Tag Archives: Spring 2023

Three New Publishers' Self-Retrospectives

The Esopus Reader
A Collection of Writing from Esopus, 2003–2018
Edited by Tod Lippy

Esopus Books ($32)

A Something Else Reader
Edited by Dick Higgins

Primary Information ($29.95)

Opus 300
The Poet’s Press Anthology 1971-2021
Edited by Brett Rutherford

The Poet’s Press ($19.95)

by Richard Kostelanetz

Though I collect books about many subjects to a desultory degree, the only genre in which I try to collect every important example is one whose definition is probably of my own invention: publishers’ self-retrospectives. Quite simply, from their past publications, the publisher of books or a magazine selects a purportedly choice anthology (by definition, a collection of flowers). My critical assumption is that, better than individual issues, such books portray what publishers think they have achieved and thus how they wish to be remembered. Sometimes such a book appears as the publisher continues working, though quite often the retrospective appears as the publication is shutting down.

Esopus was a remarkable magazine of aesthetic culture that Tod Lippy, a filmmaker and curator, edited and published semiannually from 2003 to 2018 in Lower Manhattan. Its most immediately striking quality was its physicality—a glorious nine by twelve inches in size, the magazine was printed full-color, on thick paper, and often with pullouts or sections smaller than the magazine itself. Because Lippy’s literacy was broad, on successive pages were subjects that weren’t normally found together, and as the chapters were individually designed, the mere turn of the page promised a higher reading experience. 

Given the quality of individual issues, The Esopus Reader disappoints, reprinting only choice longer texts in uniform blocks of continuous type within a more conventional size and format. The main disappointment is not that the articles aren’t good, but that this Reader doesn’t represent what was unique and best about Esopus.

In its short life from 1963 to 1974, Something Else Press was the most important publisher of avant-garde texts in the world. To those of us becoming literate about avant-garde writing in the 1960s, it became a kind of graduate school, telling us not only what wasn’t taught in institutions of higher education, but also which books and artists we should know and what ideas to respect. Founded and financed by Dick Higgins (1938-1998), a polymathic writer who was also a brilliant book designer, Something Else produced pamphlets, perfect-bound books in various sizes, book-art, anthologies, and ephemera that was indeed, as Higgins claimed, “something else.”

The current publisher of A Something Else Reader, Primary Information, claims that Higgins prepared in 1972 a typescript that was only recently discovered, more than two decades after his death. While this claim surprised me, as I knew Higgins fairly well at the time, I can’t now imagine anyone other than him doing this retrospective as well. Indeed, so good are his selections from his publications that Higgins demonstrates that he, unlike some other bookmakers, must have read his output carefully.

One theme of this new book is that many texts that were highly original then are still highly original now. A second is that avant-garde writing has not one strand but many. Rather than resetting the selections to produce a visually uniform appearance, this Reader reprints pages as they originally looked (including a text of mine, entirely numerical, consuming barely a third of an otherwise blank page). The book concludes with an “Analytical Checklist,” a model of its kind, by Hugh Fox, himself an intrepid small press writer, that originally appeared in The Little Magazine Review

Sooner than reprint whole examples in a short review, let me note that among the literary artists reprinted here are Jackson Mac Low, Eugen Gomringer, Robert Filliou, Wolf Vostell, Dieter Roth, Richard Melzer, Kitasono Katue, Allan Kaprow, Brion Gysin, Alison Knowles, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Claes Oldenburg, Gertrude Stein, and Higgins himself. If you know little or none of the literary art of these names, consider starting your education here. In any university course about avant-garde literature, this Reader could become a foundational text.

The theme of Brett Rutherford’s Opus 300: The Poet’s Press Anthology 1971-2021 is persistence over neglect. Rutherford’s press started small and never got much bigger as he moved away from his roots in Pittsburgh and hopped between cities, taking administration jobs and in his spare time publishing single-author collections and themed anthologies that would not have otherwise happened.

As with his 299 earlier publications, Rutherford has been generous—here with 146 writers, 363 poems, two excerpts from plays, and five prose works. Thoughtful are his headnotes for contributors both familiar and unfamiliar. He mostly published his contemporaries, but the most surprising inclusions are obscure British authors: Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849), William Allingham (1824-1899), Henry Kendall (1839-1882), and William Bell Scott (1812-1890), among others.

In the back of Opus 300 are Rutherford’s “Publishing Chronology,” his annotated bibliography, and an index of the hundreds of authors he published. As a small publisher’s self-retrospective, Opus 300 should stand as an instructive model.

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Two New Translations of Max Jacob's Poetry

The Central Laboratory
Max Jacob

Translated by Alexander Dickow
Wakefield Press ($22.95)

The Dice Cup
Max Jacob

Translated by Ian Seed
Wakefield Press ($19.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan    

With only relatively brief selections of work readily available to Anglophone readers, the French poet Max Jacob, who died of pneumonia in a Nazi internment camp in 1944, has nonetheless long held an exalted status. These new translations of two of Jacob’s major collections should be recognized as welcome and essential: The Dice Cup (1917), Jacob’s unprecedented contribution to the development of the prose poem, and The Central Laboratory (1921), a collection that spans nearly two decades, together encompass most of his early poetic work. As recounted in Roseanna Warren’s enjoyably thorough Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters (W.W. Norton, 2020), this extraordinary flowering was buoyed by Jacob’s friendships with Picasso, Apollinaire, and many others in the Parisian avant-garde—though he was often at odds with his fellow groundbreakers as well, such as his on-again, off-again prose poem rivalry with Pierre Reverdy.  

Born in 1876 into a bourgeois ethnically Jewish family in Brittany, Jacob scorned provincial mediocrity by absconding to Paris. There, he embraced the artistic city life that filled small streets and neighborhood hovels. Later in life, Jacob moved through the echelons of the upper class, mingling with art dealers and other patrons. Inner conflict about his homosexuality may have played a part in his deeply invested conversion to the Catholic faith, though he claimed it was due to a mystical vision. With Jacob’s enthusiasms as constant as his general dissatisfaction, it’s no wonder his poems display the influence of these shifting life experiences, often at a dizzying pace. As translator Alexander Dickow notes in his introduction to The Central Laboratory, “Jacob cannot act as unequivocal role model or poster boy for any particular identity: he is too full of contrasts and contradictions for that”; as a result, his “extraordinary life has long overshadowed his work.”                            

The frenetic shifting throughout The Central Laboratory—from line to line in individual poems (with an abundance of esoteric references and wordplay) and between forms from poem to poem (ballads, nursery rhymes, experimental collage)—continually surprises and challenges the reader. For instance, consider:


Someone’s patched up the azure of my sky
My nuptials had two lions standing by
And then Saint Catherine lifted her blade
To prune my honey-colored shrubs in braids—
Two castles on which little towers dwell—
The little castle tower’s scrofules swell.
It’s all that was left in this capitol
With bits of garden scattered here and there
And we could see your coifs of lace as well
Madame Adamunzipper
The color of kipper
Madame Mirabeau, Madame Mirabelle
Nebuchadnezzar’s mother, truth to tell.
Now sailboats returned to this cathedral
One with gold and the other with coal tar
The third one catching fire carried Abelard
While the sea seemed somewhat vegetal
I write in letters that are capital:
I’ll never be but a novice in art
The novices’ necklaces we wear crowns
The one who’s crowned amounts to he who crowns.                            

Jacob moves freely between sense and nonsense, beautifying the confusing, and at times, he delights in nothing less than the joy of how words sound. Yet, there is also  glorious hubris (“my sky”), cheeky insight (as in the closing claim), and a sparkling intellect throughout, all of which showcase Jacob’s depths as well as wordplay.  

As can be felt in the inventive lines above, Dickow’s translation of the Laboratory is generally quite fine, though there are occasional odd decisions. “Barège n’est pas Baume-les-Dames!” becomes “Bombay is not Ramagundam!”  which is defended in a footnote: “Jacob mentions Barèges, a town in Southwestern France, and Baume-les-Dames, a town in Burgundy. I felt that Indian names with similar sonorities and rhythms might be more evocative for Anglophone readers.” This might hold true for some Anglophone readers, but most would not recognize Ramagundam any more than Baume-les-Dames—and Jacob was naming French locales, after all. Why exoticize the work? In another instance, “La fenêtre: un cigare au coin de l’univers” is rendered as “Window: cigar that dangles from the cosmic lip”—a rather overtly poetic flourish for the clearer “cigar resting on the corner of the universe,” disrupting what would seem the more striking image Jacob perhaps intended of the universe as cosmic ashtray.

Though the prose poems in The Dice Cup might be less formally challenging for today’s readers than the dizzy verses in The Central Laboratory, Ian Seed’s new translations, like Dickow’s, provide an opening for digging deeper into Jacob’s poetics. Dickow leads the way, citing Robert Guiette’s 1976 critical study La Vie de Max Jacob based upon interviews with Jacob in the 1920s, noting how the poet “framed his poetics precisely in terms of ‘disappointment [déception]’” and took triumphant glee in how “the reader was slid from place to place until there was nothing left.” He goes on to describe Jacob’s work overall as “the art of sabotaging readers’ expectations, of producing doubt and disorientation, perhaps even sadness or a slight sense of having been jilted.”  Indeed, given the relative comfort most readers feel when faced with a piece of short prose (as it may contain the hint of a narrative, characters and actions assigned to them, etc.), it is jilting indeed to have none of the comfortable associations of one’s reading experience go as expected. Take this short piece: 

The House of the Guillotined

To Paimpol! You cross the hills in the evening. The roofs of the news houses in evening blue and sea blue. A room at the hotel for so many from the smart set. Now for a life of great pursuits. All these little bladders on the sidewalk come from pretend rabbits: a servant blows them up and we take a shot at them: there is but one true rabbit: he’s old and seated: “Where’s René?” “He puts in an appearance from time to time.” René puts rubber soles on his shoes to act out the role of the old rabbit, and we sit down at the table facing Paimpol, facing the port and the evening hills. There’s a lady who knows the hostess’s secret: “It was in Paimpol last year at this time that . . .” The lady rises, her eyes full of tears. What a scene!”

Of course, Jacob has no intentions of his poem aligning with readerly expectations. Paraphrasing Jacob’s own remarks, Seed relates how “The prose poem ‘transplants’ components of reality into a realm where we can ‘situate’ those components in relation to one another, offering us alternative versions of reality, which in this case is not something fixed and stable, any more than one’s personality is.”

With both collections, the intent is to throw the reader off balance and to have that experience offer delight. Dickow cites a 1907 letter of Jacob’s that draws an interesting contrast: “surprise is a stable state,” he writes, whereas “pleasure is in movement; the spectator must be tossed to and fro; aesthetic emotion is doubt. Doubt is obtainable through the coupling of that which is incompatible (and without producing stable surprise) . . . in poetry, interest is born of doubt between reality and the imagination . . . Doubt, that is art!” None of Jacob’s poems, whether in prose or rhymed verse, are intended to be too easily digestible; he intends to confound. Seed reminds us in a footnote that, “In his Art Poetique, Jacob famously declared, ‘Personality is only a persistent error.’” In his social life, Jacob continually presented a refreshed reimagining of his self to the various scenes through which he swirled. His poetry likewise remains dedicated to the constant reimagining of the world.   

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Laura Walker
Apogee Press ($18.95)

by John Bradley

The King James version of the Book of Psalms is a profound and intimidating text with layers of musicality, history, and spirituality. Most poets would avoid using this imposing work as a source of literary invention. Not so with Laura Walker’s psalmbook, which offers sixty-nine poems, all titled “psalms,” that draw inspiration from the Book of Psalms. Walker manages to preserve a sense of prayer while also reshaping the psalm into something new—a significant literary achievement.

One of the most notable attributes of Walker’s psalms is their fragmented state. They feel like translations from scraps of ancient papyri. Here is “psalm 142” in its entirety:

sound poured round our heads

like trouble

or gravel

The fragmentary nature of the poem is augmented by the use of the lower case, as well as the space between the lines, heightened by the oversize page (the book measures 7.5 x 9 inches). The spacing slows the reader, asks for the poem to be read again, and then asks us to meditate on the resonances.

Another innovation in psalmbook is Walker’s use of the second person. Unlike “Lord” or “God” in the King James Book of Psalms, “you” builds intimacy and uncertainty: “i see you there / or think i do” While this “you” usually seems to be used for a divine presence, at times there’s ambiguity: “i see you lying in the dark,” in “psalm 5,” could be speaking of a human presence. This ambiguity is unresolved in the adjacent lines: “tracing another cliff, another toppled island / on your bedroom wall :”.

Walker brings her psalms into modernity: “listen— / i will talk to you in the morning / by the washing machine.” Here the human need for spirituality is placed in the mundane world of laundry. Walker often blends Biblical and contemporary language. In “psalm 99” (there are poems in psalmbook with the same psalm number, indicating that some of the Biblical psalms inspired more than one poem) we hear both the King James-like language—“your name is a plucked thing in my mouth”—and contemporary language—“perched on a fence with your pant leg rolled up.” Perhaps the “plucked thing” could be a mouth harp. As the psalms continue, however, we encounter something unfamiliar, something surreal:  

perched on a fence with your pant leg rolled up,
holding a flag or an apple, milk-creased creature
against your thigh

No matter what this “milk-creased creature” might be, Walker suggests that the language we use in our daily lives—“your pant leg rolled up” or “holding a flag”—is just as worthy as King James English in creating a prayer.

The cover of psalmbook, showing scraps of ink-inscribed ancient papyri, evokes salvaged pieces of a holy text. It also evokes, as does the text of this book, what survives of Sappho’s poetry. Perhaps this allusion is intentional, though the yearning in Sappho’s poetry is more concerned with earthly love. Yet its fragmentary nature, as in psalmbook, furthers that yearning.

Walker’s psalms will no doubt lead some readers back to the Book of Psalms, and that’s all to the good. But psalmbook stands on its own, steeped in absence and mystery, such as in “psalm 85,” which is all of three words and a punctuation mark: “i remember you :”.

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Tuesdays in Jail

What I Learned Teaching Journaling to Inmates

Tina Welling
New World Library ($17.95)

by George Longenecker                                  

When she volunteered to teach weekly writing workshops at the Teton County Jail in Jackson, Wyoming, Tina Welling had little idea what she was getting into. She had never been in jail or visited anyone in jail.  As metal doors clanked open and shut, guards escorted her to her first class and watched her every move. Yet, before long, she found that a rewarding experience was in store for both her new students and herself.

Welling’s memoir is introspective and practical. A novelist and the author of Writing Wild: Forming a Creative Partnership with Nature (New World Library, 2014), Welling brings her writing talent to Tuesdays in Jail, which is beautifully descriptive and fast-paced. She looks at reasons the men there are incarcerated and guides them in self-reflection. She also offers practical advice for others who might want to tutor incarcerated people.

It's not easy for a nature writer to adapt to being inside a bleak prison—the Teton County Jail offers a stark contrast to the natural beauty of Wyoming.  Usually, Welling’s meetings are held in a group circle, overseen by a guard. Occasionally, though, she is locked on one side of a glass partition, with her student confined on the other side:

Each of the five doors needed keys or a code in order to pass through; each was made of thick metal and slammed closed with a deep clang that echoed off the cement block walls.  My stomach tightened with discomfort as each door shut with finality behind me.  I couldn’t find my way out of this place even if I held the ring of keys and the memory of codes.

Though she never feels comfortable in the sterile jail, Welling finds solace in helping her students access hope through writing. She assigns them philosophical and pragmatic prompts: “Choose three . . . characteristics that you’d like to strengthen within yourself, and write them down.”

While Welling knows she can’t fix her students’ pasts, she sees how her classes can affect their wellbeing and mental health—and even their chances of ending up in state prison. She ends up fighting to get the Teton County Sherriff’s Department to make policy changes so that those about to conclude their jail term are not cut off from the communities they’ll soon reenter.

Tuesdays in Jail includes a workbook of fifteen journaling lessons that a prospective volunteer could use for a class with incarcerated people, and throughout the book, Welling reflects on her own life and self-confidence. These reflections, along with non-judgmental sketches of her students, make for a beautifully written memoir that is a must-read for anyone living, working, or thinking of volunteering in prison.    

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Attending to Body and Earth in Distress

Ranae Lenor Hanson
University of Minnesota Press ($19.95)

by Elizabeth Bailey

The Danube is no longer blue, I hear as the PBS NewsHour covers the summer 2022 heatwave. Aerial shots pan along wan rivers. The voice-over catalogues the faltering crops, throttled hydroelectric power production, and impassable shipping lanes. The bridges catch my breath, their long spans straining over narrow trickles; lanky support pillars spike from exposed riverbeds dried to a pale suede. Drought makes these feats of engineering look foolishly overbuilt, even obsolete.

From the headwaters of climate change, many crises compound: economic, political, environmental, and social, but also the less newsy crisis of living in the Anthropocene. In Watershed: Attending to Body and Earth in Distress, educator and climate activist Ranae Lenor Hanson explores parallels between the lived experiences of climate change and severe illness. Adult-onset diabetes sent shock waves through Hanson’s life. With her frank account of the illness—its avoidance and disruptive diagnosis, its indignities and halting integration into daily life—she offers a personal map against which readers might chart their own ways through the uneasy waters of the climate crisis.

One parallel between bodily and planetary crises is in Hanson’s response to her escalating illness. At first, her symptoms are vague and ignorable: dizziness, fatigue, growing thirst. She copes by catching hold of a signpost at the bus stop when unsteady or perching “on the edge of a stool” when she can no longer stand up while teaching. This avoidance feels familiar: We all hope that a nagging discomfort will abate unaided, and tend to sidestep reckoning with deeper systemic issues, be they interpersonal, bodily, or environmental.

As Hanson’s symptoms worsen, diabetic ketoacidosis sends her to the hospital where she must finally acknowledge a new reality: without daily, even hourly attention to her health, she risks damaging her body, or shutting it down altogether. Later, she reflects on the difficulty of stopping to address crises; there are “exams to study for, jobs to get (or get to), children to raise,” and other duties and deadlines. After Hanson finally drags herself to an urgent care clinic, she begins to see that “like a diabetic crisis, climate trauma numbs our brains. The threat is too big to conceive, so we relegate it to the background. There it sits, unsettling everything, while most of us focus with increasing intensity on whatever task or diversion is at hand.”

Hanson’s midlife diagnosis upset not only her daily routines, but also her sense of herself as a capable individual treading lightly on the earth. Type 1 diabetes, with its required test strips, glucose monitors, insulin pumps, doctor visits, dietitian sessions, diabetes nurse educators, and medical device hotlines, abruptly ropes Hanson to numerous systems and the “ecological and social and infrastructure stability” needed to maintain health. This new dependency puts Hanson in tension with herself. She anxiously, almost obsessively, counts the “five used and useless strips” wasted while learning to test her blood sugar. Even once she gets the hang of the glucometer, she is pained by how much more trash she generates to stay alive as a diabetic, and bemoans her lost dream “to canoe off into the woods and survive on my own.”

A lifelong Minnesotan, Hanson’s rugged mentality was nurtured by a childhood in the “loosely connected, fiercely independent, unaffiliated Christian network of the north.” Her memories of the Minnesota backwoods have a timeless quality. Seasons roll past, drying peppermint and rosehips on window screens, drilling for fresh spring water, winter camping in trappers’ cabins operated on the honor system, and enduring the casual sexism of a grandfather refusing to teach his granddaughter to drive the tractor. Against this backdrop, certain moments bring the reader swiftly to a particular era. “Though the mosquitoes were thick” when men came to spray the yard with DDT, Hanson’s mother “had read Silent Spring and ran out in protest. . . . Laughing, they sprayed anyway.”

At the hospital, the doctor returns with “good news”: If Hanson “can find a deep, cool lake and a waterproof container,” she’ll be able to store insulin and “live in the woods for up to three months.” Hanson smiles, but then her thoughts turn to climate change. “All I need to do . . . is keep my lake cool.”

As Hanson struggles to navigate the challenges of her new reality, she returns to teaching classes in ethics, global studies, and ecofeminism at a Twin Cities community college. Her students come from many countries, and some “from more than one country by way of relatives and refugee camps.” In one class, students from Africa debate Nile water politics. For them, the implications of a new dam aren’t abstract; all the places the dam will affect—where it is built, where it takes water from, where it floods, where the water is sent, where war will “surely” break out—are personal, filled with “the grandparents of someone” and “the farms of someone else.” Their discussion is not only knowledgeable but undergirded by the firsthand knowledge that “Water is truly life. Or death.”

To some, the climate crisis may feel distant, a problem to be solved for the benefit of future generations. But Hanson’s students are already living amid the concentric crises (drought, famine, fighting) of climate change. For these students, this isn’t a future crisis. Catastrophe is ongoing. Disruption and upheaval have become their own way of life.

Watershed operates on this human scale. By braiding stories of individual struggles with climate-based calamity, Hanson encourages readers to honor and attend to the personal side of a global catastrophe. And what then? Hanson offers some of her suggestions in chapter titles and section breaks: “Pause to Survey,” “Consider the Need to Stop,” “Feel the Grief,” “Bear Witness,” “Practice for Mourning.”

One phrase in particular seems capable of holding the others: “Rely on a Deep, Cool Lake.” Each of us, this phrase suggests, would do well to find a reservoir from which to draw calm and strength. Let it sustain and replenish you, and learn what you can do to replenish and sustain it.

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I Made an Accident

Kevin Sampsell
CLASH Books ($24.95)

by Christopher Luna

There ought to be more books like Kevin Sampsell’s I Made An Accident, a thoroughly engaging blend of poetry and visual art. Sampsell’s collages feature unsettling juxtapositions (babies covered in snakes, for example) and everyday people, places, and things layered atop landscapes, galaxies, sheet music, and more. Women on telephones emerge from mountaintops. Small children sneak up on terrorized ingenues from old movies. Sampsell also deploys great ransom note poems and images of cats that will instill fear or laughter, depending on your predispositions.

The poem “John Stezaker Talks About Collage” serves as a kind of philosophical manifesto for the book: a lament over the “lack of materiality” in a “digital world” that has “too many images.” The act of collage, which can sometimes entail making decisions as simple as “turning a picture upside down,” becomes a way of simultaneously revealing and obscuring. Finding the perfect combination of recontextualized images, paradoxically, “is the moment when I’m somehow not present.”

In “Photos of the Ocean,” the poet confesses to attempting to “live / vicariously / through your / internet presence.” “Countdown” is an alternately hilarious and poignant lament for music delivery systems such as vinyl records, jukeboxes, and CDs. The poem begins with the apocalyptic pronouncement that “music ends next week” but ends on a note of resignation:

sometimes people will try to remember
what a song was
but it will feel impossible
to shape the air like
something that could make you cry

As the book goes on, a loose narrative featuring a dialogue with a friend or loved one in California begins to form. Comparisons are drawn between the writer’s life and how he envisions California: “I imagine every bathroom in California / as being sunny and warm.” Just as collage allows one to reorder the universe, poetry uses language to forge or reconstitute personal connections that may have been lost or rendered remote.     

Sampsell’s writing is understated enough that the emotional impact of a poem often comes as a surprise. “Can’t Remember How Old I Am” is a touching poem featuring funny, intimate observations about a hairdresser alongside the writer’s internal monologue while being worked on:

She saved my life, I thought.
She saved my hair’s life, I thought.

What am I pretending to be?

Even more beautiful, “Crush” examines affection and desire in which “love is never shaped like I expect”:

It is a queer tree
Waiting to be cut down
by someone I thought was a stranger
Are you boy-shaped?
We were never boy-shaped
You said you loved my belly.
I’ll never forget that.

In the final section of I Made An Accident, the colors in the collages burst forth from the page, ending the experience with a crescendo of women and men from another time dancing “like Nicolas Cage / if he knew how to dance.” The big finish also features heartbreaking poems like “Broke & White” and “The World”:

It should be easy to love someone.
To be in the world and to see the good parts.
I feel alive when someone talks to me
About their small things.
An open window that stays open because
It wants to.

Sampsell’s poems and collages quiver with the inescapable melancholy of earthly bliss and suffering. Readers may see themselves reflected in I Made An Accident and will want to return to its kaleidoscopic complexity again and again.   

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Alive at the End of the World

Saeed Jones
Coffee House Press ($16.95)

by Walter Holland

Saeed Jones’s latest book of poetry, Alive at the End of the World, is an outpouring of anguish, grief, and anger. It’s also an outward-looking commentary about racism and the performative pressures placed on the Black artist in America to meet white expectations and assumptions.

Jones’s debut came in 2011 with his chapbook When the Only Light Is Fire (Sibling Rivalry Press). It was followed in 2014 with his full-length collection Prelude to Bruise (Coffee House Press), a beautifully crafted account of his boyhood in Texas and his life growing up as a young queer Black man. The rich lyricism of his work, with its mix of earthy imagery, explosive violence, and sensuous eroticism, portrayed a world of family, country life, pervasive racism, and trenchant inner conflict.

Jones is part of a generation of queer poets of color who have revitalized and reshaped American poetry. In recent years, this group has been nurtured by the efforts of progressive MFA writing programs and writers-of-color-focused organizations. One of these organizations is Cave Canem, established in 1996 by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, which seeks to counter the underrepresentation and isolation of African American poets. In like manner, Lambda Literary created its Emerging Writers program for LGBTQ+ authors; these talented poets were also embraced by the small-press publishing world, which made a concerted effort to promote more diversity. Jones joins the likes of Danez Smith, Donika Kelly, Justin Phillip Reed, Taylor Johnson, and Jericho Brown—I could go on—all queer Black poets of distinction.

Alive at the End of the World is a departure from Prelude to Bruise. It has the tone of a jeremiad, a long lament and outcry of informed complaint that is sharp, direct, and chilling. It harbors angry indictment and accusation. It is the work of a maturing poet, too, and perhaps a transitional work: Jones has moved from the subject of his boyhood to the volatile racist politics of the here and now, as well as his worries for the future.

These poems speak of a constantly unjust and fearful world. Jones weaves together scalding social commentary with everyday personal experiences, uncovering the tense undercurrent of racial conflict in every facet of Black life and the psychological wounds it inflicts.

The title poem, really a series of poems of the same title, offers a fitting overview of this formidable project. The first poem begins:

The end of the world was mistaken
for just another midday massacre
in America. Brain matter and broken
glass, blurred boot prints in pools
of blood. We dialed the newly dead
but they wouldn’t answer.

Inequities and violence are casually understated, but their brutality is clear beneath the dismissive tone of the final dialogue:

With time the white boys
with guns will become wounds we won’t
quite remember enduring. “How did you
get that scar on your shoulder?” “Oh,
a boy I barely knew was sad once.”

And it’s not just the most tragic violences that define these end times. In “Sorry as in Pathetic,” Jones describes a white woman on a street walking “right through” him to get to “her next spike-heeled hour.” He waits for the woman to turn and apologize, but soon realizes that her violation of his personal space will not be acknowledged; she doesn’t even “see” him as being there. He closes the poem with the description of another tense encounter, and the sad fallout that adds weight to the title:

once I was lost on a late-night street
and when I asked

the woman walking just ahead of me for help, she screamed
“Oh, god!” and clutched her purse the way the night holds me.

I told her I was sorry, then felt sorry for saying sorry.
I think of that woman often; I doubt she ever thinks of me.

Jones’s language displays a wonderful musicality and a gift for metaphor. In “Date Night,” he contemplates his mother crying out in her sleep for her brother, his uncle, whom she wishes still lived near her, as though only he could give her comfort through his solid masculinity and paternal strength. The poet is hurt by his mother’s yearning—though he is perpetually available to her, he cannot be who she wants—and this suppressed inadequacy apparently gets voiced aloud while Jones sleeps with a lover. Here is how Jones transforms this pain into poetry:

When a Venus flytrap
flowers, the two white blossoms sit atop a very tall

stalk. Green teeth way down at the bottom. It’s trying
to avoid triggering its own traps. It’s trying to keep

the bees it needs for pollination away from its own traps.
I’m most dangerous when I’m hungry. I’m most hungry

when I’m hurting. Seems like I’m always hurting. Nothing
but teeth. Nothing but the same words calling out to me

in my sleep. Grief asking its ghosts not to leave. Please.
It’s not up to me when I get to stop crying. Or hurting.

Or holding memories in my mouth, gentle as bees
I promised not to eat, but oh, the hurt is so sweet.

In a way, this poem serves as an ars poetica as well as a trenchant personal narrative. Jones has tried to resist the temptation to eat of the fruit of grim knowledge—not of something as simple as good and evil but of racist hatred, of maternal rejection, of all the many slings and arrows that Black men in America face daily. But as a poet, as an artist, he is compelled to eat of this stinging truth—and equally compelled to make from it the sweet honey of verse.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2023 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2023

Stop, Look, and Listen: An Interview with Rae Armantrout

by David Moscovich

There is much written on the life and work of poet Rae Armantrout, including her own memoir True (Atelos, 1998). It was through this book that I thirsted to ask about her Evangelical background, and how a such a meticulous poetics of what Gordon Lish would call “quiddity” could emerge from the fascinating world of fundamentalist Christianity. Regardless of how it comes about, though, there is surely an inquisitive nowness in her timeless poems, a willingness to engage with Guy Debord’s spectacle or to completely ignore it, and a thrilling ability to transport William Carlos Williams’s iconic red wheelbarrow into an uninhibited, semantic, seismic, motionless playground.

Segments of Armantrout’s latest book Finalists (Wesleyan University Press, $35) seem reminiscent of the Harper’s Magazine column “Findings,” a digest about recent scientific research; when placed side to side, its items have a peculiar strobing effect. Throughout Finalists, etymologies inflate and implode, contradict and contort, resisting motion as if they were two magnets connecting. Making new meaning of familiar references is part of this dance of contrast; pop culture grounds Armantrout’s work in the contemporary world, while physics, genetics, and botany enshrine it with her exquisite L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.

Armantrout’s other recent notable books include Wobble (Wesleyan University Press, 2018), which was a finalist for the National Book Award; Versed (Wesleyan University Press, 2009), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010; and Veil: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001), a finalist for the PEN Center USA Award.

This interview was conducted at the end of 2022, with Armantrout’s punctual feedback, over email.

David Moscovich: You came of age among the West Coast “language poets” of the 1970s. What advice would you give young women writers today?

Rae Armantrout: I hesitate to give advice to young people who will be living in a much harsher world than I have. That said, the old advice to “Stop, look, and listen” travels well in poetry as well as life. Hone your curiosity. Read widely.

DM: How does family influence your work?

RA:  For the last five and a half years, I have been participating in the care of my twin granddaughters. There isn’t much that’s more interesting than the emergence of mind, personality, and language. They are adorable, but, especially since they’re twins, they also provide a front row seat on what you might call war and peace. There’s a lot of fighting, scheming, negotiating, making up, etc. (It’s possible I think this is fascinating because it’s the newest thing in my life.) In any case, their sayings and doings have gotten into my poems lately, just as my parents got into my earlier poems.

DM: Can you speak to your upbringing—how did Vallejo, San Diego, and Evangelical Christianity help form your current approaches to poetry? I think you’ve addressed at least part of this in an essay about your mother, but I wonder if you have anything to add now.

RA: You’re right, I have written about this before—in a memoir called True, published on Lyn Hejinian’s Atelos Press,and in interviews. I grew up in one of those housing developments built after World War II in which there were, say, five models of home repeated down the block. But, no surprise, it wasn’t exactly “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver.” My father was in the Navy, so he was away for long periods. My mother managed a candy store. My maternal grandmother took care of me, but she was a rather taciturn, distant presence.

Fortunately, I discovered reading early. My best friends were books. When my father wasn’t on deployment, things were worse. He was a drunk. I tried my best to avoid him. I got into some minor delinquency as a teenager but still managed to make it to adulthood relatively unscathed.  

My mother and grandmother were fundamentalist Christians, which meant I grew up reading the Bible and going to church. I started to have doubts by the time I was 11 or so. We had an encyclopedia, as families often did before the internet, and I remember reading about evolution. I showed my mother the pages and she said, “Don’t look at that!”  I think I got interested in science as a way to break out of the evangelical cage.

DM: Do you have any work that you have kept private which you are still working on or which you plan to de-privatize?

RA:  Although I wrote about my early years in True, at the start of the pandemic, I decided I would write a complete autobiography. Ha!  So far I’m only up to the age of twenty-six.  I have a long way to go. When I wrote about my childhood and teenage years this time, I decided to write the truer, unexpurgated version. Stanford bought this first installment when they bought my papers in 2021. I don’t intend to publish the thing. To see it, you need permission. I did it this way to protect my family and friends.

DM: Can you recall the very first time you wrote something down and thought of it as poetry (not for publication)?

RA: When I was in first or second grade my teacher had us make up poems. She must have read us some haiku. I wrote, “The little fisheys swim / around and around / and away.” I remember this poem was put into a mimeograph book of class work, but I certainly had no idea of publication.

DM: At which point in writing poems for Finalists did you know you had a cohesive book?

RA: The book is in two parts: “Threat Landscape” and “Finalists.” “Threat Landscape” was written first. I see the two parts as two different manuscripts so, to that extent, I don’t have one cohesive book—I have two that I chose to pair.  Most of “Threat Landscape” was written before the pandemic (with the exception of “Fashion”) and most of “Finalists” was written during it.  So they are bookends, I guess.  (Though I don’t mean to imply that the pandemic is over.) The two parts have some common themes, of course: the climate crisis, and raising children in a world we’re ruining. In “Threat Landscape,” I try breaking the manuscript into sub-sections divided by one or two-line phrases. Mini poems. I’ve never done anything like that before. In “Finalists,” I found myself writing longer poems, some prose poems, and I leaned into that as much as I could during the early pandemic solitude.

DM: It seems the first few poems are broken into sections of one, two, three. How did this form come about? Why threes? And perhaps related: In a poem entitled “System Processing,” you write:

To get an idea
is to place one thing

beside another,
see how they look,

whether they’re a good fit—
though I don’t want them

to fuse.

I know I will want
to move them again.

To what extent might this poem describe a part of your writing process?

RA: I do tend to break poems and sometimes even books into sections. I started to use internal divisions early on as a way to write longer poems. I found I could stretch poems out by juxtaposing different observations done at separate times. This seemed like a natural way to go about it.  After all, the brain bundles perceptions into packets— separate “nows”—each several seconds long.  Now is not continuous. But there are other reasons too. I always find myself interested in how two or more distinct things/perceptions/tones might fit together. What do they have in common? How can bits drawn from different sources or scenes inform one another? This juxtaposition is a way of making implicit metaphors.  But such metaphors will always be knobby. The parts will resist each other. And I think these resistances are at least as interesting as the harmonies. My poems look at what happens when very different things meet.

And, yes, the lines you quote from the end of “System Processing” do describe this process. They imply that an “idea” is always a way of seeing what happens when A meets B. I didn’t start out to write a poetics statement. The poem starts with a quote from something I read on systems theory and consciousness. The rest of the poem is a kind of thought experiment using concrete, down to earth examples to explore and question the heady initial concepts. Somewhere along the way, though, I do start to reflect back on my own writing process.

DM: I was raised with values that fall somewhere between atheist Marxism and secular Judaism, so I have a curiosity about all types of Fundamentalism. Read with an Evangelical lens, I wonder how the logic in “Recent Thinking” might assemble/disassemble a belief in the Christian higher being: What is the difference between simulationism (if that’s even a word) and creationism? They seem potentially related in your eyes:

Some say the fact that the world is computable
is evidence we’re living in a simulation.

And the fact that the simulations we create
are improving rapidly is further evidence of this.

It is reasonable to think that any simulation might
have been created by one more advanced than itself,

a potentially infinite regress in which
the word “simulation” becomes meaningless.

Experience suggests that simulations are games
with both player and non-player characters.

No character has explicitly stated
that we should destroy the biosphere
to test the limits of the game.

I’m interested in the question of when and how deep-seated beliefs, such as evangelism or atheism, might morph or flex over one’s lifetime, in your view.

RA: I think you’re absolutely right. “Simulationism” and creationism have the same structure and the same shortcomings. Both suggest that some humanoid intelligence created us and is watching us. They propose different versions of the Big Other. Both theists and people who believe in simulation theory, for instance, argue that the fact that math works in the world shows that “reality” was intelligently designed by a mind or minds somewhat like ours. That’s actually an interesting argument. I’m not saying that simulationists or (all) theists are stupid. Far from it. But both ideas fall into an infinite regress, which is not where you want to be. If everything must have a creator, then who created God? Or, if the fact that we make simulations implies that we are a simulation created by a more advanced civilization—then who created them? Where does it stop? And where does our responsibility begin? In simulation theory we really have no agency. Similarly, it could be argued (though it rarely is) that if God is truly omniscient, we have no agency. I think we should act as if the world is real and as if we can affect what happens. I also think both theories underestimate the dynamism and creativity of “nature.”

As for how my “deep-seated” beliefs have changed over time, I don’t think the evangelical Christianity I was raised with was really deep-seated.  I mean, I shed it quickly in my early teenage years and never looked back. I was too curious to stay there. I did a paper on comparative religion in seventh grade and that was the end of that.

I do think reading the Bible at a young age prepared me to understand metaphor and parable. Since it was the King James version, it even prepared me for reading Shakespeare. To be clear, I know sophisticated, intelligent Christians—but they aren’t fundamentalists. It’s the Jimmy Swaggart form of religion I’m allergic to. I’m an agnostic, really. I mean, it’s not impossible that we are living in a simulation!  But it’s a very depressing thought, and the argument for it is essentially circular. The poem is an exploration of the way plausible reasoning can go wrong.

DM:  What this brings up, in a way, is censorship, which according to a recent PEN America report on banned books is increasing in the U.S.—1,648 titles were affected between July 2021 to June 2022. Do you know of an anti-censorship argument that might speak effectively to religious-minded folks who hold faith-based objections to books—something that might actually move opinions?

RA: This seems to be the age of censorship. Who would have expected that? People on the left have tried to ban Huckleberry Finn from school libraries because the N word, used by characters in the book, is racist and potentially triggering. But the strongest censorship movement now is on the right, which apparently wants to keep young people from knowing that gay or trans people exist—even though some of these kids are inevitably already gay or trans. They’re also against teaching the true history of racism in this country.  I am against censorship—though I do think curriculum should be age appropriate. Do I know of a good argument against it?  Well, ignorance is seldom good. It’s certainly not what school is about. Kids will find out about all this stuff sooner rather than later on the internet anyway. Why not contextualize it.? You could use Huckleberry Finn in high school, for instance, to teach about racism and slavery, about character and humor, and about the dream of freedom as experienced by Huck and Jim. As for the right wing, I doubt those people are amenable to argument. They want to institute a theocracy. They are on a political crusade and they won’t let a little thing like an argument stand in their way. It’s very dangerous.

DM: I wanted to ask about the poem “Cathexis”:

When we say the world is haunted
we mean untranslated
                                             as yet.

A “cathexis”
is a catch basin
in English.

A result of draining
“here” off into “there.”

Starbucks’ billion plastic straws
are green.

I know the leaves are whispering.

Tell me what my mother meant!

Are the final lines of the poem autobiography?

RA:  Cathexis is a term usually used in psychology; it refers to a concentration of mental or libidinal energy on a particular person, object, or idea. An obsession, in other words. So it isn’t really “a catch-basin/ in English”—not literally.  I like making up faux definitions. This one isn’t so wacky though. Cathexis really does drain “‘here’ off into ‘there’” if we take “here” to mean the self and “there” to mean the fascinating object. As for the poem’s last lines, they are not primarily autobiographical; I see the demand as being spoken to the leaves, to nature. The whispering of the leaves perhaps reminds the speaker of the whispers of her parents when she was a child. 

Nature and the incomprehensible speech of parents are connected here. Adult speech amounts to a kind of “primal scene” for the child, to use a Freudian term. Freud said that walking in on one’s parents having sex is traumatic because the child can’t understand what’s going on and sees it as violent. I’m hypothesizing that the traumatic lack of comprehension extends way beyond that particular sight. So the whole poem exists in a somewhat playful argument with Freudian psychology. (Mother is one, the first, fascinating object of cathexis?)  Did I feel this way as a kid? Maybe. I don’t remember.

DM: You mentioned that you are writing a complete autobiography, but that you do not intend to publish it. Can you explain more about your motivation behind this? How does it feel in comparison with writing poetry, for publication, for example?

RA: It’s entirely different from writing poetry. I’m writing it in a fairly linear way in order to try to remember—and reconsider—the events of my life. It’s difficult both because I’m not used to writing like this and because my memory is pretty hazy. I started it as a project to work on during the pandemic and, I must say, I’ve ground to a halt since things have loosened up. I want to get back to it, though.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2023 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2023