A Study of What Strands Us

Beyond the Chainlink

by Rusty Morrison (Ahshata Press, 2013)

A reflection by Casey McAlduff

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Rusty Morrison’s latest work, Beyond the Chainlink (Ahshata Press, 2013), is a beautiful exploration of the edge. By imposing a sequence of repeated forms and employing a speaker who is concerned with the way that language ravels and unravels into and out of meaning, Beyond the Chainlink brings the reader on a journey whose departure points are constantly shifting, thus allowing for the emergence of new perspective in every careful line.  Take this piece of lyric, for example, which by utilizing the charge of language’s implicit negativity astutely mimics the way the minds grasps for knowledge, reminding the reader that this knowledge—amazingly, absurdly—comes not from what is, but from what’s not:

Comprehension is as circular as sky

coming around to white, which is not the color of this painted ceiling.” 

(“Backward rowing,” p.19)

Throughout her work, Morrison studies the relationship between language & what’s lost (or concealed) beneath it—the poet deftly investigates the chasm of space between representation and object, that indefinable void we come from—[we imagine]—& that place we may or may not depart back into.  To respect the reality of the unknown by allowing it to remain unknowable is no easy feat, but the poet of Beyond the Chainlink manages to render these “visions of difficult grace”, as Dan Beachy-Quick calls them, with a skillful, soft hand.  Rather than be thrown off or put under by these visions, the reader is instead coaxed into a state of rebellious recognition that life is “our particular discontinuity” and that “our only continuity/ division/forever unified” is death, is the unknown (Inger Christensen, translated by Susanna Nied, quoted throughout Part One of Beyond the Chainlink).  Because Morrison refuses to defile the unknown with definition, the book opens us; we are moved beyond the boundary of our ideas, beyond the chainlink of language.

One way that Beyond the Chainlink succeeds in opening the reader’s mind is to call into question the processing of thought and our tendency to churn ideas into the assumption of knowledge. Rather than land on any certain conclusion, Morrison asks her reader to reach for an answer and to continue reaching—for if definition is reached then so, too, is an unjust ending.  The book confronts language and naming throughout, but its wariness of the concept shines through especially in these moments: “Failure is any saying,” (from “History of Quiet”, p. 57-59) and “No help from explanation which always behaves badly/ Squirming in its fictive seat” (Backward rowing, p. 63).

But for a poet as thoughtful as Rusty Morrison, drawing attention to the unreliability of language is not enough; it’s too easy. Instead, Morrison asks us to go farther, to reflect further inward and outward: we are asked as readers not only to doubt language’s ability to approximate its subject, but also to simultaneously hold the attempt in regard, to recognize its significance while noting its absurdity.  In “Vulnerability says,” the poet poses the question that all writers must contend with: “What should be kept,” she asks, “besides compassion for the vanity of idea?” (p. 43).

This question at once reprimands our desire for acknowledgement and hails it—“the vanity of idea” is both what confines our existence but also what preserves it. In this one, complex confrontation with language, Morrison reminds us that our inability to know anything for sure is also—paradoxically—our one knowable shortcoming, perhaps our most significant shared trait. 

In Beyond the Chainlink, we are “all sailors in our intricate sentence, no captain,” we are left to contend with life as “a study of what strands us” (“History of sleep, p. 6). This brilliant line of verse points toward the crucial irony of our makeup—that what connects us (threads us with our elemental filaments, gives us form, our text) is also what abandons us:

“While meaning fills its fact, let’s play a little lottery

with what’s missed. 

Words are such a thickness.

            Stranding us between too much and too much.” 

(“Backward rowing,” p. 71)

There are many reasons to read Beyond the Chainlink, but for me the reason lies in the work’s refusal to stop digging, its refusal to stop searching despite the recognition that it will never find. “Good stories/ know how to leave the point behind/ many times,” and Morrison keeps us bending backwards, from the space of the beyond (p. 41).

A note on form:

Like most of Morrison’s previous work, Beyond the Chainlink engages with serial form and invokes meditative technique to imbue the work with a particular clarity and depth. This style of Morrison’s “restores the energy of telegraphic communication, launching line after line toward a potentially infinite horizon of meaning,” (Peter Gizzi, on the poet’s earlier work the true keeps calm biding its story).  

Beyond the Chainlink is composed of what feels like sets of thought-exercises: there are 7 poems entitled “History __________” (of sleep, of expression, is hidden fact, of seed, of exposition, of quiet, of structure); 7 poems entitled, “____________ says” (impulse, desire, guile, impatience, vulnerability, patience, grace); 6 poems called “Necessities”; 6 poems called “Inventions”; 11 titled “Sensework”; 9 called “Backward Rowing”; and 2 “Begin Again”.

“We die because we cannot connect the end to the beginning,” notes one of the book’s epigraphs from Alcmaeon of Croton, 5th Century BC.  And so the book, which does not connect the end to the beginning, which can only hint at circularity (the forms repeat, but they do not repeat in a precise, symmetrical cycle) mimics death and, in so doing, achieves “our only continuity/ division/forever unified.”

 

 

The question of who was speaking was difficult

On Ghosts

by Elizabeth Robinson (Solid Objects, 2013)

A reflection by Casey McAlduff

While reading Elizabeth Robinson’s new work of poetry/essay, On Ghosts, I couldn’t help but think about Emily Dickinson’s em dashes. Like Dickinson, Elizabeth Robinson is interested in held space, or what Robinson might call ‘hesitations’.  It is through these held spaces that presence takes its awakening breath into the structure; the “hesitation,” or the “pore”—it has many names in the book—is thus an entry point through which the condition of hauntedness may position itself and take hold.

In On Ghosts, Robinson experiments with these portals and tests presence by invoking various literary structures in order to induce embodiment. The material of On Ghosts is the immaterial; the immaterial is thus made manifest by the ready repository of the book. In this way, the book becomes “it’s own haunted site,” as Beth Towle of Acutary Lit writes. In her “explanatory note” at the beginning of the work, Robinson tells us that she believes the phenomenon of ghosts and haunting to be “only neutral,” and that, as she understands it, the phenomenon of haunting “reveals little about phantoms and visitations and is more disclosive of conditions that locate themselves in specific sites or persons” (3). In effect, Robinson utilizes her poetry/essay as a means to explore the relationship between literary device and presence; she’s literally working through an experiment to see how different doorways into text can make a site “vulnerable to the heightened perception, which is hauntedness” (3).

The key word here is “vulnerable.” As Robinson reminds us in the piece following the explanatory note, which begins with the address “To commence:” in order to attain the heightened perception that is necessary to become aware of presence, a person or a site must also be in a state “of eroded defenses, of vulnerability” (4). In my opinion, this vulnerable quality is also a hallmark of Emily Dickinson’s work. Dickinson’s em dashes are moments of exposure just as much as they are moments of music. Many times, they read as an instance of the poet pausing; they also create a physical manifestation of doubt on the page and give the reader an opportunity to insert herself into the break. The poet and the poem are thus opened up to external forces, their defenses are down and their gates are open. As stated previously, Robinson is similarly experimenting with doorways or, more specifically, with “ways”: “what is so evidently not there is just as evidently having its way,” she writes, referring to the space which is opened up when the self retreats. The poet concludes, “Presence then, is a way” (5).

On Ghosts is hence a multi-wayed work that intends to examine the phenomenon of presence by creating eroded sites of text through which both writer and reader become confronted with their own ghosts and/or ways of interpreting them. “These are ghosts not words,” speaks one voice of “Drifting Interlude” (43). The poet does not exclusively choose the words; rather, the words are themselves inhabitations, they are presences, they are ways through which a reader can enter the text. The game here is to make rooms for these visiting voices to populate; in this way, the poet and the book remain open to any guest that the structure may attract and thus the structure becomes inhabitable, an essential feature of any text that desires to engage a reader.

What I think is particularly successful about this project is that it is both experimental and experiential in spirit. The book both makes and questions itself simultaneously. “In the ghost, we are forced to play even if play is not the mode we want to adopt,” states the speaker in “Nursery Rhyme,” (37) reminding us that in writing and attempting to communicate across “the barriers that prevent access to other’s minds”[1], such as death, we are engaging in an ancient game that requires both destruction and formation.

On Ghosts is composed through the artifice of various structures. There are six pieces entitled “Incident”, eight that are titled as “Photographs,” and various other ‘ways’ of entering an experience, such as “Skepticism,” “Formulae,” “Translation,” “Nursery Rhyme,” and “Story,” to name a few. Within the pieces, certain conclusions are drawn but they are never closed: “another child speculates that it “is in the nature of the ghost to be broken,” (16), “all ghosts are broken,” (18),  “a ghost is by definition broken,” (37).  This circular, disclosive quality of On Ghosts enacts how voices are able to find their way into a work and manifest differently depending upon the conditions that the work sets.

Robinson tells us in the book’s second sentence the inspiration of the work: “it arises in relation to the possibility that a self or a site might be haunted.” But On Ghosts’ thesis—the belief that the presence of ghosts tells more about the structure than it does of the phantom—reaches beyond its muse. It’s no surprise (although it’s still a delight) that the books’ commanding speaker’s favorite story is about how a man and an object managed to connect:

“One day at home, the man realizes that the tap in the sink is drip-

ping. He hears the same song he has been incessantly humming.

“The story never makes a point that the man drank what issued

from this tap.

“We are left to speculate how the tune transported itself from an

inactive faucet to the throat of a man.”

(55-56)

I am the ghost of answering questions. Beware me. Keep me at a distance as I keep you at a distance,” writes Spicer in Robinson’s epigraph. Through language, ghosts are speaking. It’s hard to know which–“the question of who was speaking was difficult”– but Robinson at least embeds us in the question.

 


[1] From Allen Grossman’s “Poetry: A Basic Course.” Tape 1A, “London Bridge is Falling Down.” The Teaching Company: Arlington, VA. 1994.

Dorianne Laux’s The Book of Men and Joseph Millar’s Blue Rust

The Book of Men by Dorianne Laux (W.W. Norton & Co., 2011)

Blue Rust by Joseph Millar (Carnegie Mellon Poetry Series, 2012)

A Reflection by Casey McAlduff

On Saturday, August 10th, the Library will host poets Dorianne Laux and Joseph Millar at the Emerald Tablet, a creativity salon that aims ‘to bridge the traditional gap between diverse activities and art forms’. It will not be an evening to miss.

Both Laux’s and Millar’s most recent works, The Book of Men (Laux) and Blue Rust (Millar) induce the perfect set up for a liberating, down and out San Francisco-style Saturday night. Both books are not afraid to get gritty, digging into those ‘dirtier’ tropes of American life—the worker and the rocker, the machinery and the garden, the war and the party. The voices present in each book and the lens through which they contemplate the world are equal parts freeing and restrictive, ultimately allowing both The Book of Men and Blue Rust to explore the poets’ deeper concerns about wildness and contentment in the wake of work, aging, and death.

Take Laux’s poem, “Fourth of July”, for instance, where through her window, the speaker contemplates the actions of teenage boys lighting off fireworks:

“What’s liberty to the checkout girl

selling smokes and nuts, greenbacks

turning her fingers to grease? The boys

insist on pursuing happiness, their birthright

a box of matches, crackers on strings,

sparkler, fountains, missiles, repeating shells,

Roman candles, Brazilian barrages.”

(47)

This question of what liberty means to us while we go on with our working lives pervades both Laux’s and Millar’s poetry, their deft perceptions allowing us to think, too, about the ‘checkout girl’, and about how (almost) all of our paid work depends upon the continuation of leisure and consumption— the continued pursuit of happiness. Although the boys’ birthright reads at first as merely a claim to reckless adolescence, the list of flammable objects soon morphs into the larger effects of their pursuit; the sparklers become missiles, the missiles repeating shells. By the end of the poem, and the end of the night, these boys are “draped like dead men over the couches,” having celebrated too much, making their neighbors afraid (48).

Throughout The Book of Men & Blue Rust, we’re encountered by this freedom-work binary; we’re asked to question the personal correlations we draw between moments of vocation and vacation. The Book of Men confronts rock stars like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Cher, but it also contains poems titled after army personnel, hard-pressed, blue collar towns, and one poem for Phil Levine, who wrote poetry “when not working the night shift” and to whom the book is dedicated. The book and many of its poems is infiltrated with this near-equal emphasis on both labor and leisure.

These poems, like “Fourth of July,” seem to point toward the enchantment of entertainment (“I don’t want anything to suffer,” Laux writes in “Bob Dylan”) but also to the discontentment of it, even for the book’s more famous personas (there is no satisfaction for the Beatles, who “arrived at a place where nothing seemed real…An open space/ where nothing is enough” (46)).

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to not work on a holiday, then you know this particular kind of freedom hangover, an inflated kind of fun where you momentarily forget that your work provides for your revelry; that, in our context, liberty is reliant upon debt. It seems to me as if it’s more than Laux’s ability to “just get guys” that’s at work in The Book of Men; to me, Laux presents a reality more so dictated by labor than it is by gender, even despite the book’s title. The poet is not claiming an invasion of the male brain as we stereotypically assume to know it merely in order to maintain the stereotype; rather, she is using the stereotype as a platform to investigate why it is the pursuit of happiness that is an unalienable right of men and not happiness itself.

In an aligned but distinct fashion, Joseph Millar also catalogs the worker that can’t make the jump from wages to joy so easily. In his moving long poem “Ocean”, Millar delves into the psyche of a man whose life-din is “always the sound of the hull slapping down.”  The man is forlorn about a past night at “the sad bar, barren of women,” and is portrayed by the poet in a moment of recollection as he attempts to remember the song a diner waitress hummed that night, after the bar. He laments:

“If she asked you about your family

you could show her their silhouettes

in a drop of saltwater

from Wingaersheek Beach

you keep in a jar by the window.”

(36)

Like the boys in “Fourth of July” who become so consumed by their independence that they wind up despondent, this character too is lonely, estranged from the community, and instead of being a “young, up-turned face,” (Laux, 47) is defined in “Ocean” by “the caulked seam of metal” (36). He is a man who comes to in the tragedy through the revelation that “Thy sea is so great/ and my boat is so small” (37). Even though the Independence Boys keep sleeping, we can imagine them next to Millar’s man one day, bellied up, despairing.

The seas of Dorianne Laux’s and Joseph Millar’s poetic verses are, as they should be, versatile ones, which slip from smooth rides to moments of collision in the break of a line. Happiness it seems is unattainable, especially with the individual’s idea of contentment constantly shifting. By the end of The Book of Men and by the end of Millar’s “Ocean,” the speakers are still working, but their egos have let up on their insistence for independence. Both pieces end with the imagery of the garden, and a turn away from the ego and personal reward toward the greater image of fertility: life as reward unto itself.

 

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Laux‘s accolades are many: she’s been selected for Best American Poetry three times, including 2013; she’s been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship; has won the Oregon Book Award; and was shortlisted for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award … amongst others.

Millar has won a Pushcart Prize and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Montalvo Center for the Arts, and Oregon Literary Arts, and has been published in many outstanding journals.


A Quick Talk with Kim Addonizio

Casey McAlduff: First off, Kim, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. I can’t wait for your reading at The Make Out Room for IPLSF on February 15th!  I saw you read last year at San Jose Poetry Center, and it’s been fruitful for me as a poet to get to know your work since then. While preparing for this interview, I was struck by a conversation you had with Susan Browne, in which you name comedian Bill Hicks as one of your muses. I immediately connected with that, as he’s been an inspiration to my work and my thought-process as well. An ex-boyfriend introduced me to his Hicks’ stand-up a couple years back, and I was immediately floored by his signature cryptic social criticism.

Although sometimes Bill Hicks’ paranoia can be frightening, I admire his refusal to conform to ‘the prettiness of it all’’; in other words, I respect his commitment to the bad. And I respect it so much because it’s not all bad—some kind of hope remains, even if it’s just hope for a laugh. Hicks has the rare ability—which I think you also possess—to use cynicism as a means to explore the realm of love.

This balancing act of Hicks’ between despair and hope is resonant for me in your work as well. For instance, there is a certain obligation to ‘the bad news’ in many of your poems— “Eating Together” comes to mind here, so does Jimmy and Rita, as does the influence of the blues overall.  Keeping Hicks in mind, do you feel that the decision to write and the decision to ‘face’ life’s harsher realities are inter-related? If so, why do you feel that the poem is an effective medium for exploring the more difficult aspects of our existence? And how might comedy play into it all?

Kim Addonizio: It’s not really a decision to write, or a decision to face life’s harsher realities; that’s just who I am.  I need to write. I write about my vision, or version, if you prefer, of the world. Hicks wrote out of his, I’m sure. That’s what made him authentic. Comedy plays into it because comedy is part of the world, too. The world really is funny. If you leave that out, you’re missing a big part of life. Earnest people are boring because they don’t get that as tragic as it is, it’s also pretty hilarious. Humor gives you perspective, without which you’re just one more depressive.  If you’re going to write dark poems, you’d better find a way to light them up occasionally, with hope or humor. Or just the fact of their writing, a voice saying This is.

CM: One of my favorite things about your work is that you use the poem as a space to liberate the speakers’ desires and thoughts, like in this excerpt from “What Women Want”:

“I want that red dress bad.

I want it to confirm

your worst fears about me,

to show you how little I care about you   

or anything except what

I want. When I find it, I’ll pull that garment   

from its hanger like I’m choosing a body   

to carry me into this world, through   

the birth-cries and the love-cries too,   

and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,   

it’ll be the goddamned

dress they bury me in.”

(excerpt of “What Do Women Want?” from Tell Me. Copyright © 2000. http://www.boaeditions.org.)

Can you talk more about this declarative, out-spoken quality of your speakers that seems to be nourished by poetry? I’ve felt this same kind of control before while writing poems, and I find it to be one of poetry’s strangest but most amazing traits—that the mere writing of a poem allows us to embrace a kind of boldness. What do you think it is about a poem that empowers and drives this confidence into being?

KA: Yeah, writing a poem does give you that feeling—that you’ve wrestled something out of the chaos and pinned it to the mat for a moment. Then it gets up again, and you have to try to do the same thing again. And, well, in a poem, you get to revise. (How’s that—revision as an opportunity instead of some hateful command:  Thou Shalt Revise Or Your Poems Shall Suck.). Really, you get to rework it until it’s right. In life, when it’s wrong, sometimes you just can’t fix it. You can’t fix death, but in a poem you can memorialize someone who died, maybe even make them live again in the space of the poem.  The poem is an alternate universe, where another order of reality can hold sway.

CM: At one point in one of your interviews, you state that “poetry is the only form of spirituality [you] consistently practice.” At the same time, your work is often described—in a positive way—as “irreverent.” How do you grapple with this contradiction between the spiritual motivation behind the object and the seeming rebelliousness of the object itself? And can you talk to us a bit more about how the act of writing has also become a spiritual act for you?

KA: To revere is to deeply respect something, to honor it. I respect life—or rather Life—it’s an enormous, multifaceted, amazing, gorgeous, terrifying, surprising entity. Big fun. What I meant by that comment is that writing poetry puts me in a place outside of time, into that alternate universe I mentioned. I don’t really see any contradiction…I guess if you’re talking about religion or something, there might be, but I don’t believe in religion.

CM: You’ll be reading at The International Poetry Library of San Francisco’s Valentine’s Day event on February 15th at the Make Out Room in SF. So, in honor of the holiday, I’ve got a few questions about love and its relationship to your writing. To begin, perhaps you can share with us what love means to you as an individual, and what, in your opinion, constitutes a ‘love poem’? Or, to say it a different way, do you believe that all poems are, ultimately, driven by love, and/or is it possible to write from a place beyond love?

KA: I like that: “All poems are, ultimately, driven by love.” I’d buy that in a heartbeat. I don’t think there is a place beyond love.  Love is the place beyond. If consciousness could evolve fast enough and get anywhere near there, we’d have a lot better chance as a species than we do right now. And most of us need the kind of love that comes from friends, families, partners. And from poems.  I feel like I’m stating the obvious and trying to sound profound about love and consciousness. Doesn’t everyone know this shit already? Then again, look at today’s NY Times.  It doesn’t matter what day it is.  The world is a fucking nightmare. Wow, I just went straight into the darkness again.  What I mean to say is just, you know, without love we are truly fucked, so let’s hear it for love.

CM: Okay, last question. If you were to get a tattoo of one line of another poet’s poetry, which poet would it be and which line would you choose? (If you have one already, my apologies! You don’t have to give it away if you don’t want to–)

KA:  I have five tattoos right now, and the next and possibly last one I want is some poetry. I just don’t know yet what it is. When I find it, I’ll know.

Hospital Británico: A Reflection on The Last Books of Héctor Viel Temperley, Translated by Stuart Krimko (Sand Paper Press, 2011)

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Stuart Krimko’s translation of Argentine poet Héctor Viel Temperley’s last books, Crawl and Hospital Británico came out almost a year ago, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still be talking about it. For the reader interested in surrealism and the intersection between formal invention and conventional religion, the work of Héctor Viel Temperley is a charging, changing force. And, for those skeptical of incantation or ecstasy, it is sure to be difficult to leave the reading feeling unconvinced. Though I relate more closely to the former audience, I find joy in empathizing with the latter’s response: I imagine this class of reader experiencing the text in a state of near-shock, as if absorbing the scene of a tragic accident they can’t help but ingest.

The books, on the one hand, are made-up of Krimko’s full, inhabited translations and on the other hand of Viel Temperley’s soulful, sonic, and displacing music. Although Stuart Krimko states that he prefers translations that “tend toward the literal”(source 1), his devotion to maintaining the work’s mystery can be equally attributed to his creativity as a poet as it can be to his familiarity with Viel Temperley’s work (Krimko worked on the project for ten years.)  The mystique of the book should also be attributed to the editors of Sand Paper Press. With the original Spanish poems and their English versions facing each other on each page, the book works on the reader like a shocking, non-symmetrical butterfly would on the eyes—two wings suggesting symmetry, but still evading it, evoking the beauty as well as the impossibility of translation’s task. This is not to say that the translation is not true to the original text, but that it is as true as it can be, given the constraints of language and our inability to break through the barriers between ours and another’s mind. But still, despite these obstacles, Stuart Krimko is able to locate the essence of Viel Temperley’s voice as well as it’s rhythm, and in so doing brings to the attention of non-Spanish language speakers one of the most surprising and delightful poets of the latter half of the 20th century.

Because The Last Books was released last year and a fair number of solid reviews of the work have been published since then—Ian Dreiblatt’s review for Sink being one of the most well-known (source 2), I am going to focus this reflection on the latter of the two ‘last books’, Héctor Viel Temperley’s Hospital Británico, a serial dissolution & resolution of the poet’s body as he recovers from brain surgery at the work’s namesake.  The structure of the series is enough to marvel at, as the speaker moves through a paradoxically formulated unraveling. The series begins with an eight-line poem, titled by that same Hospital. This eight-line piece—which is also the series’ most conventional part—functions in the book as the sun does for the human race, both as a source of light & life for the series’ subsequent sections and also as its Benefactor of Fracture, its Agent of Scatter & Growth.  The opening poem works to set the reader at the center of the forthcoming conflict, functioning too as a prologue for the epic to come.

The poem begins almost lazily, as Viel Temperley eases us into his “kaleidoscopic opus” with the familiar figure of a visitor, who is also a surreal, inverse muse:

“Rosetto Pavilion, long corner of summer, armor of butterflies: My

mother came to heaven to visit me.”

(59)

Although the passage floats off the tongue—gratitude to Krimko here for allowing this to be as true in its English incarnation as it is in the Spanish—the imagery is unusual, gorgeous even, but somehow backwardly turned. The muse is not coming down from the heavens to visit the Earth, but rather, is moving upward, visiting the speaker Above. So, we have a speaker who is un-grounded, a speaker on the brink of deadness, who is submitting to some freeing force of sound, to his maker’s ability to enact a Light he can believe in. “My head is bandaged,” the speaker informs us, “…I am happy. They have taken me from this world”. Although the ecstatic spirituality of this statement is shocking at first, reminiscent of Neruda at his most mystical, its other-worldliness is quickly undercut by the Earthly muse, by the memory of the mother who is the speaker’s, “laughter, freedom, summer,” and who, “twenty blocks from here,” also “lies dying ”. Suddenly, Heaven crashes back into the Hospital, and the curtain closes on the muse, the mother, who is “preparing herself” in recognition of her son’s decomposing, “to start all over again” (59).

And then, we turn the page and are encountered once more with the Prologue, as if we are the mother returning for another round. But this time, we’re presented with a version of Hospital Británico that contains “splinters, and Christus Pantokratur” (61). The ensuing ‘splinters’ are a number of delineated poems whose titles mainly take inspiration from the series’ source text. The exceptions to this loose rule are the four pieces entitled “Christus Pantokratur,” which are named after a depiction of an omnipotent, book-wielding Christ often found in Byzantine churches (Source 1).

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While the entrance of Christus Pantokratur could easily provoke a non-Christian reader to shut the book, Héctor Viel Temperley’s shocking imagery and nontraditional crafting allows the image of Christ to become a figure of textual magic rather than an imposing religious presence, or in Stuart Krimko’s insightful words, Temperley’s idol becomes “a single moment of ecstatic revelation repeated in the framework of poetry” (Source 1).

The figure’s matter of arrival into the work also undercuts Christus Pantokratur’s existence in the text as a literal Jesus. Rather than appear to our speaker as a resurrected, magnanimous physical presence, he arrives as a mere piece of language, as nothing more than a caption on a postcard: “Christus Pantokratur, 13th Century” (65). He then goes through a series of abstract, strange, hallucinogenic transformations, first becoming the postcard itself, and then morphing into the postcard’s sender who asks the speaker, while the speaker is alone and in a private dark, to “film His/ Silence in a bottle washed up on an endless shoal” (65). Thus, the message that the speaker receives from the figure of Christus Pantokratur is a kind of tragic, negative request. The speaker is being asked, through the device of the postcard, to film—and perhaps, to witness and record—the eternity of a message never received, and the paradoxical delivery of silence.  This passage is an important example of the spiritual conflict that drives Hospital Británico, because it stands to represent the complexities of belief for that which is beyond us, for that which is silent, made imaginable only through a human lens.

Our time with Christus Pantokrator ends when the figure transforms into a mirror for the speaker, a porthole of sorts for the bandaged orator to access Redemption, the figure thus also appearing to return to his traditional role as ‘Christ Savior’. And the image of Christus Pantokratur would end traditionally, most likely blandly, if not for Héctor Viel Temperley’s unique vision, his ability to morph conventional spirituality into its torn, doubting, human complement:

“only in the eyes of Christus Pantokrator can I dig in the

perspiration of all my summers until I arrive from my sternum,

from noon, at that lighthouse shaded by the limbs of orange trees

that I want for the half-mute boy I bore for many months upon my

soul.”

(67)

Here, the figure of Christus Pantokratur serves to bring the speaker toward his own soul, via memory and contemplation, but rather than deliver the speaker to Justice or Forgiveness, he is led only to desire for citrus, to break his silence and his guilt through the first indignant act—to find redemption not in being saved but in falling, in the dream of the picking of the fruit—

The remainder of Hospital Británico, though it is still invoking and manipulative of religious tropes, is less focused on a singular, Godly figure, and lines title its parts that are either directly taken from the opening text, or by lines which are closely inspired by it. Here is a quick overview of Hospital Británico’s sequence, which, although it is definitely unintended by Viel Temperley, bears a strange resemblance to a seasonal tune his North American audience may be familiar with—“The Twelve Days of Christmas”:

4 “Hospital Británico”

4 “Rosetta Pavilion”

4 “Christus Pantokratur”

5 “Long Corners of Summer”

1 “Your Face”

6 “My head is bandaged”

4 “They have taken me from the world”

1 “Freedom, Summer (For my mother, reminding her of the fire)”

4 “She lies dying”

1 “Asleep upon her lips”

2 “To start all over again”

The splinters, although containing dates in parentheticals after each section, are not ordered chronologically. Instead, they are grouped by title, yet despite the titles’ repetition, the poems do not promise a consistency of content. Thanks to this inventive framework, the reader encounters and experiences an infectious, spreading imagery that works to loosen the mind by constantly realigning it and then surprising it immediately thereafter. The violence and concurrent delight of these surprises are comparable to those I’ve experienced while reading the passionate, gruesome out-cries of celebrated surrealist Aimé Césaire, in that they incite the reader intellectually and politically, while simultaneously moving her emotionally. Religion, Martyrdom, Sacrifice, Justice—these ideological entities are all changed by Héctor Viel Temperley’s hungry, inquisitive passion for a new body of belief, a new space to hold the spirit. Here, again, we encounter it in citrus:

“ I need to smell lemon, I need to smell lemon. The tiniest blood vessels

in my nose could burst from breathing in so much of this blue air,

this sky so viciously blue.”

(81)

The series is wrought with passages like this one, in which a sheer terror and a sheer delight—caused by a blend of the foreign and the familiar—trump the conventional narrative and create a new Being. The ecstatic feeling of the language stands in for the traditional awe-inspiring idol, and intoxicates both the speaker and the reader of Viel Temperley’s verse:

“The pleasure of words comes back to my flesh in the tops of some

eucalyptus trees (or in the heights of “B,” where once—just once—I

looked out and saw a heavenly beach leaning against the shore).”

(79)

After a number of departures and flights of the imagination into wild territory, the series ends as the source text does, with two pieces entitled “To start all over again,” and the last piece is followed by the date 1969, marking it as among the series’ earliest compositions. That said, we do not arrive back at the beginning, for how could we? Instead, we are left mystified, wondering if we ever started at all.

by Casey McAlduff

Source 1: Krimko, S & Arlo Haskell. Interview by P. Scott Cunningham. “ZOLAND IN CONVERSATION: The Last Books of Héctor Viel Temperley.” Zoland Poetry. Zoland Poetry, 2011. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.

Source 2: http://sinkreview.org/reviews/the-last-books-of-hctor-viel-temperley-translated-by-stuart-krimko/

Last Friday, a crowd of the Bay Area’s finest literary minds gathered together at Casa Bonampak for IPLSF’s LitCrawl reading event, aptly named Poets Who Edit. Arrayed by the rainbow skulls of el día de los muertos, IPLSF’s poet-editors read from their own work as well as from the publications they edit. The six readers for the night included: Sally Ashton, the current (and first) poet-laureate of Santa Clara County as well as the editor-in-chief of DMQ Review; Stephen Kessler, a poet, translator, essayist and novelist, who is the sole editor for the renowned and free literary newspaper, The Redwood Coast Review; Diane Frank, an award-winning poet and author and the Director of the online poetry workshop, Blue Light Press; Hugh Behm-Steinberg, an East Bay poet and writing teacher at California College of the Arts, who also edits the college’s literary magazine, Eleven Eleven; Ken Weisner, a poet and teacher from Santa Cruz who currently edits Red Wheelbarrow through De Anza Community College; and last but definitely not least: Jay Rubin, a poet and writing instructor at The College of Alameda and the editor of the well-known, all-poetry online journal Alehouse.

Jay Rubin started the night out with a lively first set of poems, bravely reading a poem he had never read out-loud to a crowd before, and beginning a reading trend that continued throughout the night. Rubin also noted that working as an editor had indeed informed and helped his work. In fact, he stated that his publication rate has gone up since he started editing Alehouse, which is good news for poetry fans, who wouldn’t want to miss out on such mesmerizing lines as:

“On the day that I die,
consonants and vowels spelling my name
will separate like atoms in steam,
each floating off alone to find
a new vocabulary.”

(“Obituary”, from Blue Earth Review; http://internationalpsychoanalysis.net/2010/05/03/poetry-monday-may-3-2010-jay-rubin/)

Next up was Hugh Behm-Steinberg, who began his reading with the opening piece from the latest edition of CCA’s print journal Eleven Eleven, which he edits. Behm-Steinberg’s enthusiasm for the journal as well as for the book-object came through clearly, as did his wit and his ability to bend language in such a way that the words enact the mind: “thinking is like meeting your French teacher in the parking lot of the grocery store,” he writes, “and you speak to him in English because what else would you do?”

Behm-Steinberg was followed by Santa Clara County’s Poet Laureate Sally Ashton, the editor of DMQ Review, who focused her reading on the middle ground between editing and writing poetry: rejection. Ashton illustrated the poet’s struggle with rejection by reading a hilarious and brilliantly crafted Stein-inspired piece about the process of submitting work to journals, which, despite its theme, was recently published by DMQ.  “We reject and are rejected,” Ashton reminded us, “this is the life of the author.”

Following Ashton was Ken Weisner, who told us that; in addition to the catch-22 of being both a rejecting editor and a rejected wrier, editing also provides the rare chance to work collaboratively with other writers. “Poetry is a solo sport, but editing is a team sport,” Weisner stated, likening magazines to communities. In the community spirit, Weisner also read a crowd-pleasing ghazal, whose repeating end-words, “Dick Cheney” was meant to “test of our gag-reflex.” Needless to say, the poem was hilarious. Even the cardboard cutout of Obama, standing quietly among the audience, was caught smirking.

Diane Frank had the difficult task of reading after Weisner, and she delivered wonderfully. Described by her friends as “a harem of seven women in one body,” Frank displayed her ability to imbue the poetic with the spiritual, and reminded us that poetry is much more than writing on the page.

Poet, essayist, teacher, and translator Stephen Kessler closed the night out, beginning his reading with a couple of “classical knock-offs” written by a contributor to his literary newspaper, The Redwood Coast Review. He then went on to read a few poems “inspired by his work as an editor,” and ended with the beautiful and fitting piece, “View From the Editor’s Desk.” Despite the title of the poem, Kessler took us to a place beyond the editor-poet dyad, beyond the glory of seeing one’s own work on the page. “It’s an accomplishment to be alive,” Kessler read, and left us all with a sense of triumph, no matter how many rejection letters we had filed away.

IPLSF Shakes Up LitCrawl at Casa Bonampak

A Reflection on Amanda Nadelberg’s Bright Brave Phenomena

Bright Brave Phenomena

by Amanda Nadelberg (Coffee House Press, 2012)

A Reflection by Casey McAlduff

Image

Amanda Nadelberg’s second book, Bright Brave Phenomena, is the triple threat that its title posits—Nadelberg’s verse is an honest call—a kind of collaged feeling-object- pile that speaks for its insides and its outsides at once. Each poem surprises the reader with its popping (and “poppy”) thoughts, exposing the phenomena inherent in comprehension, and surprise. Though those that still use terms like ‘low-brow culture’ may refer to the poems’ materials as ‘regular’, Nadelberg’s crafting of ‘daily’ objects like AC/DC, wrapping paper, and cassette tapes is anything but usual. An easy way to discuss the work would be to call it idiomatic, but that term seems to make Nadelberg’s poetry less than what it is.

Chris Martin, who selected Nadelberg as one of the Poetry Society of America’s New American Poets in 2011, more precisely captures the author’s spirit when he describes her work as, “an aphoristic generosity that makes living more tolerable, or at least, more explainable.” Nadelberg’s verse in Bright Brave Phenomena is indeed generous, and moreover, its inclusive—it has no ulterior plan and does not exclude any kind of listener.  The world of this book is one that pays attention to randomness, and the way that cultures’ interests peak, decline, and trend.

In the interviews she’s published about the book, Nadelberg states that she was influenced by the work of French filmmaker Eric Rohmer, and more generally, by film’s unique ability to provide a viewer with a visual component to accompany their thoughts. Though text is rarely able to provide a comparative vision for a reader, Nadelberg’s work contains a depth of color and scene that serves to engage the reader in the same way that a movie engages its observer, while still remaining open to the imagination in the way only abstracted image can:

“…I could show you

something but I don’t want to, I have to

keep my coat on, I have to

take us home. The pin light at

the end of my mind flashes off

like it just had to. Color as your new

best friend, I asked you what you’re

still doing here, you said you wanted fire.”

(“I’ll Say It Again,” p. 96)

These poems don’t belong to any one person, but to a coat of words that evoke a culture of looking; of expression, of entertainment. Though I can imagine members of academia towing their noses up at Nadelberg saying, “There’s a whole word-universe that these poems belong to. Record players. Sneakers. Telephones,” Nadelberg’s work carries in its core the perplexed affect of current-day America, and moreover, displays an interest in it. The tone of Nadelberg’s poems is one that is not ironic, but that actually believes in popular culture and its effects; one that is both observer of human behavior and a human trying to behave.

Not to mention the way that the language of Bright Brave Phenomena eerily plays with lingo and advertisement, flirting with the delightful capacities of language as well its potential danger to stick and take over.  As a reader/consumer, I leave Nadelberg’s poems with echoes of jingle, not wanting it put another away. Take the entire poem “Summary,” (p. 84) for example, which includes such bright turns of speech as:

“Let me tell you, her skin is beautiful. There are other

kinds of money and we could be better for the masses.

Empty the house and keep going. If I hold the pillow and

you listen,  you are the ocean. Oh, Sweet Flag, lying

in the field like anything living lying down, come here!”

As you can tell from this sample, what’s also refreshing about Nadelberg is how funny she is, an element of her work that also contributes to its honesty and inclusion. Her wit is not used to degrade, but rather to recap for the reader the dual existence of comedy and tragedy (“You looking here/at you,”) and to remind us of the ways that chance can breed horrifying situations just as much as it can hilarious ones. Or, as she puts it in her Coffee House Press interview with Geoffrey Hilsabeck: “there are also terrible parties that people go to.” What impresses me about Bright Brave Phenomena is this combination of impersonality and personality; how Nadelberg is able to make honesty, which is so often thought of as ‘real’;

“How a certain

dress and a certain

shoe can make a girl.”

(“Another Interpretation,” p. 23)

Rather than sit in the realm of reality, or the presentation of matter as complete—Nadelberg instead explores that which has notbeen totally realized, and is “fascinated by what imaginary things we can make as honest as possible.”  Nadelberg’s reckoning with the ‘not’, or the power of absence, is talked about in all of the interviews and reviews I’ve read about her and her work. Absence, like chance, can reward us and punish us; it can make the heart grow fonder, or it can make it forget:

“Clouds fiery, like a

problematic bear, we

color these afterthoughts

random, like appetite. As

happens with any absence,

some things will no longer be

that monster, a person greets

nightmare when they become

nightmare. So…”

Aside from the brilliance of small phrases like “problematic bear”, and the image of coloring afterthoughts, here, Nadelberg also wittily compares appetite and absence, drawing the connection for the reader that absence, like appetite, subsides once its desire is filled. Absence, thus, must be preserved or else it will disappear. For me, this focus on the effect of absence is another aspect of the verse’s openness, where every line presents new possibility, and never allows ‘the real’, or unsurpring, prosey langauge to take over.  For example, rather than stick to realist detail, Nadelberg is more impressionistic, displaying men and women who are both ‘nobodys’ and ‘everybodys’—the “hideous people”, the “little friend”, the “pretty boy.” In other words, she captures the phenomenal way that one person’s tiny experiences can inhabit the realm of universality:

“angry. I named you Field,

you brought me flowers,

we broke our necks on

small time.”

(“How Did This Happen,” p. 30)

The detail of who is not there, but the entire feeling is, allowing the subject to remain open to anybody who wishes to fill the scene. Thus, the absence of distinct subject preserves imaginative capacity, and also creates a sense of empathy, of the text’s ability to be more than just one personality. That Nadelberg began writing poetry in elementary school after being identified as one of the ‘sensitive’ students comes as no surprise. This story, told by Amanda to Daniel Nester during an interview for the Best American Poetry series, seems especially relevant to the author’s work some 25 years down the line:

“I have always been sensitive. In 3rd grade I was pulled out of class for a special poetry workshop for a few kids. That’s when this all started. I wrote a poem about saying hello and goodbye in many languages.”

Whether this is true or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s a situation that resonates in a true way. Nadelberg’s poems speak many languages, from human to beast, and therefore allow us as readers to communicate with an array of vantage points through a single mind. In Bright Brave Phenomena, Nadelberg doesn’t give ‘voice to the voiceless’ in the standard way—rather, she inhabits the Spoken and reinvents it, or better yet, reinvests in it. By using a cast of everyday characters and symbolic tropes, Nadelberg allows language to reach its height of intention, and then abandons it wildly. In this way, she seems to me an author that is dedicated to language that avoids conclusion, and one that is committed to curbing the tragedy (i.e. the exclusion) of statement:

“Nature abhors a vacuum, and I say things

because I’m going to lead you to a place and

when we get there it will be so sad…”

(“Our Situation,” p. 8)