Wednesday, August 26, 2009

reading list

When I did my own MFA back in the dark ages (late 80s), the workshop was a bare-boned affair: 8 or 9 students, a resident poet, and sometimes a bottle of wine. There was kind of a hermetic overall effect – one was sealed in this room (sometimes a classroom, sometimes the professor's office – they had really big offices at Cornell back in the day) with your own poems & those of your colleagues, the professor & the ghostly reputation of her or his work. I'm not sure that was a good effect, ultimately.

We were all reading a great deal of poetry on our own, of course, and for a semester or two some of us set up a reading group to discuss a contemporary poet every couple of weeks. But there was no sense of a shared vocabulary among the members of the workshop, so that one writer's obsession with Mary Oliver fell on deaf ears among those of us who hadn't read a word of Oliver's, while the marks in my poetry of my own growing absorption in Jabès and Michael Palmer struck many of my colleagues as something akin to Spicer's Martian transmissions.

When I started doing workshops at Our Fair University not all that many years ago, I think the overall ethos of creative writing programs had shifted away from a pure emphasis on student poems, & I was happy to go along with that shift & assign "outside" reading. At any rate, here's this semester's reading list – by no means everything worthy I've read recently, but a semi-random 8 books I've read this past year & found compelling (or even interestingly arguable):
Jenny Boully, The Body
Peter Cole, Things on Which I've Stumbled
C. S. Giscombe, Prairie Style
K. Lorraine Graham, Terminal Humming
Joseph Lease, Broken World
Cole Swensen, Ours
John Taggart, There Are Birds
Elizabeth Willis, Meteoric Flowers

Monday, August 24, 2009

Scroggins on Gizzi & Armantrout

Everything seems to hit the shelves or the internets right at the end of summer, as the imminent classes are breathing down my proverbial neck. To wit: The latest issue of Parnassus: Poetry in Review has just been printed, & my contributor's copies have hit the mailbox. What's in it for me, you ask, that I should plunk down my hard-earned $15?

Well, there's the typical sprinkling of interesting new poems (among them a major chunk of John Matthias); a memorial section to Isaac Meyers and Tom Disch; and the usual run of beautifully-edited essays & essay-reviews: Devin Johnston on Ian Hamilton Finlay's Little Sparta, Wes Davis on Robert Hass, Catherine Madsen on Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson, John Matthias on his co-translator Marko Kraljevic [can't get those diacriticals...], Eric Murphy Selinger on Palestinian poets Samih al-Qasim, Mahmoud Darwish, and Taha Muhammad Ali, and yr. humble blogger on Peter Gizzi & Rae Armantrout. The piece is called "Dark Matters," and begins thus:
On the back cover of Some Values of Landscape and Weather, we're told that Peter Gizzi is "on the quixotic mission of recovering the lyric." While I had no idea we'd lost it, I suppose the blurbist has a point. Gizzi, who during the late 1980s and early 1990s co-edited the excellent and eclectic journal O-blék, writes within an avant-garde tradition that sometimes views melopoeia with suspicion, or else discounts it entirely. What place song in the ranks of savage, analytic parataxis?
Go forth and buy.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Summer's End (my novel problem)

It's not that summer ever really ends down here – today it was well over 90 out, with the humidity hovering in the sauna range, & it won't get any cooler, I'm afraid, until the last couple months of the year. Classes officially began this morning; my own classes start Tuesday. I've finally nailed down the syllabi, & have begun thinking about things to say for those oh-so-important first-impression first days. (Keeping in mind, of course, that probably 30% of those who are present the first day won't be there the 2nd, & there'll be a whole crop of late-adders who will miss whatever sparkling introduction I manage to cook up between now & then.)

So what did I do on my summer break? Well, we were away for almost 2 months – most of it in New York City, where I had lunch with a famous science fiction author, finally met the excellent Zach Barocas in the flesh, & saw a decent amount of theater. We spent the better part of a week in Tennessee visiting Mom, & a number of weekends on Fire Island, where I got bitten by lots of horseflies and not as many mosquitoes. (The mosquitoes on Fire Island, strangely enough, are slower & rather more stupid than the Florida variety, if one can talk of mosquito intelligence levels.)

And of course I read a lot of books. I read stacks & stacks of slim volumes of contemporary verse (some of which I've blogged, some of which I haven't gotten round to, some of which I won't – I've pretty much abandoned the notion of adding things I didn't really like to the "100 poem-books" project), but I also read a little bit of criticism, a soupçon of philosophy, & wow a bunch of novels. But when I think about it, I realize I'm reading novels all the time, really.

Of course I teach novels in my lit classes, so there's a certain number of books that I'm always working at because I know I'll be teaching them in an upcoming semester (or next week). But I enjoy fiction pretty deeply, & am pretty much in awe at the craft & sheer long-haul determination it takes to produce a full-length work. Why haven't I tried writing a novel, at least since I gave up my last abortive attempt maybe 9 years ago? I think it may be a combination of sheer lacks: a lack of imagination, for one thing – I just can't come up with people, characters who interest me as much as real human beings do, & I can't put them into situations that I find, on rereading, to be particularly interesting.

And then there's a lack of determined focus. I'm best at smallish, manageable projects: a long poem that can be broken down into modular parts, an essay, a book review. It still amazes me that I managed to finish the LZ biography, but I realize that I did it primarily as mosaic-work, a bit at a time, a detail here and a passage there. I certainly didn't sit down & write it from beginning to end. I'm not a big word-count person (like one old friend of mine who writes fantasy novels, who's just posted a truly eye-popping daily word-count on her Facebook page) – I'm ecstatic when I can squeeze out a thousand words in a day. While I'm in awe of Ulysses, perhaps what impresses me the most is that Joyce managed to write it in only seven years.

There're some novelists whose work makes me want to take up fiction again – folks whose novels make me say, "hey, with a bit of luck I could do something rather rather as good as that." (I won't name names, but Paul Auster springs to mind. And I like Auster. And I'm probably fooling myself.) Others – Joyce, Nabokov, Byatt – make me want to never put one fictive word next to another again, I'm so ashamed at their deftness.

Then there's teaching the damned things. A colleague's Fulbright this fall has bequeathed to me a 19th-century American novel course, which I'm pretty excited about – if only it weren't for the 2 or 3 thousand pages of 19th-c. fiction I have to read thru over the course of the semester. I've reread House of the Seven Gables and Uncle Tom's Cabin over the past few weeks. Very interesting books indeed, if in very different registers. I find myself interested in the issue of sentimentality – much on my mind since reading David Copperfield for the first time a bit earlier in the summer.

The sentimentality – the tears – are laid on heavily in each of the novels: if Dickens applies it with a palette knife, Hawthorne uses a mortarer's trowel, & Stowe a garden shovel. But Stowe crosses a line for some of us: as one of my colleagues told me earlier this year, "Oh, well, you teach Uncle Tom's Cabin for sociological or historical interest – not as literature."* And I suspect that line has less to do with tendentiousness than with sentimentality. Wondering how my students will take all that tear-jerking.

*Alas for me, I've become so invested in all sorts of approaches to literary texts that I can't for the life of me remember what pure "literary" value looks like anymore.

Friday, August 21, 2009

MS – a CHEAP date

Some of you might know that many years ago, before I found my true life-niche as a dilettante poetry-culture blogger, obscure-poet biographer, obsessive Facebook watcher, and (don't forget!) poet, I wrote a critical book on Louis Zukofsky: Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge, published by the University of Alabama Press a bit over a decade ago in their very excellent "Modern and Contemporary Poetics" series.

Anyway, it's been deeply discounted as part of Press's "Recession Sale," I learn from Charles Bernstein's blog ("a bahh-gain," as they say down here in Boca), along with lots of cool things by folks like Ben Friedlander & Susan Schultz & Bill Lavender & Hank Lazer. So go buy a copy or three. (I promise, those of you who turned over The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky, there's all sorts of stuff in the earlier book that didn't make it into the biography!)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Scroggins on Oppen

Amid much anticipation, the new (and rather vast) issue of Big Bridge has made its way online. Among all of the other riches is a "Garland for George Oppen" edited by Eric Hoffman. And there, among fascinating contributions by such star-power folks as Zach Barocas, Joseph Bradshaw, Stephen Cope, John Cunningham, Thom Donovan, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Norman Finkelstein, Michael Heller, Grant Jenkins, Burt Kimmelman, Michael Kindellan, Jack Marshall, Peter Nicholls, Marjorie Perloff, Patrick Pritchett, Martin Jack Rosenblum, Bruce Ross-Smith, Anthony Rudolf, Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, John Taggart, Henry Weinfield and Karl Young – phew! – are a couple of pieces by your humble blogger: a note on Oppen's "The Lighthouses" and a review of Peter Nicholls's excellent George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

home; Maxwell: Realm Sixty-Four; Raworth: Ace

So we're back, as of Monday night. No, the suitcases aren't really unpacked yet, & we're bracing for the various cartons of books & papers with which the UPS folks are pursuing us (including some stuff I really wish I'm packed in the luggage – sigh). The entire house seems to be carpeted with tiny plastic beads from some bean-bag animal that Panda (the cat) has hunted down & dismembered; we have yet to find the actual carcass, which is no doubt stashed deep under some piece of furniture. Interesting science experiments in the refrigerator.

J. arrives from a flying trip this morning to the library at Our Fair University with the heartening news that what used to be the atrium in which banks of computers were arranged (so that students can look up books or – more often – update their Facebook pages) is being converted into a large lounge, & what used to be the interlibrary loan office (so that faculty could order books for research) is being converted into – you guessed it – a Dunkin' Donuts. A Dunkin' Donuts. In the library.
Realm Sixty-Four, Kristi Maxwell (Ahsahta, 2007)

The photograph on the cover of Maxwell’s Realm Sixty-Four shows a hand reaching out over a white background, as if to move a chess-piece. But it’s a plastic hand, the hand not of a woman or man but of an automaton, like the clockwork chess-playing Turk immortalized in Poe’s sketch, the “puppet and the dwarf” alluded to in Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Chess is the explicit subject of many of the poems of Realm Sixty-Four (the title refers of course to the squares of a chessboard), the thematic center of all of them.

Life is like chess (isn’t that banal?), one reflects, deep in a first reading of David Copperfield, with its repeated themes of unprepared infatuation, the “undisciplined heart.” The pieces’ moves, the basic rules – like the passional vocabulary of interpersonal relationships – are easy enough to learn, at least superficially. But the combinatory possibilities, as one grows older, plays the game more often, present themselves as increasingly rich, mysterious, complex. Maxwell’s Realm Sixty-Four is an arena in which love, sexuality, history & power are set out in the ever-shifting figures of the chessboard & its opposed, interlocked pieces. A rich & mysterious book.

Ace, Tom Raworth (Edge Books, 2001)

Vintage Raworth – circa 1973-4, that is – put back into print by the good offices of Rod Smith, whom I remember as the affable, enigmatic center of the DC poetry scene during my short time there in the early ‘90s. Where LZ’s one- or two-word lines slow the reader down, Raworth’s propel the reader forward, tripping from page to page, trying desperately to follow the quicksilver, evanescent shifts of voice & thought. Heady, fast.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Norman Finkelstein: Scribe

Scribe, Norman Finkelstein (Dos Madres, 2009)

Finkelstein’s last full-length volume, Passing Over (Marsh Hawk, 2007), was something of a digression for those of us watching the growth & progression of his career, consisting as it did of poems for the most part composed before the 3 volumes of his simultaneously rich & spare sequence Track. Scribe, his first real post-Track collection, marks the moment when one can clearly begin setting Finkelstein in the same rank as his self-proclaimed masters, among them William Bronk, Robert Duncan, and Michael Palmer (who contributes a fine blurb). This is a volume for which blustery superlatives seem inappropriate, for the pleasures & mysteries of these poems are subtle, insinuative ones – the riddling, ritualistic anabasis of “Drones and Chants” (the volume’s first section), the quirky assemblages of “Collages, which draw on everything from fairy tales to Jewish mysticism to celtic ballads.

The real heart of the volume is the last section, “An Assembly,” a series of poems playing off of the architect Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language (1977), something of a “generative grammar” for the design of humanized living spaces. Finkelstein takes Alexander’s descriptions of various habitant spheres – the marriage bed, the sidewalk café, the spiritual center – as jumping-off points for poems that are quiet and lovely meditations on the places in which we lead – or ought to lead – our lives. And the physical spaces of which Alexander writes – rooms, houses, halls, arcades – become in Finkelstein’s hands a series of metaphorical spaces: the space of consciousness, the interpersonal space of a marriage, the shifting and interlocking spaces of the poems themselves, in their sequence. “An Awakening” is a mysterious but deeply good-natured work, and – like so much of Finkelstein’s poetry, which has never surrendered the Romantic vision of poetry as ultimately redemptive – a deeply utopian one.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Mutschlecner: Sign; Bergvall: Goan Atom

Sign, David Mutschlecner (Ahsahta, 2007)

I’ve never been inclined one way or another in regards to “religious” or spiritual poetry, tho I’ve read my share of Herbert, Donne, & Milton, grappled with Hopkins & David Jones, & more recently enjoyed the work of Donald Revell & Peter O’Leary. It seems somehow appropriate that I paused at the midpoint of Dante’s Paradiso to read David Mutchlecner’s Sign. I must confess – the ceremonies & theology of Roman Catholicism are an alien country to me, brought up as I was in an icon-smashing, bare-pewed Protestantism. But I’m much moved by Sign, by Mutschlecner’s quiet, spare, syntactically straightforward poems of spiritual experience. These are the poems that an ascetic desert Father might write, if he came in the aesthetic mode of Robert Creeley, Theodore Enslin, & Ronald Johnson. The final long sequence, “Poems for the Feast of Corpus Christi,” makes the mass come alive for me more vividly than anyone except Jones himself.

Goan Atom, Caroline Bergvall (Krupskaya, 2001)

Zowie! A more rambunctious, high-spirited, madly inventive book hasn’t come my way in ages. The Brits, I’ve gathered, are rightly suspicious of that squishy term the “postmodern,” & those among their interesting writers who take the trouble to label what they’re up to tend rather towards the label “late modernist.” If Bergvall – a British/Norwegian/French poet based in the UK – ’s treading a modernist path, late or otherwise, however, it’s by no means the familiar Pound-Williams-Olson idiom of much of the New American Poetry, but rather some unholy, crystal meth-fueled mixture of Stein, Jarry, Duchamp, Dada, & Russian Futurist Zaum. Voices drop in & out of dialect, letters spill over the page, words break up & reform before one’s eyes. It’s all about sex & puppets, I think, but I’m far from sure, & don’t really care: it makes a lovely, exhilarating noise. Is Bergvall the Derek Bailey of poetry?


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Janet Holmes: The Ms of My Kin

The Ms of My Kin, Janet Holmes (Shearsman, 2009)

I’d begun to get intimations that Ronald Johnson’s technique in erasing swatches of Paradise Lost to make his own Radi Os was, 30 years on, beginning to get picked up as a viable, repeatable compositional technique, rather than a one-off tour de force. But Holmes’s Ms of My Kin, an “erasure” of 2 years’-worth of The Poems of Emily Dickinson, is the 1st full-length volume of such work, post-Johnson, I’ve encountered.

Holmes gives the technique a twist: where Johnson’s erasure of Milton, much like Zukofsky’s earlier slice-up in “A”-14, ends up producing a series of highly disjunctive, vividly fragmentary poems that fit snugly within Johnson’s already established obsessions with light, the eye, natural processes, etc., Holme’s provides a final note linking her own Dickinson excavations (pointedly, from poems composed over the first two years of the Civil War) with the World Trade Center attacks, the invasion of Afghanistan, & the debacle in Iraq – IEDs, Abu Graib, Guantanamo, the whole blood-boltered business.

The project, then, becomes a series of dramatic monologues spoken by various figures of the last 8 years, from Al Qaeda terrorists to American torturers to Bush himself, & by a voice one might identify with the poet herself – alternatively angry, bewildered, & despairing at the Republic’s mad wrong turnings. There’s a tension here that sits uneasily with me: where Radi Os was composed (like Blake’s illuminated books or Tom Phillips’s Humument) on the level of the page, the page as icon, as it were, Holmes tends to run her discourse from page to page, at the same time preserving the line positions of the often solitary remaining words. It feels, at times, as though Dickinson has become a resource within which the words for preëxisting statements have been found, rather than a text within which new & unexpected poems have been discovered.

Perhaps that’s just a function of my saturation in Johnson; probably, I need to live with Holmes's book a bit longer to get used to her particular take on the poetics of erasure. But at any rate, I can say right now that the poems of The Ms of My Kin are powerful, sometimes funny, & often very moving.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Szymaszek: Emptied of All Ships; Gander: The Blue Rock Collection

Emptied of All Ships, Stacy Szymaszek (Litmus Press, 2008)

One’s 1st unavoidable thought – given the marine imagery, the occasional typographical flourishes – is of Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés, extended over 70-odd pages. But Mallarmé’s is an immediate, one-time-only shipwreck, a single long statement or canvas (a Turner?), while Szymaszek’s is a whole voyage, a circumnavigation, a Hakluyt of sailings-forth – touching islands, sea battles, reading French novels in the cabin, tattooing one’s hand with a bartered needle, the implacable boredom of shipboard. I’ve never been on a voyage longer than the Scotland-to-Belfast ferry (well, I once crossed the Atlantic, but I was only 3 at the time & don’t remember, tho my parents tell me I was blessedly immune to seasickness) but I’ve read Melville & Dana. Szymaszek, in a radically different idiom – short-lined, spare, rich in allusion – has written a voyage as redolant of the ocean as White-Jacket or Two Years Before the Mast.

The Blue Rock Collection, Forrest Gander (Salt, 2004)

I was unaware that Forrest Gander had a degree in geology, but it makes perfect sense, given his sharp eye for minerals. The Blue Rock Collection is a something of a mineralogically-slanted “greatest hits” from Gander’s previously published books, poems complemented by Rikki Ducornet’s drawings of rocks, twigs, birds’ skulls. “A Poetic Essay on Creation, Evolution, and Imagination” is a fine, plainspoken laying-out of Gander’s poetics & the ethos behind Lost Roads Books, the excellent small press he & CD Wright edit.


Saturday, August 01, 2009

leavetaking: Godfrey, Grossman

Off at the crack of dawn for Tennessee, for six days. Probably no blogging.
The big Francis Bacon retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum, which I’d postponed going to for weeks & weeks, was overwhelming, as I feared it might be. I think what I came out of it with was two things: 1) a sense of how carefully worked Bacon’s canvases are; no matter what bits of aleatory or gestures towards abstract expressionism he might incorporate, they’re really very comprehensively planned & carefully executed; 2) a sense of Bacon’s incredible anatomical mastery, which seems to rival that of Michelangelo.

Looking at the large-than-life backdrop of Bacon’s infernal pigsty of a studio, along with his incredibly messy notebooks & reference photos, makes me feel somewhat better about the state of my own study.
City of Corners, John Godfrey (Wave Books, 2008)

I need to read more of Godfrey, I think. This collection & Midnight on Your Left, from 2 decades ago, are all I know of his work, but I like both of them very much. Very much – overwhelmingly – an urban poet, a poet of the subway & the city streets & the city nightclubs. An alert, almost aching sensuality, scented with taxi & bus exhaust & the New York summer perfume of rotting garbage – which doesn’t one bit subtract from the poems’ fundamental sexiness, or disguise the thread of longing & affection that runs thruout the volume.

Descartes’ Loneliness, Allen Grossman (New Directions, 2007)

As befitting the title, a book of meditative poems, on first things & (often) last things, death conclusion. Scenes of instruction (“the long schoolroom” AG’s figure for the poet’s vocation), not untouched by the erotics of learning on which Anne Carson & Guy Davenport have written so eloquently. One is reminded of the late Yeats, & occasionally of William Bronk, tho Grossman, for me at least, is a far more genial poet than Bronk. Bronk stares unblinkingly into the abyss & issues dour reports; Grossman dances on the edge, aware of his solitude but continually reaching out & blowing kisses to his companions.