PROMISES, PROMISES...

On the Side of the Crow by Christien Gholson
[69pp, $15, Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, NY]
The Welcome by David Joel Friedman
63pp, $14.95, The National Poetry Series, University of Illinois Press]
Landscapes I & II by Leslie Lewis
[68pp, $14.95, Alice James Books]
The Area of Sound Called the Subtone by Noah Eli Gordon
[110pp, $16.95, Ahsahta Press, Boise State University]



INTRODUCTION

All of these books are delightful and if you have a passing interest in prose poetry and where it's heading and a spare $100, you should order them all right now. Certainly, if you bought every poetry book some reviewer told you was delightful, you wouldn't be able to afford to eat, much less keep up repayments on your mortgage, but I like to think we've built up a little trust over the years. Okay, you may not always agree with me or think I'm particularly nice, and there've been times when my endless self-reference has made you want to punch me right in the eye, but come on! This is the internet! If you want 'concise' and 'on-message' you'll buy a magazine. Until the whole world-wide-web gets sold to Rupert Murdoch and he starts charging line-by-line, I'm going talk as much as I like - because that's what I see this as: A chance for me (and you, vicariously) to talk through what I think about stuff. And that may take 500 words and the thing we talk about is the book I'm supposed to be reviewing; or it may take 10,000 words and the thing we talk about is something more general that's been bothering us (me) recently.

Here's this week's ennui: you and I are engaged in the poetry scene to the point where we actually read &/or write reviews of poetry on a poetry website, but none of us really likes poetry that much except for when it's been written by us. And Frank O'Hara. We quite like him, too. We go to poetry readings when we're reading and buy magazines when we're in them or our friends edited them. Otherwise we go to the pub.

So I want you to promise me something: I want you to prove, to yourself as much as anyone else, that you actually like poetry by purchasing one of these books. I'm going to review each of them in turn and clearly label which one of them I'm reviewing so there'll be no confusion. And they're really very different books by very different poets, so there's totally something here for everyone. Will you promise me that? You promise to buy a book? Because that's what's killing poetry: You. Every time you don't buy a poetry book. When you're walking a dog, eating lunch, shopping for things other than poetry books; you're killing poetry. Fifteen dollars is about eight pounds - and that's less than a cinema ticket and popcorn. And I don't know about you, but I thought Pirates of the Caribbean 2 was insultingly bad. It's also the same price as a bottle of wine you buy because you think it's going to be so much nicer than a £5 bottle of wine, but it just tastes like pencil shavings soaked in balsamic vinegar.

So if you like the sound of one of these books, I think you should buy it. And maybe eat popcorn while you read it - or whatever the equivalent poetry snack would be. Those little sesame sticks you get in health-food shops, perhaps. Otherwise, let's be honest, this whole thing (reviewing, reading reviews, writing poetry books) is a total sham and I'm just talking to myself because I like the sound of my own voice - and while that is an indisputable truth, it's also really, really depressing.


On the Side of the Crow by Christien Gholson

Lorna Dee Cervantes says 'Christien Gholson writes like no one else - no one living, that is, as the writer he most resembles is Borges.' That's an absolute tactical misfire when your potential readership is (let's drop the act) mostly other poets - people hyper-sensitive to their place in the writing world and instantly turned-off by comparing a writer they might be about to purchase with a timeless, legendary genius like Borges. Might as well put: 'The poets X is much better than are all of you schmucks. Suck it up.'

So, before you run screaming for the fiction section, let me counteract it by saying that Gholson reminds me, among the living, of Campbell McGrath. His work is full of well-observed narrative details:

Since his forced retirement from the Los Alamos National
Laboratory he's noticed - with increasing fear - that no
one smiles except when they're watching TV.

There are several of these on every page. And yeah, okay, he does have a sort of magic-realist kinship with Borges, but that's not what makes his work so remarkable - Gholson's own parables and puzzles are good enough not to need such a point of reference, and it's in the combination of this sensibility with a very American, humanist and democratic intelligence that the work really starts to swing.

Each poem in
On the Side of the Crow is written after a painting - at which my heart immediately sank, but then I realised that the majority, if not all, of the paintings here referenced, are made-up or subverted in some way. So as well as titles like 'The Beginning of Religion: Oil on Canvas, after Caravaggio', we get 'Paradise Motel: Cheap Dimestore Reproduction Hung Above a Motel Bed' and 'Watercolour on a Sixth Grade Classroom Wall' and 'Sketches for an Unrealized City Park Mural'. Which is such a beautiful, simple, well orchestrated idea - and a genuinely new direction to take poetry-as-reaction-to-visual-art. Hurrah!

Writing with wisdom and compassion, Gholson never loses his sense of the absurd; writing with surreal flashes of chaos, Gholson never loses his wisdom and compassion. One of my favourite poems in the collection is '
Violet Skies the Night before Fall's Victory: Junk Sculpture':

Then he turns to Eddie and says, 'It's true. You'll see it soon
enough. All the failed, fucked-up things we've done with our
lives become magnificent when taken whole.'

Eddie hates tears. Doesn't know what to do around them. No
one's ever told him he doesn't have to do anything. 'It's an
epic created by this flesh!' Dick sometimes shouts. 'Magnificent
love lost! Magnificent impatience! Magnificent wrecked marriages!
Magnificent scattered, angry children!'

Pause a moment to reflect on how great 'Magnificent Impatience!' is - and how much you wish you'd thought of that as a title for something and then reflect that Gholson doesn't even draw much attention to it. And then reflect on how rarely you read a poem that you actually want to share with a loved one or a friend or an acquaintance and that this is one of those rare times. I'm already imagining future situations in which I can give this book to somebody I know who's feeling sad. Maybe that's kind of a corny thing to do - but I have some very particular friends who are absolute cultural snobs and they're not going to be satisfied with
The Road Less Travelled.

Gholson also has a great way with absurdity, never explaining too much, never over-balancing into the twee; just letting the poem run with its own logic.

Dr. Beals asks for one last question. He points to a young
reporter from the mythology magazine,
The Grimm Brothers
Express
. 'Where did you get such an idea?' the young
reporter asks, blushing from contact with greatness. Dr.
Beals pulls down his pants and shows her the gold-plated
faucet he stole from the Casbah Illuminato Motel in
Vegas (or was it Reno?).

Someone in the crowd asks for a drink. Everyone laughs
HA HA HA. Good one.

Gholson is the kind of writer who stands out a mile from the average anthology or periodical. It's utterly refreshing and energising to see the prose poem used as the expansive, exultant form it is (and
was in early 20th century Europe) - with the requisite levity and depth. This is Gholson's first collection - and the world of prose poetry is much better for his presence.



The Welcome by David Joel Friedman

Friedman was selected for publication by the National Poetry Series in 2004. His book, The Welcome, has just appeared. I don't follow the National Poetry Series with the tenacity I might, but (just in case you follow it with even less), here's a basic summary: The NPS is competition-publishing, employing judges from a series of high-quality, influential American poetry presses who select, from thousands of entries, a collection that they will subsequently publish and represent. Simple as that, usually.

In this case the judge was Stephen Dunn of University of Illinois Press and the book he selected is unusual and beautiful - which is what poetry ought to be. In a witty, honest introduction, Dunn says,

The Welcome persisted in overcoming my resistances to it.
First there was the issue of the prose poem. Though it's a
form that in many ways appeals to me, I'm wary that in
the wrong hands it can be a vehicle for various indulgences,
and/or an excuse for the absence of sentence-by-sentence
rigour. And here was an entire book of prose poems!

I'm assuming that Dunn's point here is that a whole book of prose poems means that the editor must be
especially vigilant for the aforementioned indulgences as opposed to Dunn's never having come across an entire book of prose poems before - which he surely must have.

However, there's something rather odd about prose poetry - Charles Simic won the Pulitzer for his collection
The World Doesn't End, in 1990. Apparently this was 'shocking' for the literary establishment. Heaven knows how they'll react when they see a film or hear recorded music for the first time - their heads will explode, presumably. Anyway, prose poetry is still seen as risky and problematic in some quarters - and that works to its advantage as a kind of unique selling point. Sometimes this is tiresome - everyone acting surprised when the same ground is broken again - in the same way that avant-garde poetry is often strongly reminiscent of poetry circa 1950. Is bakelite avant-garde? How about rations? A whole book of prose poems - you mean like the other three I'm reviewing this evening? You mean like William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell?

Fact is, though, writers like Friedman show that some people are actually willing to plant something in the ground that has been broken by prose poets like Maxine Chernoff, Charles Simic and James Tate. Not to say that
The Welcome is derivative - rather that it is aware of what has gone before it, that it is the continuation of a noble tradition of smart, witty, accessible yet intelligent prose poetry. In a literary climate where most poets just want credit for breaking new ground, no matter how many times it's been broken already, this would be enough in itself.

The Welcome's main character is called the green bear - and most of the poems document his travails. This central-character-in-phantasmagorical-fluxus is not unlike John Hartley Williams's celebrated (by me, anyway) prose poetry collection Mystery in Spiderville (which is now available from the lovely Vintage books as a novel, of all things) - which is at times screamingly funny, at others rather excessive. Friedman, on the other hand, tackles his material with the kind of understated panache that makes contemporary surrealism worth reading:

The green bear was going to antelope school. The first
thing he learned was, never shout at an antelope.

Lines like this work because they set up a clear image and follow it with the obvious pay-off. I think self-consciously obvious jokes are funny in themselves - certainly more funny than self-consciously subtle jokes, but I feel the need to elaborate. It may be that the incongruity arises in the combination of a ridiculous statement with entirely tangible reasoning. That the logic seems obvious tricks us into following the idiosyncratic image. The brain says, well, I guess that
is the first thing you'd learn at antelope school before you have time to reflect on how alien a concept antelope school is. I suppose the quality I'm trying to describe is charm. If you push it too far it sounds all faux-naif and trite, but deploy it carefully and it's gold. Absurdists from Max Jacob to Richard Brautigan have known this - and it's always great to see it done well. Friedman does it with exceptional restraint - never overdoing the zaniness and never letting his absurdity come off as self-satisfied. (The way Russell Edson does sometimes).

However, Friedman actually has a broader palate than this, combining flashes of Magritte:

An apple if you will sir, said the halibut.

mock patriotism:

This adventure proves that the green bear is essential to our
economy and our way of life.

and a brilliant episode in which the green bear is shanghaied by a pair of film noir goons:

And for a third torture they offered him fresh strawberry
pancakes, with butter and syrup, then withdrew the
offer at the last minute.

'Born in England' seems to check Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill's autobiographical historicism.

I know him! I know that boy! He was born in England, in
England raised up. And now he is here - with a kind of
trial on his lips, a truth; but what to say and whom to say
it to?

It may just be that I've been reading a lot of Hill and Heaney recently, but that chimed with the deliberate pomposity of their register.

But all this doesn't quite do Friedman justice, either - he's also a wordsmith of the highest order - and some of the sweetest moments in
The Welcome are the least narrative, when Friedman just riffs on a phrase - the consequence is a jubilant celebration of language and sound (as opposed to the language school's equally affecting lamentation; but it's nice to get the other side for a change).

The green bear was slovenly this day. His vest was in
tatters, his stevedore's cap ruined, and his do-re-mi in
disrepair. His tie was jaundiced, and his keepsake, a
watchfob, obscene.

And the last lines are frequently resonant and gorgeous:

The underpinnings were narrow, but he stood dusty and
stodgy in his new life, almost an advertisement for a cigar.

According the ATA on the back of the book, Friedman's lifelong dream was 'to become a writer and contribute to literature'. There's something so lovely about that straightforward, uncynical ambition I'm actually starting to feel rather tearful.



Landscapes I & II by Leslie Lewis

Irony doesn't have to be hopeless or withering - it's a register, not a mood. Neither does it have to be supercilious or nihilistic - rather it is a means of navigating towards seriousness and meaning, perhaps the only one we have left. There is an element of the aphorism to some of Leslie Lewis's lines - but instead of the usual pastiche-of-having-an-opinion contemporary aphorisms tend to resemble, there is a sincerity and a genuine, bona-fide wisdom to them.

You have to invent some pretty big rules not to break them.
(from 'The Moth and the Time')

How quickly new views become us!
(from 'New Views')

Non-sentences are how we feel.
(from 'Flying')

If I'm going to spend money and time on a book, that's what I want: someone more intelligent than I am to tell me interesting things. This is a bar-raising kind of collection. In future reviews and poetry readings I may sign-off or leave the room immediately with a 'Feh! Not as good as Lewis.' It's hard to write a positive review - mostly you just want to quote from the text and say 'Yay!' afterwards. Landscapes I & II
is full of beautiful, interesting lines that pretty much speak for themselves.

We give this difficult time of year for its youth and stupidity
the keys to the car.
(from 'Lover with Flowers')

If you loved some non-person, if it were simple, you'd know
it. You'd stand corrected and sober. If you wore black and
white and thought your experience worth reading about, you'd
be wrong on both counts.
(from 'A Theory of Sustenance')

See, Lewis can even write about poetry without being boring - a sly, self-deprecating sense of our arrogance and limitations which is nonetheless light and somehow encouraging:

I mean you're not a state-of-the-world barometer.
(from 'Change of Plans')

The poetry is fragmentary and complex without ever being wilfully obscure - there is always something to grasp on first read-through, something which keeps you coming back for more - in the same way Fanny Howe's work keeps you engaged and intrigued although, I think, with more chocolate chips. (Which is not to say less substantial; rather that it is more fun. Howe's work is something dark and unknowable like an oatcake; Lewis shows you a better time). Whether this is through underplayed surrealist dialogue:

I drank hemlock and the taste was not bad. I am not yet
feeling effects so I will run around doing a few more things.
(from 'Squeaky')

Or the frequent wonderfully eccentric lists and juxtapositions, as in the following passage from 'Bumblebee Love':

You meet yourself in passing, you fallen journalist, you
duckling, you tower of power over me. I've bought you
lots of man things.

Or the razor-sharp satire from the same poem:

You say that many people in your village have been killed.
Is your pain constant or throbbing? I will make myself your
friend over a long time.

Lewis's poetry is inviting and clever. It leaves the reader with a sort of enraged happiness not unlike relief.

We have coffee thank god and coffee and siblings.
(from 'Rabbit Moon')



The Area of Sound Called the Subtone by Noah Eli Gordon

This is by far the most challenging, outwardly experimental of the four collections I'm looking at here. If you're not cowed by Sheila E. Murphy and John Kinsella and Luis Zukofsky - in fact, if you sometimes find yourself wishing they were a bit more difficult, you'll want to go for this one.

However, it is no less open and engaging. For a start, Ahsahta Press produce totally beautiful books - and this is the only example of multiple fonts I've ever
seen that actually works on the page and feels justified by the range of the poetry. More importantly, Gordon can write - so he has nothing to overcompensate for with cumbersome critical jargon. And, for all its difficulty, his prose poetry is as generous and playful as all the above guys. Example one:

Suddenly could be the sorriest adverb to wrench the
assembly line to a halt. [...] Bees encoded in bushes
encoded in bronze work ending in the probability that
an event will occur, given that another has or will do so.

We read 'Suddenly' and expect the following sentence to tell us what suddenly happened. Instead the sentence is
about the word 'suddenly' - and the assembly line (which, in this reading, is the sentence itself) grinds to a halt. Suddenly I can see the point in disrupting the relationship between reader and writer - which is something five years of Ron Silliman's blog couldn't quite get me to do. Oh, and I find 'Bees encoded in bushes' thoroughly satisfying because it functions not only as a metaphor for bees in a bush, but simultaneously as a metaphor for the state of something encoded - a seemingly harmless faćade, buzzing suspiciously; the underlying reason for a supposedly innocuous custom and so on. I'm actually having fun here! Gordon's work just has a better 'brain-feel' than the more self-satisfied kinds of experimental poetry - like he actually wants you to chew it over, enjoy it, think about it, instead of just frighten you into submission with abstract nouns.

The collection starts with a breathless fifteen page free-verse (almost blank verse at times) epic called 'What Ever Belongs in the Circle':

for the perfect human being wastes the most money

I make pretty mime sound O free ticket

to a tour of this town's best alleyways

The best bits of this poem are like an extra-cranky Ginsberg coming back from the dead to find everything even worse than before. '...I'll build her a new head / to hang all the extra necklaces on.' For the most part it's deliberately inchoate and disorientating: 'O harpsichord upon the playground / things fit in my mouth pretty-like / kerosene musician infinitely doubled.' - which sometimes leaves me a little cold and disinclined to unpack. But that's probably just reactionary old me.

The final, titular section is a sequence of fourteen sonnets. The last line of each sonnet reappears as the first line of the subsequent - backwards and distorted. This is ace. Sonnet iv. ends:

the emperor steps on a crack in the ice's seam

Sonnet v. begins:

Seems nice there in back. The dropped temper of a
transistor radio...

I'm not going to list all of them - suffice it to say there is much reward in the virtuoso display of sound and meaning. Sonnet ii. concludes 'so put up the scythe: they're splitting the atom.' Sonnet 'iii. reared in a great city' begins:

Adam's split. Psych! the input they've
put in was all wrong. Past the garden, a train passing
a silo of rotting grain. & the tea - waterlogged
& tossed over the side. Curving around
the milk-white corpse of each dawn, daybreak
& evening, the lines looped back to the bunker like
moonlight or a light cover of ash...

I love the corny demotic 'Psych!' - which I haven't heard since an early PJ&Duncan single. And reference to the 'garden' makes it pretty clear it's the original Adam we're talking about here. Although it troubles me that Eliot's patient etherised upon a table appears to have croaked.

The largest section is 'Jaywalking The Is' - 82 pages of prose poems, from which example 1 was taken. Here's another:

So we poison one another & call the flag the feel of daily
tasks in diluted certainty - the morning so muscular it
skips past itself, never quite as adjustable as it seems.
West of here, nothing happens & we love each other for
it, for our forest sentimentality & enough freshwater
fish to stock an infinite number of painted lakes. My
house holds hundreds of me.

Maybe 'diluted certainty' is too abstract and ponderous for you, but can you
really not love 'the morning so muscular it skips past itself' and 'My house holds hundreds of me.'? C'mon! Those are both great lines, any way you look at it. Some readers might dismiss this book after flicking through it as just another volume of aggressively unengaging experimental poetry - and that's fine, that's a matter of taste. But I think if they were actually to sit down and read it, they'd enjoy it in spite of themselves.


America publishes a lot of poetry books - around five thousand a year - seriously. I can't say for sure as I don't plan to read them all, but these are probably in the top ten. So be the smartest kid on your block today - amaze your family and friends. To make it extra-specially easy, here's a link to Amazon. www.amazon.co.uk

© Luke Kennard, 2006