In 2014, a number of high-profile poetry collections leaped from the often ignored world of poetry culture into the wider world of what we might call readerly culture. Books like Claudia Rankine's Citizen, Louise Gluck's Faithful and Virtuous Night, Edward Hirsch's Gabriel, Patricia Lockwood's Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, and Fred Moten's The Feel Trio received attention in mainstream publications and seemed to transcend genre. In fact, Citizen recently achieved the remarkable when it was named a finalist by the National Book Critics Circle for both poetry and criticism. This is not to say that Ms. Gluck or Ms. Rankine will be guests on Jimmy Kimmel any time soon, but there is documentary evidence of Robert Pinsky singing and dancing on the finale of The Colbert Report. So, there's hope.
However, my focus is not on any of these collections, but rather on three recent books by Bay Area Poets that not only deserve to be part of this larger literary conversation but are among the best books of 2014. If you missed them last year, I have good news--2015 is young.
One of the problems with writing is its temporality. Writing about an event almost never happens in real time; you are almost always writing from some sort of memory, even if the memory is five seconds old or a minute old or an hour old. We can dictate in real time and report orally in real time, but if I try to describe the group of people walking past the window in front of me, by the time I get to writing about the first person, he will already be gone. Writing poetry about an event is even worse. We must rely completely on memory, and as the recent podcast Serial demonstrates, nothing is less reliable than what we do or so not remember. These uncertainties of memory fuel many of the poems in Beyond the Chainlink, charging them with an energy of indeterminacy--something that lies at the heart of all interesting poetry.
Morrison is concerned with many things in this lovely and complicated collection, but she seems particularly focused on the ways in which the forgotten past makes itself known and felt in the present. Many of the poems share the title "Backward Rowing," indicating a physical and psychological movement in reverse, as though one can row back in time to a place of ontology. In the final lyric bearing this title, the poet comments on the difficulty of retention and illumination:
As a listener, I won't retain
by absorbing, but by being absorbed.
These line may remind you, as they did me, of Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man" and the "listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." Notice the absence for both listeners, the negation. But notice also the presence, the absorption of the nothingness into somethingness that is. I also hear a little Charles Wright in these lines, at least his uncanny gift of reversal, as well as his desire to be taken up and taken in.
If you're wondering if the intense spacing of "Being" is intentional, it is. Being dangles out there as though it is teetering on a cliff, which, poetically speaking, it is. No doubt Morrison intends a doubleness or tripleness in her use of "being" here, its verbness, its nounness, its Nietzscheness, its Stevensness. Her willingness to utilize typography and white space to this degree sets her apart from Wright and Stevens and makes me think more of someone like Rae Armantrout. While the two poets tend to skew toward the experimental (whatever that may mean), Morrison's lyrics are more image-driven than Armantrout's. Take these opening lines from "Impulse says:
a little hurt is worth the long, thin fracturing you can use as a horizon.
An ignored preoccupation will lick its fur
in the opposite direction.
Rain overflooding a sewer's grate--
Every color your white wall receives
from the concealed world.
Warning: The migration turns
just as it threatens to become visible.
The connection between looking and remembering weighs heavy in these poems. Seeing may or may not mean remembering. Worse, seeing may mean no forgetting. How the body remembers and forgets is another question these poems probe. I am reluctant to call Beyond the Chainlink a book of illness, but it is a book that tropes illness in surprising ways. For example, when most poets write about "the body," they likely mean a remembered body or a figured body or the universal body of all humankind. But when Morrison writes about "the body," she means her own physical body and its connection to the body of the poem, which if not one in the same, wear the same cloak. "As a poet," Morrison writes, "I have experienced directly the ways that a formal constraint can hone the clarity, intensity, and inspired power of a writing project. In similar ways, a physical constraint, such as illness, can engender surprising perceptual attunement in the body." Morrison neither romanticizes nor traumatizes the body; rather she uses it as a site of location and as a space of articulation:
The body is a sky falling.
Quick, like a safety-pin snapped open,
little death gaps appear in the cloud-cover,
atmospheric with old narratives: "Once upon a time,"
I tempt with, "Once upon a body lost,"
as if telling could entice what's lost
The image of death gaps appearing as quick (and as potentially painful?) as a safety-pin snapped open is hard to forget. And hard to reconcile. The death gaps get encoded through the gaps (both literal and metaphorical) in the body of the poem. Everything falls through, even meaning, even how we tell the story, even how we tell the story about telling the story. Everything is gap-laden, gap-ridden. Everything is in the spaces; even the process of telling the story, even the chainlink fence itself.
The poems may fill those spaces, but then again, the poems may be those spaces. We don't always know, either as writer or reader. All we know is that we have the body, and we have language. Thankfully in the marriage of the two, we have poetry.
Beyond the Chainlink is full of gaps, but it is also full of beauty. The poems are short, terse even, but rich at the same time. Description gives way to image, narrative yields to observation. There are a lot of couplets and a great deal of right justification, as though the poems are demanding space. But, as with all of Morrison's poetry, the poems seek balance. Just as a chainlink fence weaves presence and absence, so, too does this book.
If a book can be about emptiness and yet also be full, this one is. If a book can be minimal and yet also generous, this one is. I do know that a book can be about pain and yet also give pleasure because this one does.
Surrealism arrived at American poetry in the 20th century via two distinct but not entirely unrelated vehicles. One was driven by the French. It carried poets like Andre Breton, Robert Desnos, Paul Éluard, Michel Leiris, and Benjamin Péret who advocated unruly juxtapositions, resistance to simple perceptions, and deep intellectual play. I think of contemporary American poets like John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, and James Tate liking the way those poets rolled. On the other hand, Spanish and Latin American surrealism as trafficked by Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia-Lorca, Vicente Huidobro, Cesar Vallejo, and Octavio Paz caught the eye of poets we now consider part of the "deep image" school, like W. S. Merwin, James Wright, Robert Bly, and Mark Strand, most of whom translated these poets into English. Marked by rich, vivid, and sometimes bizarre imagery, this model of surrealism relied on constellations of images that resonated on a subconscious associative level rather than on a logical one. What makes Matthew Zapruder particularly interesting is that you can see in his poetry the influence of both strains of surrealism--perhaps more than any other contemporary American poet. For me this poetic merger is what makes Matthew Zapruder's work so distinctive and Sun Bear so enjoyable.
Like Ashbery, Zapruder likes to have fun with syntax, but like Merwin, Zapruder often eschews punctuation, opting for a kind of narrative orality. Zapruder is known for his ability to move easily from one topic to another within the same story. He stretches out those juxtapositions much more than Breton or Desnos who liked to compress and collage. You can see what I mean in a text like "Poem to a Cloud above a Statue:"
Out of what used to be called the aether
very powerful beings
ancient people believed
they knew the names of
breathed instead of air
but now we just call the sky
not really looking like anything
or maybe a little bit like if you could talk
you would choose silence as a subject
and I felt completely sure
you would never ask me
to think about the past
except maybe those days I will confess
even though it is silly I still think of as holy
a few of us used to meet at The Gate
for what we called a drink
but as you know truly were many
living on Eastern Parkway
against not being made
to do anything I leaned
and leaning was my secret tombstone
As it happens, I did not know exactly where to stop quoting, as the text gives no real grammatical or typographical clues where one unit of thought begins and the other ends. But, that's the point: how one memory or experience bleeds into another and in so doing colors the other, making it always part of the former. As Morrison suggests, memories are not separate from either knowledge or observation. Zapruder understands this intimately, often steering his poem from one to the other. The journey is less about where we are going or where we arrive or even how we get there and more about the experience of moving. What do we think about when we think about things? When we look at things? When we remember things? When we love things?
Zapruder's lines are short, often only three or five words, recalling Neruda's Odes. Like those wonderful poems, Zapruder titles his without adornment. Where Neruda's might be "Oda a la Sandia" [Ode to a Watermelon] or "Oda a la Sal" [Ode to Salt], Zapuder chooses a similar formula like "Poem for a Coin" or "Poem for Happiness." Few poets writing today would be bold enough to title a poem so earnestly, though I was reminded of James Wright's far more sentimental "Today I Was So Happy So I Made This Poem," which I unashamedly adore." It takes a certain about courage to embrace that sensation so fully and to write about it free of snark.
As I typed the above sentence, I was tempted to begin this paragraph with a statement like "Zapruder's poems themselves embody a poetry of embrace," but I have decided against that, because I actually think his poems alternate between acceptance and resistance. For both the French poets and the poets from Spain and South America, surrealism was linked to political revolution. Americans tend not to associate aesthetic choices with political action, but that is one of our many shortcomings. In "Poem for Wisconsin" and "Poem for Plutocrats," Zapruder negotiates a seemingly impossible armistice between praise and critique, between justice and injustice.
My favorite poem in the collection, the lovely "I Drink Bronze Light," shows Zapruder at his best--funny, humble, confident, observant, tender, self-aware, and best of all, approachable:
when it gets dark we will go
our skin still hot with radiation
to the new restaurant
and calmly discuss the election
things are going to get better
our wise choices fill us with peace
not to mention cake and such
a particular love like the one
I have for the green scrunchie
in her hair and the t-shirt
with the mermaid she wears
only when we go to sleep
I will be with her for a long time
because unlike Columbus
lying to his men about how far
they had gone and who first saw
light on the new continent
to all new things I discover
I mean no harm and do not
even secretly believe
anything I find on our journey
will make me live forever
Part political poem, part love poem, part self-critique, "I Drink Bronze Light" can serve as a microcosm of the entire collection. In almost every lyric, as in this poem, there is a moment of wonder, a moment of discovery. In a data-heavy, fact-driven, knowledge-hungry world, that is, as James Wright might say, a blessing.
Gillian Conoley, Peace
As I transition to Gillian Conoley's fine collection, Peace, I realize that all three of the books I write about here share an interest in ethics, or maybe it is more precise to say that they are each one attuned to the ethical. They go about it in different ways, of course, and take on different issues, but I see all three as a poetic groping toward the ethical, Conoley's in particular.
This is not surprising in a book entitled Peace. It's a bold title for a bold book. I had never thought of Conoley as an experimental writer before (though she has always been an edgy one), but in her new book, she innovates in a fantastic way. Like Brenda Hillman, Conoley uses pretty much every poetry tool at her disposal--she experiments with typography, she plays with titles, she scatters words across the page, she builds columns of words, she does wacky things with spacings, and she writes (without irony or arch) about peace. She has poems to Gandi, Johnny Cash, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, and she has poems to Peace. She puns on patience and patients. And she puns on peace.
If my depiction of the book thus far suggests it is a difficult collection to describe, then I have done my job. Unlike just about every other book by a contemporary American poet, Peace has no sections; it is simply an amalgamation of poems. There is a clear architecture, but like a Matthew Zapruder poem, it seems to be guided by an internal logic in which one idea morphs into the next. For example, three poems are titled "Experiments in Patience" but are broken up by other poems between them. One poem is officially titled "Peace," and several others carry a heading of "[Peace]" but are, officially, untitled. These short lyrics appear in three groupings of three poems each--essentially forming a tryptich of tryptichs. They begin without capitalization and rarely use punctuation; an exception is the following:
contrary to history, to war's punctuations
the almost dripping popsicle held from the body
on the head-buckled sidewalk, earth's
involuntary memory to descent and ascend,
the round. the blue.
to begin all over again.
There's that word "memory" again. No matter how hard we try, we can't seem to forget it. It comes up in loss, in death, in revelation, in love, in war and in peace. Even so, a reader might ask, how is this particular poem about peace? I get the popsicle and the round and the blue, the reader might say, but where in this poem is the peace? Why doesn't this poem bring the peace?
Well, I might answer, the poem is the peace.
In the first "Peace" poem, Conoley draws a direct comparison between the project of poetry and the project of peace:
a poem the
sudden action of a single word
The sudden action of a single word, like, say, "peace" can arrest much the way a single poem can arrest. Again, I'm hyperlinked to Stevens and in particular his "Of Modern Poetry," which like Conoley's poem, turns on the notion of acting and action: "The poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice / . . . It has to face the men of the time and to meet / The women of the time. It has to think about war / And it has to find what will suffice."
Conoley's poems do a great deal of thinking about war--a great deal of spacious, lyrical, emotional thinking. The book is a call for peace, but it is not a sermon. It advocates the peaceful, but it is not a call to (or a call to throw down your) arms. It is a political book but it rarely directly addresses politics. Like Stevens, Conoley wonders about the relationship between external and internal peace, or in the parlance of our times, global peace and what the new agers might call "inner peace." And indeed in a poem like "Trying to Write a Poem about Gandhi," those two worlds intersect before crashing into the world of "poetic peace," a place I don't think I've ever visited but which I hope exists.
Like Morrison (who is Conoley's publisher), Conoley utilizes white space, which makes an otherwise long book (102 pages) feel much shorter than it is. Through her use of spacing, dropped lines, and heavy tabs, Conoley demonstrates how a poem is just as much a visual text as a lexical one. This technique also breaks up the book, making it much less lapidary than most other collections of similar length. It encourages active, experimental reading.
I found myself returning to the poem entitled "Begins," which ironically ends the book. This twelve-stanza poem spreads out over twelve pages and seems to be the poet's attempt to assemble the exploded, fragmented, disarrayed components of both this life and her life into a semblance of meaning. In one poem she writes, "I am ashamed that I would like to see inside / the skull of my daughter / and fix everything." In another she confesses, "I don't understand a thing." In yet another she celebrates, "I love dancing because it makes me feel / strong and beautiful / and made of muscle and air," and in the final poem she reaches out, "I wish you / each euphoriant ephemery / everything ought / to keep on going / I imagine my life."
This final sentiment, this extension, this reach out to the world, is a kind of peace. Perhaps in the long run, the best kind.
Besides memory and ethics, another thread stitching these books together is a desire to create an intimate relationship with readers by way of reassuring us of our shared confusion. That may itself be confusing, but bear with me. Yes, sometimes we look to poetry for answers, which is why Neruda and Rainer Maria Rilke and Mary Oliver and Langston Hughes resonate so deeply. But sometimes we turn to poetry because we want to know that someone else, like Emily Dickinson or Jorie Graham or Terrance Hayes, has the same unanswerable questions we do. I found myself entering these poems more fully when I recognized in them my own uncertainties and anxieties. This is not to say we always seek our reflection in art, but rather we feel less confused and perhaps even less troubled by the world when smart, talented, perceptive artists, like Morrison, Conoley, and Zapruder acknowledge that they too are baffled by the world but are willing to take it on.