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01/30/2013 05:14 pm ET | Updated Mar 29, 2013

January 2013 Contemporary Poetry Reviews

Each month, this contemporary poetry review series selects between five and ten collections published since 2000 to recommend to its readership. These collections are selected from a pool of more than two thousand books of supplied and already-held contemporary poetry. Publishers interested in submitting review copies to the series should contact the author of this article. All submitted books remain eligible for inclusion in the series for a ten-year period. For a partial listing of books received and considered, see here.

1. Collected Poems, Joseph Ceravolo (Wesleyan University Press, 2013). The late Joseph Ceravolo (1934-1988) has only posthumously begun receiving his due as a contemporary Master. One of the many postwar Greats largely resident in one of the nation's two elite coastal literary enclaves--Ceravolo lived and wrote in and around New York City for most of his career--Ceravolo, like many avant-garde geniuses until recently excluded from institution-driven public canonization, has been the beneficiary of the renewed interest in late twentieth century experimental writing produced by the Program Era, which interest also explains the historic expansion in independent literary publishing over the same time period. (It is worth noting, too, that Ceravolo was one of the nation's early-adopter creative writing students, having studied under the illustrious Kenneth Koch at The New School in the 1950s, years before even two terminal-degree graduate creative writing programs dotted the American landscape.) The poet's distinctive style consists of the sort of raw ellipticism that children, so better attuned than their elders to the associative rangings of the mind, produce naturally and in great volume. If there is a precursor to the current tendency, among younger poets, to produce verse that feels more emotionally exacting than it semantically has any right to be, that is gleefully intuitive rather than bleakly methodical, it is Ceravolo.

The late Koch once implied that Ceravolo's writing was, in some form or another, a mystical enterprise, and others have associated it more directly with the Dadaism and Surrealism of the early-twentieth century European avant-garde. However well-intentioned this praise--and in the vernacular of the shrewd, simultaneously anti- and pro-canonmaking doublespeak of the American avant-garde, any praise that seeks to deduce or manufacture a nexus between tradition and an individual talent is at least nominally well-intentioned--it misses the mark. What Ceravolo (a shy family man from New Jersey in his personal life) reveals in his work is that the natural processes of the human mind, channeled reflexively and lovingly through the prism of received language, are glorious and magical in situ--it does not require readers' imagination or whimsy to make them so. To call a thing mystical is to (often unfairly) position it as an irreducible and irreplicable eccentricity; it is no slight to Ceravolo to say that his distinctive writing style does not so much denominate a distinctive thinking style as constitute a revelation and celebration of what are already, in fact, universal phenomena.

The literary-arts pedagogy of the poet Charles Bernstein, referred to by the Philadelphia-dwelling author and educator as "creative wreading" (an amalgam of "creative writing" and "creative reading") encourages writers and readers alike to locate and reside in those elements of a poem that appear quote-unquote "wrong," cause consternation, disrupt expectations, and produce what Bernstein terms a "non-absorptive" (that is, difficult to parse using received expectations of/for language) reading experience. The theory behind such readings is not merely that these eddies of strangeness are the most interesting bits in the texts in which they appear, though this is presumptively true under the pedagogy, but also that they constitute more authentic representations of the false starts and misfires of the brain that in fact plague (or, as you like, bless) each one of us daily. Bernstein's point is one Ceravolo long ago internalized and exhibited in his body of work. Indeed, while there is much talk today of "voice" and "authenticity" in poetry, in fact "voice"--as Collected Poems reveals--is merely an elective construction traceably comprised of semi-discrete principles like grammar, diction, tone, syntax, parataxis, juxtaposition, ethos, logos, and pathos, and authenticity is always to be found in compositional process rather than product. In other words, we needn't force these things; we merely need attune ourselves to "hear" our native skill-set and then determine how and why and where this psychic know-how corresponds to anything operative in the world.

Ceravolo is, in this view, as authentic and vocally distinctive a poet as we have, despite the fact that his poems often cannot be read or heard the way everyday speech is heard or processed--and that no one but Ceravolo could know or say whether the poet had expressed his sentiments "authentically" (that is, in fidelity to the form and nature of their source stimuli within and without the poet himself). Scholars may coo over the prospect of adding Ceravolo's voice to the already robust gallery of personalities associated with the so-called "New York School"; the rest of us will find in the poetry a sensitivity to instinctive association that is no more particular to New York City than a French baguette, no more exclusive to the aesthetic sensibilities of the New York School poets (who, after all, are far more credibly associated biographically than artistically) than the line or stanza was to the Romantics.

The best American poetry--and Ceravolo contributes substantially to the stock of verse deserving of this honorific--can often be read as an additive equation in which only the first and resultant terms are available to the reader; the middle terms, the ones added to the first to produce the final result, are usually elided. And it is in these absent terms that we measure the literary and historical significance of an individual author. Whatever his borrowings from the American, British, and Continental literary tradition, Ceravolo stands apart as an American literary icon of nearly unparalleled achievement. That the American avant-garde was lamenting his "disappeared" status (as to the "public" canon) not twenty years ago, and that he has now received posthumous publication of his collected works from one of the most august university presses in the nation, is yet another sign, as if any more were needed, that the antagonistic rhetoric of culturally-entrenched avant-garde poet-scholars (which heaps equal piles of self-aggrandizing calumny on The New Criticism; the philological and historicist English Literature scholarship the New Criticism displaced; the Official Verse Culture engendered and sponsored by The New Criticism; the Creative Writing Movement the New Criticism abhorred and was vanquished by; and any attempts at a New Avant-Garde among those never lip-bitingly apprenticed to the Old) was, is, and will continue to be--its slickly professional claims of victimhood notwithstanding--the most powerful canonizing force in American letters.

Ceravolo transcends the canon--both the institutionally-approved and the increasingly robust alternative versions--because in his life he occupied the sort of real social spaces poets inhabit and alter irrevocably, and in his verse he occupied the sort of real psychic spaces each one of us inhabits but often finds unaccountably difficult (lacking Ceravolo's genius) to reify on the page. Ceravolo's verse is at once classical and fresh, tender and profound, succinct and expansive, tantalizingly parseable yet divinely ineffable. It would take a lifetime of expert reading to fully appreciate this lifetime of superlative writing; with the long-awaited publication of a collected Ceravolo, America's contemporary poetry readers now have the opportunity to do their part. [Excerpts: Thirteen poems].

2. Aphoria, Jackie Clark (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2013). Clark's attempts to connect the abstract decor of the psyche and the inorganic and organic furnishings of a personal life are bracing and alluring. These brief, aggressively-enjambed poems offer several memorable turns of phrase apiece, and never fail to honor the small spaces in which we live as well as the broad expanses mapped by our anxieties, emotional proclivities, and hard-won first principles. None of the poems are titled, and few run longer than a page, but this is only appropriate for a poetics as exquisitely attuned to the minute as this one is. [Excerpts: Five untitled selections].

3. Mellow Actions, Brandon Downing (Fence Books, 2012). Brandon Downing's biography describes him as a videomaker, visual artist, and writer. The ordering of roles here is telling: Downing presents as a key member of the poet-cum-literary artist-cum-multimedia artist set (or vice versa), and while Mellow Actions is not itself the multimedia presentation the author's previous effort, Lake Antiquity, was, it nevertheless heralds several new trends in contemporary poetry that tilt the scales of the long-standing page-stage rivalry even further in favor of live performance.

Along with the excessive use of traditional rhetorical devices such as metaphor and simile, the most banal mainstream poetry also suffers from certain visual quirks, such as a penchant for italicizing words and phrases to emphasize for readers how particularly precious, portentous, and poetic they are--as though the fact that they appear in a poem is insufficient to make the point. The effect of such italicizing is often to "quiet" the effected (and affected) language; the reader is presumed to read these words, if they are read aloud at all, with a particular emphasis that is cloyingly studied rather than preternaturally aural. In Mellow Actions, Downing rebels against such genteel, page-driven conventions by aggressively underlining individual words to emphasize their relative volume. At first blush it seems a rather easy tactic, one we've seen in every form of mass communication from the spam email to the windshield-pinned pamphlet to the college-dormitory rave invitation. What makes Brandon Downing's use of the technique notable is that it is purely performative--the sort of aesthetic detritus that contributes to a poetics rather than "mere" semantic sense. Throughout Mellow Actions, the careful reader detects the persistent juxtaposition of colloquial and allusive language with language that is exclusively reflexive; that is, Downing's collage-driven method of composition wrestles with the presence of poetry at the heart of the American vernacular, and the concurrent presence, at the heart of American poetry, of an unabashed performativity that is ever in danger of exposing its absent core (paradox duly noted).

Yet Mellow Actions does more than simply call our attention to the inadequacy of workaday language for emergency purposes--or, alternately, the unique suitability of slang for revealing deep-seeded social anxieties and troublingly-backgrounded metaphors--it also reinvigorates low diction by foregrounding the essential human data even our most spurious utterances necessarily encode.

That many of the poems in Mellow Actions are cleverly- or barely-concealed sonnets in the mode long familiar to readers of the late Ted Berrigan is the least interesting element of the collection. Downing, unlike Berrigan, is less invested in spotlighting his scaffolding than in the more conspicuous and concrete politics of twisting a dire narrative around a stem of easily-digested banality. "You can't buy enough Giclee prints, / to coat the guile behind your mall," he writes early in Mellow Actions, and, shortly thereafter, "As our ambitions are de-loused, / with starmaking diffidence, // Fwd." The rhetorical ambitions of the former line are obvious; the latter lines use colloquial abbreviation to underscore the inadequacy of blithe declarations of progress, as had Downing eschewed abbreviation here it would not be possible to read these lines as discretely aphoristic.

While it's true that entire sections of Downing's latest read as merely a competent emulation of Apollinaire's seminal aggregation of overheard street-speech ("Lundi rue Christine," a poem now over a hundred years old), in fact all the elements of a vital contemporary magnum opus are present in Mellow Actions: God, America, consumerism, the disintegrating human body, corruptions of poetic form, delightful takedowns of pop culture, seductive snippets of others' lived experience, sex, and even juvenile humor. In full, Downing's fourth collection is a jubilant cornucopia of subtext, language, and metalanguage that never fails to amuse, educate, and inspire. If American poetry is to be torn ever more dramatically from the safe portage of the page, it will take the willingness of young poets like Downing to simultaneously celebrate and eviscerate demotic language to bring the transformation off not just compellingly but convincingly. [Excerpts: "Vista"; "Sometimes, On My Shoulders, Are Her Panties"].

4. To See the Queen, Allison Seay (Persea Books, 2013). There is a beguiling modesty in Allison Seay's To See the Queen, and that modesty is born of a degree of unornamented honesty rarely seen in contemporary American poetry. Seay is so direct in her declarations there's a danger of banality here; it's a measure of the poet's skill that what would in other hands seem simplistic or even trite is here both enthralling and instructive. It's become cliché to refer to a work as sincere, and it's accounted the worst sort of hackery to denominate sincere verse more admirable then other varieties of the artform, but writing as eloquently brave as Allison Seay's (for, with bravery, the eloquence is usually found in the starkness) beggars such received wisdom and replaces it with, of all things, faith in the justly-conceived and succinctly-stated sentiment.

There are metaphors here, yes, and certainly some are more belabored than others, but they're always beside the point rather than directly over and above it: The focus remains on the speaker's relationship with two sometimes-indistinct/inseparable figures, God and the mysterious "Liliana." What is literally at stake is never entirely clear; what is figuratively at stake is never, even for a moment, unclear. This is the (perhaps paradoxical) way with all our invisible struggles, however--they're indecipherable to others, so the most a memorializing of them can ever accomplish is to make the stakes if not the stakeholders abundantly clear. Lines like "How to lie was something learned. / It meant love / at the time anyway"; "Before the joy there was the end before the end / the ugliest"; and "[T]he queen came to see only me and I saw her. / And my life for a while was forgotten / and so repaired" do not tell us where to do our banking, or how to select a mate, or what caused the traffic we're stuck in, but they speak profoundly to our indecision, loneliness, and sad inquisitiveness all the same. Fabular and finely-drawn, ethereal and exacting, this is as satisfying as poetry gets. [Excerpts: "Time of Need"; "To See the Queen"; "Town of Unspeakable Things"].

5. Portuguese, Brandon Shimoda (Octopus Books/Tin House Books, 2013). In this era of increasingly frequent multi-author poetic collaborations, Brandon Shimoda's Portuguese is notable for being one of the first, if not the first, single-collection/single-author collaboration between two independent poetry presses.

Both Tin House Books and Octopus Books have been widely recognized for putting out excellent and uniquely relevant poetry collections by younger poets, and this joint venture between the two is no exception. Shimoda (like his book) is also a child uniquely of his time in another respect: Whereas once it was considered professional and seemly for a poet to publish one collection every four or five years, the surfeit of language poet Kenneth Goldsmith has written of repeatedly has now brought with it a state of affairs in which young poets like Shimoda (or Joshua Beckman, Matt Hart, et cetera; one notes, without further comment, that it tends to be men who receive this treatment from publishers) publish one book every eighteen months or less. In Shimoda's case, this trend has reached its apex: Seven books in five years, despite the increasing scarcity of poetry-publishing resources in America on a per-poet basis. This sort of market saturation is, more often than not, for better or worse, fairly effective: Poets who publish collections only twice a decade are now at constant risk of slipping into irrelevance or even cultural invisibility among their peers--a new publish-or-perish ethos at work among the ranks of the literary bohème.

The flip side of all this--that poets publishing "too frequently" may be doing themselves and their readers a disservice by insufficiently self-editing their oeuvre (unless, as is not inconceivable, these poets really do produce more quality poems per week than almost anyone else)--has hardly been a matter of discussion in the American poetry community. Books like Portuguese (and literary lives like Shimoda's) naturally bring to the fore this question of the pace, range, and consistency of any one literary artist's literary production, whether discussion of this ever extends beyond low-level, semi-private buzz or not. But Portuguese does more than merely call to mind this sort of conversation, indeed it does more than merely invite it--it demands it. Shimoda's latest (not coincidentally titled "Brandon Shimoda's Portuguese" on its title page, as though heralding the latest Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese joint) does not merely have more publishers than any other book, or more predecessors by the same author in a single presidential election cycle than any other book, it also features more blurbs than any of its contemporaries: Twenty-six, including two from relatives of the author and one from his editor. As if this weren't enough, this 100-plus-page production includes a two-page Editors' Introduction and a three-page Epilogue. The overall effect is the announcement of Brandon Shimoda as a major literary celebrity--whether you realized it (and whether you accept it) or not.

This review series is not, of course, in the habit of reading ephemera as essential; analyses of a product qua product are not effective or illuminating, in themselves, as analyses of literary production. Yet Portuguese foregrounds, via its Editors' Note, the administrative processes by which it was produced, and quite literally wears on its sleeve (i.e., on both its front and back jackets) its circumscription of the discourse community within which this single-author full-length poetry collection was written, produced, and disseminated. (By way of contrast, far from coordinating intimate publication projects with other presses' author-lists, or promoting the proliferation of blurb-heavy book jackets, Wave Books has solidified its exclusive hold on individual authors by offering them multi-book contracts, and has eliminated blurbs from its physical products entirely. This suggests, if nothing else, an incipient philosophical divide in indie poetry-publishing.) Surely someone, at some point, was expected to notice and remark upon these things. It is worth asking, then, how, if it all, individual poems in Shimoda's (or any) book are informed or inflected by the environments from which they originate and with which they are so aggressively identified in situ. Shimoda and his editors want you to know that an almost unaccountably large cadre of important people in contemporary American poetry had access to this manuscript before it was published and approved of it, and in so doing implicitly approved of its author. The book cover, a gigantic photo of the poet himself, also wishes to contribute its own unique data to your experience of the text that follows it: Namely, the appearance of the author when he was five or six years old and living in Belgium. In short, by the time one begins reading Portuguese one has also read the commentary of nearly thirty individuals on the life and times of its author; to believe, in this Age, that medium and message are separable is not just folly but almost criminally naive, and consequently this review series declines to indulge the error.

Yet this series has always viewed with fondness the work of Brandon Shimoda (Girl Without Arms, a superbly eloquent investigation of masculinity and violence, was a near-miss for review here); so the question is, how does this entry in the author's oeuvre contribute to a (presumably) broader aesthetic project? The book's editors, poets Matthew Dickman and Zachary Schomburg, introduce the text as a preservation of a discrete self via the irreplicable auspices of the written word; given the story behind the collection--Shimoda's ongoing attempt to find an appropriate response to childhood taunts inaccurately labeling him Portuguese--it is better to read the work as a militant refusal of misidentification and a brave enunciation of not merely the self as it is but the self as it aims to be. In this respect, the cinematic qualities of the collection (for instance, its title page includes an opening-credits-like recitation of important personages making appearances in the text; or, all those movie-review-like blurbs; or, a framing of the author owing more to contemporary celebrity culture than the more mundane environs of the literary elite) are entirely apropos of its aims and exigencies. But even as "literary cinema," this is not mere documentary; the cover-to-cover presentation of Portuguese suggests an expansive autobiography in which the auteur is cast not merely as the leading figure but a bona fide hero. Nor does this reviewer intend any criticism with such a David Copperfield-inspired analogy: Shimoda is right to imbue this autobiography with its own ineluctable mythos, as frankly this is what the best (and dare it be said, the most cruelly accurate) autobiographies finally do.

There may never be a fully satisfactory accounting of how and why some authors publish as prolifically as they do, but what is certain is that Brandon Shimoda not only publishes more frequently than almost any American poet, but also richly deserves to be doing so. Portuguese is an enthralling testament to a creative mind beset upon on all sides by attempts at calcification and deleterious circumscription. For all its occasional bombast, the packaging and content of Portuguese earns its grandeur with a grandeur of spirit that is nearly unparalleled in contemporary verse. Shimoda's lines are by turns gracefully aphoristic and effortlessly metonymic; they transcend their subject--the author himself--by dint of their intelligence, sensitivity, and spiritual awareness. It is not surprising that much of the collection was written on or about a bus, as these poems gather singular yet impressionistic scenes of life as though they were backdrop falling away outside a moving window--what matters is not merely that the scenes exist, or that they matter to someone, but that they move, as we who see them must remember that we ourselves are always moving. It is not too much to say that Shimoda is writing, somehow, impossibly, the universal autobiography of a nation: It equally satisfies and dissatisfies our concurrent need to reify ourselves and Americana and to refuse such easy reductions. Its motions are no more just the motions of a documentary or autobiography than the motions of travel are coequal with those of adventure; if there is a self-supported fiction to be found in Portuguese, it is that useful sort that holds out higher hope of salvation than any more modest truth ever seeks. Very highly recommended. [Excerpts: The Killing Fields"; "Rainbow"].

A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry: Thievery (University of Akron Press, forthcoming 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize; Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose; and The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009). A contributing author to The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2008), he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing, whose first edition will be published by Omnidawn in 2014. Presently a doctoral candidate (ABD) in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets (University of Virginia Press, 2008), Poetry of the Law (University of Iowa Press, 2010), Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Harvard Review, AGNI, jubilat, and Colorado Review. In 2008, he was awarded the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize by Poetry.

Earlier Editions in the Series:

August 2011
September 2011
October 2011
November 2011
December 2011
January 2012
February 2012
March 2012
April 2012
May 2012
June 2012
July 2012
August 2012
September 2012
October 2012
November 2012
December 2012