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.


“Different Paths Up the Same Mountain”: An Interview with Adele Kenny

adele kenny

Adele Kenny’s poems speak from the head and the heart, giving thoughtful scrutiny to the moments that move us—whether to wonder or to grief. She is the author of more than 20 books of poetry and nonfiction, including What Matters, winner of the 2012 International Book Award for Poetry, and A Lightness, A Thirst, or Nothing At All, a collection of prose poems. She is also a strong advocate for poets, most notably in her work as poetry editor for Tiferet Journal and founding director of the Carriage House Poetry Series in Fanwood, New Jersey. We caught up at the start of the new year to talk about writing, metaphorical mountains, and what poetry and dancing have in common.

Matthew Thorburn: What draws you to prose poems? Does writing in prose present unique opportunities for you as a poet?

Adele Kenny: It may be that my initial romance with prose poems derived from past experience as a ballet dancer and dance teacher. I’ve always been aware that poetry uses space just as dance does, so I was very conscious of the prose poem’s use of space and how different it is from other forms of poetry.  Then there’s the intriguing name—prose poetry. How can poetry be prose, and how can prose be poetry? I don’t believe that one can be the other, but a combination of the two does form its own genre, a certain duality that I find exciting. Prose poems aren’t bound or defined by lines (they look like paragraphs, and are box-like in appearance), but they still employ the techniques and tricks of poetry.

Importantly, prose poems are strongly rooted in imagery and metaphor. Imagery is the engine that powers my poems and, for me, it’s even more imperative in prose poems. Prose poems also contain complete sentences and deliberate fragments; they speak the language of dreams, and give a nod to the surreal. They often include strange layers of language in which what appears to be abstraction really isn’t.

I find it a particular challenge writing prose poems, a challenge that forces me to stay inside the “box” but still create work that’s both haunting and lucent—work that contains subjects imbedded with sub-subjects but presents an integrated whole of language, meaning, and form. 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

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

“Unexpected Brightness”: An Interview with Elaine Sexton


Elaine Sexton’s poems are active, nimble, curious—they often seem to be trying to solve a problem or puzzle out the right words to describe our too-often wordless emotions. No wonder her first book is called Sleuth. Elaine’s other books include Causeway and, most recently, Prospect/Refuge. She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and New York University, serves as visual arts editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. In the midst of the pre-holiday rush, we took a few minutes to talk about writing poems, naming books, and finding the creative connections between writing poems and making art.

Matthew Thorburn: Your new book’s title, Prospect/Refuge, seems to point in two directions from either side of its slash mark. How did you choose this title?

Elaine Sexton: Originally I had an idea the book would be divided into three sections, three voices, that of the “singer,” “barker,” and “siren,” which together were: soft, hard, and alarming. While fine-tuning these poems, work I believed to be essentially complete, an artist I met at a residency asked me if I’d ever heard of “prospect-refuge theory.” The minute I heard the two words together something clicked. I came to see that the act of writing a poem and making the book possessed an opening up, a kind of opportunity (prospect) to discover something, as well as a refuge, some kind of containment.

I appropriated the title from Jay Appleton’s theory, which he applies to an “experience of landscape,” not poetry. But it easily applies to both. I replaced the hyphen with the / mark between the two words to show them as two parts of one thing. My application of this theory relates not only the process of making, but the subject of some of the poems as well, as two states that contribute to the harmony in intimate relationships.

I like that you see a tension there, too. There is actually a small but direct reference to prospect in the poem, “Resident,” which is a nod to that artist who lent me the idea, Julie Baugnet:  “The prospect of paint / is the refuge / of ideas.”Continue Reading

“Subjects We Never Completely Learn”: An Interview with Daniel Nester

Hamilton_Square,_NJ_BW_PsharesDaniel Nester’s prose zings back and forth between the heart and the funny bone. His latest book, Shader, is a kaleidoscopic coming-of-age story told in brief chapters called “notes.” It’s like one of those family slideshows that make us laugh, groan, squirm in our chairs, and sometimes cry. His previous books include How to Be Inappropriate, God Save My Queen I and II, and The Incredible Sestina Anthology, which he edited. Daniel teaches writing at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. We caught up recently via email to talk about Shader, the dangers of memoir writing, and the joys of writing notes.

Matthew Thorburn: Shader is subtitled “99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects.” I’m curious how you came up with the “note” form, and what makes the subjects of these notes “unlearnable.”

Daniel Nester: Part of what “unlearnable” accomplishes, for me, is to challenge an often Pollyanna-ish approach memoirists bring to risk-taking, the “if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing” business. We’re supposed to learn from experience, yes, but the truth is that there are subjects we never completely learn.

The form came out of my practice of note-taking, which goes back to my first books on Queen, where I wrote a note for every song the band recorded. I like to joke that, when I write, I feel as smart as Susan Sontag, whose “Notes on ‘Camp’” is a big inspiration. Then I look at what’s on the page and realize that’s not the case.

MT: Shader is poignant, often hilarious, and throughout feels very candid. Was it difficult to revisit some of these experiences from your past—and write them down for people to read? Did you ever feel the temptation to revise your memories?

DN: I like your slideshow comparison. People who study memory will tell you we’re constantly revising memories from the place and time of our remembering. I started writing Shader before our first daughter was born—I knew my perspective would change. Once I got a memory down, I respected the memory: if I discovered I got a minor detail wrong, I considered keeping it, since that’s how I remembered and re-lived it.

Parts of this book were very difficult to write. The parts about my father were painful, and I wanted to portray Maple Shade as honestly as I could. In personal narrative, there’s the idea that you’re the protagonist of your own story, what Vivian Gornick calls the “unsurrogated” narrator, and so you’re tempted to make yourself look cooler or better. But when you’re rocking a mullet and you’ve got Cutting Crew’s “(I Just) Died In Your Arms” on your tape deck, where do you start? Even Saint Augustine knew that humility runs the risk of being an “exploit.” Give me raw and candid, even prideful, honesty over twee faux-naïf mumblebrag all day long.Continue Reading

Destruction Modes: Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s Solar Maximum

solar_maximum_sueyeun_lee_frontSolar Maximum
Sueyeun Juliette Lee
Futurepoem, Winter 2015
128 pp, $18

“Perhaps we continue in the wake of a disaster we hardly marked,” runs the last sentence of Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s endnotes for Solar Maximum. Or, the last sentence could be the italicized incomplete fragment: “((when the sun disappears” ending the title poem – an unclosed parenthetical, an opening left open. The closing of this text of “speculative poetics” depends on the reader’s imagination and, as Lee posits, so does our own collective end–as human beings, as life-forms, as residents of an earth always spinning with the potential of being swallowed by the sun.

Most aspects of life require a sort of speculative poetics, an imagining not readily apparent. In order to go about our day-to-day activities, we need to think of what’s not in front of us and what we can’t see in order to progress. Although in this book Lee aims for the literally cosmic, the most maximum, and she does so using small blocks of prose and DNA-like strands of phrase vertically spinning down the page, her scope goes small as well as large. “We spend the afternoon together watching a docudrama about wild horses that roamed the ancient Arctic circle,” begins one section, indicating that the perspective of these poems stays close to individuals looking up at the stretch of stars and through a screen at a dramatized version of earth’s slow melting. The speaker at the beginning of the title poem observes, “I look out the window, wondering that the sky can loom so near.” What’s so frightening about the tone of these poems is their pointing to a degree of helplessness: if a destructive solar blast did occur, would any of us–both scientists and non-scientists alike–be able to do anything except wait to be consumed?

Continue Reading