With what voice do I want to read out loud from The Self Unstable? Do I read with a full-throated Poetry voice or a playful wink-wink voice or with the voice of an oracle or a mystic hippie fortuneteller? I can’t decide, and maybe that’s part of the instability to which the title of this work alludes. Who is the self in these declarative prose poems? Elisa Gabbert uses the force of her tone and sentence structures to create authority, despite the fact that the identity of the speaker is neither fixed nor always recognizable. At the junction of aphorism, confession, and armchair philosophy, these prose poems delight in their ability to make profundity flippant and flip profound. Gabbert writes, “History is the news via consensus.” The speaker here doesn’t say anything we don’t already know, nor does she say it in a new or nuanced way. This axiom could, at first, be met with a little eye roll, with a “duh.” But Gabbert subverts the power of her declarative tone by playing with the declaration: “And then they add mood music.” And then I laugh out loud.
I have a new phone and none of my contacts made it over. A weird thing has begun happening – I receive thoughtful, intimate text messages from friends and am not able to place them. When I was a kid I knew my friends’ numbers; now, maybe, with Google and the area code I can suss out a vague idea of who might have sent a text. Of course I could just ask, but sometimes it’s nice to show up at the Cineplex and be surprised. I have to keep myself amused. Yesterday, when preparing Devon Branca’s introduction, I received this text: “You were in my long weird dream. Something about babysitting a kid before he moved to Helsinki, a parade, a house that had lots of ladders and lofts, and little bright plastic animals.”
In an age where the “Make it New” credo dictates the aesthetic motivations of American poetry, Mike Dockins may strike someone as a fairly classical, even traditional poet. No, he does not write in blank verse and end-rhyme like Christopher Marlowe. His hefty and robust prose-poems will attest to the fact that he is very much alive and present with all of us here in the twenty-first century. Dockins' poems, however, feel very traditional, not in a tired, unsurprising, or expected sense. To better articulate what I mean, take three lines from the second stanza of Sylvia Plath’s “The Colossus”:
When we read Leigh Phillips's poems, we quickly find ourselves reading more than poems. We are reading a person's nerves. We, like the men behind liquor store counters in Phillips's first poem, come to know the speaker through her lyric meditations on living in the wake of losing something beautiful. These poems are deeply pained, and in reading that pain, we find that there is something at the bottom of it all, something redeeming about the act of exposing: “Ask me about the time I was angelic in 2006, and I'll tell you where she touched me. Ask me about the aurora borealis.” At the center of these poems is a belief in transformation through telling, that through bearing witness to ones own pain, rebirth can be made possible. Phillips sings dark, haunted songs that fall asleep on trains and wear language like skin. Poems that dream and drink. Poems humming electric that spark and pop when you touch them.
As digital forms of publishing continue to proliferate, those of us who love the book as a physical object can only feel somewhat uneasy. Will that visceral pleasure I get from holding a book, feeling the weight of the pages, and understanding that writing is the creation of an object begin to vanish? (I say this knowing that, as an editor of an online journal, I am part of this evolution.) But then I see poems like Brian Teare's here, and I wonder if the digital form will spawn a new poetic approach that seeks to create writing as an object through form and content. The title of the first poem is not a title at all; it's a description of the form on which the poem is written: "watercolor and graphite on paper, fifteen by fifteen inches." The poem is formally constructed so that a page becomes visible within the poem itself; the digital form of publication falls away, secondary to the object that the poem creates of itself as it is being read: "thought takes shape." And the thought that takes shape through the tangibility Teare fashions is the knowledge of the body, "a strangely spacious framework / in which to consider the mortal." The poems create bodies as the bodies in the poems struggle with survival. Teare asks "how can I own something I am?" The devastating answer these poems hand us as we leave is: "our looking is what we see / its tension its signature."
A charm a single charm is doubtful. This sentence, taken from Gertrude Stein's "Nothing Elegant," has always struck me with its playful skepticism: In an era of mass production and mass reproduction, can any object or experience really be called singular? Kathryn Cowles poses a similar question in this week's selection. I was there, she'll tell you. Breathing original air. But then she'll acknowledge it's already a copy, this postcard that gives the poem its name. Cowles' various objects—a transcript, a postcard, a map—are all copies of copies. We know how Plato would worry about such attachments. But Cowles reminds us that something to keep is also always something to give. And these are generous poems.
Ed Skoog writes of his own aesthetic that he is interested in how “the poetic mode can be at once coldly artificial and hotly personal.” As I read this group of poems, I come to understand this statement through a sparseness that both intrigues and pushes away from the reader. Skoog keeps each line short: the longest line among these poems is seven syllables. Among such short lines, a line with six syllables reads like arms spread wide and ready to embrace us. These lines are also often the most independent and intimate—“I don’t really see this,” “let the coyotes die,” “I turn into a fish.”
We take ourselves too seriously. Or at least I do. I often wonder in my own work if there’s subject matter that I can't write about. I don’t mean this in the sense of some sort of fidelity to those things I hold sacred, secrets of self, my deepest and darkest: a current relationship, a dead brother, how many times I masturbate. In fact, ask those closest to me—they’ve all been sold out through my modes of confession. But rather, I wonder about writing the everyday—if there are things that just can’t make themselves into a poem because they are too non-poetic, whatever that may mean and however it may be defined. If I make an offhand reference to a Ween song, reddit, or how much a bag of Cheetos is, are these things too commonplace, subject matters that don’t lend themselves to our high art? Part of me still fantasizes that I’ll make it into a Norton centuries after my death. Do I really want the editors to extensively footnote Frosted Flakes? And I further ask myself, is there anything pretty about Frosted Flakes? The answer, Joshua Ware reminds me this week, is that of course there is.
Myronn Hardy’s poems are always caught between countries: Morocco and America. The former, the landscape of the wonderful novelist, Paul Bowles—a locale undoubtedly and always reconciling with the vestiges of colonialism; the latter a nation of violence and struggle of Empire-in-becoming, and a reconciliation with the mirror of its own painful past. Against this backdrop, the geopolitical magnitudes of Hardy’s poems are matched by the grace of their conceit. They favor quietude, a stilled moment, a Wordsworthian emotion recollected in tranquility. The speaker begins this poem, “What We Call Destroyed,” by lamenting:
Last week, many of us writers were huddled in the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, trying to stay warm in the midst of a snow storm, sane in the midst of the wonderful and overwhelming AWP conference. For three days, I sat at at the TOA table in the book fair talking about our journal to old friends and new acquaintances. One of the more common questions was about the origins of our journal's name, which comes from these lines in Henry V: "Consideration, like an angel, came / and whipped the offending Adam out of him." Normally when I envision this, I think of consideration striking with a whip. But, as I read this week's poems by Grace Marie Grafton, I find myself envisioning something else—a whipping around. As one line turns to the next, Grafton spins us from one image to the next, one world to the next: "Nothing was said to her, it was small town fear / Where the disc had scooped earth away from roots / During the war and then Korea, her alcoholic cousin mustered out." We find ourselves on rapidly shifting ground, moving from a small town to the act of digging to watching a family member prepare for war. Each poem's collection of images accumulate into a dizzying, single entity. Our ability to make sense of each poem is strained to a breaking point, mimicking our daily challenge to make sense of our worlds. A challenge that Grafton reminds us we will spend "[t]he rest of life to untangle."