In Marcel Proust's Swann's Way, the Narrator remembers preparing his aunt's tisane, or herbal tea, when she feels unwell. The tisane package comes from a local chemist and contains dried lime-blossoms. These blossoms must be infused with boiling water to flavor the tea. This week, Andy Nicholson returns to TOA with a selection of translations from Max Jacob's The Dice Cup written in styles not his own, including the style of Marcel Proust. Like the tisane episode, Jacob encounters a dessicated trellis of language—the dried pages of well-known Francophone authors—and infuses this trellis with his own language and humor. Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Marcel Proust—each of these authors inspire a particular poem in this selection and each could be said to traverse the rhetorical limits of poetry and prose: Rimbaud and Baudelaire are as famous for their prose poems as they are their lineated poems; Proust's unparalleled imagery is nothing short of poetry in prose. Readers will delight in the allusiveness of "For you, Rimbaud," the humorous and profound dialogue of "For you, Baudelaire," and the sudden imagistic effect of "Marcel Proust." Each of these entries writes to the past knowing what Proust knew: that with a little water, the dried lime-blossoms will flower again.
Sometimes walking alone at night, I get spooked. I hold my keys like jagged blades between my knuckles. In this way I change my shadow. I penetrate the night with a little threat to keep away and before I know it, I’m home safe. As I read Barbara Claire Freeman’s writing this week, I’m reminded of this feeling. I’m captivated not by the characters but by the shadows they cast on a starless black night. “She,” “he,” “someone,” “we” never completely manifest, though their intentions to impose on the night cause the landscape to shift. The row of pine trees must be kept on the right of an undefined “we,” reminding the reader how we orient ourselves in space by defining our surroundings with relation to our own body’s axis. The smoke hovering far away in this poem creates an image for “you alone,” but despite this, the hill that no one recalls persists. The danger extends itself into the distance in signs beyond the road. This poem neither crosses nor creates a distance—rather it seeks to describe what it’s like for a distance (and a length of time) to exist. And that simply can’t happen without the shadow of a character to move across a field, near a stream, through time. Could it be your shadow? At the end, do you feel closer or further from home?
I was grading papers this morning before I began writing this introduction, and as I moved through freshman comp narratives, I was struck by how violent the typo is and how sometimes the wrong word can create the most wonderful meanings—how the error is a break. In the long poem here we have something totally different, an immensely competent practitioner of craft, but because of the context of this morning I couldn’t help from drawing parallels. Errata: the errors and the list of corrections—corrections to be made and to be noted. From "to wander." I wonder this week how these poems of Francisco Guevara wander, their wonder, how they were meant to be attempts at correction; who Alice is/was, and if her globe can be mended. I am drawn to Guevera’s work because of his attention to sound, his phrasing. I enter the poems to be lost in that—“a river’s susurrus there in summers where…” and to come up some time later to ask what ground has been covered, what movements I the reader have made, and what has been lost. Here there is loss. A grieving. Remorse. All that, but no error.
While a quartet of sonnets in the dramatic monologues of various Shakespearean characters might seem like a very traditional feature to come across in contemporary poetry, Bill Rector’s poems this week are fragmentary, strange, and wildly inventive. “Lady Macbeth” comes to us in a short, piecemeal declaration that its speaker constructs to convince the weird ladies to give her an old, sad banana. We don’t see the grand enabler of Macbeth step into her sinister and memorable role of the play. Instead, Rector’s speaker shows us how her necessities of motherhood depend upon the ability to bargain for and ingest rot. Similarly, the beautiful Desdemona from Othello is not the blameless victim (you’ll notice I depart here from Auden’s interpretation of her) of the Venetian tragedy; rather, here she becomes a co-conspirator and gives her husband instruction of his own undoing:
"Rage is always past tense" begins Elizabeth Robinson's first of three odes below. The ode itself is rooted in the past tense (like all poems are). The subject is considered at a time in the past and the writing occurs at another time in the past. The magic of the ode, like when we talk about someone's rage, is to at least momentarily create a new present-ness for the subject: "Cheerful music plays in the background. / As though it were playing right now." Think of the power of the philosophical questions raised in Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Robinson's odes are aware of and play with this parallel timeline. She confronts the poet's position and knowledge of that position in writing the ode: "They understood that the very act of bathing was a distance / and the body / moved to it, / was doubled." What comes out of these meta-odes is an exploration of the subject, asking us to examine what it means to consider a subject and how the act of choosing to consider it affects it, changes it, overdetermines our thoughts of it. The ode as an act of looking at an electron, causing it to change from wave to particle. As we read Robinson's odes to rage, animality, and bathing, we realize along with her that the more we look at a subject, the less certain we can be of what it really is: "Familiar, recall the odor of the other."
If I had to choose a poet to watch bad reality television with, it would be Sarah Suzor. It’s not because her new book-length work “The Prettiest Girl in the World” is shallow—though it considers superficiality as a theme—or pop-culturally obsessed—though song lyrics and fashion play their parts therein. It’s that Suzor can take the most trivial, minute concerns of the everyday and spin them into wildly philosophical musings. Bad lines from a bad love song morph into reflections on authenticity in relationships. An astonishingly pretty girl becomes a funhouse mirror, reflecting and distorting all of us: our flaws, desperation, gratitude and desires.
In my friend Andy’s apartment, I read a poem. In Chicago, I drink a Singapore Sling. This has little to do with Chicago or with Singapore, except that Andy is in Chicago, I’m in Chicago, and Andy is a tiki drink aficionado. Such is the way in which place is revealed and considered in Conchitina Cruz’s “Here.” Indeed, for a poem in which travel is a given, the poet gives priority to the self and its actions rather than the exotic destinations (which, to be fair, are mingled with pedestrian locales like the coffee shop and the elevator). The self is the subject of each sentence; the location is mere object and occasional stage direction. In this way, Cruz eschews the rote travel narrative that rises out of privilege—the Eat-Pray-Love-and-You-Can-Too narrative.
To call this week's selection by John Fry a selection of prayers wouldn't be quite right. Certainly, the speaker in these lyrics longs for something, just as the waterwheel longs for the river's song in "soul, paraphrased." But these lyrics are insistent, even assertive. They have discovered an absence (in the speaker, in the world) and will not let go of that discovery. Like Jacob wrestling the angel, Fry's speaker will not leave until he has received a blessing.
I've become the de facto pop culture editor here on the team. If a celebrity makes an appearance in a poem, that poem falls squarely into my box—give it to Nik-ey, he’ll like it. And I do. It allows me to contemplate why these figures, here in Jeff Tigchelaar’s selection this week, play such a powerful role in our consciousnesses. These are poems that are easily dismissed as punch lines, light and airy—think of it, our funny friends are usually the first to be sold short—but those of us who have attempted to write humor know how hard it is, how it takes a deft and sharp mind, how the concept of ‘timing’ in a poem is both an innate skill of the poet and something that takes immense practice and craft.
The first three words of Virginia Konchan's poems today address the basic situation of each of us as individuals: "All alone now." But as an alone individual, Konchan finds herself surrounded by voices, either the Napoleon of the first poem or the the Dolores of the second and third poems. The emanation of these voices Konchan has described as pre-ekphrasitic, questioning both the formation of the visual as well as the envisioning of the "I" itself. Thus, "[t]o the other I am human" but to this, "I" am poem. The "I" becomes something that is not I and is not you, something that is entirely a creation within the poem. These persona poems give us not a door into another's consciousness but rather a disruption of our very notion of self-consciousness in the first place. The great philosopher of the mind Daniel Dennett has stated that "the residual individuality of subjects is treated as a problem, not an opportunity in most experimental subjects." In Konchan's hands, these individualities become opportunities, and the expected rhetorical problems of typical personae poems fall by the wayside. Rather than finding herself caught up in some fictional process causing us readers to suspend our belief, Konchan pushes us to question our own notions of selfhood and relationship to our perceived consciousness: "I will...endeavor / to understand, master, or believe."