As I write this introduction on yet another hot day in Southern California, the windows to my apartment are open. I hear the roaring of a neighbor's air-conditioning unit, the squeal of an accidentally-deployed car alarm, a distant voice on a loudspeaker talking about...what is he talking about, exactly? "Too much sense mars the writing," Chris Tysh reminds us in this selection, which takes as its source text Marguerite Duras' Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein. In a series of couplet stanzas, the poet cleaves to sense-impressions, at once holding onto a tennis court in August, for instance, and yet also pushing against tactility as a representation of anything but what has been or can be lost: "the heart / will come later surely". This deferment of ultimate sense, of anything quite like resolution, certainly infuses Tysh's selection with melancholy. But there is also humor here, and it poignantly situates the poet and his audience in reflection: "The way I tell Lola's story, unreliable narrator / that I am, though my name seems to hold // the old gate standing in for the facts / won't be once upon a time". Surrounded by sounds, my writing marred, I know that whatever words I divine from that loudspeaker will most assuredly come to be "like a sentence stenciled in the sky," no matter how trivial they might initially seem.
This is not a poem. Or so, Lou-Lou the Pomeranian and master René Magritte might posit. More than ekphrasis, this series of prose poems by Kathleen Rooney is a high-concept exercise in voice. If Magritte can put a giraffe in a cut-glass goblet, Rooney can put these surreal poems in the perspective of a precocious Pomeranian. Though these poems are drawn from the surrealist paintings with which they share titles, their content is more than observation or meditation. Rather, this vocal performance slips behind the paintings, looking at them not as beholder or artist, but as companion to the artist; it creates a tender portrait of the master, a real affection between the master and his dog. Moments of rhyme and word play beguile here, but not as reminders of the poet behind the pen; they are logical extensions of the wit and cheekiness with which Rooney imbues Lou-Lou. Rooney herself asks if the perspective of these poems is a little funny. And of course it is! But since when must poems be dead serious? These pieces are a little funny—and fun to read. Sure, the project risks frivolity or silliness, but its reward is a sheer childlike (or pup-like) delight.
I live on the LA river. It's where I walk the dog. You may know it from film—Gattaca, Chinatown, the chase scenes in Grease and Terminator 2. The list goes on. It's not really a river, not in the way we think of one, but for most of its twenty-seven miles, it's just a huge cement wash. The portion I live on is earthen however. Below the 5 freeway, mallard and heron preen themselves, catfish pop crayfish from under rock, and brown and black bullhead run. I mention it because it seems a fitting introduction to this week's selection from Dan Rosenberg. The work here is baroque, almost otherworldly, creating a place unto itself. Once we allow ourselves into the meditation Rosenberg's language creates—if we let his wild retake us—he brings us startlingly back to confront the present, the contemporary, the now. It is the river, it is the city.
I have a guilty pleasure. Other poets should share this with me. There is a podcast in Santa Cruz, hosted by Dennis Morton
, and it is all things poetry for the show’s length (an hour or so). I have listened to every episode, then and now. The interviews with Robert Bly and August Kleinzahler are wonderful. However, there are other, more special moments when Dennis abstains from authors and features and instead reads poems that he just happens to love. Many of these poems were narratively remarkable, stunning, and, sometimes, obscure and wild. After a period of binging through his podcasts, I remembered Morton’s frequent love for poems by Rebecca Foust. It is my pleasure to introduce Foust for today's feature and to talk with her further in Wednesday's interview. I feel that the work and her ideas on poetry speak for themselves. Her latest book, Paradise Drive
, is a splendid negotiation and achievement with the sonnet. Experimental but true to the form. Hilarious and wild in the collection’s revelations.
For a long time I've thought about keeping a journal. But then uncomfortable questions emerge. What goes in? What stays out? There's the additional anxiety of a journal being traced back to an "I": a journal is never to be taken as fiction, but non-fiction. The "I" in the entries is always me without mediation, without ventriloquy. George Life's precarity project tests how the act of composition, of adding and erasing, might discover a signature that is at once "I" and "not-I." The achievement of these poems is a combination of embracing and editing. Even the kitchen sink has gone into these poems. Meditative lines like "formal which is to say a kind of purity" culminate in the "violence / and splendor somewhere west of Houston" in the first entry. In a second entry, the act of eating potato chips and a translational play on free radical leads to this realization: "free radicals / radicales libres eating Lay’s what we learned yesterday fails us today." Life's precarity is a palimpsest journal, or what Bloom might call a site for poetic crossings. In these evocative lines and unexpected breaks, we track the movements of "I" that is always somehow other and yet eerily familiar, the "I" that I inhabit on the page or in the world.
I just ate the last of Klondike bars. My lover comes in to the office, leans over me where I am working, kisses the back of my neck and asks, is it because I ate the last of the apples? A pretty moment, funny—one of shared intimacy. Why we love each other perhaps. But is it a poem? No, probably not. It was there, now gone. A fleeting moment that I can’t do much more with. And this is why I am so envious of Portia Elan’s work, its ability to transform the everyday into the holy. Elan employs an internet parlance, oft dismissed in our serious Poetry work here as low, in a way that is altogether new and exciting.
After reading Chris Santiago’s poems, I immediately reached for my copy of Joan Didion’s The White Album and turned to its title essay. Freshly unpacked after a cross-country move, its pages still smelt like California. Small grains of sand from some grungy beach north of Santa Monica spilt from the book onto my desk that faces Ithaca, New York. Didion’s essay begins: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live...We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the moral lesson in the murder of five.” The narratives in Santiago’s poems carry this compulsion, to venture through memory and history, and to insist the importance of life and all of its incarnations.
The poems (and translations) this week have been a challenge for me: they are too much. The first challenge was one of selection. When Jen Hofer sent me these translations of Virginia Lucas, I was immediately entranced: the energy, the linguistic outbursts, the bravery, the excessiveness that seeped and dripped everywhere. I couldn't deny these poems anything, whether it be my attention while reading, my idle thoughts hours later, or this space here at TOA. My first task, one of selection as editor, was in some sense a failure. I couldn't select; I had to have have have. And so, I took took took everything Hofer and Lucas offered me. Six poems alongside their six translations. Just enough excess to feed the excessiveness.
When we look up at the night sky, we are looking up at victims. They may be shackled in stars, jointed by light, but they are still the patterns that have been formed after torture and rape. Daniel Altenburg's poems this week operate within the stratospheric depths beneath this sad empyrean. Engine burnoff, sexual violence, and Classical allusions mark the liminal spaces between gods and mortals, between desire and its consequences. Altenburg reimagines our trips to the stars through alternative examples. Mothballed spacecraft, sexual histories, and the bodies of astronauts chart the hidden costs of progress, the tradeoffs of history that so often go unmentioned. Amidst the detritus, Altenburg discovers light in burning embers rather than the twinkling stars. He discovers lyricism. He discovers a path, even, toward humaneness.
In this group of poems, Michelle Y. Burke takes on the subject of pregnancy with unexpected anxiety and a keen sense of the uncanny (which seems a necessary, if not often narrated, part of having another being growing inside you). Burke's poems eschew a pre-scripted narrative of pregnancy in favor of a more Alien one. Of having two heartbeats in one body, she writes, "A thing should be one thing or another. Not both/and." This group of poems is less Miracle of Life and more brooding, to use the author's word. Burke explores all definitions of brood: as a noun for children and chicks; and as a verb, to hover over or think anxiously about. To be in a state of depression, even. By invoking the Narcissus myth, Burke engages the selfishness of the desire to have children without denying the work and worry that goes into it. Cheeky and irreverent, this author can't explain "why I love you like the chipped mug I'll never throw away (unless it leaks)"; to her characters, even conception is just a shared surprise.