27 July 2012


One could easily mistake “Mommy V,” the 17-page sequence that opens Danielle Pafunda's Manhater (Dusie Press Books, 2012), as an off-shoot of the pop culture vampire-craze fueled by the Twilight series and its Buffy the Vampire Slayer fore-bearers. The fact that the Mommy character “opens just wide enough / to start the black wings rattling” (15) while “looking for a likely bleed, a gush suck” (12) certainly does engage this contemporary phenomenon. But “YA hotlings” (12) and those who place too much stock in these cultural touchstones might miss a more direct connection: Sylvia Plath's poem “Daddy,” which concludes with the stanzas:

If I've killed one man, I've killed two–
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

The speaker of Plath's poem kills her vampire father with a stake to his “fat black heart” because he “drank [her] blood for... / Seven years.” Pafunda, in turn, re-imagines Plath's speaker, also a vampire, as an adult on the verge of motherhood. In many ways, the narrative of Manhater speaks to Donna Haraway's concept of cyborg writing, wherein writers seize “the tools to mark the world that marked them as other. The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities.”

Plath's daughter can only berate and chastise the memory of her deceased father. By writing a sequel to “Daddy,” though, Pafunda provides the daughter-now-mother with a more corporeal agency in her relations with men. And how does the updated story of a blood sucking mother-to-be alter those relations? “Mommy V” does this, mostly, by having the protagonist cruise a “barren fuckscape” on a fabulous death-sex romp. Take, for instance, the following passage:

In the park, she meets a man
who smells like the trunk of a beater.

Mommy gives him a sure thing.
She gives him her favorite disease.
And death. (16)

Soon thereafter, Mommy meets another unsuspecting gentleman:

The flaneur stud shakes toward her.
Off the path for a piss, too cool
and fatted about the skull.

When Mommy's full, she's bored. (17)

Of course, satiating her snuff-based libido isn't all its cracked up to be. In fact, “Mommy hates sex, but she likes to orgasm” (21). The desire for sexual pleasure, it appears, outweighs her disdain for the act of sexual intercourse; but, perhaps, the killing of her sexual partners mitigates the tension of these conflicting drives.

The subsequent sections of Manhater function, to some extent, as sequels and spin-offs of “Mommy V,” examining more thoroughly grotesque, corporeal imagery. The “In This Plate My Illness...” series explores Mommy's “favorite disease” and the treatments she undergoes. For example, in one poem Pafunda writes:

It was a traumadome
and a mummy cage.
I hooked electrodes to the linen.
These frothed and burned me

and I became beautiful.

But far too soon thereafter
fat with suet, my seams split.
Out seeped all the jolly worms
I'd been hoarding. (33)

Pafunda offers image after image of a body deformed and damaged, “frothed and burned,” split open and seeping “jolly worms.” But in these grotesque images, the female body becomes “beautiful”; at least to the extent that the poet, through her poems, creates and champions a non-normative body and an idea of beauty on her own terms. Pafunda, very literally, takes Haraway's concept of story-tools, whether “electrodes,” a “vice of knives,” or a “fucked instrument” (32), and marks the female body in order to reform both it and the world.

“The Desire Spectrum Is Dead To Me Now,” which concludes the collection, combines elements of the first two sections over the course of a sprawling, 21-page poem. It begins with a similar invocation of tool-based imagery:

Which of these do you want in you mouth?
Petroleum hack cake, wire hanger,
rusted piston, or silicone stopgap?

This is a stick-up, an insomnia drill. (43)

Then proceeds to moments of violent sexual relations:

Here is the lover: carved like a mantis.

If you limb him, they won't stop you.

Here is the lover: a mouthful of nettles,
bleached as a baby crab. (44)

That ultimately prove unfruitful:

I can't have an orgasm
large enough to solve my problems.

To solve any problems. (46)

And, of course, Pafunda continues to offer the reader grotesque depictions of the body:

You gave me a disease like lyme disease,
which you put in my thigh with your straw.

You corpse stunk and puked fashion.
You stubbed whatever you could
into whatever I had. (48)

While any label, movement, or school employed by critics (or poet-critics) to classify poetry should be only accepted tentatively and with a high degree of skepticism, Manhater certainly fits the “gurlesque” moniker, which Arielle Greenberg argues: complicates “the relationship between feminism and femininity...own their sexuality, wear it proudly, are thoroughly enmeshed in the visceral experiences of gender...highly conversational, lush and campy, full of pop culture detritus, and ultimately very powerful.” Because, yes, Pafunda's book does complicate femininity, sexuality, and gender through a “lush and campy” fuckscape saturated in “pop culture detritus” and “penumbral scuzz” (61).

24 July 2012

Green Is The Orator

In “Repetitions of a Young Captain,” which Wallace Stevens included in his book Transport to Summer, the poet wrote:
        The choice is made. Green is the orator
        Of our passionate height. He wears a tufted green,
        And tosses green for those for whom green speaks. 
        Secrete us in reality. It is there
        My orator. Let this giantness fall down
        And come to nothing.
While excerpting these lines from their larger context infuses them with ambiguity, reading them within the context of the entire poem does little to clarify some basic question. Who, exactly, is green? Who speaks green?

What can be determined, though, is that during the height of our passions, green, ensconced in green garb, delivers an elaborate and well-crafted public speech. Yes, green articulating green secretes us into reality. Or, stated differently: words aid in the development of reality, albeit slowly. And it is these words that allow us to remember that we “stood in an external world” that it had “been real,” but now, because of them, we live in “the spectacle of a new reality.” Language creates, then alters our material conditions.

Sarah Gridley's second collection, Green Is The Orator (University ofCalifornia Press, 2010), borrows its title from the aforementioned Stevens poem. The namesake, then, functions as a suitable access point to her book. To begin with, she attempts, in her own way, to unearth the mysteries of green in “Second Inspirations of the Nitrous Oxide”:

To arrive at the core of “green” in my thesaurus
I go through the thinking of “greenness”—

virescence, verdancy, verdure—through the feeling of green places—
sward, park, greenbelt, turf—through the music of its pigments—celadonite,
chlorophyll, viridian— (51)

For the speaker of the poem to “arrive at the core” of green, she relies upon her thesaurus and searches for all its linguistic permutations and off-shoots. For, it would seem, just as Stevens claimed that language constructs our world, so too does Gridley. But to “arrive at the core” of a green, or at the core of anything for that matter, does not equate to an understanding of green. In fact, the poem “First Inspirations of the Nitrous Oxide, Pneumatic Institute, 1799” opens with the lines:

the purpose is not to explain the significance of words
they being apparently obscured by the clouds
in endless succession, rolling darkly down the stream
in which were many luminous points similar (47)

Indeed, “to explain the significance of words,” whether “green” or otherwise, is not the purpose of a poem or a poet. Even more so, it's a futile endeavor because they are “obscured by the clouds / in endless succession.” Instead, when we “arrive at the core” of language and the world it creates, we do so by connecting the “many luminous points similar.”

In many ways, these “luminous points” echo Adorno's concept of “constellations,” which are a series of ideas that circle an object and allow us to momentarily unlock its “sedimented history” through “internal immersion.” Again, this is not explanation or understanding, but a brief immersion into an object's (in this case a word, which happens to be the world) history. What then do words, which compose our world, offer us when we connect their luminous points to arrive at their core? “Coefficient,” the opening poem of Green Is The Orator provides us with a key:

inside of things I call politeness, things I liken to super-
intendence, seashells, pale hosts of erosions, fadings
I like to insight. There in the window
of your soloist house, I think that nothing
is holding up

this thought that is feeling you moving. (3)

Once we access our world through words, or getting “inside of things,” we discover a host of “erosions” and “fadings,” which can be likened to “insight”: slivers of ephemeral thought providing us with brief glimpses of the world's core. But, perhaps most importantly, these insights or thoughts are akin to “feeling”: a visceral connection to the word made flesh. Or, as Stevens wrote in “Repetitions of a Young Captain”:

something that I remembered
Overseas, that stood in an external world.

It had been real. It was not now...

In the spectacle of a new reality.

The “something that I remembered...in an external world” that “had been real” creates the “spectacle of a new reality” for the poet in a poem in the world. And, in Gridley's Green Is The Orator, it is green that orates these passionate discoveries of faded and eroding insight.

20 July 2012


The title of Daniela Olszewska's debut collection cloudfang::cakedirt (Horse Less Press, 2012) announces the poet's infatuation with kennings; for throughout her book, they appear over and over again. Take, for instance, the poem “amateur gumshoe hour” that contains (including the title) six occurrences:
hazard a pearl-
filled clue saturated 
in tawdry noirlight. 
               this is a corpsefloat—
              sprinkle gardenia 
              trifles over black 
velvet. an aversion
to pigeonsick 
isn't that suspicious 
under the goblinhard
               so go ahead + crack
jokes like knuckles 'n skulls— 
the situtation's already
truly arduous w/ mysterious scar 
+ a ring of arson might end up solving
these several problems at once. (8)
In A Poets Guide to Poetry, Mary Kinzie claims kennings serve a specific, periphrastic purpose in the linguistic realm: “to sidestep the obvious name in preference to an indirect, evocative one.” In many ways, Olszewska's “noirlight” self-consciously references her use of this poetic trope throughout cloudfang::cakedirt. To be “saturated // in tawdry noirlight,” no doubt, refers to the chiaroscuro techniques, or the interplay of ambient lighting and shadows, used prominently in film noir during the mid-twentieth century. By employing this effect, cinematographers produce patterns in high contrast to one another that accentuate the contours of an object, as opposed to direct lighting which offers viewers surface details of an entire set. Just as low-key lighting is indirect, obfuscating particular aspects of a figure, a kenning, by its very nature, is an act of circumlocution that results in a opacity of meaning.

What does the “noirlight” of kennings that Olszewska casts upon her poems produce? A “truly arduous” text “w/ mysterious scar[s].” While invoking the term “arduous” to describe a poem may turn some readers away, the speaker of “after yr last abortion, things got a little crazy” pleads for us to stay: “o, if you could only learn to find my quirks endearing” (32). If we do find the poets “quirks endearing” and continue reading, then what? On the one hand, the poet rewards dedicated readers with poems that have “an affinity / for parlorsong” (5) while she tries “out / all four versions / of [her] frosted / vegetable voice” (25); on the other hand, she offers us one “emotion- / manufacturing machine” (20) after another.

One could argue that encountering the emotive moments of these little machines is the real joy of cloudfang::cakedirt. While many sound-driven or linguistically experimental poetry collections fail to deliver a Wordsworthian “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” Olszewska's book successfully evokes a wide variety of emotions, in addition to its lush, linguistic qualities. “squid +/or you,” for example, elicits both humor and revulsion:
during one noon exhibition, squid + you crush somebody else's baby by
      accident. Squid wraps it in mesh + calls for a rimshot. you grossly
      underestimate how long 
it takes to calm down a hysterical mother when you're 2 leagues under. 
                                in tulsa, squid half-nelsons an autistic member of themselves
      audience + screams that he will never know what it means to say 
you don't kiss on the lips + management puts you on notice. (16)
But the speakers of Olszewska's poems provide more than off-color humor; they also allow us to access their fears and insecurities. For instance, “all in favor say neigh” expresses anxiety over failure to connect  with one's partner:
i don't think we are forever
yet, don't go waiting for me
to start unslinging my insides
any time even close to soon. (52)
Likewise, in the prose poem “fairytale in which i am an irresponsible pet-sitter,” the speaker documents an entire series of concerns:
i am never having children. if i was less selfish, i would have mentioned this before my teeth started chipping the teacups. everyone says i can't do anything right, that i am so sad, like a unicorn covered in scabies. this probably isn't a surprise, but i'm never going to be thin again. most of my extra-germanic orificies are filled w/ troll paste + dead gingerbread dough. (58)
Whether they relate to childbearing, body image, or mental health, the speaker openly voices her apprehensions and presents us with a personality to which many readers can relate. It's ironic, then, that toward the middle of the collection, one speaker fears whether or not she can properly emote: “there is some possibility / that i'll never really feel fluently in anything” (49).

For all its linguistic density and sonic acrobatics, cloudfang::cakedirt never fails to “feel,” and to do so “fluently.” It is the balance between language play and human emotion, then, that makes Olszewska's a necessary read.

13 July 2012

How We Saved The City

Poems in praise of a city are nothing new to American literature. William Carlos Williams immortalized suburban New Jersey with Paterson, and Charles Olson did the same for Gloucester, Massachusetts with The Maximus Poems. But, according to the latter of these two men, writing in the name of a city comes with great responsibility because, in such cases, poets compose not for themselves, but for a broader community. To this extent, Olson writes in “Letter 3”:

Let those who use words cheap, who use us cheap
take themselves out of the way
Let them not talk of what is good for the city

Let them free the way for me...

Let them cease putting out words in the public print

Yes, those writers who “use words cheap,” in fact, “use us cheap,” which means using the city cheap. Olson argues that, instead, “what is good for the city” is for the poetasters to “cease putting out words in public print” so as to “free the way” for those who both understand and can adequately direct the force of language in order to praise and create a city.

In How We Saved the City (Stockport Flats, 2012), Kate Schapira answers Olson's call. Unlike her predecessor, though, she does not engage a specific city, but the city as a concept. Schapira's city concept forms from “the pockets of mini-meaning created by the city's people” (8) and all that “accumulates” (10) from and between these mini-meanings. One manner in which the poet works through the accumulation of mini-meaning is through the process of cataloging. In the prose poem “Street Value,” she writes of “Businesses [that] open and close luxuriously,” of a “Place to park,” and, even, of a “splash of fallen sandwich tomato or berry birdshit on a broad granite lip” (9).

Of course, the city is more than a catalog of images and the mini-meanings that accumulate between them. The city is also the people who live within its confines; and, more importantly, the relationships formed between those people. For example, the opening prose poem “Prologue: Magical Urbanism” addresses race relations and, perhaps, the gentrification of cityscapes:

I was walking home when a glow caught my eye: the mulch around a municipal tree was burning. Got down to scrape it out and found there was more underneath than I thought. Two men walking the other direction saw and stopped to help me, using a corner of loose brick. How I could have reacted whitely while we were squatted down getting the last embers; their black stopping; a spare thought early at night; we dusted our hands off, a line in my head captured the little glows: The evening was alive with first responders, already turning it. Respective cities closed over us again. (3)

The speaker of the poem looks “to scrape...out” the fire engulfing “a municipal tree” and, during the process, receives help from “Two men walking the other direction.” She worries about reacting “whitely” to their “black stopping,” but the three succeed in putting out “the last embers.” Yet, once they accomplish their goal of preserving the municipal tree, their “Respective cities closed over [them] again.” In this moment, the hope of community forms, but, unfortunately, just as quickly dissolves.

Another relationship How We Saved the City explores is that of gender; specifically, the speaker of the poem “Humble is the key to setting out” wants to commit herself to “living a publicly gender-free life and showing solidarity with anyone who tries” (36). To her mind, one way to perform a “gender-free life,” at least linguistically, is to keep “grammar ethical” by employing the third-person plural “they” in order to leave “the cult of autonomy” that manifests when using other “pronouns” (30). But just as How We Saved the City does not offer a perfect solution for race relations, neither does it offer one for gender relations. In fact, even the speaker's partner worries that, in performing one's life androgynously, we will “make fools of ourselves” and, thus, says: “I don't know if I can do it” (36)

Regardless of whether or not the denizens of the city succeed in their attempts, Schapira's collection endeavors to create a community where it's “Safe to be tattooed, hairy. / Safe to be gay, fat, shy” (64). In other words, we save the city by creating a community where “people gather around...and radiate” their personal utopias; as each utopia “ripples” out so as to “touch each other,” eventually “all the utopias will join to form” (40) a collective utopia named The City.

The question, though, posed in How We Saved the City is: “But isn't utopia what people think?” (44), some unattainable concept formed in the mind that cannot be realized in the material world. Yes, this is true, and no doubt the reason why the city's citizens do not succeed in sustaining the temporary coalitions they form. But far from admitting defeat, Schapira's book asks us “to imagine what has never been” so we may “speak about it with hope instead of certainty” (95). Hope, it would appear, is what will save the city.

09 July 2012

The Silhouettes

Joseph Cornell, an American artist from the mid-twentieth century, was best known for his shadow boxes; his glass-enclosed constructions contain assemblages collaged from ephemera he found while on walking tours of New York City.

Adam Gopnik's article “Sparkings,” from a February 2003 issue of The New Yorker, traces both Cornell's life as a man and his artistic influences. Of Cornell's shadow boxes, he writes: they provide a “visual experience of [a] city dweller,” in that the assorted bric-a-brac arranged within them show “the joys of solitary wandering” from Queens to Manhattan and back again. To Gopnik's mind, Cornell was a window shopper par excellence, always scouring stores for a material object he could add to his own, miniature display cases.

A quick glance at the “Notes” section in the back matter of The Silhouettes (Springgun Press, 2012), which is Lily Ladewig's debut collection of poetry, reveals her indebtedness to Cornell. The poet used several biographies, as well as the artist's own notes and letters, as “inspiration and source material” for the sequence of poems titled “Shadow Box” that recurs intermittently throughout the collection. Take, for instance, the first iteration of the series:

Let's build a fire. A shifting location. A change of wind and I can smell myself. Like something foreign. And into the fuller fascination. I can see the Chrysler Building from the window of the subway car on the bridge. I would measure the distance between us footwise. I would pull this poem from you with my whole body. Beneath your bright palms my breasts might become a reality. While my hands, full of acreage. Are budding outside your open third story window. The dancers push their painted feet across the page. (8)

Visually, Ladewig shapes the poem into a square that mimics the form of Cornell's shadow boxes and engages the material tradition of concrete poetry. Syntactically, she writes in sentence fragments, their piecemeal formation fostering an assemblage-like aura associated with collage. But the content, as well, provides snippets of Cornell's life and work: his New York City rambles in the image of “the Chrysler Building from the window of the subway car on the bridge,” his obsession with photographs of Hollywood starlets in the phrase “Beneath your bright palms my breasts,” while “The dancers push their painted feet across the page” acknowledges his preoccupation with ballerinas and ballet.

Toward the end of his New Yorker article, Gopnik claims that Cornell's shadow boxes demonstrate:

The balance of the metaphysical and the quotidian, the intimate address and the popular symbols, the private mythologizing of mass culture, the singing New York street and the oblique references, a dream of France dotting the work like raisins in a pudding—all these things are far closer to American modernist poetry than to its art.

While it may be unfair to align or compare too closely The Silhouettes with Cornell's assemblages, the balancing act Gopnik addresses in the artist's work, which he likens to “American modernist poetry,” can be seen in Ladewig's verse. In the final set of “Shadow Box” poems, she writes:

Repetition is necessary. It evens out the body. I watch the Atlantic Ocean even out the evening. Pressing silence into. Somewhere in the world you are moving and the steps you take bring you closer to or farther from me. If only slightly. What can I do with this room but remember it. I am getting better. Something imaginary. I've been advised to hold my sadness in my hands like a ball. To observe it. Something invisible. Fields of poppies. Fields of wild. Lavender. In the Petit Trianon. Everyone dressed in white. (62)

The metaphysical does balance out the quotidian: the speaker, on the one hand, says, “Repetition is necessary”; on the other hand, “I watch the Atlantic Ocean.” Likewise, the Chrysler Building of the earlier permutation balances itself against the “Petit Trianon” of Versailles, juxtaposing New York City with France. More than anything, though, The Silhouettes achieves a balance between the universal and the specific by placing epic images like “Sea foam green and the infinite numbers” (44), next to the personal, such as a colloquialism like “I was so dunzo” (45). In the end, Ladewig's “Small and glass-fronted” (45) shadow boxes “function” as an “accumulation” (61): assemblages that prove “The city is the place where” (30) we can collect ephemera from our surroundings so as to build our most intimate subjectivities.

04 July 2012


In a recent Westword interview, Serena Chopra says that the language in her chapbook Penumbra (Flying Guillotine Press, 2012) mimics the language of a geology textbook in that it is “very structured and kind of hard and directive.” Moreover, by intertwining the “factual” language of science with the “softer” language of poetry, she hopes to “rethink...the way in which we gather knowledge.”

Chopra's interest in the relationship between science and poetry, to some extent, echoes the sentiments of Romantic poetry. In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth wrote: “The remotest discoveries of the chemist, the botanist, or mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the poet's art as any upon which it can be employed.” Twenty years later, Percy Bysshe Shelley composed an early draft of his A Defence of Poetry, wherein he wrote: “[poetry] is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred.”

Not only are the “discoveries” of science used as “proper objects of the poet's art” in Penumbra, but so too is the language of science used as an object of the poet's art; indeed, science explains itself through, or is comprehended by, poetry in such a way that Chopra asks us to rethink normative epistemology. Or, better yet, she uses infuses the world of science with poetic sensibilities so as to defamiliarize the familiar. Take, for instance, the collection's first poem “Continental Drift”:
Once it was thought that mountains were analogous to the wrinkles of dried fruit. We know better now that our core is not shrinking, rather, our cement is stacking. Stars blush in the nightlight and we know now how. Earth throbbed her plated skull and slip-crack crafted a peak; a semiotic showdown for twin towers. Pikes of construction dirt echo the knuckled horizon, urgent fingers tremble, muting eons; shifting is the yellow grass buttering wind—a crane stretches, lifts its cable-hooked stone, a claw splits the dirt, sounding the widenmouthed terrain.
Continental Drift is the scientific theory that land masses move slowly across the earth's surface as they float upon a substratum of magma; but rather than regurgitate scientific theory, Chopra opens her poem with a metaphor that likens mountains to dried fruit. The speaker then tells the reader: “We know better now.” For the proponents of science, we know better now because our Enlightened minds developed a theory of Continental Drift. Of course, such a theory is exactly not what we encounter in Chopra's poem; instead, a new metaphor of “cement stacking” replaces the worn and dated metaphor of dried fruit. True, science succeeds in creating cement, but poetry employs cement (as both phoneme and image) to generate another metaphor that allows for a deeper understanding of our world. To this extent, science is utilitarian and poetry is transcendent.

While poetry may provide us with knowledge (and beauty and pleasure) that science cannot, the latter of these discourses should not be discounted. In fact, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Chopra all foster a productive tension between poetry and science (albeit one in which science, perhaps, works in service of/to poetry) that tells us something, although obliquely, about ourselves and our surroundings. Chopra narrates this tension during the poem “Earth System Science”:
A system, loosely defined, stems like synecdoche. An open system is a mouth, a closed system, an eye. These concepts stem from a classic debate between the father of modern geology, the Scottish physician and gentleman farmer, James Hutton, and the great-grandfather of lyric poetry, a famous, but anonymous, French cynic. In 1785, Hutton termed the principle of uniformitarianism, which claimed that all the physical, chemical, and biological laws of the present day operated the same way in the past. Hearing of this in 1857, the cynic doubted and disagreed, and said, in meandering French, “I see eternity in the cat's eye; I hear love in the cricket's feet.” Today, the debate between the scientist and the cynic remains unresolved, but hinges on recent research in Earth system sciences, which currently provides that the dust of words and light of an eye results in metamorphic synecdoche.
Penumbra, indeed, promotes an unresolved debate between science and lyric poetry. But the tension produced from this debate results in a metamorphosis of thought formed in the “dust of words and light of an eye,” or the convergence of open and closed systems. In doing so, the “interactions” between these disparate discourses “cause histories to reset,” creating new and “eccentric vision[s]” of the world.