Monday, May 31, 2010

The Post National Poetry Month Bold Projects Post: Cristina Garcia's THE LESSER TRAGEDY OF DEATH

THE HISTORY OF POETIC biography is a spotty one--especially when it comes to one's own family.  What is, after all, the distinction between biography and excavation?

Sharon Olds has written movingly and revealingly about her own life, and in particular, her parents.  Sylvia Plath, sure. We know her stance on one of her parents.  David Ray's heartstraining homage to his son Sam, who died at a far too early age, (Sam's Book) is an unforgettable tribute to a child.  

But, poetry books about siblings are harder to recall, save Wordsworth.  Perhaps because poems about brothers and sisters are not as immediately dramatic as those about parents and offspring we tend not to think of them as wearing the same fabric but yet, most of us are siblings--in fact, maybe there are more siblings than parents.

Cristina Garcia's The Lesser Tragedy of Death does important work in this regard because it stands as a model of what an honest, aesthetically figured book about a sibling might look like. 

Known for her culturally and politically rich novels like Dreaming In Cuban, Garcia has never been coy about family (at least not in her fiction).  Her first book of poems, though, takes familial confrontation to a whole new level.  The entire project is devoted (and I mean devoted in all of its many meanings) to her brother's main devotion--addiction.  Searing, angry, compassionate, probing, and, ultimately forgiving, The Lesser Tragedy of Death is a bold book about a frightening topic--the loss of a brother (which also means the loss of a part of the self) to crime, addiction, and despair.

Divided into three sections, the book traces, chronologically, Garcia's brother's map of personal dysfunction.  Beginning with his childhood and moving through adolescence, adulthood, and into the present day, Garcia alternates moves, deftly, from investigation to indictment to inquiry.  In "Mugging," for example, we see all of these and more:

It was a cold night in New Hampshire and you
were looking for an easy mark.

An old woman, head to toe in black, a widow
maybe, hobbled down the street.

What did you imagine was in her huge, black
purse with the tarnished clasp?

A just-cashed Social Security check? Her month's
allotment of twenties?

You didn't expect her to put up a fight and when
she did, you dragged her ten feet.
The poem ends with an observation, free of commentary, that gives the reader a glimpse into the complicated dynamic of the brother and the family: 

You called our father from the county jail to bail
you out, but he didn't.

None of us did.

One of the many fascinating aspects of Garcia's book is the degree to which the poet seems to shoulder some sort of responsibility for her brother's life.  Or, if responsibility is too strong a word, suffice it to say that the poet often feels implicated.  In the riveting poem "Twelve Years Ago," Garcia recounts a time when she was newly divorced with a young daughter and her brother came to stay with them.  The stay causes her daughter deep anxiety (she "defecated on the kitchen floor. Wouldn't sleep alone. / Had nightmares when she did") so Garcia makes the brother leave.  The poem closes with a couplet that seems to speak not just about the immediate removal but older, more profound forms of abandonment:

Perhaps you never forgave me.
Perhaps you never could.
The companion poem, "Fried Rice," begins in and ends with harrowing statements that are connected by the most real and most perplexing of questions. The poem begins, "You tried to hack off your arm with a butcher's knife" and closes with "Your history is mine too."  In between those lines lie two great questions many of us with siblings have no doubt posed:

Why can't I remember more
about you? The tens of thousands
of hours you've been my brother?
I love that realization--that the history of violence the brother has enacted upon himself is also Garcia's history.  And I love that the answer (or at least the potential answer) to so many questions is, like the brother, unreachable, unrecoverable.

Based on what I've quoted, the book might come off as ultra-violent (it's not) or self-indulgent (it certainly is not).  In fact, it's far from it.  Rather, The Lesser Tragedy of Death is a groping.  It is a mining expedition.  It's a kind of personal excavation, a search for the mineral of understanding, the gold dust of revelation.  

And, what makes it artful and memorable is the marriage of style and story.  Her history as a fiction writer comes in handy here.  The book feels like a novel.  And yet, it moves like poetry. Garcia's language is precise, her insights marvelous.  Her line breaks startle, and the way she uses stanzas and form actually helps propel the story.

This is a bold project not just because Garcia has the courage to take on her sibling--her own arm she has no doubt tried to hack off--but also because she chooses to do so in poetry.

I found this collection wholly engrossing, often shocking, and, though wrenching, ultimately gratifying

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Bold Poetry Projects: Simone Muench's ORANGE CRUSH

I WAS DISAPPOINTED, OF course, when Simone Muench's new book of poems, Orange Crush, turned out not to be about one of my favorite neo-Fanta beverages.  But, I was relieved when I realized it was an homage to one of my favorite R.E.M. songs (I've got my spine . . .).

Wrong again.

Muench's Orange Crush isn't about music or carbonation (when is poetry really about either of these things?  It's about resilience.   It's about how creepy men can be, how strong women can be, and how eradicative history can be.

What makes Orange Crush a bold project is its commitment to ideology.  Or, put another way, its devotion to a rhetorical stance, a positionality that is often missing in contemporary American poetry.  

In 2008, Horace Engdahl, the secretary of the Nobel prize jury, bitch slapped (I know, right, the worst phrase!) American writing for its insularity. "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl said. "That ignorance is restraining."

Muench bitch slaps that ignorance with two hands and a hammer, and the result is admirable.  The book's title takes it name from the notorious "orange girls" of the 1600s.   Since most women were not allowed in he theater, girls who wanted to be near the drama of drama, sold oranges (and, in some cases, more) to the kinds of men who buy such things.  Muench's poetic project is to reclaim the lost girls, remember the forgotten lives, exhume the buried voices.  An epigraph by Kathy Acker prefacing the final section of Orange Crush gets at this desire to resuscitate: "All of us girls have been dead for so long. But we're not going to be anymore."

And so, Muench makes girls live.

To this end, she divides the book into four sections--"Record," "Rehearsal," "Recast" and "Redress"--which are grouped either thematically or formally.  For example, "Recast" features a series of prose poems grouped under the heading "Orange Girl Cast" that star the poet's friends.  This 13-poem suite intentionally evokes a cast of beloved characters from stage or screen.  Each poem bears a short title with the name of the actress in the starring role in parenthesis (first name, last initial).  I almost wrote that the poems are "sassy," but that belittles the poems' energy and poignancy.  They are less overtly surrealistic and image-heavy than the lyrics in her previous book, Lampblack and Ash, but still fully Muenchy:  

from 1: the fever: (starring kristy b): Sweet Kristy of the culvert, the ankle turn, the verb imperfect, and sailors' notebooks.

from 12: the bestiary (starring jackie w): O lady of the bossa nova. O girl born of semaphors. Into the moss and phosphorus. Into the salt marsh of subjunctive silence.
In both of these poems, syntax and grammar become part of the of identities of the women.  This is also the case for jessie m, "One mason jar, one wineglass, and a verb" (the ferment) and kimberly l "A girl leans across a counter, edges of her hair flaring neon. She is a verb written on a cardboard mannequin" (outline in neon).  And it is mackenzie c, moving "between syllable & windshield," who "can't see her way out of syntax."  Nietzsche claimed that we are prisoners of a grammar we did not create.  

And so it is.  

But, the language that has been used (and not used) to erase women from any meaningful record, is, after all the language that poetry can refute, rebut, and rename.

The most successful section of the book, "Rehearsal" includes the Orange Girl Suite, in which each poem bears a title from an orange-based entry in the OED.  Here, Muench marries history and herstory (did I really just type that? And, am I seriously leaving it in?) in provocative ways.  Turning on the latent violence directed at so many girls, the poems try to create and recreate female identity and to reclaim beauty ripped from them.

Punctuating the poems about girls and orange girls are more personal poems, including some about her own illness, like the fantastic, "Count Backward Toward a Future with You in It:

     Nothing prepares us for dying,
not even dying. Nothing separates us

from the sun's luminous text,
the way words enter skin in fire spirals

lilting the room into a red vivarium.
Splinter sung our puckered lips.
That's great stuff.  Bold language for a bold book.  

At its best Orange Crush marries the personal with the political, and it's never dysfunctional.  At its worst, it can come off as, perhaps, too rhetorical.  But, even that is a sin of excess, a transgression of looking outward.  If the Swedes think we are too often and too fully gazing inward, we all might do well to commit Muench's kind of sin a little more often.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Post National Poetry Month Posts: Bold Projects, James Thomas Stevens, A BRIDGE DEAD IN THE WATER

I'VE NEVER READ A book like James Thomas Stevens' A Bridge Dead in the Water.

And, I mean that as a compliment.

It's really not like anything out there.  Part of the fabulous Salt Earthworks Series, Stevens' experiments with form and epistemology are both refreshing and radical.

Stevens is Mohawk and his book takes on a number of pseudo-sacred ideas such as the Bering Strait theory, the ease of Eastern/Western relations, and the notion that learning English is both ethical and value-free.

The first part of the book explores the odd connections between the Jesuits and the Chinese, which becomes a larger metaphor for the contested spaces in which missionaries of all religions clashed with American Indians.  These poems are smart, energetic, probing arrows that puncture the inflated sense of self (and mission) we tend to cling to in the West.

From a poetic perspective, though, the most interesting segment of the book is the crazy cool "Alphabet of Letters." In a gesture that both waves at and gives the bird to such methods of Western knowledge and classification, “Alphabet of Letters” converts the traditional American school book into a veritable collage of signifiers. Subtitled “A New Primer for the Use of Native or Confused Americans,” this 20+ page “poem” collates phonics, classical rhetoric, a 1766 inventory list, false and real headlines, instructions on diphthongs, snatches of correspondence, a short Mohawk/English dictionary, and even heroic couplets as an alphabet lesson (K When KING Phillip, dead did lay, / the Puritans did Make their Way” (Bridge 97).  

Part time-capsule, part linguistic experiment, part experimental poetics, part historical bricolage, and part pedagogical sketchbook, Stevens’ bizarre anti-poem takes Belin’s and Woody’s fragmentation one step further.  Suggesting the cornucopia of sources that have shaped Indian identity (both within and outside Native communities), Stevens utilizes the genres of knowledge-making to assert the impossibility of compressing Indian and Mohawk identity into lessons, lists, and libraries.  

“Alphabet of Letters” divests the Western project of “Letters” of its privilege of seeing Indians as its subjects.  The forms of teaching and learning, the forms of identity arrangement, the forms of blood catalog—these are the forms that poetic genres, though their ontology of exclusion, Stevens contravenes.  It's angry. It's funny. It's inventive.  And, oh yes, it's funny. Unlike, I realize, this blog post.

Therein likes the minefield of earnestness.

Readers interested in ways in which Native American poets take on the ideology of mainstream America and the poetic conventions of mainstream academic poetry will love this book.  I highly recommend it.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Post National Poetry Month Bold Projects Post: Joan Houlihan's The Us

Us nest fine a weather long
between the heat of kin
the least of us in huts built round with stones.
A sky-hole takes the cook-smoke through

That's the opening stanza from the opening poem in Joan Houlihan's wild new book of poems, The Us, which tells the story of a nomadic group of hunter-gatherers (the Us) who are at odds with the hegemonic band of hunter-gatherers (Thems).  The Us narrate the poems in a kind of collective voice; it's never clear who the individual "speaker" is to us (either us for that matter).  The Us seem both to know English and not to know it, to live within it and to be strangers to its diction.  With its ritualistic rhythms and gestures and its Yoda-like syntax, it is one bold book.  I've never encountered anything quite like it.

But, and this is a fair question to pose, does it work?  

Well, that depends on who you ask.  The Us garnered some love from The Boston Review, and Lucie Brock-Broido has good things to say about it, but for Fiona Simpson, the book is far from Us-tastic.  In a harsh review in the February 2010 issue of Poetry, Simpson writes: "Any idea that this is a bold linguistic experiment crumbles before its lack of thoroughgoing-ness."  However, in an equally impassioned letter to the editor in the April issue, Steven Cramer takes Simpson to task for what he calls her "bias against the unlovely."  Comments on the Poetry website are all pro-Houlihan and anti Simpson. 

It's great when people get worked up over poetry, and to be sure, The Us is a polarizing book.
And, this is why The Us deserves attention.  In a recent poem-slash-blog post on the Best American Poetry Blog, Nin Andrews Andrewses eloquently about the love of and disdain for "the MFA poem."  One of the charges against the MFA poem is its self-referentiality, and by that, one might also imply its safeness--its closeness to home.  Suffice it to say that there is really no home in The Us--either literally or metaphorically.  Mythologically perhaps, one finds a provenance, but that's about it.  The willingness to give up positionality, to risk groundnedness, to embrace the nomadic is spooky but rewarding.

One key reward is invention.  A recent episode of 30 Rock lamented the death of invention, and to a certain degree, mainstream academic poetry can, at times, feel a bit like network programming.  In this sense, The Us is the Twin Peaks of American poetry.  It weaves in and out of reality, it plays with perspective, it sets up a moral dichotomy, and it splits its audience into camps that think it's genius and those that think it's gibberish.  

Perhaps the riskiest move of all is Houlihan's decision to play with vocabulary.  Like Twin Peaks, there are experiments with language, word order, and plurals.  It recalls novels like A Clockwork Orange or those Hobbit movies where people speak a funked up English.  This move is probably both the strength and the weakness of the collection.  I thought most of the attempts worked; some did not.  But, I was always amazed by how brave the project is.

In short, it comes down to this--you either buy it or you don't.  You're either willing to go along with the project, to suspend disbelief and be invited into the wacky world of The Us, or you're not.  But, the problem is, if you side with the latter, then you're not an us anymore . . . you're a them.  And, I think they all watch Fox.

Post-National Poetry Month Posts

NOW THAT NATIONAL POETRY Month has come to a close, I can now start posting about poetry again.

Sure, I could have written about poems during the spotlight month, but tiny 'ol TWR would have gotten lost in the tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk of poetry's biggest, baddest, most gangsta month.  But, a couple of weeks into May, and everyone will be missing those smart, insightful pieces about the role of poetry in American culture.  Of course, you'll find no such posts here, but you get the idea.

The theme of this year's post poetry month posts is "Edgy Projects."

I'll be featuring four relatively recent books of poems that take risks, that stretch the author, that may find the author working outside of his or her comfort zone.

You may not find all of these books "successful," but you will find all of them provocative and in some cases, even daring.

And no, Ryan Adams' Infinity Blues did not make the cut, despite how much I may love all those Whiskeytown albums.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Ice Kobe: A Guest Post by Scott Andrews

ICE KOBE: A Guest Post by Scott Andrews One of our favorite guest posters is back, just in time for the NBA playoffs. Here, he writes about a particularly interesting image of Kobe Bryant, whose Los Angeles Lakers are, at present battling the morally superior Oklahoma City Thunder (the best sports mascot in WNBA history!).

I love this picture.

I saw it being sold as a poster by a vendor at Venice Beach. He also was selling images of Marilyn Monroe with thuggish tats on her body. But it was this picture of Kobe that fascinated me more.

I saw it and laughed before I even understood what I was laughing at. I stared at it, fascinated by it and by my fascination with it. As I tried to understand my reaction to this gunslinging Kobe, I was reminded of reception theory. Yes, even on a sunny day in Venice, with bikini-clad girls rollerblading past, over the din of the construction of yet another medical marijuana dispensary, and lit by the flashes from the digital cameras of a thousand German tourists, I could wax wonk-like about a bootleg poster.

Must I over-analyze everything? Yes. Yes, I must.

In literary studies, reception theory is an attempt to explain the process by which audiences understand texts. Traditional literary studies had concentrated on what an author might have intended to communicate with a text, but reception theory (and reader response theory) concentrates on the reader’s interpretation, regardless of how that meaning deviates from the author’s intent.

One of the many influences on how a person receives a text is his/her community. People who share a culture, an economic class, or a community are likely to interpret a text in similar ways. And if the maker of a message shares this connection with the audience, it is more likely the audience will generate an interpretation similar to the maker's intended message. The further apart creator and audience are, the less likely they will be in agreement.

As I stared at Gangsta Kobe, I knew I had no way of knowing what its creator meant to convey since I didn't know who had made it. And I knew that what the poster could mean would depend a great deal upon who was looking. Is the poster celebratory? Does it appeal to people who see themselves as gangsters? Are they embracing Kobe as one of their own?

This seems odd when you think he so clearly is NOT one of them. He is a multi-millionaire. He spent much of his childhood in Italy, where his father played pro basketball. He did not grow up in the American inner city. He did not know the mean streets. He is more scampi than Scarface. However, Los Angeles is obsessed with the Lakers. Gangsters are obsessed with the Lakers. The people who identify with gangsters, even though they may go to church every Sunday, are obsessed with the Lakers. And so perhaps they claim him as one of their own, and they dress him up in the images from pop culture paraphernalia they are familiar with --­ movies, rap and hip-hop videos, CD covers, etc.

Do they imagine Kobe sharing their fantasies of fighting back against a system they may feel oppresses them? Is this poster some kind of Robin in the ‘Hood fantasy? Do they dream of Kobe following Public Enemy’s instructions to “Fight the Power”? Do they hope Kobe will descend from his gated community, arm his merry band of bodyguards, and cause some serious mayhem?

(By the way, no one could ever make a similar poster with a player from the Clippers. That would be ridiculous.)

Or is the image mocking? Does it appeal to an audience that sees Kobe as unlike themselves and similar to those lower-income people who identify with gangsters? Does the poster suggest that Kobe, despite his millions and comfortable childhood, is a gun-wielding criminal at heart?

Is it a racist poster? It may appear comical, but perhaps beneath the laughter is a quiet fear about the violence that can come from black anger.

Is it the celebration of the wannabe? You know, Seth Green's character from Can’t Hardly Wait. Jamie Kennedy’s character from Malibu’s Most Wanted. Does this poster hang in the bedrooms of nerdy boys across L.A., boys who wish they could be as cool as Kobe? Boys who mash up being cool and being black with being gangsta?

Ultimately, I cannot know what the poster means. And the fascination it holds for me is exactly the fact that I cannot know. I am fascinated not by what its ultimate meaning might be -- that is rather UNfascinating -- ­ but by its simultaneous and conflicting and irresolvable messages.