Review: TESTAMENT by G.C. Waldrep

TESTAMENT_g.c. waldrepTestament
G.C. Waldrep
BOA Editions, 2015
144 pp, $16

Buy: paperback | Kindle | Nook

An endnote to G. C. Waldrep’s excellent new book-length poem points out that it “originated as a exploration of and response to three texts,” Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip (2009), Carla Harryman’s Adorno’s Noise (2008), and Alice Notley’s Alma, or The Dead Women (2006). It is no new thing for good poetry to inspire more good poetry, but since cross-fertilization is a sign of robustness, such acknowledgements are good to have.

Not that Testament is strikingly similar to the three named texts, at least superficially. The Robertson, Harryman, and Notley books are unclassifiable genre-benders, but the cover and title page of Testament plainly identify it as “a poem,” and it looks, reads, and even sounds like a poem—Waldrep writes for the ear as well as the eye, embracing musicality more freely than many current poets. Harryman’s and Notley’s books have a particularly hard political edge, mounting a resistance to the fear-as-policy bleakness of the Bush-Cheney years. In Waldrep’s poem, although references to gender, capitalism, and race are frequent (likewise for history, faith, and the Trillingesque “moral imagination”), questions outnumber answers (“Ask yourself: is it your country? Do you / belong there? Does gender?”), and even the assertions come wrapped in enigmas:

Capitalism swaggers
Outside language in the chrome shadow of
Something like an enormous, gleaming motorcycle
We aren’t sufficiently afraid of. Not yet.

Another aspect of the Notley, Harryman, and Robertson books (and a remarkable one, since political commitments usually involve an identifiable subject position) was that their speaking subjects were contingent and shape-shifting. The title of Waldrep’s book may evoke the stable identities we presuppose stand behind wills and witnesses, but he too keeps the speaker elusive (his previous book, Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, was an experiment in the collaborative construction of a lyrical subjectivity with poet John Gallaher). The poem was originally drafted at the Hawthornden International Retreat for Writers, and traces of that stay abide in references to an “Egyptian novelist” and “British poets”; there is also a “you” and an “us” and a kitchen that was “a delirious semblance / of all our commensal desires.” Winding among such landmarks, though, is a network of mistakes, a selfhood seemingly composed mainly of words misheard or misread, of memories misremembered, of accidents.

The scope of the book is difficult to convey in a brief review, or I would try to unpack Waldrep’s exploration of sense and memory in the recurring image of the bee, the eye, and the flower; or attempt to summarize his inquiry into language in the third of the book’s five sections; or ask whether the references to ribs and flaming swords are intended to evoke Eden and the Fall, and whether that fall connects to the various references to Icarus. The most concise reference point that occurs to me, though—Notley, Robertson, and Harryman notwithstanding—is that Waldrep is the closest American poetry comes to Geoffrey Hill, in the music of his language, the range of his erudition, the integrity of his intellect, and the honesty of his doubt.

 

Review: ROOMS FOR RENT IN THE BURNING CITY by Brandon Courtney

rooms for rent in the burning city_BRANDON COURTNEYRooms for Rent in the Burning City
Brandon Courtney
Spark Wheel Press, 2015
74 pp, $12

Buy paperback

In the days before Spotify and iTunes, rock bands faced a challenge known as the “sophomore album slump.” A new band typically had had a few years to compose and then hone in performance the songs that made up its first album; if the album did well enough to produce demand for a second, however, the band not only had a much briefer span in which to develop material, but also faced the puzzle of whether to stick to the style that had proven successful or change it up, so as to show ability to grow as artists—a puzzle many groups failed to solve.

Brandon Courtney’s second collection, Rooms for Rent in the Burning City, follows his first, The Grief Muscles, by only a year, and it passes the sophomore slump test. The strengths of his first book are still in evidence, but his work also shows signs of developing.

Having grown up in a small Iowa farming community during the meth plague and served in the Navy during Operation Enduring Freedom, Courtney can draw on a different range of experiences than most American poets. Continue Reading

Review: EXCERPTS FROM A SECRET PROPHECY by Joanna Klink

9780143126874Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy
Joanna Klink
Penguin, 2015
Poetry | $20
80 pages, 6×9 in

Buy: Paperback

As a stopped clock is right twice a day, so book blurbs are right a few times a year. On the back cover of Joanna Klink’s fourth book, Terrance Hayes declares, “As soon as I finished this beautifully unassuming and assured book, I began reading it again,” and for once this familiar hyperbole turns out to be just; the collection feels so whole and cohesive that on finishing one immediately goes back to read the opening poems with more attuned eyes. Likewise, the jacket copy’s phrase about “a self fighting its way out of isolation, toward connection with other people and a vanishing world” describes the energy of these poems accurately, if a bit melodramatically.

The wholeness and cohesion come about by a variety of means. The turns in the figurative language consistently surprise without ever seeming strange for the sake of strangeness, always mysteriously right:

no light of the fixed stars, no flashing in the eyes,
only heather pared by the dry air, shedding
a small feathered radiance when I looked away,
an expanse whose deep sleep seemed an unending
warren I had been given […]

Continue Reading

Review: LIFE IN A BOX IS A PRETTY LIFE by Dawn Lundy Martin

dan lundy martin_LIFE IN A BOX IS A PRETTY LIFELife in a Box Is a Pretty Life
Dawn Lundy Martin
Nightboat Books, 2015
Poetry | $15.95
104 pages, 6 x 9 in

Buy: Paperback

Dawn Lundy Martin’s two previous collections, A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering (2007) and Discipline (2011), were remarkable both for the rigor of their investigations of identity (family, ethnic, political, gender, and sexual) and for the formal risks she took in conducting those investigations.  Martin’s poetry is a high-wire act, a combination of audacity and control, and she likes to work without a net.

Her new book’s title raises the specter of confinement—a circumstance that occurs throughout her text, not only in imagery drawn from slavery and incarceration, but also in the citing of discourses designed to contain and set limits. Hegemonic voices periodically run vertically down the page, like prison bars:

“The Irish, the
Iberian, and the
Negro are of
low
prognathous
type,”

is paralleled elsewhere by a diagnosis of “nymphomania.” The text’s first-person voice wants to believe there is an elsewhere, but the way to it is hard to find: “We labor in our attempts at rebirth. Remain inside enclosure, wood box.”
Continue Reading

Review: THIS IS THE HOMELAND by Mary Hickman

HickmanHomelandThis Is the Homeland
Mary Hickman
Ahsahta Press, May 2015
80 pages
$18.00

Buy book

Mary Hickman’s first volume of poetry begins dazzlingly with “Joseph and Mary,” a poem carved out of Joyce’s Ulysses. Whether this was done by dramatic erasure or by mosaic-like re-arrangement of fragments is hard to say, but however it was accomplished, it enchants. Hickman’s distillation of Joyce’s novel carries a distinct flavor of Stephen Dedalus, a Stephen who has perhaps changed genders, but is still a shape-shifting intelligence in exile, looking for a body it can call home.

The body may be the homeland named and claimed in the title. Names of the body parts appear frequently—forearms, hips, glands, knees, feet, spine. The poems sometimes invoke yoga (“The Locust,” “Woodchopper”) or chiropractic (“Spinal Twist”) or even the operating table (“Twelve hours his chest / cracked & / died”), but somehow our best efforts to name and claim the body leave an elusive remainder. “This is the homeland,” the final sentence of the first section of “Territory” confidently asserts, but by the end of the second section the poem is asking, “What land is this?” In This Is the Homeland, the body is both the only place we will ever live and a mystifying, unknowable other.Continue Reading

Picasso’s Tears

untitled-1Picasso’s Tears
Wong May
Octopus Books, June 2014
323 Pages
$24

Buy: book

Few books of poetry this year will have a more interesting back story than this one. Born in China in 1944 and raised in Singapore, Wong May came to the United States in the 1960s to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop. Between 1969 and 1978, she published three collections of poetry with Harcourt Brace. Then, rather abruptly, no further books.

Poet Zachary Schomburg came across Wong May’s first book, A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals, in an Akron public library and was sufficiently intrigued to investigate. It turned out than Wong May had married an Irish physicist, moved to Dublin, and raised two sons. Although she published virtually nothing, she had continued to write poetry. Since Schomburg is one of the many contemporary poets who has a sideline as an independent publisher, we now have Picasso’s Tears, a handsomely-designed (by Drew Scott Swenhaugen) hardbound volume, 286 pages of poetry and an interview (more precisely, a 12-page answer to the question, “How has your relationship to poetry changed since 1978?”).Continue Reading

Talkativeness

Talkativeness_for_website_grandeTalkativeness
Michael Earl Craig
Wave Books, April 2014
104 pages
$18.00

Buy: book

If you were among those persuaded by Thin Kimono (2010) that Michael Earl Craig was a poet to watch, you may consider your intuitions confirmed. Talkativeness dwells a little more deeply in the voice of that earlier volume, becoming more at home in it, but still capable of surprise.

Craig’s territory is contiguous to the domains of Ashbery, Tate, and Dean Young, but a little further off the interstate, a little lonelier. The natives are kindly but unlikely to offer help unless asked. For that matter, you might get further by simply paying closer attention.

The book’s epigraph, from Yamamoto Tsunetomo, states, “No matter how good what you are saying might be, it will dampen the conversation if it is irrelevant.” But—the following volume seems to ask—how confident can we be that any remark is irrelevant, when it may connect intimately to the topic at hand by unguessable, labyrinthine subterranean channels? How do we know that the apparently tangential is not, in fact, the royal highway to the real?Continue Reading

The Pedestrians

Pedestrians_final_for_website_1024x1024The Pedestrians
Rachel Zucker
Wave Books, April 2014
160 pages
$18.00

Buy: book

Rachel Zucker is a writer of daunting productivity. The Pedestrians is her sixth poetry collection since 2002; she has also published a memoir, co-authored a book about home birth with Arielle Greenberg, and co-edited two anthologies—this in addition to having three boys of (on the evidence of this volume) moderate-to-high boyishness. Moreover, The Pedestrians could easily be considered two books.Continue Reading

The Dustbowl

223_4430The Dustbowl
Jim Goar
Shearsman Books, April 2014
86 pages
$16.00

Buy: book

The greater part of Jim Goar’s The Dustbowl is a poem or sequence also called “The Dustbowl,” which the jacket copy describes as “a collection of serial poems.” These poems are, on average, about ten lines long, made up of short, staccato sentences or phrases, often enjambed, and some deliberate compositional process has clearly taken place—a chart at the beginning of the book shows how the fifty-five poems of “The Dustbowl” were taken from a run of more than ninety. But we do not know what the principles of inclusion or exclusion were, or in what way the poems are serial.

One would like to know more, for “The Dustbowl” makes compelling reading. If one were to fall asleep some afternoon having just learned that John Steinbeck published The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (an adaptation of Malory) as well as The Grapes of Wrath, and then dream a braided dream of Okies pursuing the Holy Grail, and were Godard then to edit that dream, one would have something a little like this book’s title poem.

Continue Reading

Orange Roses

51xwlRDsvOL._SY300_Orange Roses
Lucy Ives
Ahsahta Press, September 2013
104 pages
$18.00

With the proliferation of graduate programs in creative writing, the day approaches when most poetry published in the United States will have been written by people with graduate degrees in writing poetry—a prospect that may launch a thousand jeremiads. But I will not complain, so long as the academicization of American poetry means we will be getting more books like Lucy Ives’s Orange Roses.

Ives’s poetry is aware of its own processes—as in “Early Poem,” which enumerates its one hundred sentences as they occur (“In the thirteenth sentence I realize I have chosen something”). It is also aware of its own awareness of its own processes, as when the eighty-third sentence forgets to count itself, prompting the admission, “sentence eighty-four contains the question, didn’t you already know that this would start to happen.” For some, this will seem like disappearing down the meta-poetic rabbit-hole.  But the rabbit-hole, remember, is one of the ways to get to Wonderland.

Continue Reading