This morning my coffee shop crawls with toddlers, hipster toddlers—they all have mullets. While putting cream into my coffee, hung over, I part the two in front of me to exit. One trips over my feet and face plants right into the polished concrete floors. Seconds pass, nothing, and then blood from his nose, he wails. I apologize to his mother but she reassures me I have nothing to do with his fall. In the car, Joshua texts, ‘Hey was I being an asshole last night?’ No, I respond, not at all. “I have this vague feeling that I was,” he says. Today is already heavy with the guilt and terror of living. This week, we present four from Carleen Tibbett’s Dataclysm. The suffix -clysm: break, broken, crush, bend, destroy. Dataclysm—I think, then, overwhelmed by data, broken and crushed by this anxiety of living, the endless information. Tibbett’s work is so approachable yet resists easy summary, a tension created by availability and that the windows of the shop are painted black and we can’t look in. Each poem ends with a .jpg file extension, and each poem is a tiny, perfect image-making machine. Experiments where in the “infinite types of darkness” words are made, “spectralnestled / in the somewhen.” We sometimes know it’s not our fault, that we did nothing wrong, but we can’t resist the need to apologize. Tibbetts' poems remind me of my need to be absolved.
To understand the political and social ruptures that Josué Guébo addresses, it is essential to have a little history. In 2011, the year My country, tonight was published, reconciliation efforts led to the Ivory Coast’s first presidential election in nearly a decade. Ethnic violence had characterized a 2002-2007 civil war, after which a north/south division remained informally. The 2011 election gave way to five months of violence referred to as the second civil war. While Guébo is interested in the questions of national identity that have tormented the country, rather than directly address questions of ethnic difference Guébo has expanded the political discourse; he sees the violence as a condition of the neocolonialism that Kwame Nkrumah forecasted as the last stage of Imperialism in Africa.
When I first read these poems by Lily Clifford, I responded: I'm going to resist the urge to tell you my reading. I felt that to tell my reading would be to reinscribe the author to Clifford, which seemed at best indulgent of my own narcissisms and at worst rather problematic. Or, as Clifford writes here, "each eye is called to sway, / again and back / the small quadrant of your desire for you." Instead of asking me to explain these beautiful poems as I read them, I realized that the poems were asking me to open myself and be receptive of them. These poems are sites of communication, yes, but a communication that happens through an insistence on listening rather than telling. I'm not told what to think by the poems; they ask me to listen and then think. I can't tell the poems what they mean; instead I ask if I can continue listening. And through this listening, I find myself pushed, pulled, and chopped apart and I don't even care if I will ever be able to put myself back together again.
Christine Herzer's "Language Room VI" is spacious, generous. When I say this, I'm referring to its broad plains of white space. Wait. Let me write that again. I'm referring to the poet's remarkable talents for shifting tone when a shift is least expected. No, that's not right either. I'm referring to the poetic project as a whole, a palimpsest displaying its scratch-outs and allusions for us to read (or not to read). Or maybe I'm referring to the title, its evocations of space, of an ambient poetics that draws its primary inspiration from pale morning light drifting through a window. Is there a window in the Language Room? Let me try this again. The Language Room is not obsessed with light, but with walls. Etchings and scrawls. Quotes in French, German. Even chromatic arithmetic. The walls display one generation of consciousness after another. And this is what I meant, originally, about spaciousness and generosity. A sense that you and the poet could go left or right, could discuss toast or the aesthetics of rejection letters in a single experience. That you might walk through this poem as you do through a room. Not walk, but wander.
I like a gambit. I like trickery. Maybe I’m just a fan of the hustle, but when a poet manages to play, to really play in a poem, well, that’s the point in my reading that I decide I’m all in. I’m game. See, in poetry workshops students get a lot of “it’s too gimmicky” when they step outside the box. This is especially true when they mess around with structure and rhyme—those old-school craft tools that people like to say are outdated, at least until they see them done right. And Marielle Prince? She does them right. She sees the game and she knows she’s playing it (she’s mastered it, in fact), but she also knows that it’s both a game and also dead, dead serious. These poems, the author wrote: “are for the kind of people who as kids could find themselves suddenly terrified during a game of tag, the game shifting within their bodies into the shape of something primal and urgent and not actually fun at all.” But I’m offering these poems to all of you because she’s wrong on that last account. Oh, they are fun. The subtle terror is thrilling. And in her hands, the possibility of losing one’s footing inside the poems is a risk I’m happily willing to take.
Let's say that every person has four sides. And let's say that those four sides each have four sides, and that those four sides in turn also have four sides, ad infinitum, raised to the fourth, to the fourth, to the fourth, to the fourth... I imagine there's a mathematical term for this but I don't know it. Let's say each side is presented at one time, in one place. When we wake up in the morning, for instance: one person. During the shower: another person. At coffee: another person. Renting a house: another person. Light shines through, illuminates another, here, today, now, and the light shifts and another. This week, Timothy O'Keefe's eight Quadrilaterals explore these sides of self. Tight, four-sided poems—beautiful four line machines, both playful and smart. In a line like "People pass by people passing for themselves passing people," I wonder the person I choose to be today and I will choose for tomorrow. I'm never sure which side to show.
The American grain was first addressed by great poets of our past: Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, Williams, Stevens, and Crane, among others. They sought a poetry that means something about this place we all inhabit in the States. Doug Anderson knows that grain. He recognizes this is a place of quick and perennial desire. A place where a woman can turn your day inside-out even on a simple matching of glances. Read these lines from “Dear Clever Poets:”
Let us consider these two concerns: What is the body and what is the self? In both philosophy and literature, these two concerns are intertwined. Where does the physical object become a conscious, cohesive human self? In her work Fleshgraphs, Brynne Rebele-Henry investigates the questions of her self and other selves in an unexpected way. Rather than the poem circumscribing an identifiable self, Rebele-Henry proposes the self as an amalgamation of things that have happened, a history of occurrences emanating from the body, directed toward the body, and passing by the body. The self arises from surviving these events, whether they are good or bad, interesting or boring, important or indifferent. We see how our own selves are imprinted on the selves around us, how as individualized as we feel, we are made of each other. As we read and witness Rebele-Henry’s self being continuously built, torn down, and reconstituted, we realize that the poem is doing the same to us. These words are now part of our selves as we read, as physically part of us as our hair, our teeth, our lungs.
Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt have an affair. He is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Marburg, she a talented graduate student. They break up. He goes on to become a rector at a University of Freiburg. There he writes about being and time and the great promise of the Nazi Party. She goes on to complete her dissertation on love but is unable to find work as an academic in Germany, being Jewish. Though neither could guess it at the time, they will become characters in Joshua Corey's Hannah and the Master, a remarkable work about philosophy (or is it political theory?), power, the moral obligations we have to each other. Hannah and the Master (and a supporting cast of writers and plagiarists) fall in and out of love as the world floods, becomes choked with carbon, burns here and there. In prose and lyrics, narratives and epistles, Corey manages to keep the best of the genres he adapts, a gifted storyteller doing poetry or a gifted poet doing the novel. And lurking beneath it all is a sense that there just might be a second chance for philosophy, or what Novalis had always looked for in philosophy: a home.
Outside, all the people are looking up. The blood-red super-moon eclipse has everyone transfixed. When I walk to the bodega for a fizzy water, the guy behind the counter asks if I saw it. Without caring about the answer, I text all my friends to ask if they saw it. I text a lover about it because it seems like the sort of thing moons are for. If I had Sara Vander Zwaag’s number, I’d text her, too. I’d apologize for being so wrapped up in the moon while I’m trying to put into words what I like so much about this set of poems. I would accuse her of asking me to look up at it, “the moon we have killed by loving it,” as she writes. I would text her because I feel invited to do so; these poems feel like a conversation with someone I love: “I’m bored. The moon is a crescent shape. This morning I had eggs.” My friend Colleen texts me back: “I think it looked spooky and neato.” I tell her about Sara’s poems. (Normally I’d use a last name to talk about an author, but I feel like Sara and I are old friends.) I tell Colleen I want to say something about the moon because I think Sara is into the moon. But really, I tell her, all I want to do is quote these lines over and over: “When did I decide / that I am the one who loves more always? / What a stupid way to remain empty.” The first time I read them I wanted to call Sara up on the phone and say something stupid like, “How true!” But really, how true! The voice Sara creates in these poems makes me feel okay writing that. Intimate, quirky, intelligent, silly and rough around the edges, these poems are like catching up with a friend over dinner. You can’t wait for the life updates and every now and then she drops a bomb of wisdom that, if you can nod your head and think How true!, makes you feel like part of a very special coven. Good catching up with you, Sara! Next time, the check’s on me.