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.
These prose poems by Chris Kennedy come from a place of terror and beauty. Their speaker is both depraved and deprived; he indulges the companies of the flesh and makes due with little. In doing so, these prose poems reflect our contradictory natures, our failure to reason when instincts are clearly failing us. The title of this series alone elicits this; they are “Love poem[s] for people who hate themselves.” In an America that is internationally embroiled in wars against faceless enemies (be they against drugs or terror), Kennedy’s vignettes focus on the war within, where the stakes are much larger and the payoffs are far more beautiful and tragic.
In "Tulare," the third poem below, Julia Bloch writes: "Too much space between the objects." In "Fourth Walk," the second poem, Bloch writes: "Because she wrote it down and it was used as evidence." In "Right Ovary, Left Ovary," the first poem, Bloch writes: "Some of / the jars were labelled S / and some of the jars were labelled W." In "Strathmore," the final poem, Bloch writes: "it is a punctuation device." In all of these poems, the idea of the object comes to the fore. In the form of these poems, the statements, lines, and words are presented as objects for consideration. The poem is itself an object, and the pieces that make up the poem are also objects. In the content, the object-ness of things is considered—fertility and pregnancy, Dan Flavin's art, herbs in a glass jar, the thoughts and experiences generated on a walk, a small county in central California, ice, a small town of less than three thousand in Tulare County, lights, wives, seatbelts, and bodies. Bloch's poems remind us that words both are things and refer to things and, in that space between, the poem emerges, becomes evidence—is made to be seen.
These selections from Toby Altman come at a time when I am nose-deep in a book about ventriloquism. In the first chapter, the author explains that the world of sound is often much more disorienting than the world of sight. Sounds emerge and dissipate, reflect and echo. Sounds are notoriously more difficult to locate for the human ear than landscapes are for the human eye. It is this quality of disorientation, or perhaps, aporia, that Altman hopes to achieve in these poems. For Altman, the avant-garde at this moment in history threatens to become predictable, an academic exercise of formerly radical techniques. To break out of this predicament, Altman proposes a kind of "rescue," discovering in materials diverse as verse plays and Petrarchan sonnets a poetry that hopes to achieve a kind of "placeless" effect, an aporia that at once liberates and frustrates traditional and avant-garde aesthetics.
In the old song, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” could give you a tour of the world and a history lesson to boot with the pictures inked across her body. In Meryl DePasquale’s riff off the old Groucho Marx ditty, the tattooed lady gives us an historical tour through the world of tattooed ladies—their innerworkings and the ways in which they are perceived. There’s nothing surprising among the stories of women’s bodies as consumable or as for sale, but through the lens of the inherently sexual, penetrative and proprietary nature of tattoos, DePasquale’s tales disrupt our familiarity with these stories. As readers, we step up to the sideshow tent and look deep inside.
The delight of Matt McBride’s poems is in their invention. These pieces are compressed, tight, and terse, so they rely on careful turns and the element of surprise. Reading them, I feel as if his poetics as a kind of thievery—not in the content, heavens no—but in their engagement with the imagination. “Inside Every Bird” begins:
In these three poems, Molly Bendall takes us on a walk through a zoo. What becomes immediately apparent is that we don't know what we are looking at—the animals are not named. This seems counter to the zoo experience itself, where animals are grouped into animal families mapped out in vibrant colors on the fold-out map, where at each cage the common name and Latin name are displayed prominently, sometimes with a pronunciation guide. By not specifying what animals are being viewed, the observer, the animal, and the reader all come to exist in the shared space of the poem, the barriers of the cage crossed by the various lines of observation and consideration. The gaps between the poems' fragments become the intersection of these lines, and what one thinks entangles with the observer and the observed: ". . . by the minute . . . I shouldn’t . . . my eyelids heavy . . . I whisper close . . . / to yours . . . trophy to what is hidden . . . ." What is hidden, what is seen, what is revealed, and what is made (or becomes) invisible occurs and re-occurs through these poems. What remains visible are the lines of intersection, the bars of the cage, and ultimately the space of the zoo itself as a place of observation: ". . . knew what’s better for them . . . I was . . . they’re absent now . . . / I plumb the grottoes and heavy walls . . . the sorry show of moonlight . . ." Neither romanticizing the animals' experience of the zoo nor damning the existence of cages, Bendall's poems state: this is what it is. Now, look!
Molly Brodak's poetry offers us concepts more often found in science classes than in lyrics: membranes, amoebas, tachyons. Such is the stuff of microorganisms and quantum physics, phenomena at a scale so small that their activity begs us to ask the question (as Robert Frost once did): does design govern things so miniature? Brodak's answer would be a resolute "sort of": the movements operating in these miniature environments suggest Nature at play more than Nature designed. But Brodak's poems are not strictly about scientific or metaphysical questions. Readers will not find meditations upon the nature of microbes or upon the Planck length; instead, readers will find a personal poetry that dramatizes a speaker who, like the subject in "Pair," scrambles to "affirm" herself. This scrambling is both hopeful and impossible, as the juxtaposition of dry scientific registers and personal commentary suggest. One example, taken from "Membrane," associates the movement of benthic creatures and unconsciousness: "Thread tracks / on the seafloor show them rolling nowhere for thousands of years. In dreams." This strategy dramatizes the process of scrambling toward a definition of self and other: a self emerging, a self flickering into its multiple existences.
When we at TOA first discussed these poems by Daniel Borzutzky, one of our editors said, “These are [expletive deleted] horrifying. I love them.” Another said, “Horrifying and awesome. I didn’t expect to laugh so much.” Certainly these poems conjure imagery and ideas fit for the week of Halloween, but the horrors they convey aren’t so fantastic as ghouls, nor so poorly rationalized as evil killers on the loose. These are poems of excess—though neither neat nor tidy, their bulk is almost mathematically logical. The poems budget for excess, allow themselves the physical and mental space to go places that are gross and uncomfortable—horrifying, even.