The American grain was first addressed by great poets of our past: Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, Williams, Stevens, and Crane, among others. They sought a poetry that means something about this place we all inhabit in the States. Doug Anderson knows that grain. He recognizes this is a place of quick and perennial desire. A place where a woman can turn your day inside-out even on a simple matching of glances. Read these lines from “Dear Clever Poets:”
Let us consider these two concerns: What is the body and what is the self? In both philosophy and literature, these two concerns are intertwined. Where does the physical object become a conscious, cohesive human self? In her work Fleshgraphs, Brynne Rebele-Henry investigates the questions of her self and other selves in an unexpected way. Rather than the poem circumscribing an identifiable self, Rebele-Henry proposes the self as an amalgamation of things that have happened, a history of occurrences emanating from the body, directed toward the body, and passing by the body. The self arises from surviving these events, whether they are good or bad, interesting or boring, important or indifferent. We see how our own selves are imprinted on the selves around us, how as individualized as we feel, we are made of each other. As we read and witness Rebele-Henry’s self being continuously built, torn down, and reconstituted, we realize that the poem is doing the same to us. These words are now part of our selves as we read, as physically part of us as our hair, our teeth, our lungs.
Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt have an affair. He is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Marburg, she a talented graduate student. They break up. He goes on to become a rector at a University of Freiburg. There he writes about being and time and the great promise of the Nazi Party. She goes on to complete her dissertation on love but is unable to find work as an academic in Germany, being Jewish. Though neither could guess it at the time, they will become characters in Joshua Corey's Hannah and the Master, a remarkable work about philosophy (or is it political theory?), power, the moral obligations we have to each other. Hannah and the Master (and a supporting cast of writers and plagiarists) fall in and out of love as the world floods, becomes choked with carbon, burns here and there. In prose and lyrics, narratives and epistles, Corey manages to keep the best of the genres he adapts, a gifted storyteller doing poetry or a gifted poet doing the novel. And lurking beneath it all is a sense that there just might be a second chance for philosophy, or what Novalis had always looked for in philosophy: a home.
Outside, all the people are looking up. The blood-red super-moon eclipse has everyone transfixed. When I walk to the bodega for a fizzy water, the guy behind the counter asks if I saw it. Without caring about the answer, I text all my friends to ask if they saw it. I text a lover about it because it seems like the sort of thing moons are for. If I had Sara Vander Zwaag’s number, I’d text her, too. I’d apologize for being so wrapped up in the moon while I’m trying to put into words what I like so much about this set of poems. I would accuse her of asking me to look up at it, “the moon we have killed by loving it,” as she writes. I would text her because I feel invited to do so; these poems feel like a conversation with someone I love: “I’m bored. The moon is a crescent shape. This morning I had eggs.” My friend Colleen texts me back: “I think it looked spooky and neato.” I tell her about Sara’s poems. (Normally I’d use a last name to talk about an author, but I feel like Sara and I are old friends.) I tell Colleen I want to say something about the moon because I think Sara is into the moon. But really, I tell her, all I want to do is quote these lines over and over: “When did I decide / that I am the one who loves more always? / What a stupid way to remain empty.” The first time I read them I wanted to call Sara up on the phone and say something stupid like, “How true!” But really, how true! The voice Sara creates in these poems makes me feel okay writing that. Intimate, quirky, intelligent, silly and rough around the edges, these poems are like catching up with a friend over dinner. You can’t wait for the life updates and every now and then she drops a bomb of wisdom that, if you can nod your head and think How true!, makes you feel like part of a very special coven. Good catching up with you, Sara! Next time, the check’s on me.
Ivy Grimes is the great-great-great granddaughter of Rimbaud. Not literally, of course. But Grimes is the kind of poet who opens a cage of parrots after a line break or who frees an avalanche after tapping at our frozen minds with a series of sharp images. In her fearlessness and craft, in her equal fascination with teeth and with love, Grimes is provocateur and prophet. Take, for instance, her understanding of a frighteningly distant deity in "Songs to God," or the importance of withholding information from the dancing girls in "Prairie Dogs": time and time again, Grimes' poetry is the drunken boat that wanders through forests and oceans to remind each of us that we are the lucky possessors of rabid souls.
As I write this introduction, I am listening to the version of “Atlantic City” by The Band. Now, I don’t know if Joel Dias-Porter likes The Band, but one line that sticks out in this song that is applicable to the poems here is: “Well, I’m tired of g’tting caught out on the losin’ end / But I talked to a man last night, / Gonna do a little favor for him.” Dias-Porter always features a speaker in between places—lamenting the past and fearlessly ambling into the future. It is the ethos of Americana—always mobile and on the road, where:
I'm sorry, Peter, but I don't know how to write this introduction. I am reading and re-reading your poems attempting to discover a way, but I find myself only able to apologize, only able to seek a manual of instructions to guide me. As you (or is it Pig-Pen?) write here: "Every task I'd took was an embarrassment." As I read these poems, I keep seeing this thing that might be my self reflected in the language. As I read these poems, I keep convincing my self that they are my words. At least, I know I've used these words at some point in my life, though probably not in these orders, in these particular accumulations. Your poems make me unsure of my self, unsure of your self, unsure of the source of the self and the self's voice. Is it really me speaking when I'm speaking your words? "With the same phrases, I didn't know how to frame my unique equity." "Excuse my tongue its record straight." "[T]he final shadow with a torso of intoxicating separations." "No matter what I wanted to say."
As I write this introduction on yet another hot day in Southern California, the windows to my apartment are open. I hear the roaring of a neighbor's air-conditioning unit, the squeal of an accidentally-deployed car alarm, a distant voice on a loudspeaker talking about...what is that voice talking about, exactly? "Too much sense mars the writing," Chris Tysh reminds us in this selection, which takes as its source text Marguerite Duras' Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein. In a series of couplet stanzas, the poet cleaves to sense-impressions, at once holding onto a tennis court in August, for instance, and yet also pushing against tactility as a representation of anything but what has been or can be lost: "the heart / will come later surely". This deferment of ultimate sense, of anything quite like resolution, certainly infuses Tysh's selection with melancholy. But there is also humor here, and it poignantly situates the poet and her audience in reflection: "The way I tell Lola's story, unreliable narrator / that I am, though my name seems to hold // the old gate standing in for the facts / won't be once upon a time". Surrounded by sounds, my writing marred, I know that whatever words I divine from that loudspeaker will most assuredly come to be "like a sentence stenciled in the sky," no matter how trivial they might initially seem.
This is not a poem. Or so, Lou-Lou the Pomeranian and master René Magritte might posit. More than ekphrasis, this series of prose poems by Kathleen Rooney is a high-concept exercise in voice. If Magritte can put a giraffe in a cut-glass goblet, Rooney can put these surreal poems in the perspective of a precocious Pomeranian. Though these poems are drawn from the surrealist paintings with which they share titles, their content is more than observation or meditation. Rather, this vocal performance slips behind the paintings, looking at them not as beholder or artist, but as companion to the artist; it creates a tender portrait of the master, a real affection between the master and his dog. Moments of rhyme and word play beguile here, but not as reminders of the poet behind the pen; they are logical extensions of the wit and cheekiness with which Rooney imbues Lou-Lou. Rooney herself asks if the perspective of these poems is a little funny. And of course it is! But since when must poems be dead serious? These pieces are a little funny—and fun to read. Sure, the project risks frivolity or silliness, but its reward is a sheer childlike (or pup-like) delight.
I live on the LA river. It's where I walk the dog. You may know it from film—Gattaca, Chinatown, the chase scenes in Grease and Terminator 2. The list goes on. It's not really a river, not in the way we think of one, but for most of its twenty-seven miles, it's just a huge cement wash. The portion I live on is earthen however. Below the 5 freeway, mallard and heron preen themselves, catfish pop crayfish from under rock, and brown and black bullhead run. I mention it because it seems a fitting introduction to this week's selection from Dan Rosenberg. The work here is baroque, almost otherworldly, creating a place unto itself. Once we allow ourselves into the meditation Rosenberg's language creates—if we let his wild retake us—he brings us startlingly back to confront the present, the contemporary, the now. It is the river, it is the city.