These selections from Toby Altman come at a time when I am nose-deep in a book about ventriloquism. In the first chapter, the author explains that the world of sound is often much more disorienting than the world of sight. Sounds emerge and dissipate, reflect and echo. Sounds are notoriously more difficult to locate for the human ear than landscapes are for the human eye. It is this quality of disorientation, or perhaps, aporia, that Altman hopes to achieve in these poems. For Altman, the avant-garde at this moment in history threatens to become predictable, an academic exercise of formerly radical techniques. To break out of this predicament, Altman proposes a kind of "rescue," discovering in materials diverse as verse plays and Petrarchan sonnets a poetry that hopes to achieve a kind of "placeless" effect, an aporia that at once liberates and frustrates traditional and avant-garde aesthetics.
In the old song, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” could give you a tour of the world and a history lesson to boot with the pictures inked across her body. In Meryl DePasquale’s riff off the old Groucho Marx ditty, the tattooed lady gives us an historical tour through the world of tattooed ladies—their innerworkings and the ways in which they are perceived. There’s nothing surprising among the stories of women’s bodies as consumable or as for sale, but through the lens of the inherently sexual, penetrative and proprietary nature of tattoos, DePasquale’s tales disrupt our familiarity with these stories. As readers, we step up to the sideshow tent and look deep inside.
The delight of Matt McBride’s poems is in their invention. These pieces are compressed, tight, and terse, so they rely on careful turns and the element of surprise. Reading them, I feel as if his poetics as a kind of thievery—not in the content, heavens no—but in their engagement with the imagination. “Inside Every Bird” begins:
In these three poems, Molly Bendall takes us on a walk through a zoo. What becomes immediately apparent is that we don't know what we are looking at—the animals are not named. This seems counter to the zoo experience itself, where animals are grouped into animal families mapped out in vibrant colors on the fold-out map, where at each cage the common name and Latin name are displayed prominently, sometimes with a pronunciation guide. By not specifying what animals are being viewed, the observer, the animal, and the reader all come to exist in the shared space of the poem, the barriers of the cage crossed by the various lines of observation and consideration. The gaps between the poems' fragments become the intersection of these lines, and what one thinks entangles with the observer and the observed: ". . . by the minute . . . I shouldn’t . . . my eyelids heavy . . . I whisper close . . . / to yours . . . trophy to what is hidden . . . ." What is hidden, what is seen, what is revealed, and what is made (or becomes) invisible occurs and re-occurs through these poems. What remains visible are the lines of intersection, the bars of the cage, and ultimately the space of the zoo itself as a place of observation: ". . . knew what’s better for them . . . I was . . . they’re absent now . . . / I plumb the grottoes and heavy walls . . . the sorry show of moonlight . . ." Neither romanticizing the animals' experience of the zoo nor damning the existence of cages, Bendall's poems state: this is what it is. Now, look!
Molly Brodak's poetry offers us concepts more often found in science classes than in lyrics: membranes, amoebas, tachyons. Such is the stuff of microorganisms and quantum physics, phenomena at a scale so small that their activity begs us to ask the question (as Robert Frost once did): does design govern things so miniature? Brodak's answer would be a resolute "sort of": the movements operating in these miniature environments suggest Nature at play more than Nature designed. But Brodak's poems are not strictly about scientific or metaphysical questions. Readers will not find meditations upon the nature of microbes or upon the Planck length; instead, readers will find a personal poetry that dramatizes a speaker who, like the subject in "Pair," scrambles to "affirm" herself. This scrambling is both hopeful and impossible, as the juxtaposition of dry scientific registers and personal commentary suggest. One example, taken from "Membrane," associates the movement of benthic creatures and unconsciousness: "Thread tracks / on the seafloor show them rolling nowhere for thousands of years. In dreams." This strategy dramatizes the process of scrambling toward a definition of self and other: a self emerging, a self flickering into its multiple existences.
When we at TOA first discussed these poems by Daniel Borzutzky, one of our editors said, “These are [expletive deleted] horrifying. I love them.” Another said, “Horrifying and awesome. I didn’t expect to laugh so much.” Certainly these poems conjure imagery and ideas fit for the week of Halloween, but the horrors they convey aren’t so fantastic as ghouls, nor so poorly rationalized as evil killers on the loose. These are poems of excess—though neither neat nor tidy, their bulk is almost mathematically logical. The poems budget for excess, allow themselves the physical and mental space to go places that are gross and uncomfortable—horrifying, even.
This week, Gillian Hamel explores the limits of anger and metaphor. In three untitled selections, Hamel marks her elaborations and her erasures using the typography of revision: full stops, caesuras, abrupt line breaks, strike throughs. Such typography tracks the emergence of the author's several selves: a self who suffers the living death of rush hour traffic, the self who no longer believes the sea can be used as metaphor. Hamel's particular accomplishment is this poetics of selving, of re-writing as a gesture of (hopeful? desperate?) recreation. "i'd better say sorry to grass," one of these selves admits in ["death i cause..."]. "an easy shape pushing upward." This acknowledgment carries with it a complex bundle of emotions, ranging from coy to irritated. But the apology (which never comes) also foregrounds the speaker's difference from the grass and its easy shape. For these poems are anything but the easy shape of a blade: reworked and rewritten, they are registers of the limits and doubts that make becoming possible. The self, beautifully articulated as a "re-recording" of moving hands, is both mark and gesture, both writing and movement. These poems demand that we mark the sediments of our movement, that we record the shirt buttons, grass, hair, the injured mouth, even that wetness felt in Tokyo. Only through such language will we discover the chrysalis of who (or rather what) we are.
Memorable art seems impervious to our faulty, though necessary, distinctions of what constitutes high and low culture. Shakespeare then was considered a baser art form than it is now. The classic stories of Dashiell Hammett were then considered leisure reading; now, they are timeless standards of hard-boiled detective fiction that some of our greatest films in America have aspired to (e.g. Chinatown, Fargo, or Miller’s Crossing). Siel Ju’s poems also seem impervious to this odd and illogical distinction of high and low culture. These poems are formally jarring and require the eye and ear of reader to come into synch with its syntax and lines. Like Shakespeare’s double-entendres, they require a second guess, or a second regard, to see the way the poem functions vertically and horizontally. Ju’s works seem to take strongly into consideration the paradoxical relationship between the poet’s world and reality.
The term driftology refers to the study of drift patterns of flotsam. In these three poems/episodes, Deborah Bernhardt creates a framework of attention in which she chronicles the flotsam that passes by her perspective. This is an attention not of a minute object being rigorously detailed but rather of the ephemeral bits of media, information, advertising, and tangential thoughts that make up our daily experiences. Glimpses of television shows flit by with their momentary feelings of importance, and are likewise nearly immediately forgotten as Twin Peaks gives way to The Sopranos gives way to "Local Woman Tamps Down Tone." And we drift on to the next poem, the next episode, the next moment. As much as I want to think of the words, the lines, the information in these poems as the flotsam, I keep coming to the realization that the drifting I'm studying is my own—my own inability to cease to drift, to find a stable mooring. And these poems tell me that this is not a bad thing, that instead of fearing the drift, I should embrace it: "and my mind is feathers, and then my mind is strewn, and then collected, / and once it is, the particular pleasure is the dodging tool atop, bloodletting // a funnel of light, waving me / lighter than myself."