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National Poetry Month 2013 Contemporary Poetry Reviews (Part 2)

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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.

[Continued from Part 1.]

5. The Devotional Poems, Joe Hall (Black Ocean, 2013). Amidst all the noun-swarming of Joe Hall's latest, The Devotional Poems, is a speaker caught between two poles of equal force and authority at the precise moment of their collapse. Repeatedly the speaker of these frenetic, Ginsbergian revelations (often Revelations) calls out to both "Christ" and the "Beast," as though in the moment of Apocalypse the battlefields of Earth lose coherence and their armies all affiliation. There is something seductively destructive about these poems; with their hell-for-leather pacing, variable line-lengths, and on-again-off-again punctuation, they simultaneously chew up words like clouds of horseflies while also positing language as a dark, feral sludge as impenetrable as it is parasitic.

These compellingly antic lyrics are firmly in the camp of post-aesthetic verse, whose basic precept is that it is the weight of transcendence rather than transcendence itself that betrays us in the end. Endlessly imaginative, Hall's verse nevertheless constitutes a gleeful death-knell for the imagination as such, as it is the audacious willfulness of extrasensory belief--The Devotional Poems seems to submit--that makes its inevitable refractions and refusals all the harder to accept. In other words, when we choose to encode our belief systems in the imperfect receptacle of language, we begin a chain of events outside our authority to interrupt: The death of language is soon the death of faith, the death of faith the death of self, the death of self the birth of poetry. If there is narrative in these poems (and indeed most thunderclap from one semi-narrative vignette to the next), it is of that denuding sort that is spiritually decelerative; Hall's verse may accumulate and calcify the material of language at a blinding pace, but there's no gravitas or ennobling romance in the offing. As the poet writes, "[W]hat you/ seat beside you is not a body, like copper/ ripped through walls, flowers made of/ Blah blah blah..." Hall's tendency to delineate new units of measure (the dependent clause, the independent clause, et cetera) via capitalization and enjambment rather than punctuation and stanzaic structure produces in the preceding line, as in many others, an agnostic relationship with meaning: Either what flowers are made of is immaterial, a sort of eternal white noise suspended in the page's white space, or else, similarly yet distinctly, it is both immaterial and always-already ripe for scorn ("Blah blah blah...") A Romantic hash of unthreatening imagery, sensual pleasures, and fey philosophy this is not.

And yet. What makes Hall's verse among the most addictive being written today are its hidden-and-seeking self-betrayals; perhaps all is lost, and, with it, all sentiment, or perhaps it is at the moment of language's collapse that sentiment can clothe the self with something like a purpose. "[W]here is your altar?", Hall asks in "Our Lady of Perpetual Devotion," and soon after, in "Gasoline Chainsaw Jesus," "[W]hat needs repair[?]" "In all this waiting to be saved/ The back bone splits..." writes Hall in "Weaker Leg," following that observation with a laundry-list of Revelations John the Apostle (or, as you like, John of Patmos) would envy. Yet the weight of the poem's latter lines do not fully obscure their animating grace: The bittersweet anticipation of a salvation that may or may not arrive.

"Still, I look back," Hall observes amidst the sea of horrors doing business as the single-stanza poem "Nativity," and yet the act is one of impassioned terror rather than morbid rubber-necking. These are poems alive with death, rife with the accruals of an itemized (self-)destruction, dripping with the vestiges of core principles (language, faith, and lyricism, among others). It is a rare poetry, and a rare poet, who so accurately and with such conviction enacts the unwinding of a body and a spirit. One is tempted, therefore, to see in The Devotional Poems a sort of generosity, even martyrdom, typically absent in Confessional and post-Confessional verse. It goes without saying that a sacrifice of such magnitude, in the face of such unquantifiable suffering, is appropriate to Hall's ostensible (scriptural) source material. "Give my breath to that stillness," writes Hall in "Grief," and while there's little stillness to be found in the pages of The Devotional Poems, the work in toto is of such force and authority it compels the most important sort of stillness in the would-be believer: Awe.

[Excerpts: from "Post Nativity"; "Come Our Lady Before Our Lord" (formerly "Clean Song"); "Our Lady Understands" (formerly "Come Our Lady Before Our Lord")].

6. Rise in the Fall, Ana Božičević (Birds, LLC, 2013). On the back cover of Ana Božičević's Rise in the Fall is a brief, fully-imperative catechism: "Mean something./ Invent nothing./ Change everything." We could readily reimagine these lines as, "Mean nothing. Invent everything. Change something." Or, alternately, "Mean everything. Invent something. Change nothing." It's little surprise, then, that at the heart of Rise in the Fall is an important statement about the simultaneous mutability and immutability of all matter, including the material aspect of language, and while it's a sometimes inartful statement it is never a dull or cowardly one. To Božičević, one hazards a guess, Beauty is chief among the pitfalls that yawn before poets and polis alike. In Beauty lies just the sort of aching comfort that satisfies (in fact) ever less and less.

In this collection's striking--and deliberately mistitled--opener, "About Nietzsche," Božičević laments the "casual terror and pain" of the beautiful, the way Beauty roots the spirit to a spot that, amidst all the rot and conflict of human affairs, is persistently ideational for large quantities of the human population. Life, as Božičević has it, is war; and war, she contends, is "eternal countrylessness" ("War on a Lunchbreak"). Poetry of such conspicuous political valence is rare indeed, and Rise in the Fall would be worth reading were it little more than a compendium of such rueful allegations. But there's much more here than that.

Božičević's verse is suffused with the sort of metacommentary that makes college writing professors cringe and "responsible" readers of poetry smile condescendingly. The poet knows she's writing a collection of poems ("I don't know how to end this," she writes in the aforementioned "War on a Lunchbreak"), and consequently each poem is self-aware of its artifice. Even the poet's online biography is reflexive in just this way ("I was born in Zagreb, Croatia in 1977, spent my childhood in Zadar, and emigrated to New York in 1997," she writes on her website. "A lot happened among the spaces of that sentence."). This unguarded self-awareness might be cloying in a poet with less nerve and less to say; in Božičević, the tendency to acknowledge that she's writing into a culture already fit to bursting with superficially similar efforts is never less than essential to the work. It's a nice respite from the opposite inclination (for instance, at work in much Conceptualism), that being the too-easy quasi-erasure of the ego via a computer's Ctrl+V ("paste") function; or, the cop-outs of collage (for instance, at work in much "flarf"), as typified by simplistic juxtapositions of language that revel in a slurry of terminal incoherence. Božičević, like the more than seven billion of us here on Earth, must instead grapple with far more than the self-aggrandizing philosophies of language and the mind; she's stuck, as we all are, with people. And, consequently, with decisions. Elections. Božičević decries the "sexy girl poet" who writes lines like, at least in Božičević's imagining, 'The terrorists have won, kiss me awake." Yet what Božičević is writing is very much a wake-up call for those seduced by the sensual ("I'm so fucking tied of the sound of 'sexy,'" she writes) and the relaxed rigor of the merely arguendo "politics" behind theory-driven texts. (If only the praxes of Life were as easily manipulated as those of Art!)

It's difficult to overstate how painfully self-aware Božičević is as a poet; the work of Chelsey Minnis is the only corollary of which this reviewer is aware. Consider: "There's a kind of poem/ in which..." (the opening of "About a Fish"); "So you might be called on/ to die for your art" (the opening of "Casual Elegy for Luka Skračić"); "I wanted to write a poem/ so full of spirit-lite/ that my father would finally like it, that would bring him easy peace" (the opening of "A Poem for You"). It's one thing to write an ars poetica, quite another to obsess over the failure of poetry to adequately animate a human lifespan; likewise, it's one thing to interrogate the mechanisms of art via an ars poetica, quite another to use a recitation of these mechanisms as sufficient license for transgressing them. As with Minnis, Božičević's rhetorical conceit is to incorporate into her poetry an explicit justification for its evident shortcomings: Words do not suffice for Truth, the message reads, and poets do not suffice for words. Surprisingly, it's hard to argue with the basic premise; in a national poetry community that now doubles in size each generation, the increasing absurdity of hierarchy-driven canonical pronouncements--of cherry-picking via anthology only the finest work of writers who, like anyone, had nearly as many bad days as good ones at their writing desk--is evident.

With so many poets, so much poetry, and so much poetic dialogue, it's impossible for us to ignore any longer that the overwhelming majority of poetry is turgid, fails even by its own standards, and would find it difficult if not impossible to provoke pleasure in even the most congenially imbecilic of readers. This has been the country's general sense impression of music, painting, sculpture, and photography--for starters--for many generations, but only in poetry is the phenomenon cause for concern over the imminent collapse of Western civilization and the demise, along with it, of verse as an artform. It's balderdash, of course: A bad poem never killed a fly, unless it was taken up in an anger that had but little to do with the badness of ill-chosen language. What today's most canny poets can do (and Božičević is undoubtedly one of our most canny poets) is contextualize that badness politically, culturally, and even spiritually. As with many of the poems of Rise in the Fall, this overarching project constitutes a service to Art and an important reminder of the limitations of representation. The risk such work takes, of course, is that it will be read literally--that is, as a doe-eyed entreaty to a paternalistic reader, rather than a shiv slid slyly into the jugular of the unwary. ("Your pink pony wants to fuck you," she tells "you straight girls" after first writing longingly of her desire to write a poem about ponies; in an ostensibly celebratory poem about youthful gregariousness, she writes, "The mysterious hedges of Nonhampton/ blend into the darkness, totally kissless/ but trust me when it's light/ all this restraint/ will bear some fruit: the world restrained itself/ from combusting again...")

We generally think of "poetry for poets" as a self-congratulatory exercise redolent of the worst sort of smug, smarmy lyricism; in Božičević's hands, the genre is relaunched as a slap in the face with a mailed fist. Božičević has decided to fight back against our present surfeit of poetic representation on the page and online, and she's taken the fight directly to those responsible for the war's worst atrocities. In the world of biting the hand that feeds you, this qualifies as biting off the hand that feeds you and swallowing it whole. In the world of goring sacred cows, this is a hamburger-eating contest on Coney Island. In the world of tepid, safe poetry that challenges no one's better self to arise and be heard, this is a clarion call of discordance and cognitive dissonance from which no working poet could turn away. If literary communities and subcommunities (many of which share certain pertinent traits with institutions) are the new unit of measure for not just historical but literary-critical analyses of Art, it stands to reason that it is poets, rather than canon-makers, who will patrol the divide between aesthetics and poetics, and theory and politics, and artifice and discourse. Božičević's bracingly honest poems offer us all hope that tomorrow's poetry will do more than any in recent memory has done to hold poets' feet to the fire--to admonish a form of laziness whose dimensions are ethical and moral as well as compositional. Highly recommended.

[Excerpts: "War on a Lunchbreak"; "Casual Elegy for Luka Skračić"; "A Poem for You"].

A graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry: Thievery (University of Akron Press, 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
January 2013
February 2013