“Don’t you love dancing with other people’s / shimmering / bits of thought—” Gail Wronsky’s speaker laments and possibly asks at the same time. Surely, this stands as the ethos of these poems; they drift and sway through the morass of content and form and hook particulars of brilliance along the way. The American Dream will always require movement; any piece of literature in the conversation of “GREAT AMERICAN” will always require mobility. Wronsky’s poems move like a contemplative on a walk, like the act of making love, and like a dance. Her speaker is fearless of death: “letting them go to seed, to pot, to hell, to waste, a fate which is / in some ways worse. And they respond to our neglect”.
I am in the process of a cross country move. For the last several weeks, off for summer, generally unemployed, I make to-do lists for small errands. Tomorrow I will go to the tailor’s, the next, Walmart to buy underwear. I will call Michael about his show and try to make it this time, talk to UPS about shipping an awkwardly shaped box, see Alexios one more time. A letter came—USPS lost my media mail and I have to remember which books were in that box to file claim. I have to reset my iPhone because it has stopped receiving group texts (both blessing and curse). It’s the small things I find most exhausting and I wonder how people who perform this type of daily maintenance regularly live their lives and do so without keeling over. The thing is they do. A teacher in college used to talk about a writer who could only write while driving an old pickup, grinding the three on the tree, around his property. The process and monotony of driving allowed him to think. I wondered about the logistics—if he kept a pad at the dash or at his side, if he worried about maiming jack rabbits as he took his eyes off the road to scrawl down lines of dialogue. If it’s possible to both think and actually do. I think about my own writing, how it has to exist in a sacred space, how I have to be free and clear of all thought to perform it, and how since that’s never achievable, I just don’t do it. In this week’s selection, John Estes shows us there is poetry in these patterns of the everyday. In the routine of lawn mowing, Estes considers happiness, whether its achievable or if it matters at all. Is it the same to watch an eclipse online as it is in person? Both, as Estes offers, are terror inducing but I wonder for the same reasons. He echoes Eliot and Pound, and after I wonder if I dare eat the peach, I think, why the heck not.
I used to pore over anatomy books, memorizing the names of muscles and tendons. From the anatomist's perspective, the human body resembles a complex machine: hinges, extensors, flexors. I think of this selection from Matthew Hittinger as a series of anatomies, lexical cross-sections that reveal surprising and profound relationships between body parts, objects, and words. Consider the first lines of "Cross Bucket Handle Knife" (I.i.): "out of the flower grow / shoulders ulna carpal." An apparent confusion of physiology prompts a rethinking of ourselves—the stem with shoulder, metacarpal with twig. Or take a later manifestation of this rethinking, when in II.ii the cladistic association of "condor dinosaur" leads us, eventually, to "piece curio old / desk drawers rail / ties ladder rung." The final line suggests the popular (and inaccurate) image of evolution as a ladder that moves upward until you reach, at the very top, homo sapiens sapiens. But the presence of pieces, curios, and old desk drawers complicates this image, suggesting that we don't simply move upward and onward as a specie. Instead, we inherited these organs and bones like a senior inherits junk during a college career: piecemeal, over time, often without the slightest idea where the curios have come from. Ultimately, Hittinger's poems don't just remind me of poring over anatomy books; they remind me of the strange effects that attend long periods of focus. Look long enough and the object slips, becomes something else. The closed hand might be an armadillo, the arm a walking stick. These anatomies are archeological in Olson's sense of the word, poems to read when deciding how to direct this fabulous machine of ours.
Morgan Parker’s poems are a glass not half full, but overfull, and we are invited to revel in the mess with her. “How to Piss in Public and Maintain Femininity” pours (if you’ll pardon the imagery) over its edges. The title spills into the first line, and the spill continues from there, a stream of unpunctuated, unfiltered thought. What speaks most to this reader is the blunt utterance spat out in the middle of a stream of observations and statements: “I am ashamed of my unconscious”; “I pretend things are simple but I do this / for your benefit.” This hit comes just as a reader may realize she’s talked to herself this way, each night in bed, waiting for the dream to come.
The eclectic selection this week from Steven Alvarez reminds me of William Carlos Williams' Spring and All. Not the famous parts from that book. Not the contagious hospital, not the antagonistic farmer, not even the white chickens (which, ironically, DO get a reference in Alvarez's "Bat"). No, this selection from Alvarez reminds me of the prose sections in that book. These are moments when Williams is irreverent and brilliant at the same time, the voice of a poetic revolution. The two pieces in this issue, "1992 / 5th Sun / Our Present" and "Bat," combine untranslated Spanish, regional geography (I've had to make the drive through Gila Bend many times), and futurist techniques to evoke a mosaic of sounds, textures, conflicts, and desires. "1992 / 5th Sun / Our Present" reads like a wonderful combination of The Cantos, concrete poetry, found writing, and kitsch. "The Bat" is Alvarez's wonderful response to mythic method, a story involving gods, incest, cannibalism, colonialism, humor, and loss. These two pieces honor the dust and beauty to be found throughout the Southwest. La Frontera and All.
Elizabeth Cantwell’s poems defy the poet’s task of producing art. That is not to say the poems do not qualify as art; quite to the contrary. They are filled with subversion and dangerously figurative language. They approach beauty not through its representation but against its representation. “And I Picked It Up and Held It” varies on this theme: the speaker undoes everything introduced. Watching Hoarders becomes not the typical spectacle reality television offers: scores of voyeurs/viewers watching how consumerism and what Marx called “the fetish of the commodity” put people into a symbiotic relationship with needless possessions, disallowing them the impulse to just get rid of junk. Cantwell’s speaker not only understands this fetish, but seeks to bed with it by declaring: “I think there is a betrayal / in abandoning a thing.” Betrayal, of course, is the deepest circle in Hell, but what do we ever make of our own moral barometers when our lives are polluted with the need to consume, to possess, and own useless things that we inevitably “betray” by ridding ourselves of them because of their obsolescence?
In this series of letters and poems by Garth Graeper, one could return to the discussion of the relationship of William and Dorothy Wordsworth and specifically of William's poems circumscribing Dorothy out of his lyric, Romantic visions. One could discuss Graeper's own circumscription, calling for Dorothy to enter his lyric circle and ostensibly leaving William out in the cold. But as we read these letters and lyric poems, what we realize is that Graeper himself is not the one setting the boundaries of circumscription. Rather, it is Dorothy who has drawn the circle and Graeper who is wandering (writing) within that line: "Dorothy, I hope you will see these poems as a longing and as a record of kinship. I have always had trouble keeping myself in my writing, but your journals changed something. After walking away again and again from dismembered texts, I find myself still carrying your words with me, below the surface, like flashes of memory." We could look at this acknowledgment and say Hey, let's return to William, let's look and see how he writes within the world Dorothy delimits! But why return agency in this process to William? Haven't, for the moment at least, we said enough about him and his poems? Instead, Graeper asks us to consider Dorothy as the high point of inspiration, as the end point of the English Romantic creation: "Isn’t that what we want? A stranger, more splendid world."
To call something—anything—an explanation is to explain. Let me explain: I’m sitting on the roof of a new city tonight, looking over the water at this glittering and impressive skyline. I make out the different shapes, but I’m not familiar enough with the city to know what any one of them contains. I cannot explain them, but I could sketch a drawing if you asked. This week’s poems by Jackson Wills are architectural. Their math is visible, their forms accumulated and layered upon each other like some great cityscape. The words which take the shape of their containers remain, nonetheless, uncontained; “the field of apples / is filled with things not exactly apples.” A word may never mean the same thing twice, its sound (reading aloud is a must) endlessly reinvented with practice, wear, repetition. If I call this explanation, let it be explanation. Thus is the logic of Wills’ poems this week. Form—the sonnet, the tortuous patterning, rhyme, and repetition—imposes itself as an explanation for chaos inside. This poet has built structures upon which we may gaze and be moved. But where to, and for what, the poet leaves to us.
Dina Hardy's "Folklore" explores the geology of our collective consciousness. God and Satan, Adam and Eve, Cain and the moon: these subjects are both ancient and immediate, typical and individual. I imagine Eve in the first poem of this selection (already we're at page 2,651). She has partaken of one fruit but not the other, the knowledge of good and evil and also of her mortality awakening desire. In this folklore, Eve is only innocent insofar as she still seeks a period before the "wreck," before compromise and frustration and, of course, the transgressions that desire brings. As Hardy's pagination suggests, such searches are ultimately futile: to desire is to already invite calamity.
I think of end times often. It’s difficult to live in New Orleans and not: the roads have man-sized potholes that puppies and toddlers disappear into with startlingly regularity, teenagers with baseball bats randomly attack bicyclists on the main drag, and every three to six months, there’s no potable water—someone fell asleep at the pump. It’s usually after my third glass of water and second shower that I hear the alert on the radio. A little too late but I always end up fine. When discussing the bicycle attacks, a friend says that’s why he rides faster and doesn’t stop at lights. The children and puppies, well, leashes. The answers to our apocalypse are simple ones. Although said tongue to cheek, there’s truth in sarcasm. This week’s selection from Darren Jackson would find itself well at home here. Jackson knows that darkness does come, but that’s ok. Our ferryman through the swamp, Jackson balances his gallows-humor with sincerity, and he’s going to guide you through the end just fine. We may not all make it out alive but at least we’ll have a good laugh.