Thursday, December 27, 2007

Sensational Spectacular in Publishers Weekly

Nate Pritts's full-length debut, Sensational Spectacular (BlazeVOX [], $14 (69p) ISBN 978-1-934289-06-8), collects sequences and short poems recounting the fantastical adventures of the narrator and his “friends,” differentiated only by color, as in “Blue folds himself into a ball when he thinks the universe is holding goodies.” Science fiction and surreal imagery fold, too, into the often humorous, but no less weighty drama Pritts spins. Readers will come for the humor but stay for the genuine heartache.

Sensational Spectacular in Brooklyn Rail

Nate Pritts, Sensational Spectacular
(Blaze VOX, 2007)
Ah, to be young and full of energy, as “feet barely touch/ the ground… running straight out.” Nate Pritts writes like a receiver barreling down the field to catch the long bomb. He’s a conquistador in a funhouse. He’s out to explore the universe and carry on. The collection begins with a quote by Kenneth Koch who “never mentioned… friends” and then presents 24 catchy poems about friends. Trips, games and conversations shift from quirky patter to philosophical dictums. Grand ideas evolve from communal pursuits.
In “Outcasts of Infinity” Pritts notes “whenever one… gets down in the dumps/ it’s up to the rest of us to come to the rescue.”

The next section, called “Big Crisis,” shows Pritts to be a metaphorical metaphysicist (think of John Donne). He starts with implausible images and turns them into elegant equations. “Each thought in my head is a missile/ … and each thought chunk is an explosion of me.” Several thoughts and “Booms” later, and Pritts has reinvented an amorous entreaty.

Prefacing the last section, “The Brave and the Bold,” Pritts cites Coleridge: “Well they are gone, and here I must remain.” Yet he returns to the shorter friend poems. The only problem with this book is the repetition. Too many friends and fast feet.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Chapbook Round Up

From H_NGM_N #4.

From H_NGM_N #5.

Cate Marvin. Fragment of the Head of a Queen. Sarabande: 2007

Cate Marvin has crafted a dynamic follow-up to her first collection. The poems here are packed with sensuous language yoked to an almost compulsively competent and direct voice, convinced of itself if nothing else.

Marvin’s style seems deceptively personal, one might almost say confessional. But the truth is far tougher than that. Some of these poems seem crafted around the emotional utterance but it is Marvin’s deft handling of the personal that gives these poems texture. In “Lines for a Mentor,” the “I” pronoun exists like punctuation, all this personal talk disguising the fact that we’re not really reading into a life, or even a particular event. The poem here communicates a psyche, a consciousness, in lines like “I am lying at the bottom of a clothes hamper,” or “I never wanted to build a house without nails,/I never wanted to bend a horseshoe’s glowing iron.” The dazzle of these lines is that they are inscrutable as literal talk about life as we know it but still there is such stern emotional truth that we feel the meaning even as we register our inability to comprehend it.

Moments like this abound in the book, gutsy moments where Marvin trusts the movement of the poem enough to know that, sometimes, it doesn’t matter what’s being said so much as how. What results is an intricately unified text and a speaker who is fully developed but whose actions, reactions, whose very thoughts and thought processes, are unpredictable yet definite and certain.

This allows Marvin to write some fabulously open lines, with bare, emotional moments that might come off melodramatically were the tone of the book overall not controlled so well. The speaker of “Scenes from the Battle of Us” says:

I am like a table
that eats its own legs off
because it’s fallen
in love with the floor.

I could spend some words admiring the expert lineation here, breaks falling on grammatical pauses in such a way as to emphasize the halting nature of such an admission. But really most impressive here is the very fact that this moment is powerful. The speaker here, and throughout the book, is so consumed with and by love that the reader is genuinely moved by the pure emotion.

Truthfully, this is a complex book. For every emotional statement as that above, there are lines and lines of cool intellectualism; for every open hand reaching for connection, there is the violence of lines like “…I’ll let him keep/the scissors. He’ll find them in his back” (“Gaslight”). Complex, challenging but, ultimately, rewarding. Marvin’s real success in this book comes from writing poetry of the body but not from a particular body, brainy writing that doesn’t come from a particular person’s brain. These are poems that register a deep emotional narrative, poems where intuitive truths are shaped in formal logic and everything breaks down in the face of pure human love “as the ribs in my cage, one by one, begin to snap” (“A Fainting Couch”).

Lisa Fishman. The Happiness Experiment. Ahsahta: 2007

Contemporary society—with our blurred selves subject to thousands of distractions and interruptions—would be Wordsworth’s nightmare, his heart already grieving more than 200 years ago to see “what man has made of man” (“Lines Written in Early Spring”). The poems in Lisa Fishman’s third collection are presented as one possible road to salvation. This is a collection of intense lyrics that seem intent on physicality, action, and THE SOUL, poems that work to distance our consumed/consumer selves from what this world has become and return it to a state of wonder in which true perception/connection can take place.

The Happiness Experiment opens with the long poem “Midsummer,” the apparent disjointedness of its sections putting the reader into a frenetic haze that never allows sure mental or emotional footing, barraging the reader instead with supposition, possibility and metaphysical mysteriousness:

The sunflower hung over its shadow, the sun
thinking shadow, the sun

The flowerhead was made of seeds, the seedbed
ringed with petals something fled

These lines are charged with a super-sensuous attention that pays off with the language and feel of insight, though without any real clarification. The implication here is that attentiveness paves the way for perception; through the tumbling syntax, we can see that this process is not controlled or controllable. That simple observation can lead to complex perception is a widely liberating thought, and it leads to shocking revelation in a sequence that is initiated outside the self.

It’s this quality that is most striking throughout the book, and again and again, it comes from quiet attention to the things of this world. The poem “Argument” ends asserting “The leaves raked sure/into grass against we lay there, ungloved hands/of trees in the argument part earth part sky” frustrating the reader’s desire for grammatical closure but leaving us instead with the transcendent vision of the trees reaching. There is a piercing confidence in the language as it shapes these intuitive truths. When the poem “The Fall” begins “The raspberries are very sad,” we believe it and take it at face value. This kind of emotional impressionism, wherein unexplained moments generate huge dividends in the reader’s feeling apparatus, is another signature of this collection.

Fishman’s work is distinctive and important not only because of her technique but because of what she is saying. It seems the purpose here isn’t so much to present answers, or to wring hands (as Wordsworth might have done) over our current mess, but to encourage readers, those who are baffled or intrigued or somewhere else entirely, to think intuitively and emotionally. Through poems that consistently utilize physical and natural objects as the center for slippery and hazily defined abstractions, Fishman’s experiment provides some interesting and happy results.

The Armory Show at DUSIE #4

When I clicked the link to DUSIE #4, an online journal originating from Switzerland, there was an audible thump. Just like that, I had 42 chapbooks sitting on my screen.

For the purposes of this review, the term “chapbook” is meant to refer only to an aesthetically or arbitrarily selected poem or group of poems. Though some (but not all) of the “book art” aspects of a chapbook are lost in the online format, & though these aspects can certainly compound, supplement, contradict or supersede the aesthetics of the poems themselves, we’ll leave those discussions aside.

Also, for the purposes of this review, the term “thump” is meant to signify the intellectual, creative & physical heft of these many works metaphorically landing on my desktop.

What DUSIE has done is not entirely new. There are several e-chaps out there (duration press has some nice ones & even my own THE HAPPY SEASONS is an online chap). But by producing an “issue” of all e-chaps, by producing a staggering 42 e-chaps at one time (!), DUSIE has done what all literary magazines, online or in print, hope to do. They’ve created & defined an aesthetic moment making this a kind of Armory Show for the chapbook in 2006.

You see, chapbooks are hot right now. They’re in.

I’d like to propose, first off, that all of the chapbooks in DUSIE #4 are worth reading. I’d like to follow that up by saying that all chapbooks are worth reading. I’m not saying that they’ll all be worthwhile, that they’ll all teach us something about our craft or ourselves or our world, but I do think the form itself, these compressed bursts, deserve our attention because they are, in action, a form of thought, scattered or unified, lax or rigorous; chapbooks are about as close as we can come to inhabiting a boiled down consciousness different from our own.


Take Chris Rizzo’s e-chap, In the Quells. Rizzo is no stranger to the chapbook form; he runs Anchorite Press, producing many fine print chapbooks, & has several chapbooks to his credit as a writer as well (see a review of the most recent of these, ZING from CARVE Editions, in H_NGM_N #5). In the Quells is a unified utterance, a burst of consciousness. It is a “project,” with big ambition and broad scope, using the “saleable titles” from Gregory Corso’s The Happy Birthday of Death as springboard.

These prose poems are best read as a kind of applied linguistic physics. Rizzo accelerates the words like atoms, at lightning speed, & then spins them around a few times before concussively smashing them together in an attempt to generate some wholly new particle.
But before you think the work here is all head, Rizzo has inserted “the Kid” as his likeable Everyman, the controlling consciousness of these poems. Every bit as scattered & discombobulated as Berryman’s Henry, the Kid has developed a way of thinking that suits him in these times:

Go broke solo, rack up bullshit repetitions, and spit at your
god of choice. Managing messes in America incorporated
powers of buck stop nowhere. And in the breaks he can’t
catch one. But he can’t keep going, but off course he goes […]

(“Pipe Butter”)

This chapbook fully explores how our lives lived in “this kingdom of is-ing won’t leave us / at be.” Rizzo’s syntax is always so rich & generative that it’s hard to tell what comes first, the thought or the word, but the “riff punk” language of these poems lands us somewhere fully human, “locked in this droning, this story, this string we / call breathing.”


Heart on a Tripod, the e-chap from Kaia Sand, involves the reader immediately in the physical particulars of identity. Using a muscular line as guide, this poem courses over & through different territories of body & spirit, of public & private space.

The truths related in this work are the simple ones, but are dignified & complicated the lens of representation. How do we say what we need to say? The speaker here resorts to recitation, a tone equal parts elegy & hope:

& her legs become her legs

become a heap of bodies &

hopeless. bodies hit bodies

& they fall that way

It is almost impossible to locate or name a speaker in this poem, to give a face to this body, though the poem itself is sustained by questions of identity, the human form, & sheer wonderment at “every living thing, impossibly so.”


Sarah Mangold’s Picture of the Basket consists of two weeks worth of daily (or near daily) meditations / reveries / happenings. This creates an instant sense of progression for the reader – the relentlessly forward motion of time – but Mangold chooses to exploit this is some very interesting ways. As Day 1 suggests, our lives are full of “tasks and arrivals” in pursuit of “a definitive the,” some solid ground to stand on. Still, “it is possible to disappear.”

Even though the reader expects to know everything, diaristically, to follow a narrative, things are left out, as they must inevitably be. There are constant elisions, shuffle steps, flat out gaps. Riffing on Olson’s “triple theories” found in his essays “Proprioception,” “Projective Verse” & “Human Universe,” Mangold is more concerned with what poetry can’t do – “we couldn’t conjure / pumpkin festival at the oval” – the misses & the lack.

In poetry that stunningly trusts the reader to be fully awake & engaged, Mangold creates the kind of field from which all things should be possible but, facturously, aren’t.


It should be noted that each of these chapbooks was produced in a print edition of 50 copies; each author was responsible for his/her own book & mailed a copy of his/her chapbook to everyone else in the “kollektiv.” Imagine this as the new model for poetry “production & distribution.” A giant happening such as this one – the online thump of this – & the scene that is created, the group. Poets writing poems. Poets publishing/disseminating poems. Poets reading poems. This is a good way to start, a big shock that lasts &, hopefully, has repercussive effects.

Ian Randall Wilson. Theme of the Parabola. Hollyridge Press: 2005

Ian Randall Wilson. Theme of the Parabola. (2005)

Hollyridge Press
P. O. Box 2872
Venice, CA 90294
38 pp. $10.

We have to take Ian Randall Wilson at his word when he says things like “I’m here to document the normal” as he does in the poem “I Gloss the History of the Human Tongue” though these poems all seem to organize themselves in a technicolor war against the quotidian. And I think we can believe Wilson when he says, very delicately, “Let us listen to the voice of the instant” as he does in “Learning from Lumpiness” though the voice in these poems is a wildly ranging voice, reaching its big hairy human arms far back into the past and pushing their way into the future.
I think we take Ian Randall Wilson at his word because there is such confidence and fluency in his voice, in the active consciousness that springs to life in each of these poems. His word, finally, is all we really have; it is also all that is necessary. Look at these lines from “Forget Everything You Thought You Knew About Slip Covers” for example:

I imagine a weight hanging from a string.
I image the weight grows with time.
Poor string.
Only three equations are necessary for chaos
but at least four occasions are required.
This is one of them […]

Here is a controlling consciousness, a speaker, I don’t mind being controlled by. I’m glad to go where he takes me, amazed at the linguistic virtuosity that takes the verb “imagine” and translates it into a new verb “image.” I’m bursting with sympathy for a string (!) and I’m overjoyed at the transmutation from “equations” to “occasions” and the deadpan finale that serves as a springboard into the deep water. I can almost imagine that Wilson, too, was overjoyed. See, I feel an inventively provisional undercurrent to these poems. These are not poems with outlines or preconceived grand themes. These are poems that speak in “the voice of an instant,” but it is a timeless instant; these are poems of documentation, but it is proof of the human potential for constant ingenuity.
Of course, the now is a lovely and varied place, but why sing? Well, “In an absence of because\the head just path sometimes.” I think that’s the only smug answer we need. Why not sing? Why not skitter and scat our way towards some kind of understanding:

That line was what makes the next line possible
that and a vocabulary to describe
the underlying patter of life— […]
(“An Illustrated Text Aimed At Engineers”)

Whatever the understanding is, whatever the meaning behind the patter, these poems are confident that it can be talked out, that we’ll only get there by trying. The poems are fueled by the self, are indeed self-fueling, and they’re guzzling it all down quick, burning themselves up before they burn out.

Michael Sikkema. CODE OVER CODE. Lame House Press: 2006

“One Truly Human Act” —Sikkema & Simple Wants

Despite a surface flash, a linguistic rupture that permeates some of the poems (or poetic utterances) that make up CODE OVER CODE, Sikkema work is a profoundly human one, a searching utterance.
The book begins simply enough, with the controlling consciousness, the center of the vortex, proclaiming, “I wanted everything with you to be nicely round in a square of berry patch,/dirt and sky.” So much of what this book, finally, generates for the reader is initiated here, a revving that spans the length of the collection. Here is urge towards coupled with wariness of; there is a cynicism here that wants the “round” to exist in the “square,” that wants the impossibility non-conformity within conformity & is still na├»ve enough to think that, if it can be achieved, there will be a nicety to it all. The book, then, the rest of the poems, are notes from the war, the speaker’s realization that this cannot be—implied syntactically already: I wanted…
If the world view of CODE OVER CODE is “romantic,” if it can be said to aspire to “organic unity,” the project of CODE OVER CODE, what the poems accomplish, can be said to reveal to us an interrogation of that Romantic sensibility & the fact that we live in a world that is openly antagonistic to it. Such simple & lovely & intimate whispers such as “Here is where I am looking at you/in me” have no place in the new mechanisms of poetic language, which use the gears of irony & fear & distrust to spin our selves further & further from real human connections.
Sikkema’s speaker asks “Is there one truly human act left?” The direct answer seems to be no, or at least that it is decidedly the kind of act we want to be remembered for. Pure animal functioning does not make a human & I stand with Sikkema, chagrined & angry, baffled that we live in an age where poetry that enacts the purer functions of emotion (including, yes, love) is viewed with suspicion.

Matt Rasmussen. FINGERGUN. Kitchen Press: 2006

“Suddenly and Suddenly”: All Those Important Moments—

The delicate compression of Rasmussen’s narrative & clear-headed voice in FINGERGUN carefully & discretely amp up the emotional power of these lyrics. Here there are moments considered, juxtaposed, and then held up “against a future/that never arrives.” Rasmussen locates the power of his work

In the moment between
what happens
and what doesn’t […]

(“Suddenly, the Poem Is”)

Figuring out how this poetry works is the key to its heart, really, which is deep & complex. The work throughout this sharply designed book demonstrates a range of earnest sentiment presented as a plea. These things happened & are crucial but they just as easily could not have happened & what would have happened in place of that happening would be just as crucial. Each poem is, then, a kind of question: does what I’m feeling make sense to you? Is it ok to feel this way? Is there something else I’m missing?
“Please read this and tell me/how much it moved you” (“Titled”) is both a central question for the speaker & an ultimately unimportant one. It’s as if the sensibility here needs support & an acknowledgement of human-ness. But it is that moment of bare & open address that resonates, that purely hopeful need for connection.
A poem like “Dream after Suicide” is a good example of the shifting registers in these poems, a kind of scenic estrangement shackled to this plain spoken emotional depth. Here, the speaker deals with the image of his brother “in the refrigerator light/drinking milk that poured/out of his head.” Such a jarring juxtaposition forces the reader to reconcile the quotidian nature of the scene with the shockingly macabre figure of the brother. Except the moment is decidedly not macabre or sensational, or even especially pitiable. It’s all presented in a matter of fact tone, a diction that is equally suited for dealing with the apparition of the brother as it is the weekend sports scores. The main concern here is connection:

I wanted to put my finger
into the hole,

feel the smooth channel
he escaped through[…]
These poems show that the future never arrives because it is always becoming the present, something we can’t consider & prepare for but must live & live through.