Sue Sinclair — Breaker

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on November 19, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

While on a week-long trip to Humboldt County along the northern coast of California, I brought along with me a book of nature meditations that I thought might restore my desire to apprehend nature as it is captured on the page in the poem. Sue Sinclair’s Breaker is a book that is long on rapturous imagery and interesting metaphor. Her work is curious and intoxicating in the way it relentlessly takes on markers in the landscape and reflects on them. What it finds in them is that nature is a reflecting pool. Sinclair wrestles with the philosophical implications of simultaneously being in the world and thinking about it.


And overhead, the birds:
chips of bone in the sky, remnants,
fact of the world’s brokenness.

You look up, asking to be forgiven for a crime
you’re still trying to locate. You know it’s out there,
stare toward the edge of the marsh, the welt of bright water
shrinking before your eyes. A sky of pre-worldly clarity
only confirms your guilt, an inherent misalignment
that keeps you from knowing even a fraction
of what you see.

You cross the heat-ridden ground, the sweet brittle scent
of sage rising underfoot. So easy to pretend a single word
will occur to you, and that it will do all the good
anyone could hope. The earth is parched and lonely,
relies on dignity to protect it. Each thing hanging
by the thread of itself. Bleating crickets. Rustle of dry stalks.
The silence pushes you toward yourself:
it’s time to walk deep into the heart of what troubles you

Sometimes what is found is not so pleasant, just like in nature. Sometimes the discovery is troubling. One discovers one’s own deficiencies. It’s a cheap form of therapy. A hike into the woods and a tall conifer can be your analyst.

Many of the poems take a single subject and try to guess at the self through the subject. There is a poem about a pelican that issues thoughts on a vanquished will and the fear of the body and soul separating. A poem about a clearing speaks of a dark tunnel in things that we want to feel. Etc.

Sinclair is very much concerned with a mysterious undercurrent running through all of the subjects she focuses on, even through all of nature itself. It seems to be her self-appointed task to find that hidden vein in all that teems in the great outdoors. She explores this theme in many of the pieces, at times making it feel as though she is seeing all the way through to the back of the head of the animal she is gazing at.

Most of the poems work from “set pieces”. The author frames a scene and then thoroughly explores the intricacies of the scene the way one might observe a photograph by one of the Magnum photographers and look for the detailed elements that might explain more thoroughly what is going on . . . and more importantly, what is going on outside of the frame that is unseen. For this reason, it is no surprise that several of her pieces work off of photographs — Nan Goldin, Edward Weston. In these she explores the world within the snapshot. She gazes long and hard, thinking about them, then, in classic introspective philosophical manner, thinking about thinking about them. More often than not, she does manage to find a strain of the numinous — a Gaian animism.

As often as she does find some mysterious hidden otherworld behind this one that is visible, an elsewhere that beckons like a lost childhood. The speaker seems to long to place herself in that elsewhere “refusing all the blandishments” (as the book’s jacket blurb nicely puts it) of the scene the speaker is witnessing.

In Breaker Sinclair searches for the magic in a place (the way a fantasizing child might). In “Falling from a Great Height” Sinclair suggests that the desire to displace oneself is rooted in the way children want to displace themselves into the world of adults and adults want to go the other direction. The other realm is always luring us away.

Falling From a Great Height

A hardened, varnished afternoon.
Gulls pick at dumpsters
as boys ferry their basketball back and forth
over the centerline, stewards of the court.
Heat pours off the tarmac; they play deeply,
soulfully, until the day lopes off to the western
horizon and the game loses its appeal.

They go inside as darkness trembles
over the neighbourhood like an alcoholic’s hand.
A car passes; the sound of its engine wraps our minds
in its cocoon. We close our eyes, forget at last
what we’re made of and sink into the elsewhere
that cast its invisible shadow all day.
Heat drifts from room to room
not wanting to disturb anyone.

The garbage rots leisurely in the dumpster,
its rich odour attracting raccoons. Inside,
children and adults dream of changing places,
long for each other in the dark.

The world piles up its details as Sinclair antrhopomorphizes it to the point of animism. That “longing for each other in the dark” at the end of the piece is one of the inexplicable essential elements in Sinclair’s universe that defies any further definition. Other readers have noted a sense of brokenness in Breaker that invokes this sense of longing for the other (indeed Sinclair even refers to this occasionally and suggests it in the title). I also got this sense to a certain extent throughout the book. But what prevailed for me was the interest in the mysterious other not the disappointment that a prolonged connection could not be forged with it. Her aim at the mysterious soul of a place and its objects is remarkably true so I never felt like the speaker was overly self-consciousness of her missing that longed-for realm. Yet the speaker is insistent on the partition between the perceived world and its barely distinguishable flip side where mystery lingers.

So why does a poet insist on staring at the soul of a place? This is a fundamental existential question that I would have liked to see Sinclair engage with more fully. I wanted to know if there was some reason other than naked desire that she would send herself out into the landscape to hunt down its inner pulses of spirit. Why this obsession with the unknown/unseen lurking at the edge of her field of vision. Is this the kind of dance she does with a monstrous god when they decide to get it on?

Perhaps the answer to why the poet insists on staring into the beckoning abyss is that she finds it to be a way to be rescued by sleep. In the last piece in the book, “Asleep”, Sinclair’s speaker is tired of the world and sleep appears to be her only way of granting herself a vacation from it.


A wasp-like hum in the room,
the something-going-on that passes for silence
in these quarters, for we want to believe in silence,
that our repose leaves nothing behind, empties all the chambers,
takes the present into our dreams with us and leaves
a void that works like acid on all that was.
Car headlights on the wall mean nothing,
the cramped, ungrowing furniture, nothing,
the church spires, tired bells, nothing.
They are but the residue of the day, less than echoes,
the last creaking stair on the way out of perception.
We have come to an agreement: tired of the world
in its inalienable unlikeness, we will give up coaxing it out.
So the night darkens, the curtain drifts
out the window, the very lateness of the hour ceases.
We sleep side-by-side with eternity, and never touch.

The failure to connect at the end here again belies the anxiety of the speaker about prolonged contact with the ineffable, but what underscores this anxiety is the fatigue the speaker has with the visible world and the “residue of the day.” Sleep is the only thing that can rescue such a fatigued warrior of the philosophical assault on one’s own presence in the world. But even in this sleep, however, there is also distance. In this case, it is specifically with eternity, but there is also the hint of sleep without touch. I’ve never been good at falling asleep within the clutches of someone else. I suspect I’d be a very poor dog. Sinclair’s speaker apparently would be too.

The one aspect of the book that I find extremely heartening about Breaker is that it does not flinch in its discussion of philosophy in the poems. It does not wish to entertain as much as edify, prolong the great battle with a meaningful existence. This is what renders it, I suppose, as particularly Canadian. Canadian poets have not sacrificed their souls to the entertainment gods as much as American poets have, who understand that they better keep their readers lighthearted and lubricated with fun. The philosophical burdens that Sinclair bears are seen as an American excess or perhaps just bad form, some endeavor that losers take on when they aren’t up to moving fast enough. In America it’s do (see “JUST DO IT”) not be. But there is a third option to the age-old contest between doing and being, between stereotypical Americanism and stereotypical Canadianism. This third option is what Sinclair is poised to capitalize on when facing the mysterious, ineffable shadow world — do. be. learn.


Joshua McKinney — The Novice Mourner

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on November 18, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

Josh McKinney, sporting his new Gary Snyder haircut (or was it a Lance Armstrong cut?) read nearly twenty pieces from his new collection The Novice Mourner published by Bear Star Press. The short-cropped hair and cowboy boots seemed apropos of a redneck shitkicker past that McKinney claims in the book, which is very distant from the effete elliptical type that Stephen Burt and others have proclaimed him as. Nowhere was this neatly compartmentalized past self more apparent than in McKinney’s piece called “Gun,” the highlight of the evening. In “Gun,” a collection of short prose poems inhabited by Bonnie Parker and populated mostly by childhood vignettes about his father’s sidearm pistol, McKinney intoned the words descriptive of his father’s (and now his own) pistol—the Ruger “Blackhawk” .22-caliber single-action revolver—in such an incantatory manner that it made it possible for a brief moment to truly believe in and devote oneself to the raw power of firearms.

Many of the poems in The Novice Mourner stand in stark contrast to Saunter, McKinney’s previous book that won the University of Georgia Press Poetry Series Open Competition in 2002. The Novice Mourner is seemingly much more autobiographical. It is the place where McKinney negotiates and wrestles with his past (in particular with the spectre of his bitter and authoritative father) at the same time providing reminders of his experimental tendencies. The discontinuities and fragments which are emblematic of much of the work in Saunter often give way to, in a case like “Gun,” brutally straightforward narratives where McKinney’s aim is to reveal arrived-at truth rather than truth searched for, shaken, separated, and reticulated.

This adaptation of style to fit content shows that McKinney is not a slave to current fashion and that he understands that form needs to serve the content it delivers. The poems I admire most though are the ones that maintain their narrative thread while introducing a healthy amount of meditation on the events, placing the events within the arc of humanity’s struggle and exhibiting the reach of an energetic mind. <A HREF= A Principle of Perspective is a terrific example of how a son’s battle with his father (though the son is not completely equated to McKinney through the use of the first person I) can be the backdrop for a meditation on the need to acquire distance from a colossal event. In this poem the event is one that upsets the typical father-son power relationship. The perspective that evolves passes through normal tones until a “sinister” one develops to inform the living.

But it is not enough for many to simply admire poems. Many readers wish to love poems and the authors who write them. They look for the familiar forms of persons they know in them. And McKinney delivers this to them as well. In “In Other Words” the speaker informs the reader of how the past wreaks havoc on his thinking. Then in stanzas four, five, and six, a scene with an old woman begins to emerge. An old man (the father who likely appears in “A Principle of Perspective”) exhibits some odd behavior, and the speaker is left to interpret it, to interpret the slow dissembling of this man at the end of his life. The last two lines prove that the thing that makes one human might also be the thing that leads one to ruin. McKinney cautions that the higher faculties doth lead us astray.


Light tactics splay over the ground,
and the clothes twisting
in wind, the shirts and skirts
forming like tall thoughts,
make sight a plea for mediation.

What sinful, crazy architect
concocts a past in tatters?
The light. The wind. I grew up
tall, thinking the way a chain twists,
winching engines into air.

“Back in the spring of” is how
it begins. In, at, on—the little
words that make place possible.
Telephones revise the fields,
which is why I am twisting even now

into the patchwork of an old woman’s
apron, her hands without tactics
to clothe her husband, naked,
stumbling into a field to call
his dog, dead now for years.

I call no one and the tale survives
another telling. We embroider place.
We clothe the wind and lash it
to our backs. Power is always naked.
How could I tell them his stories grew

better in his last months,
the squeamish garments of a past
cast away in tatters, his words
strangely light, attendant to the world
and free from the idea of it.

Death seems singularly prepared to make its face seen on nearly every page in The Novice Mourner, not unexpected in a book primarily about grief and loss. McKinney read his pieces plaintively, in an even tone that enhanced their solemn nature. The stare into the harsh abyss requires such a steady voice. That earnest tone is spread liberally throughout the book. There is very little of the nimble elision and undercutting of pronouncement seen in McKinney’s other work. The speaker in the poems of The Novice Mourner is urgently delivering a message to his readers: the world is cruel and crueler when looked at in hindsight. In fact, in “In Earnest,” the only piece in the book that takes respite from the past and places the reader in a decidedly Sacramento landscape, McKinney seems to elevate death to a kind of noble gesture, a kind of success that can be had when the time comes for there to be no more expectations about living. The salmon gracefully move towards their end, and in doing so, reach something like epiphany at the moment they expire. In this, they are “almost nothing, almost all.”

Even the love in The Novice Mourner is brittle, susceptible to disruption by catastrophe knocking at the door. “The War at Home” is one of the most beautiful and poignant poems about the current war in Iraq and how the presence of war can unnerve even those in a remote domestic setting. The effect that the war has on the speaker is reminiscent of how young Israelis who serve in the Israeli Army seem to inherit blindness and fury just by their proximity. The young soldiers are poisoned by the atmosphere. In “The War at Home” husband and wife suffer the same fate at the hand of a world that rudely encroaches and destroys habits of caring for others.

It’s Tuesday, nearly Christmas,
and the kids have gone to school.
It’s the day I work at home, the day
we’ve planned to set aside
some time, a few hours, to talk,
to touch, to take a walk around the block
among the falling leaves, and then
beneath the quilts to feel the chill
go out of us. Perhaps to say
some soft and secret thing unplanned,
perhaps to doze—if only to wake
still holding one another—and then
to rise again, to carry the glow
of union through the day.

We sit down to read the news
and by the second cup of coffee,
stop. The specters of the daily dead
assert themselves, and I can read
the disappointment in her face,
and worse, the shadow of a tired resolve
that looms up now, a merciful distraction:
there are goods to buy, and the car needs
gas. And I, too, in the mood now
only to be intimate with my anger at
the world. What used to come so easily
to us is now the victim of our broader view,
which narrows like this season
and its sun, like our grim smiles
as we tell each other, silently,
that we will make no time for love.

These lovers are a little too experienced in the world. They let their grief about its violence and chaos manage their time. However, not every poem’s speaker is similarly afflicted. In “The Novice Mourner,” the speaker seems psychically unprepared for the next calamity even though he expects it. Knowledge is scarce. What befalls the speaker is a sense of living in the world among the disparaging ingratitude of imminent tragedy. The tragic always announces itself as essential.


This may not be the end of something.
If the cat in the window knows anything,
she’s not talking. For three days

his hands have smelled of pine,
clear eyes closed to study the blue moon
where the hammer kissed his thumb.

Food shadows lengthen, counting lulls
between determined moans of ambulance
and cottonwood. All those dishes to return.

His neighbor leans on a lawnmower
purple-faced; even his once-luscious
wife wears life like a thin gown.

He scans obituaries for names of the living.
The mail slot sings its avalanche of grief,
anticipating spaces for every shotgunned

sign post, for every forgotten squash
turning to water under a canopy of leaves.
Any minute now, the phone rings.

Perhaps the great irony (or is it justice?) in The Novice Mourner is that the view of the world as harsh and unforgiving that the father in many of the poems inhabits is now adopted by McKinney himself. The circle is complete. Another father has jettisoned his burden for a son to carry. As McKinney’s past surfaces and is processed, it cannot escape submission to the grim requirements of the serious consequences given on any particular day.

It is a testament to Beth Spencer at Bear Star Press that she is able to let a variety of styles commingle in The Novice Mourner, for the real glue is the emotional weightiness of the subject matter. The stylistic variance is also tribute to McKinney’s understanding the game of sloughing off labels that have been affixed—as X kind of poet or Y kind of poet. The tone of the book can deaden joy at times, again understandable in light of the subject. However, if one bears down and is willing to immerse oneself into the craggy depths of McKinney’s level-headed look at the somber, the result will be that one begins to feel like a cancer survivor (on a long bike ride), like one has endured a long, tough battle with an adversary who plays as unfairly as life in the world does.

Forrest Gander — Eye Against Eye

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on November 18, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

Forrest Gander is always writing snatches of the infinitesimal, the ineffable. The smaller the detail and the more impervious it is to the membrane of the human eye, the more likely Gander is to throw it some attention and grant it space in his collection of writings. He inhabits the microscopic like no other and employs scientific jargon and other arcane diction to encroach on the unseen world the way only scientific equipment can with its accuracy down to the nearest angstrom. He is also maddeningly protean—shifting the registers of his attention quite easily and usually without warning. However, there are a number of areas that Gander gravitates towards. He loves the natural world; in particular, birds and other animals are prevalent. The minute and sometimes outrageous details of his personal domestic life come to call. His present personal world exacts a toll as well. Also, Gander is relentlessly playing with the white space on the page. For him, the absent entails just as much as the present, and he pays great attention to it. Eye Against Eye uses the left hand margin as a place to ground every line, unlike Science & Steepleflower and Torn Awake where the fragments scatter over the page like iron filings that have just been magnetized. For this reason, there is an appearance of more narrative in Eye Against Eye as opposed to his last two previous books. Perhaps this appearance of a more storied form is due to his desire to take on more moral territory in Eye Against Eye. If Science & Steepleflower was about the contrast between seeing the world as it is presented and the obstacle of intellectualizing the visible world through a kind of scientific abstraction, and Torn Awake was about the rapture of transcendence via visible detail and that which is not normally seen, then Eye Against Eye looks at the outcome when visual fields and their attendant outlooks on the world overlap and collide. It is about the conflict of visions; sometimes they enhance and other times they destroy each other.

Eye Against Eye is organized like Torn Awake. Longer pieces serve as anchors for each section, and they are punctuated by short pieces that connect and accent each section. In Eye Against Eye there are four main pieces that are punctuated by a series of four “ligatures” (one after each longer poem). The ligatures themselves are oddities in that they don’t seem to be bridges between main pieces, nor do they cohere very much themselves. They seem to be couplet outtakes from other poems (and given Gander’s penchant for piecemeal construction, the glomming on of phrase after phrase, this assessment of the ligatures seems likely). Perhaps they are even transitional pieces that have been removed to give Gander’s poems their distinctive feel at times. In this way they might be said to be the doughnut holes of the larger poems that are themselves the doughnuts. They are collections of transitions it may be said. As scraps, ephemera, they might represent evolutionary dead ends within his works. They are little mutations that might have guided the development of a particular poem, but were no longer needed. They are vestigial, like hen’s teeth, a link to the unseen past of the organism.

Perhaps they are ligatures to the unseen, the unfelt, that are awaiting the items that can be fused to them (which are supplied by the reader). Perhaps Gander is chiding the reader to consider whether one can consider whether something can be called a ligature without its overtly connecting anything. At this reading, these pieces are still a little bit confusing as to the purpose they serve in the book.

While the ligatures may be the condiments, the four longer poems are what the reader goes to the ballpark to eat.

The first longer poem that opens the book is “<A HREF= “”Burning Towers, Standing Wall.” It is a meditation on Mayan ruins that the speaker inspects closely and in typical Gander fashion asserts the presence of those who are absent. The builders of the ruins are venerated and the destroyers are shamed. In this way it resonates with the World Trade Towers. The lives of those who perished behind the walls of the Mayan ruin are implicitly equated to those who perished in the attack on The World Trade Towers. The equation of these two is never more than implicit (beyond the title) as those who died in the Trade Towers are never explicitly invoked. Very craftily and subtly Gander implies this connection through the title alone. The ruins are inhabited by a plethora of flora and fauna: spotted turkey, iguana, trogons, quetzal, orange lichen, crows, king vultures, sea birds, gnats, iridescent butterflies, mosquitoes, wukus, cacomixtles, Capparis trees. These residents are the present ones, but the disappeared ones are the ones grieved for. Yet in the next to last line Gander posits “the fragility of presence,” not only to lament the ones who are no longer present, but also to remind the reader that the animals that occupy the ruins now are susceptible to vanishing. But it is with the human realm that Gander is primarily preoccupied. The final image in the poem is of “a bird perched at the tip of the branch. Singing, we say.” The reflection here is that even the wild world of animals that presides over the ruins is claimed by humans in the way we anthropomorphize them as mimicking human acts, like singing, when more precisely a bird’s verbal gesture only conveniently resembles song. Even the ruins, perhaps especially the ruins after Gander’s treatment of them, belong to the realm of the human and must be embraced by the humanity that survives them for as long as that impulse to embrace the ruins can be sustained. This poem is the table-setter for the “encounters” that ensue.

“Present Tense” is the poem that least addresses the moral sphere of eye against eye, will against will. The main task of this poem is to address the notion of simultaneity, the “world of physical even and mind’s word indissoluble.” The beginning of the poem is a litany of strange occupations in a “sobering enthusiasm for the unmoored no longer defining narrative.” On first approach, this is a confounding commentary (is it the “unmoored” who are no longer defining narrative, or is it the sobering enthusiasm?) Presumably it is the will and desire to apprehend those wandering bits of information which escape the encapsulating drive of narrative. The whole world blossoms simultaneously in “Present Tense” while the speaker gauges how that world is perceived, either through the lens of a knowing viewer or through the “virtuosity of feeling as it meets the mineral-hard quiddity of the world.” The ultimate presence that exists in the simultaneous now is that of the beloved. The “you” (the beloved) begins to emerge in the fourth section. The presence of the “you” overtakes all of the world’s intrusions that compel the attention. Backstory for the “you” is established. Intimate details and preferences are rehearsed. These details reach simultaneity with other distant and larger events.

you were telling me don’t lead with your left foot
just when a solar storm blew out the cell phone
I heard you say grasshoppers open their spiracles to breathe.

The inquiring mind of the speaker pushes out further at the same time it is tuned in to the local, yet it is somewhat deficient in that “our [human] inquiry is given us whether or not we can speak it / in the world’s terms by the world.” The inquisitive state of mind is the eternal present. But none of the universe’s claims on attention can finally match the claims on attention the beloved makes. The beloved becomes the universe at the end of the poem “should you fall / should you hollow inward” represents the implosion of the big-bang of the universe after the universe has extended to its final reach. The beloved “crack(s) and spill(s) the yolk of yourself,” but the speaker defies this transformation through the utmost tenderness of being there. In these last strains is the pledge of allegiance and closeness to the beloved even as the beloved ages. This is the claim made by the speaker in the present tense in the face of the past and facing the future of aging in the context of the world’s grandness. The simultaneity of events that is suggested in the poem’s title is supplanted at the end of the poem as well. The title becomes ironic. The gist of the poem is about the past and the future not the present. The speaker seems to assert that the present as it manifests itself in the world is full of things that do matter, but not ultimately so.

In “Late Summer Entry” the eye of the poet is matched against the eye of the photographer, in this case, Sally Mann, whose ethereal landscapes provide the canvas for Gander’s meditations and insertions of the speaker into the scene. No one writing today is better than Gander at tracing the path from vision to intellection and unpacking this process along the way. Miraculously, Gander’s insights are declarative and informative, yet they remain mystical too. These pieces are the most magical in the book. The herky-jerky accretion of fragment he uses in the other pieces (which emphasize disjunction as much as connection) give way to a wholly discursive presentation even though Gander takes it upon himself to create a sense of brokenness in “Collodion” and “Argosy for Rock and Grass” and “Road and Tree.” The majority read like prose poems with Gander’s careful attention to detail and oeuvre providing much descriptive language that maps onto the photos we see. He animates many of these landscapes with the life of the unseen or loads them to carry metaphysical freight. Such is especially the case with “Science & Steepleflower” which comments on the photo that was the cover of the book of the same name published in 1998.


The temperate velvet sheen on the water is not applied, but
constitutive. Just the stream utters light. The woods are hushed.
The vagueness of a near shoreline endows the water with a
transfigured, opalescent lour. We see the reflection of trees, partly
erased in splotches, as though a delicate mist. Our eyes following
the stream until shadows pinch off the flow of our gaze.

Because the realm is uncertain, it prompts us. Not placid,
but haunting, this pastoral. the shaggy forest is dim, private,
oneiric. And the circular frame of the image closes inward.
Called vignetting, this girdling dark is a metaphor, and it has two
meanings. It signals the onset of our blink, and as such, can be
read as a sign of the evanescence of the image that, even in the act
of preservation, must be relinquished. However it is equally
indicative of the incipient vision opening to us from the other side
of consciousness, the muscular curtain drawing back from the
beginning of a dream.

The end of this piece is where we see Gander hearkening back to Torn Awake, his 2001 effort on New Directions. The last sentence is about as explicit of a definition of the transcendence he explored in that book. Some might question this section of the book who know Gander’s previous efforts and who hail him as restlessly experimental. He seems to be rehashing old subject matter, yet I for one am entranced by his mastery when writing about this subject matter—the marriage of vision to thought. For those who come to Gander’s work for the first time in Eye Against Eye, I suspect this section will provide the most impact. One might argue here, though, that the form Gander chooses to play with these themes is a novel one. The dialogue he has with Mann’s photograph provides an insight into the praxis for his conceptual/theoretical work in Torn Awake. Here we see his tendency toward romantic transcendence in action as he transforms many of these seemingly lifeless and barren (certainly understated in a way that, say, Ansel Adams is not) landscapes into frames teeming with brisk lives of their own and ready to trigger thought.

The final section of the book, “The Mission Thief,” is a Borgesian-like narrative of forking paths. The main trajectory of the poem follows down the same path of the latter part of “Present Tense.” The speaker almost fawningly illustrates his gratitude for his presence at the side of his beloved on a seemingly innocuous day in San Francisco’s Mission District. However, an interesting turn of events occurs at the end. The speaker is presented with an instantaneous moral choice. A homeless person who has stolen a bicycle is hurtling toward him. The speaker can either be a man of action and interfere on behalf of the righteous, but at the potential cost of being ripped away from the bliss of having his beloved by his side. In addition, by acting he exposes a coarser, tougher side to his beloved than he is accustomed to exhibiting. The second choice is to let the bicycle thief go by and commiserate with the grief of those who have been harmed by the theft. Unlike Vittorio de Sica’s classic, “The Bicycle Thief” where the moral weight is placed on those who happen to be harmed by the thief, the innocent victims, if you will, here Gander chooses to put the moral question to the bystander, the role that has been so easy to take on in complex modern societies. He presents good reasons for staying out of harm’s way. The poem presents one kind of ending and then in a “doubletake” that manages to bifurcate the poem, the poem ends with the choice of complacency and passivity. Gander seems to be rewarding this choice as the path to peace and well-being. There are regrets for this failure to act. He takes on the grief of the injured party. It is the speaker’s burden to be befuddled by the events that are transpiring when he says, “the world shifts / along a hairline crack / you can’t tell / what is happening / until it moves on and is gone / as someone and someone’s grief / careen around a corner.”

It is fairly transparent that Gander’s real subject here is not really the slice-of-life drama that he depicts. Rather, this scene acts as a metaphor for one’s passive complicity with or active stance against world-shaping events (like the War On Terrorism or the war in Iraq). The metaphor is apt insofar as the decisive moment arrives as the speaker is still somewhat befuddled by events. However, the metaphor breaks down somewhat because, for me, there is no equivalency between theft and today’s scourge of terrorism and its accompanying efforts. Theft is easy to greet with moral certitude that it is wrong. Terrorism is quite different in this regard. As the old saying has it, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. While I don’t fancy that every mujahideen is a principled freedom fighter, I have difficulty in escaping the realm of moral ambiguity when I contemplate their project, even if I don’t condone their means. Of course, the thief, too, is not without sympathy; however, a purse snatcher is far easier to recognize as a moral hazard, and it is easy to lump the homeless man who is a bicycle thief into this same general category. Certainly this is why Gander must choose a homeless man as the thief because it is easier to see this act as one of desperation. [Unfortunately, I suppose this is upsetting for all of the homeless who can afford to read this book and see themselves depicted in such an unfavorable light.] The central moral question Gander presents is both a timeless and a timely one. Is there a moral obligation to thwart the desperate act of someone whose action may cause grief or harm to others? I think I hear Gander saying that the world moves past such harm and grief, and the individual act to thwart such desperation only leads to more grief and harm (made right by an immediate sense of vindication), and the immediate act often has the effect of poisoning the attitudes of those who previously thought well of you.

One of the most satisfying aspects of any of Gander’s work (and Eye Against Eye is no exception) is the apparent fastidious technique that lies beneath the surface of the poems. It is fascinating for me to imagine how the accretion of fragments come together to achieve a system that is poised at the edge of entering a chaotic regime. In his book of essays A Faithful Existence, Gander describes his technique like this:

Sometimes I begin poems with a structural penchant, but unlike the Oulipoians, whom I admire, my architecture deforms according to what it comes to contain. A long poem, “The Faculty for Hearing the Silence of Jesus,” started as mimetic enthusiasm for a rhetorical motif in a section of the Bhagavad-Gita, but in the final version of my poem, no approximation of the original pattern remains. Overriding musical and semantic concerns transformed the poem. “Feel pattern, be wed” goes the gnomic verse that guides me.

Whether form or cadence triggers the poems, measure always conducts my composition. Writing, I pass from time to space, from succession to juxtaposition. I write the poem in all directions at once, emphasizing not the stability of single words but the transition that emanates between them, or between it and its rings of association, rings of silence. My idea of meaning derives from the continuity of the transition, which is, for me, erotic

These cobbled-together forms of slow accretion must be informed by the geological process of stratification where layer upon layer are added to come up with a complex structure. The poem is then the cross section of these layers (some of the information missing as it is cut away). [In this way Gander’s work reminds me of the Austrian avant-gardist, Friederike Mayröcker, whose work I have translated and whose poems also provide the reader with the similar feeling that he/she is only seeing the cross section of a healthy number of tangents she has pursued. the overall effect of Mayröcker is phantasmagorical whereas Gander is more steady and wondrous.].

However, these accumulating fragments in Gander also remind me of a biological metaphor, that of point mutations which give rise to appendages that are grown but then perhaps abandoned, resulting in evolutionary leaps and bounds (successful adaptations) and evolutionary dead-ends. To extend the metaphor a little further, each fragment has its aura of effect, just as, say, a mutated gene may result in a cascade effect whereby it effects many other kinds of other genes or even distant cell types. A self-proliferating system is borne, one where, as the system grows more and more complex, accumulating more and more bits and fragments, it is catalyzed again and again by the new fragments it takes on. Indeed, this is exactly the process of autocatalysis that Stuart Kauffman describes in The Origins of Order and elsewhere. It is autocatalysis which explains how, despite the statistical improbability of random molecular interactions leading to the first amino acid within the pre-biotic soup, amino acids, the presumed building blocks of cellular life were formed. Gander’s fragments, while far from being random, come together in the same way to bring about his complex poetic structures.

Donald Revell — A Thief of Strings

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on November 18, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

Last week after coaching my son’s soccer games (one a delightful romp in victory, the other a game which featured another goalless loss) I came home to a sobering scene. The dog was lying on its side, breathing heavily and looking kind of glassy-eyed. An attempt to bring her outside resulted in her legs buckling and her falling to the grass. The situation looked dire. A quick trip to the vet confirmed our suspicions. She was dying, a ruptured spleen. The life or death decision arrived at about five o’ clock that evening. My wife deferred. The decision was mine. Do I extend her 10-year-old life through extraordinary means or do I get used to mornings waking up without any heat-sharing hound next me, a den of one?

Donald Revell has provided me with a number of meaningful experiences through the years. His early books like The Gaza of Winter, New Dark Ages and Erasures were instrumental in illustrating the use of recursion as a strategy for coherence beyond any kind of formal structure. This knowledge served as a crutch for many years. Whenever I didn’t know where to turn next in a piece, I luxuriated in the look back. Revell excelled in such byzantine recursion that it inspired awe at how he could orchestrate his poems so that they coiled so tightly in around themselves.

Of course, now in his recent collection of essays entitled The Art of Attention Revell eschews such “strategies” as a kind of training wheels for the imagination which would be better served if they were just taken off. His aim is for an Eden where the senses are clicking on all cylinders. If one only pays attention with all the energy that attention demands, really paying attention, then one arrives through the imagination at the poem as it can be fully imagined. One keeps one’s senses open, one’s eyes attuned, reacting intuitively. This leaves out a lot of talk of strategy, technique, and craft. In fact, it leaves out all talk of it.

I’m not sure I can fully get on board with an aesthetic that entrusts itself to a leap of faith. I have a penchant for strategy and technique, and I often find myself trying to elucidate that in many of my essays. I find a cryptic will to be an unsatisfactory explanation for how a poem is put together. Even if there are intuitive moves, there seem to be reasons for them, if only after-the-fact ones. The irrational/sub-rational has its structure too.

Another reason I am wary of letting the intuitive imagination be the essence of the creative act is that without some reflection on technique, the imagination can get locked into making many of the same kinds of intuitive moves. One starts to write the same poem over and over again without some sort of critical faculty stepping in. Perhaps in Revell’s case that critical faculty is intuitively built in as well, but it would be nice to see it in action, evaluating and deciding, not endlessly drifting to another shore.

Also, I suspect much of the leaping of faith that occurs within Revell’s discussion of his aesthetic in The Art of Attention as well as his collection A Thief of Strings is due to his newly found devotion to God, a mystical Judeo-Christian God, who sits smack dab in the middle of the poems with all the associative sparks running through wires to electrodes fastened onto the bashful deity in order to jolt it to life.

Here is an example (the poem that closes out section II):

What If Christ Were a Snowflake Falling into the Sea

The water is taller than itself,
Covering spirits of the air beneath.
And so the land, so mountainous beside,
Does not exist.

Have you thought about the future?
Take your finger and rub it across a stone.
Do you feel it?
Heat where nothing but cold most certainly is.

The water does not suspect.
A distant star is plotting with the center of the Earth
Against the Earth.
And the lake rises. The outlet rivers rise.

There is also an uprising in Kiev.
God is love.

It is interesting how Revell, who seemed more focused on sociopolitical history has taken a more spiritual focus with his later books. In A Thief of Strings this religious outlook is at its most pronounced. One wonders if, after a good deal of one’s younger life spent thinking about the intricacies of sociopolitical and historical intrigues, Revell hasn’t burned out on all the cynicism it generates and has opted to dismiss all of it for a more sweeping view of how social change occurs. Agreement with this take by Revell would hinge upon the debate about the efficacy of the monks demonstrating in Myanmar this week. Are they merely graves-in-waiting?

It is almost as if Revell has reversed the poles on Pessoa, whose sensate poet Alberto Caeiro took precedence early in his writing life only to be displaced by the more complicated, nuanced Alvaro de Campos. I prefer the older Revell in the same way I prefer de Campos to Caeiro.

However, I wonder if my preference isn’t a terribly mean and confining trick I am playing on both myself and Revell, like saying the new Bruce Springsteen doesn’t hold a candle to the classic old style of The Boss whose work at that time captured everyone’s imagination and attention.

Also, I must recognize that as a born-again heathen (who experienced a brief conversion to the God-is-love crowd during a high school Bible camp only to fall back into my slovenly way of thinking once I returned home) my tolerance for Christian platitude is not very high.

I shrink from those who declaim environmental decay, social unrest, and the impending destruction of the planet by a supernova star and then summarize their stance with “God is love.” Unless one believes that God loves us by punishing us. . . you wear the black latex mask and body suit, Christ, O my Commander.

But perhaps I am not being fair to the Christian Revell. Maybe I am not reading his work in the spirit he intends. Perhaps God in his work is not really a deity per se as much as it is the concept of god, an ecumenical habit of mind [though I must admit that a capitalized G in God is loaded; it makes it hard for me to see such a thing as reaching broadly across the religious spectrum despite what supporters for the Pledge of Allegiance to keep “under God” might say]. Certainly he aims again and again at the metaphysical with his God, and I am willing to follow him there despite my not feeling particularly compelled to name things in the afterlife.

I freely admit that I am among the faithless. I don’t believe very well, my genetic shortcoming.

The first half of the book is crowded with references to God and Heaven and Eden and prayer. Angels seemingly appear as “white linen floating in the sky” in the anchor piece of the first section entitled “O Rare.” But apart from these forays into the spiritual superstructure, Revell interlaces copious amounts of witnessing nature, almost as if he has become tired of the travails of men. He is becoming animal, informed by the memory of his father that “my eyes and my sister’s eyes were brown like those of a deer.”

Revell also includes quotations from somewhat obscure literary works: the writings of Goethe and, later in the book, Thoreau’s journal and Thomas Traherne’s meditation no. 28 from one of his Centuries. Often I feel I am caught between the vice grip of the literary Revell who alludes to rather obscure texts and to the Revell who is obliterating himself, his knowledge, his memory, with what is displayed as divine before his senses, his art of attention.

Here in ”Bartram’s Travels” Revell travels alongside the 18th Century American botanist William Bartram who chronicled his explorations through the south among the Seminole and Cherokee to explore and record the flora and fauna of the area. In this poem the crossing over is the central metaphor, and like some tag-along of The Ghost Shirt Rebellion, the speaker here emerges on the other side remarkably unscathed showing “no signs of burn.”

In ”Landscape Near Biloxi, Mississippi Revell flashes his environmental concerns through reference to murdered islands, both figuratively and literally. But it is the dismemberment of both Pentheus (mistaken for an animal hiding in a tree while he spied on the bacchic rites) and Actaeon (torn apart by his own hounds after setting eyes on a naked Artemis bathing in the woods). In the poem it is the shrimp boats and other commercial fare that are degrading the barrier islands. The loss of these barrier islands has been mentioned as a strong reason for why New Orleans and the surrounding area were hit so hard by the recent hurricanes. In this Revell acknowledges that “the god is a destroyer . . . the goddess is a maw.” Revell questions the justice of such gods, but could not a Christian god be implicated in similar acts of destruction? It is curious to me that the Greeks have to bear the full force of Revell’s judgment of being unjust.

In ”The Wisdoms” Revell returns to his contemplation of the sociopolitical realm. In particular, he seems to be commenting on the loss of unity in America. He laments: “Time was, a man or woman had to love me. / That was America. That was a chief concern.” But the disunity he addresses does not seem to be based on religious or foreign policy differences. It is based on the colors: “Broken glass is alive too, / In the colors. In them, I was a republic.” The speaker, a spokesperson for a country, talks of the loss of status as republic. The title appears to make reference to the wisdom lost in not paying attention to the colors. This could be read symbolically, as above, for the ethnic and racial diversity of America or as an appreciation for the dance of light that is reality. Revell seems to be saying that seeing things clearly without any filter, can restore unity. After all, the epigraph seems to refer to the moment of Goethe’s passing and his monumental utterance of “Light! More Light!” on his deathbed. The wisdom that Goethe passed on was that seeing, perceiving, was enough of a reason to linger in the realm of the human.

On top of all of the poetry of witness and the literary Revell is a heaping helping of the apocalyptic vision. The passing of the world of men is treated as a foregone conclusion in many places in the book, especially in “The Last Guitar,” a three-part piece in the last section of the book . In this piece, Revell invokes “the last guitar” as the final song that humanity plays. He is imagining what comes after, and through God, he assures us as readers that “the last guitar is but the first of many.” This would be a hopeful sign if it weren’t for the fact that all but the heartiest of creatures will be dead. It is here that we see mortality as only an intermission in the big musical Herr Direktor has planned.

Mortality also is apparent in the jaunty little “Stoic.” Despite its title and final image, the tone of this piece is not so weighty. It invokes the WWII invasion of Norway (presumably) as a parallel, no doubt, to our own current American disaster of an invasion, but then there is paratactical shift to what seems like an episode of Lassie where we, as readers, await some sort of rescue. However, the only rescue forthcoming is from a blissful ignorance, a return to sensation that feeds the soul and keeps us alive. King Kong, another animal, is watched, and then the ominous animal appears in the last line. Is Revell commenting that the only respite from the current war and the death it brings is to busy ourselves with watching animals as a reminder of who we are, of our fragility?


My soul is a mind and a meander, a Mrs. Luxe.
Little Spartan boy, release the animal in your shirt!
It isn’t a wolf cub, it’s a puppy soon
To be Lassie, and she’s needed
For the invasion of Norway, that disastrous offensive.

Her parachute opens.
A minute or so later,
Her paws touch delicately down
Onto the glacier, and instantly
The ice turns a radiant deep sky-blue
Wherever she goes. Peter Lawford
Is rescued and returns to England.
Lassie remains behind,
Changing every inch of the arctic earth into blue sky
Which is becoming my mind.

My soul has turned from now to then.
It’s all a luxury, this being alive.
Read me that women’s poetry, I’m watching King Kong.
There’s an animal up my sleeve and it’s killing me.

The literary forebears Revell invokes are solitary types, and this collection is imbued with a solitary tone. In almost every piece the meandering associative presentation gravitates between a solitary witnessing and the spiritual implications of watching the world, tinged with a copious amount of literary learning. This is not to say that it is boring and plodding. Revell is never guilty of being boring. His associative leaps are almost always daring and fresh. This is the part of the show that everyone who comes to it admires and respects. At times I can’t always ride along with him on his daring mission, and I have to watch as he travels into terra incognito. This is the stuff that second, third, fourth readings are made of. At times it can be a little annoying as when he makes grand surrealistic moves like “The sky is sassafras / And also a balloon landing.” “There are stars / made wholly of woodsmoke.” “Between French and death / The houses sail like baseballs.” These are rather isolated examples and they are taken out of context; however, I could not rope them to any cleat in the larger poem. [When one operates according to instinct, some moves are going to land in a particular reader, others won’t.] Contrarily, Revell also delivers some absolutely zinger lines. My favorite in the book is:

Easternmost archangel, untune my words and teach me tanager.”

I’m not really sure why the easternmost archanagel should be called upon for such tutleage; however, I find that, at times, I would like to learn tanager too.

The untuning of the mind is a large concern of Revell’s too, following in the footsteps of his anti-rational Francophile heroes. Rimbaud appears a couple of times in the book, but paired with an interest in those American writers who lean toward a transcendentalist mode, Revell seems to encourage an overcoming of the mind by dismantling it, suspending reason. This is the way of faith I am told, but I am too weak and exhausted in my present condition to use it as a guide for raising my children. If I don’t keep my wits about me, they’ll start stealing all of my food.

I suppose that Revell would caution me to be mindful that none of what is part of this earth, what is perceived, can be owned for very long. What harm can there be in a little stealing, a little redistribution of wealth if the aim is honorable, such as grasping for a more spiritual plain through song.

In the thirteen-part title poem “A Thief of Strings” Revell introduces us to a thief of guitar strings that he again is witnessing from a distance. He uses the EBGDAE of a guitar’s standard tuning to riff on, one line beginning with a word that corresponds to the E, followed by the next that begins with a B, and so on. These sequences of invention recur throughout the piece and serve as a way to bind the reader to one of the central events in the piece—the stolen guitar strings. Revell seems to side with the motives of the thief who is only aiming to do what birds do naturally. Furthermore, Revell makes an even more radical claim for dispossessing oneself, for “disowning” and “helplessness” such as in the poem’s final section:

from A Thief of Strings


Outside his shop
In the leafy sunlight
The clockmaker smokes at ease,
Singing a little,
Rapping a cadence
Against his artificial leg
With his good leg.
His shop sign is a broken clock face
Filled with leaves.
These metaphors mix themselves,
And I say hurray for helplessness!

Who made my eyes? Not I.
And an almshouse everywhere?

When I am alone the air
is flecked with sassafras.
Crowded before me in shoals
Happy shrieks grow old.
I say hurray for helplessness!
What use to a man is Man?

When I left the train I could hear
Singing in the trees. It was the trees
Who sang. When I was a boy
It was the trees who sang. My whole life
From the end of childhood
Until this very moment
Is one bird nowhere.
Not forgotten. Free.

Revell reminds us that we are paying tribute with our eyes, that everywhere is an almshouse. This is the price we must pay for being free like animals.

I’m reminded of Rilke in the eighth Duino Elegy (tr. by Edward Snow):

If the assured animal that approaches up
on such a different path had in it consciousness
like ours—, it would wheel us round
and make us change our lives. But its existence
is for it infinite, ungrasped, completely
without reflection—, pure, like its outward gaze.
And where we see Future it sees Everything
and itself in Everything and healed forever.

Sometimes though, the reality, strangely enough, is elsewhere. A price is attached to the life of an animal. That said, I still could not give up on my dog. I suppose it was not so much for the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to disown the dog and allow it to untether itself from its moorings in this world (though that may be partly true also). The thing I kept thinking about in my rather haphazard anthropomorphic way was that if the tables were reversed, and she were making a life and death decision about my continued existence, she’d let me have one more fighting opportunity, one more chance, rationality be damned. And so it is with Donald Revell and me. That comfortable relationship I’ve had with him as literary kindred spirit has been strained by circumstance. His forays into the spiritual have caused me to question why my meanderings into spirit have stopped short of the chasm of faith. However, there is still enough there, still enough “wet tongues on the nose” to make me want more, to want to see him fight for more of that sassafras air. In the end, I just can’t put the ol’ dog down.

Other poems from A Thief of Strings: ”Sibylline”, Landscape with Warhol and the Coming of Spring, 2003”

Bill Rasmowicz—The World in Place of Itself

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on November 16, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

I have often mused aloud in this space why many American academics have taken a dislike to the surrealist aesthetic. There are many reasons why this has become the norm rather than the exception. Some include a disdain for the kind of surrealism that propels progressive rock bands to forge their names, the great disdain for a pop adaptation of an once-challenging aesthetic movement; another is that so much of the time surrealism’s distance from reality is off-putting. The way things are is quite interesting too. Boilerplate surrealism tends to overvalue the realm of the purely imaginary without paying homage to the fact that it is imagined.

Bill Rasmovicz’s The World In Place of Itself is an acknowledgment of that distance within surrealism, yet there is a very real intent to root the otherworldliness in direct experience. The images are grounded. In this way they represent more of the Eastern European branch of surrealism rather than the French and Spanish versions. The feel is similar to the great anthology of pre- and post-war Serbian poetry edited by Charles Simic The Horse Has Six Legs. There is even a Na Zdravje thrown in for added authentic flavor in the poem “Assimilation.”

This is not the surrealism of Dali and Tanguy painting their distortions of space. Nor is it the surrealism of Magritte-like logical absurdity. Rasmovicz’s poetry is where folk painting meets the development of a more complicated context, a world of things that is so unique it must be represented as directly experienced. It’s rendering of the world is the same as the odd juxtapositions of a man whose personal collection of objects contains a little bit of everything. An American attic surrealism. In Rasmovicz’s case, that little bit of everything is his collection of language and things in the world represented by that language.

But he has updated the old world Slavic style to include the furniture of a contemporary American life. No one would expect Popa to invoke “a desolate factory yard consecrated by bullet casings and chemical spill.” or “The evenings smell of tar, methane,” and “graffiti where no one can reach, someone scouring the dumpster with the instrumentation reserved for picking a lock.” The unexpected modern intrusions are usually of a gritty nature, one that can easily be contained within the largely old world feel. These modern intrusions are kept to a minimum, and more often than not Rasmovicz invokes more time-honored objects into his collection of featured language.

The effect is what happens when Transylvania and the suburbs of New Jersey merge. This can be quite a mess if these are forced. In general, this is another objection raised by academics to surrealism. In the worst hands it can be brutally forced. This is the greatest pleasure in reading Rasmovicz. Never does it feel forced. The imagery is propelled with a great ease. It seems to emanate from the slow burn of visual experience instead of the mind’s quick crucible of melded language. Despite the fantastic images, the poems feel lived in. The world is filtered through all of Rasmovicz’s sensory mechanisms. It is not quickly assembled to create an arcane object for others to gawk at.

In the title poem, Rasmovicz creates a scene where the presence of human longing seems miraculous, just the hope for a kind of desire appears as a marvel among the rather grim imagery. This is a world that seems on the verge of falling apart or becoming exposed to bacterial decay. One can almost feel the sepia tones creeping along the skin as you read.

The World In Place of Itself

The pressure coiled in my ears, I’d wake:
only trampled grass outside where the hoists and pulleys
were dragged away.

A steepletop prodded the sky to bursting,
though somehow the air was filled again with air.
The light at once arriving and having

always been, these were mornings after which the crows
had their long conversations with the dead
and silence could not be heard for its breaking.

At 8:00 a.m., a man floated by on the scent of his newspaper’s
promise and perils.
I could hardly believe the scaffolding of my bones

would hold, how my blood seized
and began again, seamless. Neighbors spoke shruggingly
and if there was talk of love

there was talk of war. Leaves taunted the wind
for more wind, and the sea, gnawed free of the moon,
flapped at the listless shore, resolute with going nowhere.

While through to each follicle,
the sensation: not desire, but a desire for desire,
and hardly even that.

So is Rasmovicz’s world one that can be inhabited only by depressives who wonder where hope and wonder went in the world? Certainly it is a world that seems to be punctuated by solitary investigations, but there is such beauty and care taken in crafting the images of this world that one senses a distinct joy in its presence despite some initially-perceived dreariness. It is a world carved out of some rich, dark hard wood. It is something that is hard to get through, but if one does, a thing of beauty arises at the end.

In ”Ars Metaphysica” a magical persists, a world that enjoys its own distinct alchemy of tire smoke and moon-eyes and soul-possessing wolves. But from the very first line we see that the landscape is one that exists in the head. It is imagined. This is another rhetorical move that separates Rasmovicz from boilerplate surrealism. The surrealist ethos is to posit a world that is beyond the naturally occurring one, or a world that happens in the interstices of the naturally occurring one. Rasmovicz, however, is not keen to this delusion. He, more realistically, posits his world as an imagined one. The author’s (and presumably the reader’s) consciousness serves as the filter between the naturally-occurring one and the imagined one. Rasmovicz is honest about his imagination’s machinations.

This would provide an insight to the title of the book. The world In place of itself suggests that while you were sleeping Rasmovicz decided to rearrange the furniture of the real world, free substituting one image with any other image that occurs. Of course, the nd result of this is that the furniture of one’s consciousness as it perceives that dar other world is also rearranged. In this way, Rasmovicz restores the classic mission of the surrealists (and he is more honest about this process) with his title.

It seems to me that the alteration of consciousness is an aesthetic aim of the surrealists that too often is neglected by them. The image play of many surrealists seems an affectation (another reason why many academics hate surrealists).

Rasmovicz’s world also exhibits a certain transparency. In ”On Becoming Light” the speaker’s hand transforms into light and then flies away like a bird. All of this suggests Rasmovicz’s world lost substantiality. Things seemed to pulse toward the brightness but now that seems hopeless. Even the shopworn notion of love is what is killing the speaker and the occupants of Rasmovicz’s world. The only form of redemption is the inexplicable magic of the place. To the extent one can rely on the magic of the natural world penetrating one’s body, then one can be all right in Rasmovicz’s world.

Rasmovicz’s experience and training as a pharmacist might provide some explanation as to why he has sought this dark world as refuge in his book. Often it is with the scripted understanding of the world via chemistry and biology that one seeks to take refuge in a more magical realm. I often found myself longing for more wonder as I made my way through my scientific training. The diagrams and equations made for a kind of unsettling certainty and confidence about the clockwork of the natural world. The majesty is often lost. Often it is poetry’s place to reseed the majesty, the unknown so that it can flourish again outside of human understanding.

One might also speculate amusingly that Rasmovicz’s knowledge of pharmacy has opened the doors of perception into his dark world. But oh how jaded I have become. Pharmaceuticals are not magic!

But with the remorse felt for the loss of the unknown, there is also a supplemental social concern, a desire for the unknown other.


Because of his limp I noticed him approaching,
a blister from too-tight shoes,
the bulk of his frame coerced into women’s attire.
His hair was sort of a landscape-of-Mars orange.

and his makeup, fermenting honeydew.
As a woman he wasn’t convincing. Not the gender
was the issue, but it looked painful,
and his struggle, mythic: man against himself,

his gaze fixed to where the sole of his shoe was loose
and stuttering now at the sidewalk.
Heat was rising from the pavement, the humidity
bearing down. He looked up, he gravity of my eyes

drawing his. I looked away—
how can the body feel so much
unlike itself as to believe it is someone else?
Who is it we should have been all along

and what part of our nature is in fact transmutable?
The cars were floating by like clouds.
The clouds, diminishing in the pink light of an August
almost gone. But given that we were all

what we may not have had in mind, who amongst us
hasn’t sought refuge outside themselves from
the heart’s inclement weather?
Should I say hello? The arc of his posture was a wave

about to break. And who was I to think he was
someone other than himself?
At that moment we passed each other, my voice
a stone in my throat, my throat collapsing into itself.

How do I acquire sympathy for the world,
an understanding of what it is to be you, when
the only way to know you is to be you?
I turned to look; he was small in the distance.

In the artifice of my body, I was small.
The pink light was gray. The sound of the cars, gray.
An almost criminal silence.
Then, sadness: I was afraid for us both.

Again the baseline motion for the piece is an all-pervasive sadness. Everything boils down to a longed-for perfect sympathy that can’t be achieved. There are seemingly a lot of very high expectations placed on this world, an after-effect of Rasmovicz ‘s inhabiting a scientific world where everything glimmers with the patina of being perfectly explained, perfectly functional. Falling short of the presumed optimal goal leaves fear and sadness to dominate.

What does this mean to have a filter of consciousness that provides a frothy world with more that is ephemeral than what is hard, substantial able to emit joy? Is this signaling a basic distrust of consciousness to provide for that which is ultimately satisfying? Is the filter of consciousness an object worn down by the visible world? Rasmovicz seems to distrust any notion that such a filter is capable of supplying anything other than its gothic charm. But perhaps this assumed weight is what allows the reader to take Rasmovicz’s world seriously as an objet d’art.

Despite the weight of what feels like a world borne out of hanging around in Europe’s great cathedrals, the craft and attentive care paid to the specific images wrought are more than ample reward for reading this book. If you love great imagery, then this book will surely not disappoint.

If, however, you are looking for a book that informs one about one’s contemporary historical moment in America, then one may need to look elsewhere unless one presumes that Rasmovicz is positing the US as a rather sad and ineffectual place, a place with its spiritual core barely intact.

The time and place are more reminiscent of Yugoslavia or the Czech Republic with the war’s aftermath lingering in the fabric of everything. Indeed, Rasmovicz invokes a war in lines from “Resumption”, such as “No one recognized the bars over their windows or the stains of war.” This could be read as a nod in the direction of the current predicament in Iraq, especially in the closing lines: “A man threw seed to his chickens like it was holy water, / while springing up from the dirt all around me / like tiny islands, the Roman empire.

Mostly, though, The World in Place of Itself is interested in looking at the emotional qualities of a world whose objects have been unmoored from their traditional contexts. The result is remorse for the lost world, it seems, as well as an acknowledgment for the dark beauty of the created world.

In ”The Accordion” (the version on this site is slightly misspelled and edited from the version that appears in the book) the afterlife has stolen away too, a relic. Everything that could possibly bring meaning has been bombed out. But by what? One has a tendency to ask. Perhaps it isn’t too far to read many of these poems as commentary on American spiritual malaise.

In “Manifest Destiny” Rasmovicz is speaking with more of a directness to an America than he is in nearly every other piece in the book.

<Manifest Destiny

Waking up, my eyes crumbled bricks,
my breathing labored from traipsing all night through

the catacombs of sleep. There were wars going on.
You could see it in the lay of their faces.

Dogs coursed through the streets with their own agenda.
Clothes flagged the alleyways. I too was trying to forget

who I was or wasn’t; my focus, the blister forming between
my toes from new sandals, where one might obtain

a cappuccino. Hansom boats lined the pier,
and tourists with new tans brandishing cameras, waiting

for the perfect subtropical sunset. Gardens were
strategically planted at the intersections, palms imported,

buildings painted adamant shades of pink and yellow.
There was at least the ambiance of someone trying.

Still, how could one help but wonder what the sea was
muttering behind the afternoon’s hazy sheen?

which receded, wave after truckling wave on the rocks,
and everyone so painfully absorbed in their own role:

the trees, bathers floating on their backs and cars
revving by; all of them, bawdy actors. Stand-ins merely

to make manifest the mind’s perambulations,
as even the merest absence is less than can be imagined.

What a besieged place. Is this America? The title seems to suggest so. The end result from so much longing, so much pushing outward, pushing west is absence. Even the absence is less, though, than the absence the mind can supply.

The mind’s perambulations are blessing the absence. They supply the absence. All knowing is lost. Is this the final frontier of despair? Perhaps in America as we begin to imagine our loss, we will also inhabit it in the naturally-occurring world.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved this book, but before you read it you should be prepared to get your inoculations against despair and loss. Don’t expect the mind to come and bail you out. In Rasmovicz’s world, the mind is what is stirring up all the trouble in the first place. The World in Place of Itself is world-weary and seeking respite in the darkness of an elsewhere, a yesteryear, an emotionally-barren plane of existence.

But if you keep coming back to The Horse Has Six Legs as I find myself doing in times of trouble, frustration with this world, and existential crisis, Bill Rasmovicz’s The World in Place of Itself is an indispensable volume.

Frank Stanford — The Singing Knives

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on November 15, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

It is hard for me to remember a book where a sense of place imprinted itself upon me as a reader. The setting of the poems in Frank Stanford’s The Singing Knives become the main character in the book. The backwoods ethos and strange folkways of the characters who are invoked make one feel like one is witnessing the 1970s version of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. There is a lot of unusual behavior going on, but it all makes perfect sense to those who are in the middle of the action.

I kept getting the feeling that I was slowly being led to the scene of a crime. Indeed, there are many violent acts that take place in the poems. Knives are thrown. Hands are cut off. Houses are burned down. And that’s just the first eighteen pages. One gets the sense that the characters in Stanford’s poems in The Singing Knives are very passionate about life. Stanford’s work is nothing if not cinematic. It is not surprising to me that he was interested in film. The kinds of images he employs are ones that fill up the screen. They are larger than life, taking on an almost surreal quality . . . and perhaps they are surreal, but perhaps they’re not. This tension is what keeps the reader advancing forward, propelled toward answering the question in the mind whether there is possibly anyone as quirky as the characters assembled in the pages of the book. At times I imagine them as The Little Rascals with a streak of bloodthirstiness, like Sam Peckinpah was a guest director for an episode or two.

In fact, Spanky, Alfalfa and Buckwheat make an appearance in “Elegy For My Father,” a poem about the devil who has taken a shine to beating his wife. the speaker is waiting for the Negroe to set off in the dynamite while he waits in the roots of the cypress tree. There is some sort of natural cataclysm that occurs with animal body parts flying around. Then we arrive back at the opening disconnected scene (in italics) of Spanky and Buckwheat putting a gar in Alfalfa’s sock in order to calm him. At the end of the poem Alfalfa is singing with his gar leg on and this image is immediately juxtaposed against the image of the socks of the speaker’s father. The piece is an elegy to (presumably) Stanford’s father (1883-1963).

The odd details swirl to portray a picture that never opts for intense close-up and focus. The perspective shifts mightily, and the reader is always on his heels taking in new action information.

The Singing Knives

The dogs woke me up
I looked out the window

Jimmy ran down the road
With the knife in his mouth
He was naked
And the moon
Was a dead man floating down the river

He jumped on the gypsy’s pony
He rode through camp
I could see the dust

There was the saddlebag full of knives
He was crazy

When Jimmy cut a throat
The eyes rolled back in the head
Like they was baptized
I tell you
When he cut a throat
It was like Abednego’s guitar
And the blood
Flew out like a quail

He had the red hand
He poked the eyes out

I dreamed I stepped over a log
And there was fire in my foot
I dreamed I saw a turkey and two wildcats
Jumped on me at the same time
I dreamed jimmy was pouring ice water
Over my head at noon

I dreamed I heard somebody
Singing in the outhouse
I dreamed the mad dog bit the Gypsy
And they tied him to a tree
I dreamed I was buried in the Indian mound
And moon lake rose up
I dreamed my father was wading the river of death
With his heart in his hand
I dreamed Jimmy rowed out the front door
With a hawk on his shoulder
And I was in the bow kneeling down
I dreamed the blacksnake rode the guitar
Down the river
I dreamed the clouds went by
The moon like dead fish
I dreamed I was dragging
A cotton sack with a dead man in it
I dreamed the fish bandits stole the hogs
Off my lines
And one of them was hunchback
I dreamed the night was a horse
With its eyes shut
I dreamed I had to fight
the good man with the bad arm
And he had the dynamite
I dreamed I trailed a buck from Panther Brake to Panther Burn
I dreamed the Chickasaw slit his throat in the papaw
I dreamed that rising sun was smoking blood
You could pick up and throw
I dreamed the Chinaman’s peg leg
I dreamed I was fishing in heaven with Sho Nuff
and Jesus cleaned the fish
I dreamed a man flies wouldn’t bite
I dreamed I was riding through Leland in a dragline bucket
And the cotton making everyday
I dreamed we got the bootlegger’s truck out of the mud
I dreamed the levee broke

I dreamed the Gypsy was laughing under the water
And the minnows were swimming though his eyes
I dreamed I reached down in Moon Lake
And untied his arms and one hand
Floated up the way it did
When he threw those knives
I dreamed the pony that fights in the water
And the boat that towed the dead man
I dreamed I felt the knife singing in Abednego’s back
I dreamed I pulled the ring out of his ear
And Jimmy put it on his finger
And swam through the water
I dreamed he was looking for Abednego’s boot
And when he came up
He had the jackknife between his teeth
I dreamed he was so beautiful
He had to die someday
I dreamed a knife like a song you can’t whistle

“Let’s go, I got to throw tonight” he says

He had the bandanna around his neck
And the pilot’s cap on
He played the harp in the moonlight

I led the horse out back
I tied him to a Chinaberry tree

“What you want” I says
But I knew he wanted me
Standing at the back of that outhouse
“Shut up” he says “don’t move”
The dirt dobbers flew around my head

He threw Boo Kay Jack at me
He threw Django at me

The mosquitoes drew blood
I looked on the ground
I saw the shadows coming like gars
swimming under me at night
I saw the red moon too
I wished I was running a trot line
I wished I was in a fight
I wished I was fanning myself in church
But there was a heart on the fan
With a switchblade through it

And the knives came by

The bone handled one
The hawk handled one
The one with a blade like a skiff
Out of his boot
Behind his back
Mexican style
The way Abednego showed him
Singing in the outhouse
Like a horse breaking wind

He took the knife and ran it
Across his arm
The he ran it across mine

Blood came out like hot soda

He tied our arms together
With the blue bandanna
And we laid down in the cotton

I wished I was riding a mule somewhere
Blowing a jug
With a string full of crappie
And the cotton making everyday

Clearly Jimmy (and maybe the speaker too) is in need of intensive counseling. The bloodsport on display is placed against a backdrop of hunting and fishing so that dismemberment or death might just seem a part of the ordinary parade of events. But also there is an intensity here that is not like other intensities. It is hard for me to unravel what is rendered as effect and what is ethnographic. That tension between belief and disbelief seems to be the fundamental quality of what Stanford’s work conveys. They operate like myths, myths of the darkest part of Arkansas.

The bio of Stanford is well-known by now. Stanford was a prodigiously talented young poet who grew up in Arkansas and briefly attended the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He was immediately recognized by James Whitehead and began to establish a reputation in the local literary community.

He began to publish in literary magazines throughout the country while he worked on his magnum opus The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You which he had likely started before the age of twenty and finished it when he was 26.

The Singing Knives was the first of his books that was published when he was 22, and Stanford went on to publish 5 more chapbook-length books with this first publisher, Mill Mountain Books.

His life was to come to an end shortly. His second marriage to painter Ginny Crouch (later Stanford) began to fall apart due to what is generally considered to be exacerbated by the presence of another woman, C. D. Wright. Though there quite possibly may have been other mitigating factors. In Ginny Stanford’s “Death in the Cool Evening,” she describes what she remembers happening on June 3, 1978 (when Stanford was only 29).

Saturday evening. June third. He had betrayed me by having an affair and I had found him out. I was hurt and humiliated and angry enough to put him through a wall. I barely tolerated the hug he tried to give me, my arms stiff at my sides. He tried to kiss me and I turned my head so that his lips only grazed my hair. Then he left. Forever. He left me in a room and shut the door behind him as he left, and he took three steps across a hall into another room and shut another door and shot himself.

In the span of the longest five or six seconds I have ever lived through, Frank fired three shots into his chest. Three pops, three cries. All I had was sound. I couldn’t see him; I could only imagine what he was doing in another part of the house. With the sound of the first shot time stopped, changed course and went backwards through the second and third shots, then reconstructed itself into an endless, directionless loop.

Before Saturday, June third, time was a straight line. After Saturday, a loop.

I heard a sharp crack, a hard slap, an angry teacher breaking his ruler against a desk. I heard the crack and just as sharp I heard Frank hollering, “Oh” – surprised. I heard him step on a copperhead, get stung by a yellow jacket, smash his thumb with a hammer. I watched him jump into Spider Creek, heard him hit the cold water and yelp from the shock. Pop Oh! Pop Oh! Pop Oh!

After the third cry I knew he was dead. Imagine the wall is telling you a bedtime story. Go to sleep now, it might say. That is how the news was delivered. A quiet voice from somewhere inside me said flatly, It’s all over; he’s killed himself. I didn’t want to move. But the same silent voice was ordering me out. Get out, get out, it kept repeating. Call the police.

I didn’t want to look. He’s blown his brains out, the voice said. Don’t go in there. Save the memory

Some question whether Stanford had a death wish and merely saw the age of thirty as a kind of hotel check-out time. The ugly truth of the matter is that it is hard not to be a forensic philologist when one reads his work. The preoccupation with death (in particular, a dramatic death) is pervasive. Most of his characters seem to be an inch away from it, one bad decision away from getting swept up by its influence. Discovering this tendency is a lot like finding evidence of something before it happens. It defies logic in the strictest manner where causation is concerned. Yet one also can’t completely deny it is isn’t there.

It’s a lot like finding a reference made by David Foster Wallace in his commencement speech for Kenyon College, where he uses suicide to illustrate a point.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

In both writers there was a prodigious talent, a driving force that compelled them to write their magnum opus before the age of thirty. Perhaps there was less of a reason to add an addendum to a work which was their summation; there was no second act. Perhaps the amount of traffic that ran through their heads at such an early age and permitted the dictation of such juggernaut works, in the end, did them in because such traffic was so doggedly persistent. It became the “terrible master” that David Foster Wallace alludes to.

The dramatic choice that Stanford made on June 3, 1978 plays out in the dramatic choices made by the characters in The Singing Knives which invariably appear and then disappear from the frame. None linger as the center of attention for very long.

The Singing Knives creates the myth of the backwater Arkansas, and like the Minotaur and White Buffalo Woman it populates such a place with a number of mythical/magical creatures. The Snake Doctors (the title of the last poem in the book) is such an entity. In the poem we are introduced to many of the same knife-slinging characters [Baby Gauge, Born In The Camp With Six Toes, as in the book’s title poem, the same kinds of pigs and midgets, drunkenness and outhouses.

The poem begins in the first section where the speaker rides a 300-pound hog named Holy Ghost to church where some men take to beating on the hog with sledgehammers. The hog breaks free and the speaker catches up to it where he

I rode the hog
I hugged his neck
I stabbed him seven times
I wanted the knife to go into me

Despite the obvious parallels again for the fulfillment of a self-inflicted wound, the speaker rows out into the middle of the slew. The boat is filled with hog blood. Then a kind ritual burial-at-slew occurs with a number of ghost-like apparitions (including the snake doctors) appearing on the shore, the speaker setting himself within this dreamscape but still somewhat resisting it.

In the next section of the poem the scene is the butchering of the hog as it hangs from a tree. The speaker sees the snake doctors riding each other again at this point. There seems to be some confusion about whether the hog hanging from the tree is really the speaker himself as the last line of this section informs that “Born In The Camp With Six Toes cut me down.”

Section 4 begins with the speaker dreaming of a man cutting off his hand. This hand however begins to transform into the hambone of Holy Ghost, which the speaker is tracking. Again the speaker sees the snake doctors while he is tracking down the hambone. At the scene of the speaker finding the hambone, it turns into a bloody severed hand. It is the hand of the guitar player. The speaker puts it in a cigar box with a picture of Elvis Presley and takes it into town. There he sees the guitar player bleeding in the back of the pickup. The speaker drives back home and creates a little shrine for the hand in the outhouse.

In Section 5 all hell breaks loose. The speaker is being pursued by the midget and the guitar player. After many bizarre occurrences, including the speaker jumping down the hole in the outhouse and swimming with the severed hand in his mouth, it becomes relatively clear that the dream world and actual world are intricately woven together.

Eventually, the speaker returns the severed hand to the guitar player on the end of his fishing line while the guitar player is fishing. Alas, the ritual cleansing is over, and the speaker is attended to by his friends.

This whole gruesome display appears to be presided over by the snake doctors whose appearance can only said to ordain the proceedings. These mythical creatures (who seem to be forever riding each other) are the high priests of this scenery and place. The magical mystery tour though the subconscious is complete.

The entire poem as well as the collection relies on the tension in the mix of the ethnographic and the mythic. The mythic is actually easier to grasp than the ethnographic dimensions. The depiction of the folkways of backwoods Arkansans is evidently exaggerated. However, the dream-like apparition state that we as readers inhabit (as well as the speaker) ease off the notion that there is anything like wholehearted depiction going on. This is a relief.

Many times the depiction of another class or another group, though exaggerated, does not point to the mythic or dream-like in order to suspend a kind of pathetic quality a reader might attach to the characters.

Unfortunately, a piece like Jennifer L. Knox’s Chicken Bucket, though very funny and also exaggerated, does not temper its depiction with the idea that it is all a dream, that the subconscious is at work on the scene. The piece reads, to me at least, as more like class commentary, and I personally wonder if such a depiction is needed or wanted by people like those at the heart of the narrative. The joke is a little bit too hardhearted for me in that it gets us to laugh at the backwardness and uproariously poor decisions made by the characters. All at the expense of people whose life may be populated by many of the same details. Is it just open season on the lower class for poets who went to respectable universities where nice middle class kids are allowed to play? But perhaps I am taking all of this way too seriously. I suspect Knox is not wearing any hard edge at all in “Chicken Bucket.” Rather, she is musing aloud . . . but at whose expense? I don’t know what Knox’s background is, but I wonder if there isn’t also a modicum of self-hatred operating as well.

Yet Frank Stanford never succumbs to that kind of trope with his depiction. One gets the sense that whatever details he is using from his Arkansas experience to create his world, they are heartfelt, tinged with a hint of honesty about his experience. He believes in their visceral appeal. His depiction is not a commentating aside with a repressed sneer.

In short, The Singing Knives might be best described as:

Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch collaborate to direct and write a script for a psychological thriller about fishing, hunting and butchering starring the cast of the grown up little rascals who have matured into bloodthirsty criminals.

Kevin Stein—American Ghost Roses

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on November 15, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

Any book that features the work of Kandinsky on the cover is all right with me. But add the jittery lines of a hypertensive spirit, and you have an enticing concoction whose primary ingredient is JOLT cola. If you haven’t been to Illinois recently, then you probably wouldn’t know that Kevin Stein is the poet laureate of that state, a good blue state with fine credentials that make it deserving of anyone’s attention. The book begins (like the piece itself) with an ending. Throughout the book the shadow of the death of Stein’s father persists.

Wishful Rhetoric

Finis. I love the oh-so-postmodern opening—
the reversal of expectations intimating a fresh start,
as does potty-training or the pre-dinner after-dinner mint.
After all, in this way the end’s a beginning.

So Finis. There now, the daisies’ clean faces
need never wrinkle, their eyes never shut,
and the plump clump swaying in May breeze
need never dismantle June’s skeletal erector set.

That’s that. So the orchard’s Jonathan need not
drop and rot, the iris’s plush petals might
always enshrine its flushed lips, and the lilac
(my favorite) can spend its profligate scent

without fear of overdraft. Breathe in and forget
the out. I am the bank, the root, the fat honeycomb.
I am aphid milking an everlasting tit.
There now, I’ll make the twenty calls from home,

each beginning. “My father died last night.”

To my eyes, these lines jump around a bit. They are skittish, but they never lose focus or exhibit a sidewinding display of drift, nor are the items invoked gratuitously mentioned. The poems always seem to land on their feet. As I have a deep affinity for the jumpy and nervous, I find Stein to be lively and comfortable. Others may not. Like Dean Young, his mind ranges all over the map, but it is a different map than Young’s. In Skid Young often roots his poems in his own experience and the emotional content found therein, but he ranges into many other subjects which reflect his mediatized life. Stein does not stray too far from his experience in American Ghost Roses, especially because the main metaphor in the book is his father’s death, a kind of personal drama that I suspect Young would shy away from dealing with.

Yet, in many ways, these are the hardest subjects to pull off without sounding maudlin, overly obsessive about mortality, or sentimental (not to mention revealing details that could be hurtful). Whether it be his mother’s baking (see below) or the tale of a childhood friend who drank a bottle of Drano, or his experiences as semi-righteous activist for the cause of African Americans, the poems always come back to the biographical. There are few exceptions to this. One is “To Bob Marley’s Toe” which is a shorter piece that is solely a meditation on the cancer that eventually brought Bob down (which tangentially realtes to his father’s death). However, most of the time he deftly weaves his experience into the fray of what his imagination apprehends. Or conversely, he inserts quotations and other cultural ephemera into his experience. “Theory & Practice” is a good example of this. His transitions into these spheres are done self-consciously. The fits and starts he employs seem to be the terrain of his mind, and he is not making apologies for them. After all, how can it be helped if one is a herky-jerky dilettante?

Theory & Practice

Whenever I find my mother baking a cake,
I know someone’s dead. After the funeral mass,
her angel’s food soon sweetens bereaved lips.
Lévi-Strauss thought artists “shape the beautiful

and useful out of the dump heap of human life.”
He called it bricolage: using “whatever comes to hand.”
In this way the cook who’s magic with leftovers
practices culinary bricolage, and a nerd cobbling

together computer parts exhibits technical bricolage.
So the poet of apples and oranges makes what?
Fruit salad? Or should I take solace in
Heraclitus’s claim, “The fairest order is a heap

of random sweepings”? Perhaps, though remember
he thinks the ways up and down are one!
Which theiry explains what I make of
my mother’s baking? Let me start again.

When I was a boy, she peddled cakes and pies
to pay the week’s grocery bill. White-gloved
ladies rang our bell but didn’t come in. By then,
one’s read enough to know what urchin means.

Now she works the church’s Funeral Baking Committee,
doling her dished and sugared condolences
to kids of former customers. Do they taste
that taste and ponder their dead parents?

Archilochus contends, “The fox knows many things,
the hedgehog only one. One big one.”
Am I the hedgehog? Am I blind?
Try this: “Wisdom,” Heraclitus theorizes,

“understands the thought that steers all things,”
his way of praising in theory, well, covert Logos
the invisible cosmic order. In practice it goes
like this: What my mother baked went quick out

the door to cool upon the seats of Cadillacs.
One lady offered me a tip, not the usual nickel:
“Boy, remember your place. What you smell,
you’ll never taste.” Hers was devil’s food.

The thing that is always commendable and wonderful about Stein is his ability to get off the subject of his experience. Too many who write about experience dwell in the moment and milk it for all it’s worth. This practice always strikes me as a little too self-possessing. These kinds of writers can be smug about their experience without any pretense of broadening its significance. I suppose, too, it doesn’t hurt to have a predilection for capaciousness. Like Dean Young’s poems, most of Stein’s poems range from a page and a half to to two and a half pages. The accretion of detail upon detail (as Stein mentions above) definitely places him firmly within the school of “Apples and Oranges Make Fruit Salad” poets.

One other thing that Stein has a tendency to do is to modulate around the cliché. One masterful piece where he composes nearly the entire piece of confabulated clichés is “Upon Witnessing My Mother Impossibly Blossom above My Father’s Deathbed.” In the following piece there are numerous examples of this: “Yes, the best laid plans of mice and men go kaput/” and “When life thus gives
you lemons, it’s best to quaff the chocolate shake” and “And though a stopped clock’s right twice a day,/why look.” While these phrases might strike some readers as “cute,” they provide a counterbalance to the academic subjects he sometimes employs (for example, Kandinky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art is handled in one poem). The way they are twisted speaks to the “mind-at-play” oeuvre that suffuses his poems. Often times, too, he will use these as transitions to anchor the reader with something familiar before he launches into a different direction.

Perhaps with Kevin Stein there is just enough movement to keep the active reader going and interested but not enough to make the reader dizzy like so often times happens with the Colorado Review stable of writers whose works seem to labor at transitioning on every third word. The “clumps” that Stein provides us are more likely to lead to a cherished carpet of workable sod.

Won’t You Stand Next To My Fire

“Them’s my hands,” grinned the guy I tooled
cars with, showing off Smith’s Diesel Repair Manual
photos of hands cleaning valves, tempering
an ill-tempered crank shaft, oh anything
the “thinking man’s manual for engine repair”
ought to proffer a shot of hands doing. Flushed
with oily fingers turning pages he’d starred on,
he planned life as the lone hand model
beloved in truck stops: Free beer and apple pie,
then the Lava soap commercial. Step #1: Always
read Safety Instructions before yadda yadda yadda
Step # 2: Insert Part A into Part B and twist
clockwise. Instead he stuck his paw
where the warning’s “Never” had worn off.

Yes, the best laid plans of mice and men go kaput,
but sometimes Disney comes of it. After his lawsuit,
the mechanic took early retirement and cut
filet mignon with his left. When life thus gives
you lemons, it’s best to quaff the chocolate shake.
And though a stopped clock’s right twice a day,
why look? What’s catching you is you!
Once in Albuquerque, I misspelled misspelling seven times
grading a hzy legalization of marijuana research paper,
so I called it even and gave the kid a B. Once
in Albu-whatever the 24-hour Beef Jerky Hut
went belly up, so an artist hauled its steroidal
fiberglass bull down Route 66 to where his heifers
waited in pasture, all their neon parts aglow.

Who imagined the Guggenheim so enamored
of bovine art? Who knew Chicago “udderly bonkers”
for painted cows? Chance can be genius in disguise.
Ask Indiana’s radical feminists who ballpeened Adam’s
bronze penis while giving statuesque Eve a spit shine,
performance are the NEA funded in bunches. Sure,
some guys use theirs with all the subtlety of a hammer,
though research shows roses and acoustic guitar
statistically more succesful. Some guys, like Prometheus,
think everything’s better with fire. So Jimi Hendrix
set his aflame, a Fender Stratocaster he bequeathed
to Frank Zappa then promptly died. Unabashed,
Zappa recorded Zoot Allures with the charred guitar
before prostate cancer hammered his private parts.

Jimi, when in the course of human events you spark fire,
give it plenty of air. When we the people take a hammer
to bronze, it’ll just dent until brittle then piddle off.
When Zappa replaced the strings and a couple of pickups,
Hendrix’s Stratocaster peeled lead paint from schoolroom walls.
Not everything’s fixable, but then again
not everything’s broken. In this take heart.

There are instances where his lines become so emphatic about the sounds they are making, employing what Joshua Clover calls “mouthfeel” that they can offend, as Stein calls them in “Instructor’s Comments of the Poem ‘Eden Sleeping,” Circa 1975”, “those who’d otherwise enjoy understatement.” A line like “Let’s mouth the hour’s round bower of vowels/” in “Love Poem With Knife and Last Cut Zinnia” might be a bit too much for those folks. There is no doubt that he supercharges his lines so that they might be an assault on the senses of some. At times this over-the-top-ness seems to “get in the way.” But get in the way of what? Certainly his poems flaunt his self-consciousness. He is making no attempt to dissolve into the background. Humility isn’t his game. One supposes his ping-pinging brain is not of the quiet type, not of “the school of quietude” (as Silliman might refrain). As I stated above, his restlessness is one of his most endearing features, one that he plays up, for sure (but let’s be honest:—isn’t the soft-spoken humble type aware that he/she is presenting himself/herself that way?) Perhaps his overtly jump-cutting style is just a little more honest about its manner of presentation. It knows that its medium is part of the effect. Perhaps, though, this definition of “honesty” might raise the ire of those living in the red states.