Monday, July 31, 2017
KATIE HIBNER Reviews
SANS by G.L. Ford
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017)
In the spirit of its name, I’ll begin by sculpting the form of G.L. Ford’s first full-length collection, Sans, with a subtractive process, cataloging what it lacks. Most overtly, there are neither end-stopped lines, nor titles above individual poems.
The table of contents hides at the end of this slim, inconspicuous white volume; therefore, a reader seeking the title of a piece must flip to the end to match it to its corresponding page number. It’s wholly possible that a reader may breeze through the whole collection believing it to contain only one untitled poem written as a series of fragments. Only short bars at the end of each piece, as well as labels at the bottoms of poems in a sequence titled “Enkidu’s Lament,” indicate separation.
Ford enacts “sans” conceptually by illustrating a condition in which abstract ideas cannot correspond to physical representation and vice-versa; the signifier lacks the signified. Since memories arise from sensations (especially smells, since the olfactory bulb has direct connections to the amygdala and hippocampus), Ford centers on the difficulty of recollection in such a state. “Enkidu’s Lament (6)” epitomizes the strain:
“the glass…cast upon
me and my poor mortal
eyes the image that
I want to say still
haunts me, but what
I am left with is no
memory of sight but of
the act and moment
of seeing…” (44)
Enkidu bemoans retaining only the temporal and experiential elements of witnessing the glass, rather than recalling the visual impression of the glass itself. For him, perceptions of notions such as time cannot coexist with perceptions of senses such as sight.
Ford’s fascination with perception evokes both verse and prose by John Ashbery. Ford explicitly discusses sensory input, and Ashbery’s poetry (particularly The Tennis Court Oath) mimics a jerky stream of consciousness. Also, in a 1969 review of Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems, Ashbery declares that he and Bishop delight in how, as humans, “we confusedly feel ourselves to be part thing and part thought.”
Ford’s nameless primary speaker derives not joy, but panic from a supposed violent dichotomy between abstractions and objects. They depict a “broken polynomial” and “letters stripped of sound.” They dramatize ideas and matter as “pull(ing) taut against each other…defining / the boundaries of my every loss…” The speaker portrays the friction between the poles as so intense, it shapes their own suffering.
This rubbing metaphor reminds me of Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense.” The fact that the speaker’s truths are “coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins” terrifies them. Unlike Nietzsche’s theory, which attributes the formation of these truths to a civilization’s gradual, “long use” of metaphors, the petrifying truths of Ford’s speaker result from a singular trauma which they never explicate.
Perhaps it was a defeat in heroic combat. The character of Enkidu originates as the man-beast from The Epic of Gilgamesh. The goddess Aruru creates the feral Enkidu to counter Gilgamesh’s arrogance, and the primary speaker of Sans senses that the world condemns their “bestial sympathies”— or, conversely, judges them “not / bestial enough.” The speaker also conflates savagery with kindness by portraying their reluctant altruism as “brute and / natural compassion.” The contrast of Enkidu’s wildness and benevolence to the primary speaker’s sophistication and egocentrism corresponds to the epic’s original Enkidu-Gilgamesh binary.
The primary speaker particularly evokes Gilgamesh’s royal privilege in the piece “Sanitation,” in which they recall when they and their fellow nobles employed their inferiors to sort through the wreckage of their prerogatives:
“We hired experts…
to help us reclaim what might
have been left of our
usual pastimes of gossip
and the mutilation of the flesh…we
expected that those we had charged
with arranging our
deliverance would do so
after a reasonable time
and for a reasonable sum…” (16)
The primary speaker recollects when they and their companions arrogantly contracted out their redemption to skilled laborers, confident that they could buy salvation despite their abuses of power. By the collection’s juncture, however, the traumatic split between concreteness and abstraction has humbled and even crippled the speaker, leaving them without “memory of sensation / itself, only a cobbling /of words.” The condition also represses Enkidu, who characterizes “each thought” as “an act of supplication.”
Paradoxically, the speakers cannot associate physicality with notions, but they envision their memories as spatial. Enkidu portrays the forgetting process as determinedly “leaving room / for fewer and fewer moments.” The primary speaker transitions from pompous heir to timid sentry. In “Industry,” they and their companions return to a defunct workshop, and their recollection of its former purpose dwindles into “the small and shrinking / circle we’d calculated / we could hope to defend.” The speaker conceptualizes their remembrances of the abandoned studio as a territory to protect. Complicating their guardianship, their memories often self-destruct, “history / taking care of / effacing itself.” Although they claim an inability to link the immaterial with the material, Enkidu and the primary speaker incongruously depict intangible memories as tangibly erased.
Along with their patrols, the primary speaker aims to preserve their recollections by sharing them vocally. Although historians signify The Epic of Gilgamesh as the earliest extant work of written literature, the primary speaker of Sans is more preoccupied with oral tradition. They remark on their “throat / and jaw seizing up” when they attempt “to shape the sounds…spoken before.” Handicapped, the speaker cannot transmit speech of the past to present listeners, cannot secure its remembrance in the future. In “Bisprecan,” they elaborate their oral obsession:
“I spent a week
cataloging mouths, all
of lips and teeth and
tongue that set themselves
I’d emerged from
naked animal silence
into taking breath not
for the sake of breath
or blood but
to fill the hollow
impetus of words…” (37)
Once the primary speaker indexes their impressions of the mouths that once confronted them, the listlessness they perceive in language compels them to speak. Fixating on speech organs prompts them to inject life back into communication. Rather than a “hollow / impetus,” the speaker feels a fierce drive to reanimate spoken discourse with their memories.
Ford’s omnipresent enjambment mimics speech and evokes his primary speaker’s fascination on it. He often breaks lines on the words directly following caesuras, as Eliot does in the first six lines of “The Waste Land.” Eliot ends lines with gerunds to invigorate the reader, provoking them to proceed; whereas Ford often finishes them with wan prepositions such as “of” and “a.” Granted, Frank O’Hara also commits this writerly sin in “To the Harbormaster,” but the surprising juxtapositions in each line that result compensate for it. Lines from Sans such as “of them from recall, left, ” “pretended to, when,” and “little but themselves, as” do not stimulate enough to stand alone.
When Ford couples such choppy enjambment with feverish repetition, his speakers stutter, frantically scrambling for “le mot juste.” Enkidu especially stammers, recalling smiles “bright as ice or ice / that winter on winter / cracks,” and sputtering about distance measured in “breaths between / regrets, between / contrary certitudes…” Enkidu repeats his phrases to correct them; the fitful enjambment mimics the self-doubt he feels after the calamitous rupture between the palpable and the impalpable.
The repetitions also function as reminders. The speakers’ inability to associate the physical with the abstract distorts their self-perceptions: they question their own corporeality. References to breath and heartbeat recur frequently, as if the speakers are consciously noting their own bodily functions. Enkidu uncovers “the buried pulse / in old dark courses” by utilizing his “breath / the gauge.” In “The Acquisition of Virtue,” the primary speaker contemplates the circulation of blood:
“…I thought, chilled
and cramped and weary, what’s
more ageless, more
ephemeral than the blood
we seek to possess, that runs
through and between us
hot and quick and forever
just about to stop” (39)
The primary speaker unravels a paradoxical meditation on the vascular system, illustrating it as simultaneously “ageless” and “ephemeral,” both “forever” and “just about to stop.” These contradictions indicate the depth of their fixation on the pulse, revealing how tightly they cling to hallmarks of their physical existence.
Perhaps the primary speaker cherishes the vascular system because it is a closed circuit, containing the bloodstream and preventing loss. Since memory diminishes with the passage of time, both speakers link flux with depletion. Enkidu reflects that in conjunction with his forgetting process, “water flowed beneath the ice / and ice beneath the water.” In the final, titular piece, the primary speaker unveils a conceit that encapsulates their equation of flow with loss:
“There is only time, a sighing
of the frame, a constant
reckoning with the buttresses
and pinions of memory
that hold off the collapse
of experience into one
great wash…” (58)
The currents of time crash against the fasteners of memory, threatening to dilute distinct perceptions into a general rinse. Ford caps off his collection with the ironic assertion that a deluge combining everything causes the ultimate nothingness, the supreme condition of “sans.”
I’m very curious to know what— or perhaps, more aptly, who— drove Ford to examine such devastation, particularly regarding memory. When I ruminate on other contemporary poets concerned with recollection, Don Mee Choi and Ocean Vuong come to the fore. Both stylistically-dissimilar writers convey memory through a personal lens. Like Ford’s, the speakers of their poems doggedly preserve reminiscences, especially their family members’. In an essay for The Volta blog, Choi writes that her parents’ “memory formed the lining of the womb in which (she) was conceived.” In the poem “Ancestor Worship,” Ford’s primary speaker also implies a desire to conserve their family members’ impressions, despite “the creeping resignation that / to hold precious is not / to redeem.” That’s as personal as they get.
My craving for more intimate context for Sans is not a criticism: in fact, the lack of familial or other details fits the book’s conceptualism and its speakers’ struggles to retain their recollections. I can’t help but wonder, however, what inspired Ford to write about memory loss on the premise that Enkidu fears his own oblivion. Since the literary canon immortalizes the character, that framework packs quite a punch.
Katie Hibner’s poetry has been published by Bone Bouquet, inter|rupture, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Vinyl, and Yalobusha Review. She has read for Bennington Review, Salamander, and Sixth Finch. Katie dedicates all her poetry to the memory of her mother and best friend, Laurie.
Posted by EILEEN at 8:00 AM
Sunday, July 30, 2017
NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
What It Is Like by Charles North
(Turtle Point Press / Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, NY, 2011)
Reading Charles North is always a voyage of discovery. His delight in words and their meanings never fails to impress as does his seemingly endless inventiveness in terms of style and form. At just over 300 pages, What It Is Like presents the reader with a generous selection of North’s work taken from seven previous collections of poetry spanning the years 1974 to 2007 with the addition of 38 new poems at the end.
North was born in Brooklyn in 1941 and grew up in New York City. He earned degrees from Tufts University and Columbia University. He has often been associated with the New York School Poets and was a founder member of the celebrated Poetry Project. In addition to his books of poetry, he has published a collection of essays on artists, critics and poets entitled No Other Way and collaborated with a number of artists and poets, most notably, Trevor Winkfield and Tony Towle. With James Schuyler he helped edit the two Broadway Poets and Painters Anthologies in 1979 and 1989.
The book’s title poem is a reference to a celebrated essay by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” In North’s poem, however, the bats have been substituted for two chained monkeys.
Unlike Plath and Lowell, North is not a practitioner of the confessional school. Neither is he keen on linear narrative or on drawing comparisons. Most poetry draws its imagery from comparing one thing with another but North never offers us a comparison for “what it is like”. “It” is simply “it” – one of many bits of information. His poetry, crowded with words and shot through with wit, stands on its own and has no need for comparison.
What is apparent on a first reading, is that his poetry betrays a love of music, in particular, the clarinet, a liking for sport, especially baseball, and an enjoyment of words for their own sake. It is his preoccupation with the latter which makes these poems sing. North’s poems can be witty, even hilarious at times, but they are always rooted and grounded by definition, even when he is at his most excursive and even when he adopts a conversational tone which is so laid back you get the feeling that he is actually talking to you face to face in the room. These are poems of rarified intelligence in which narrative is largely replaced with pattern, structure and association. These in themselves help to convey the overall tone and mood of his work.
The poem sequence “Building Sixteens,” the long poem “Shooting for Line” and the poems entitled “Chain” and “Initial N” are good examples of the way in which North is inventive with form.
“Building Sixteens” is a sequence of 16 poems in which each poem is 16 lines long with an identical layout of 4 +8 +4 lines of which the middle 8 lines are indented. The visual effect is one of building blocks on the page. Although each of the 16 poems are set out separately, they are really one poem because the closing line of the preceding poem runs into the opening line of the next one. The structure is analogous to 16 rooms in a single house. In a later poem, “Translation (“The windowed construction…”)” North offers up an alternative rendition of the first poem in the sequence of “Building Sixteens” in which he finds another way of saying the same thing.
In “Shooting for Line” the sense of the opening words of each line is expanded by being given two different meanings that are in themselves contracted on the same line:
To break the silence or your newly acquired Ming vase,
or raise my expectations and the flag over the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
The poem entitled “Chain” comprises a series of couplets where the word or words that fall at the end the first line determine the word or words that begin the second line based on some kind of rhyme or echo that forms the chain. These come full circle at the end:
…Luster after the Maison d’Infinite
In fine (it looks like) print, the curse of snowflakes.
Lakes abound in western and central Canada.
A part of it has the living tempo
Temporarily slowed, vibrant in
Ranting, the forte of carnations.
Nations become specific groves of ordinariness
Nestled between oceans of stupefaction….
North employs a similar device in “Initial N.”
The contraction seen in “Shooting the Line” is also evident in some of his titles – for example the merging of two separate song titles “The Nearness of You” and “The Way You Look Tonight” into North’s “The Nearness Of The Way You Look Tonight,” the first line of this being a distant echo in terms of certain words and cadences of the first line of another popular song:
Smarter than morons are you
Shorter than giants…
Why does South Pacific (“Younger than Springtime”) suddenly come to mind? This is North in one of his most engaging moments. Every line is shot through with humor:
More reliable than bail-jumpers
Defter than those who are all thumbs
You are nicer than villains
Stabler than those with bipolar illness
Reedier than sousaphones or E-flat horns
More fragrant than monkey houses…
In “Study for ‘Day After Day The Storm Mounted. Then It Dismounted’” North offers up a poem composed entirely of adjectives and nouns with more than a hint that the adjectives may be in the wrong order. It is like a puzzle that the reader is being asked to rearrange and raises issues about finding the appropriate adjective to describe the corresponding noun – or, in the case of poetry – finding the right words to express what you want to say.
Refusing to be bound by convention, some poems wander into other poems whether or not they have been invited to do so. For example, the last lines of “The Nearness Of The Way You Look Tonight” run on into the poem entitled “Coda: Lighter Than Portents” imitating the course of a musical composition. In a similar way, North’s “Note On Fog” continues in the poem entitled “Disrobing (On The Same Theme)” although here the last sentence of the preceding poem comes to a close with a full stop but the first sentence of the poem that follows begins mid-sentence.
The conversational tone of his poetry is brought out by frequent references to the weather as a means of engaging in small talk or passing the time of day. This reference to natural phenomena, together with the occasional reference to nature – the countryside in the city – helps to soften the hard architectural lines of the urban scene, for North is essentially an urban poet whose poems are rooted and grounded in New York City.
North’s fascination with the unlimited possibilities of saying much the same thing but in a different way using similar words is evident in “Translation (“I feel you very close to me”)” which is an alternative rendition of an earlier poem called “Song” and “Translation (“In somewhat the same fashion”)” which links up with the sequence of couplets entitled “Fourteen Poems.” Picking up on this theme in “Day After Day The Storm Mounted. Then It Dismounted” he writes:
And in composing for wind instruments
and putting the same or nearly the same chords
into two different pieces, you are
not likely to hear the same concert at noon
as at dusk – unless, of course the performances are all an allusion
and those in attendance merely marking time
within their own private band shells.
Much of the underlying principles of his poetry – the structures and forms – come from musical analysis. How many times have composers used the same notes or combination of notes in slightly different sequences and at slightly different speeds to produce entirely different compositions? The possibilities are seemingly endless. North’s poems do not stand still. They express themselves in new ways all the time. In another extract from “Day After Day The Storm Mounted. Then It Dismounted” he writes:
Personally, I think
you need to focus on what is really important to you: change
habits as well as clothes…
Being a poet as well as a critic, I can see the funny side of North’s view of critics. In “Baseball As A Fact Of Life,” North takes delight in describing a fictitious fight with a foreign film critic about a line-up of films and in “Note on Fog” he writes:
I also like the image of the critic who wouldn’t know a poem if it came up and bit him.
Perhaps on that note I should end after adding a final word about the front cover. Designed by the British artist / illustrator Trevor Winkfield, who himself came to America in 1969 and quickly became a part of the New York School, the attractive cover, in keeping with North’s work, denotes a sense of playfulness with its very precise drawings, mainly straight lines and circles, of vases, flowers and board games which vie for our attention in bright luminous colors. There are two poems in the book dedicated to Winkfield. North and Winkfield are clearly admirers of each other’s work. Highly recommended.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His books include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014) and Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017).
Posted by EILEEN at 10:12 PM
Saturday, July 29, 2017
All the paisans know a guy and all
the paisans remember when
and everyone’s open secret threads through
the Viagra Triangle, wedged in
the crotch of Old Town and the Gold Coast,
where eyebrows-up Indianans hunker down
with hangers on still mocking the hippies
who cleared out forty-five years ago.
No one’s actually played that triangle
since around the time Miss Prentiss
with her kind smile and her flats and no time
to teach you how to make a diamond
quit to get married. I’m sure you’re right
she must’ve lost her looks, like you.
If she came down here like you she’d have to
buy half a dozen drinks for the Gold Coast
boob jobs just to get a grin, do a thousand
words for no action, even though it’s late
Sunday night and the bar’s closing
and Tony’s smile’s gone blank and the hostess
who’s bland as a kindergarten teacher
is banging dishes and turning off TVs
and turning up lights and turning locks
and gazing past the bar like a skinny gorilla
picturing life beyond one glass or another.
But kindergarten Miss didn’t give a shit
in a different way from the not giving
going on around here. This not
puts out the lights before you’re through,
and no one’ll remember you were there.
Urgent Questions of Autumn Leaves
I shiver and cringe before the blow. And you?
Do you blush, bruise, or ripen
after your flowers and fruits have gone?
Are you wielding this autumn light
or does it slam into you and bounce away?
Is your shimmer a shimmy, a whisper, a sigh?
Are you liberated or amputated by the weight of rain?
That spin and flutter—capitulation or surrender?
Panic or dance or panic and dance?
I want to think you jostle for a breeze. Fling yourself
into a good clean kick. Cackle at the satisfying crunch of chaos,
the breaking apart of your old dead bones. Maybe not.
Maybe you’re dismayed to be popular now
with slugs. Do you despise their worrying wriggles
or do you find a home at last? Is this ground zero
or ground of being? Are you going or letting go?
If I stay and watch you ride the wind,
Will you whisper to me the way?
Cold slaps on again like latex, another blizzard
scours the pigeon-cote sky. Sickroom blue gone ashen
shivers down from dirty rafters. Particulates
split, drift, sparkle on our kids’ extended tongues.
Poison, yes—but how can we confess, this moment
a glimmer of ghost dance for the ripening days
grandma packed us all in a taxi to pick mulberries
growing in the prairie she called her friend's backyard.
Even then, we cabbed it. No skipping, traipsing,
gallivanting in pinafores through knee-high weeds
making pathways nobody had trod before: we were modern.
Took the nighttime shimmer of fireflies for granted.
Hammered ragged nail holes into the lids of mason jars.
Captured frogs and let ’em dry. Say, anyone here
seen a jumpfrog lately? Not the saucy poster frogs
making the circuit of nature museums, or the catalog frogs
you can order in bulk and slit open, belly to jaw.
Or the five-legged flukes, lunging and falling and lunging
sidelong in burning bogs. Not those, but the hearty bulls
who advertised their longing, who puffed up
and peed in your berry-stained hands—they’re gone
so suddenly—who’ll tongue and swallow the night?
Tiny diamonds the droplets of sweat erupting
on your forehead, the hairs of your neck. I’ve already curled them
up into the cup of my tongue. Swallowed. Begun to bleed.
I thought I bought—turns out you can ask for what you want
but you always buy something else. Who funds this stuff?
Where’s the profit in it? By which I guess I mean, why?
Sufis say it’s the wrong question, but it’s the one
I’ve got, the single keyhole lock set firmly in the panel door
I drag along my bumpy life, banging it out
against my spine, jerking my shoulder sockets
out of place. Hanging on to the knob with one hand
because it curves in my palm like a clue. I know
there are locks galore and some of ’em twist easily
in the hand. But why reminds me of doors I remember,
doors that seemed to swing open into rooms. If I’d planned
for this I might’ve packed my pockets full of rubber doorstops.
Let ’em bulge suggestively against me in the rhythm of my gait.
Caused a sensation. Anyway this door’s not exactly shut.
I can prop its expert panels against one extruding surface
after another, stand back and consider calmly, peek warily around
in search of a skeleton key. Though I find only phantoms and bones
strung up in the corner of a codger’s classroom, the very sticks
clambering bit by bit out of you.
You know, diamonds are crystals. Like salt.
Like the salt in sweat. Like the pillar of salt collecting
in my gut, curdling me unwary and unwanted
on the cabbage I was born to crave. Maybe a secret
was in the hinge swinging open and shut. The light
beckoning, receding, reappearing. The sense I once had
that nothing is lost. But the hinges are lost. And I stay,
defining madness, because what else is there—
Sheri Reda is a writer, editor, and performer who makes her living writing and facilitating ceremonies, serving as a youth services librarian, and taking on other projects as they arise. A storyteller who performs her narrative work at live lit venues throughout the Midwest, Sheri also serves as a member of the narrative medicine committee at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital and contributes to programming at the Jung Center of Evanston, Illinois. Her chapbook of political poems, entitled Stubborn, was published in 2017 by Moria Press.
Posted by EILEEN at 7:58 PM