Susan Kelly-DeWitt — The Fortunate Islands

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on November 4, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

Two Reviews of Susan Kelly-DeWitt’s The Fortunate Islands

In The Fortunate Islands Susan Kelly-DeWitt writes as though she has seen ghosts, and she has. She has seen the ghosts of her own life carry her from the starkness of a difficult childhood with a father whose troubles with alcohol left their deep imprint on to the woman she has become, one whose credoes about spirit, work, dedication to art have placed her “in the deeper grasses / we call love.”

Kelly-DeWitt writes careful, studied poems where the things she invokes seem to throb with significance. Those looking for more surface in the rendering of a life need look elsewhere. There is an abundance of natural imagery — hummingbirds, mountains, crows, a snail, egrets, rivers — but most frequently there are flowers which acknowledge Kelly-Dewitt’s lifelong passion for gardening and other “thrills” of the botanical life. Most of the scenes are quiet ones — ripe for contemplation. Domestic scenes proliferate throughout the book and offer their blossoms of truth, sometimes beauty, sometimes something a little more brutal.

The “Credoes” section of the book provides many poems that travel through Kelly-DeWitt’s country of belief. The two greatest of these are belief in wonder, the puzzling out of a life, and the belief in love as the ultimate redemption. Arguably these two beliefs could be the cornerstones of spirituality. The puzzlement and wonder is never drawn out so capably as it is in the opening poem “Question Mark Cafe.”

Question Mark Café

I’ve been sipping coffee in the dark dafé
which is my today-mind uncurtained: stark café.

The morning started crying for no apparent reason.
The dreads were circling, shark café.

How marooned I feel on this island of thought.
I’m reviving like a half-dead verb in the word café.

Name a word, any word. Soul could be the one you
choose. Go ahead, it’s okay, in the last remarks café.

Who if I cried would hear me among the angelic
orders?
(Rilke. the same old question mark café.)

Today I’m that torn moth lipping the jack-
in-the-pulpit of history, who’ll fly away: ghost café.

The opening questions it puts forth are then answered throughout the book. However, the main question seems to be how one can find respite in a frequently dreadful world. For Kelly-DeWitt, her prime meridian, her zero line is the great fortune she has been afforded, which has made her path leading away from a bittersweet past more bearable, a path made possible by her dedication to those less fortunate (like the prisoners who frequently appear) and to her art.

The second section of the book entitled “Whiskey Nights” finds its thematic ground in the impact that the lives of men have made on her, particularly her father. Kelly-DeWitt paints a portrait of him as a troubled military man whose respect for order did not necessarily carry over into his private life. We see him in the throes of his military glory, ignorant of his future troubles. We see him as a fugitive from himself, engaged in all sorts of erratic behavior, including leading his family away from the house under the cover of night.

In the “Inventing Anna” section Kelly-DeWitt examines the impact that women have had on her life. However, her mother and other family matrons must share time with other women — women in a painting class, mail order brides, roller derby queens, a woman found dead on the side of the interstate. In all of these women, Kelly-DeWitt signals the female project of invention, how it can sometimes successfully transform, how sometimes it can leave a woman with a “puzzled ghost still wearing / it’s unfamiliar posture, its veil of brutal perfume” or as someone who “will be lost to oblivion and childhood fever three years / later, but the lover striking out across the plains / to meet his luck.” The stories of these women parallel Kelly-DeWitt’s own transformation, her shift from child of fear to woman of hope.

Her passage between these two is also marked by a movement from an “invention” phase to a phase where she becomes more rooted, and for a western poet, naturally, the thing that imposes itself on her inventions is the land, the geography, a sense of place. In the 4th section, “Red Hills and Bone,” Kelly-DeWitt enters at “fifty one,” where “this morning when I searched the mirror / I found someone so vastly unfamiliar / that I recognized myself / as that other who has passed / her whole life inside my body.” The long path to feeling familiar with one’s skin has set in. The landscape announces itself as both forgiving and unforgiving from luminescent trail across the river” to “the day’s interior darkness” and “the ultimate harshness of a man trapped by his own anger which leaves him alone like a vestigial bone.” One can see how this title piece for the section was abstracted from a Georgia O’ Keeffe painting. Finally, the gauntlet that Kelly-DeWitt has to run through geography and nature provides her with the impetus to ask her how her soul can get free.

We are treated to a glimpse of her response to that question in the last section of The Fortunate Islands. She appears to find it as she stares “through the portals of memory” and her homage to love. But this love is not entirely a garden of earthly delights. It is also “graves / covered over in haste / /by the side of the road — victims of the overland journey. Love for Kelly-DeWitt is also the devotion to the life of the aesthetic. Kelly-Dewitt invokes Giovanna Garzoni, a 17th-century artist-spinster who “willed a considerable / sum of money and all her possessions / to the Academy of Saint Luke.” It is Garzoni’s “vivid love” that carries the poem to its conclusion. Garzoni’s dedication to her art mirrors Kelly-Dewitt’s. their art is their salvation, their reason for being, their redemption from that which challenges the soul. It is the tool whereby Kelly-DeWitt’s “past seems far away.” Besides Garzoni, the spinster, we also see Dickinson whose poems give solace to presumably the young Kelly-DeWitt caught amid scenes of family tension where lives bubble over due to circumstances not meshing with expectations.

Living the life of the aesthetic as Kelly-Dewitt has done in Sacramento, a still largely agrarian town, is more like living the life of the ascetic. She has not given up much, though, in the intensity of her images and the transmitted feel of the objects in her world, each with its subtle weight. Her precise images and highly wrought phrases are suffused with a quiet dignity. One wonders, though, if a faster life lived in a faster realm would have produced as much depth. Still, in The Fortunate Islands she explores how gender, nature and art arc through a life and effect beauty, truth, and love. This might not be the most radical thesis, but it has legs. It broadcasts its own comfortable power. One might want to take it along to a place that “feels right” and read it, or like myself, you might take it along with you the next trip you make to New York.

— Victor Schnickelfritz

Review #2

The Fortunate Islands, Susan Kelly-DeWitt’s first full-length book, is glossed by a quote from Dava Sobel in reference to the Roman Egyptian mathematician, Ptolemy, who was “free to lay his prime meridian, the zero-degree longitude line, wherever he liked. He chose to run it through the Fortunate Islands…” With this kind of an epigraph, I had expected Kelly-DeWitt to expose her own longitudinal line in the guise of her spiritual philosophy, or the path that her life has wandered. The blurbs on the back cover of her book also presuppose issues of a tough childhood, father-issues, and a deeply impacted voice.

In the latter presupposition, Susan Kelly-DeWitt’s collection does not disappoint. Her language is wide-ranging and steeped in experience. The opening piece of the book suggests the cornucopious offerings to follow:

Question Mark Café

I’ve been sipping coffee in the dark café
which is my today-mind uncurtained: stark café.

The morning started crying for no apparent reason.
The dreads were circling, shark café.

How marooned I feel on this island of thought.
I’m reviving like a half-dead verb in the word café.

Name a word, any word. Soul could be the one you
choose. Go ahead, it’s okay, in the remarks café.

Who if I cried would hear me among the angelic
orders? (Rilke. The same old question mark café.)

Today I’m that torn moth lipping the jack-
in-the-pulpit of history, who’ll fly away: ghost café.

There is so much language to unpack here. The refrain word that terminates each couplet is modified over and over suggesting the multiplicity of mind in existence, indeed, of Kelly-DeWitt’s “today-mind uncurtained.” The third stanza also echoes the title of the book and established Kelly-DeWitt as a universal “marooned” speaker adrift on an “island of thought.” All of these foreshadowing events ground the text that follows in possibilities of un-exacted thought that stretches to the “angelic orders” and beyond. The “jack-in-the-pulpit” (a highly variable species) mentioned in the final line also connotes a sturdiness and/or variability to come.

The remainder of the first section, “Credo,” provides seemingly experiental pieces such as “Summer of Grandmothers,” which touches on “the way the dead always return when you need them the most;” in addition to more exploratory pieces like “The Trees” that explore ideas of religion, mysticism and death where:

…the souls of the dead

creep back to their graves
in the jungles of the faraway
in the absolutes of belief
or superstition…

Poems like these charge Kelly-DeWitt’s language with superstition and a strong belief in the supernatural where ghosts both act as counsel for the speakers in her poems, and romp in the backdrops of her landscapes.

To some, Kelly-DeWitt’s discussion of the soul, that most-personal, and tangentially sentimental poetic element, might seem overbearing, but the variation that she employs in her discussion of religion and the supernatural is constantly refreshing. In her poem, “Bypass,” she equates the breathing machine that keeps her husband alive to “God…” Still in other poems, Kelly-DeWitt’s language becomes mystical and is responsible for religious transformations of objects, as in “Egrets at Bolinas Lagoon” which accuses a quote of Van Gogh’s for the transformation of “birds that glowed like headlamps…into painters and poets.”

In, “Credo,” her final poem of the first section, Kelly-DeWitt posits her belief in the expectation of happenings. These happenings range from the mention of “the deeper grasses / we call love” to expectations of returning home, and observing nature at work and at rest. These types of broad expectations inform Kelly-DeWitt’s entire collection in various ways, but for the time being (at the completion of the first section), we are still left “marooned,” wondering where we are headed, or if we are ever getting anywhere at all.

“Whiskey Nights,” the name of the second section of Kelly-DeWitt’s collection, provides a solid backdrop for the variety of voice that she chooses to employ. Here is where we are finally introduced to “the child at the mercy of the loved, feared, drunken father made flesh by Roethke’s poem,” as Carole Simmons Ole points out in her blurb. It is apparent in this section of her book, that Kelly-DeWitt’s poetry is informed by the dizzying effects of her father’s whiskey breath; she is both intoxicated with her love for him, and by her fear of him.

In this more personal section, Kelly-DeWitt confronts her father as both an “angry man” as in “The Day Gandhi Died,” and a hummingbird as in “Sugar-Water.” The best reflection of Kelly-DeWitt’s confused attitude towards her father shows itself in her poem “Cold Sweat.”

Cold Sweat

Last night
I woke up
cold, in bed
next to you.

The hair
at the nape
of my neck
was wet.

Perhaps
my spirit
was weeping
into my pillow.

Perhaps
my father,
dead now
twenty

years,
came sailing
down the river
one last time

and I ran
to greet him
through the wet
grasses.

Here we are presented with a speaker who is both frightened and excited about the prospect of seeing her father, even if only her father’s spirit-body. Using this type of multiplicity of attitude towards a subject-matter is an echo of (indeed, most-likely a reason for) the admittedly pluralistic credo that Kelly-DeWitt lays out in the first section of the book.

Her third section, “Inventing Anna,” continues with Kelly-DeWitt’s personal exposé, but is more firmly established in the realms of feminism and the strength of women. Kelly-DeWitt focuses a good portion of the second section on experiences of pioneer women and difficulties in mothering and being mothered, but most in-line with the themes of the rest of the book seem to be Kelly-DeWitt’s emphasis of a stronger form of language. In her poem “Roller Derby, 1954,” the speaker is both in awe of the strength and the “unabashed toughness in women,” reflecting on her own female role-models as “docile, / genteel— their voices like silk / bandages over the wound of talk.”

All of this discussion of language and toughness in women is justified just in the fact that it so nicely highlights Kelly-DeWitt’s interpretations of the powers of language. Where she sees so many women being “docile” and “genteel,” Kelly-DeWitt is unafraid to make her language grunt and gasp just like the women at the roller derby. However, this third section of the book seemed disjunctive when compared to the previous two sections of the book. The last two sections of the book also take the overall experience of the collection in a new direction, so I wonder if this third section doesn’t represent some sort of transition or hinge from the first two sections to the last two sections.

In section four (“Red Hills and Bone”) and section five (“The Fortunate Islands”), Kelly-DeWitt leaves the single-voiced speaker of the first two sections and transitions to a speaker who is deeply concerned with the idea of the individual soul and the second-self. The first poem of the fourth section immediately establishes this duality:

Fifty-One

This morning when I searched the mirror
I found someone so vastly unfamiliar
that I recognized myself

as that other who has passed
her whole life inside my body,
the one who set-up house

like a small, worried, spider
at my birth. I found traces of her
torn webs under my eyes,

her busy scratchings at the corners
of my mouth. Later, when I sipped
my coffee from a warm mug,

I knew I tasted the full, bitter flavor
with her lips, her tongue.

Here the image of the mirrored self becomes dark and worrisome. In fact, this idea of duality becomes an obsession, perhaps one that is understandable to someone marooned in her own thoughts (as we are told in the very first poem of the book). This second-self brings darker imagery into the collection in poems like “Crows at Evening,” and “Storm Brewing,” that seem to focus on the question of mortality and the travel of the soul after life, of where our second-selves go when they lose their flesh-laden companions.

The fourth section is book-ended by a poem that asks these very questions: “How Will My Soul Get Free?” Is Kelly-DeWitt creating a map for her soul with this book? I think that is a probable conjecture. Not only does she outline her soul’s history in the beginning sections of the book, but she provides her soul with an ideal of language which it can communicate with. If other souls are allowed to roam freely betwixt the pages of the book, then why not hers? The only question still left unsolved, then, has to do with the epigraph that I mentioned so long ago, and which we have yet to fully comprehend in the larger overarching scheme of the piece.

The final section of the book is by far the most fragmented, sampling widely from many of the ideas discussed in previous sections. However, there is a sense of closure towards the end of the section when Kelly-DeWitt begins dealing with artistic interpretation and how that effects the second-self. In “If You Want To Know,” Kelly-DeWitt’s interpretation of what it means to have a second-self is most clearly defined in the final lines of the piece:

…You must imagine the two
white carnations as spirits, children

she would have had, twin palindromes;
that the red one tossed down so casually
spells out with tempera the name of her
equal, her vivid love.

Here, the red carnation (that is, the one instilled with life) is engrossed in the act of describing its equal in words which it “spells out.” Looking back over Kelly-DeWitt’s book shows careful exercise in spelling out vivid loves, experiences, and second-selves; she pays constant homage to the experience that has brought her where she is, and that allows her to spell out her vivid loves in such strong, unyielding language.

This second-selfliness finally blossoms in full form with connection to the epigraph. Susan Kelly-DeWitt’s collection, though fragmented in sections, provides a metaphor of the human body with one perfect prime meridian splaying the self on some undiscovered plain into two “twin palindromes,” equals. “The Fortunate Islands,” the final poem in the collection, extends Kelly-DeWitt’s sense of self into a larger context, describing where she draws her “zero-line;” suggesting that her physical and mental self represent the point of orientation for her world (indeed, the point of orientation from which we all view our worlds). She becomes the prime meridian wherever she is, and is therefore constantly left with binary oppositions where she goes, she can go forward from her zero-line or back, she “can cross the wooden bridge / in either direction” (from “The Fortunate Islands”).

What Susan Kelly-DeWitt provides for us as readers is a map for our own souls. She tells us that we are all “fortunate islands,” for we all choose where our zero-line intersects with the world. She is not only providing a map for her own second-self, but for all second-selves to learn to interpret their pasts, the language that they used, and the feelings that they encountered, allowing those experiences to come into being as robust and multi-faceted “islands of thought” where we are all constantly “marooned,” but also left in good company with our own vivid loves.

— Jordan Reynolds

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Janine Oshiro — Pier

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on October 28, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

Ephemerality — the poet as diaphanous creature. Part animal, part dual existence between sheets of the atmosphere and the ground, unwilling to emerge as fully forged because of allergies to set boundaries, this is the unsettled territory that Janice Oshiro attempts to lightly inhabit in Pier. Like with Cole Swensen’s Goest, the title suggests a certain ambiguity which plays out through the book. [Note: Swensen is also a blurber.] In poems that repeatedly sway from assertion to negation, the self-negating voice that takes shape is friend to shadow and ghost, a kind of spooky kabuki, where the characters exit through fog. The speaker always seems to have “a girl beside her” ready to deflect into that state whenever necessary as though it were a Harry Potter-like cloak of invisibility.

In “Snow Logic” the words of Oshiro put it this way, “Spoon, / unfinished state of being / a moon, my only handle”. The unfinished state of being that is alluded to is the main machine cranking up for production in this text. The hum of its engine and gears is one many readers have grown accustomed to with poets for their first books. The plasticity of self is an enormously appealing theme for writers of first books, especially when they are young. [Full disclosure: I don’t know how old Oshiro is, but her jacket photo makes it seem as though she is young.] As a reader, I make a mental note that the formative years of any poet are engaged in a flurry of decisions about how that poet is going to materialize. In Pier we are taken into that process up-close, writ large. The fits and starts of imagining are being played out in this book, often in ways that Oshiro can’t predict. From “Snow Logic” again, “Bear, interrupt / my empty bowl of reason. / Show me that the end / I know is wrong.”
Oshiro’s path to “an end” is intuitive. It feels its way along the murky bottom with family members and totem animals (like the bear — above — or sea squirt) in tow.

Certainly I can’t criticize any writer for taking on this territory of the self, especially a poet in his/her first book. It seems quite natural for a writer to go there, especially because it is poetic instinct that dictates one’s first impulse to filter everything through the self rather than a fiction writer’s instinct to filter everything through plot and the motivation of characters. Inevitably, a poet’s second book and onward, when the self begins to congeal and real-life decisions force one’s hand, is what brings one to posses oneself. Some, though, become intoxicated with the plasticity of self and

Move

On the first day, the sea
squirt swims until finding
a place of attachment

* * *

When the woman smiles at me, I mouth
the words, “I’m sorry.” My father’s piss
hits the creeping sheet of water flooding
the street in front of her house.
His elastic legs can point in every direction.
His stream hits the surface then deflects into an arc
that falls back down into his open mouth.

When the woman smiles at me, I know she means
how difficult it is to love.

* * *

On the first day, the sea squirt swims until finding a place
of attachment.

                +

I wish, I wish not to discuss
these places that prong up.

My inside’s flower won’t.
The petals splay and out comes.

* * *

On the first day, the sea.

                +

To cleanse the organs, make your fist
into an external one. Punch it into your stomach
and double over as if in pain. Stay doubled,

release. Now
if you cut it off, can you
serve it on a platter?

Hand, say wing.
Hand, say fight.
Hand, take flight to keep the water flowing.

* * *

An extra finger, my father
pokes a needle into himself to flush
over all the waste.
He wants me to see him drain it out.
He turns on the faucet of his belly.

                +

On the first
day the sea
squirt swims
until finding
a place of a-
ttachment

* * *

When people say my name, I think they mean
me, but they have someone else in mind.
At the Waikiki Aquarium, I watch the frogfish
all day. Brown and still like a piece of shit
anchored to the bottom of the tank.

The sign says the frogfish looks like a little man.
I look like my father. I reply to his face.

* * *

then, having no reason to move, the sea squirt eats
its brain and tail.

                +

On, the first day, the end of the first day.

* * *

If attached, a pest, if of the open
sea,

pelagic.
I love him.

* * *

This is the end of the pier,
where I am only one of many well-
wishers.

See how the piles root in two directions?

When the boat pulls out
automatically
I wave when waved to from the deck.

Clearly, this is a new poetic strategy, to identify with a tunicate, to tunicate oneself, as it were. As I read, I wonder how far to extend the analogy. Is the speaker hermaphroditic? Does the speaker filter media through pharyngeal slits? Should a reader regard the presence of a notochord as evidence of a primitive backbone? Does the swimming around as a youth suggest “attachment issues” as an adult? Does their evolution during the Cambrian period make one associate them more or less with Baby Boomers? Is there much more to differentiate among the innards besides gonads and heart?

Most of Pier finds the speaker identifying with non-human elements. In “Move” this speaker also directs herself towards the father, one of the few places in the entire text where the speaker aligns herself with a human being. [Interestingly, another place where this happens is in “Intermission” where the figure is an uncle pissing in the cane . . . together with the father pissing in the street may be revealing a degree of “pissing envy” for the speaker — at least as far as the public aspect of that practice is concerned]. Other instances such as in “Next, Dust” where the mother makes an appearance the movement on the part of the speaker is not so much a taking-on-of-the-skin of the mother as it is a moment empathy towards her — mother as house, as architecture, as something to believe in.

However, the father is more protean. He is the shape-shifter and presumably where the speaker has learned her talent for taking on the form of objects in the world, of living through the imagination in it. Of course, this father also seems to be a source of shame as well. In “Move” the speaker reports how the father’s belly is drained as if it were a vat of industrial waste. Later, the frogfish (identified as anchored shit) is equated to the father, and immediately thereafter the speaker associates herself with her father as “being like him.” This gesture of accordance with the low-lying and stationary father betrays a certain loyalty in the speaker, an unwillingness to run at the same time that she is tunicate, that which wanders the pelagic sea. This kind of interesting tension is what makes “Move” a spare but complicated offering.

In “Move” Oshiro’s speaker also makes its only reference to a pier. In the poem the speaker moves out on a pier where the sea surrounds her (and presumably many floating sea squirts that are looking to attach). The states that she is only one of many well-wishers, but it is somewhat unclear what it is that the speaker is wishing upon — upon a father that has somewhat lost his way? Upon a more general notion of those who are flagellating their way through a sea of many identity options? The nest line about the piles rooting in two directions is also somewhat mystifying; however given that this longer poem in the book is centered around the speaker’s father and “Next, Dust” is centered around the speaker’s mother, one can come to understand the statement about the two piles as making a reference to the influences of the two parents. The automatic waving suggests that reactions to some things are automatic, instinctual. One can’t disentangle from parents very effectively without a serious loss of biological fitness.

The delicate matter of living inside one’s skin pervades Pier, and Oshiro provides a near-handbook on how to slip through the defined boundaries of objects and animals and inhabit them. This animistic impulse is combined with her penchant for ancestor worship (mainly in the form of mom and dad) which in totality provides for a delicious atavism. The old mind of “the native” is conjured up for me with its rare hybrids and mysterious associations. Except for the invocation of a very few placeholders in the modern world, this book of poems seems like it could have been imagined by a poet writing at the beginning of the 20th Century, not the 21st Century. Throwing off the obsession with the mediatized world and its electronic display is not an easy feat, especially for someone whose generation seems to be preoccupied with the newsfeed and the blinking screen. Pier reminds me that it will not be so easy to shake off the animal world, not until bears and otters will insist upon watching their favorite films (starring other members of their species) the way chimps already do.

Manoel de Barros — Birds for a Demolition

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on August 24, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

It is not normal, the Pantanal. The Pantanal is a region in the northeastern corner of Brazil near Paraguay that is the largest wetlands in the world. 80% 0f the 54,000 square miles of the region are submerged during the rainy season. The water can rise between 2 to 5 meters during this time. However, the Pantanal is a place of dramatic difference that alternates between dry and wet, so there is very little in the environment that one can get used to and consider stable and normal. What is normal in the Pantanal is that it is never predictable. It cannot be cornered by any rational system of thought.

So it is in such a place that Manoel de Barros has made his home for 50 years. Born in 1916, he left briefly earlier in his life to pursue a career in the city as a lawyer, but he returned in 1960 to his family’s ranch. As one might expect, the natural world abounds in Manoel de Barros’s work. The natural world is teeming with absurdity. The requisite wonder of such a place as the Pantanal is captured in many of the poems. Yet there is also an innocence and naivete that one can see in one of my favorite poems in the book.

Small World

My world is small, Lord.
There is a river and a few trees.
The back of our house faces the water.
Ants trim the edge of Grandmother’s rose beds.
In the backyard, there is a boy
and his wondrous tin cans.
His eye exaggerates the blue.
Everything from this place has a pact
            with birds.
Here if the horizon reddens a little,
            the beetles think it’s a fire.
Where the river starts a fish,
                        river me a thing
River me a frog
River me a tree.
In the evenings, an old man plays his flute
to invert the sunsets.

I love how this poem sets the reader up with the expectation that the speaker is a humble one reporting on his little corner of the world, even beseeching the Lord as his witness. The wonders of boyhood appear and the reader believes that this is a typical story of a rather pedestrian life. But as the poem gathers speed, the reader begins to see the magical qualities of the place the speaker is from. I liked the poems where the magical quality of the place snuck up on me. Some were blaring their absurdity and surrealism from the beginning and while there were some inventive images and language, the strangeness wore on me when it was pursued so aggressively (like in “The Tin Man”). All the images struck an absurdist pose, so there was no hint at a reality with a strange underbelly, just a hall of mirrors. The lack of tension between a place that bears the weight of the laws of gravity and one that only possesses qualities of mythic proportions makes the place de Barros is writing about only seem like a figment of the imagination.

Yet one truly stands back in amazement at a place where river becomes a verb.

I tip my hat to translator Idra Novey here. Though Carnegie-Mellon did not include the Portuguese alongside her translations (presumably because of the cost or inability to get permission), so I cannot confirm how Manoel de Barros captured river as a verb in Portuguese, I applaud Novey’s inspired choice of river as a verb in English. This little extra verbal magic serves well in characterizing this place.

However in “In War” questions arose about a particular word choice.

In War

The Mayor dispatched a messenger by horse with a letter to the Emperor.

The letter announced the city had been invaded by Paraguayan troops and expressed a need for extra recourses.

Two months later, the messenger handed the letter to the Emperor.

When the recourses arrived, the Paraguayans were no longer there.

The Emperor’s men came with fifteen young women and a few provisions to eat on the way.

I guess they ate them all.

Corumbá is a city whose population is well mixed with Paraguayans.

The translation of “recursos” (which Novey informed was the corresponding Portuguese word) as recourses is an interesting choice. While “recourses” can be defined as “a source of help in a difficult situation” or even as “the use of someone as a source of help in a difficult situation” the usage seems strained in English. In a military context, one doesn’t call for recourses, one calls for “reinforcements”.

After these reinforcements arrive, they are no longer able to stave off the Paraguayans. However, there is another bit of intrigue in the second to last line — “I guess they ate them all.” In Brazilian slang “to eat” (“comer” in Portuguese . . . again Novey confirmed for me that this was the word de Barros used) means to have sex with someone. Thus, there is a double entendre in this line. Yes, they (the reinforcements) may have eaten all the provisions, but also they (the Paraguayans) had sex with all fifteen young women. This makes the last line much more understandable, that the place was overrun with a mix of Paraguayan blood. To Novey’s credit, she had considered this possibility, but she could not confirm it with de Barros, so in lieu of such confirmation, she chose to not make reference to this more sordid reading of the line.

The real culprit is the English language. Though there is considerable room in English for the concept of sensuality in eating (and many movie scenes have exploited this quite well) there is no expression for eating that also has the notion of sexual intercourse explicitly tied to it. The best one can do is to intimate the connection with words like “consume” or “to have one’s fill” or “to eat something (someone) all up” which don’t quite go far enough or work the way “comer” does in Portuguese.

The double entendre in a language is the most difficult to interpret in the arrived language. There are a number of ways to deal with it. One is to avoid it and just go for one meaning (as Novey does here). This can be a suitable treatment if the second meaning is ornamental or unimportant to get the gist of the poem [Note: I have taken this route in translating some of Carlos Drummond e Andrade’s poems in which the second meaning seemed to be more of a distraction from the main line of logic in the poem]. The second treatment can be to find a suitable construct in English that hints at this second meaning. this is the best way to go, but it is also the one that is least likely to come to fruition. The third way to treat the double entendre problem is to add on an additional statement (that doesn’t appear in the original text) but which reflects the second meaning. In this case it might be something like “I guess they ate them all (while the Paraguayans eventually did the same with the women).” Perhaps with the second meaning as coarse as it is, Novey did right in this case to avoid it.

Whatever I may think of the realm of total imagination, de Barros is adequately comfortable with staying there. In the epigraph to “An Education on Invention” de Barros cites “the things that don’t exist are more beautiful.” In this poem and in “The Book of Nothing” he provides a litany of imagined images and meditation on the imagination comes into contact with the physical world, the existential truth that lies therein.

from An Education on Invention

To enter the state of being a tree it’s necessary
to begin with a gecko’s amphibian torpor
at three in the afternoon in the month of August.

In two years inertia and scrub grass will begin
to expand our mouths. We will suffer
a little lyrical decomposition
until the scrub grass emerges in our speech.

For now, I ‘ve designed the smell of the trees.

There is something quite somber in de Barros’s full resignation, but perhaps it is only sad if one presupposes one’s position in nature as one who prevails. De Barros seems content to be the blacktop that is penetrated by weeds and grasses that poke up through it until it has been shred into a thousand island fragments of concrete. There is a kind of slow beauty that de Barros is transmitting here also. The slow physical deterioration underscores belies the notion that one’s mental apprehension of the physical world is of foremost importance. It’s ashes to ashes, dust to dust for everything else. Only attitude and emotion remain. In this way, de Barros seems to be nearly Buddhist. He acknowledges that only impermanence is permanent. The insubstantial exists, however, on another plane that cannot be moved or disturbed. At times, too, the will to imagine is so great on his part, the phantasmagorical so alive and present that it seems the writer’s imagination is exerting itself to get out from under the constraints of its environment. The writer’s mind is in exile.

Nowhere can this sense be captured as vividly as in “The Illness”

The Illness

I never lived far from my country.
Yet I suffer from farness.
In my childhood my mother had the illness.
She’s the one who gave it to me.
Later my father went to work at a place
that gave this illness to people.
It was a place without a name or neighbors.
People said it was the nail of the tope at the end of the world.
We grew up with no other houses nearby.
P place that offered only birds, trees, a river and its fish.
There were unbridles horses in the scrub grass,
their backs covered in butterflies.
The rest was distance.
Distance was an empty thing we carried in the eye,
what my father called exile.

The illness here could be described as living inside one’s head (in perpetuity).
The farness is another name for dreaminess, for the supremely distracted state that has one’s ideas and thoughts running as the main attraction alongside all the other entertainment options. The natural world seems designed for one thing — to serve as mental playthings for consideration. The joyousness and affirmation that occurs in the early poems of the book where de Barros embraces his imagination as end-in-itself becomes rarefied disease. The damnation of insularity is a very different chord that is struck here, one that provides depth and counterpoint to the revelation of the powers and scope of the imagination exhibited in earlier pieces. The imagination is more broken down, less relied upon. It is seen as something repugnant. It is a problem, like filth.

Filth

I prefer the bleak words that live in the corners
of kitchens—filth, grit, tin cans—
over those that live in fraternities—
words like excellence, prominent, majestic.
My alter egos are filth and grit, the devils
who hole up in kitchen corners —
Ones like Seven Ball, Mário the Frog Catcher,
Luisa Leather Reins, etc.
All of them drunk and strange.
All of them grubby and in rags.
One day someone suggested to me I adopt
a respectable alter ego — a prince,
admiral, or senator.
But who, I asked,
would dwell in my empty corners
if these devils don’t?

Hoping to be a more actively engaged, gregarious type (like the prince, admiral or senator), to be a man of some social and practical use, to be a man of some station, de Barros holds court in his dirty corners of the kitchen (presumably where the imagination is also holed up). He asks who though will take on the task of imagining and reimagining the world if he doesn’t. This in itself is reason for his existence.

His existence is not a “normal” existence, in any sense of the word. However, in the Pantanal this is not strange. Nothing is normal. The change is not periodic or programmatic or even measurable. Living there is like living in two worlds at once, like living in a readily available space one minute and then in the next minute having all of that taken back. It is like inhabiting a space where at any moment the imagination may be subject to a flood tide of sensory stimuli. Strange transformations may take place at that point. De Barros reflects these strange transformations throughout his work at every juncture that Novey endeavors to translate for an American audience. The strange is a structural element in his work; however, to this reader his most sublime moments derive from those half-strange moments.

Ann Killough — Beloved Idea

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on June 14, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

During contemporary poetry’s daily calisthenics of undermining deep meaning (even deconstructing signification entirely), devaluing image, eradicating continuity, erasing allusion, Ann Killough’s Beloved Idea endeavors to provide the next exciting installment of empty device—that of metaphor. Her project in Beloved Idea is to expose the stability of metaphor. In Beloved Idea, Killough endeavors to short circuit any connection to a stable single metaphor in a poem by exploding the possibility of a single metaphor in her poems. The poems present a seemingly stable metaphor in their titles which then are deconstructed throughout the body of each poem, usually in very self-referential ways. The deconstruction usually occurs in two ways: (1) the initial metaphor in the title starts to take on so much metaphorical weight so as to render it useless as metaphor (i.e. it is used as a metaphor for this and that and the other thing to the point where its stability as locus of insight breaks down; an infinite metaphor) and (2) other items in the poem sneak up on the title metaphor and compete with it, draining it of its power the way Superman is drained by Kryptonite, attacking it as the central focus until it is nearly dead. So is Beloved Idea really another venue to play the dead metaphor game?

Killough’s text works on another level as well, and this redeems its project masterfully. The central metaphor in the book (her beloved idea) is that of “the nation” (presumably our United States). Killough is set out to expose this metaphor as adeptly as she does the more solitary ones in her poem titles. In doing so, she is asking “what is a nation?” “what is our nation?” In this way Killough’s book ceases to be just about textuality and breaks through to our actual experience of hanging this absurd little title of “nation” onto all of America’s disparate populations. She asks how could it possibly fit (which is a question I have kept asking myself since 2003 . . . along with who gets to define how that metaphor of the nation is used).

It is this questioning of authority that Killough also echoes in the last line of the first piece “[The Wound]” in the book.

When the mob gathered and wrestled her to the ground she just kept yelling and pointing at visible articles of metaphor. the metaphor of the mob, for example, and of the ground, which was so repulsively comforting. She knew the metaphor of the wound was still safe in her poem, which was turning out to be a manger like all the others.

As though the poem had begun to cooperate with the authorities behind her back, which it undoubtedly had.

The notion of comfort and safety in metaphor which the poem addresses, of course, is similar to the kinds of feelings that we expect authority to project in terms of, say, national security. The fact that her own creation, her own offspring is complicit with such authority behind her back must be discomfiting for Killough. She acknowledges this discomfort and seems resigned to it, the way, I imagine, we might resign ourselves as readers to the discomfort of not being able to hang anything heavy on the metaphor for fear that it should slide off.

In ”Body in Evidence” Killough employs the similes “like a lynched man” and “like a lost sheep” in such a way that provides an insight into her technique. In the first case, the hanging metaphor is compatible with the idea of a tenuous “fabric of ideological evidence.” In this case we are given a metaphor that works reasonably well. However, just when we expect other metaphors to behave, they don’t. The second simile is more like this. How does a lost sheep hang? The obviousness is dealt a severe blow. So, as readers our expectations that metaphor will work are built up by the first usage and then dashed by the second. Of course, one might point out that by allowing the first simile to behave properly she is setting us up as readers to stretch ourselves past the apparent incongruity. We tell ourselves, “Well, it must fit. The other one worked pretty well. Maybe if I just stretch and tax my imagination more.”

The ”White Whale” is an obvious reference to Moby Dick a book so rife with metaphor, it serves as an irresistible target for Killough. Here we are reminded “one likely referent for the whale was the leviathan obsessions of the entire metaphorical body of her nation.” Here American desire seems to be implicated. Even more so in the next stanza/paragraph: “With its vast apparatus of conquest and its high-frequency cries of longing.” Moby Dick and the nation conflate, which points to the endless metaphorical chain she is building. It is endless like the “national desire.” and finally, the insanity of Ishmael is brought into the picture as it is mirrored by the collective insanity of the nation. Ishmael is alone in the water, tilting at windmills, so to speak the same way the U.S. has had to more or less go it alone in Iraq. The question remains whether we up to our collective arse in blood or oil.

By the end, “her nation” has its “relative sanity questioned to the point that there is some confusion about whether its relative sanity ever existed at all.”

Of course, what send-up of metaphor would be complete without a look at the grand master of them all, The Bible. In ”Holy Ghost” Killough explodes the notion of the “holy ghost” all over the screen. She seems to be duplicating the effect of television and how its duplication of image serves to concatenate metaphor, hyperlinking one image to the next through a few wonderful jump cuts. The holy ghost is the body politic. The holy ghost is a garment. The holy ghost comes upon the tongues of fire. The holy ghost as the actual process of consumption. Etc. This is reminiscent of seeing a car in five back-to-back commercials. What do all those cars mean? Why nothing, but such a comforting image sure does help in pushing the product. As Killough points out near the end, the holy ghost-become-body politic, become-garment, become-process-of-its-own-consumption becomes, finally, the site of its own annihilation. I wonder, though, if this means that I don’t have to pay attention to it anymore the way I don’t pay attention to commercials? Or, conversely, does it mean I have to pay strict attention to commercials to decipher how they may be manipulating me? Is it OK to feel manipulated? If one is manipulated without knowing, is this what is called pleasure? Or is that too old-fashioned?

I believe there may be a brand new form of pleasure packaged and ready to be delivered. This would certainly be in accordance with my experience up to this point in my life, though I might not be able to articulate how it has happened. If I accept it is my duty to attempt to articulate it, will my impulse to live solely within the frame of my own present experience be seen as negligence of duty? But what if this makes me happy?

Alas, I digress into a chain of babble which is fed by suspicion, a suspicion that I might not be happy, but that I could be happier if only I did or didn’t watch commercials.

There are other pieces in Beloved Idea which relax the speculative eye turned against Killough’s nation. One of these is “[Underpants].”

[Underpants]

Underpants as necessarily referring to the manly underpants of startling size that regularly were hanging in a row on the porch across the alley from her bedroom.

As though a row of overweight fathers had flown through Brookline in their underpants and gotten caught in a clothesline.

The kind of fathers that run the world means of secret meetings on every continent flying over the seven seas in formation like Canada geese.

But that now had to fly with no underpants, their international penises hanging down like unusable landing gear.

She always rejoiced at the sight of the underpants.

They seemed to offer a kind of hope, although she wasn’t sure what.

Perhaps the kind of hope that is normally offered by undergarments hanging on a clothesline with their scanned faces broadcasting a story of organized and intimate renewal.

Of how somebody is thinking ahead.

Or perhaps the hope was more foundational, so to speak, and had to do with the sturdiness of the operation that produced the recurrent row of underpants.

Not just the dependably loud and Russian argumentation out of which the underpants appeared to be extruded like a row of continuing and faithful facts, but also the unvarying style and whiteness of the underpants.

As if they were a testament to some rigorous belief, perhaps in the absolute.

Perhaps just in the indisputable rightness of at least one thing.

Which brought her back to the migrating fathers in the original hypothesis and what it was exactly they had lost.

What it was exactly they had left innocently hanging across from her like a succession of mute and outmoded pronouns.

Like a succession of hopes of protection from the humiliation of nakedness, a succession of humiliatingly naked and public hopes.

Without which they flew shamelessly over the seven seas but would never again be able to land.

In this poem Killough takes herself less seriously unless, of course, you are one of those people who takes underpants very seriously. Which I sometimes do. For example, I am of the opinion that boys wear underpants but those who sport “international penises” probably wear “underwear.” In fact, I would bet that any man over the age of 20 who referred to himself in a locker room as wearing “underpants” probably would be looked at as “not right.” This small detail aside (which, however, does cast some doubt on whether Killough has tread closely enough to that form of divine inspiration that is male idiocy she is criticizing) the fear of the Trilateral Commission is writ large in this poem. If only the kind of masculine junta that Killough refers to existed. Unfortunately, my perspective reveals no such thing. Mostly, I see male confusion exhibited during the game of “I’m wearing the pants.” But not only are none of them wearing the pants, so to speak. They aren’t wearing any underpants either. Which isn’t such a bad thing. I mean, really, why do any of us even wear underpants?

Finally, there is the Statue of Liberty, that most grandiose metaphor for the US that can be had. From “Statue of Liberty” Killough assures us that The Statue of Liberty is essentially plastic. It has “begun to change something even in you, even in me.”

Beloved Idea is a concept book. It rides mostly on its ideas and the situations it imagines. It is never afraid to take on weight and then dump it in a heap by the side of the road Killough is traveling. It is an interesting trip through the minefield of metaphor. Each one you step on has the possibility of exploding.

However, if you are the kind of reader who reads to have a poet map on to your experience, she may not live up to your expectations. Similarly, if you expect a linguistic tour de force with as much music as there is concept for the mind to chew on, then you may find yourself still wanting more. The music here is not gutsy solos with a lot of flashy eighth notes and moments of syncopation but quirky minuets.

My main question is whether after we have emptied texts of all their devices whether we will want to read any of them anymore in their present condition or whether we will want to acknowledge them and embrace their shortcomings as we invite them back, one by one, into our texts, even, god forbid, into our narratives. Killough distrusts the glorious metaphor when she writes:

That if one feels compelled to pursue a glorious metaphor and defoliate the hell out of it one should probably go away and reexamine one’s linguistic priorities.

While her unkempt garden speaks to my desire to let the oleander overtake the highway median, I can’t help myself too often in awe of the last few riverine oaks poking up out of the floor of the Valley into this Valley air. If someday I might get lost in the upper branches of its canopy, please help to remind me to come back down to the ground. Meanwhile, onwards with the birds . . . may someday they land somewhere.

Ruth Ellen Kocher — One Girl Babylon

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

Imagine a life that is treated with restriction enzymes so that the fragments of that life are swirling around in a tiny amount of liquid at the bottom of an Eppendorf tube. As the fragments recombine, they come together to anneal at strange junctures. The trauma of violence and abuse anneal to the colors and inexplicable rhythms of nature. The DNA that results miraculously produces an animal that is both “cerebral” and “emotional” and can be loved and cared for by either camp. These are poems that beg to be domesticated in that they prepare the reader for the familiar wild, the back lot that has grown over with dark, prickly bushes which threaten to draw blood as one wanders through them.

Kocher is the singular Babylon, a collection of shed particles, the considered ruin. She thinks through image and sound (though not to the same extent as Clark Coolidge thinks through sound) in a language that is lush a term she uses to describe her own work in “Making the Reader Work”). Established meter gives way to a more syncopated feel, a jazz prosody, where the comma serves as breath for the soloist to pursue another direction with the phrasing. Each new direction entangles speaker and reader on a voyage through territory that is unclaimed by any nation. Yet the territory is familiar, populated by bone, blood, and gristle. Love lost and longing. In this manner, the old line drawn between “cerebral” and “emotional” is rent asunder . . . and not a moment too soon.

Pleurisy

All night you feel
red horses galloping through your blood
hear a piercing siren, and are in love
with the inexplicable

—Arthur Sze

Through the ocean you weather, deep
waves uncurled into the pain of pink tissue
failing between your ribs, imagine the body
yields to a spell that goes like this:

A band plays a march somewhere.
The sun has found its winter arc.
The volcano looks like an eye from above.

Remember,
in a love hex, it’s all rhythm
so within each square is another, another
until pain becomes a twin some mornings:
the sharp shape of your lungs galloping.

And what of the past, heals:
watching the fish die, you realize
the dream of horses, the snake
veined like a cock. Now,
before the evening tells you
everything you’ll soon forget, say this:
The living are at my window,
calling me out. I am unconcerned
about what’s over the mountain.
The other side. Yes, the old woman
was beautiful in her death.

Could you have been forsaken
tonight? A painless sleep:
lungs became horses, charged,
stood high on back legs, facing,
their front hooves lightly flanking . . .

If you are lucky,
the temptation to escape takes you
whole at midnight and desire is overripe,
drips the red risk of pomegranate.
Even your footprints can’t find you.

You are lost. Love this.
You are lost and never found.
Here is the healing: the airplane
crosses through your morning
with the roar of last year, a season of icicles
plunged into your sternum, a one-night stand,
a lost fang begging his way into your home.

Forget him. Forget him.

The imperative at the end of this piece is a rhetorical construct that Kocher uses frequently. She weaves her magical web of life fragments and intoxicating sound, but she never abstains from giving direction to the reader. Or is the last line an appeal to hope, that there is a course of action that can be taken which leads one out of the dense emotional forest? the imperative peeking through reminds the reader that there is will in the speaker and not just another dreamy voice walking through the universe and fetishizing things and the life within those things.

Another aspect of this piece that is worth noting (even worth duplicating for those who are not sheepish about weathering the accusation of being “uneven”) is how the diseased condition (that of pleurisy) transforms itself into a “love sickness” and how “healing” is the action that binds these two disparate items together. The interlude with the procession of animals in stanza 4 reins in the Sze epigraph. While some who prefer “the fixed frame” in poetry might find this move unnecessarily digressive, I find this move to expand the scope of the poem into territory that connects with something unresolved in the poem. In doing this, it invites me as a reader for a closer look, a second look, even a third or fourth. I imagine that those who find the “puzzle” aspect of poetry distasteful would flinch at Kocher’s move, but I say we should raise our glass to the good ol’ days (before the easy FOX NEWSication of everything) when it was OK to think and consider a thing for longer than three minutes.

In stanza 5 the metaphor of the horses is returned to explicitly (with the italicized voice picking up the theme this time). In stanza 6 Kocher turns toward the theme of being consumed by passion which will drive the poem to its conclusion where the he is vaguely equated to a lost dog.

That’s a lot of work to move through the various scrims Kocher has placed before the reader, but the following is an even more ambitious piece which speaks to the title of the book.

To Speak is to Speak About the Fall

Babylon in all its desolation is a sight not so awful as that of the human mind in ruins—Scrope Davies

I.

I see these things in my life:
a circle of boulders
perched on a hill, the side of a hill,
a bird flattened by boulders and placed into a fold of sod
buckled on the side of a hill—
a thrush flattened and placed into a can that’s been
cleaned and placed carefully into a fold of sod.

Almost everyone knows the noise
caused by any round
tin object . . . the lid of a canister,
when it slips from one’s grasp.

I am paralyzed to see people eating
alone in restaurants or singly
holed-up in theaters,
keeping the dark near them as siblings
sharing their bad dream
a bed away, or the very old, the old men in grocery stores
holding a can close. The words,
label, the eyes wandering.

Ordinary life shackles us. Swallows us
whole even within our dreaming.

II.

I loved plums. I loved plums most the three summers
I could not eat them without raw hives
swelling my lips and tongue, my throat
thick, closed to breath, plum-purple
arrogant as blood drawn in a cold room by a cold
nurse who does not look at you because
she will love you and you will let her, let her go,
let her take you into a charge of submission and larger yet
her cold hands collapsing into themselves
while her own veins struggle,
blue beneath thin skin.

Let her go.

there were bridges in my life for many years,
bridges in my life where the floes of ice
caught up and scraped the winter into ears of runners
crossing the bridge like thrushes who didn’t care about cold
except winter them from eating—
life, yet, beating in their ears.

Have you forgotten, I’ve touched your palms,
your fingertips . . . Let the gods speak softly of us.
Have you forgotten, if I could forgive, I would . . .

III.

In my death, I would be sitting with Cochise still angry about his children
disappeared into the grass of a quiet field, angry about the indifference
of the wind,
and the deep witness, sky.

The enormous tragedy of your dream is the peasant’s bent shoulders.

If the life, dying, could find sleep,
I would be sitting with Catherine de’ Medici, eating
artichokes served with the brie of her servants’ kitchen.
Thin butter would run from her chin
like a child’s slobber, run from her chin onto my arm
so that now I hear her laughing. She laughs in her purple skirts,
her purple bodice and the posture
of her corset boned with a splay of whale ribbing.

Have you forgotten, she is the noise caused by any round
thin object, of any object falling when it slips from one’s grasp . . .
We have dreamed this all of our lives.

If she falls as I wake, although waking me, my body
will see these things—dumb with paradise,
caught in the open glare of artichokes, the green clutch,
purpled skirt—my life, a circle, perched and buckled.

Here Kocher is ultimately ruminative about her life. She seeks refuge in Cochise and Catherine de’ Medici as foils to her own life which serves as an example of a life fragmented by desire, a mind as ruin. The historic, the everyday, and the dream world converge to offer a tempting splay of possibilities for the life of the contemplative, condemned to being dispossessed of its faculties as it tracks down every imaginable loose end which desire compels it to explore.

But Kocher is not always providing “evasive” assemblage. At times the images align themselves into something more approachable, more willful. In “Vicinity,” suspicion by others fuels the identity statement.

Vicinity

for K.E.Q.

After church, the neighborhood returns to its failing.
The lights come on. Children retreat to their rooms.
In my driveway, ants continue to make good

of the cactus wren’s dead flight while deaf Jim waters
the arbor vitae. The old widow next door to him
checks her car again and looks at my house,
knowing blackness is up to no good,
in her trunk, maybe, or at her roses when
she’s sleeping. Wave hello and pass,

wave hello and pass her mint-green house,
ill-decision, another decade’s color scheme
gone wrong, even in the awnings striped white.
The girl who knew me a decade earlier was right.

I am more black when I’m barefoot.
I am more black when I walk down the street,
carrying my shoes like I just don’t care.

Kocher’s neighborhood is recalled rather matter-of-factly. A denizen of a more racialized past serves as the focal point for Kocher to regard her racial identity as irrelevant, a detail as insignificant as the activities of the ants and the cactus wren. Inclusion of these details of the minute fauna serves to level the concerns in the latter half of the poem with those kinds of minutiae.

Even the most casual reader will notice the syncopation in Kocher’s lines, the repetition and then the lurch forward like in below:

in a love hex, it’s all rhythm
so within each square is another, another
until pain becomes a twin some mornings:

The effect is like that of Charlie Parker (if you make a mistake, make it again). Is the mistake here “another”? Or does the comma just replace the word “and”? It definitely “lurches” at the comma.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . a cold
nurse who does not look at you because
she will love you and you will let her, let her go,
let her take you into a charge of submission and larger yet
her cold hands collapsing into themselves
while her own veins struggle,
blue beneath thin skin.

Let her go.

In this passage the refrain of “let” placed right after the comma sets the reader to considering the speaker’s mind is lurching/darting in another direction and that the linchpin of the new diverted thought is the repeated word. Kocher’s rhythms don’t leap around like Joshua Redman playing “St. Thomas.” They certainly don’t approach Sonny Rollins’ noodling. However, they are central to the way she plies her craft. This is evidenced by this candid photo at a recent reading where she held the fingertips of her right hand above her larynx as she read (see photo below).

When I asked her about it, she said she holds her hand there to feel the resonance of her voice and to register, in a more physical way, the rhythms of her poem. Sound is definitely an important ingredient in her work, and it accentuates the image play and juxtapositions rather than adding noise to the assembled matter.

Finally, there is sassy Kocher, where the spirit that usually dwells in the realm of contemplated beauty is given permission to put a few things on her mind out in the open.

Ode To the Woman Who, On the Day I Earned a Doctorate, Mistook Me For a Shoe Clerk

I want to tell you I loved how your shoes
sparkled like the muted gold

flecked into an east coast diner’s creamy Formica
countertop. I want to tell you how I

imagined them on my wide feet (yellow and crusted
with the desert of five years, walks to the library,

to my truck, to the bar, to my classroom, to my office,
the copy machine, always down, and to the bar again)

and yes, I imagined the thin slips of leather
emerging from beneath the plum-colored robe that would

embarrass and thrill me as I walked the procession, gowned
over my red shoulders. I would sit, in just four hours,

through long speeches by deans I had never known,
but who were happy to tally another retention with a handshake.

I could have forgotten the head cap of my mortarboard,
too small to crown thick African twists damp with pomade

and beeswax. I could have forgotten your tap on my shoulder
at just the moment I was remembering mangoes hanging

heavy on a sparse tree near the top of Saba Island,
so close to the cliff the sea longed to swallow one whole;

but I didn’t. I did not tell you that you were mistaken,
or that my husband’s skin rose into goose flesh at my touch that morning,

even after ten years of waking to the same black mole on my shoulders—
I kept from you the moment, a month before, I had cradled

a student in my arms because the year had mugged her and left her bruised.
And so you couldn’t know that the smell of dust from rotting

volumes of Gertrude Stein replaced the stench of the toilets
my teenage hands scrubbed in other people’s homes

because government programs for us kids at risk, risked us.
I did not tell you because you were right in noticing

every brown face in that store name-tagged, your beautiful
feet pedicured into acceptance. I want to tell you, now,

never to read this poem aloud in your home as Esperanza,
your maid, listens at the sink. Never read it, because the words

will sift through your ears and fall into the forgotten spaces
between your ribs. They will rattle in your gut. They will circle

the chasms within your shins and fall to the hollow of each smooth
foot, just near the arch, lost to any hope of hearing. And Esperanza

does not need to hear them, not from your lips, because she
can still take her own name home at night, lotion her knees,

peel an orange into the distance measured between
the two doorways of her apartment, and love the sharp scent,

love how it becomes her life, like the words of this poem, and how,
for a few hours, the citrus oil hanging in the air washes you away.

Class and gender rear their head, but there is always an element of beauty in all of Kocher’s work. Even in anger above, the images never portray a world with much rot or waste or decay. The world that Kocher inhabits is the world where beauty affirms life. That instinct to swerve from squalor is admirable, and it has me asking myself what my obligation to portray beauty in the world is. The portrayal of beauty is an old trope, at least as old as the first prehistoric make-up kit, but it is redemptive. Beauty fixes our gaze and lets us wander barefoot without a care for who admonishes us. I felt this same kind of enjoyment in reading One Girl Babylon as I cared less and less about the kind of book I was reading (and the kind of book I should be reading). A fulfilling robust flavor cooks on every page, amid every “lurch” and through all the “lushness.”

She’s a star which we would all do well to follow.

Reviewed by Victor Schnickelfritz in 2006

George Kalamaras—Even the Java Sparrows Call Your Hair

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on April 1, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

When I first read the title piece “Even the Java Sparrows Call Your Hair” in Facture 3 back in 2002 (a magazine which, by the way was seemingly a replacement for Sulfur but unfortunately lasted only three issues), I had an immediate pull towards the piece. It was a piece that immediately set me on fire for the kind of linguistic pyrotechnics, the energy and drive of the hurtling rhythms, the variety and breadth of the things invoked in the poem. It struck me as a kind of tour de force, one which I immediately tried to emulate in order to see if I could approach the daring movement Kalamaras practiced there. It’s not often after many years of reading that you read something that “takes off the top of your head.” I was compelled to pick up my pen, and Kalamaras has continued to be a model for me whenever I feel that my lines lack verve and nerve.

It seemed to emulate the Clayton Eshleman writing dictum of “driving 100 MPH with your foot on the brake.”

I imagine that upon first reading many readers will feel put off by Kalamaras’s tendency to overreach with his images in a way that I can hear many say is “bad surrealism,” the kind of overwrought juxtaposition that tries just a little too hard to be jarring but which doesn’t quite resonate in a semi-logical manner with a reader the way the best surrealist images do.

Watching someone overreach on the page like Kalamaras does is a lot like watching kids of the current generation who wear their jeans down below their ass. It seems ridiculous, even embarrassing, to wear them like this, just barely held up, but at the same time one has to acknowledge that, both literally and figuratively, it takes a scrotum filled to its capacity to do so.

Examples of the kind of imagery I am talking about abound in Even the Java Sparrows Call Your Name.

“Lice of sorrow, lice of squid, lice of the torn kite tail your breath remembers but cannot swallow when it inhales nine times again beneath that star over you when you were nine.”

“A sparrow like the like the clarity of a broad-shouldered man housing beeweave as mound in the tube hidden in his limp on a rainy street.”

“Bone of ground red cloud, of the snapped tentacle of swarmed lice that surrounds moon with moving light that bathes the tongue’s afternoon rain, dark Indiana oak pain that makes your prayer an urgent yet crass reciting of calm.”

In short, this kind of image-making employs a kind of overly indulgent form of surrealism straight out of the Breton school of surrealists. I have this impression also, but in his essay “The Death of the Self: Poststructuralism and a Rhetoric of Silence” from his book of critical essays, Reclaiming the Tacit Dimension: Symbolic Form in the Rhetoric of Silence, Kalamaras gives us some idea of what he is up to when he does this.

In the essay Kalamaras explains that the poststrucuralist gap (read aporia to the converted), that place which no utterance abides, the death of words, is similar to the notion of the paradox among Eastern mystics. He questions whether this silence is equal to the death of the self as the poststructuralists would posit. Kalamaras invokes Blanchot’s concept of silence which is not so “oppositional.” Rather, it is “reciprocal.” It nourishes and reconstitutes the discursive. Therefore, silence, far from being the death of the self and of its will toward empowerment, is seen as an ally in the self’s development.

I believe this is the central reason why Kalamaras engages in so much befuddling imagery that clearly does not aspire to logic, even in a pictorial way (for an example of this, one may look at the title of the book  . . . what does it mean to have a Java sparrow call your hair? Would this be different from the way a sparrow in South Carolina would call someone’s hair?). The images seemingly fail to map onto anything. They are just there as verbal constructs resisting any attempt to unpack them. They are, in fact, paradoxes. As they litter the page in so much of Kalamaras’s work, these can be seen as reconstitutive moments in the text.

But so much of surrealism’s project is based on the moment of illumination that arises when disparate images rub up against each other in a moment of passionate frotteurism. Usually, the desired result is a recontextualizing of the items that are involved, rendering them each larger than what they were before they were thrown together to exchange electrons. But such a hideous organic compound cannot occur without that magical moment of gestalt that accompanies it. Surrealism relies on magical thinking.

For this reason, surrealism has not been a very good friend to academia. Academics tend to go for sharp, analytical modes of thinking. Their modes of discourse are usually geared to achieving power (perhaps this is why poststructuralism has gained so much caché). Graduate students become mad about discourses of power. They enage in various kinds of discourse analysis. Across the country they align themselves with the disempowered (even though most or many come from relatively privileged backgrounds) and study and analyze their claims to power. Then, when they graduate and the need to integrate into the machine for the purpose of recapturing the social position they inherited arises, they use their knowledge about claims to power to subvert other people’s attempts at making them [everyone knows the story of the middle class suburban Marxist who is weaned on revolutionary proclamations in graduate school only to understand the beauty and clarity of cooperation later]. However, surrealism’s project is not analytical or constructive. It is an invocation of the visionary, and it’s hard to rationalize a vision.

For this reason, I think that Kalamaras’s work does not offer itself up as critique of anything, not does it provide any real intellectual grist for the mill. It does not argue for anything or claim anything other than its own existence. It invokes, invokes, invokes. The things that it raises on the page in a kind of neverending blitzkrieg of a parade are ends in themselves, and their presence is designed to work on a reader the way op art does or the way Yolngu bark paintings are said to induce fantasies among the Yolngu Aborigines of Australia. For someone looking for greater insight in Kalamaras’s work, they may not find any other than what is appropriated by accident.

So, I am suggesting that the reason for Kalamaras’s “fluffiness,” is for readers to reimagine the world via that next technological innovation that is beyond technicolor. It should induce some psychological twist that underpins seeing the world in a different hue and changing the way the tongue works.

Is Kalamaras “beyond technicolor”? I tend to think so, but I suppose this depends on the ratio of gestalts achieved per cubic centimeter of lined poetry.

All of this is much like Rimbaud’s reasoned derangement of the senses also (which he achieved through absinthe). But it might be the altered state of mind that is achieved by Kalamaras in yogic meditation. Here is Kalamaras from his interview in Spoon River Poetry Review:

I hope that the lines achieve both a heightening of the senses and a neutralizing of opposites. That’s one reason couplets, as a structure, are so very important to me—they connect to my practice of yogic meditation. One basis of all the yogic techniques is to neutralize opposites so that one may not be bound by binaries and the changing tides of “good and bad,” “right and wrong,” “inner and outer,” “you and me”— those tricks of conceptual thought that block a deeper psychic reciprocity with the universe.

In the same interview Kalamaras goes further:

The perspective of paradox is central to the collection and to meditation in general. It is similar to a koan, but I prefer not to see koans as riddles, because riddles imply a specific question and answer. It is the process of the koan that is the transformative agent by its structure, and not the answer. The koan, like poetry, can momentarily short-circuit one’s rational hold on the universe and evoke a meditative state.

While I am not sure I achieve a meditative state when I read Even the Java Sparrows Call Your Hair, I wouldn’t rule out that possibility. The mental space I occupy is somewhere between awe and beleagueredness. I start out reading and I am thunderstruck by the linguistic jolt I recieve. Then after the surprise and pleasure have firmly taken hold, I wonder how I can continually achieve the immaculate again and again—without becoming dehydrated. It’s like trying to dance Irish jigs all night. Not even Lance Armstrong’s heart can take that. At times one senses that Kalamaras is trying out every product he can find at Wal-Mart on you.

The problem with much of the surrealist project is: after my subconscious has been liberated, now what? After all of my dichotomous constructs have been rendered as part of a unified flow, then what? Is this really enough to build an alternative world as Breton suggested? Or does one begin to get the nagging feeling that one has taken on some of the rather nasty peculiarities of a none-too-intelligent mammal?

Strangely though, despite the beating the senses take after reading Kalamaras for a while, I always get the sense that Kalamaras is readying the mind for something. Mostly it is this reason I find his work valuable. I read his pieces as warm-ups when I am about to engage in my own form of mental gymnastics. In this way Kalamaras’s Even the Java Sparrows Call Your Hair serves like a book of etudes for a practicing violinist.

Each piece is a bite-sized candy in a Halloween treat bag, but take care that if you eat too many at one time, you might get sick.

But what of the pieces themselves? How do they work? In “Your Insides Have Some Explaining to Do” there are an accumulation of extraordinary images. They pile up, and at times refer back. There is more than one mention of the “counting of toes and only coming up with one”, “writing on the insides (the intestinal tract)”, “sparrows”, “the theme of adult vs. child.” Also, Kalamaras moves off of images from line to line. The fire ants from Namibia arrive (a mention of Africa where Rimbaud sails exists in the previous line) and implant themselves beneath the skin (another semi-reference to the “insides of the body”). This leads to eczema, then to the psoriasis of the scrotum and a brief encounter with the erotic in a “bout of almost-kissing.” The items he invokes are always out of the ordinary. One might comment that he is indeed fetishizing strangeness throughout. The items themselves, though, are not particularly strange; just their actions and environment are out of the ordinary. There is a good mix of the exotic and the familiar, which is almost always the case in first-rate surrealist writing. We get Rimbaud, Ethiopia [Shoa], Namibia, Java sparrows, the Gobi, and the Punjab. But we also get, popcorn, toes, dice, ravens, cabbages.

The line-to-line references provide structure at the local level. One can almost feel the mind using association as its navigational tool, its compass. The brief episodes of looking further back provide more of a global structure for the piece. These instances are the folding of the protein that leads to its three-dimensional form. What I find invigorating about pieces that employ this structuring technique is the unique protein-folding that goes on in each. Sometimes the hardness of keratin emerges; sometimes it is hemoglobin.

I imagine there are those out there who will judge Kalamaras on the protein scale to be more like lambs wool rather than any of the nobler proteins. He is quite fuzzy for sure. This often has to do with his tendency to not even give away what his mind has been meditating towards in the last line. Frequently, the last line is meant to resonate with a point that the mind is moving towards. When we encounter,

That writing inside you may or may not be sparrow, be blind, become, is more like bird track, I hear, or frustrated fists of ordinary cabbage railing to get out.

There is little to gather about what Kalamaras’s linguistic performance has been building up to. One might venture that the last line is an ars poetica referring to the difficulties of “calling out” language onto the page. The “frustrated fists of ordinary cabbage” suggests that it is some inner emotional state like frustration that serves as the engine for his language generation.

In “Looking For My Grandfather with Odysseus Elytis” the last line also seems to echo an ars poetica (if not more generally what it means to be a language-producing animal in the world).

He gently undoes my trousers, the buttons of my shirt, dabs sweat from my brow, rubs olive oil on my groin, in slow circles at the sensitive tip of my penis, on my chest just above the nipples where the crushing begins. Push, push, he says. Vowel without end in the chest, he says. Soon you will speak, Giorgos. Soon you will speak.

In this situation the moment of manifesting language is at hand, the creative moment has arrived, and like most of us, Kalamaras is comforted to have a master like Elytis by his side. Surrealists are often keeping company with their cultural stars. There are an assortment of writers: Elytis, Wang Wei, Miguel Hernandez, Breton, Rimbaud, Vallejo, Shinkichi, Georges Seferis, John Bradley who make appearances. There are visual artists like Max Ernst and Paul Delvaux, many musicians like George Harrison, Laura Nyro, Rory Gallagher, the group of poems dedicated to Paul Kossoff, Tommy Bolin, John Cipollina and Randy California, who are members of the obscure rock bands, Free, Zephyr, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. There are very few references to people or works outside the arena of the arts. It is safe to say, then, that Kalamaras is highly concerned with aesthetic experience.

The largest question I am left pondering after touring with the Kalamaras light and visual effects show is whether work that makes exclusive claims about the aesthetic can be fulfilling over the long run. The absence of any fully fleshed-out ideation (or reference to the same) presses down on me. However, I keep reminding myself that if Kalamaras is comfortable with his work being replete with urges toward a fundamentally different aesthetic experience, then I should be OK with that. However, along with this project of his comes an abdication of any responsibility for the world the way it actually is, for any responsibility to make any statements with any claim to veracity and power. Inscribed by the power relationships of human hierarchies, Kalamaras repeatedly refuses to face them.

So, what of poetry that refuses to make a statement about the world as is? Does this refusal ultimately delegitimize? History is full to the brim with critiques of the aesthete. The greatest of these is that the aesthete makes of his/her life a kind of useless ornament. He/she loses the capability to be effective; he/she loses power. For most, there is a perceived obligation for the poet to speak to the truth of his/her age.

But what if a poet challenges this obligation? What if a poet has no other aspiration than a pretension to illuminate? Even “serious play” seems too much like work, too involved with the practical virtue of seeking rigor in one’s work. What if the poet sees himself/herself as having no great cause to buy into the world? And to the extent he/she does buy into it, is this the ultimate buyer’s remorse?

I don’t want to begrudge Kalamaras his aesthetic space, especially when I find it such a pleasure to tread upon it, but I have my doubts at times in his work that it never fully ventures an episode in life. The blood, bone, guts and gristle he invokes are an attempt to represent the living, but they fall half a breath short.

This discussion originally appeared in Oct. 2005

Chad Sweeney — Parable of Hide and Seek

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on November 1, 2010 by Victor Schnickelfritz

Chad Sweeney’s The Parable of Hide and Seek balances itself (as its title suggests) between the open and the hermetically sealed, between that which is hidden and that which is sought. Sweeney employs careful and lush images informed by his natural surrealist bent, and moves many of these images beyond simply evocations of the world of the subconscious. They also inhabit a more earthly mysticism that at times seems to border on social commentary in the manner of how Bei Dao and the Misty poets would seem to comment on Chinese politics in the midst of their beguiling images. Like a good parable, the poems seem to nearly deliver a message. Like a dysfunctional parable, they also meander through a world of smells like a distracted dog. Not a pit bull, mind you, more of a bemused Airedale. Stripped down and simple dog lines. But being caught between Charles Simic and Bei Dao is not a bad place to find oneself when writing a parable of hide and seek. Sweeney initiates a search to ensure the openness of a reader’s interpretation will eventually find a mark while simultaneously turning off the light on the exit sign so that the same reader will not make an easy escape. There is room enough to ponder what essentials are hidden in his lines.

Another aspect of The Parable of Hide and Seek that I admire is that it doesn’t follow the pack mentality in organizing the manuscript. This is just a bunch of poems (like a pack of baseball cards). You open it up and there could be any number of topics or themes involved. Sure there are only baseball players in there (no soccer players left over from the World Cup), but it is refreshing to see that this collection seems to be organized around the principle of just putting together a bunch of really good poems that stand alone by themselves and are not organized into some cute thematic collection. It reminds one of the good old days when people wrote books of poems that were driven by a perceived compulsion to be written, not written as though they fulfilled an assignment from the marketing department of a university press. For this reason, Alice James Books should be given credit for publishing a book that is outside the standard prize-winning book formula. You know the drill. Three sections organized according to some loose sub-theme which are tied together by the umbrella title concept. It is poetry manuscript organization according to the precepts of making a Toto album. A very contrived contraption, and it has me swearing off most prize-winning books of late because I know there will be one or two poems that are worth reading from each section and the rest will be filler designed to round out that section of the manuscript. The “hit-makers” prevail.

Or to put a finer point on this problem, David Alpaugh put it this way in his essay “What’s Really Wrong with Poetry Book Contests?”:

Above all, keep in mind that poetry collections must be novelistically structured. Before Emily Dickinson’s heap of 1,775 untitled poems could be competitive she would have to discard 1,700 of them; give each of the remaining 75 a title; sort them into three thematic batches, each with a section title and epigraph; and come up with a catchy “umbrella” title (Wild Nights might be a hit with student-screeners). This procedure is so de rigueur these days it’s as if there were a bumper sticker slapped on every collection, boasting: “My other book is a novella.”

The pleasure of dipping into The Parable of Hide and Seek is that one can actually dip into the book (the way one dips into Simic and Bei Dao) without any concern that you have missed several steps along the path of the narrative arc or some other similar organizing principle. You just dive in and begin to enjoy. An anti-organization. An organization that defies organization . . . or maybe it is just a distracted Airedale.

Sweeney related to me at a reading he did in Sacramento when he read some poems from this manuscript that many of these poems were written during a three week window where they more or less ”arrived.” A mysterious Rilkean process. Like he was a capacitor that was suddenly discharged. [Unfortunately, my son stepped on the laptop that was used to record the reading and disabled the hard drive or there would be audio files available from that reading.] The general simplicity that Sweeney puts in play in this collection makes this assertion believable. The images that prevail in the poems are ones that never seem labored or forced. A childlike innocence is evoked — as though the speaker is arriving at a whole new world that has exploded in front of him. This manner of illumination is textbook surrealism, but it is not as pointed as Aimé Cesaire who is trying to forge a whole new Caribbean identity (like in “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land”). The commentary is downplayed much more than that.

In “Of Empire” Sweeney hints at the notion that we are all assassins of a nature (through sins of omission?) because we are complicit in participating in the same subconscious impulses of threat and danger. This depiction of an almost Cold War-inspired spy regime is a more psychologized treatment of international politics than an overt re-mythologizing of the political scene which one might find in Bei Dao’s work at the height of his involvement at Tiananmen. Sweeney flavors his poem-scapes as absurd adventures into Existenz.

Of Empire

An assassin is sneaking along the fence.
His breath sounds like scissors
clipping dahlias.

One eye
is trained to sleep by day,
the other by night.

The assassin doesn’t recall
who hired him.
He doesn’t know which death wants him

at the end of this sentence.
That’s why his gloves are white
and his sleeping eye sees

what you see.

The purposefulness (purposelessness?) in the shades of imagery and associative moves (which can almost always be found even in the most elusive of image displays in poetry . . . unless one has arrived at complete image wallpaper without any charge or connotation) seems to exist in a sphere devoid of historical continuity or political intrigue. The innocence that marks these poems as separate from that realm of great import provide a signal that the reader is in a space that is detached from any larger framework. However, that said, Sweeney is concerned with those topics in the manner that he invokes them through the objects he places in the poems. Assassins that appear in the poems hint at a larger threatening world, but the almost childlike drift that is felt in so many of the poems has the reader viewing these objects as tabula rasa agents. They appear without any recognizable intention. In applying a known agency to these poem-objects which appear, the reader finds himself enmeshed in a game of ascribing meaning, a game in which Sweeney has set the rules. He asks, “Do you know these figures?” and almost begs for an “unknowing” of them. The figure of “the perpetrator,” “the assassin,” “the army general,” “the crucifix” is unmasked.

Is this a political act? I think it is. Sweeney is scrambling the data banks and asking the reader to reset them at time t = “childlike aura.” The ethos of surrealism has always been more to promote a visionary stance rather than to advance a critical position.

I bring this point up about surrealism and the political only because many of surrealism’s detractors point out its deficiency in not relating to anything of this world and therefore being pretty much outside the discussion of real-time social relations. Of course, as Cesaire and Senghor have illustrated, this isn’t always the case. As part of the Negritude movement, they could never dare to let their writing venture too far from the political moment. After all, both were important politicians in their respective countries, a development (for literary figures) that has been lost here in the U.S.

Most of the time Sweeney’s poems work their open-ended magic because they don’t illustrate any ideological fervor. The world is shaken up like a snowglobe and all of its assembled pieces come back down to the ground (of its own isolated world) in a different place. It’s refreshing to see how Sweeney shuffles the deck of his various objects. One really feels the undertow of the subconscious.

In certain poems in The Parable of Hide and Seek, however, the “take” on the experience is more present. In “The Factory” the poem-scape is much more menacing. The “commentary” on modern life is present. “The Factory” implies its message of brutish, absurd industry. Business and trade seem to be the targets.

The Factory

Each cage has a unique serial number.
I still remember the first.
I inspect the corners.
I wash away the copper dust.

We refrigerate each cage for one month.
We bury it in lime.
We sleep three nights inside each cage.
We hang it from the eaves.

We lost a tour group inside a cage.
We built a stairwell to find them again.
We lost a bull inside a cage.
We had to open all the ledgers.

Once for an hour the sun
was caught inside our cage.
I swear it, the colors changed,
wind paused for the outcome.

One key is a rib.
One key is a cypress.
One key is a hammer.
One key is a sound.

It takes one year to grow a cage.
Long enough to plan an argument.
Long enough to teach a child
to weave clothing from the keys.

One key is a street.
One key is a cardinal.
One key is an aura.
One key is a wedge.

We line up the keys and paint them with water.
We spank each cage until it cries.
We export our cages everywhere.
Packed in saw dust. Packed in wool.

I inspect the locks.
I wipe away the fire.
One cage is a method.
One cage is a story.

In this he seats himself as one who points to his contemporary age and rehearses its offenses (the way in which Bei Dao is commenting on the autocratic aspects of Tiananmen China). It is hardly surprising that the target of an American poet is not the government per se, but that of the lord of our times, the all-encompassing and oppressive economy and the pressure to produce something of exchange value. In this poem, too, Sweeney manages to provide an aesthetic critique on “narrative lockdown,” the prison that is narrative form in writing.

Sweeney has never been one to tell a narrative completely straight. In his previous collection Arranging the Blaze (Anhinga, 2009) the aim of that collection is a kind of re-mythologizing of himself and his personal story. One never puts together the pieces to the point where one can actually say what it is that is going on in Sweeney’s life, from point A to point B, but the characters that appear are clearly part of it. Pieces of the puzzle push forward in order to be recognized, but then he moves towards a more or less surreal treatment of these elements and the reader’s doubt is cast in full again. It is an autobiography of the hidden and shaded self. For a reader who desires a more earnest presentation, there will be a letdown, a failure to bring order, but not before there is a good bit of piecing together who Sweeney is. For a brief sample of this kind of elusive and evocative fare, read “Bear”. [Reading for Southeast Review]

In The Parable of Hide and Seek the manner in which Sweeney weaves his subconscious magic over the reader is in the kinds of simple objects he invokes. These are the kinds of figures that might exist in parables (so Sweeney’s diction is right on target for this collection). The figures seem to emerge from out of a timeless place. There are very few references to modern day figures. Occasionally, one sneaks in: a Kmart, Volkswagens, a hubcap, an overpass, a shipyard, decibels, tool belts, phone books. Often the kinds of figures invoked are cats, flowers, tombstones, clouds, the stuff of folk songs. More often the figures are more specific and unusual: hangmen, caryatids, a megaphone, Rohrschachs, a briar patch, a coloratura. The cumulative effect is that the reader is journeying through a very old and unusual territory, a Transylvania of the page. The Brothers Grimm meet the Parisian cafés where Breton hung out. I like the expansiveness of these poems. Things happen, but they are not readily defined by social meaning. It feels like a message is arriving, one that a child should be able to understand and put to use in his/her life. But that easy take-home message never arrives.

Hanging there, however, are interpretations that a reader can tease into larger significance. The parable is written for the adult as much as it is to instruct the child. Perhaps the meaning that becomes swollen around Sweeney’s figures in these poems is due to the fact that the items he invokes are largely those of a different time, outside of the press of the urban situation circa 2010. These are not poems that are written with an eye towards newspapers. I get the feeling that they penetrate the subconscious so well because these figures have old souls. They are pregnant with possibility.

What would it mean to write a parable out of items rescued from newspaper reports? Could it be done? Could a reader float as freely between figures if they were charged with more contemporary figures, ones that play out in a modern society: insurance companies, nursing homes, Congressional sub-committees, social networking websites, enterprise zones, car bombs, etc. Could these items exist in parables? Is the modern parable an oxymoron? If such a thing as a modern parable could be wrought, would it necessarily be seen as doing more pointed social commentary or could it float freely between easily recognizable hitching posts for signification? Finally, what statement does it make when one engages one’s current political moment in a way that embraces primarily the visionary?

Maybe the only way to undo the damage of one’s political moment is to re-imagine it as the surrealists prefer to do. Surely this is an abdication of sorts as one cannot only imagine the way to the next incarnation of our times.

Sweeney seems willing to do more than just paint Dali-esque portraits in several poems in The Parable of Hide and Seek. One of the eeriest of his commentaries is

The Warden and His Keys

The warden demanded new towers, new halls and more keys for his collection. The workers built until they ran out of materials. Keep going, he said. The workers built two more years until they ran out of

prisoners. Now you are the prisoners, he said. Each morning they escaped in order to arrive at their jobs guarding each other, then snuck back in at night to sleep. None had been happier. They grinned and plotted, tapped secret messages on jail bars. Quiet! shouted the warden, dipping his keys in brandy.

Again, the theme of being held captive by one’s life (and in America this means employment) circumstances appears as the great damnation. A pervasive incarceration is suggested. One is held hostage to one’s work. I can’t imagine Bei Dao lodging a more apt critique of the current American scene. Sweeney’s amped-up and twisted Kafka strain (where one is incarcerated without even suspecting as much) is a poem that might only be penned by an American sensibility that understands the bittersweet attitude towards work most Americans possess. Now we just need poems that suggestively take on the role of a monolithic media, ones that take on the absurdities of major societal institutions such as education and political elections. Something tells me that Sweeney will be aiming at these and other weak points of American democracy in the future, noting how these institutions are intertwined with every aspect of our existence, lending it the flavor of the baroque absurd found in a country that can produce on one hand Wild Turkey bourbon and the Tootsie Roll.