Chapbook Reviews III:
Chapbook Reviews: Visions of the Imagined World
Often, in an omnibus review, the need to create narrative unity from a diverse collection of poets and aesthetics can require a magician’s touch: a rounding off of what doesn’t fit the peculiar boundaries of the review so the collections themselves don’t wrongly feel square-peg-round-hole. Happily, through all my immersions in these poets’ works, I didn’t have to amputate the rabbits to get them in the hat.
At the same time that these collections grapple with the tensions of being in and of the world, their negotiations create pockets of openness—spaces where the grit and particulars yield, if ever so briefly, to visions of possible futures. It is in these sometimes very different encounters and evocations that these poets write urgency and necessity into the worlds of their books.
Learning the Language, by Kate Greenstreet (Etherdome, 2005)Socrates may have said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but Kate Greenstreet’s Learning the Language reveals introspection at its most collaborative and worldly. The collection opens with “Introvert,” included here in its entirety:
Deep in my own green element,
in this pan of water,
The duality of this poem is striking. Without a delineation of before and after, the removal of cause and effect (yanked from introspection after meeting her counterpart, or a meeting forced by the outside world?) creates an existential dilemma for the speaker. It also reminds us that timelines and lists are not organic to our experiences, but superimposed to make sense of our pasts and futures—an important reminder, as Greenstreet’s focus remains on making sense of the continually unfolding and free-associating present.
Interestingly, this friend is the speaker’s double, and one of the beauties of this collection is how Greenstreet is able to create two personae of the same speaker—at once self-reflective and fully engaged in the world’s motions, as in “Yellow Book,” which begins “Was there really no name for my life?” Later, she muses through the months of autumn, realizing:
The urge to travel, the longing for home,
sounded like fire burning paper,
Because we love the ground,
Divided into four sections, with several poems within and among sections sharing titles, Learning the Language evokes the blurry motion between conscious self and discovered self as it catalyzes the soft (but never oblique) mysteries of the speaker’s journey. Water and color figure prominently in the shifting internal and external landscapes, and the speaker’s relationship to her conjured self shifts too. As the collection moves toward conclusion, in the fourth and final title poem the speaker tells us that:
Near the end, she kept asking,
The movement is organic and tidal, sometimes one and then the other with varying pitches and textures, though this fluctuation is true of the conflicts too: the discovered self was not a shadow with a different idea of home, but an equal with an ultimately different need. “Sometimes in the middle of the woods the signing stops”; and, after the speaker’s traveling companion has wandered off “following a sound?” in the final poem, “The Interpreter,” the speaker can give us only half of her voice, a translation:
The double, the dearest, from arm-in-arm to another wave to get in front of; the road from mud to dust: once, a world did slide belly first from the salt, and Greenstreet gives us the language for it.
The Batteries, by G. C. Waldrep (New Michigan Press, 2006)
In G. C. Waldrep’s The Batteries (contained in Disclamor, forthcoming from BOA in 2007), the speaker is also learning a new language for the strange circumstances of his world:
At a long oak table I lift the lid
This middle section from “Battery Alexander” reveals the speaker’s metaphorical dilemma: how to be attentive to a language of objective truth. To achieve this, Waldrep builds on Whitman’s use of the catalog poem as a democratizing device. What startled me the most throughout these poems was their careful detachment—almost as if the National Park Service was in the practice of hiring poets to reveal the landscape’s history and multifaceted truths to new waves of tourists. In “Battery Townsend,” our guide asserts in his notes: “In time of war the poets turn to war / each in his best manner” and each of the nine poems in this collection is a sequence that “is named for and was first drafted at the site of one of the nine former gun emplacements at Forts Barry and Cronkhite, demilitarized since 1974 and today part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.”
Collage and fracture are not new, but in an era when bias can influence the choices of addition, exclusion, and arrangement, the re-seeing that comes from impartiality may be Waldrep’s greatest overture toward inventing that new language. Seldom do we see our guide intervene or directly alter this landscape, and while one instance of graffiti compels him to do just that:
AND THE GOD OF USA DECLARED
—This is not quite right. The weapons came first,
his actions are still democratic in that they serve to re-balance the strange harmony of collision and aftermath, statement and restatement, that characterizes the rest of parks’ graffiti, as we see in “Battery Rathbone-McIndoe”:
In chalk, baby blue
What is written here fades quickly.
West, east, the longitudes of war.
America hasn’t experienced the fragmentary effects of war on our landscape since the secession, and this “idea / of defense” is at the foundation of our culture of war. While San Francisco’s batteries may have prevented a splintering of the literal landscape, their presence wasn’t enough to prevent the psychic fragmentation of the cultural and geo-political wars waged daily in the conversations and minds of Americans at home or fighting for American interests abroad.
In form and content, Waldrep’s positioning of lines on the page echoes the shifting layers that have settled into our literal and metaphoric landscapes, and it is through the accumulation of fragmented rhetorical modes that The Batteries best evokes the tumultuousness and breeziness of San Francisco’s converted batteries with laudable impartiality—and one that gives hope for our current wars’ eventual postscripts.
Cloud Tablets, by F. Daniel Rzicznek (Kent State, 2006)
As a title, Cloud Tablets may imply that Rzicznek has moved above it all, sending prose poems as salvation notes to all of us on the ground still thick in our lives. But our guide is also a student of the world—while Greenstreet and Waldrep begin to renegotiate themselves by effecting an artificial distance from their previous ways of being, the prose poems of Cloud Tablets stay deep in the quotidian clamor, their speaker “lost as I had been yesterday, winding through the shouts and songs of the market’s fringe.”
What is unique about these poems is the balance they strike between a life and its lyrical dreams: in the clothes of spiritual awakening as the speaker, freshly and without cynicism, accepts being lost and as he creates brief moments of personal redemption through juxtapositions of the tangible and the just-out-of-reach.
Like clouds fat with the world’s run-off, Rzicznek gives us a reality in process where “men hang amazed and barefoot on the garage roofs, hurling beer cans and swinging shirts above their heads,” where “garages tear away from the sides of houses” and “cars tumble and flip uselessly from the sliding buildings.” Seraphim shout over the music in a nightclub. Sheep enter a library to bray at Dante. “In a Land With No Sky,” our world’s prognosis is grim:
The opening poem, “Response on a Cloud Tablet,” is the only exception to this shades-of-grey reality. Simultaneously addressing his readers and the speaker that will inhabit the book’s remaining poems, Rzicznek tells us: “Dear beauty-faced, waiting listener: it pleases me to inform you that . . . I have now become a pattern that will play in the back of your eye. . . . You will see a child pretending to cradle a baby against her chest. I will be the air in her arms and you will breathe part of me in without trying.”
Upping the ante on the stuff other poets might lament or elegize, Rzicznek’s speaker emerges in the second poem, “In a Land With No Sky,” already acclimated to the world. This is a land of unsettling noise and fracture, yet he is able to encounter the sad strangeness of each poem with a faith that wholeness lurks in the corners, as in the final sentences of that poem:
Offered a new way of reckoning, the speaker finds increasing unity, however brief, as the collection unfolds. In “Pecuniary,” it appears as an overlooked reprieve: “In some green sector of the heart, a radio is playing.” In “Gambling on the Sabbath,” as insight:
If a salvation note were to appear in this collection, it would read: This is what it’s like to fall off a round world. And here is where, and why, you hold on.
The Next Country, by Idra Novey (The Poetry Society of America, 2005)
As the landscape fluctuates from post-Allende Chile to Appalachia to Byzantium by train and points in between, you could make a home inside of the language Idra Novey shapes into the world of The Next Country—and indeed her speaker does.
The collection opens with “East of Here,” immediately wedding reality with speculation as the speaker describes “the next country over” where “the sole religion seems / to be bread,” where “if someone you’ve doted on // dies there defending the nation, / seven emissaries for the president // come by, all wearing stethoscopes, / and listen to your heart.” The empty gesture of these emissaries’ gifts to the dead heroes’ families—“a list of either questions or answers, / but never both”—is unsettling, but also instructive. When faced with the unacceptable, invent something new. In “Report From Appalachia,” the speaker recreates her relationship with her surroundings:
My brother became a flag, the decorative kind
and unfolded himself with the wind, eclipsing
taut and wanting. I heard him, but couldn’t stop
While admitting the reality of “we are still there,” the speaker has discovered mythmaking through metaphorical reinvention, and the effects of this are profound. As The Next Country unfolds, the speaker and those around her grow increasingly comfortable as immigrants in a world of dreams and transcended geographies.
In “Property,” her recently-evicted mother imagines “a horse ranch, mornings / of mares” and seasons that “will only happen / in the evenings. Midday will always yield sun” because “there is no need for exactitude in fantasy.” A friend tells her after soccer practice that “he was one of three to survive / his border crossing” but will return to Montenegro “in a silver Lexus, a doctor // of something, and stir up / the yellow dust on his brother’s road.” Much later in the collection, “Two Women In a Barn” shows the sustained malleability and permanence of these dreams:
It happens that a mother slips into parchment
of her children. That she becomes an almond
Sleeps with her glasses on in her daughter’s house
the case—and she has coerced her grown child
list oddly in the small paddock, wanting
Like bread, dreaming is the religion of this place. The speaker travels into the stories and sights of Panama and Chile; travels into the literature of Neruda, Yeats, and Delmore Schwartz; travels in and out of a marriage; but for all the crises she finds at home and abroad, violins still mysteriously assemble in her coat pockets, and as she discovers in “To Byzantium, By Train,” there is still refuge to be found in “the inarguable grace of a farm // just past, or passing, or to come.”
The Auctioneer Bangs His Gavel, by Benjamin Scott Grossberg (Kent State, 2006)
Sometimes our dreams, however lyrical and immediately transcendent they may be, can serve as reminders of what we are denied, and Benjamin S. Grossberg’s The Auctioneer Bangs His Gavel wastes no time underscoring this point.
Opening with “Pig Auction” and the auctioneer’s “Three quarter quarter quarter do I have half?”, the speaker implores us to “Picture this: a tent, two hundred spectators // on three sides, auctioneer on a dais.” As the narrative continues to unfold, the descriptions of this auctioneer are worth noting: “his voice / tripping along between speech and song—,” his “voice tripping / like water down a rock face”—speech and song merged into aggressive salesmanship; the tranquil and quenching properties of water replaced by the torrential and adversarial qualities of a flood.
Though the speaker and his companion eventually move on, the pig’s oblivion to the dinner plate lingers. In successive poems, Grossberg establishes the animal kingdom as a reflective trope through which the speaker considers gay sexuality, with society and God taking turns on the auctioneer’s dais. The visceral impact of this is jarring.
The first thirty-five lines of “Beetle Orgy” focus on the speaker’s discovery of beetles mating at an abandoned tennis court, “coupling in company, hundreds of them, / the rows melding to make a single metallic band” then cuts abruptly to
Back in Houston, a friend had parties—
In the last half of the poem as the speaker (not invited because he wasn’t HIV positive) attempts to understand, he returns to the animal kingdom, varying phrases borrowed from the opening passages of the beetles as “a band of light, a band of glaze, the gold leafing / that shadows the vines in Celtic manuscripts, a living art.” In the final turn to the conclusion, Grossberg raises the theological questioning that will inform and transform the remaining poems in the collection:
Maybe that’s how it was at my friend’s parties—
of the wreck of the world, noticing ornamentation
each man brightens at the touch, comes to know
Then I think of God fitting the roof back on
Interestingly, the poems reveal the adversarial relationship to be not so much with God, but with the institution of god, as we see in “Incantation”:
It was for your sake
Fusing theology with the mundane, in other poems Grossberg presents a cocktail party hosted by angels for the end of the world, a lover’s blue-black poodle, why God hated Onan, Hellenic myth, a high school friend’s HIV scare. The collection ends with “Two Apples”—one Eve’s, one the speaker’s—three sections of lyric explorations on the speaker’s first lover and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden. By the time the collection closes with “I still didn’t know // what I had done, or why I had done it, / or why it was that I hadn’t done it before,” we realize that this is a book of prayers to the Maker of beetles and pigs, prayers in the old sense: as a way of understanding the world.