Category: Reviews

Little Boxes Made of Darkness and Light

Little Boxes Made of Darkness and Light

Marni Ludwig’s chapbook, Little Box of Cotton and Lightning, explicitly references the interplay of darkness and light in Joseph Cornell’s box art—each poem reads like a modest package of whimsical sense & sinister intention—but the title also reminds me of Malvina Reynolds’s song “Little Boxes,” which offers a grim portrait of suburban conformity under the guise of a catchy folk song. That also seems to be a characteristic of Ludwig’s poems—the subtle ways they plunge a knife into the sentimental, the socially familiar, the whole time singing and laughing.


The erotic often bears down on Ludwig’s poems, and the lovers in these poems tend to be dark, austere, and somewhat inarticulate. They possess a gravitas that is both mystical and severe. Take, for instance, this example from “Clinic”:

We trade our shadows for days
of suddenness. A bird got in my blood,
a tricky one, with a split tongue.
Now it doesn’t get dark
because you shut your mouth.

Both the speaker and “you” are enveloped in shadows that seem instantaneous and inevitable, and the bird in the blood speaks both to a poet’s sensibility (we poets often think of ourselves as birds) and a sense of being infected. The poet’s curse as an avian infection—Ludwig masterfully twists the cliché, illustrating what being a poet feels like in contemporary terms. Yet the dynamic between the lovers is classic: the “you” controls heaven and hell, makes both for the speaker.

Going back to boxes, which recur in the poems and as poem titles, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite poem in the collection, the simply titled “Pill Box.” This poem meditates on what it means to be a woman, and far from being overly familiar, Ludwig manages to mix Sexton’s quiet contempt for the artifacts of gender with a Bishopian eye. Simply put, some lines are seething protest, while others are almost sterile in how they account for the speaker’s sense of location.

The first line—“Every wife is a still life”—is both; it’s flat in its pronouncement, yet blistering in its critique. The message is simple: women with men being frozen, stuck, beautiful decoration for the homes they occupy. Ludwig gets a lot of mileage out of a few words. Fitting, since most of her poems are content to take up a single page. “Pill Box” ends with a stanza reminiscent of Plath’s “The Mirror,” a terrific poem about the terror women have, or are taught to have, for aging:

How agreeable you are,
lying cold on the bathroom floor
thanking your mirrors and corners.

The pileup of “r” sounds at the end of each line drive the severity, the cutting-to-the-quick home. The domestic space is captor and tormentor, and women entering it develop Stockholm syndrome for all the pretty, delicate accoutrements that surround them. They can’t tell that they’re cold. They can’t see the menace shimmering just below their reflection.

Marni Ludwig:: Little Box of Cotton & Lightning:: Poetry Society of America

Meat on the Mind

Meat on the Mind

If it isn’t immediately clear from the title, Kevin Simmonds’ debut collection, Mad for Meat, is as delightfully messy as it is archly profane. The meat Simmonds is mad for isn’t the sort certain pop stars drape their bodies in; rather, the meat Simmonds is mad for is likely the same meat that gets Dr. Tobias Funke excited.

Tobias Funke Meaty Leading Man Parts

Despite the title, Mad for Meat isn’t populated by poems with cheeky double entendres (though I hasten to add that you will find many such poems here); the collection deftly explores the relationship between sex, race, place, and the body. One of the traits I most admire about Simmonds is that he isn’t shy or elusive when discussing the bodies his speakers desire, and what those bodies desire in him. The contrast between his unbridled bravado and careful meditation generate productive insight into the way the poet envisions connections across bodies very different from his own. Simmonds’ book isn’t all about desire, but the complicated relationship his poems have with desire is what interests me most.

Kevin Simmonds MAD FOR MEAT

“Color Me” describes Simmonds’ hookup with an Asian man who tells him “Your black body is so beautiful / God I want you,” which Simmonds allows its own stanza—his speaker is turned on and revels in this man’s slight objectification of his body as a black body. Along those lines, the title of the poem could be read as the speaker’s willingness to be seen as colored, to be desired precisely as an “other.” What follows, though, pushes the poem into more interesting, ambivalent territory:

God knows there’s a Have mercy
just below my Adam’s apple
when I’ve gotten an Asian man
into my hands
but I don’t say

Your tiny waist
hooded bite-size purple-vaulted dick
Your willingness to let me beat
the drum of you

I don’t say that
I just beat the drum

Simmonds’ speaker is clearly uncomfortable with being verbally labeled, with being told that his own blackness contributes to his sexual desirability. He’s not refuting fetishized attraction exactly; he’s refuting the acknowledging of it, even as he acknowledges his own fetishized attraction to the reader. Simmonds’ speaker acknowledges how problematic it is for him to sexually objectify someone because of his race since the same thing is happening to the speaker. The consciousness is splitting on objectifying and being objected, and desire is doing the cleaving.

Kevin Simmonds:: Mad for Meat:: Salmon Poetry

Prodigal Queering: When Fathers are Lovers

Prodigal Queering: When Fathers are Lovers


Frank O’Hara begins one of his many poems titled “Song” thusly:

Is it dirty
Does it look dirty
That’s what you think of in the city

The speakers in Ed Madden’s Prodigal: Variations would likely reply: Yes, Yes, and not just in the city, but in the country as well.

That’s because Madden’s debut collection is, in many ways, a filthy book. It’s not replete with curses and smut; it’s dirty in the sense that the poems seem to be infused with grime, with dirt, with a raw, meaty sullenness that leaves the reader dripping and stained.

Madden’s poems occupy a hermetic space wherever they exist, be that the farmland of his boyhood, or the less defined, vaguely urban arenas of his dark dreams. Viscera, shit, and sex abound in this collection but never tip over into the sensational-for-the-sake-of-being-sensational; quite the contrary, the poems are kept grounded by the speakers’ emotional and perceptual clarity. To be clear, though, no dirt is sacrificed for it.

Ed Madden's PRODIGAL VARIATIONS

Madden’s poems are not merely dirty on the level of what they contain—they are also frequently dirty in their muddled relationships, especially between the speaker and what appears to be his father (or a father-like figure.) This complicated relationship, which is also tinged with lust, is the primary source of tension in the collection. The first poem of the book, titled “Sacrifice,” begins with the telling line: “When my father bound me, I submitted […].”

In “Dream Fathers,” the line between father and lover intensifies as it blurs:

A snakebite scars his hand, exactly where

a cottonmouth bit my father as a child.
He almost died. The man slices open

his left breast, the hinge of skin peeled
back to expose the heart. He lifts it out,

he kisses it as if he were the one who broke it—
blood on his lips, blood and cum on mine.

This poem reminded me a lot of Frank Bidart’s poem, “Love Incarnate,” when I first read it. The body this speaker encounters in the dream shares the same snakebite—the same wound, a mark of certainty—as his father. The body of the lover, the father-zombie, functions as a symbol of the connection between sex, life, and death, a connection that seems born out of the speaker’s guilt that his homosexuality causes harm—spiritual, psychological, physical—to his lover and his father. The blood and cum, both vital fluids, mark the speaker and the father/lover’s bodies, emphasizing the way in which the connection between them (all of them!) manifests as pain and pleasure, a continuum not uncommon to the way same-sex desire often functions in the work of other gay poets.

Idle States and Idle Loves

Idle States and Idle Loves

Christopher Hennessy's LOVE-IN-IDLENESS

Christopher Hennessy’s book came into my hands by way of an old teacher who thought the book would have something to say to me. The title, Love-In-Idleness, seemed to so perfectly fit my emotional state at the time and the still-static nature of my love life that I took the book with trepidation, as if I were being held a set of schematics for my psyche.

Turns out I wasn’t far off. Love-In-Idleness, Hennessy’s debut collection, is certainly about more than just the gay experience. It would be a failure of sympathy to read his book, which tracks the relationship between self and the family, self and nature, and self and society, from childhood to adulthood, as only a statement about contemporary gay life. But the title, and my default way of being, drew me to the poems that seemed especially interested in examining the nature of gay bodies, both the speakers’ and the various love objects that flit in and out of view throughout the collection.

Hennessy’s poems tend to be ornamental, perhaps overly so, but his tendency toward embellishment is less a flaw of composition and more an accurate representation of the poet’s early psycho-sexual repression, and his grown up escape from such an “idle” state into another, preferable form of idleness. Hennessey’s poem, “Sick Room,” deftly illustrates how damaging idleness can be to the self:

Fever is hostage for you,
       my dear wound, my truce.

My spit is a tasteless poultice
       and my breath is
       leaves of mint on your chest.

I am ridden, I
       am prone, here.
       I am the ever-present room,
       curtaining contagion.

In his poem “Autopsy,” Hennessy’s speaker announces that his “slippery virgin heart is ripe,” a declaration that he is moving, however awkward or uncertainly, into a position of sexual confidence. The heart is fruit, fleshy and soft, ready to be consumed. Somewhat surprisingly, the poem reverses its logic in the final tercet, where the speaker says “there is no heart in a pumpkin- / shaped boy who eats out his in- / sides to suck on his sin.” The delicate fruit, the object of Edenic sin (as I read it), is no longer hanging on the branch. It’s been grounded, gourded, and the poem turns toward from self-examination to self-recrimination.

Hennessy’s speaker connects his sexual maturation with a grave awareness that his “pumpkin- / shaped” body cannot house a heart because the shape is ill suited. Maybe having been burned in the past for my own squash-like physique colored my perspective when I first read these lines and saw in them an implicit critique of how superficial gay culture can cause those of us not blessed with conventionally beautiful (read: thin) bodies to practice self-loathing.

A bit removed, though never truly removed, from that first reading, I think it is hard to read comparing oneself to a pumpkin as anything but an exercise in self-deprecation because the shape of the speaker’s body seems linked explicitly to his emotional state. Contrary to what the speaker says, I don’t think he’s heartless. Rather, his heart has become the sin he sucks on, just a pit to go along with the flesh he eats away, sulking darkly, waiting for love to break him open. The cynical among us might question whether love has such restorative powers. Some days, I think it might.

Christopher Hennessy:: Love-In-Idleness:: Brooklyn Arts Press

Jenny & Sophie: The Text Became Art, Inside Turned Out

Jenny & Sophie: The Text Became Art, Inside Turned Out

As my month as resident-reviewer here comes to a close, I want to look at something different. I want to return to two artists whose relationships with words have affected my own approach to poem-making: Jenny Holzer and Sophie Calle.

Kelli Anne Noftle holding one of Jenny Holzer's Inflammatory Essays

True story: eight years ago I met the artist Jenny Holzer in a large format Polaroid studio in Manhattan. She’d invited my friend to pose for photographs that would be sold in an auction. The year before, I took him to UC San Diego’s campus to see Holzer’s Green Table—a large granite picnic table inscribed with her texts. He fell in love with her work and wrote to her agent, requesting that Holzer commission a tattoo for him. YOUR MODERN FACE SCANS THE SURPRISE ENDING is the text he chose to have permanently inked across his ribs. In the New York Polaroid studio, Holzer was quick and deliberate, instructing Jesse where to stand and guiding the photographer on how to frame each shot. The ending of this story is a dream come true: I was in a room with my favorite living artist, a woman I’ve idolized for years, watching her document her own art. So, it was no surprise that my modern face stared up at hers blankly. I was unable to articulate a single coherent sentence in her presence.

Holzer is a conceptual artist who uses subversive, passionate, politically-charged, disturbing text and displays it via a variety of media, including marquees, billboards, LED displays, marble, wood, and Xenon projections. She is perhaps best known for her Truisms, an alphabetical list of contradictory phrases that sound like cliches or common myths, but were actually penned by Holzer herself. In an essay by David Joselit, he refers to these one-liners (PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT; MONEY CREATES TASTE; RAISE BOYS AND GIRLS THE SAME WAY) as “conceptual readymades.” Besides the Duchampian use of text, what I love about Holzer’s language is how the voice can be both individual and collective, dislocating facts and ideas that seem to come from a variety of sources. It is somehow alienated and depersonalized, yet remains authoritative. In Inflammatory Essays (pictured above), Holzer employs many different I’s and You’s, but the speaker is always undetermined. When I was a study abroad student in Italy, I remember a black and bronze plaque hanging just above the drinking fountain in an art museum. It read:

from Jenny Holzer's LIVING series

Joselit explains that Holzer’s “model of authorship” is based on outside ideals or concepts that become internalized, and then “turned inside out to make art.” These are essentially “internal monologues as public speech.”

Jenny Holzer's CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS from Phaidon

Where Holzer creates public speech with an authorial voice that is collective, French artist Sophie Calle externalizes the internal, revealing intensely personal experiences with text and image in public spaces. The bits of information build a narrative that at first glance could be scraps from Calle’s diary, but the story is told with an emotional distance in an overall expository, detached tone.

Sophie Calle

I saw Calle’s Douleur Exquise (Exquisite Pain) exhibit over a decade ago at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It is a story of heartbreak documented through photographs and text, beginning with this description:

In 1984 the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs awarded me a grant for a three-month scholarship to Japan. I left on October 25, unsuspecting that this date would mark the beginning of a 92 day countdown to the end of a love affair. Nothing extraordinary—but to me, at the time, the unhappiest moment in my life…


Calle counts down the “Days to Unhappiness” with photographs, plane tickets, memorabilia, diary entries, and scraps of remembered conversations up to the moment she was abandoned by her lover—she waited for him in a hotel in New Delhi, but instead of meeting her, he called to say he’d fallen in love with someone else. The photograph of the red telephone, the one she spoke to him on, is the final image that flags a movement from grief to recovery, dividing the artwork (and book) into two sections. It is in the second section (“After Unhappiness”) where we witness an evolution take place inside the artist:

…whenever people asked me about the trip, I chose to skip the Far East bit and tell them about my suffering instead. In return I started asking both friends and chance encounters: “When did you suffer most?” I decided to continue such exchanges until I had gotten over my pain by comparing it with other people’s, or had worn out my own story through sheer repetition.


Sophie Calle's EXQUISITE PAIN

Calle repeats her breakup story ninety-nine times on one page beneath the photo of the red phone and places it beside the story of a stranger’s most painful memory on the other page. With each entry, the details of her obsessive retelling begin to diminish. The text literally fades until the ninety-ninth page is blank, nothing but black paper below the photo of the red phone on the white hotel bed. Through the repetition and juxtaposition of her own grieving with the pain of others, she allows herself to heal.

Sophie Calle's EXQUISITE PAIN (interior)

These artists are creating works of art. But they are also poetry, too. Both Holzer and Calle play in a region where the two pursuits overlap, where text becomes art, where inside is literally turned outside for us to see, to read, and to experience.

“Anything Becomes a Part of Where It Is if You Take It and Put It There”: William Stobb, Michael Heizer, and Articulated Absences

“Anything Becomes a Part of Where It Is if You Take It and Put It There”: William Stobb, Michael Heizer, and Articulated Absences

                                                                                                   The only way out: create
objects that float.                                                The size of a spirit remembered in land.

                                                                        It wasn’t big enough. I kept working.

Michael Heizer's LEVITATED MASS at the LACMA

Today at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a four hundred and fifty six foot trench cuts across the north lawn. Directly over the deepest portion of the granite channel, a three hundred and forty ton boulder rests on two shelves bolted to the inside of the trench, allowing visitors to walk beneath the massive rock. Levitated Mass is artist Michael Heizer’s most recent earthworks sculpture—an idea conceived decades ago and attempted once before, but the boulder was so heavy that it caused the lifting crane to snap.

Recently I visited the site to traverse the channel and take photos of the megalith. Standing just below the rock, the surrounding landscape disappears from view. For a moment, it’s only me and a few other visitors, the boulder, and a vast blue sky. The feeling is initially awe—have I ever stared at the underbelly of a displaced monolith situated in a city of millions? I experience both ecstatic emptiness and the logical impossibility that this monumental boulder is somehow buoyed overhead. Or, in Heizer’s words via the poetry of William Stobb, it’s “Physical truth in isolation / of material from source…Size is real.”

In some of the poems from his recent collection Absentia, Stobb excavates, compiles, erases, and levitates Heizer’s words:

                            As my ideas developed I defied gravity. Without trying.
Obviously pointed at the future, all it is is

                                                                                                          absence.


These poems were built by removing language from interviews conducted with Heizer and then relocating them within a new context. The work seems accreted rather than composed. Lines are sometimes bulky and dense; the weight of the text pushes across the page to form striations in the white space:

                                                                                                Fragments,
forms of evidence interest me—beautiful gravel, broken processional.

            Visualize the voids combining—if you can, then you understand.

Complete the cycle—tame something wild            a rough wild rock might
fall at the base of a cliff.                                          Articulate that.


Heizer is perhaps best known for Double Negative, an earthwork comprised of two trenches fifty feet deep and one thousand and five hundred feet long, cut along both sides of a natural canyon at the Mormon Mesa in Nevada. Double Negative asks viewers to contemplate art outside museum walls where the act of creation is subtraction, an erasure. This sculpture is essentially the displacement of two hundred and forty thousand tons of rock, considered as both the act of removal and the negative space left inside the existing canyon and man-made rifts. “Anything physical becomes a statement / about absence.”

Michael Heizer's DOUBLE NEGATIVE

Stobb’s use of Heizer’s “negative vocabulary” also plays a part in the tradition of erasure poetry—mining a text to reveal another narrative, creating space for new interpretations that question the ownership or authority of the original text. Within these particular poems, Stobb seems to be reaching to “feel that something has transcended,” an out-of-body experience, erasure of self.

A similar “vanishing act” occurs in other poems in the collection such as “Holiday,” “Up Kingston,” and “Absentia,” where entire poems are contained within quotation marks. These quoted poems aren’t lifted from Heizer’s language, but are instead run-on monologues, like dreams retold from memory. Here Stobb continues to negate the “I,” making it unclear who the speaker is and who is being spoken to. Heizer: “There is nothing there, but it is still a sculpture.” By erasing, we always leave something behind.

Performance artist, musician, and sculptor Laurie Anderson says: “Emptiness to me is expansive. And I don’t have to be there. I can’t exist in it.” Stobb knows this emptiness, a vastness internalized. He is a poet of the desert. Just as Heizer’s work not only references the western landscape, but is made up of and by that landscape, Stobb takes the “inundated or eroded, extended or developed” language and repositions it into lyric. The relocation of a three hundred and forty ton boulder. Size is real.

                Just lay out flat and wait.
Some dormant electrical pattern mistriggers,
circles inward like birds.           Light-blind
and immersive as in the channel.

I won’t want to forget this and then I won’t
be able to.


Michael Heizer's LEVITATED MASS and William Stobb's ABSENTIA

William Stobb:: Absentia:: Penguin Books

I Wish I Had a River (Any River Will Do): Maggie Nelson and the Color of Hurt

I Wish I Had a River (Any River Will Do): Maggie Nelson and the Color of Hurt

I am not interested in longing to live in a world in which I already live. I don’t want to yearn for blue things, and God forbid for any “blueness.” Above all, I want to stop missing you.

Maggie Nelson's BLUETS reviewed by Kelli Anne Noftle

He searched the backseat of my car, grabbed Joni Mitchell’s Blue album. What’s your favorite song, he wanted to know. “Case of You”—was that cliché? I couldn’t help it. I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints. “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” he said. (I hadn’t asked.) You think you’re immune, go look at your eyes, they’re full of moon.

His eyes are blue. When we were together, I called them “cornflower” after the small blue flower also known as “bluebottle” and “bachelor’s button.” Had I read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets then, I would have known that although delicate cornflowers (les bluets) grow in the French countryside, in a dream they could easily be “shaggy, wild, strong. They might not signify romance…sent by no one in celebration of nothing.” Had I read Nelson’s beautiful collection—a lyrical essay of her historical, philosophical, and intimate investigation of the color blue—perhaps I would have described the color of his eyes in terms of light or the absence of light: “something of an ecstatic accident produced by void and fire.”

Bluets is a list of two hundred and forty prose fragments: accumulated scraps of information (theories and meditations on the color blue by great writers, artists, and thinkers) and memories that amass to assemble a picture, but not necessarily a whole. Similar to the artist Joseph Cornell, Nelson “builds a bower” of borrowed text and personal details with “fragments of blue dense.” In this way, Nelson is also “a gatherer, not an owner” of these blues, and like a Cornell box, each component is placed purposefully and methodically, condensed to a diorama where all the pieces point to each other, but cannot be summarized.

Joseph Cornell Blue Sand Box

Inside the blues of this carefully constructed box, an interrupted narrative is articulated through the pain of losing a lover and witnessing a friend suffer the physical trauma of paralysis following a serious accident. If blue becomes “a single hurt color” in “an arrangement in a system to pointing” (Stein), then Nelson’s Bluets is a collection of fragments participating in a composition where each one is dependent upon and related to the other. Both despair and hope are viewed through a blue filter or washed in a blue “rinse.”

I have always believed in making lists, as if I could tidy the grief in my heart by numbering it. After he was gone, I built my own bower of quotes, news scraps, and poetry verses. I keep it as an email draft, one I will never send—a virtual collection that can be abandoned forever, deleted in a single click. Nelson knows the painfulness of forgetting how much you loved someone and speculates that perhaps it can be prevented by accepting “the fundamental impermanence of all things.” She writes: “This acceptance bewilders me: sometimes it seems an act of will; at others, of surrender. Often I feel myself rocking between them (seasickness).”

Kelli Anne Noftle reads Maggie Nelson's BLUETS at the Pacific Ocean

Someone once told me that the ocean is a forgetful body of water, but I think it is the river that leaves its memory behind. Nelson’s blue fragments “have been shuffled around countless times—now that they have been made to appear, at long last, running forward as one river.” Today when I listen to Joni’s Blue album, I skip to this one:

When do we stop collecting the blue? How much is enough? I’ll admit, his eyes were never a cornflower hue; a more accurate comparison would be sky. “The blue of the sky depends on the darkness of the empty space behind it.” Over time, each bit of “blue dense” dissolves and fades, and sometimes “gives way to darkness.” Then, almost miraculously, “without warning, darkness grows up into a cone of light.”

Maggie Nelson:: Bluets:: Wave Books

Kissing Georg Trakl: How I Found Christian Hawkey in a Shopping Bag

Kelli Anne Noftle with a photograph of Georg Trakl

Kissing Georg Trakl: How I Found Christian Hawkey in a Shopping Bag

I barely recognize you. I don’t recognize you. Your face seems to be powdered, as if you were an actor dressing for a part, or an actor undressing after playing a part. 

And that part in your hair is breathtaking. Majestic. 

One could lose oneself in that part.


Two years ago, my boyfriend fell in love with a woman who gave me a shopping bag of Ugly Duckling Presse books. This was just before everything between us unraveled. I sensed their mutual feelings, but I took the books (who would refuse Ugly Duckling?), and spent late evenings with the handbound beauties, touching the pages, staring at the letterpress fonts. I was alone in his house, in a quiet bedroom, too depressed to concentrate on reading, but I found Ventrakl in the bottom of the bag, the unassuming minimal design of a white cover, waiting for me.

Kelli Anne Noftle with Christian Hawkey's VENTRAKL in a bag

“This book is a ghost containing a ghost,” Christian Hawkey writes in his preface to Ventrakl, a collaboration between himself and the dead poet Georg Trakl, in which he utilizes various modes of translation to generate poetry and prose: black and white photographs (“I am seeing his image as a word—I am seeing words in his image”), online translation engines, a version of homophonic translation (“homographonic drafts”), and interviews with Trakl. The resulting collection occupies a liminal space, “between our languages, texts, and names, as well as between our (ghostly) bodies.” When Hawkey converses with Trakl (he admits this was initially quite difficult because he didn’t read or speak German), their two voices alternate, interrupt, invert, wander and disappear into a third voice, the “between-voice,” pointing to and away from itself simultaneously as we follow a mind’s trajectory:

can you read the space between the flesh that covers the teeth, you mean the lips, no the spacebetween them, which a mouth inhabits, delimits, circles, a non-space, a void perhaps, don’t be pretentious, what then, picture someone speaking, now erase the face, the lips in motion, and leave the space between them

Paradoxically, the non-space (“between-voice”) takes shape. It is formed by and inside the boundary of the mouth, spoken:

the moment a shape, oval, hair falling around the light, the waves of light, lowers itself into our field of vision, odd, territorial phrase, the space of our own face, a between space, what about the tongue, what about it

After the face is erased, who continues speaking? The lack of distinction, a blurring of voices and identities (we are one and we are no one), compelled me to keep reading. Hawkey is obsessed with this non-space, the “immaterial made material,” or a “hole” he defines as: “the suspicion that one’s face is being erased in the act of kissing.” 

Months before our breakup, before discovering Ventrakl in a shopping bag, I wrote this song: “How To Kiss A Ghost.” Poets are excellent at seeing into the future. (Or I suppose we know the future is already here.) The lyrics are: “I’ve learned a lot about how to kiss a ghost. You rest your lips on his and watch him as he floats.”

“The between-voice is a ghost, a host.” Hawkey reminds us we’re no longer standing at the center of the text or image, but meeting in the periphery (in his case, conversing with a poet who died in 1914). We lean into the mouth of the poem, even as it floats away from us, dance between states of being, nod toward the center, and inhabit the margins. It is in this space (or non-space) where translations breathe. Gertrude Stein: “act as if there is no use in a centre.” We become host to a multiplicity of voices, the ones speaking from every direction all at once. Authorship moves between the singular and communal. It is a séance called poem-making.

Is this who I am speaking with? 

Don’t be so literal. You’ll never get anywhere.

Isn’t it exactly the opposite? 

Then why ask the question.

The question of what?

Of who is speaking.

Who is writing then?

Who is. 

Who is.

The week before I moved out of my ex’s house, I went to bed every night with Ventrakl. I cried into the binding. I said my favorite lines out loud, knowing they had already changed, uttered by my own mouth—that I was reanimating a ghost materialized in this collection. I looked at Trakl’s portrait. Once, I think I kissed it.

Kelli Anne Noftle's copy of Christian Hawkey's VENTRAKL

Christian Hawkey:: Ventrakl:: Ugly Duckling Presse

Struggles With Memory

Heather Aimee O’Neill:: Memory Future:: Gold Line Press

Time, memory, language, history, the body: the weaving of these concerns in Heather Aimee O’Neill’s collection Memory Future would be enough to draw a reader into her collection; yet it is the surprising avenues in language and structure that keep one invested. O’Neill’s work turns in on itself; her poems offer no easy conclusions about the machinations of memory, time, and consciousness.

Many of the poems start at one seemingly simple point of departure but branch into elegant, complex ruminations. “Mars May Have Been a Land of Lakes,” begins in a proposition and assumption about the “other”:

we’re trying to define. You’re
impossible. That’s what I’ve decided,
that’s how I’ve defined you.

then quickly accelerates:

Mars may have been a land of lakes,
but the satellite orbits us, and the photos
can’t reveal such distant history.
And why should they? We can’t

even be honest with each other,
let alone believe the billion years
it took for us to happen: first water,
then body, voice, and faith.

The poem leads the reader through personal isolation, epistemology, space, evolution, history, image, and language. O’Neill makes these leaps seem easy and graceful. The connections are believable in large part because of the self-reflective, dialogic syntax. O’Neill’s poems turn back on themselves, as in “I’ll Cave In, Gently, as You Divide”:

Return to where you disappeared,
to where you disappeared again.
Is it terrible to keep inventing
ourselves?

O’Neill struggles with memory and connection. The first poem begins with a series of questions, introducing the self-reflective voice in the collection. Part I revolves around a search for connection. The second section follows the speaker on a journey with the “other.” Part III returns to the speaker’s past.

Much of Part I centers on the struggle to maintain connections within the strains of the modern world. This struggle is not an uncommon theme, but it is the speaker’s uncertain voice that makes the work believable and engaging. In “Restoration” the poet waits with her other in “morning traffic, ramps / and bridges crowded with the rush. The piles,/ of steel and tires, hours, tunnels full..” There is a fight and silence between the couple, and the speaker recovers—partially—through memory:

…Remember when our feet
Hung over planks of wood, the dock beneath
The green and gray pond water, clouded with
Our shadows, thick, the fall of darkness, rise
Of light. Our morning fight was nothing, just

A pocket of rare stolen air. There was
A moment there. Cicadas sing above
Our pond—surround me here, foretold, now gone.

Past becomes present here as the memory of the pond envelops the speaker. The speaker is in the present, but the past continually emerges, sometimes infringing on the “real” life (and sometimes illuminating it). This paradox of memory is the basis of the poem and this part of the collection.

Part II poses a similar question of transience and memory. In this part, however, O’Neill locates an answer in personal and cultural history. These ghost sonnets take the reader through the other’s past and culture. The use of repeated lines in this section create an echo and more direct “turning back” to previous scenes and stanzas. Section V ends with: “In sleep, we find a warmth beyond our growth.” In section VI, the line returns: “In sleep, we find a warmth. Beyond this growth…” The figure of Ouroboros comes to mind with both the concerns and structure of this section, the snake of time circling back and repeating, swallowing itself. A tenuous answer is given to the questions of temporality with this circular pattern. O’Neill’s ruminations on the other plant the speaker on more solid ground. The last poem ends, in part, with a sense of timelessness:

…One year
has no finality, her motion keeps
one season brushing up against the next.

The final third of the chapbook arrives at the poet’s childhood/past. The poet brings us to recollections of family and places that have their own presence. There is “The bay outside” that “remembers / me hours later, remembers to ghost itself through my hands…” and “The Queens that raised you…” There are, too, clear and distinct image-memories. At the end of the poem “Summer,” the speaker positions herself in the earth, solid: “My feet burrow into the peppered sand, planted.” The last poem of the collection ends with surprising images from the speaker’s childhood. The visceral details of another child with a “high brow and sunken eyes” and the last description of “gum balls sweating colors” suggest the surreal, Proustian nature of memory.

This may be the intent of the poet after all—to lead the reader through these questions of time, perception, and image. O’Neill suggests that some images hold their own answers and arrivals.

In the Socket of Nature

In the Socket of Nature

Trey Moody:: Climate Reply:: New Michigan Press

In Trey Moody’s Climate Reply, strange events become the everyday. The very first poem sets this stage: “The tiniest oak tree / in the tiniest room— / as we feel our eyes, our greedy joints / unhinge and root” (1). This image requires imagination to conceptualize what it means to unhinge and root ourselves. The relationship to place draws forth the invocation that our bodies feel what the eyes lack. It is strange and suggests that what we see (including in this book) will require an undoing of our eyes. Such a project as Climate Reply’s depends on flipping the everyday on its side and redirecting perspective to what goes unseen. The chapbook deepens the relationship between body and nature, while at the same time stripping away general conceptions. That is, the quotidian becomes squeezed tight until some new phrase or relationship develops.

Moody doesn’t stop at making the strange approachable; he flips that notion on its side and makes the everyday strange. In “Hum of the Fridge like Thought,” it is asserted that “when I open the fridge / in the middle of the night, I can hear / you thinking behind me” (7). The moments of understanding for this speaker rest in how the commonplace is perceived, the thinking we can hear. From the title poem, “Climate Reply”: “Ground warm with flesh, ears as if to watch” (3). Flesh merges with the world as sight is rendered useless; what’s left must be heard. The image of such a convergence, flesh and earth, grounds the imaginative and theoretical notion of ears watching. And that is what separates this chapbook from the many others that are pressed each year. Trey Moody strikes quick and deep with images and ideas that haunt long after.

Thematically the book is connected by Moody’s concern of the natural, though not exclusively for the natural—rather, the book travels the interplay between types of natural, which is to say the environment and humanity, or the human environment. Humanity claims levels of nature, be it naturalness in genetics, the nature of ourselves and who we are, or the Nature that exists outside our constructed worlds, as in the wilderness remaining undeveloped. Both situate a problem of knowledge. What can we predict and control about either? In “The Listener, The Land” Moody uses the rhythm of images to bring in this idea. A narrative of camping, of being in nature, rests underneath this poem. But the images suggest a taming. A “plastic bear” with “plastic claws” subdues what is formerly wild. It is the resultant image when you think you have everything under control. Reading these poems, one becomes aware that the speaker isn’t under control and has a sense that the world is not under control, either. The poem concludes: “this racket gets out of hand, and / in the quiet room I’ll stitch / your fabric name to the tops of trees” (2). Much like Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar,” this closing image places the human choice onto nature. There is a need to organize nature, but un-order belongs as much to humanity as to the wild itself. If there is a quiet room, it is one that the speaker is building.

This book differentiates itself from “nature poetry” with its interest in nature’s impact on the human. But using “impact” doesn’t give the full sense of what Moody creates in this book. The dialectic in these poems is one of influence. While the body is compared to a tree in “This Forest isn’t a Room,” in the poem “Birdsong” the human mind is numbed and memory becomes a “silent cloud of ash.” The natural world persists in providing possible guidance. The possibilities are what drive the dialectic between natural and unnatural. This happens in the series of connected poems “Dear Ghosts.” These poems lace domestic scenes with the fears lurking in the dark, which often become what is outside. In “Dear Ghosts” number 6, “Like Dust around the Light Fixture,” we get the space of these philosophical grounds. “So the morning came. The light bulb / didn’t matter. I unscrewed it, / something as warm as flesh, and put it in my pocket. / So you see, the days / were manageable. That is, the days / were when I missed you the most” (15). In order to see, we need light. That is how eyes work. But where does light come from? This poem asks that we turn off the lights when we can and take the flesh for what it is. Resolution of the dialectic is the noticing of the dialectic; really it’s about each other as much as where we are together.

These poems pull our eyes out of their sockets and it feels good.