Review: TESTAMENT by G.C. Waldrep

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

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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.


In Bookstores Near You


In her latest novel, Silence & Song, Melanie Rae Thon once again wanders into the world of devastation. The opening clip captures a fiery car accident, one that could have been avoided if only the father, the driver, had agreed to stop at a hotel for the night instead of pressing onward into the blue night. Easily, Thon could have written an entire book about this one family in the aftermath: after all, the first section’s epigraph tells us this is a story about grief and the various means we have of grappling with it: tears, silence, or song.

But Thon has never taken the easy route. She isn’t a writer who panders to traditional expectations, but rather goes about questioning what narrative can accomplish, how inclusive it can be, just what magic it can manage.Continue Reading

NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA: Journey to the Center of an American Document

vintage virginia

This is the start of a monthly journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. I’ve loved this book for many years. It’s scholarly and luminous, unfolding a rich lexicon. Open its pages and whole rivers, chunks of amethyst, living birds, and secret mammoth skeletons tumble forth. This is the realm where Jefferson dreams his dreams. His Virginia is a body of milk and math, bounded by cartographer’s ink and by principles of republican government. In my journal, I write:

But when Jefferson dreams   he
does not dream of me

I’m an American poet of mixed European and Afro-Virginian heritage. Some of my ancestors hailed from Louisa, a community adjacent to Jefferson’s home in Albemarle County. Because I come from a long line of free and enslaved Virginians, and because I’m an alumna of the University he founded, Jefferson haunts my intellectual and artistic life. He’s the shadow I can’t quite catch, a mean glint in the mirror. He wouldn’t have approved of my writing. In Notes, he declares:

Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry.

Nevertheless, I keep going back to Notes. Maybe I want Jefferson’s blessing. Or perhaps I seek some evidence of my future poet-self seeded there, in his vision for America. I want to find, in Jefferson’s writing, a comradeship-in-language that I and other contemporary American poets might share (aren’t we dreaming, like him?). While Jefferson didn’t conceive of Notes as a literary work, I perceive an ecstatic poetic sensibility within it. Reading this book nourishes my heart. It hurts, too.Continue Reading

Review: THE PITTSBURGH ANTHOLOGY Edited by Eric Boyd

PittsburghCover_v1-301x450The Pittsburgh Anthology
Ed. Eric Boyd
Belt Books, September 2015
236 pp; $20

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“Pittsburgh has always been a scrappy city, characterized by unflapping tenacity, even as outsourcing and the ills of globalization threatened its survival,” writes Kevin Tasker in “Rebirth of the Hollywood Lanes,” one of the final essays in The Pittsburgh Anthology.

Edited by Eric Boyd, the collection seeks to portray the many faces of Pittsburgh through literary journalism, memoir, graphic essays, poetry, photographs, paintings, and drawings. Its array of voices and images range from the iconic—the place where the Allegheny and Monongahla Rivers converge to form the Ohio, the gothic skyscraper known as The Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, the Steelers, Mr. Rogers, and Andy Warhol—to the less visible—who knew there was a banjo club?

Through portraits of a bowling alley, a real estate agent’s property listing, and an indie band, among others, the anthology offers glimpses into multiple facets of a vibrant city with a rich past, memorable characters, and distinctive places. Characters include a neighbor who welcomes the author to a new apartment building through a foot massage and unexpected wisdom (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor? “ by Rachel Mabe); a civil rights photographer who brings to light seemingly invisible parts of history (Yona Harvey’s “The Missing Made Visible: In the Footsteps of Teenie Harris“); an alcoholic uncle who introduces the young narrator to a new, frightening world (“The Bottoms” by Matthew Newton); and a hipster/hunter and a steeler’s fan, among others (Rebecca Morgan’s full-color paintings.)Continue Reading

Angela Carter’s “Unicorn” and the Illusion of Empowerment Through Objectification

ca. 1602 --- The Maiden and the Unicorn by Domenichino --- Image by © Alinari Archives/CORBIS

ca. 1602 — The Maiden and the Unicorn by Domenichino — Image by © Alinari Archives/CORBIS

“Q. What have unicorns and virgins got in common

A. They are both fabulous beasts.”

In the new collection of Angela Carter’s mostly forgotten, but viscerally affecting poetry, Carter perverts mythological symbols in order to subvert the mythology of femininity. Just as Simone De Beauvoir lamented that “one is not born, but becomes, a woman,” Carter’s poetry, particularly the eponymous “Unicorn,” deconstructs “woman” as a mythological figure in herself.

As the legend goes, “no hunter can catch a unicorn” with the exception of a virgin, as her purity inexorably draws the unicorn to her. The virgin is sent out into the woods alone, and the unicorn finds her and lays its head in her lap, with all of the vaguely Freudian subtext that entails. In this poem, Carter crafts an intentionally uncomfortable interpretation of this myth in order to unveil the discomfiting contradiction and hypocrisy inherent to the notion of the “virgin.”

First, the virgin is “arranged” among the “innocent and fragile leaves,” which are “dripping with last night’s rain.” She is not necessarily innocent or fragile in her own right, but is “arranged” to be so, while the image of the leaves “dripping with last night’s rain” creates a tension between a patent sexual connotation and the pure, restorative power of rain, which follows from the baptismal association with water. The juxtaposition of images of purity with equally potent images of “dirty” sexuality illustrates the fundamental paradox of the virgin: she is expected to be “clean,” while she is necessarily defined by sexual parameters.Continue Reading

The Best Poem I Read This Month: Cortney Lamar Charleston’s “I’m Not a Racist”

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 4.35.15 PMCortney Lamar Charleston’s “I’m Not a Racist,” published in One Throne Magazine, is an all-too-relevant rendering of “fair and balanced” evil. The poem, organized in couplets and single-standing lines, presents a mash-up of thoughts from a speaker who claims “I’m not a racist / I’m a realist,” in order to uproot the twisted anti-logic that has led to the deaths of Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and too many people of color.

“I’m Not a Racist” is all voice, all “but I see it this way” opinion. Charleston’s method begins by mimicking a “stand your ground” shooter, and then moves into the voices of a politician, a Yale-graduate, and a “well-meaning” white liberal. At several points in the poem, the voices almost “tip the scale” into a forthright opinion, but then tiptoe back into “comfortable” zones. All references and topics discussed within the poem are “seemingly” ambiguous, while, in fact, they represent racist realities. The word “race” is crossed out in stanza 13, as if the word, or even the thought of the word, simply reflects a mistake. This “mistake” is counterbalanced by a gesture towards “fairness” in the use of language, wherein one of the white voices asks: “if they can say it, then why can’t I?”Continue Reading

“What is the name of this monster? Poetry….”


Godzilla_Raids_Again_(1955)_Behind_the_scenesIn his excellent zombie novel, Zone One, Colson Whitehead writes: “We never see other people anyway, only the monsters we make of them.” This sentence encapsulates one of the novel’s themes, but it can also be applied to a current trend in poetry which brings monsters to the foreground. This poetry forces the reader to look beyond the monstrous and into the characters of the monsters themselves. These poems ask: what kinds of monsters do we create and why?

Speculative poetry, and poetry using monsters, has been around as long as poetry (let us not forget the monster of all poems, Beowulf). Still the use of monsters in contemporary poetry has been rising over the past decade. It went from a rare occurrence, where I would undoubtedly be instantly more enamored of the poem simply because it contained monsters, to becoming almost commonplace.

I first started noticing the trend as I became more interested, and familiar, with Monster Theory and its applications for the study of literature. Monster Theory, especially as portrayed by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen in both his essay “Monster Culture: Seven Theses” and the collections he’s edited of critical monster theory essays, is all about how we can view cultures and moments through the lens of the monsters appearing in the works of said cultures and moments. Monsters act as a way for us to view ourselves and our humanity by looking at our fears and their representation.

So, going off of that (admittedly, simplified description of the applications of Monster Theory), it almost feels like the perfect fit for poetry. If poetry isn’t a way to analyze and deconstruct the moments and cultures that surround us, then what is it?Continue Reading

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

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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

Woolf at the Table: Good Dinner, Good Talk

woolf 001I have always been enchanted by Virginia Woolf and—being an avid cook and food writer myself—by gastronomic references in literature, both fiction and nonfiction. So when I learned about a book about the eating habits of the Bloomsbury set, of which Woolf was a member, I took notice. The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love, and Art is a compendium of recipes, food-related paintings, and biographical anecdotes that sheds new light on the members of that coterie of British artists, writers, and thinkers. The book sparked in me a new interest in Woolf’s novels. In this book and in Woolf’s work, she comes across as a food lover. Yet, like her novels, Woolf’s relationship to food is nuanced and complex.

Food, in Woolf’s hands, rises to a level above physical meaning—it becomes more than a delicious meal. In her early writings, it seems that meals were little more than an excuse for intellectual people to gather. Woolf was curious about food and understood its importance, yet she felt that in her time, too much attention to such seemingly mundane topics would be looked down upon.

Torn between what she knew to be significant and what she knew to be literary propriety, she deplored this restraint in her celebrated essay, A Room of One’s Own:

“It is part of the novelist’s convention not to mention soup and salmon and ducklings, as if soup and salmon and ducklings were of no importance.”

In this essay, she famously says, “A good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”Continue Reading

Armchair Traveling through History: The Orphan Trains in Literature

orphan train

Between 1854 and 1929, around 200,000 homeless, abandoned, and orphaned American children were sent by train, mostly from New York City, to new homes, mostly in the Midwestern U.S.

Later in the twentieth century and early in the twenty-first, in our contemporary versions of the Orphan Trains, planes from Vietnam and Korea brought escorted children to new families in the U.S and took new adoptive parents from the U.S. to Guatemala and Ethiopia and China to meet their new children. My own daughter came to me at ten months on a train from Yiwu City to Hangzhou in China’s Zhejiang Province.

So no wonder, when I read about the U.S.’s 75-year Orphan Train social experiment, it resonated so strongly with me. On a brief Thanksgiving trip to my native Kansas, I hoped to visit the National Orphan Train Museum and Research Center, dedicated to preserving stories and artifacts related to the movement, in Concordia. But an ice storm interfered with my plans, so I had to settle for some armchair traveling, reading the stories, both fictional and real, of orphan train riders.

At predetermined stops along the way in towns where advertisements had been posted, children were herded off of trains to line up while, one rider recalls in the book We Rode the Orphan Trains, “[Prospective parents] surrounded us, made us turn around, lift our skirts to see if our legs were straight, and open our mouths to show our teeth.” Some children were separated forever from biological siblings, landed in abusive situations, were treated as hired help, or weren’t fully accepted by their new families or communities.

But for the most part, orphan train riders were positive about their new lives in the Midwest, and, according to many sources, went on to live happy, productive lives.Continue Reading