“Sometimes she is a space” : Janice Lee’s Reconsolidation: Or, It’s the ghosts who will answer you

Janice-Lee_Reconsolidation-Or-its-the-ghosts-you-will-answer-you_001Taking up the mantel of memory and elegy is no easy task, but Janice Lee’s new book Reconsolidation: Or, it’s the ghosts who will answer you embraces the ghosts. The text is not so much a reflection on writing, loss, memory, and death, but a twisted projection of those topics. The medium is under as much consideration as the memory. By keenly understanding limits of language, Lee creates “a site of conjuration.” And so Reconsolidation doubles down on space and time.

As readers, we ride through a long period of mourning activated by the death of Lee’s mother in a single night; and, yet, the book’s brevity at seventy some pages and a multiplicity of empty space makes time spent reading feel like “the speed / of a blinking eye.” These physics are constantly under interrogation:

“I feel sometimes that time is moving in the wrong
direction…How does
the past persist in the present and swallow the

Because, besides the neuroscience of memory Lee presents in the text itself, time operates swiftly, consolidating and reconsolidating the evidence of experience, memory, and outer sources to create a shifting arrangement. The effect is dizzying. It’s no wonder that Lee has written elsewhere about László Krasznahorkai’s winding sentences and the long takes of Béla Tarr’s filmic adaptations: she’s treading similar ground in creating a book that only takes an afternoon to read, and, at the same time, involves a process of memory that feels eternal, where “it would / only take a few minutes, they said. But it felt like / an eternity.”Continue Reading

So Long, Dear Writer


ck williams

The poet C.K. Williams died this Sunday, September 20, 2015. For the last few months I’ve been enjoying a review copy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s beautiful new collection of Williams’ poems, the Selected Later Poems, but I’m finding that now, in light of Williams’ death, I can’t read the book in quite the same way I did a week ago. Am I being illogical? Does a poet’s death change their poetry in any fundamental way?

How should I approach a poem like “Dear Reader,” originally published just this year in The New York Review of Books? “Dear reader,” Williams begins, “dearest inscrutable listener inscrutably harking or regrettably more likely not harking.” In fourteen anxious, ungrammatical, sprawling lines, Williams lays out the developing series of relationships between reader and writer over the course of a literary career. There’s the ideal reader the poet creates for himself as he labors in obscurity, a real reader whom the poet—glad to finally have an audience!—is eager to please, a more demanding reader who expects confession and autobiography, and finally the reader the poet shuts out of his imagination because the pressure to please all parties is simply too much to handle.

In tracing this arc it seems Williams is closing the book on his career; now it seems he really was saying farewell to poetry. Or it would seem so if not for these final lines in which he transcends or rather embraces the pressures of being answerable to a readership:

… I swore when they barbed me
I’d keep to myself forever though I know now there’s never forever and know too dear reader

here with me in one way or another that there aren’t any mysteries I’d still care to conceal
so as long as you’re out there nose in a book at your end of the page I’ll keep scribbling at mine

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“It’s A Bit Mysterious, and I Like That”: An Interview with Frank X. Gaspar

2381600190_347912351c_zFrank X. Gaspar writes poems that are lyrical, powered by swift associations, and full of surprising images and leaps in thought that in retrospect make perfect sense. He is the author of five collections of poems, including Late Rapturous and The Holyoke, as well as two novels, most recently Stealing Fatima. Frank was born and raised in the old Portuguese West End of Provincetown, Massachusetts. He teaches in the MFA Writing Program at Pacific University, Oregon. We recently caught up via email to talk about Late Rapturous, the strange ways in which a poem can start, and the differences between writing poetry and fiction. 

Matthew Thorburn: Late Rapturous is composed of prose poems as well as poems in long lines that sometimes seem on the verge of becoming prose poems. Would you talk about how it feels to you writing prose poems versus lineated poems? Do the two offer different possibilities or challenges?

Frank X. Gaspar: Interesting that you ask that. I don’t feel any difference in the process; it seems more a matter of how my mind is working at the time. I pay as much attention to sound in the long-lined poems as I do with poems having more traditional line breaks—a lot of attention, actually—but without the line breaks to perhaps reinforce the sound with the eye, the prose poems might not announce their accentual nature.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

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.”
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Poetry as Design


A car that can’t get you from point A to point B is a bad car. A pitcher that can’t hold liquid is a bad pitcher. A garment that doesn’t fit the human form is a bad garment. (Make it work, designers!) A poem that doesn’t make you feel something is a bad poem.

Too simple, yes, but it’s a start.

I’m bored of the vague and toothless critical language that often surrounds poetry. What does it mean for a poem to be “haunting”? “Passionate”? “Brilliant”? “Beautiful”? These words of praise are just euphemisms for the slightly embarrassing phrase: “I really like this.” They indicate genuine appreciation (which is excellent and necessary in our hypercritical age) but they don’t get us any closer to the questions of why and how a poem works. I want a pragmatic critical language that lets me examine a poem just like any other product of design. A poem is no more self-expressive than a clock and contains no more human spirit than a refrigerator, but should be demonstrably just as useful as either. How do we use poems, and how do we know how to use poems?Continue Reading

“The dead do not cease in the grave” : Srikanth Reddy’s The Voyager

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 2.10.37 AM

Why do we erase? We make mistakes. Or, different words demand emphasis. Or, we want to return to the beginning. In creating a poem out of erasing another text, we ask questions of the text itself, but we also open up an analysis of silence.

The Voyager is an erasure poem by Srikanth Reddy that chooses its adventure by three different routes. For his source text, Reddy uses Kurt Waldheim’s memoir The Eye of the Storm. Waldheim was Secretary-General of the U.N. from 1972-81 and a former intelligence officer in Hitler’s Wehrmacht. This makes Voyager especially chilling; although named after the Voyager 1 space probe, the poem as spacecraft features, in its component parts, the words of a man who did not speak on the Holocaust, despite his direct involvement with its horror. The engine of The Voyager becomes an aching silence: words are erased to bring forth more quiet, but as a different shade of not speaking.

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The Poem and the Hotel

window washer

Dear Loews Luxury Hotels & Resorts,

When you decided to move in, we were nervous. This is Chicago, an unsophisticated Midwestern city, and you’ve built your leisure palaces for the super-rich all over North America. We’ve been hurt by people like that before. (Don’t get us started about that giant “TRUMP” emblazoned 200 feet above the Chicago river.)

But early on, we thought things with you might be different. You said you would reflect your surroundings and be “local in the very best sense of the word.” You even picked a poem about us, “Chicago” by Carl Sandburg, and you vowed to make it your inspiration.

But look, Loews, we have to talk. It’s about the poem.Continue Reading

“This World and the World Just Beyond It”: An Interview with Brynn Saito

Hong Kong Apartment Building

Brynn Saito’s poems are lyrical, sometimes mystical, dream-like yet also grounded in what feels like lived life. Her debut book, The Palace of Contemplating Departure, is marked by a striking voice that sounds both of this world and as if it comes from somewhere far above it. With Traci Brimhall, she also co-authored the chapbook Bright Power, Dark Peace. Brynn lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she directs the Center for Spiritual Life and teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

Matthew Thorburn: The distinctive, dream-like voice in these poems hit me right from the first line of the opening poem: According to Theresa I was born from a wolf.Is this something you were conscious of or worked toward as you wrote the poems?

Brynn Saito: I wasn’t conscious of working on those registers—the grounded and the mystical—but both are surely there. I was raised within the Japanese Buddhist and Christian communities—a strange and dynamic spiritual brew!—and those cultural contexts imprinted my orientation to The Word and The World in powerful and unnamable ways. Incidentally, I had just seen Kiki Smith’s Rapture—a sculpture in which a woman rises naked from the body of a wolf—when I wrote the first line of the first poem. I love her piece for the way it concretely manifests the mythic and glosses it with an allusion to the biblical. “Try to praise the mutilated world,” writes Adam Zagajewski. I want to know how to praise (how to know, through poetry) this world and the world just beyond it.Continue Reading

What Happened to Tagore?

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 11.02.51 AMYou could visit India and never hear the name Rabindranath Tagore. In fact, if you don’t live in India, you may well have never known Rabindranath Tagore existed. But this was not always the case: recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, Rabindranath Tagore became one of the major influences in the formation of the India we know today. All the while, he wasn’t identified as a politician, social leader, or revolutionary: he was a poet. Or, as his contemporary Gandhi noted, The Poet.

And Tagore didn’t write poetry only either: he wrote the national anthems for both India and Bengal, he composed plays, gave speeches, and, in his later life, took up painting. He frequently traveled to Europe and other parts of Asia to lecture; he met with Einstein. So why does his name no longer resonant, especially among younger Indian poets and artists?

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Ruefle, Hokusai, and the American View of Asia

The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Katsushika Hokusai, contemporary of Goya and Turner and Ingres, artistic godfather of Monet and Van Gogh, was recently the subject of an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston. He’s been on my mind ever since. Most of us know Hokusai’s artwork from the image above, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” Posters of “The Great Wave” are on sale right now if you’re looking to cover your dorm room in clichés. For many of us Hokusai is Japanese art, even if we don’t know his name. Or rather, precisely because we don’t know his name. We allow Hokusai to be a placeholder, an emblem that proclaims “I know this much about other cultures” but then turns around and whispers “I know this little about other cultures.” We treasure Hokusai precisely because we know and appreciate so little about Asian cultures.

The rugged spiritualists of American literature—I’m thinking specifically of Henry David Thoreau and Jack Kerouac—were obsessed with Asian cultures. They perceived Asian cultures as an alternative to American capitalism and the Puritan work ethic. Tired of Christianity but requiring ammunition to combat rampant materialism, they found a convenient new spirituality in translations of Asian wisdom texts.Continue Reading