Wednesday, April 29, 2009

My Favorite Recent Books of Poems: Two by Brian Clements


FOR THE final National Poetry Month post about my favorite recent books of poems, I'm going to exercise editorial control.

I'm going to live on the edge.

I will write about one author but two books:
Disappointed Psalms & And How to End It, both published in 2008 by Brian Clements.

Though the books are distinct collections, a number of correspondences and cross references makes them feel like poetic patches cut from the same quilt. Small but provocative, both books pose provocative questions about the relationship between belief, the cosmos, and current American social and political crises.

What makes these collections particularly useful, though, is that the poems are wonderfully short and diverse. Clements tricks out And How to End It with prose poems, questions and answers, aphorisms, Whitmanesque catalogs, and short intense lyrics. Sometimes, a combination of each of these:

I have heard that the signs say one thing and the stars say another.

Who are you going to believe?

I have heard that a shotgun blast at point blank range you cannot survive.

That, on the wall behind you, your shadow-form imprints in droplets as numerous as stars in the galaxy.

That the shadow-form, too, cannot survive. (from And How to End It)
Of course, these poems ask more questions than they answer. Part of their effectiveness lies in their refusal to close, to sum up. At times, they feel like American versions of Roberto Juarroz pieces--short, philosophical, open-ended.

This is especially the case for Disappointed Psalms, whose poems confront "god" and the idea of god on nearly every page. This beautifully executed volume by Meritage Press actually reads like a postmodern book of psalms, a manual for the disaffected and disenfranchised, the questioner and the doubter, the believer and the believed.

When taken together, these books show a poetic range that is impressive as well as a vision of language's ability to understand its own limits. The universe may be infinite; words not so much. How the latter makes sense of the former, though, is for Clements, the space where poetry happens.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Ask A Poet

TWR TEAMS UP WITH Kristen Hoggatt, whose advice column, "Ask A Poet," is both smart and funny. In the spirit of National Poetry Month, we asked her why a poet makes a good advice columnist.

Her response:

In his essay “The Poet and the Audience,” poet Michael Ryan asserts that the poet was traditionally the central figure of a tribe, the “shaman-healer.” Because she was much closer to the gods, her “divine madness” kept the tribe together through her songs and chants. I don’t assume all readers are in the same metaphorical “tribe,” that all look to the same poet for guidance, which is why I use multiple poetic voices to give advice. The other poets have already done all the work, and being a devoted poet myself, I have studied them and continue to study them every day. I know where to look.

But before this gets too dry, let me take Ryan’s essay one step further: The poet, being much closer to the gods, is most likely always right, meaning, of course, that one should always listen to her — and “the poet” is a flexible term, a transcendent state that could also be called the speaker of a poem. Frank O’Hara was a poet, but he also drank too much, so one likely should not have listened to everything he said. But one should listen to what his speaker says in “Ave Maria”:

Mothers of America
let your kids go to the movies!

Please enjoy the rest of Poetry Month responsibly. • 27 April 2009

To visit Hoggat's site or to ask the poet a question, just go to The Smart Set

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

My Favorite Recent Books of Poems: D. A. Powell's Cocktails

when he comes he is neither sun nor shade: a china doll
a perfect orb. when he comes he speaks upon the sea

when he speaks his voice is an island to rest upon. he sings
[he sings like france joli: come to me, and I will comfort you. when he

when he comes I receive him in my apartment: messy, yes
but he blinds himself for my sake [no he wouldn't trip, would he?]

AND SO BEGINS "[when he comes he is neither sun nor shade: a china doll]," my favorite poem from my favorite book of poems of 2004--D. A. Powell's Cocktails.

Powell's poetry pulls from so many genres, it's impossible to classify, and this book is a perfect example of that proficiency, though the Graywolf blurb on the back does a pretty good job: "These poems, both harrowing and beautiful, strive toward redemption and light within the transformative and often conflicting worlds of the cocktail lounge, the cinema, and the Gospels." If the book sounds like a poetic version of a Matthew Barney exhibit, that may not be totally off base.

Divided into three parts, the book explores the three topics mentioned above. The most poignant interplay happens between the first and third branches of this trinity--the cocktail and gospel poems. The former deploys the denotative power of both standard cocktails and the less fizzy but still powerful AIDS cocktail to make a statement about love, bodies, medication, and intoxication. Interestingly enough, the last section from which the opening poem comes, navigates in the same frothy confluence.

Nowhere in contemporary poetry--not Billy Collins, not Charles Wright, not Bob Hickok--is there a poet who merges popular culture, humor, and the contemplative tradition better than Powell:

you'd want to go to the reunion: see
who got heavy. who got bald. see

who has KS lesions on the face and listen
to the same old tunes: there'll be a dj sure as anything

you'd want to show off your boyfriend who's spare
as a girlscout cookie.

The lightness of these poems, their wit, doesn't really bring levity. Like Donne, wit means weirdness, discordance, and inappropriate juxtapositions. In all good poetry, such wit isn't about levity but gravity. We may think we're being served a light spritzer, but we're imbibing heavier stuff.

And oh how we love the strong stuff on our tongues. Powell knows this, and so mouths and swallowing and digesting and drinking and consuming consume the poems.

But, cocktails are also about mixing. Powell's many tastes blend deliciously in this book. As fun and as oddly juxtaposed as these pieces might be, they are almost always also about sustenance and rejuvenation, as in the astonishing closing couplets of "[when he comes . . ."

I am not special: have stolen fought. have been unkind
when I await him in the dark I'm not without lascivious thoughts

and yet he comes to me in dreams: "I would not let you marry."
He says: "for I did love you so and kept you for my own."

his breath is a little sour. his clothes a bit dingy
he is not golden and robed in light and he smells a bit

but he comes. and the furnace grows dim the devil and his neighbors
and traffic along market street: all go silent. the disease

and all he has given me he takes back. laying his sturdy bones
on top of me: a cloak an ache a thief in the night. he comes.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

My Favorite Recent Books of Poems: Human Dark with Sugar

NEXT TIME THE WAITRESS asks you if you want sugar with your Human Dark, say yes. You won't be disappointed.

That would probably be a better last line for this review than a first line. It has a kind of salutary ring to it; it signs off more than it turns on.

But, then again, I'm writing about Brenda Shaughnessy's smart collection of poems, Human Dark with Sugar, one of my favorite books of poems from last year. One reason I like this collection so much is because she turns everything around, yet it all makes sense.

For example, she begins her poem "Drift" with a line that could have come straight out of a TWR post: "I’ll go anywhere to leave you but come with me."

Wow. I say that to myself every day.

And yet, nothing happens.

The difference between Shaugnessy saying that to the reader and me saying that to me, is that in her world things do happen. The world's messiness a) opens up; b) feels less messy; and c) seems funny rather than threatening. That's pretty much a poetry trifecta.

See, for example, "First Date and Still Very, Very Lonely:"


is a sacred day. A date day.
An exception to the usual
poor me, poor me!

I'm not poor and I'm not me.
I remember both
states as soon ago as last week.

The poetic persona has both fallen out of fashion and had a falling out with falling out of fashion. We are taught--or many assume we are taught--to read the "I" in contemporary American poetry as "the writer." We presume the confessions are not those of an invented persona but of the actual person. Troy Jollimore plays with this distinction, but Shaughnessy blurs it. She wants the reader to feel uneasy, to wonder if the laments and desperations of the speaker are "Brenda Shaughnessy's" or the hip construction that witty female poet named Brenda Shaughnessy invented.

The question is: do we care? And, who is this we anyway?

Around 4:30 am, when my 5-month old son woke up hungry, a very funny final line for this review came to me as I was stumbling to the bathroom. I was so pleased with myself because it worked as a closing sentiment, but it would also feel like an opening gambit. This morning though, when I awoke, it was gone--an experience Shaughnessy writes about in "Magician." Her final line in that poem speaks, I guess, to my 4:30 epiphany and, perhaps, to the question of persona vs. person: "Nothing ever really happens."

Or is it that everything always happens?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

National Poetry Month: My Favorite Recent Books of Poems

NOW THAT APRIL IS National Poetry Month, April Fools Day
takes on an entirely new significance. In honor of this month and its poemtryness, TWR will devote all of its April posts to favorite recent books of poems.

"Recent" doesn't mean this year, but it does mean this millennium. Books could mean chapbooks; poems could mean prose poems. It will not mean song lyrics, nor will it mean quotes from Donald Rumsfeld.

It will include Tom Thomson in Purgatory, the beguiling book by 50's film star Troy Jollimore. Okay, he's not really a 50's film star, but he sure has the name of one. Between that moniker and the fact that the cover plugs an intro by Billy Collins, it seems impossible not to like the book.

In fact, it is impossible not to like this book.

Simply saying the poems in it are funny does the author a disservice, but the poems in this book are funny. Or, put more directly, the character of Tom Thomson is funny. Jollimore's project is a strange one in that his book is really two books. The first part, entitled "From the Boy Scout Manual," has great fun with the earnest manuals of the eras of 50's film stars, while the second, called "Tom Thomson in Purgatory," features series of sonnets written in what I will describe as "high slang." Take the opening two stanzas, for example, from "Tom Thomson in Vogue"

With Pyramids behind, and with a glass
of some bright liquid sharp with fissioning sheen
in hand, he small talk make with shiny babe
as Photo Man for Hot New Magazine

the shutter clicks, and captures cover shot.
His stock is rising. What's he saying though?
Ain't no one listening to a word -- and him,
he listening least of all. But cares he? No.
The off-rhyme and near-dialect remind, of course, of John Berryman and his Dream Songs, but Jollimore's persona is less dark than Berryman's, not as severely developed and more overtly playful. But, like The Dream Songs, the Thomson sonnets are, despite their humor, profoundly sad. It's that veiled sadness, squeezed into sublimated humor, that keeps the poems from being self-indulgent or self-mocking. What's fun about these pieces is how the poems become less about Thomson and more about the nameless speaker. Thomson is just a prop; the speaker is the real protagonist.

Jollimore is not as funny as Collins, but he's also not as silly, which should make these poems both accessible and rewarding for casual reader and the poetry devotee. Their engagement with popular culture will also please reader skeptical about poetry's "relevance."

Tom Thomson may be in purgatory, but readers of this book certainly won't be in hell.