, that the theories she extols surely arrive with the most intensity; it is in her simplicity and evident passion for sound:
I know this by the words I am missing
my life has gone to sleep
in the contour so precise
of the tip of a long bone
though I still know how to smile
before Roman cloisters and their ossuaries
the value of I love you
Museum of Bone and Water)
Much like Emily Dickinson and Howe (and, for that matter, the later-revisionism of Auden), Brossard elects to title few of her poems, instead offering book-length sequences. Aviva
(1985, 2008) captures most eloquently the fluidity with which she moves between generous ideas of the body, language, and mind:
thus the aura leaning toward her
while the figure keeps watch
emotion and the (latest) humid, very
between the thighs taking, the time
and some verbs encountered mid-stay
it is possible for a body to hesitate
around the being and apply itself
Her articulations are open and indeterminate, but it is the presence of how the poem is progressing that happily suspends the reader regardless the withheld surety of a solid interpretation. For what is this “aura”? Writing influence? Genetics? History? Her sudden shifts from something not fully understood as the emotions to the “(latest) humid” physical state awkwardly places the reader in a place where the clamminess can be felt, a state in which the corporeal (“body”) need not circumscribe itself to what it is expected to “know,” which would be the body’s self. What reads as a separation from the most intimate of knowledge one may have with oneself is emboldened by a sexuality that subtly courses through the lines with the advent of the phrase “between the thighs taking”, a location where the “humid” may or may not be taking place. In her prose poem, “Obscure Languages,” Brossard announces, “I am interested in consciousness because there are invisible structures in our bones that remove us from childhood and family maneuvers.” A more thorough reading suggests these “invisible structures” to be political in origin, yet her impulse to deny the reader a definitive understanding of a grand idea disassociates her work from other overtly political avant-gardists. In essence, Brossard is a humanist, a poet with human concerns at heart.
Brossard is well known in French-speaking communities, especially in Canada; her writing encompasses more than thirty books of poetry, essays, and fiction. This quantity is essential when studying her oeuvre. Like Dickinson, her poems are often brief and hover over the page without the heft of a focal attention to history. Her ideas regarding the conflation of the body, mind and reality, and how language may be the intermediary between the three, will implore a wider audience for her work. Brossard’s poetic achievement or accumulation, as evidenced with Selections,
is still amassing, and in posterity the appreciation will arrive more fully than we presently can give ourselves. 
“Political Poetry and the Shaping of Auden’s Canon”. Erica Marie Weaver. 
“Poetic Politics.” Nicole Brossard.
Yale University Press
trans. by Hoyt Rogers
When asked if he intended to be a poet, Yves Bonnefoy recalled his aunt giving him a small anthology of poems when he was around seven years of age. She inscribed: “To my godson—future poet.” “There was no mystery,” Bonnefoy stated, “even before I learned to read and write I knew it was in order to write poetry. Why? Perhaps because of a feeling that I could not practice the professions I saw around me.”[i] Second Simplicity: New Poetry and Prose, 1991-2011
, translated by Hoyt Rogers, brings together Bonnefoy’s recent works as he approaches his ninetieth year.
Bonnefoy was born in 1923 in Tours, also the birthplace of 16th century French humanist poet Pierre de Ronsard. Bonnefoy’s mother was a primary school teacher and his father was a railroad worker who assembled locomotives and died when Bonnefoy was 13. His grandparents, whom he had close ties with, were innkeepers near the valley of the Lot River. Bonnefoy told an interviewer, “theirs was a little place near the railway station, with a few rooms they let. My grandmother cooked, and my grandfather looked after the clients. He also cut hair and made jackets.” In “The House where I was Born,” Bonnefoy writes:
In the same dream
I lie in the hollow of a hull,
Eyes and forehead pressed to the curved planks
Where I can hear the river knocking.
I woke up, but we were traveling.
The train had lumbered through the night.
Now it rolled toward massive clouds
That loomed in a cluster up ahead.
From time to time, lightning’s whip tore the dawn.
I watched the advent of the world
Throughout Bonnefoy’s oeuvre a perpetual dichotomy between presence and absence exists, yet the concept of Time is boundless, as if past experiences and characters exist concurrently with the finite now. If Bonnefoy alludes to childhood, history or the “advent of the world,” it is with the same intimate consciousness and perception of the present. In “The House I was Born” Bonnefoy returns to his childhood leitmotifs—rivers, trains, planks, father figures—and frames them within an adult dream. This intertwining of imagery makes his writing seem circular; death, music, art, literature all alter the passage of human life yet remain unchanged, almost untouchable. In “Mahler, The Song of the Earth
” Bonnefoy writes of renouncing what is mortal in order to exist:
She moves forward, and you grow old.
Keep advancing, under interwoven trees,
And you’ll glimpse each other, now and then.
O music of words, utterance of sound,
Bend your steps toward each other as a sign
Of complicity, at last—and of regret.
There is a moving forward, but also a stillness. Language and music binding the reader to the world.
In the first section “Beginning and End of the Snow” (originally published in 1991) Bonnefoy’s marks the progression of seasons; his choice of imagery corresponds to an autumn and winter the author spent in New England. In the introduction to Second Simplicity
In her letters Emily Dickinson calls her poetry “my snow”—white pages that blow in from nowhere, without warning, and settle in drifts on the table. In his snow poems, Bonnefoy takes up this metaphor and expands it: the snowfall is the emblem of his words, swirling and ephemeral.[ii]
Bonnefoy’s “snow” poems—not unlike Dickinson’s in their compact length and deceptive effortlessness—wend their way through the poet’s interior geography, which was indubitably stimulated during Bonnefoy’s wanderings near Williamstown and Amherst through the winter terrain: A Bit of Water
I long to grant eternity
To this flake
That alights on my hand,
By making my life, my warmth,
My past, my present days
Into a moment: the boundless
Moment of now.
But already it’s no more
Than a bit of water, lost in the fog
Of bodies moving through the snow. The Mirror
Clouds still drifted
In the room’s black depths.
But now the mirror is empty.
Unravels from the sky.
These two poems, quoted in their entirety, illustrate the hazy delineations between past and present, which come together in “the boundless moment of now”. Even the boundaries between the natural world and interior rooms fall away, as “clouds still drifted in the rooms.”
This reaching always towards the ungraspable
, towards the edges of a room or a world, impart to his poems the feeling of being on the verge. Of what, he doesn’t tell us, but in interviews he has hinted at it:
"We need poetry…to prove to ourselves the value of those moments when we are able to encounter other people, or trees, or anything, beyond words, in silence.” [iii]
According to Bonnefoy, this “beyond words,” a “system of signs”, is what makes up consciousness, and the world. In this way signs and the senses can invent or redeem language and memory from a true primordial state, in much the same way as a mirror can reflect things we cannot see. Mirrors play an important part of Bonnefoy’s poetic imagery; they are a part of the idea that a thing or idea can obscure as well as illuminate, that obscurity can be hidden beneath something clear. He writes of mirrors almost as windows to a parallel yet hardly attainable consciousness:
I still hunger for that place
That was our mirror, hunger
for the fruit curved in its waters,
Hunger for its saving light.
(from “A Stone” p. 53)
“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known,”[iv]
St. Paul writes in Corinthians 13:12. And according to Bonnefoy: “poetry can only be a partial approach, which substitutes for the object a simple image and for (our feelings) a verbal expression—thereby losing the intimate experience… This means that we are deprived through words of an authentic intimacy with what we are, or with what the Other is.”[v]
Paris Review, Interview with Yves Bonnefoy, Summer 1994, no. 131[ii]
Hoyt Rogers, Introduction to Second Simplicity
, p. xiii[iii]
The Bible, Corinthians 13:12, New International Version[v]
There is a book written in 1982 about a nameless man who “hires” a woman to spend several weeks with him by the sea. While the woman is skilled in sexual matters, he has another motive: he wants to learn to love. “It isn’t a matter of will,” she tells him. A review in the French newspaper Le Monde stated, “the whole tragedy of the inability to love is in this work, thanks to [the author’s] unparalleled art of reinventing the most familiar words, of weighing their meaning.” The book is entitled Malady of Death, its author, Marguerite Duras.
Jon Leon’s debut collection differs in tone and genre, yet the reverberation from Duras’s novel is echoed, most obviously, in the title of Leon’s work, The Malady of the Century, which traces the sexual and intellectual escapades of an unnamed narrator, and embodies the collective angst and wonder of a generation reared by the Internet and mass media. Like the nouveau roman, Leon writes of banalities and streaks them with disarming clichés. The action is described with cinematic gleam, snapshots in prose which describe sexual and social encounters with a pictorial sophistication often tinged by voyeurism and violence:
In Chinatown we were wild heart. The dumb sickness of a death. Janácek.
Life was so senseless in the boring time. Mostly I was in a labyrinth of
icicle pills. The sheepish breasts I pressed my cock between. The way it
spurted languidly toward the Tenderloin. I was so crack.
Leon is at once a prolific and penurious. The author of Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay Drink Fanta (Content, 2011), The Hot Tub (Mal-O-Mar, 2009), Hit Wave (Kitchen Press, 2008), Alexandra (Cosa Nostra Editions, 2008), he also self-published The Artists Editions: 2006-2010, which include a number of limited edition chapbooks. Yet in an 2011 interview in a Swiss magazine, Novembre, he stated that he quit writing. When the interviewer asked him “Can an ex-poet still write poetry?” He answered, “Sure.” Characters, the titles of his previous collections (Hit Wave, Drain You), locations (California, New York, North Carolina) and hotel rooms recur consistently in Leon’s work and generate an aura of autobiography while adding an ephemeral patina to the poems. Yet the works seem only tangentially autobiographical, as if the author is deliberately attempting to create a fictive image of himself through his protagonist by interspersing public and private narratives. This complexity of representation works best in the aptly titled section of the book “Mirage” and the last portion of the collection, “White Girls,” where the narrator describes his experiences in a liberated explosion of brilliant technicolour:
To meet you at the place in the city when we haven’t eaten in many days and are suddenly aware that the light is changing and the world is changing and ever our own faces seem to have changed. Looking at each other looking
in the mirror thinking about how we look when we are looking at each other. Doing nothing because we want to do everything. Like we are in biographies of great artists. Like you just died in my arms tonight. (from “Lisbons”)
Like Duras, Leon’s poems are often narcissistic meditations on erotic love, yet beneath the surface lies a devotion to the female body which borders on objectification. The section “Right Now the Music and the Life Rule” features fifteen prose blocks which mostly begin with a woman’s name and a description: “Kelly’s tits look very natural when she is wearing only a necklace and a heart panty,” “Darla is wearing blue lipstick,” “Mischa Barton is for bebe.” This heated mix of portraits explore aspects of a world increasingly experienced by images. Reading these works reminded me of artists such as Richard Prince or Sanja Ivekovic, who use magazines and photography to dissect conceptions ingrained in society, especially by consumerism and the media. In a similar manner, Leon juxtaposes his gaze(through writing) on photos culled from fashion magazines or the Internet. These poems are not about women; they are about pictures of women and the men who look at them. Yet this does not detract from the sensuality of the writing; the poems often elicit equal repulsion and seduction, in much the same vein as a glossy soft porn full page ad in Purple Magazine:
Anonymous Missoni girl is attractive and looks like Vitti or someone.
Her hair is garage. The ruby backdrop coalesces with the auto vehicles
below my window. Pretty much this one is another 10. She is like
Antonioni at his best and is only wearing one item of clothing...
(from "Right Now the Music and the Life Rule")
Though Leon’s characters are sopping in drug-fueled soirées, champagne and penny stocks, there is an inherent aura of breakability in the men and women, an incessant longing that is often manifested in voyeurism and exaggerating depictions of virility:
Two girls I knew, one a painted and one an obese seductress, began fingering one another in my bedroom the night of the Southcoast Soiree. I had Keystone remove them from the premises. From the boudoir I could hear my name. I allowed them back into the pool party under the condition they perform atop a float in the water for all to view and possibly participate. Several of my distinguished guests penetrated the couple. I stood by and watched with benign curiosity. (from "Hit Wave")
The poems often have the home-alone quality of glorified nostalgia, sometimes switching back and forth between tenses, personas and roles as liquidly as a call girl in costume. The literary manner of these suave, concatenated poems is straightforward; the scenes are like quickies, intense and evanescent. At his best, Leon is an elegant and dirty provocateur; at his worst, like an ad writer for Urban Outfitters. He is skilled in summoning up scenes that could take place in Château Marmont or the Standard Hotel or in anybody’s fantasies: a sultry evening in a tub with five girls, smoking Cubans on the piazza, “driving around in a red car through a bunch of palm trees.” His poems, which massage the lyric form until they become creatures which are difficult to imitate, open up a space in contemporary poetry which caters to the media-fed, fashion-fueled intelligentsia, which to a certain extent, includes us all. The demands of consciousness which Leon places on his readers is high. His fidelity to high fashion and high art is one of the hallmarks of a Twenty-first century artist, contrasting with the narcissism and dazed numbness which dance simultaneously, yet elegantly, on the same page. ~JMB
“Partyknife” exists as an amalgamation of unspecific bands relevant to that pre-famous, party-playing, hipster city scene. Yes, there is sex: “I ejaculate into a sock and give it to Chinese people to wash”. Yes, there is urinating: “Right now I have to pee. We are not in crisis mode yet, / but it infuses my every thought”. Yes, there is drinking: “I’m the Jesus of making out with girls drunk”; and drugs: “Adderall is doing such amazing work in me, / I have little time to figure it out”. And, of course, there are the writers: “There were three writers at a Christmas party / in Brooklyn, and they were talking about / another writer.”
It may be difficult for the reader to see through the appearances of sex, drugs, and Rock and Roll, but the background din of emotional toil that emanates from the poems’ more rewarding lines supplies the reader with an exceptional incentive: a remastered or remixed social fatalism that possesses hinted-at determination for self-preservation. Regarding the aftermath of love-lost at the heart of the volume, Magers writes, “Welling up in my hands are emotions, / and I awakened in her wake, / and I almost saw heaven then.” Conclusively determining whether the “heaven” is ironic or not broadens the poem’s reading by denying a clear reckoning of severity. And it’s something for which Magers should be thanked, for art shouldn’t be pandering, it should take risks, and only through close inspection should a work of art’s rewards be afforded those willing. The oscillating tonalities and dictions fashioned in Partyknife make for a beautifully complex work of emotion and relevance and take to task contemporary poetry’s uncertain direction. With so much weak irony and self-reference establishing poetry’s new foundations, Magers’s work demonstrates that there can be more if done so with a social intelligence and a deep understanding of poetry’s aesthetics.
There is an air to Dan Magers’s first collection that many will relate to but few will have experienced. The subject matter shouldn’t be read superficially, which would exclude the deep intelligence throughout the lyrics. New apogees of anxiety, excess, loss, and nihilism are pursued in Partyknife, conveyed artfully by the author for the sake of Art’s—and by proxy, society’s—vitality. What threads the superficial abstracts together is a very particular desire. By the laws of nature, society and the individual are in a constant struggle or desire against disorder; the universe dwindles to the endgame of entropy, and nothing can be done to stop it. In the twentieth-century, Beckett, Camus, Sartre, Artaud, et al explored what that endgame might look like when experienced from within its vacuum, a kind of cenophobia. Their art not only tackled it as subject matter but as parameters for aesthetics, regardless the attempts made to wiggle away from Aristotle’s edicts without falling into the nothingness of Dadaism. It can be done and done successfully as they proved, yet their successes also proved nihilism difficult to refashion in new generations, and society has yet to see the nihilism—in subject and aesthetics—exemplified by mid-twentieth century artists. The nihilism of Partyknife may be translated as a deepening angst relative to the new century for all intents, and in rupturing the gentle balance between order and disorder. The art of Partyknife exemplifies an aesthetically complete and humanly flawed persona lowered into the limbo where, “Everything I hated has become my life now. / By which I mean how happy I am.”
The persona in these poems owns its (his) existential illiteracy, which is to say Magers’s control over the tone and poetic line is consistent and dramatic, and a great imbalance persists not in the poetry itself, but as a byproduct within the persona’s temporary inability to reconcile his changing self with the pace of the life he’s living. Juxtaposing high lyricism with relative confessionalism, the poems feel at once free flowing but exceedingly crafted and tonally never fall by way of melodrama, unless it is a self-pitying of the persona’s choosing: “I don’t want to be remembered / except as what the worst person thought of me then.” Thus, the nature of tone in contemporary poetry, what Carl Phillips has deemed a “prevailing age of cool irony where we deny we even have woundable feelings”, as one may interpret in Magers’s poetry actually ascribes a hoodwinked seriousness about the milieu of drinking, mixtapes, and hooking-up. It should be of little surprise that certain subject matter rarely yields great works of art, and Magers’s tackling of what may be considered off-limits content—material too pedestrian or too “low-brow”, stuff that’s already been rendered by the likes of the New York School—belies such assumptions because he is able to create a stark motivation for the content’s exploration. These are not only objective correlatives; this is also reality.
Bidart—by way of Catallus (“I hate and I love”)—is the contemporary master of versifying contradiction in one single breath: “Wanting to cease to feel—; / …my romance with Orgasm” and continues overtly: “the NO which is YES, the YES which is NO.” Whether under the influence of Bidart and other contemporaries, or the shifting attention patterns of the writers, many poets now depend too much on the grammatical construct of abrupt contradiction, which comes across as lethargic associative logic or the non sequitor. Much of the overreliance or overuse is the product of poems’ lack of apparent crafting; the usage runs the risk of feeling slapdash or too insular. But like Bidart’s, the non sequitor in Magers’s poems is validated by the strength of his poetic line, which rummages through the diction to manifest highly rhythmic meters:
Checking every LES building’s door
to smuggle in for some rooftop drinking.
Rob, will you be my dad?
I’ve lived in New Orleans, I’ve KNOWN vampires.
If I leapt back, do you think I could fly?
New Year’s Eve fireworks…an uphill run along the campus,
the dorm way out above, the frozen lake below.
Hip-checking girls along 3rd Avenue,
and I laughed at your rape jokes until I got the hiccups;
asked by paramedics what my name is
in a bagel place, tiny as shit, busy as fuck.
The integrity of this poem’s cohesion is not only in the indirect rhythm but in how the poem’s context is established by the italicized lines, which act to emulate the shaky foundation of reality and perception. The image of fireworks, exploding in the sky as the observer runs, is at the poem’s heart; the moment in the poem at which the poem pivots and descends into memory and contingent thinking. Something about the experience of drunkenly walking a late and bustling New York City has evoked the past. Then, the writing erupts back into the sensual world, which is jarring and sudden and uncomfortably physical, much like the writing itself. Equilibrium is refused the narrator as well as the reader. Caesuras are manipulated to better offset a smooth reading. At these abrupt pauses, the poem sidesteps, only to sidestep again in subsequent clauses, both pushing and pulling the reader away from and into its world. In a nutshell, this tactic should always be the purpose of the non sequitor, and it’s employed masterfully over and over and in varying degrees in Partyknife. Earlier in the book, the persona is with a girl he’s “fucking” and she’s introducing him to her friends:
I have no idea what these kids are talking about.
Lacan and baby food.
Disequilibrium is manifested in the content of the characters’ speech. Magers creates the purpose for his aesthetic, and his aesthetic creates his purpose for his voice. Like the Cubists, the aesthetic principles must adhere to the changing perceptions of a fracturing world in some attempt to overlay order about the chaos. It all culminates in Partyknife in a moment of wayward Hegelian dialectic, the persona reaching for a defining meaning inherent in such schizophrenic unbalancing:
And when does I’m doing it for experience
become the experience itself?
I take all of it, and I really can’t have any of it.
From nothing to something to nothing is a soul.
And everything else is matter.
It takes intelligence and bravery to infuse such audacious lyrics with a bedridden existential anxiety and to have it mean something as a work of art, ultimately. The antipodal natures of lyricism and super-contemporary idioms (crass language, internet-speak, for example) may not mix well for every reader, but the authenticity of voice and emotional resonance hold the poems in Partyknife together inventively. They are in that Goldilocks Zone—not too poetic, not too coarse; not too coy, not too fearless. Rosanna Warren wrote of Melville, “perhaps it is in meeting one’s native sorrow that one ultimately wrests one’s own being into shape.” It’s the shaping into being that can be translated into art. To this notion should be added Hayden’s ars poetica: “All art is pain / suffered and outlived.” For however much the content may appear to detract from the overall arc of Magers’s ars poetica, the voice he has created acts as a perfect counterbalance to the anxious self-appraisals and literal screamings which cycle through the persona’s experiences on a minute-to-minute basis. The unnamed Everyman of Partyknife lives a life of few, if any, heroics, and he is only human, at this particular moment in this particular age. Magers’s work deftly embodies the time in which it is written and at the same time refracts the collective cynicism of a well-worn society aloof and indifferent to its own inability to question the complexities of ontology, and maybe even indifferent collectively to the great utility of art. Not only is Magers capable of questioning such complexities without moralizing or denouncing, he is capable of answering them with the “being-into-shape” of Partyknife, which is the endurance of the art and artist in the face of the transitory, of fragile history—personal or otherwise.
Lucid dreams and near-death experiences
become so serious. A night
I wanted changed will have forgotten
how to, leaving only that I wanted something else.
In “Blind Contour,” a poem toward the middle of Handiwork, Amaranth Borsuk’s first collection of poems, the author addresses the hand as its own entity, detached from the body; she discusses its limitations, both emotional and physical. Set in three stanzas with lines that overrun, “Blind Contour” is the on in the series, separated by poems in between them, all focused on the disembodied hand. These hand poems share a similar form, set in prose blocks but slightly offset from each other; they show off Borsuk’s sensitivity to positioning poems on the page. There is a fourth poem entitled “Show Of Hands,” a wonderful work in which Borsuk arranges words in an alphabetical list of phrases that use the word “hand” or “hands,” leaving space for where the word fits, i.e. “got her dirty,” and a fifth, "Two Rams And Goat With Torso And Sheaves Of Wheat," both of which address the issue of body and the separation of the hand. The series of hand poems features an exacting, matter-of-fact language and tone, wonderfully and weirdly moving. She begins "Blind Contour" with:
“The hand can send no messages. Cut off from its
it squirrels sensation away, trusts surface, recalls
Thus isolated, the poem continues as the second stanza begins:
“The Hand has its own phobias to exploit: undesired
short shackling, dogs.”
Emotionally exposed, the third and final stanza begins:
“The hand knows all about manipulation. mainly, it’s
by the sight of its tools in less skilled arms.”
“Blind Contour” and its sister works stand out within a collection of poems that are for the most part explicitly personal, intuitive and looser; perhaps these surprisingly touching, subtly violent poems are meant to be a parable for the collection as a whole. In the third hand poem, “Character Anatomy,” Borsuk writes: “words so readily betray things they’re meant/ to represent.// Arms broken, tissue mangled, the hand was ready to try the body’s cant: a disappearing text, past and future pressed until skin’s plies. Grammar’s ultimate loss// Take take take take take--that’s how the body ensures its own survival.”
“It’s going/ to take me/ a while to get through/ all this salt.”
In the notes to the collection, Borsuk mentions that the book is dedicated to her grandmother, “whose unpublished autobiographical stories illuminate it. The bracketed poems attempt to write through, and into, the gaps of this history.” These few lines are aptly reflective of the spirit of the whole book - they are included to explain, to offer a background. But upon further examination, they broach more questions than the ones they answer. When Borsuk describes her grandmother’s stories as “unpublished,” what is the implication behind the inclusion of that word? Perhaps Borsuk is investigating the distance between “unpublished” and “published” works, something like the distance between the storytelling as written word and storytelling as oral tradition. Is there more weight given to something that has been published? Which belongs to us more within the context of history? The ownership of history seems intriguing in its vagueness.
For a reader, encountering excessive notes or explanations can become burdensome. Some notes are, of course, ethical and necessary—attributions, for example. Some are flourishes, where a reader can be privy to insight behind the creation or production of the poem, and open a direct line to the author himself. Borsuk’s notes are succinct and quiet, certainly not overwhelming the poems, and in the best way, not necessary to enjoying Handiwork. Borsuk’s notes do not have a sense of hand-holding because she manages, through her poetry, to create the sense of writing with and through history. The poems themselves evoke the conversation across generations and culture; the notes simply give a proper noun, a name, for the reader to recognize.
Borsuk’s poems are extremely attractive. Almost every poem is visually satisfying—stimulating but balanced, and never frantic despite its movement across the page. Borsuk clearly exerts a careful hand in organizing her poems. As much as the collection is brought together thematically by the metaphor and recurring image of salt, it is also brought together by the recurring forms of the poems within it. Loosely, Borsuk’s poems (excluding the long poem at the end of the book) fall within the following forms:
1) the six-line salt gemetrias
2) overlapping lines, the first starting against the left margin and running slightly past the center, the second starting slightly left of center and running to the right margin, and then repeating (the “History of” poems fall within this category)
3) the form in which the lines open along a middle space, as Paul Hoover beautifully describes it in his introduction, “phrases [that] speak across a spine of white space”
4) the bracket poems, or the poems that possess “[ ],” spaced in waves across the page and with white space between the lines
5) the mostly prose blocks of the hand poems
In his introduction, Hoover spends time discussing the “salt gemetria” form, a six-line form that Borsuk invents through combining “the Jewish practice of gemetria, which assigns numerical value to a letter, word, or phrase,” and the numbers behind the salt’s value on the periodic table. Hoover likens the salt gemetria to Sapphic fragments, and from Borsuk’s pair of lovely phrased hyphenations, ”wine-orchid” and “bone-orchid,” of two different titles, to her extensive use of brackets, it is difficult not to draw a lineage between the poems in Handiwork and epic poetry. (In particular, after Anne Carson’s translations of Sapphic fragments in which she used [brackets] to indicate absence, or where the pages broke.) There are poems entitled “History of Myth,” “History of Song,” “History of Sand.” This nod toward Greek poetic storytelling lends the collection a cohesiveness, a sense of storytelling and tradition, an engagement of history both personal and cultural.
The success of the salt gemetrias as a form within the context of the collection is that it possesses, in parts, aspects of the other forms that Borsuk utilizes. Its movement across the page are echoed in the bracket poems and the works with shifting lines, its opening within lines are echoed with the poems that have the “spine of white space,” its six-line compactness are like the relief of the prose blocks.
“Such structures,” Hoover writes, “constitute ‘secret’ formal and thematic knowledge and seem to work on both a horizontal level of literary consciousness and a vertical level of cultural or deep, consciousness.” It’s true that Handiwork maintains a mysterious secretiveness in its highly structured formulation. In Handiwork, Borsuk gives her readers image-rich but sparsely lyrical language imbued with the lightness of possibility. With just the poem titles like, “In Which Things That Hurt Us Are Stored For Winter,” “The Smell of Rain On Surfaces,” “Lay Your Gaping Switchblade Back,” she lays out stories without telling them explicitly, giving the reader the sense of having access but not complete access, leaving it up to the reader how much and what he or she wants to discover in each reading, but ensuring that each time, something new will be unearthed, showing that when it comes to language, the secrets can be endless. ~AVW
“…entre ces deux abîmes de l'infini et du néant…”
The Modernists earned their right to break tradition first by evoking tradition, then finding it unsatisfactory for the age in which they were writing. Postmodernists stretched the compulsion back onto themselves and bore the confession. Traversing the schizophrenia of styles and movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, a dominant attention has been paid to varying the incarnations of language for the writer to convey a more subjective impression of reality. For many writers, good writing is not just showing, but the telling as well, all of which crystallizes only in hindsight. Approaching Ariana Reines’s poetry requires a willing sympathy for her forbears. If the reader understands the catalogue of histories and canons that goes into her writing, it is obvious she has earned her language. Her pronouncements on excrement and blatant sexuality are wonderfully French and Symbolist, and she has appropriated such variances on this particular vocabulary and theme better than most American poets writing today. The limits of language should not be withheld for the sanctity of what constitutes a poem or Poetry, thus far a notion which represents the backbone to her linguistic approaches. A great and confident intelligence excites the work of Ariana Reines. Turning to Baudelaire, she finds a voice decrying a strain of decadence that overshadows Democracy, Capitalism, Love, Desire; in the French theorists of the twentieth-century, she finds distrust in what an author really is and the semblances between art and reality. On a fundamental level, her work gratifyingly and aggressively scrutinizes what the art of writing ultimately is. Reines has extended Confessionalism into a new realm.
But the aesthetic struggles between an all or a nothing—infinity and nothingness—symbolically bear the drawbacks inherent in Mercury. An opportunistic compulsion to overextend allows Reines the room to manufacture a poetic tome regardless the necessity in relation to the subject of poetry’s mystical properties. As the logic goes: if anything can be art, then a nothing can be art; therefore, as mathematics may be applied to logic, anything equaling art is mathematically unsound. This all-inclusiveness is ultimately unrealized for the purposes of the poetry in Mercury, if for no other reason than the outdated idea of the alchemical processes that may resound within Poetry’s aesthetic (Rimbaud’s aesthetic comes to mind). She has the knack of extending a dominating metaphor over the course of long works in order to establish a frame of reference, and the idea only reinforces a desire in Mercury to have the poetry viewed as this mystical reaching. It is a noble attempt however unrealized, for statements themselves do not stand in for artistic merit, as Reines writes in the section “Save the World”: “Poetry’s not made of words.” May it be as such; may it even be irony on the poet’s part within these pages to say so, yet the latter assumption will come as interpretation only through a subjective reading. Overall, the reader will see attempts at poetry made up of words rather than the intended objective.
Some places throughout the volume fall flat due to a sense of incompletion or, conversely, excess. The excessive poems dilute a compelling reading. Much of the work in this book could have been left out, and a slimmer volume of definitive lyrics would have made for a stronger volume. Reines is trusted as a writer thanks to her previous writing; her previous work, especially in The Cow, is remarkable for illustrating a deep understanding of the workings of language and how linguistic perception is appropriated by the conscious mind. Yet in Mercury, a little poem like “Gold,” which states in its entirety, “I want the gold / shimmer shimmer shimmer shimmer shimmer,” denies the reader a sense of necessity however potentially humorous its reach. Whenever one reads a line of repetitious dactylic pentameter as this, maybe King Lear comes to mind (“Never, never, never, never, never”), but little evidence supports the allusion. Without proper support, such an example distracts the poetry away from a central arc of the book’s aesthetic especially since the work tends to encompass many styles (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Lyric, Spoken, Dada, Narrative, Confession) and sources (email, chat, conscious writing, stream-of-conscious writing).
The impulse of Mercury is a logical and welcomed progression from her two previous works, The Cow and Coeur de Lion. Quite a few lyrics in Mercury exude the excellence represented in her other books. In “Arena,” Reines writes:
I’ve swept the floor
All the wood and leaves off the bed
Brackish semen fills the sky
And dazed bees browse my drooping
Though the poem takes a jarring turn in the subsequent lines (“Look asshole. I know exactly who you are…”), the ability to convert commonplace occurrences as simple as cleaning to a pastoral quality, with conscious attention to a beautifully rearguard vocabulary, assonance and alliteration, proves Reines’s capabilities. Considering the book’s epigraph which quotes Thomas Vaughan (“…the Chaos is generated out of a certain water”), and the understanding that the “certain water” is the element of Mercury, the conclusions drawn from such tension between the pastoral and the more urban/technological elements of contemporary society (emails, movies, music, etc.) help to augment the supposition between infinity and nothingness. The poem progresses in a healthy direction, furthering the tension between alchemy and empiricism by way of poetry and language. In a poem concerning a grandmother, “Bain Marie,” Reines writes:
Wind hisses through her boxwood
And all the white and all the black
Cherries are twins on her trees.
Fat carp fill her pond and bullfrogs
Groan around it all night long.
When she says the word
Cherry I see
The red bunions on her two feet describing
Every angle of her body in my mind’s eye.
Again, here the reader is afforded a glimpse of one of Reines’s best poems. Whereas in her previous volumes, such divergent qualities of the lyric proved successful due to the condensation of the final product, in a nearly 250-page collection of verse the “chaos” of which Thomas Vaughan wrote becomes too prevailing and slipshod of an occurrence. Vaughan’s epigraph continues: “The water [mercury] hath all in it that is necessarie to the perfection of the work, without any Extrinsecall Addition.” Implicit in his closing statement is that no additions are necessary, but subtractions and dissections may be. Otherwise, the formlessness of such a mysterious element as mercury, and alchemy or the spiritual as a whole, will yield incomplete results. ~RS