Monday, December 12, 2005

This Bramble Will Not Break: “before we feel the breeze”:
Joe Massey. Bramble. Hot Whiskey Press: 2005. $5.

Joe Massey is one of the poets I keep up with, not just one of the many who catch my attention when their names appear in magazines and readings I frequent. He’s got a brain and a heart and best of all an ear. I can imagine sitting down and drinking enough cheap whiskey that he and I could have it out over the poets we like and then over his work, why it works for me and why it doesn’t and why neither of us in the end know anything but that we love poetry down to the core of it where all that’s left is a bit of pulverized char that we’ll both take as evidence that beauty is inevitable despite our worthlessness. I can much more easily imagine that than explaining why I chose to review a book I love though I do not find perfection in some of its fine points. PhillySound and Silliman reviewed Joe’s book, and since Bramble promises to go down as a great early work for Joe and as a beacon of amazing productions to come from Hot Whiskey Press, I might as well, like critiquing my brother’s swing, make my thoughts public.

Although his formal constraint is syllabic (5-3-5), Massey’s ear drives each line through its poem, often culminating into single lines of nearly flawless iambic pentameter. In the first lune, “on the page, a stain/or an ant/crushed in the margin,” “a stain,” the one pure iamb in the poem, takes a solid form amid all the weeping anapests and the forceful spondaic “crushed.” We see a few examples of labored prosody, such as “pulp mill steam plume falls/up against/dusk, the stretched red clouds.” Though the extra stress on “red” coming off the “e” in “stretch” has potency, everything before it seems to lumber along, and “against” doesn’t do enough to ease the tensing monosyllabic word string to give “dusk” the surprising emergence Massey seems to have sought. However, more often Massey makes meter, consonance, and assonance his love slaves: “crows cackle over/an engine/starting & stopping.” Or he synthesizes mind and mouth immaculately: “through makeshift curtains/(blue blankets)/the sunset stutters.” Putting the odd rhythm on the representational “(blue blankets)” before the pattern of the closer-to-literal “sunset stutters” is genuine ingenuity.

Massey’s sympathies for the tradition result, interestingly, in conflicting impulses for imagery and awareness of the poem as language. While some lunes directly evoke the presence of the page, some near the precise imagery of their formal predecessors from the East: “when the window throws/your image/back, bound to the moon.” His least image-driven lines prove the least intriguing, often too didactic (“when you say it, say/it—what’s there/to be said—what’s here”), or too intentionally aware (“dictation taken/daily from/the weather’s phrasing”). Poems like some of Larry Levis’ which become aware of themselves work because they comment on rather than observe the poet’s part in the poem. We hear and see much more of poem and poet in “yellow striped bumble-/bee bends slow-/ly into sunlight.” We feel a synthesis of Dickinson’s ear and the Oriental eye, a condensation of perception honed down to a moment when language can reveal it exactly as it happened. Through such imagery, Massey has the power to dictate, “before we feel the/breeze we see/the weeds folded over.” His awareness of what poetry has been and is best asserts itself when put to work on images rather than reference to the poem.

When forging imagery Massey’s language reveals his sense of form that is traditional and innovative. So many unnamable miracles can occur in a Joe Massey poem: “a snail’s vacated/shell lies next/to a wad of gum.” Few of his image driven poems come off as overly symbolic, as does “television light/lies on the/American lawn,” and his prosodic exertions rarely interrupt the evocativeness of his images, as they do when “the moon/rises red & round.” More often, he gives us sounds and sights utterly new and unalterable: “sun’s still rewinding/into sky/the white morning haze.” At his best, Massey can bring up a similar sort of mysteriously precise ambiguity Stevens could conjure: “just the sound of them—/engulfed in/fog—shuffling southward.” Certainly uncertain, “them” creates a blank that gives us the most powerful sort of assertion a poet can contribute.

Massey is a poet I think all poets, especially the young and hopeful, should read, and not only read but look through to adopt Joe’s influences as their own. Few of my favorite young poets resonate the past so deeply. Though he seems to admire many poets looser in style than those I most adore, he reflects both the widely adapted sides of, say, Creeley and Spicer, in the loosened beat strain, and that side of those poets that particularly strikes me—immaculately clean lines of prosody that could just as well get away with being prose. Don’t read this: buy the damn book already.

                                                    --Review by Matthew Henriksen.

Friday, November 18, 2005

“As a body would be, one all together”:
Andrea Baker. Like Wind Loves a Window.
Slope Editions: 2005. $14.95.

The authority of memory becomes tenuous when confronted with the imagination. Moral or not, the transformational power wins out, that is, until a singular vision/delusion is attained. The part of irony is to provide as apparent objective unity that results solely from subjective assertion: "An echo is a mountain."

Like Wind Loves a Window releases an immaculately compressed freedom into the world. While Stevens asserted out of the phenomenological world, creating a rhetorical allegory across a mental pasture (inhabited by rabbits, candles, studies, angels), Baker asserts within phenomena perceived, an inverted negative capability by which all becomes assimilated into the “body” of the perceiver, admitting subjectivity into the poem while declining to separate perception from object. Between the mind and the world, action and belief synthesize, or occur in precise symbiosis, which gives the functions of the mind the authority to impress upon the world while the world impresses upon it.

Baker begins her book by trying to reduce perception to analysis of it, to create a realm of “removed” observation, an ironic procedure which she follows faithfully to its inevitable failure, thus succeeding in proving the mercies of perception as a grace in itself: “In the real room the children kept moving.” Examining human functions (hunger, lust, etc), likewise concludes in inconclusiveness for any singular force other than the act of perceiving.

In the story of the children there was a day when they were all outside playing and we were playing with them in the sun, thinking how long will we be able to live on the outside. Only we didn’t know what we believed.

Consequently, unknowing becomes an intricate part of perception.

To explain Baker’s intentions would be misleading, as she seems to be led by her ability to confront whatever comes before her in its essential elements (motion, purpose, symbolic resonance). As adeptly as she turns the external world inward, in “gilda” she gives interior impulses outward forms: "gilda is a white-throat child/a thrown open door-child/a missing in the attic child"

Though the expansiveness of her images’ evocations resembles Whitman’s kosmic intuitions and recalls Blake, Baker’s instinct (and gift) is to condense: "pull your face off/from the tattooed face" and "even/jaw off//my own/jawed face."

She’s brilliant in her self-awareness conceived in images: “my broken egg eyes.” Whatever comes before her turns into a microcosmic and subjective reflection of the initial object, which expands perspective to vastest proportions and gives possibility and imagination dominion over knowability and memory. Even “the unreal mirror” is granted a realistic presence as image conceived. “gilda” ends in a reconciliation of reality and image through a sensuous evocation of the spiral (ecstasy, masochism, and doom wound into the inevitable maybeness of what appears at once implosive and entropic).

Following that apocalypse of perception, “House” takes a dreamy form as a visual text. Given over to its content, House becomes a character in the poem, a body, and, sketched around pieces of the text, has a presence equal to the hand-written words. Unknowing is the central action of the poem (“the meaning of the protest is unknown/but I long to join in”), and becomes the symmetrical balance of one with many: "birds hang/Suspended/Like a bird hangs," recalling the “unreal mirror.”

The pieces of Baker’s allegory are so complete in themselves and competent in their relations to each other that gilda and the object-character House converse in a play, “Whose hunt has yet to fair: a script for gilda and her house.” Speaking in ambiguously symbolic cryptic iterations, gilda and House chat as if to destroy the eye and ear, like mine, which attempts to retell the sensual entities of Baker’s language and assign them an impossible meaning beyond the finality of presence.

The second “gilda” remakes what in the mind should always be remade, the duplicate interior “self,” not an expansion or overcrowding by compression to essential perception of, but something like Whitman in reverse, reduction which contains multitudes: “nothing quiet/and nothing deaf.”

“Migration” emerges from “gilda” by finding odd or surreal imagery in a return to normal perspective. Men dress up as birds and hang out below airplane wings. The sun, not the mind, turns the men into metaphors. The mind, contrarily, recognizes, “I am nested in the cardboard beak of what is not a bird,” yet requires the metaphor of a piano song to describe its predicament. Having abandoned distinction between perception and object, Baker attempts undauntedly to use perception as a vehicle for self-identification, as in “There is a fragrance in the air to tell you how you feel.”

In the final poems, “not a bird” and “body,” Baker resists the easy turn toward language as a final resting place for the self, but puts forth language suggestive and a part of a unity upon which metaphor has a negating impact through its distinctions between the two objects compared. Rather, she asserts, like Blake, the visionary possibilities of the visual: “every sight is an instrument/to absorb us” and “to breath light instead of air.” She ends in a place beyond Stevens’ hope in resemblances, in an acceptance that images real and metaphorical shall continue: "the sheep dissolve into mountains/they cannot stop entering/nothing can stop" through transformation: "the sheep disappear/into whispers//like fumes of silence."

Baker’s perceiver, defined by all the human capacities to hunger, love, want, etc., sets off again into the phenomena from which perception cannot have a separate existence, and instead of “self” seeks “you.”

                                                    --Review by Matthew Henriksen.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Joyelle McSweeney. The Commandrine and Other Poems.
Fence Books: 2004. $12.

In her second book, The Commandrine and Other Poems, Joyelle McSweeney executes an act of self-identification liberated from the confines of narrative, landscape, and body. The voice talks back at self with complete empathy for object as vessel of personal communion, a purer introspection than the world as mirror. Each image and word-image found in that interior serves in the continuous act of defining (defiantly in the face of matter) its maker by (rather than lashing words to facts) fashioning the necessary facts out of words. McSweeney treats words, like images, as instances of their precise contents rather than symbolic references, as reassemblies of exterior action into thought made more visceral. The world of the Commandrine is fluid and nameless, so words are momentary and exact like the seconds in which they exist, cannot be refused, and through their introverted infinitudes hyper-expand in a terrifyingly blithe example of form opening microcosms.

The eye requires hallucination to conceive of that-which-is-beyond-the-visible, as in “Youth Idiom,” where in a movie theatre the adolescent discovers

        My eye was repeating itself,
        splitting the screen and splicing into
        other scenes, choosing among times. I became
        elevated from the row of seats. Reclining
        in the dark air, interfering with the projection,
        my own form entered the screen.

The disassembly of the object world leads to a collapse of ordinary sight (and thus of the ordinary narrative-landscape-body), replaced by the phenomena of seeing-all-sides-at-once, the indistinguishable presences of outer and inner in one line of sight. The confines of time and space lose meaning as speaker elevates, recognizes self in the vision, and adopts for her voice an image (Bogart) to speak out of the “mirror” of the film:

        Bogart turned to me, and said
        Why are you assembling these mirrors?
        What do you want to see?

By continually disassembling ordinary sight, all voices become hers and speak back to the ever-listening self. Through a friend’s talking, the adolescent recognizes the voice’s power to expose the limitations of sight:

        She had so much to say it was a world of talking!
        It was uncharacteristic and a delight.
        I let me eyes blur out till I could see the pins and needles
        plates and barbells, rods, the shape of vision

        without content. My face felt hot and cold. I felt anything
        I could turn to I could understand. But my eye
        corrected me. Don’t you know
        the riddle? I am that world I cannot see.

The estranging entrance into her friend’s “world of talking” abstracts the senses and dislodges object (image or word) from meaning. The eye, however, suddenly veers the unanchored mind back to fact by offering a riddle, but the riddle is ironic in that though it cannot be seen, it can be heard. The voice carries thought, and thought conceives when carefully cohered upon the substance of object world.

The more self-asserting “Bureau Of” begins, “This is the body of,/waiting to turn on.” The omission of self-identification turns around and reveals the voice as the primary manifestation of self, “graced with a little tremor.” Thereon, the voice finds that it can define self in language on its own terms:

        :voila. The pathetic filofax
        unfurls, the owl describes;
        on air; makes an apse; loops left

        off the phonepole, woodenly.
        we rise above the windpark,

The owl, and the words she uses to “describe” her flight in unison with it, is not a mirror-object she beats language against in the hopes that it will bounce back and mean something, nor is it a point of reference: McSweeney’s words project more than empathy, but through empathy the self enters a merger of identities through language by which the maker perceives self. The unstrained and fanciful instigation of the almost nonsensical “commemorially” works as its own line in a magnificent undulation of flight, a perfect linguistic synthesis of remembering-together, and carrying a connotation of death.

The venture into free language does not forget itself and become language poetry, however, as “The Air Sign” epitomizes the poet’s vision through the voice. Each word adopts its own meaning of many possibilities and rises out of the context, containing its microcosm: “In the river of luggage and pieces of the bridge,/I felt a scaly muscle rise between my thighs/and that was the joy side.” Despite the introduction of narrative, landscape, and bodily contexts, McSweeney makes no move to work within those restrictions. The image of the water-serpent is evoked by the voice describing the sensation of touch: she could be the blind seer. Riding the “scaly muscle” (or the image—and how can anything be symbolic of the image?) to safety provides no safety, so she “besieged the Creator” (the maker) “with harp-cries, with the tenacity of the already gone.” No rescue occurs, but the self is left with a diminished but defined and surmountable visual perspective (note the opening reflexive pronoun):

        this view
        is looking out at the famous plant
        in the Oregon countryside; cheese is produced here
        and Highway 101 is on the right, where you can’t see it.
        Outside the limits of the cheesecam. Your sweet

        cannot be truncated.
        Piquant and tongue-chastening.

Even the tongue gets the slap in the end. McSweeney destroys the rules of the senses for the love of what is sensed, essentially self.

McSweeney’s book, like the universe, is full of universes. Perspectives may diverge and take hold of their own visions. Scrutiny reveals no end. I read this book over and over with joy, finding myself each time on “the joy side.” As maker, Joyelle McSweeney has created and departed, leaving no directive, no goblet, no Cracker Jack prize. What’s left for us is the form of the invisible.

                                                    --Review by Matthew Henriksen.