Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Richard Blevins; Tom Mandel

Captivity Narratives, Richard Blevins (Meeting Eyes Bindery/Spuyten Duyvil, 2009)

To get past the obvious: Blevins is an Olsonian, a real live Olsonian – he took over editing the Olson/Creeley correspondence after George Butterick's death. As poets, Olsonians (my limited experience has shown me) tend to have a certain repertoire of moves that Olson has made familiar : an obsession with history, a tendency to splice documents into the work itself, a self-reflexive awareness of their own position as poem-makers, even as they write. Blevins has all of these (as does, say, Susan Howe). What he doesn't share with the Big Man is his (liberating?) formal sprawl, his taste for the cosmic & the anciently recondite – the Big Gesture, sometimes registered in geological epochs.

Captivity Narratives
is a pair of intense investigations into a couple of figures with whom I was not at all familiar before cracking the book: the photographer Fred Holland Day (1864-1933), one of the first advocates for photography as a "fine" art, & the maker of mysterious, often homoerotic pictures; and Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914), a poet whose work I was vaguely aware of, but whose fame has largely waned since the days Carl Sandburg championed her. Blevins reads these two figures relative obscurity as their own versions of "captivity." His poems are as much about the researching – sometimes down to the details of library visits & overnight travel – as they are about FHD and AC themselves, but the effect is to position Blevins's own work something of a (necessarily interminable) detective story. (The biographer in me finds this irresistible.) I'm particularly taken, among the stretches of short-lined verse, rambling narrative prose, and sheer notebook-entry fragments, to find Blevins casting his impressions of Crapsey into her own invented form, the "cinquain."

Four Strange Books, Tom Mandel (Gaz, 1990)

Elias Bickerman's classic study of anomalous Hebrew Bible texts, Four Strange Books of the Bible (1985), focuses on Jonah, Daniel, Koheleth ("Ecclesiastes" for you Christian-types), and Esther. It's easy to see why he calls them "strange": Jonah is not a book of prophecy, but a kind of Three Stooges parody of the Isaian prophetic call; Daniel is a strange, back-dated collage of various tall tales and prophecies; Koheleth advances a depressing stoic philosophy that seems at odds with much of what the rest of the HB advocates; and Esther is a fairy tale that manages not even to mention the Hebrew deity.

Perhaps on some rereading I'll figure out a bit better precisely how Tom Mandel's wonderful Four Strange Books plays off of Bickerman. Right now I'm just reveling in the pleasure of this late-discovered (for me) classic. Mandel may at the moment be becoming my favorite of the Grand Piano poets (I read his To the Cognoscenti over the holidays in something of transfixed delight). He has an unerring eye for the movement of the everyday, a stern sense of juxtaposition, and a wonderful knack of shifting diction. The opening of the title poem, "Four Strange Books," which plays on various phrases of biblical & archaeological resonance, is one of the most striking, hieratic moments in poetry in the last two decades:
A tract was sealed in the catacomb of cylinders
by three youths called Ejection, Sacrifice,
& Trellis. To a skeptic the treatise speaks
of things still possible.

What it says will never do. If they reach
toward me I will collapse. Touch me then
my shoulder with strengthened lips; that
man was swallowed!


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