Sunday, October 23, 2005


SHEARSMAN MAGAZINE, Issue 65 & 66. ed. Tony Frazer. Amazing mag from the UK which brings much needed attention to anglophone poets worldwide. Poetry by Harry Guest, Louis Armand, Elizabeth Treadwell, Arlene Ang, D.S. Marriot, Scott Thurston, Simon Perril, Chris Brown sword, Isobel Armstrong, Craig Watson, David Berridge, James Bell, Edward Mycue, Anna Moschovakis, Anamaria Crowe Serrano, Chris McCabe, Carrie Etter, Rochelle Ratner, Carolyn van Langenberg, Maurice Scully, Rob Stanton. Translations of Yves Bonnefoy by Peter Boyle, Jose Kozer by Mark Weiss, Cesar Vallejo by Michael SMith & Valentino Gianuzzi, Ilhan Berk by George Messo, and Boris Poplavsky.

THE POKER, Issue 6. ed. Daniel Bouchard. As always, wonderful. Particularly delightful to read Moxley's discussion of lyric poetry. Poetry by Jackson Mac Low, Joe Elliot, Rodney Koeneke, Deborah Meadows, Rodrigo Toscano, Nancy Kuhl, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Alan Bernheimer, Douglas Rothschild, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Lee Ann Brown, Daniel Bouchard, Baudelaire, Rae Armantrout, Bill Luoma & John Latta. Translation by Kieth Waldrop. Prose by Mitch Highfill, Benjamin Friedlander, Jennifer Moxley and Steve Evans.

CHICAGO REVIEW, 50: 2/3/4. ed. Eirik Steinhoff. The issue contains essays on Zukofsky by Mark Scroggins ad David Wray, a selection from Zukofsky's correspondence, & Elsa Dorfman's portraits of Zukofsky. Paul Zukofsky discusses the marginalia found in his fathers library as perhaps the last frontier of Zukofsky scholarship. Other work includes poems by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Theodore Enslin, Tom Pickard, and others, as well as essays & reviews by Daniel Bouchard, Michael Heler, Thomas Fink, Devin Johnston and others. go to their website! Its all there.

Saturday, October 22, 2005


If Andrew Schelling were to do nothing but write and publish notebooks I would be more than satisfied. The notebooks are wonderful, processual journeys which emerge incrementally as the author moves through experience, through the day to day. Two Elk follows much the same loose form as his earlier notebook THE ROAD TO OCOSINGO, moving freely between fragmented bits of prose, verse, letters, recorded dreams, quotes & observations. Schelling himself explains lucidly in his preface:

During autumn of 2003 I kept a high country journal which I eventually named Two Elk after the creek that lies in an adjacent drainage to Vail ski resort's Category III expansion. My project in the notebooks was to document excursions into Colorado's high altitude terrain. These formidable peaks & high valleys--with their low oxygen, scant moisture, intense sunlight, scouring winds, & tough ice--have been my kindest, toughest, & sturdiest teachers the fourteen years I've lived among them. Hence the notebook entries became songs, prayers, and poems of devotion.

Schelling's grasp on the craggy, rugged Colorado wilderness around him is shaped by an impressive knowledge of world literatures, a keen awareness of his position in relation to the totality of the surrounding world. Vedic goddesses, T'ang poets, Scotch sailors & an assortment of others inhabit & inform Schelling's perception of time & space from his point of reference in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies.

At the very core of the work, however, is a deeply-seated understanding of the environment at large, the Earth, as a transient & ecologically delicate thing which must be cherished and preserved. In determining a source of heat for he & his daughter Althea, his decision is ecologically informed:

Harvest days. The gathering of the year. The stacking of fruit & firewood. This year I will take heat only from wood, coal-bed methane extraction being such a disaster. The buried seams crack under pressure, the retort like an earthquake, and noxious gas enters the water table.

Just as the earth is delicate, the same holds true for the human body. It is the transience and fragility of life which we are most aware of in times of adversity, in the cold, & Schelling believes it is this which lies at the center of all things human, of love & of the work which emerges from love:

Late autumn is for melancholy. A fragrance of wet leaf mould stirred with fermenting apples. I have a body that evolved in the Pleistocene & want to burrow under the covers. This is the season for love.


Fred Smith came of age and into poetry in the ideologically land-locked Midwest, a region where the New Critics ruled literature departments with an unforgiving iron fist. While their hold appeared to be slipping in literature departments along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts during the fifties, their idea of poetry and literature remained fairly well-preserved in the mid-west, not unlike a can of pickled tomatoes. Having attended the University of Minnesota in the fifties, Smith is able to count Allen Tate, a poet central to the New Criticism, among his past instructors. Smith, however, doesn't reject the New Criticism but seems to in fact deeply admire it. He doesn't reject it; he responds to it. His recently published work reveals this peculiar dialectical relationship.

Smith was the last in a long line of distinguished poets to be published by Black Sparrow Press before it folded, before the Bukowski backlist was handed over to Harper Collins and the rest went to David Godine for a smooth single American dollar bill. Smith was 68 years old when his first collection of poems, Rollerdrome, was published. Given the current literary vogue, Smith engages a narrative, confessional form most poets and critics would immediately dismiss, yet he does this in response partly to High Modernism and the New Criticism which appears to have dominated his early intellectual life. The tone of the work is flat and dry, a slow & contemplative Midwestern drawl not unlike that of Twain or, in the rarest of times, even Eliot.

ROLLERDROME, as a collection, is divided up into five distinct sections: Children, Parents and Other Observations; Seven Japanese Portraits; Rollerdrome and the Millionaire; Early Poems; and Robert's Book. A continuation of this last section, Robert's Book, was published earlier this year and appears to be an ongoing work-in-progress, an addendum of sorts to the last section of Rollerdrome.

The first section--Children, Parents and Other Observations--is a string of loosely related narrative poems which, as a whole, come together to shape a distinctly dysfunctional American community, a sexually repressed Peyton Place of sorts where sexual expression becomes manifest in horribly destructive ways as a result of conventional mores. These poems come together in much the same way as the stories within the Canterbury Tales or Boccaccio's Decameron. The dry humor and flat tone of each poem encourages shoulder-shrugging laughter where despair and an awareness of powerlessness might be:

A color photograph taken
at the time of Aunt Doll's visit
shows her and grandmother and their
brothers Fred and Emmett standing
in front of grandmother's house.
A flaw in the negative makes it
look like a hole is burning in
Uncle Emmett's pants where his cock
ought to be. He served two years
in Kansas for messing around
with a teenage prostitute, and got
mercury shots for his syphilis.
The only male in our family
convicted of being a man.

Much of Smith's writing works toward demystification, toward lateralizing, materializing, establishing a level playing field. "Card Reading," a poem which appears at the center of the section title "Rollerdrome and the Millionaire," seems, in several ways, to be a response to Eliot, a poet whose work Smith had no choice but to become intimately familiar with. Where Eliot's "Madame Sosostris" and her reading of the tarot in "The Wasteland" carries tremendous allegorical and prophetic luggage, Smith's Madame Adelaide is much more transparent, much more a woman simply earning a living, a deluded woman who believes:

… God wouldn't give
me this gift if He hadn't meant
me to support myself by it.
Many times I've been hungry in
a cold room without any wood
for the stove when a stranger
seeking the truth about himself
has suddenly appeared at my
door and crossed my palm with silver.

Compare this with Eliot:

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards…

The tone is much the same. Just as the mid-western drawl is present in Smith, it emerges in Eliot every now & again. Rather than taking on a larger, allegorical meaning which locates itself interdependently in relation to the rest of the larger work as Eliot's Madame Sosostris does, Madame Adelaide is, for Smith, simply one among many characters. Madame Adelaide is not romanticized or mystified, her reading isn't prophetic--it simply is, as is a carnival or any number of other things people, in their fear of the world & the future, might come to superstitiously cling to & depend upon. The animated dialogue between the narrator and Madame Adelaide moves swiftly toward demystification when the narrator asks, "Do you think I can get out of my present situation?"

"I only read the cards. I don't
answer specific questions. It
wouldn't be ethical for me
to give personal advice."

"Then your cards aren't much help.
Do you believe in the cards?"

This flat, pessimistic monotone characterizes the whole of Smith's narrative approach. When we encounter licentious preachers, desperate hustlers on Polk Street, a wildly drunk & aged woman, soldiers returning from war and other oddballs, the flat narrative tone tells us that we ought not be surprised, we ought to understand that the sexually repressed, highly conservative fifties and sixties inadvertently created these curious people, these painfully wonderful people. We ought to shrug our shoulders and utter with a wry sense of irony, "It figures." Most importantly, Smith encourages us to take our place alongside these oddballs, to admit to ourselves that we not only live among them, we are them.

Friday, October 21, 2005


Pickard is a poet of grit & force, like the grinding of gears to the ear or sandpaper across the eyeballs. His force doesn’t come from breaking with normative syntactic structures or disrupting and manipulating the semantic. It comes from an aggressive cynicism traditionally expressed through popular and folk forms—the ballad, the sharp satiric verse, the bawdy limerick, the dainty innocent rhyme which simultaneously shrugs off and also underscores the despairing gravity of its content. Pickard returns to these forms, willfully choosing to eschew experimentation in favor of exploring more culturally entrenched forms specific to the north of England.

The first poem in his latest collection, The Dark Months of May, kicks off with a line which courses through the work as a structural thread: "hung-over." As the collection moves the sense becomes one of falling in & out of consciousness, waking up the morning after & struggling to recollect the evening before. The recollection comes slow. Fragmented images and moments are reassembled out of sequence, their edges marked by mist and curious vagaries punctuated with sharp wry wit &, at times, piercing bitterness not unlike that of an increasingly cynical Catullus. Take the following:

a siskin’s contented mew
breezes from the gorse
martins swarm and skim

the sun slips under
the brim of my hat

I thought this place
to trace the story of a story

the river spoke and you
still stink of spring

Pickard’s brand of bitterness, however, is often much more forceful, more blunt. It is the same naked street-level cynicism which, not surprisingly, emerges often in Bunting and Pound:

cold Atlantic blasts
make warmer company that you
these last few months

Here the oppositional rage which characterizes most of Pickard’s work, especially early work like the 1971 novella Guttersnipe, are woven deeply into the texture of the verse. Pickard explores roguish elements culturally specific to Northern England in consciously selected populist forms. For Pickard the written "is a trail of evidence/ tailor-made for trial." The trail of evidence leads back temporally through rime & song, back to earlier popular traditions and finds its ultimate expression at the end of the collection through the story of James Allan delivered within the framework of a ballad.

Allan, we’re told, "was an eighteenth century gypsy musician who lived in the English-Scottish borders and died in Durham jail where he was serving a life sentence for stealing a horse at the age of seventy. His reputation as a great musician was matched by his reputation as an outlaw…."

Passages from "The Ballad of Jamie Allen" come after a stretch of short poems and then a series of mixed prose and verse pieces titled "Fragments from an Archeological Dig in Gallowate." The latter marks the cumulative stratification of cultural remains found on an archeological dig, the site flanked on all sides by modernity—office buildings and a bus station. The dig here points toward development and cultural accumulation, pointing toward a contemporary culture that still contains traces of its medieval and Victorian past. This, of course, leads into the closing passages from "The Ballad of Jamie Allen."

The passages from the ballad are part of a larger work, a libretto Pickard is currently working on for composer John Harle. Clearly Pickard finds something contemporary in both the ballad form and the story itself. Like Pickard, Allen is a musician and rogue consciously living in the border lands, on the outskirts of stifling conventional mores. The two of them, Pickard and Allen, are no different than the hawthorn discussed in the work, a hawthorn which has "set its roots against the wind/ the worrying wind that’s blowing." But the tale begins with Allen’s end. The ballad begins with an image of Allen in jail at the age of seventy, from which point the tale reaches back in order to discuss Allen’s life, just as Pickard has reached back to explore song itself. As Pickard’s ballad develops further and more of it is published we may find that it is Allen’s commitment to music, to song, which has shoved him to the margins of civilization, compelled him to support his unconventional life by unconventional means. This is certainly the case for Pickard & his writing, which never attempts to pull any punches, consistently makes this known.