THE BLOG

Poets in and out of Form

06/01/2015 03:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

Scavenger Loop, David Baker, W.W. Norton, 2015

David Baker has set forth, in his new book, Scavenger Loop, a rhetorical ecosystem that turns and re-turns within itself. What is so remarkable about this rhetorical model (both intact and attacking) -- is that the "familiar" (what we all see daily) presents constant unfamiliar and revelatory forms. One feels, reading these poems, a sense of awe for what Nature knows beyond what "we" know.

The mind of the poet circles here, scavenging, in Nature's own rhythms, enlarging this dance to include lines of poems, "stolen" from the canon. This borrowing, this sense of the indeterminate existence, posited on other existences, defines the collection.

Beginning with a flight of swifts, Baker establishes patterns: the brilliant birds "blown wild around us and we are their witness" -- celebrates the primacy of nature in defining who we are.

Nature encircles us, "writes us," patterning us from the swifts' flights to birth and death to genetic coding and governance of the food chain. These patterns are shattered by dying maples (the attacking moths connected in "simile" to suicide bombers) to metastatic cancer to the chemical profit-monster Monsanto, breaking the chain of being, breaking genetic integrity, "the complexity of the whole system diminished" -- by trait-stacking, by Colony Collapse (bee pollen polluted with fungicides, pesticides) and beyond.

The necessity of the Scavenger Loop, the cycle of "picking" and sustaining - spins outward into language -- as Baker selects the insights of random poets -- this process culminating in the "erasures" and crossed-out brilliances of the poet John Clare. Baker "translates" Clare's cryptic messages, then sends up the naïve inanity of the current craze for rubbing out words of Dickinson or Whitman and calling this process "landmark" poetry.

Somehow this heartbreakingly accurate map, this vast proliferation of loss, never stops being lyrical. It's as if Baker can't write an off-key phrase, even in the midst of impassioned indictment -- or a casual swipe at Twitter.

This is a towering poetic consciousness, akin to Nature itself -lets the the poet speak of "Trees remembering past and future" and notes that "We deny that we are animals and part of the wheel of life, yet we consume animals by the billions.."

This is a masterful book -- its urgency and eloquence undiminished even by planet bad news, tracking the calculated diminishment of life in The Loop in which we all live.

The Same-Different, Hannah Sanghee Park, National Poetry Series, Louisiana State University Press, 2015

Hannah Sanghee Park's first book, winner of the 2015 Walt Whitman award, takes its title from the Modernist poet H.D.'s lines, "..the same -- different -- the same attributes, different yet the same as before."

The bold enterprise of this intriguing, searching debut collection locates itself in H.D.'s "attributes" of language, the "givens" that are never, in fact, given to us entirely. Park plays on this paradox, dancing among words, homonyms, synonyms, phonemes -- but does not limit herself to the obvious linguistic gymnastics.

"Just what they said about the river:/ rift and ever."

The line's start with "Just what they said about the river" tantalizes the reader's sense of expectation. But instead of providing "plot," the plot is the language itself. Park develops half-poems, fractal poems, Joycean riffs. The light-hearted interruptions, disjunctions and interrogations of language turn serious: "To have left this world/to what is left of it."

Narrative is hardly the point here. The "story" is in the words as they are, as they interact within the alchemical authority of a poet who understands the power of language wizardry:

"I would ask so much but/ silence an answer in itself."

Park transforms words into worlds of insight that feel utterly new -- yet they pay homage to many poetic traditions, to many poets. The poems seem finally created out of exceptional reverence -- while at the same time moving on and away from what has come before.

The Novel, James Reiss, CW Books, 2015

If Hannah Sanghee Park's poems re-format narrative, James Reiss' glory in it. This collection, called The Novel, presents itself as a gathering of poem-anecdotes, each anecdote with ambitions hinting at and swept in the direction of plot and character. Reiss has always been a committed story-teller (from his first book, The Breathers) and as he admits, without fanfare here: "I write to slow things down."

The conceit of lowered velocity, of slow going, works well here, but in accordance with the other meaning of "novel" as "new" -- newly imagined. As D.H. Lawrence observed, "Poetry is an act of attention" -- and these poems claim our attention the way a veteran runner claims our slightly nervous and concerned regard, as here in carefully-paced rhyme:

"I write a line and try to catch my breath/when words lead me to Marathon or Thrace/ I write to slow things down and put off Death."

To that end, the poems of The Novel are immensely satisfying and accomplished. Here is Reiss at his finest:

"When the shard of a 7-Up bottle/ sandblasted by breakers/acquired a matte finish/which mimicked the ocean's floor.... to become over years a lens/through which sea-green
fish could be glimpsed..."

Reiss has acquired, over years, a gleaming lens -- one of highly-perfected observation and carefully-adjusted speed. We recall Issa: "Climb Mt. Fuji: but slowly, slowly."

The Players, Jill Bialosky, Knopf, 2015

In this age of gender wars and gender speculation, Jill Bialosky's The Players moves in and out of visions of motherhood and manhood that become metaphors for apprehending the unknown.

In a poem in a section of the book called "Manhood," a mother listens to a coach urging her son to "Win the battle./Get mean." The mean/man juxtaposition is not lost on the reader, nor is it lost on the mother, witnessing the "traditional" education of a male sensibility set against what she knows has already been set in memory: "He is old enough/to know his story/is no longer his coach's" -- the story is his own. "Their odor is fierce and feral". And, "What they were to us was inexplicable." Though (in another poem), "as if we were Abraham/under the instruction of a benevolent God/taking our son to the top/of the mount to sacrifice /his life for something/better than his forebearer."

The poems in this book that follow the "Manhood" section seem to reel, in a sense, from the profound blows and revelations delivered earlier. The once-maternal sensibility alters from the implacable yet investigatory poems -- as the poet finding a crab on the beach, dislodged from its shell, kicking, dying -- like "a baby awakening in a crib," pauses. The images of life and death are twinned in these poems -- as the watching soul acknowledges, "...The children /are growing up. It's time to let them go."

As most poets' lives seem centered in the self -- we witness the parental-watcher being dislodged here -- the "witnessing" self is letting go of the "selfless" perspective -- returning to a world that seems centered in singular elegy. Indeed, in a poem called "Elegy," Bialosky asks, "Why is the mind's turbulence/so difficult to harness and withstand?"

One of the darkly radiant poems of this freed perspective, "Tree," seems to answer that question. The tree stands strong, but also bends and sways -- and "would we not all desire to end our days at this height?" But to be so rooted in the earth, growing into air, requires, the poet realizes, "to be without thought/?/To feel the wind slash the throat? To be empty/of all memory? And further, she thinks, "to never suffer/the grief of others?"

What "Tree" seems to be half-seeking is oblivion -- and oblivion is the opposite of the engaged life, the social contract, the game, "the players." To be alive without grief is to be entirely released from the human "family," released into what cannot be anthropomorphized -- into the simplicity of the intuitive, of tropism, of the tree.

Thus the roots of these remarkable poems are philosophical, asking the questions created by "the mind's turbulence," although they offer, on the surface, a protective patina, a contract with "the story," the played game and the players -- the focus of the family which exists as a bulwark against the future, against departure. They ask, in a sense, to be borne backward, a la Gatsby, into a simpler past -- "that was us/sailing down the small/sand hill to the beach/with you in our arms."

Cinema Vernacular, Peter Nickowitz, Publication Studio, 2015

It is a well-known cliché that the cinematic, or our sense of the cinematic, transformed how we "see" the world, ourselves, how we tell the stories of our lives. The influence of "the cinematic" on poetry is well-documented in scholarship, but few poets have actually chosen a screenplay format to deliver a poem. (Adrienne Rich's Shooting Script comes to mind.) Peter Nickowitz has confronted this lacuna, boldly translating the screenplay form successfully into poetry.

An example:

INT. MANHATTAN APARTMENT - TWILIGHT

The walls are thin and the neighborhood bustles,

dull roar

traffic streams through
the window

like smoke from a nearby chimney.
This is the time of day when light is orange & smells
yeast and sesame.
Everything outside imposes

onto a blank room & fills it.

This "passage" is undeniably poetry but it is also a script. The question then becomes, as the poet asks at one point in dialogue: "What's the difference between life and the movies?" Or -- the difference between the specialized format of a screenplay and the "specialized format" of poetry -- or the topography of the poem on the page that serves the words themselves vs. a topography that serves action.

These sequences are so poetic (though set in traditional "Interiors" and "Exteriors"), that the answer to that question seems inevitably positive. But just as reading a screenplay is very like reading a blueprint for action -- reading a poem disguised as a screenplay is like reading a blueprint for eloquence. The screenplay "enlarges" to include what is usually left out of poems -- tracking shots, tracking of characters' movements, creating a narrative built around a character.

Cinema Vernacular is built around a protagonist's ongoing everyday and romantic affairs in two cities: New York and Paris. The reader finds herself drawn into the poetry "movie", drawn into the fluid "camera work" of the "director's cut" -- and then drawn past all these elements to the heart of the poem, the place where form, all form, becomes superfluous and the poem itself speaks unforgettably to the reader.

EXT. SIDEWALK - LATER
The moon is within arm's reach,
Tangible, a lemon
scenting the painted sky,
& God is a movie mogul in a shiny gold tie.

Sur la Route, Cecilia Woloch, Quale Press, 2015

Finally, after thinking about "the novel", the story, the screenplay, the poem itself veering out of form, it seems appropriate to mention the beguiling, tough-minded yet dreamy novel, "Sur La Route" by the poet Cecilia Woloch. Though published as a novel -- it reads exactly like a series of prose poems, set in sequence: a series of impressionistic moments that develop into a spontaneous narrative of a young woman's solo European experience. Set mainly in Paris (after the protagonist's flight from L.A.), it is like a free-spirited woman's answer to Kerouac -- episodic, romantic, impulsive, with pure lyrical drive.

"I'm sur la route I tell him. I need less and less as I go. A tube of red lipstick, a pair of silk panties, my toothbrush and passport tucked into my bag. A bag I can carry over one shoulder, or across my back, so my arms are free. Lighter and lighter all the time. Soon I'll be so compact that I'll fit into almost any place, anywhere."

Move over, Jack. She's a real live poet -- on the road. C'est formidable, brothers.