October 2012 Contemporary Poetry Reviews

Each month, this contemporary poetry review series selects between five and ten collections published since 2000 to recommend to its readership.
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Each month, this contemporary poetry review series selects between five and ten collections published since 2000 to recommend to its readership. These collections are selected from a pool of more than two thousand books of supplied and already-held contemporary poetry. Publishers interested in submitting review copies to the series should contact the author of this article. All submitted books remain eligible for inclusion in the series for a 10-year period. For a partial listing of books received and considered, see here.

1. The Banjo Clock, Karen Garthe (University of California Press, 2012). There's no question that image-laden lyric poetry can be exhausting. If the image (particularly the analogic image) manifests language in one of its most condensed, self-conscious, and fraught states, the lack of anything else but that insistent drumbeat in a poem--the lack, for instance, of aphoristic rhetoric, demotic diction, hypotaxis, or conventional narrative--can quickly overbear even the most generous reader. It's equally true, however, that the image-driven lyric has never been less de mode, so any contemporary poetry review series worth its salt ought take a moment or two, at least, to acknowledge the foremost practitioners of this sort of lyric.

Karen Garthe writes some of the most expert--and tightly-wound--lyric poems you'll ever read. Hers is a hyper-parataxis (as opposed to the para-hypotaxis this review series has generally favored) and if you don't stop for a moment to sniff the scenery, you'll likely miss a good deal that's absolutely brilliant and even some instances of sublimity. In other words, if you're planning on reading Garthe's The Banjo Clock anytime soon, read slow. Garthe communicates neither logic nor observation; rather, she explores intellectual moods typified by sonic progressions and regressions. This is, in other words, how language looks at the end of structure and in the abscesses of coherence: analogic starbursts, sensuous ephemera, catholic collages, and mere glimpses--usually in the form of brief blocks of language a reader's mind "sticks upon" unwittingly--of semantic sense. Yet anything that seems mimetic here is likely accidental: Garthe has little interest in describing or synthesizing any scene or phenomena in usable terms, for all that her poetry is as dense, adjectival, and excitable as any verse one is likely to encounter. Few verbs here intend anything less than to gob deliciously in the mouth--The Banjo Clock wouldn't know a workaday verb from a four-pocketed kangaroo--and most of its nouns are gestural, that is to say, allegorical. Despite an occasional flirtation with the imperative and the didactic, in The Banjo Clock the gnomic aspect (that grammatical aspect that expresses general truths or aphorisms) is almost entirely absent, in keeping with the consensus among postmodernists that capital-T Truth is dead.

For all this, Garthe's work is exquisitely timed and shaped, not only sonically, rhythmically, and visually but in its allotments and refusals of conventional sense. When Garthe writes, in "National sky," of "the hustle of weightless/ furrowing thru tinkling empties," one could as easily say that the poet has summarized America in eight words or that she's done nothing of the sort and has, instead, merely posited a stream of language that breezily enacts in the inner ear the same sense of emptiness the words semantically propose. That is, it means everything or nothing, is either courting or teasing you, lands like a punch or evaporates like a dustcloud. But in the same way every extant spatial dimension can be explained as a "pulling out from" the dimension that precedes it--see here and (particularly) here--Garthe is showing us that we cannot properly appreciate the function and operation of language without withdrawing, to some degree, from the linguistic dimensions we commonly inhabit. Non-sense divorced entirely from sense is uninteresting; by contrast, contained within the lines we can draw between non-sense and sense is an entire and unforgiving understanding of what sense itself really signifies.

If discussions of the sort Karen Garthe is performing in The Banjo Clock--that is, discussions implicitly sounding out the vagaries of all language--don't really interest you, that's okay: Just stop reading poetry right now, pick up your favorite beach novella, and forget the world's oldest form of literary currency still exists in any appreciable volume. But it simply doesn't do, any longer, to write or read poems whose advancements on the Romantics are merely benedictive, whose tonalities and forms of witness and manifestations of ego are updated for the current century only in the sense that (if locomotion is the aim) the difference between a Model T and a Honda Civic is better air conditioning in the latter. What Garthe is offering today's poetry readers is a reason to read poetry rather than prose, to listen to poetry rather than electronica, to inhabit a verse environment rather than some workaday multimedia environment whose social, economic, and domestic dimensions are as unlikely to educate as they are to inspire. This is phrasal verse whose disjunctions and juxtapositions and seeming compositional meanderings are as alert to humankind's most important transactional commodity--language--as anything else our contemporary culture has invented or unearthed. [Excerpt (opens as in-browser PDF): "Fanta grape" and six others].

2. Cognitive-Behavorial Therapy, Tao Lin (Melville House, 2008). Admiring the poetry of Tao Lin in no way requires endorsing his peculiar brand of online self-promotion, nor even that not insubstantial segment of his oeuvre that slips into precisely the sort of winking irony that so many of us find tiresome and even egregious. While there's little formal innovation or control of the line evident in his work, at his best, as in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Lin is the reluctant troubadour of depressive personalities, an unblinking historian chronicling chemical imbalances down to their most minute movements. Much has been said and written of Tao Lin as either a forerunner or a hanger-on of the so-called New Sincerity, and reading Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy one can almost believe it: If you've ever experienced clinical depression--or a less dire condition, such as anomie, ennui, malaise, or just the eff-it-all attitude commonly associated with contemporary late juvenilia--Tao Lin is your Shakespeare. His poems are either studiously unserious or seriously unstudied, depending on your view; what's undeniable, however, is that when Lin's brief, lowercase, unpunctuated, declarative, aphoristic, diaristic poems manage to stifle their in-the-margin winks for just a moment--when their collapsing humor rises to the level of an inherent, rather than instrumental good--they do speak to several conditions of the spirit typically considered shameful or gauche by polite society and therefore too little written or spoken of.

There's a temptation in contemporary poetry to confuse poet with poetry, which is asinine not merely for the obvious reason (that one never knows strangers or even one's acquaintances a fraction as well as one's hubris would lead one to believe). Just as important are the many other reasons one ought take a poem exclusively on its own merits: Most of our greatest literary luminaries were unsavory characters; denial of poetry's redemptive aspect is the worst possible slight against poetry; and we are more likely to be educated into grace by the errata of ugly emotions than the warm blanket of congenial ones, meaning that the works we expect to find aesthetically or conceptually distasteful on principle are the most likely to unsettle us sufficiently to challenge us. Lin may well be promoting a sort of smarmy (and quickly passe) irony, though this reviewer is not yet convinced that's the case; his related publishing ventures may smack of the worst sort of egotism (Lin's Muumuu House is best known for publishing and promoting work essentially identical to Lin's own oeuvre), though many other poets and editors could be charged with similar homerism; and his extracurricular hijinks may be the sort of exhausting performances of holier-than-thou detachment that were generally accepted as bogus ten years before Reality Bites agreeably confirmed it (yet how many poets fail to exhibit such enervating eccentricities?)--but all of these objections are dashed to incoherence if the words actually appearing on the page can readily be experienced as emotionally and even empirically true, and it says here that they can be and therefore should be. There is much wisdom in Lin's work--about how we function psychosocially, or fail to--and frankly as a reader of contemporary verse I could give a damn about whether a bona fide on-the-page phenomenon is deliberate or merely fortuitous. Being a poet in America is hard enough as it is; we ought to be willing to give the benefit of the doubt to poets and poetry whenever possible. After all, if we can't be charitable to members of our own tribe, who'll be charitable to us?

Whether a product of unwillingness or incapacity, Lin's speaker's rejection of "social situations" and indeed society-at-large (the collection's telling refrain is, "i'll be right back") is, finally, accountable to itself and therefore deserving of our attention and consideration. No poetry this stridently rhetorical could possibly be disinterested in compassionate instruction, even if its author makes a great to-do of such disinvestment. There must be some reason Lin makes the easiest states of being, like laziness and boredom, seem brow-furrowingly difficult. Ultimately, Lin's work accounts for every graceless valence of self-loathing and despair and numbness, and in doing so so nerdily and wispily and--we must say it--with such acceptably intermittent vulnerability and empathy and humor, the work does accrue to itself, and to its author, more than a little a bit of genuine grace. [Excerpt: from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy].

3. Public Figures, Jena Osman (Wesleyan University Press, 2012). Never has an American poet taken so literally T.S. Eliot's prescription of "historical sense" as does Jena Osman in Public Figures. In imagining--and depicting via photography--exactly what it is all these statues of historical figures littering our urban landscapes are actually looking at, Osman is begging the question of what, due to the limitations of time and space, we humans are not looking at. The metaphor is especially rich in Public Figures because (unless and until two objects can inhabit the same time-space) the long-view perspective of those we marbleize and lionize--often warriors--is precisely the one perspective we can't access, however we fetishize it.

What Osman's politically-engaged text does is force us to confront the alternating ugliness and meaninglessness of our historical sense, not to mention the travesties of language that that benighted sense often compels us to endorse. Part photo album, part nonfiction, part poetry, part appropriated radio language (wartime voice procedure is detailed with appalling clarity), Public Figures is a compelling read from every and any angle. But it's more than that: It's a rebuke. Of all of us. I mean to say, us poets--who more often than not are so overpowered by our own exigencies that an egocentric compositional point-of-view is the only one we permit or broadcast. If "elliptical poetry" and its predecessors (e.g., New York School collage, Black Mountain syllabics, the conceptual poetry of Duchamp and Cage) taught us that not only can the poet speak for the many, but indeed may contain the many, Osman is giving us stage directions on how to embrace the none and the no one. These poems guard against the fallacies of egotism by implicitly endorsing the sort of journalistic objectivity we've long been told poetry shouldn't incorporate. It's for this reason that Public Figures is so unsettling yet so invigorating.

If the book embraces, at times, some extraordinarily tired conceits--most notably, the reflexive and didactic second-person addresses--this can be forgiven because these conceits are, as the faithful reader soon learns, themselves entirely reflexive. Osman distracts, deconstructs, and destructs her "you" by removing it from any coherent conversation with the past, the better to acknowledge that the past has, somehow or other, outstripped us. In the midst of a discussion of Civil War-era Zouaves, Osman offers the following interjections: "Your outer skin, your inner skin, is metal"; "You are a rotating sphere of optics"; "You get spun and then get called back." In other words, Osman's a canny operator whose intelligence is that of a literary sharpshooter: She never misses her mark, but the damage done is often not (or is simply much more than) the damage you anticipated. And it's this, more than anything else Osman achieves in Public Figures--and she achieves quite a lot--that demands from us not only our sight and attention but also our resolve to see better.

Too often poets encounter war (or any form of ritualized violence) as though it were either a rotten banana to be held at arm's length or a fluffy puppy to be played with rambunctiously and irresponsibly. Osman forces encounters that are substantially more courageous, leading us by the nose from memorial to memorial and implicitly asking, "Why did we put this here? What does it mean? What were we thinking?" These are questions that richly deserve answers, asked in a collection of poetry that richly deserves to be read. Perhaps not surprisingly, Osman's ambitious project is not fully circumscribed by the poetry collection bearing its name; more content relating to the "Public Figures" project can be found here. [Brief excerpt (scroll down at link)].

4. Nervous Device, Catherine Wagner (City Lights Books, 2012). Nervous Device is a fascinating if only intermittently successful hodge-podge. The crank is likely to call for an editor: the collection's second poem, for instance, "A Well Is a Mine: A Good Belongs to Me," may well be comprised (in large part) of borrowed language, but it is also wincingly self-indulgent in its over-performance of contemporary political hypocrisies. And beginning a collection with an epistolary ars poetica seems like shooting the sheriff's deputy not once but twice and then strip-mining his large intestines for bacteria. But there's more than one way to read a poetry collection, and too often we read collections with such an over-emphasis on craft that the joy of sharp edges is entirely lost. Our best musical albums are often slightly-dented honeycombs of genius; in time, we learn to love their excesses, incapacities, and strange crevices. A great poetry collection is little different, and there is much in Nervous Device that is great.

Wagner is to be lauded, first and foremost, for her daring, her conceptual eclecticism, and her linguistic range, all of which are superlative. Nervous Device is less a collation of poems--let alone a coherent artistic vision--than a machine of many cobbled-together and imperfectly-interlocking parts (which are somewhat dysfunctional in consequence) whose originary parts-suppliers may never be tracked down or acknowledged. I can't say exactly what Wagner's up to here, and for once I find that refreshing. Perhaps it's because Wagner's projects (both past and present) exude the sort of confidence that stiffens the backbone of any would-be acolyte or admirer. This is a poet who quite evidently knows what she is doing and why, as evidenced by a poem ("Unclang") that begins with what seems a frank confession--"I would like never to be obscure. I understand why I was: explaining/ is a bore, and flattens lang, so, it takes experience to write a real poem"--and ends with an instruction only marginally more parseable once you've read the entire piece: "GET that kitty." I admire Wagner's courage and wish more poets would permit the exploratory function of poetry to make its way onto the page.

One senses, in Wagner, a sincere and committed engagement to pursue what is true for the self, to circumscribe one's own emotional codex. She alternates between bracing sincerity ("I will love you with this poem," from "A Pattern") to flat academic language ("You take your turn as other," also from "A Pattern") to obtuse yet thoughtful rhetoric ("[L]et me make you feel as if meaning," from -- if you've noticed the pattern here -- "A Pattern"). But form and content are, of course, wedded, and simply noting that Wagner indulges every form from the prose poem to the one-line poem, from diaristic and unpuncuated gab to coupleted lyrics, does nothing to emphasize what really matters here: That Wagner encodes within each form its own temperament and way of seeing, and in doing so illustrates the searching nature of most Great poetry.

There may well be too many shout-outs to friends here (not merely a pointless but also a tired maneuver); there may be too many easy lines and sentiments; there may be little cohesion at the level of the book (though that's not required by any means); but Nervous Device is a clear-eyed and brave testament to the changing currents of a poet's life. After publishing three very difficult but enormously rewarding collections, Wagner is charting her own real-time struggles with the myriad uses of language (see "Rain Cog": "I emerged from postlanguage // What'd I say?") and it would be a betrayal of that project for the poet to do less than her instincts--which, like anyone's, are sometimes professional and sometimes amateurish--demand of her. This is by no means faint praise or back-handed compliment: Wagner is, this reviewer insists, quite intent about her "missteps" (from the perspective of craft and concept) and occasional linguistic laxness (from the perspective of form and composition). When she asks, in "Rain Cog," "How can I knock be clear about my intentions?" she is telegraphing not only the pitfalls and slippages inherent in executions of "clarity" but also the sorts of interruptions one's artistic inclinations habitually make in the midst of public calls for coherence.

Nervous Device is a meta-reminiscence on the anxieties of the body, the intellect, and the psyche, anxieties all too familiar to many poets in contemporary American poetry. Only one of our most iconoclastic and daring poets could produce a collection so in tune with its moment, yet so singularly the product of an inspired intelligence easily distinguishable from any other. Read this book, but read it the way you would like to be read yourself (both in spirit and in literature): forgivingly. For Wagner's journey is ours, too--our own lived battles with self and surface--and thus the chaos of Nervous Device is, by any account, both hard-won and entirely relevant. [Excerpt: "Air Envelope" (early draft); "A Landscape"; "Never Mind"].

5. Archicembalo, G.C. Waldrep (Tupelo Press, 2009). We poets know we're at a grave disadvantage in vying for the attentions of our countrymen. Video games increasingly combine orchestral music, novelistic plotting, and visuals of unimaginable beauty; the best literary fiction doggedly weaves intensely-readable narratives through conventions of genre that are already adored and sought-after by millions; paintings, street art, and the other visual arts have a place in the public square--museums, subway stations, permission walls, television ads--that poetry has never had and will likely never have. (Unless, that is, poets rise up en masse to make it happen; rousing poets is less like herding cats, however, than asking cats to do thirty-minute stand-up routines in the Catskills.) In other words, many decades after Louis Zukofsky's "A-14" set the "upper limit" of poetry as "music," no one has ever confused Mary Oliver with the New Pornographers. So where does that leave us? Does poetry merely have less to offer than other art-forms, despite our medium enjoying the same infinite scope as the media of those who work primarily with color, light, motion, or timbre? To what end does poetry borrow its terminology from (or lend its terminology to) other disciplines, if no one has ever inadvertently juxtaposed poetic tone and psychoacoustical tone color, the literary line and the sculptural line, light verse and cinematic backlighting?

And yet, if you can somehow (non-creepily) convince a non-poetry-reading friend to sit down in a dark space and listen to poetry the way one listens to the surf, there'll be no doubt remaining that what the best poetry achieves is a state of wonder no other art-form can approach. Even the latest Whitman-quoting blue-jeans commercial, or a Leonard Cohen-quoting commercial for high tech gadgetry, tells us this much. Still, these productions' concurrent reliance on visuals undercuts the point somewhat, as does the fact that most so-called "academic" poets have largely ceded the popular-entertainment field to their brothers and sisters in the performance-poetry underground.

It's into this context that G.C. Waldrep's Archicembalo came in 2009, with its ambitious aim of encouraging readers to "listen to poems the way poems listen to paintings," and to produce and reproduce language that "take[s] shape in the reader's mind as music." (An "archicembalo" is a modified harpsichord with extra keys and strings to permit tones otherwise impossible with the instrument.) We can now report that Waldrep's effort was a successful one, as few poetry collections published this century as capably cleanse their readership with unerringly collapsing waves of sound and meaning--just the sort of phenomenon that commands the constant attention, engagement, and admiration of readers. A commandant of the generic might insist upon these poems being treated, variously, as flash fiction or short-form drama; there are paragraphs aplenty here, and dramatic dialogue, and the stand-alone clause (whether dependent or independent) is the unit of measure throughout. In this, however, Waldrep is a poet entirely of and for his time. He knows that what distinguishes poetry from other media is that, just like white light or a universal chord, it necessarily contains all other constituent iterations of beauty. (It's for this reason that the question "What makes a poem?" is a de facto betrayal of the Art; the answer, of course, is simply "language conscious of itself as medium.") Fiction, at its most profound, is a subgenre of poetry, as might also be said of playwriting, screenwriting, song lyrics, and creative nonfiction. There's a reason we habitually say, of any manifestation of language that astounds us, "Now that's poetry."

So it is with Archicembalo, which is poetry of the highest order inasmuch as it offers a haunting, devoutly-lyrical vision of how we experience our worlds through associative strings of musical language. While many of these poems, which are loosely titled around chapters in a musical self-instruction primer, hint at narrative, as "straight narrative" is not a function conventional language needs poetry (specifically) to enact, Waldrep leaves it well enough alone. Instead, Archicembalo offers tendrils of language that expose every crevice of the medium, from pleasing anaphora to jarring disruptions of syntax and punctuation (the question mark, particularly, is abjured), from grammatical hiccups like intentional comma splices and sentence fragments to sudden shifts in perspective.

Of course, many poets, particularly those with a postmodern bent, play with language in a way that undermines the sanctity of the written mark. The difference is that Waldrep plays language like a grand piano, and what in other hands would be linguistic infelicities are here the sharps and flats of a masterful orchestral presentation. Just as chord changes, bridges, and refrains both create and deny audience expectations, both reward and frustrate close listening, both entrench sounds and render them ephemera, Waldrep's music intercedes between our received understandings of language in a way that's intensely pleasurable. He never seems invested in sticking an image, relating snippets of faux or actual autobiography, or soapboxing his rhetoric, yet no reader of Archicembalo could doubt that these elements arise and persist throughout the collection. That each poem is titled with a Jeopardy-style query (e.g., "Who Is Johannes Ockeghem," "What Is a Descant") simply reminds us that we more often feel our way through the world intuitively and contextually than via application of rigid semantic doctrines or correspondences. As is the case with many of the "questions" asked by Waldrep in Archicembalo, our daily self-questionings are usually statements rather than incipient investigations because most of them perpetually lack answers--and we know it.

Waldrep is suggesting that we listen to music the same way we live, that we listen to poetry the same way we listen to music, and that we understand the many movements and interruptions of our common world in the same gloriously attenuated way we listen to--and thus inhabit--the very best contemporary poetry. Which is precisely what Archicembalo is: It's among the best contemporary poetry we have, and it compels this reviewer, as precious little other poetry does, to remark, with evident pleasure, "Now that's poetry." [Excerpt: "What Is An Overture" and two others].

A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry: Thievery (University of Akron Press, forthcoming 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize; Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose; and The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009). A contributing author to The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2008), he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing, whose first edition will be published by Omnidawn in 2014. Presently a doctoral candidate (ABD) in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets (University of Virginia Press, 2008), Poetry of the Law (University of Iowa Press, 2010), Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Harvard Review, AGNI, jubilat, and Colorado Review. In 2008, he was awarded the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize by Poetry.

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