29 November 2012

The Container Store

In 1978, Kip Tindell and Garrett Boone opened the first The Container Store in Dallas, Texas. According to the company’s website, the inaugural store offered customers:
commercial parts bins, wire drawers, mailboxes and popcorn tins, burger baskets, milk crates and wire leaf burners. The product collection was quite unusual, but when used in a home or office, the solutions would save customers space and, ultimately, time
Yes, The Container Store sold boxes and crates. Today, The Container Store sells “10,000 innovative products,” which is the company’s way of saying that it still sells boxes and crates, but now in different colors, shapes, and sizes.

The organizational properties of containers carries over into the layout of each Container Store, which designers have “divided into lifestyle sections marked with brightly colored banners such as Closet, Kitchen, Office and Laundry.” With mass-produced products sold in cookie-cutter stores located “from coast to coast,” anyone with a minimal amount of expendable income can place their household or work-related items in an overpriced storage unit that looks exactly like everyone else’s overpriced storage unit.

Similarly named, the authors Joe Hall and Chad Hardy market their collaboratively written collection, The Container Store (Springgun Press, 2012), as a “product,” not a book. While the tag is certainly ironic, the collection is most appropriately labeled a conceptual poem that investigates the “poetics 0/ [of] space” in consumer culture and book design.

To begin with, Hall and Hardy write that “SPACE / should be an inclusive // stationary gulf,” but soon concede that now “Space is a product. [ ] / the clear plastic // panels keep everything / visible.” On the one hand, space should be an “inclusive gulf”: a universal abyss in which everyone can be surrounded or enveloped; on the other hand, companies such as The Container Store have transformed space into a “product” that holds our “everything” elses, which are also products. In other words, a physical and psychic dimension that once had the ability to induce deep thought or sublime sentiments has now been manufactured and sold to consumers as another base and unimaginative item.

Of course, it’s not only consumer culture that systematized and marketed space. Poets and publishers of poetry, generally speaking, accomplished the same task. Most books and journals today contain left-justified, lineated verse that uses standard fonts and enumerated pages. Obviously, there have been many exceptions to this rule over the years: William Blake’s Jerusalem, Susan Howe’s Thorow, Joshua Clover’s “Ça Ira” (and other concrete poems), and Edwin Torres’s The PoPedology of an Ambient Language just to name just a few. But the vast majority of published poems (today and otherwise) adhere to standardized spatial and visual conventions. Yes, poets and publishers churn out a lot of “AESTH / ETIC / PATTIES.”

With these ideas, no doubt, in mind, Hall, Hardy, and the Springgun editors/designers created a conceptual poem that challenges these commonplace notions of space. Staggered alignments; multiple fonts, languages, and styles; an absence of pagination; the inclusion of non-linguistic signifiers; and exaggerated use of white space actively challenge the reader and require them to consider space as integral component of a poem. Moreover, they use space as a ground for play and experimentation. Take, for instance, the below screenshots (click on image for larger view):


All of these page images, in one way or another, use the entirety of the page as a spatial field that undermines conventional design and informs the text. And the words, or “the voice,” of these poems accomplishes the same task by “convert[ing] all space to excess excess / dilapidated / love,” by noticing the “fluctuating patterns and…graphing them,” or envisioning “space” as a way “to protect power.” Again and again, Hall and Hardy engage the concept of space in order to demolish the “[containment / city]” built by poetry and consumerism, just as much of the poetry industry and consumerism “have destroyed works and replaced them with products.” In this sense, then, the book’s seemingly haphazard, “dilapidated,” and asymmetrical form proves to liberate the authors, editors, and readers from convention. Indeed, The Container Store was built so that we could enter its strange rooms, explore its dimensions, and revel in its off-kilter arrangements.

20 November 2012

Hider Roser

American poetry has long been a site of identity play and experimentation: a space where poets, at the best of times, can be both themselves and not themselves simultaneously. Take, for instance, the preface to John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, wherein the author writes:
The poem then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second.
Of course, Berryman was a “white American in early middle age” who had “suffered an irreversible loss” (he watched his father shoot himself, as does Henry in Dream Song 145), and many of the poems speak to actual events in the author’s life. And though he explicitly states that the speaker of these poems is “not the poet, not me,” the reader should (rightly) question the veracity of these claims. Are Henry and Berryman truly separate individuals, or does a conflation occur that, at times, renders the character and the poet inseparable?

Around the same time period Berryman was writing 77 Dream Songs (his first incarnation of The Dream Songs), Jack Spicer published After Lorca, which consists of a series of letters between the deceased Federico García Lorca and Jack Spicer, as well as “translations” of the former poet’s work. The opening letter consists of Lorca admonishing Spicer in the third person for taking on a project that appears to be a “waste” and “not worth doing.” In this letter, Spicer dons the mask of Lorca to chastise himself and tellingly write: “Even the most faithful student of my work will be hard put to decide what is and what is not García Lorca.” Who is Lorca and who is Spicer? Can we really tell the difference?

Yes, whether Berryman and Henry, or Lorca and Spicer, proper nouns serve not as a marker of specificity, but as a portal for confusion that releases protean identities, constantly shifting in order to keep the reader off-balance. To some extent, the slipperiness of who’s who within the proper noun is summed up in the concluding lines to Ted Berrigan’s poem “Red Shift”:
Alone & crowded, unhappy fate, nevertheless
          I slip softly into the air
The world’s furious song flows through my costume.
The “furious song” of the poet “flows through [his] costume” (i.e. the proper noun), evacuating a stable identity from the nominal marker that usually signals a specificity and leaving him “Alone.” But it also renders him part of a “crowded” multiplicity: a signifier oversaturated with identities.

Ben Mirov, in his second full-length collection of poetry Hider Roser (Octopus Books, 2012), enters the hall of mirrors that Berryman, Spicer, and Berrigan all entered before him, offering a distorted reflection of the poet that challenges reality and basic assumptions about identity.

The book’s epigraph, an excerpt from Mary Ruefle’s poem “Darke Body of Clowds,” first broaches the subject with the lines:
Pity the poor proofreader
who thinks the darke body of clowds
was my life. (1)
The “dark body of clowds” is not the “life” of the poet, but an ethereal and atmospheric mask that obscures our vision and insight into the author. Soon thereafter, in Hider Roser’s the third poem, Mirov echoes Ruefle’s concept, but through an image that’s antithetical to Ruefle’s “clowds”:
I live in an X-Ray
created years ago
by a boy named Ben Mirov. (8)
The reference to Ben Mirov as a third person distances the proper noun from the writer Ben Mirov. But whereas Ruefle employed cloud coverage as a trope for obfuscation of identity, Mirov uses an “X-Ray” of the self as a vehicle for trasnparency: a thing to be seen through and, to some extent, not there. Ben Mirov is nothing but a translucent image created by someone else named Ben Mirov. If these lines did not provide a “clear” enough statement that Ben Mirov might not be, exactly, Ben Mirov, then we’re reminded in the poem “For Ben Mirror” that:
You have no idea who you are.

You think you’re someone
named Ben Mirov. (22)
Ben Mirov might not be Ben Mirov, but guess what? Ben Mirror is not Ben Mirov either. No the Ben in the mirror is not the Ben of the flesh (who, as mentioned, is not Ben Mirov either). Which, of course, begs the question: Who the fuck is Ben Mirov?

One would think, logically, that to discover who Ben Mirov is, one would need to get to the core of Ben Mirov: some center wherein an “authenticate” identity would most likely exist. Hider Roser, it would appear, humorously dangles that insight in front of the reader for a brief moment during the poem “Transmission from the Center of Ben Mirov.” The poem, in its entirety, reads:
I’m looking for the feeling.
I know it’s lost inside.
I follow the path

past the crematorium
down to the beach
where a school of jellyfish

is drying on the sand.
No feeling. Nothing.
Nothing Nothing Nothing.

A big revolving door.
A fucking grapefruit.
On the beach is a cabin.

Of course it’s on fire.
None of this is real.
The road. The jellyfish.

The feeling looping out of itself
never touching the earth.
Maybe the crematorium. (33)
At the center of Ben Mirov, where a foundational identity would be expected (if such a thing even exists), the searcher finds “Nothing Nothing Nothing” and a “revolving door.” Just like Berrigan, whose song flows through him so as to produce a state in which he is “Alone & crowded,” Ben Mirov is both empty and full: he is nothing; but he is also an entrance that allows many masks to come and go, continually, and as they please. Indeed, the collection revels in this identity play.

Again and again, Ben Mirov as a protean identity surfaces throughout Hider Roser in a joyous confusion of naming for the sake of not naming. But if there is no Ben Mirov within the name Ben Mirov, where do these Ben Mirov poems come from? How can a person who does not exist write poems? The answer, it would seem, is simple; as we discover in “The Hole in My Friends Where Ben Mirov Should Be”:
Nothing perched on the edge

and reached it ghostly hand
into the void inside me
and pulled out a poem. (58)
An external nothingness reaches its ghost hands into a void within a proper noun and pulls out a poem. What could be simpler than that?

13 November 2012

Rise Up

In an interview on Stop Smiling during the summer of 2007, Matthew Rohrer addresses (although rather obliquely) the influence Romantic poetry had on his collection Rise Up (Wave Books, 2007):
I’ve always felt oddly drawn to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. When my son was very young, things began coming back to me — especially from “Frost at Midnight,” when my apartment was cold and the winter night was howling outside the poorly sealed windows. Then about a year ago I spent an entire year reading only the Romantics — their poems and criticism, and their contemporaries.
Yes, Rohrer “felt oddly drawn” to Coleridge and “spent an entire year” reading only Romantic poetry, but he mentions nothing more (at least not in this particular interview) about the effects of that year-long endeavor.

After reading Rise Up, one gets the sense that, perhaps, Rohrer does not say much more about his Romantic influence because the poems in the collection are often conflicted with regard to their engagement with this tradition. To explain, first take Wordsworth’s famous poem “Lines” (i.e. “Tintern Abbey”); it is a poem firmly rooted in a nostalgia of times past, which the surrounding environment generates. When recalling his youth spent running about the wilderness, the speaker says:
                                                           That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned
To look at nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
The “aching joys” of childhood have long since passed, but the speaker does not “mourn nor murmur” over their loss. Instead, he hears the “sad music of humanity” in nature; but, when listening to this sad music, he is disturbed with a joy he calls the “sublime”: a “spirit” that imbues one with a subdued power rolling “through all things”: a melding the mind and nature. In this “interfuse[ion],” a certain nostalgia exists from which springs “sweet sounds and harmonies” that act as a “healing” agent when we’re confronted with “solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief.”

While Rise Up does, indeed, engage that natural world (thus linking it to Romanticism), its mode and tone appear to be rather different than its late-eighteenth century predecessors. In “Four Romantic Poets,” the collection’s opening poem, the speaker says:
                           If only the universe
weren’t shaped so much like me, I might change
my approach. (1)

                                                                      teach me
to hold an image of the world in me
that isn’t cracked, that isn’t bent backwards
like my toenail, catching on the bedspread. (2)
Just like Wordsworth’s “deeply interfused” spirit that binds man to nature, Rohrer’s speaker sees a “universe” (i.e. the natural world) that is “shaped so much like” himself. And what does it look like? It is “cracked” and “bent backwards”: damaged and in pain. True, Wordsworth’s spirit is sublime and filled with the “sad music of humanity,” but it is a music that, ultimately, brings relief from the hardships of the world, not a hardship itself. Not a “toenail, catching on the bedspread.” Not physical pain.

Moreover, Wordsworth envisions nature, even if it’s with a “wild secluded scene,” as a series of “beauteous forms”; the speaker of Rohrer’s “Poem Against Wordsworth,” on the other hand, believes that:
the butterfly has terrible
powers of insinuation
It cannot be trusted (11)
In Wordsworth’s “Lines,” the speaker self-identifies as a “ worshiper of Nature” who feels imbued with “warmer love” during his communion with the natural world. Rohrer’s speaker believes that nature “cannot be trusted” because of its “terrible / powers.” Yes, at very least Rise Up forwards a skeptical view of the natural world and its ability to heal us or protect us from moments of spiritual distress. And, at worst, one gets a sense that our surrounding environment can be outright harmful to our well-being.

Placing Rohrer in direct opposition to Wordsworth and the Romantics, though, proves to be rather reductive. In fact, in the poem “Winning Isn’t Everything,” we’re told:
                       Your sister said
autumn is sad, winter hurts,
but people who say things are
always wrong. (6)
The sadness of autumn and the hurt of winter are, it would appear, nothing more than the misguided musing of people who “say things” that, yes, “are / always wrong.” So if we’re told that the butterfly is untrustworthy and the world is cracked, we’re told incorrectly. But if we’re told anything, perhaps, we’re told incorrectly. So, what Rohrer learned from the Romantics (as it manifests itself in Rise Up) might, then, have nothing to do with nature. What he might have learned is that, just like the Coleridge’s ancient mariner, it’s better to do the telling than the listening.

06 November 2012

Begin Anywhere

In “This Morning My Son Dominic Watches Me Shave My Father,” the penultimate poem of Frank Giampietro’s Begin Anywhere (Alice James Books, 2008), the speaker, as one can rightly guess from the title, shaves his aging father while his own son watches. He also informs his audience that:
Dad is ninety-one and has become
wonderfully more and more sweet
as he has grown senile

and [I] think of his story explaining his baldness,
how the Indians scalped him—how
I believed him about so many things for so long. (62)
The above excerpts, to some extent, address the central themes of the collection: namely, the manner in which we construct narratives, their trustworthiness, and our penchant for passing them down from generation to generation. As a child, the speaker “believed…so many things for so long” that his father told him, only to realize as he became older that these stories were fictions, not autobiographies. But due to the fact that they were issued from an authority figure and imbued with a particular veracity, these tales gained an unquestioned legitimacy. No doubt, due to the presence of the speaker’s son, we’re led to believe that this tradition will not end with the “senile” grandfather’s passing. Indeed, another generation will sustain these narratives that conflate the imagined and the real, producing a history both endearing and dubious because of its origin.

Of course, in the wake of postmodernism, we tend not to accept narratives as willingly as previous generations. Or, at least, our engagement with narrative becomes increasingly complex. Case in point, the title poem from Begin Anywhere. It opens with the lines:
I could begin with my father’s strong right arm

heaving his shotgun into the lake.

This is usually where I begin. Or I could begin

with my half-sister standing at the top of the hill

looking down at my father’s back as he hurls the gun

into the lake

Or I could begin after the splash, with the ducks

flying back to the bread. Or ten minutes earlier (39)
The poem unfolds like this, in reverse chronological order, with the speaker offering us seven more exceedingly distant points of entry for the story he intends to tell. While providing us with successive beginnings, he calls attention to the construct of narrative, all the while augmenting it with details until we discover that the speaker’s step-mother has shot herself in the head with the shotgun his father has thrown into the lake. Whether employing this technique as a coping mechanism for a traumatic life event, or simply to bring into relief qualities of composition, the speaker forces us to question how we frame events and the manner in which we present them. To be certain, narrative and confessional poetry of the past is no more; instead, Giampietro’s collection seems to suggest that one cannot work within these subgenres without deconstructing (and demolishing) their foundations and guiding principles.

Another recurring theme within Begin Anywhere is the often cryptic and sometimes disturbing content of the stories. Take, for instance, the opening to the poem “Indulgence”:
Here’s how, having called home four times from work

and getting no answer, I thought my wife and baby had died:

Cherie is ironing her purple shirt on our portable board.

Dominic, playing in his walker, starts fussing

because he can’t get the blowfish into his mouth.

Cherie moves toward him

when the ironing board suddenly collapses,

and in spinning around she overcompensates,

launching the iron into the air.

Still hissing, it fall pointy-end down, piercing her skull. (34)
Soon thereafter, Cherie “slips and falls” on the speaker’s son, “suffocating the baby” (35). Mother and child, in this vision, both die horribly. Likewise, the first poem of the book, “Juice,” starts with the line: “I’d like to begin with my addiction to heroin” (11). As the speaker reveals more information about his addiction, we’re told: “I shared crack with a pregnant Dominican woman / …at the top of a five-flight walk-up on 109th Street in Harlem” (11). Is this a fact of the speaker’s life, a confession of the poet, or a fiction composed of news-related material and imaginations? Yes, Begin Anywhere does challenges us to question the “truth” of a narrative in an off-kilter world of death dreams and drug addiction. And, certainly, some readers might be compelled to ask: Are these stories true? But the better question to ask might be: Where do we begin?