29 June 2012

All Steel

In “First Tools | Fairgrounds,” the opening poem of the second section of All Steel (Flim Forum Press, 2012) by Lori Anderson Moseman, readers encounter two-column poems that begin:
axe—the first tool we're issued on site      cane—the first tool we're issued at home
then, a rusty file to sharpen our blade       the one granddaddy broke to poke his boar
steel on forged steel—skinned knee           tap tap we girls with our champion gilts
we stroke unidirectional to the edge          move them slow in front of the judge slap
drought hills our brittle California gold    the jowls the front quarter bruising showing up we
whittle underbrush arbutus strung out    on white pigs on a Hampshire's white stripe (41)
In many ways, this brief excerpt represents the collection as a whole: a formally inventive exploration of our engagement, as human beings, with the world via a poetry of hand tools. Whether whittling away at underbrush in California or poking a boar at a New Hampshire fair, these instruments both found, perpetuate, and alter our culture.

Of course, the manner in which individuals interact with the material world and use tools differs; Moseman's collection suggests that one of the determining factors is gender. Take, for instance, the first poem of All Steel, titled “Harrow | Melodrama”:
Nineteen and nearly blind, she runs
across fenceless acres to her husband.
He and mule are at the plow. No.
He's at the rake. No. Must be the harrow.
She's just learning each season's blade.
Unsure even now as she runs to him,
dead baby in her arms—their first.

When she reaches him, they become
one-winged birds destined to fly
as a pair—broken nest in their beak.
The ground below always in need
of breaking, of poking, pecking. (15)
The “husband” works the ground, which is “need / of breaking, of poking, pecking,” while his wife cares for their first child. But due to either the husband's inattention to his domestic responsibilities, or the wife's inability to recognize the proper tools with which to navigate the world, the child dies. Either way, the poem draws boundary lines: man loses himself in his tools at the expense of life, and woman is blind to the names and uses of those same tools that might be able to preserve life. The divide manifests itself, once more, in the poem “Crooked Knife | Reportage”:
                                                              Henri visits every canoe he's made and sold. I'd rather
                                                              visit each slaughtered birch, tar them, wrap them, heal

each toothed leaf free            so green unfolds into fall yellow (18-19)
The Henri character “visits every canoe he's made and sold,” demonstrating an awareness, passion, and concern for the objects he's both created and inserted into a market economy; the speaker of the poem, on the other hand, expresses her concern for and desire to heal the birch trees that Henri chopped away and cut from in order to build his canoes.

Yet, as the narrative of All Steel progresses, rigid binaries dissolve and gender relations associated with tools and nature become more complex and permeable. In “Self-Employed | Main Street,” readers find the following passage:
She enters a beauty pageant
                    for trees. She abandons her hobnail
                                 logging boots, practices in heels

Her talent? All she has is an ancient
                    story: man makes object from wood
                                 manufactures replica with manmade

goods. Woman watches or labors
                    or documents. All long to stand still
                                 to trade contest for a cathedral—

the last grove of the tallest oldest living trees. (48)
A superficial reading of the above excerpt might lead one to believe that the poem reinforces the previous binary relationship in that “man makes object from wood” and the female character “enters a beauty pageant / for trees.” A closer reading, though, reveals a more nuanced state of affairs. To begin with, the unnamed “She abandons her hobnail / logging boots” before practicing for the “beauty pageant,” meaning that she has worked in the logging industry (and by extension, used tools such as saws, etc.). Likewise, although she “watches” and “documents” logging activities, she also “labors” and, thus, is implicated in deforestation. Later, in the “improv overlay” section of the poem “Cyber Fools | Bandstand,” the speaker reveals that  she is “content with tools / stopping short of instrument / I veil mastery in yet another male / enclave” (43), and thus has evolved from the collection's first poem wherein she was blind to the differences and names of various tools; she now, in fact, holds a “mastery” over them, albeit “veiled” from the  “male / enclave” (i.e. male ego?).

The binary, though, doesn't alter in only one direction; in the poem “May | Procession,” which opens the concluding section of All Steel, Moseman writes: “The youngest son of the oldest man leafs out: green / face, green hands, foliage from his mouth” (65). The male progeny of the “oldest man” develops such a close kinship with his woody counterparts that he, literally, becomes a tree. Thus, at least one member of the male community succeeds in identifying with vegetative life forms.

When all is said and done, then, one could argue that All Steel does not advocate for the abandonment of tools and our manipulation of the natural world; instead, the book promotes a composite approach to our relationship with our surroundings that champions innovative construction imbued with empathy for the natural world in which we attain our resources. Yes, we should build; but we should also “stop arguing near plants” (54) and let the trees that turn [our] head[s]” (47) in admiration of their beauty, not the constructs of our more often-than-not destructive labor.

Yet, even with the fluctuating boundaries that constitute our engagement with the natural world and the corresponding promise that such mutability could result in a more productive relationship for both humans and the earth, could positive change be too late? If the poem “Rescue Crews | World Trade Center” is any indication, we might just be doomed:
Ladder to nowhere. Our favorite tool
there at ground zero. Simple ladder in the aftermath:2005
the extent of our ascension.

2005The wooden ladder workmen built to help “rescue efforts” at Ground Zero remains an active tool. (61)
Man used tools to create skyscrapers and airplanes, then man used those skyscrapers to house institutions of economic and financial domination and other men used those airplanes as instruments of death. In an effort to save those in danger, men employed their “favorite tool,” but that tool led “nowhere.” Yes, the “extent of our ascension” and the efficacy of our tools is frighteningly limited in the face of man's ruthlessness. Regardless of culpability, no one is spared: even “The artist injured her hand again: / blade to bone” (85).

22 June 2012


In one of the more famous statements by a poet on the relationship between poetry and grammar, Gertrude Stein wrote: “Do you always have the same kind of feeling in relation to the sounds as the words come out of you or do you not. All this has so much to do with grammar and with poetry.” Stein, notorious for non-normative grammar in her poetry, developed a unique relationship between herself, the sounds, and words she created when writing verse. In the final section of Lectures in America, she writes of those relationships at great length. Indeed, such an expansive investigation is evidence that, at least for Stein, when “you...learn grammar grammar is very exciting.”

Reading through Elizabeth Savage's first full-length collection Grammar (Furniture Press Books, 2012), one quickly realizes that she too finds the rules of language construction very exciting, as she explores all that “has so much to do with grammar and with poetry appears.”

The book contains fifty-two poems, most of which bear titles corresponding to an element of grammar, such as “Misplaced Modifier,” “The Future Perfect,” and “Double Negatives.” Readers get an understanding of the importance the relationship between grammar and poetry holds for Savage in the poem “Grammar”; she writes:
Drilled into instinct
            we evolve
by exceptionality
             noisy flock
contradictory art (39)
Certainly, primary school teachers figuratively drill grammar rules into their young students so they appear as “instinct” once they've grown accustomed to using language. In fact, many of those grammar drills that appear to be instinctive were actually poetry (or at least light verse) themselves. Who could forget the old rhyme “I before e except after c”? Of course, it's not so much a child's linguistic indoctrination that Savage champions. Instead, she claims that if we are to “evolve” as writers, poets, and artists, the old rules must be abandoned for word combinations infused with “exceptionality,” noise, and contradictions in order to produce an “art” that's complex, intriguing, and worthwhile. While Savage's poetry bears little aesthetic resemblance to Stein, both women comprehended the importance of non-normative usage.

The most compelling poems of Grammar are those that both play with the linguistic construct of their title and use language poetically. Take, for instance, the poem “Impersonal Pronouns (It, You, They)”:
They caught the criminals
responsible for rain
             you knew them
by their boots

                the mastermind insists
                this—this—is bliss 
Pointed out I
made my escape (47)
An impersonal pronoun, by definition, does not refer to a specific person, place, or thing. In the above poem, the pronouns “They” and “you” have no antecedents and, thus, cannot be attributed to a particular person. But over and above the engagement with grammar, there is much to admire. For example, the lines “They caught the criminals / responsible for rain / you knew them / by their boots” contains the absurd, dream-like imagery and humor of surrealism; while the poem's sonic elements, such as the alliteration in opening three lines or the overloaded slant-rhymes of the phrase “insists / this—this—is bliss,” push the poem forward with a well-crafted musicality. The poem concludes, then, with a double meaning that infuses the poem with sly wit: the “I” in the closing couplet can be interpreted as the inability of the pronoun “I” to express an impersonal form; or, having learned through the previous lines' examples what an impersonal pronoun is, the reader can now leave the poem and turn the page.

17 June 2012

Spring and All

The reissue of Spring and All (New Directions Publishing, 2011), which reproduces the original 1923 artifact and contains an introduction by the poet C.D. Wright, rescues William Carlos Williams from the common perception that he is a plain-spoken, Imagist.

No doubt, a false understanding of Williams and his poetry can be attributed to anthologies excerpting “The Red Wheelbarrow” from its broader context. For, indeed, without reading the prose sections that comprise the majority of Spring and All, as well as the more experimental verse found in the collection, one could easily read:
so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
chickens (74)
as the epitome of Pound's Imagist doctrine that argues for “direct treatment of the thing, whether subjective or objective” and to “use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.” But the linguistic presentation of a “thing” in a direct and streamlined fashion is not Williams' main priority. Instead,  his overriding concern is an investigation and praise of the imagination; or, in his own words: at “this moment...the only thing in which I am at all interested” is “the imagination. This is its book” (3).

Williams, of course, forwards a nuanced understanding of the imagination, in that it is not a concept set in binary relation to reality. By championing the imagination, the poet does not “divorce [him]self from life,” but, in fact, enables himself to “refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live” (3). In this sense, “works of art,” which flow from the imagination, “must be real, not <<realism>> but reality itself” (45). To further explain the reality of the imagination, Williams writes that poetry, as an extension of the imagination, must contain “the ability to record...the moment when the consciousness is enlarged by the sympathies and the unity of understanding which the imagination gives”; only then “will...writing have reality” (48).

Certainly, Imagism and Realism were different historical and aesthetic moments, but the fact that both movements believed an objective reality of an empirical world could be conveyed through language binds them. As such, to decontextualize Williams as a “red wheelbarrowed” Imagist misrepresents of the poet and his work. Rather, Williams, as a poet of the imagination, seeks to liberate words “from the usual quality of...meaning” (92). Moreover, Williams argues that the imagination must be freed from the “impositions of art” and art movements whenever possible so that it maintains its “force” (92), which he compares “to electricity or steam” (49).

Once he divested himself from the constraints of poetic or artistic movements and gave himself over to the force of imagination, Williams was able to create compositions that defied both genre (in the sense that Spring and All contains both prose and poetry) and aesthetic trends. Take, for instance, the following excerpt from section IX:
What about all this writing?

O “Kiki”
O Miss Margaret Jarvis
The backhandspring

I : clean
      clean : yes.. New-York
Wrigley's, appendecitis, John Marin :
skyscraper soup —

Either that or a bullet!

anything might have happened
You lay relaxed on my knees —
the starry night
spread out warm and blind
above the hospital —


It is unclean
which is not straight to the mark —

In my life the furniture eats me (38-39)
With its introductory interrogative statement, followed by apostrophes, repetitions, non-normative punctuation, fragmented lists, exclamations, and surreal imagery such as “skyscraper soup” and “the furniture eats me,” Williams creates an “unclean” poetry that “is not straight to the mark,” but bends and twists through multiple aesthetics and logics. Indeed, the poet lets the imagination guide him without concern for the “impositions” of a predetermined doctrine.

Allowing the imagination to rise “to drunken heights to destroy the world” (5) in order to recreate “everything afresh” (9), in the end, is Williams's goal. And everything is afresh in a poetry that is “Drunk with goats or pavements” (23), where “to engage roses / becomes a geometry” (31) in the “renaissance / twilight / with triphammers // which pulverize / nitrogen” (56) , and our “sobs soaked through the walls / breaking the hospital into pieces” (40). Indeed, these are the “pure products of America” (64) gone crazy and existing “in a different condition when energized” (75) with the force of “the imagination on which reality rides” (76).

13 June 2012


Ever since Sir Thomas Wyatt imported the sonnet from Italy during the early sixteenth century, poets of the English language have employed the form both to preserve and experiment within it. While Camille Martin's second collection Sonnets (Shearsman Books, 2010) does, at times, perform the former of these functions, it serves mostly as a platform for the poet to explore the tradition's alternative poetic possibilities.

At the most rudimentary level, each poem in the hundred poem sonnet cycle contains the requisite fourteen lines. Likewise, the speaker of these poems addresses her poems to an unnamed “you,” in a fashion somewhat similar to Shakespeare's sonnets; or, as Martin writes: “there's an ongoing you / who performs brilliant arcs in secret / weightlessness” (38).

While Sonnets certainly adheres to these conventions, it actively undermines them as well. For example, the “you” of these poems is an “unmoored you” who eventually, the speaker says, will “dissolve into the wilderness of my voice” (38). In fact, the “you” may not only dissolve into the speaker's voice, but may well be the speaker. We gather as much when we're told: “i'll morph into / you—but what if there's / no you? What am i?” (14). Indeed, a strange transference occurs, wherein the antecedents for the pronouns of these poems continually shifts and “unmake[s] the myth of you” (61), leaving us confused as to who is  “you.”  In other words, “our bodies / restively shift like the continental drift, our every / moment a dissonant snapshot superimposed” (87) so that multiple figures overlay one another. To this extent, Martin attempts “to release the spirit of [the] puritan / ancestor” (53) lodged within the sonnet form and, in doing so, makes room for a different, more contemporary spirit.

One could argue that the confusion of pronouns marks the contemporary spirit found within these poems. But, in addition to this characteristic, the spirit of these sonnets develops from a music predicated not upon the metrical line, but instead upon a music that “render[s] your pronounceable mouth unintelligible” (61). In fact, the music the mouth makes becomes “unintelligible” enough that the mouth, occasionally, no longer appears to be a mouth but “a rickety machine drowning / in white noise” (74). Take, for instance, the third sonnet in the “jetsam archive” series:
flinty skin slaps quick fix
on public eye targeting chromatic
plenum: astral scattering
of plumes, crayolas melted
on basalt midnight. exiled
ghost inks reckless glyphs depicting
one penultimate scam or other,
sharpens fetishes in frost-free
outer space. swords deftly sever
links between glittery saint and mock-stone
shrine. likely tickers ponder focal
points of punctured wrecks.
dervishes breach their zeal, twirl
the feverish dust. (104)
Given the title “jetsam archive,” one might conclude that Martin created these poems from scattered lines or images she discovered in her notebook that can be associated with “astral scattering[s]” or “reckless glyphs.”

Of course, Sonnets contains more than one “rickety machine drowning / in white noise.” In fact, there are several different types of machines located within the book, such as the series “red link,” which examines the power of radical repetition by repeating a singular word one hundred and eleven times; or “[start-],” which employs hard enjambments wherein words “over- / flow” into the following line, creating a “syn- / tax prematurely ashore” by breaking on a word's internal syllables. And sometimes, “one lucky machine greets another / at the delicate blur of a map's edge” (78) in order to build a composite but blurry sound, such as the collection's final poem that combines disjunctive imagery with a lush, ornamental diction:
night wings in the blind atmosphere
sprinkle the ground with dust. you are
your own muscular witness in a way
station of wandering plot. a sprinting
sphinx escorts you, honey milk animal
nothing, to a missing manifold. scribes
croon non-copernican rubatos of carnal doubt
trapped in the sticky fluorescence of bird mango.
you release your most seductive words
into an unfamiliar house of cards. ready?
3-2-1. you are now entering your foreign
birthplace. the sphinx is your guide.
take this placebo and repeat
after the cagey beast: (107)
Yes, Martin releases “seductive words,” such as “rubatos of carnal doubt / trapped in the sticky fluorescence of bird mango,” into the contemporary sonnet so that it appears as “an unfamiliar house of cards” ready to collapse at any minute. But it is just this precarious nature of experimentation that enables her (and other contemporary poets for that matter) to employ a well-worn, received form to different effects.

07 June 2012

What A Tremendous Time We're Having!

Nick Sturm's debut chapbook What A Tremendous Time We're Having! (iO Books, 2012) contains nineteen poems that vary in length from twelve to eighteen lines. Each poem is titled “What A Tremendous Time We're Having!” and exudes a particular enthusiasm for both poetry and life. Take, for instance, the collection's opening poem:
In many ways I am not a rabbit
or a spool of ribbon & that is important
because it is amazing How wrong
it would be to say I am going skiing
or Do you want to share this cantaloupe
when you mean Let's do something
incredible It is not about being specific
It is about opening up your genius mouth
& decorating what comes out in all
sorts of felt & vapor & astonishment
My friends know this & are always unlocking
the garden where I sit in my naked wreckage
I have hidden an amp in the hawthorn
There is a jackhammer in the begonias
You can use it anytime you like
The poem begins with the recognition that merely being or existing as a poet, instead of, for example, “a rabbit / or a spool of ribbon,” is amazing: that what we are, in contrast to what we could have been, is reason enough to exult. As a poet, then, it is one's duty to “do something / incredible,” or say something incredible, by “opening up your genius mouth / & decorating what comes out in all / sort of felt & vapor & astonishment.” Sturm's tremendous poems, then, are attempts at creating something incredible via the felt, vapor, and astonishment of language, which he likens to “an amp in the hawthorn” or “a jackhammer in the begonias”: a strange combination of natural beauty and man-made noise.

Sturm routinely provides readers with insight into his poems through meta-poetic statements. In the eleventh iteration of “What A Tremendous Time We're Having!” he writes: “I stand in front of this one Magritte / & shove dreams into my mouth / until my teeth are a kind of bird.” Using Magritte as a touchstone, the poet acknowledges his Surrealist roots and further highlights them in the dream-induced transformation of teeth into birds. In an effort to fend off what Breton called the “imperative of practical necessity which demands constant attention,” Sturm populates his poems with bizarre images of beauty and violence, such as in the third tremendous iteration:
                                    My spirit animal is a bear
with a confetti cannon strapped to its back
The point is to surprise you & then maul you
into pieces of joy
The surprise of an unexpected party, initiate with the boom of a confetti cannon that litters the air with mutli-colored scraps of paper, coupled with a bear that will maul you in this moment of joy, works as a metaphor for the poems in What A Tremendous Time We're Having!: the language and images are lush, and thus pleasing; but they are also incommensurate with daily life and enact a violence on our perception of reality.

The oscillation between pleasure and violence resonates, although a bit obliquely, on a more general level as well. The uniformity of the titles suggest a conceptual symmetry and poetic coherence. Likewise, the fact that most of these poems contain thirteen to fifteen lines, hovering precariously close to fourteen lines, intimates that these poems could be sonnets. It can be argued, then, that nominal correspondences and engagement with a traditional form produces familiarity within the reader, and thus pleasure. Sure, these are not exactly sonnets, but in the ninth iteration, we find:
My friends dismantle the control room
which is an intuitive experiment in courage
It can be difficult to hold everything together
without a stable core but what fun is that
And, in the following iteration:
                                                     Let's get off track
& unfold into cathedrals It's more about
collapse than coalescence Every atom
a dance party made of tinier dance parties
& the cops knocking at the door of each one
like we don't know what we're doing wrong
The “control room” or “stable core” of the sonnet, its fourteen lines, becomes “an intuitive experiment” for Sturm, wherein gauging the length of his poems is a visceral experience more “fun” than slavish adherence to strict form. Indeed, the poet seeks a “collapse” of the sonnet form instead of a “coalescence” of words into a rigid structure. And if poetry curmudgeons come “knocking at [his] door” to tell him that these are not sonnets, that these “dance party” poems are a bit too loud and too rowdy, Sturm isn't worried. He knows he's “doing [it] wrong,” but “wrong” means interesting. Or, in his own words:
People are always trying to make things
complicated & sometimes that is not so beautiful
like with supercommittees & etiquette I say
fuck it My skin is a delicate golden zoo &
my heart is a ukulele making out with a theremin
It is only beginning to sound right & this is
the purpose of experiments
If the “supercommittees & etiquette” enforcers of poetry say these are not sonnets, then Sturm says “fuck it”; he'd rather experiment with form and his own, personal poetics until his poems start “to sound right” on their own terms, while having a tremendous time in the process.

04 June 2012

I Was There For Your Somniloquoy

In Walden, or Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau calls it “a ridiculous demand...that you shall speak in order so that [someone] can understand you.” Instead, he desires “to speak somewhere without bounds; like a man in a waking moment, to men in their waking moments.” In many ways, Kelli Anne Noftle's I Was There For Your Somniloquoy (Omnidawn Publishing, 2012), which won the 2011 Omnidawn First and Second Book Prize, adheres to Thoreau's admonition to speak in a language located somewhere in the liminal zone separating dreams and consciousness.

For, indeed, Noftle's book is not a book of dreams, but a book wherein the somnambulist engages in activities normally performed while awake (a “between” state, not a “beyond” state), such as “Sleepwalkers // in the dark, throwing a Frisbee” (32). To this extent, the poems do not read as linguistic representations of dreams, but “some shape of ourselves leaving” (11). In other words, the poems of I Was There For Your Somniloquoy are “Flashes,” in which we can see the shape of an object, but cannot accurately determine whether that object is “a shovel in the dirt / or a monument? / Your pointer finger / or an ice pick” (31). No, there is nothing fantastical about these images; in and of themselves, they are recognizable through and through. But within the landscape of these poems, we're only provided with “Scrap[s] / of recognition” (31) and, thus, must put together a “patchwork sense” of the world we inhabit while reading them, which is “glittering, something misshapen, [and] half- / hidden” (44).

This misshapen and half-hidden world is populated by characters who “change the marshmallow / Butter the cigarettes, salt the drain” (47). So, it comes as no surprise when the speaker of “I Follow You All Through the House with My Ears” says:
I was afraid
to wake you standing
at the refrigerator pouring
milk into the litter box. (34)
Or, in the poem “God of Children,” when the speaker herself:
                              Walked downstairs, switched the television off,
yelled “No,” while were both watching. Commanding
from my sleep, climbing into everything—piles of dirty
laundry, ugly dresses, softball glove, a box of untouched
tampons. (61)
Yes, people partake in strange activities when they walk in their sleep, as if they've be taken over by “jerking, seizing little gods” or their bodies are “finally // filled with sea” (64) causing them to drift to places they would otherwise not go while awake.

But the world Noflte constructs in her poems is more than just objects dimly seen or bizarre, sleep-induce circumstances. No, her language, at times, also walks in its sleep; so, as the poem “Hypnagogic is a Sound” tells us, she “can float / on [her] own language” (64). This floating language, then, is not one that needs to be understood, but one that we sense through sonic resonances and verbal slippages as in the definition poem “Somnus”:
of seizure, SHORELINE, soporific derivatives. Which may include Sting or SLOW-WAVE SLEEP. Of comma, when one follows another, then another, then. Dose. Does bloom. Does borrow and drench or douse fully. See Spill. See Pocket where the sun never shines. Where we swam but didn't touch, outright. Of floating. Of coma. See water washing every out-come. See Also some shape of ourselves leaving, even asleep. (11)
“Dose” becomes “Does,” “comma” becomes “coma,” and the tongue floats alliteratively through “seizure, SHORELINE, soporific...Sting..SLOW...[and] SLEEP.” This is speaking without bounds, speaking in a waking moment, speaking as water washes every outcome from of our mouths and into an ocean of sleep. Beyond the demands of understanding, we drift through these odd but comprehensible poems as they transport us into the glittering and misshapen language of the somnambulist's somniloquoy.