Oct 16, 2015

Houses by Nikki Wallschlaeger (Horse Less Press, 2015)

The word homesick is sort of beautiful because it refers to a particular kind of longing, while also suggesting that one’s home can make them ill. Such longing – the sense that we belong where we are not – is what connects us to one another, a longing that comes from a feeling of estrangement. It’s cosmic in nature. But what makes us ill is the house we live in now, the one built by the machinery of human history. It gives us politics, economics, race, gender, and culture, each governed, for the most part, by an instrumental rationality articulated with a civil (and forked) tongue. Rather than being cosmic in nature, it is firmly terrestrial. As a result, the individual is half-paralyzed by the venom of what Charles Taylor calls “ordinary time”, where the degrees of our suffering are unjustly determined by power.  

The poet Dan Chiasson instructs the reader in Natural History, his second book of verse, to "Picture a house in a storybook. It is some color houses never are." In Nikki Wallschaegar’s relentlessly inspiring Houses, one finds similar homes - strangely colored, as in a storybook - and in some ways Houses is organized, and has the feeling of, an oddly beautiful (and deeply troubling) storybook: childhood innocence (despite the speaker’s obvious resolve to brawl in a world depicted as completely berserk) is illustrated, or at least channeled, throughout these poems. It’s in childhood, after all, where one remains ajar to magic because the screws of language have not yet fastened us shut. The poet’s fidelity to strange words (I’m a better person now for knowing what a “Calciferous pot” is) and the poet’s mining of language within the vectors of alchemy shows this yearning for a new articulation, one that seeks to break with Earth’s gravity, while not pretending to have been born beyond its laws. 

In addition to the book’s domestic esotericism - the home in Houses is a site of great fluidity, at times a psychic trap ("The laundry sucks my time from me"; "the cat pissed on the lamp"; "the dishes suck") and at times empowering ("I'm lazy/and joyfully//dangerous") - the form of the poems is hyper-consistent, blocks of prose born under the sign of poetry, and the regularity of the titles provide a predicable organizational matrix for the poet and here one can’t help but be reminded of the fact that children, especially children, thrive within a routine, but these gestures also recall routine's terrible track-record in history: traditions of injustice become entrenched for centuries. The poems in Houses constantly explore each side of this demarcation: the social and the personal; the exterior and the interior, because similar phenomena confusingly inhabit both with radically different outcomes and the poet's voice embodies these frustrating contradictions. What can be nurturing in one zone of experience can be traumatic in another.  This unsettling dynamic provides the voltage for Wallschlaeger’s work:

The diversity talking-point chain gang. The delicate warbler, where a
certain carpet will be uncovered before the show tonight, in the newest
crowd-scourge theme of the season: anarchism and artifice.

We'll be adding the local color during the show, rockin ombre hair. Boiled
until the skin falls off. More agreeable as potash bones blinking in the 
direction of the ladle. Maybe they won't see us as rookies,

this alembic day for pagination. Not as kings but that's my daddy the
human needling countries that need our help, avenues for pleading for
threaded eyebrow lashings. So in my anger (yes, I said "anger in a 

poem") I go to the 3rd floor without using the escalator (That should make 
your health coach happy) a mall which overlooks as the world's gibbeting
with the plush of a hundred stuffed animals. What are

you waiting for? With the mop soaked in red paint I walk past the a build a bear
workshop where the dancers are counting off their steps to the tune of the
most popular negation pattern, wearing dresses with

the numbers of the puissant dead. Remember how she would crank your 
hospital bed when your back went out and when you told her to stop she
laughed? A must have riposte for the person who owns

the holiday junket kiosks below. But my dear, I am moving quickly, I
needed the release of old cells, old facts. All the blood I am carrying with
me, waterfalling out of the janitor's bucket. I am sick to death of

cleaning up after your mess that isn't supposed to be permanent, the
swelling replicas of twisted remakes. Every morning I open those doors
but today I am not opening a goddamn thing

("Cranberry House") 

Later, in one of the most profound moments in the book, the poet writes, “What do you look like when you allow yourself to be moved.” If we have taken measures not to be moved, then another question suddenly surfaces: what am I surrendering if I feel?  This seems to encapsulate Wallschlaeger’s project: how can one simultaneously bask in the extravagance of vulnerability, while the threat of violation – because one is a black woman; because one is acquainted with distress – is a steadfast feature of one’s life? If emotional vulnerability offers us a kind of sublimity, a respite from the self and time, then sensing that one is in continual danger is a different kind of vulnerability, one from which fear arises out of, making transcendence an illusion. In other words, being afraid makes us pathologically self-aware. To be moved operates paradoxically then: it can exonerate us from reality, but also be the source of it.

This conundrum, so cruel in nature because it both promises and betrays, is reflected in nearly every poem in Houses. What’s remarkable is that the poet ultimately makes a sacrifice, for the reader no less: by reading Houses, we see what we look like when we’ve been moved.     

Jun 1, 2015

Warden by Rebecca Wolff (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014)

The first poem in Rebecca Wolff's Warden, "Admit No Impediment", introduces us to a speaker of such calculated menace that I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to turn the next page: 

I'm going to get up from the table

and go to the bathroom.

When I get back,

if your napkin has moved
from the left side of your plate
to the right, I'll
know you want to.

There will be no need to speak.

Or, wait a minute,
maybe it should be if your napkin
hasn't moved.

I want to make this

as easy for you
as I can.

The last stanza is one of the most beautiful lies a speaker in a poem has told me in a long time. It is the voice of both the torturer and the beloved and as a reader we know we will be loved and injured by Wolff from this point forward.

By what logic in "Admit No Impediment" does the speaker apprehend her surroundings? Apparently through an elaborate series of signs whose meanings only she is able to access, for why else state: "maybe it should be if your napkin/hasn't moved." That "maybe" tells us all we need to know as to what extent the "you" is aware of the speaker's matrix of logic.

Warden is one of the most painful volumes of poetry I've read in some time. The book's very next poem is a minimalist ball-peen hammer to the reader's skull in which we learn, among other things, that the speaker uses her "pussy/correctly", and then addressing the Other, writes "your cock/in my throat/finger/up your ass//put pressure inside there//midwifing/the shit out of/this morning". Wolff's candor in this poem, like most of the poems in Warden, are alarming to encounter, almost offensive, but it's difficult for your heart to harden when in the middle of this corporeal bluntness this line appears between "face down" and "no pressure" - "all by myself I have to feel". Considering the way Wolff addresses the reader, and a
fter seeing that the next poem is titled "Poor Mr Rochester", one starts to wonder if the personas stalking this book aren't Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason. 

There's a scene in Wes Anderson's film Rushmore where Miss Cross confronts Max Fischer, a student whose various attachments are always fierce and serve as substitutes for unexpressed grief he has for his mother who died when he was a child. In this scene, Max's obsessions have turned from his beloved school - Rushmore (in fact, he's been kicked out) - to Miss Cross herself, one of the school's teachers he's been courting ever since they met, yet she's unable to reciprocate Max's affections. In this dialogue, 
Miss Cross is forced to establish a boundary between them - via anger - and she does so by making him locate his desire for her within the language of her body. As a result, she moves Max closer to the fact his attraction is really another shelter for his unacknowledged grief: 

Rushmore was my life. Now you are!

That's bullshit!


What do you really think is going to happen between us? You think we're going to have sex?

Max looks shocked.

That's kind of a cheap way to put it, don't you think?

Not if you've never fucked before, it isn't.

Oh, my God.

How would you put it to your friends? Do you want to finger me? Or maybe I could give you a hand job in the back of a Jaguar. Would that put an end to all of this?

Miss Cross moves towards Max with her hand outstretched. Max retreats backwards, banging into desks and chairs. Miss Cross stops.

Please. Get out of my room.

The speaker in Warden behaves similarity as Miss Cross in Rushmore. By centralizing her utterances in the body, Wolff's intention isn't so much to shock us or herself (or the ubiquitous "you" in Warden), but to use candor to get inside the truth, where failure and passion become entangled in one's imagination. Also, by adopting the blunt vernacular, both the character Miss Cross and the speaker in Warden empower themselves by rejecting the sedative of politeness:

I'll tell you exactly.

When I could no longer have you with me

or beside me,
I was beside myself.

The fibre

and when severed

all my heart's blood ran out. I died. But I was

walking around dead and with your ghosted head 

beside me all the time, on excursions 

to get groceries, seated

by me

on the train, where

had never ridden
but we were

going places, you and I. I had to keep

you with me

so my eyes

inside your head

and all

through your eyes. Mania of

seeing through your eyes. At the molecular level, I
          reconstituted dead,
and even now the only happiness

that I know

is in those instances when I am mad again
and know

your love for me

again. Know it. 

("How Could I Have Gone So Batshit Crazy")

The vulnerability on display here is remarkable and oddly we've been prepared for it by Wolff who in earlier poems showed us how vulgarity is dependent on clarity, while later showing us how clarity is dependent on tenderness. But lurking in the poem - as revealed in the title - is a reminder that women, when articulating their deepest wounds and passions so openly, still face the ridiculous charge of something akin to insanity. But Wolff brilliantly refuses to look over her shoulder as she writes and the pain that generated Warden is on full display, showing her injuries with greater ease and depth as the book nears its end and with devastating accuracy. Her poems remind us that no matter what, we must love, and the greatest pain is when that love fails. The book ends on a long poem titled "Saving It All For The Morning" and in it the speaker's tone is conversational and intimate, as if the point of artifice has been lost on her:

sure I can go on with life; i.e., NOT DIE
but that doesn't mean it's "all good" or that life is what you
      make it or ect.

That was true love
we were made for each other 

This is how Warden ends and when we finish we realize that love is a rebellion against time. If the principal experience of being is estrangement, then love confirms why Wolff describes her hope (earlier in the poem) as "terrifying" because love is central to the reconciliation of separation. She doesn't write at the end of Warden we were "meant" for each other, but that "they were made for each other". The conundrum of love is that love is most active in a state of separateness. One can always tell which books are born out of necessity and Warden is one of them because to fail at love is to have that love profoundly reactivated. The demands the book puts upon the reader are uncanny for that reason and why Warden exist. That we find it in our hands is remarkable and yet it could be no other way and for this we should be thankful. 

May 28, 2015

Dark Green by Emily Hunt (The Song Cave, 2015)

I knew Emily Hunt's photography before I read a single word she wrote. Fond of landscape design, her photographs show how shrubs, hedges, and plants behave strangely in various pockets of urban space. In one, a tidal wave of red flowers threatens to engulf a parked car. Elsewhere, an evergreen hedge slurs through the bars of a wrought iron fence. In another, a horde of vines have murdered a bush planted benignly against a wall. While simple, they speak to me so profoundly that they take my breath away. I'm grateful they are in the world and they've helped remind me of that adventurous weirdness one discovers when afoot rather than in a car.  Where some photographers are captivated by synthetic spaces overtaken by nature - like an abandoned home reclaimed by hungry weeds - Hunt's photographs show us a drama made possible by not only her willingness to walk around a lot, but because of her sensitivity to lines, light, and texture and how they interact dynamically in otherwise mundane locations. Her photography reveals that we are like her landscapes: often overlooked and neglected. And Hunt's photographs, perhaps more importantly, reveal what things look like to a person who has forgiven themselves for existing.

And yet her poems in Dark Green, her first book published by The Song Cave, seem one step behind the photography in at least one respect: their existential resolve. Unlike her photography, her poems are more frustrated and one wonders if this is the speaker's general disposition or the result of poetry's demand upon words. Donald Hall wrote that "when we wish to embody in language a complex of feelings or sensations or ideas...we say what we do not intend." In this respect, Hunt's photography and poetry intersect: a shrub becomes so much more than its intended purpose; however, in the poems, we meet a speaker so present in the world that like the shrub, she is planted in a landscape not of her choosing. As a result, her poetry becomes the thing not intended, but to our amazement here it is any way. This feeling of mystery and loneliness permeates Dark Green and is reflected not only in Hunt's subject-matter, but in her poetic line as well: tangled clauses quickly untangle until breaking apart against the absence of punctuation, then regrouping to begin anew with the possible intention to acknowledge the difficulty, while asserting the desire, to achieve revelation:

It's hard to breathe at the mechanic 
where the cars are midair

and the men lying on the floor
out my window, examples of mountains

my car lived behind the house where the owner was dying
I didn't want to come to myself that way again

on the ceiling I drew something
to delete an end

it could describe black
and pass through text, like reading 

on vacation, veering from a series
lying on the floor

a symptom of the universe 
as common as the beach


climbing to the vending machine
is also not intimate

the bed is higher 
to protect it

and nothing like the highway
the ferns are growing in space

the phone like a prop
is closest to the dragon fly

and bland lively gnats on the cracked ledge
whee the air below the sky is

a sense and Virginia or
Paris Blue Street of Strength and small bug

fake wood and cracked dragon
chocolate and soap a feeling

I couldn't make a statement about
this beginning breaking like a broken cloud

something cold and what I am
and other cars, no food around

the bad hotel, no common air
in rain, expensive quiet 

poured from the sun
I rest my soda by the stone  

("Holiday Inn")

Like the title of her book, "Holiday Inn" is exquisitely suggestive. I can't help wondering if there's a question embedded in it: which does one take a holiday from: the interior or the exterior. It's a question Dark Green seems to wrestle with often, especially considering that Hunt is so drawn to depicting the seen world and how that world both addresses us while giving us the odd sensation we are not being addressed at all. But perhaps that's wrong. To depict the world with language is both the retreat from a contemplative state, but also to master it. In this respect, Hunt's photography and poetry converge. In fact, imagery declares itself more assertively in the poem's second half, as if to say depiction is not an escape from abstraction, but the poet's reconciliation with it.

This tension between the physical and non-physical is expressed in the poem's obscure dramas. For many of us, the figure of the mechanic serves to remind us of our own manual incompetence. In particular, the car mechanic is a content-expert on an object that intimately belongs to us (at least those of us who own a car) and we defer to that expertise. By doing so, our self-esteem is wounded and therefore our significance in the world shaken. Why do we invest so heavily, the poem seems to ask, on things we don't understand and rely on others to fix? In other words, if life is broken, who's our mechanic? The problem with modernity is that it doesn't seem to provide one. For Hunt,  poetic imagery is where this conundrum often finds a home. The poem dovetails, as many poems do in Dark Green, to new thoughts, but these thoughts remain connected by their obsessions. Just as the speaker personifies inanimate objects - the mechanics and their shop are "examples of mountains"; she says her "car lived behind the house" - the speaker in "Holiday Inn" tumbles into newer lines where she conflates drawing and writing as if to reveal, just as the poem's binary formation does, a split in the speaker's self. 

The first half of the poem concludes with a series of lines that feel like airy untethered musings. This makes sense. The poem begins with an indictment of the dirty air at the mechanic's and ends on a beach vacation, conjuring the sound of waves and faint voices. Furthermore, the recurring depictions of lying on the floor is an act most often associated with daydreaming and perhaps sunbathing. That this "lying on the floor" occurs in two disparate locations, one soiled and the other not, it reminds the reader that lying down is also associated with illness. Finally, the section ends on a note of generalized humility: "a symptom of the universe / as common as a beach".

When poems are arranged bilaterally, the second half is often one of two things: a re-articulation of the first half or a resolution of it. In the case of "Holiday Inn", it seems to be both: a re-articulation of the poet's drowsy disposition and a resolution of that disposition: one can be imaginative and also be alert to (and playful with) the physical world. And yet for Hunt, one consequence of such a life seems to be melancholy. 

The first stanza of the second half of the poem reads "climbing to the vending machine / is also not intimate" suggesting that all the lines that preceded this stanza were indications of a lack of intimacy and we suddenly recall when she wrote that being is just a "symptom of the universe". Furthermore, the second half of "Holiday Inn" seems to take place, at least in part, within the hotel. After this initial observation about the "vending machine", other observations follow and in contrast with the poem's first section, the lines in the second are more truncated and show a greater fidelity to description and it's here we see Hunt's negative energies imbue the things she catalogs: things are props, bland, fake, and broken or cracked. The location the speaker inhabits is devoid of food, "no common air" exist, and she makes clear the "quiet" she is experiencing is not even organic, but the result of an economic transaction, as in getting a hotel room, that fabricated box where one feels the rush of being hidden from the world and the sadness of anonymity.

The poem's second section, while a reflection of a troubled psyche, also redeems itself in the poet's power to depict when triggered out of desperation and necessity, and from those depictions one can tease out the uncomfortable truths of personhood and put those truths into poems. In the most revealing moment in "Holiday Inn", Hunt's speaker admits - and we're reminded of the figure of the mechanic - a lack of agency in the most fundamental aspect of being: "I couldn't make a statement about / this beginning breaking like a broken cloud / something cold and what I am". This is not only the most beautiful moment in the poem, but perhaps the entire book: language fails despite the fact that the mysteries of life and death are constantly felt. It's no wonder she can only claim that this phenomenon is vague and "something cold" and yet within the same moment assert it is "what I am" and here we hit the nerve that caused the pain to write it.

It's exciting that Dark Green is Hunt's first book because it means we'll probably be reading her for years to come. While known for her accuracy and clarity in regards to image, her speaker's willingness to stay-put in moments of crisis and solitude provide a satisfying counterpoint to her sharp eye. Her poems strangely balance feelings of urgency and drudgery, interior loneliness within exterior abundance, and the results are amazing. Dark Green is one of the strongest debuts I've read this year.                 

-John Ebersole


Jan 14, 2015

Hymn To Life by Timothy Donnelly (Poetry Magazine/Factory Hollow Press, 2014)

We only see the wind because we see the tree’s reply to it. Timothy Donnelly’s long poem Hymn to Life behaves similarly, but instead of the tree, it’s the past, and the force, rather than being the wind, is life. Topping out at sixty stanzas, un-serialized, populated by facts pulled from natural history with digressive little reveries into pop-culture, biography, antiquity, and personal anecdote, the intrinsic spirit of Hymn to Life – perhaps one of the best long poems written in recent memory – is sympathy:

…There were no Steller’s sea cows, the tame
kelp-nibbling cousins to the manatee, albeit double their size,

and there were no great auks. The last known pair of them
was claimed on July 3, 1844 by poachers hired by a merchant
itching for tchotchkes to ornament an office. Three long
winters later, rescue sledges bundled McClure and crew up
and sped them back to the claps of Britain. Soon Banks Island’s
musk ox population whittled down to nil as their flesh gave

way to the hungry Inuit who trekked up to 300 miles to strip
McClure’s abandoned ship before the ice crushed her completely,
folding her metals into Mercy Bay. “I took him by the neck
and he flapped his wings,” the poacher said. “He made no cry.”
Inuit shaped Investigator’s copper and iron into spear- and arrow-
heads as well as knife blades, chisels, and harpoons like those

depicted in lithographs in the mitts of seal hunters patiently
stationed at breathing holes in the ice. But there were no
broad-leaved centaury plants, no western sassafras, and no
Galapagos amaranth, cousin to the seabeach amaranth. Its tiny
spinach-like leaves once bounced along dunes from South
Carolina to Massachusetts till habitat loss, insensitive beach-

grooming tactics, and recreational vehicles slashed figures
drastically. When ice decides it must feel like being splintered
from a multiplex of tightness that pains but holds together.
Aerial shot of 1961. Year submarine thriller K-19 and Saving
Mr. Banks are set in. Kennedy is president. The cloud of a hundred
musk oxen migrating back to Banks Island rises plainly as

narrow-leafed campion, a handful of whose seeds had slept
30 millennia before being found in 2007 in a ruined system of
ground squirrel burrows. Surveys will report up to 800
heads in 1967 and a thousand more in 1970. All matter thunder-
cracking belowdecks: hoof of earth into water, water over
air, air under water and up. So that the vessel, broken, settles

onto sea stars on the floor. The seeds were sown successfully
under grow lights in Siberia, deep in whose permafrost
international high-fiving scientists discovered a fully intact
woolly mammoth carcass. To enlarge my sympathy I attempt
to picture the loud tarp tents around the digging site, the lamp-
lengths they putter away to, the costs.

First appearing in Poetry Magazine and then as a chapbook published by Factory Hollow Press, the poem’s over-abundance proved too much for some readers who admitted to quitting Hymn to Life halfway in. The failure of those to complete the poem was in part due to its repetitiousness, which created an expectation of predictability. As a result, some readers believed they didn’t have to complete the poem to appreciate its meaning and it’s somewhat understandable: at times Hymn to Life has the vibe of a conceptual poem. And yet it’s not and by not reading the entire poem, its full meaning cannot entirely be apprehended. On the other hand, for those readers who never completed Hymn to Life, the poem’s meaning was certainly felt. Dissuaded by the poem’s breadth, and since its biome didn’t reflect the modality of customized experience we’ve been habituated to prefer, some readers were exposed by their failure to simply focus on something so time-consuming and not of their choosing. 

The set-up to Hymn to Life puts the speaker in the position of constantly looking backwards and as that backward-looking process evolves, the poem gets smaller and smaller as it nears completion. Inescapably, so does the future. Hymn to Life is a poem about approaching extinction by participating in it, but not only as a species – human and otherwise – but as someone with the imaginative faculty to create (and destroy) and this is, it seems to me, one of Hymn to Life’s central challenges to the reader: how does one see life through to the end?

In The Logic of Sensation, Gilles Deleuze’s book on Frances Bacon, he writes “In art, and in painting as in music, it is not a matter of reproducing or inventing forms, but of capturing forces.” Donnelly’s work has always been interested in seizing potency and in Hymn to Life he’s still at it, but seizing that potency by combing the terrain of years gone by. With vigor, the poet obsessively accrues information from the past, filling the poem with mostly extinct or endangered animals and plant-life, but also with trinkets of history and micro-asides.  What makes Donnelly’s work in general so uniquely his own is his fidelity to articulating an inner surplus. In the case of Hymn to Life, that surplus is teased out from within the past, and the result is a brilliant one: Donnelly has created a gorgeous, but melancholy memory project. Located in the great previous, we watch as the speaker exhaustively harvests various intersections of data, penetrating facts into other facts, each occurring at different points in time. Reading Hymn to Life gives one the odd sensation of the forward mobility of reading itself, a progressive movement, but in this case one that is always a constituent part of the same erstwhile. And like the extinct or vanishing or tinkered-with biosphere Donnelly describes, the speaker gets closer – one stanza after another – to joining them. The overall effect is unsettling because the multiplicity of Hymn to Life gives the poem a linguistic √©lan vital, but so relentless is its total expression that relief feels inevitable.

Deep into the poem, the poet writes (see above) “To enlarge my sympathy I attempt to picture the loud tarp tents around the digging site, the lamp-/lengths they putter away to, the costs.” This phrase “to enlarge my sympathy” might be one of the most earnest attempts by the speaker to locate a technique by which one can relate to the world most humanely. Henri Bergson famously used the word “sympathy” to describe a way in which an individual could reach a state of humility, or what we might think of as surgical-imagining, where the subject proceeds into the object. For Bergson, sympathy was rooted in one’s ability to imagine someone's pain, but from out of that originating source of the word’s definition, it evolves and changes, and according to Bergson one didn’t arrive at true sympathy until completing an internalized process in which one transitions from “repugnance to fear, from fear to sympathy, and from sympathy itself to humility.” We see Donnelly potentially reach this humility at the end of the poem, where the superstructure of the past dissolves into the granular existence of the domestic:

…I told my friend Dottie

when saddened in the predawn I have seen the people pushing
small mountains of soda cans in their shopping carts stop
in front of my recycling, open one bag after another of empty
metal and glass, dig through them, take what they need and shut
the bags back up with so much care it has destroyed me. I remember
bathing my daughter when she was two and how I stopped

short thinking if I were gone tomorrow she wouldn’t even
remember. The year was 2007. Radio waves associated with
cell phones may not have been contributing to recent declines in
bee population. “And if you must destroy me,” says the poem,
“I’ll tear myself away from you/as I would leave a friend.
When there was time to put away the dishes, they were gone.

When Donnelly describes seeing people rummaging through his recycling and watches them close the bags with “so much care”, the resulting feeling he experiences is one of devastation. Rather than some form of hyperbolic pity for the scavengers, the emotion is evidence of the speaker’s total immersion in the moment, hence finding himself not reporting the scavengers, but being within the scavengers and also the very movements they enact when they carefully “shut the bags back up”: true sympathy. Following this, the speaker reproduces the Bergsonian process of sympathy by experiencing next the sensations of humility as he bathes his two-year old daughter, realizing that if he were to die she would never remember him. It’s something every parent contemplates, and therefore not particularly remarkable, but in the context of the poem’s temporal concerns it hits the perfect note: why is it important to remember? Or more broadly: does it matter how we remember?

The last line of the poem is equally intriguing in that it recalls a moment earlier in the poem where Donnelly confesses that he promised his wife he’d do the dishes before the babysitter arrives. However, he’s too busy working on the poem titled "Hymn to Life" and he confesses “I won’t be a person of my word tonight.” But one wonders, as the speaker finally finds time to do the dishes and discovers they’re already done, if that’s all he is: a word’s blind faith in a tomorrow. When his intention to wash the dishes finally moves towards its fulfillment, the dishes are gone: and so is the poem, so is the poet, and so is the reader.

Perhaps what makes Hymn to Life one of the most important long poems written in the last several years, aside from its spectacular humanity, is its cultural relevancy. While many will (reasonably) want to put the poem squarely into the category of ecopoetics because of its reliance on natural history, and one cannot deny the poem’s ecological preoccupation, the poem is more philosophical at heart; a critique of the nature of time and data in modernity. In his book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep, Jonathan Crary characterizes our life in a digitized capitalism as one long “duration without breaks, defined by a principle of continuous functioning.” The dynamism of Hymn to Life reflects this model of living, and its consequences, through its unremitting flow. It’s no wonder only three of the sixty stanzas in Hymn to Life end on a period and why some readers were resistant to engage the poem: since its excessive energies couldn’t be customized, why bother?

A hymn is a song of praise and this poem is too, which makes it refreshing in a critical climate that is routinely negative about life. Daily experience might be daunting in a morally impoverished world, but it doesn’t mean, Donnelly seems to be arguing, we accept it and live in a society where the most sanctified act we make in a given day is posting on Facebook a link to an article about the latest injustice. Within praise is the inevitably of loss, and Hymn to Life always holds these two feelings suspended before the reader at once. Its atmosphere of sadness and hope is the outcome of knowing that when we have nothing left to praise, when we reserve the exclusive right to know only what we want to know, then the incentive to preserve vanishes. By transcribing the past – and having the unprecedented ability to do so – Donnelly shows how it can possibly nurture (rather than inconvenience) the present and that without memory our compassion for all that lives becomes endangered.    

Nov 17, 2014

Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (Horse Less Press, 2014)

While reading Tim Earley's Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, one is struck by its fidelity to derangement. Narrative peaks through occasionally, but retreats just fast enough to live another day. The same can be said for independent clauses. And it's hard to ignore the Rimbaudian ecstasy coursing through Earley's syntax which provides an interesting dialogue with the book's title taken from another notoriously illuminated poet, John Clare.

Graham Robb, in his biography of Rimbaud, recounts that after the poet was shot by his lover (poet Paul Verlaine) we find that "the first biographical text devoted to Rimbaud...was written on that occasion by a police constable" who wrote, "[i]n morality and talent, this Raimbaud [sic], aged between 15 and 16, was and is a monster. He can construct poems like no one else, but his works are completely incomprehensible and repulsive." Apparently in Brussels (where the shooting took place) the police are also poetry critics, but that aside the speaker in Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery could be described similarly.

The word monster used in the passage above is particularly useful. As the word has been dragged from one century to the next, different associations have attached themselves to it. But despite those various iterations there's consensus that monster means something dreadful. When applied to Earley's poetry this label fits. I'm also inclined to apply monstrous to Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery because if we keep in mind the word's Latin root monstrum - meaning "divine omen, portent, sign" - this definition validates and connects us to the book's supernatural disposition. But more than a spectral jubilee, Earley's work is a grotesque jig, a glitch in the natural order of things. His poems also sound like the incantations of an ex-preacher suffering from (or made divine by) what one doctor called (describing Rimbaud) "toxic delirium". The first encounter the reader has with Earley goes like this:

I will kill you with the pivet from my cycling drum. I will kill you with the electric mouth of the sea. I will kill you with the plastic toxins, the dourcats, the European garrote, the divorce papers, the mustard-lidded wail of your eldest child. I will kill you with the amber wisps which am directly your life recollected. The air come down around you and communicate the spectral webbing one to the next and it don't make the sandwich any better, there are many names for the andromat of disengorged foolishness from which the skull's form drips into knowing and acts like the upright becoming human, the air come down around you as though you have manufactured a particular register of tastes. But not before you have been killed with the pivet from my cycling drum. Not before you have been killed with the electric mouth of the sea.

What's remarkable about this book is that the poet keeps this berserk pirouetting up for nearly 100 pages. Relentless, cruel, and foreboding - qualities for which I'm a sucker for - Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery is one of the most terrifying books I've read in a long time and it will take a patient reader to endure it because it's central message is this: you're not in control and you never have been. 
In "The Dawning of Genius", the poet John Clare describes a man who does not possess the words to express his inner delight:

Ideas picture pleasing views to mind,
For which his language can no utterance find;
Increasing beauties, fresh’ning on his sight,
Unfold new charms, and witness more delight;
So while the present please, the past decay,
And in each other, losing, melt away.                                         
Thus pausing wild on all he saunters by,
He feels enraptur’d though he knows not why;
And hums and mutters o’er his joys in vain,
And dwells on something which he can’t explain.
The bursts of thought with which his soul’s perplex’d...

At the center of this poem, and really all of John Clare's work, is a fear of forgetting. So moved by his interior reply to exterior experience, Clare panicked at the thought of not being able to capture what he saw and felt. In "Dawning of Genius", we see the poet's fears realized in a figure devoid of vocabulary, who "hums and mutters o'er his joys in vain,/And dwells on something which he can't explain."Apparently this anxiety haunted the poet his entire life. In fact, Clare spent his last twenty years in an asylum where (according to David Barber) the poet once complained, "Why, they have cut off my head and picked out all the letters in the alphabet...all the vowels and all the consonants and brought them out through my ears." And yet Clare's fear of forgetting extended beyond sensual immediacy: he was afraid of forgetting where he came from as a result of witnessing village life deformed by industrialization sweeping across Europe at the time. 

The picture of Clare that survives today is mostly a romantic one. When you hear that his doctor diagnosed him unfit for society "after years addicted to Poetical prosings" it's hard not to fall for the poet of Northamptonshire. One of his most famous poems, written while institutionalized, was called "I Am!". Clare felt perpetually invisible and abandoned (some even credit the poem as the first example of confessional verse) and there's one line in particular I want to quote from "I Am!": "I long for scenes where man hath never trod."

The poetry of Tim Earley might be the realization of Clare's longing. Earley seems obsessed on going where no poet has gone before. And this begs the question: should one attempt to further explain his affinity to John Clare? Full of excessive velocity and eschatological mania, Earley's poems - untitled and written in fuck-you blocks of prose - might be an attempt to mimic Clare's disturbed psychological make-up, but I don't think that's at the heart of the connection between these two. Instead, Earley shares Clare's attitude towards grammar - that to conform to the king's tongue is to endorse the king's rule, which for both poets is not necessarily a king, but the law of corrosion, ratified in years, by history. In both Clare and Earley, there's a clear sense that to use a dialect more associated with town than country is tantamount to transcribing the words of a rival tradition that wishes to erase your own. Therefore, I see Earley's linguistic density and exotic semantics not as a reflection of an off-the-grid snobbery, but the behavior of a poet in rebellion against progress. Yet it doesn't seem that the speaker himself is so concerned with preserving himself, but rather the dying language he utters so fluently. In fact, this might explain the poet's style: he's making us hear what a language sounds like as it dies. And that's the premise for how to read Earley. If not, you might come to resent him and mistake urgent necessity for rustic elitism. The panic driving every sentence in Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery come from a speaker who feels they are running out of time - and in the spirit of Clare - terrified of forgetting. This is the root of Earley's melancholy: things vanish without our permission.

Earley's poetry is Appalachia 2.0, an ethos of phonetic inbreeding between already established words, placing the poet on the frontier where outlaw syllables roam freely. But the poems aren't anchored only in regionalism - the poems seem to drift between various rural locales (for example, parts of Kansas) - which is appropriate because the poet seems more inclined to conserve the concept of place rather than the concept of the South. Regardless, he employs the music and semantics associated with those parts: whether he's turning nouns into verbs or employing the incantatory power of the conjunction or dropping yonders or involved in clandestine word-making, the excessive originality of the poems, if one isn't on-guard, has the power to alienate, especially for the reader who forgets they're encountering a poet who has a job to do beyond making one feel comfortable:

I've got a home in glory land fence-looting and picket wings the jowls of my prettiest aunt all humped out beyond the blue, what I hear in your language is an insistence a paradraining sortie the pure similitude devoted first and now therefore devised to tout the chimes of labor in the muzzled oven, attend me, Uncle Lordy, the narrow-clovened roadway Satin made with his speckled eye and transforming face. he writ a song pitchfork blues, he writ a song the habitants between heaving and dearth is where the parable finds its ancient trim and grackle. these sane orange roads, prophecies, dense magi, a moment of victim, an urge and a pledge, the fair caryatid displayed on tenable allowance, the solar honk of the ill-forgotten.

In addition to the project of preservation, Earley's speaker is decidedly elegiac. Psychotically so. Death howls on every page and Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery shows us what language might sound like when it's maker is pushed face-to-face with silence. Also, aside from being death-freaked, the poet seems to not only have been born into the wrong world, but into the wrong body. I can't remember another poet more corporeal-obsessed: the body itself seems to exist only as a site of trauma inflicted by the poet's own intoxicated depictions. A generalized gore runs through this collection and in many ways Earley is our poet of American Viscera, linguistically and otherwise, and because he's so mesmerized by the fact of his own existence (and also by being wired as male) that one imagines him looking down at his body, then to the sky, and asking Really? Not so much gifted by nature, but cursed by it. And yet family and other human connections permeate this collection and I suppose within that fact there's hope for an authenticity beyond pain. The speaker relates to people, albeit critically and oddly, and as much effort he exerts to eschew his lyrical impulses, the desire to experience a love that transcends the program to mate haunts nearly every page:

my first lover was not oafish or dressed as hyena was not redolent of plums did not scotch an apple in her mouth there were no reams of grotesque children packed into her suitcase yet. she was a bureaucrat with an arrow through her thigh...she was my heart before my heart realized sex is a displacement an irritation of alternatives...

At the heart of this book - and there's many of them beating throughout - is ultimately a shocking tenderness. Only the wounded are capable of this kind of violence, this harsh cry for redemption:

I asperse salmon and semen together. dream the scarlet strip into existence. these invisible strings are our fabular us. our ground of concern the tree that we own and our yearning spores past spatial the stricken minister's art his redeemer yawls his paregoric-factions the uniform praise of dick-lipped porch aching into the ground of dogs of heaven bellow upon it their assholes lutes the dead electric harp of lowest bright order of chaos wryd of particular wild.

Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery is one of the most demanding books of poetry I've read in a while. And one of the most rewarding, but only when one's heart softens for the speaker. Otherwise, you'll just run for cover. It's the type of book that either crippled the soul that wrote it or it was written by a crippled soul, and like Rimbaud and Clare before him, written by someone willing to lose it all just to jot down some honest words.