Category — Reviews
Tin House started publishing in 1999, when I was writing home security software and playing mandolin in Raleigh, NC. I wasn’t writing much poetry, and I was reading even less, especially in the literary rags, which bored me to tears. When, three years later, I did start writing and reading again, I was in St Mary’s County MD, writing software for the Navy and living in an efficiency apartment in a bar parking lot, the nearest Borders 50 miles away, Barnes & Noble even further, and no major universities anywhere near. Not much chance of browsing the racks even if I’d wanted to.
I’ve since moved three miles north, and my life is much better, but I’m still in St Mary’s County. It didn’t seem altogether strange that I’d never heard of Tin House until I got an email asking if I’d like a review copy of Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House — yes, blogging has its privileges. Of course I said yes.
But when it arrived, I was more than a bit taken aback to see listed on the cover Billy Collins and Rae Armantrout, Sharon Olds and Seamus Heaney, James Tate and Charles Simic: it seems I may have been more isolated than I had thought, and what in the world were those people doing in the same book, unless it were a classroom survey anthology of recent poetry — and those are dreadful things, governed either by ideology or a commitment to demonstrate the stinking breadth of contemporary verse. But though Tin House may well get academic or government grants (I don’t know one way or the other), it depends at least partly on subscriptions and advertising, which is to say it depends on readers, who put up money in expectation that Tin House’s editors will delight them. And they have delighted me.
Most of that delight comes from delightful poems. In the Foreword, Associate editor CJ Evans claims “Poetry can be as sexy as any scantily clad youth,” and Olena Kalytiak Davis proves it in the four Francesca sonnets reprinted here, especially “(And More)” and “Francesca Says Too Much.” Another of the four, with a title even longer than this apology for not typing it out, is available online from Tin House # 26. I don’t know where the hell I’ve been that I didn’t read Davis before (oh yeah — St Mary’s County) but I want more. Satellite Convulsions would have been worth the cover price for nothing more than such a discovery.
And she’s not the only one. Here’s the second of Victoria Chang‘s “Seven Infidelities”:
After ten years. He must known
her body, that she shaved up to
the thigh only. He spent five hours
at the gym each day recruiting
his neck muscles, lifting riverbeds in sets,
as they flowed past her house, like muddy
veins. Where she stood every day to see
if he drove by.
I love unsaid and half-said things here, the gym-rat’s obsession with cleanliness and exhibition implied by her shaving “to the thigh only,” his stiff-necked pride, neither seeing the other except as absent.
Mark Doty‘s “To the Engraver of My Skin” ends “I’m here / for revision, discoloration; here to fade / and last, ineradicable, blue. Write me! / The ink lasts longer than I do.” I typed out a copy to send to my tattooed step-daughter, and I’m almost afraid to send it.
I read the title of Sharon Old’s “On the Hearth of the Broken Home” and almost didn’t read the poem — but I did and it reminded me of the power she has at her best: “If I ever / dreamed, as a child, of everlasting / love, these were its shoes: one dew-licked / kicked-off slipper of a being now flying, one / sunrise-milk-green boot of the dead, / which I wore, as I dreamed.” These were its shoes!
I don’t want to go on just quoting striking snippets (though the temptation is there), and I don’t want to give the impression I liked everything in the book. I didn’t — but almost without exception even the poems I didn’t like did something, they moved, they had a real voice. I’m disappointed but not surprised that there’s so little formal verse, but Tin House is hardly unusual in that.
Indeed, perhaps the best thing, for me, about reading Satellite Convulsions is how the collection challenged some of my own prejudices:
- Surrealism leaves me cold, but the title poem, by Ben Doller, just knocked me out.
- The cleverness of conceits extended beyond the length of, say, a sonnet, often wear my patience, but Wislawa’s Szymborska‘s “Love At First Sight” manages 44 lines of increasing depth.
- Erin Belieu‘s “In the Red Dress I Wear to Your Funeral #8” ought to be the kind of poem I most dislike, but though it’s built of scraps of political manifesto and “consciousness-raising” rhetoric and its syntax is as fractured as that of the most stereotypical post-modern texts, somehow an authentic voice emerges. I don’t know how: I want to know how.
- Epiphany after meandering is one of the worst clichés of contemporary free verse, yet Jill Bialosky seems to earn hers in “Pumpkin Picking,” perhaps because of the striking metaphor of the pumpkin stem as umbilical cord just before the end.
The editors had nine years of poetry to choose from (Charles Simic’s wonderful “Interrogating Mr. Worm” appeared in the first issue), so perhaps it’s not surprising there’s so much good poetry. But they had to pick them for publication in the magazine, and editor Brenda Shaughnessy recalls editor-in-chief Win McCormack asking “But can’t poetry also be effable?”
It certainly can.
February 16, 2009 No Comments
About a month ago I read in Science News that a big reason the Earth’s climate differs from Venus’s is carbon sequestration via subduction of ocean floor – and the next day recognized that process in “Ocean,” from Greg Williamson’s sonnet collection A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck:
The ocean provides for foraminifers,
Which turn to limestone and in their shell formation
Also keep Earth from burning up, or worse …
I’ve been reading the book over and over again, carrying it with me to work and to rehearsals for Return to the Forbidden Planet, reading poems like “Beer” (the link is to its appearance in Unsplendid, where I first met the poem) aloud to friends and acquaintances, undoubtedly annoying more than a few, and there have been so many serendipitous links to and from the 69 sonnets of this collection to so many worlds of discourse that I’ve come to expect everything in it to be verifiable, as is in fact the case with nearly everything in the next poem (quoted in full, with permission):
Containing only .035%
Of the Earth’s fresh water at any given moment,
Clouds are a pretty insubstantial pageant
Really, which the nineteenth century docent
And Englishman, Luke Howard, classified
As stratus, cirrus, nibus, and cumulus
(From Gr. flat, fruity, agile, and big-thighed)
(And every silver lining has one, Gus)
Until, at length, you notice overhead
“Soft coral reefs and powdery cumuli,”
The “grand confections” literalism shrouds
In secrecy, your feet on the ground and your head,
Etymologically speaking (“I
See a bunny”), you old daydreamer,
in the clouds.
Here I figured it was “Gus” who had said “Every cloud has a silver lining” and I wanted to find out just who “Gus” is or was. But nope – and Google doesn’t point to anyone who said “Soft coral reefs and powdery cumuli.” If “Gus” said that, it’s a pretty private reference, or else “Gus” just rhymes with “cumulus,” which would be mildly annoying, if true — but I learned that the silver lining adage has its likely origin in Milton’s “Comus,” and that Phineas T. Barnum first wrote it in its modern form. That is an amazing pair, and a discovery worth getting out of bed for. So even the occasional mild disappointment in the book can lead to surprised delight.
Another reason I’ve expected a near-unreasonable level of attention to detail is that Williamson is the Monk of poets. In my 4th post at this blog’s predecessor I wrote about his “double exposures,” interleaved iambic pentameter couplets that can be read together, as a single poem, or separately as two poems, one consisting of the first lines of each couplet and the other of the second lines. In this book, every sonnet’s last line ends with the title of the poem, the first word of its sestet is “Until,” and its subject is annihilation — and the book is nevertheless remarkably cheerful. The first epigraph for the book, from Berryman’s Dream Songs, has “I died” as that marvelous piece of luck, and the third and last is
Damn, they killed Kenny.
In between, there’s Shakespeare (“a consummation devoutly to be wished”) , and it’s an appropriate trinity for this marvelous book. Is it a great book, as the jacket blurbs more than imply? Not for me to say. I was occasionally annoyed at what seemed to me its relentless cleverness, and its multiply nested narratives and explanations have bled into this review. I can’t see in it a way for other poets, myself included, to follow going forward. But it is at least a magnificent excursion, a reconnaissance in force, and I expect at least some of the work here to remain with me for a very long time.
November 11, 2008 No Comments
I can’t say Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Harlot is brand-new—her next book, Necropolis, is already out—or that I just discovered it and couldn’t wait to to write about it—she traded a copy at West Chester for my home-made chap Jack Songs. But the truth is, I’ve done essentially nothing since West Chester, and guilt at not having told everyone about this wonderful book is no small part of why I’ve (too) slowly begun to redesign and resurrect this blog.
Those of you who have already checked out the cover art at the link above will have guessed that the book is frankly sexual, and those of you who have read her other work will also expect that it is profoundly religious. That admixture has ancient roots, in the Song of Songs and Sappho and, as H. L. Hix observes in one of the back cover blurbs: “one hears [in Harlot] Herbert and Wyatt and Donne, their parallax view of religion as sex and sex as religion … their fondling and squeezing of language.”
Neither the religion nor the sex is easy. “Bad Friday” begins
The Light went dim, and then demented.
And that was the queasy last of it.
When they finagled his body down from its hanging tree,
they gave it to me
And said Take, grieve. I sent the others home
and I arrayed him in his tomb …
Did someone come and steal him
from the grave? All that remains are the linens
that I left him in, aromatic, sheer
and ghostly. An angel says he is not here.
Where the fuck is he?
And here’s the opening of “Folie à Deux, Ménage à Trois”:
She is comely. You are charming. I am drunk.
So we teeter on the precipice of this suggestion, the three of us,
our novice incompetence showing like leg through a sheer skirt
until someone musters nerve enough to insert
the odd thumb into the odd waistband
and we proceed—hand in hand in hand—
Despite attendance at this year’s West Chester Jill says she’s a rhymer and not really a formalist, but “rhymer” is a poor word for her play with echo and distortion, and if she counts no feet, her most successful lines are nevertheless powerfully rhythmic, and the rhythms are often nearly onomatopoetic in their relation to the action of the poem. For instance, in the opening two lines of the poem quoted just above, the first has the careful, short precision of a drunk just aware of being drunk, and the second almost literally teeters, sandwiching the sibilant consonance of precipice of this suggestion between the assonance of teeter and three—and to rhyme drunk with us and then skirt with insert!
Or take the shortest poem in the book, which I will quote in full:
Four simple chambers.
A thousand complicated doors.
One of them is yours.
The opening couplet rhymes its first word with its last, by way of a slant rhyme to each at the end of line 1 and powerful assonance near the ends of the two lines, and again rhymes the speaker’s last, solitary line, addressed to someone who has not opened the right door.
I am a formalist, and listening to Jill read the opening poem of Harlot, “And it Came to Pass,” I’m confused that she ignores her line and even stanza endings, which seem to me to break interestingly against the normal phrasing of English. Buy the book and read along with the recording to see what I mean.
But that’s not a problem, or, if it is, it’s mine, I think. Harlot is powerful work, sometimes heartbreaking, and a lot of fun along the way.
September 30, 2008 2 Comments