Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Across the Oonaverse: Vancouver

Dear (r),

The Brownings are alive & well & living in British Columbia!

(Or, rather: a few weeks ago I traveled to Vancouver & came across the most exciting dramatic monologues I've read in at least 100 years.)

The trip was otherwise uneventful.  I gave a talk about Lyrical Ballads & object-oriented ontology that was really about neither of these things, and wandered around Granville Island in the rain pretending to be an art student, and ate too much maakroun.  I bought the first of what I’m sure will be many of these journals, and saw a friend’s new Elizabeth Bishop tattoo, and competed in a game of Regency-style charades.

I also enjoyed learning about two exciting Canadian presses, Coach House Books and Anvil Press.  I found their catalogues irresistible, and basically left Vancouver looking like I had robbed a very hip bookshop.  Stephen Collis & Jordan Scott’s decomp, a materialist, ecopoetic experiment in which Darwin’s texts are, quite literally, decomposed, is my new coffee table book (note to self: buy coffee table), and I can’t wait to assign André Alexis’s Pastoral (which eighteenth-century novel should I pair it with?).  But my most exciting find—and the one I can’t wait to share with you—was a trio of poetry collections that forge experiments in response to that quintessentially neo-Victorian creature commonly called the “persona poem”—monologia dramaticus.

Now (r), you know I see the neo-Victorian everywhere.  (After all, what are serialized television shows focused on issues of class, wealth, justice, and social order—The Wire, Downton Abbey—if not the second coming of the Victorian novel?)  So you can imagine how pleased I was to curl up with some bright new titles that engage Victorian poetic innovation with such wit and vim.

Marita Dachsel’s Glossolalia (Anvil Press, 2013) takes as its speakers the thirty-four wives of Joseph Smith.  In so doing, Dachsel cuts a multifaceted crystal through which the question of how to be a woman (in relation to a man and, perhaps more profoundly, among other women) shines through.  The answers that reflect and refract—“I regret nothing” (13); “Don’t look at me that way./I am proud of what I did,/a woman of my age, my status” (16); “I wish I hadn’t agreed” (17); “repulsion swelled/to salty gratitude” (37); “Pretend I don’t hear” (49)—ring like something released from a lamp, from the soil, from stone.  As its multiple voices rise and converge, Glossolalia also echoes H.D.’s Trilogy:

I became a Mother in Israel,
coaxing young women
into the new covenant.

We were Sarah & Hagar.  Rachel & Leah.



I am a practical woman:
I can heal with herbs & my hands,
I brew my own beer, sew, knit,
& speak in tongues.

After birth, I would show
the mother the slick placenta,
raised up, a stretched orb.
An offering.

It carries the tree of life.
Rough, ropey.  Red,
the colour of strawberry jam
boiling low on the stove.



I sleep with strangers
four Egyptians

mummies: a patriarch
& his wives

stashed beneath
the belly of my bed


The engagement with literary history is delicate, and achy, and gorgeous.  Somehow, as the dramatic monologues merge and mingle, Joseph Smith practically disappears altogether.

Sina Queyras’s striking meditation on the elegiac, MxT (Coach House Books, 2014), engages its theoretical apparatus more directly; the book is structured via mathematical formulas for grief, and intellectual history and allusion people its pages.  Julie Enszer has written a beautiful and comprehensive review, noting that "one of the most exciting aspects of encountering Queyras's work is her wide-ranging allusions and homages to other poets."  But within the web of intertext, a resistance to textual exchange emerges, as well—“I go to theory when I want to sit with someone else's thinking, I go to myself when I want to see you” (11); “How good we have become at hashtags, and how distanced from our bodies” (27).  Queyras invokes the dramatic monologue toward the very end of the volume (cf. “Sylvia Plath's Elegy for Sylvia Plath,” “Two Elegies for Grief as Jackson Pollock”).  Today, (r), I'd like to share the following poem with you:

He Was and Is Not,
An Elegy after Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Gone, gone, and in his place
Death’s knotted trunk
To measure every tick
And ring upon the earth.

He is not, and you are:
The steps you take, the
Words you speak, all
Stolen, stolen land.


Echoes, here, of E.B.B.’s “hopeless grief is passionless,” of elegy as artless, meaning incapable.  “I am not interested in other words for honey.  I am interested in honey” (11).

If Sina Queyras pens a poem after Elizabeth Barrett Browning (and, perhaps, a book-length elegy after Tennyson), then Jennica Harper inverts and reverts and supercharges the dramatic monologue in Wood.  Poems written from Pinocchio (“Father hopes I will become a realboy because/realboys become men” (11)), from Sally Draper (“I got distracted by the TV” (83); “You may start pretty, but you get old fast” (86)), and from Houdini’s wife dig in to the question of what is real, what illusion, what allusion.  So the neo-Victorian genre emerges in and as artifice, and artifice performs the work of art, which is, at least sometimes, to try and find the real.  A series of alternate descriptions of a father figure (“My Father, As Jack Nicholson”; “As Roman Polanski”; “As Steve McQueen”) invokes another Victorian genre, the picture poem, to similar effect—an artificial orbiting that nonetheless locates a center of gravity.  A bit like a letter, a postcard home.

Happy reading, dear (r), & happy speaking,

Monday, June 2, 2014

Technologies of Expansion: Andrew Zawacki's VIDEOTAPE (Counterpath, 2013) & Julie Carr's RAG (Omnidawn, 2014)

Dear (r),

You are in the midst of Completing A Major Project, & must make use of all your resources, language especially.  For this reason, our recent communication has taken place almost entirely in emojis, or, as we call them in our twee angelology, emojim.  You called on Gertrude Stein's theory of "naming without naming" to explain what and why it means when I send you, always, consistently: a koala.  It is an unnamed name.  & also a reminder that you are (& your work is) high koala-ty.


Back in February, Andrew Zawacki sent us his fabulous VIDEOTAPE (Counterpath, 2013).  I gobbled up the first half over Turkish coffee & then finished the volume while I waited for an oil change, & then I just sort of carried the book around in much the same way we always carry around the outdated technology of modernism, a technology Zawacki gracefully eulogizes.

A lot has been said about VIDEOTAPE.  Will Vincent's capacious review situates the volume within an emerging canon of science fiction poetry.  (& also claims that Frankenstein's monster was the first science fictional poem... Can we discuss this?)  Tom Taff thinks about the volume's filmic form.  Daniel Scott Parker explicates and philosophizes the ways in which Zawacki "touches the hot stove of language."  & so on.  So, OK, we're a little late to the party, but I hope it won't seem opportunistic of me to call our tardiness fitting since, after all, we're discussing a book that works quite hard to make it old.

VIDEOTAPE finds all its dad's modernisms in the attic.

There's scratched Ginsberg:

                the orch
         -id as it arch
-es toward the sun


Williams turned inside out:



Elizabeth Bishop getting photobombed (#nofilter):

[...] a piazza of faces oc-
cluded by point-&-shoot cameras
is a community, every tourist a
backdrop in someone else's shot


mink-lined Kerouac:

          you're a Luftwaffe of star
                                  light, shot
                      thru a subway car
      & I'm nothing
if not all


e. e. cummings' old yearbook quote:

          [...] -- but I'm far a
                    way on Cloudfuckyouland
                                 where the weather
is prefab, pay-by-the-
hour, recycles at
                                                5¢ a pop,
                                  & I'm not coming
down until I'
ve rode a gaffer's zephyr
                                     to the tune of to
the tippy          Tupperware              top


[[[Also re: cummings: "In the frame of a Sony portable cam, I is everything that is not the case"  (106).]]]

[[[& while we're cleaning out these boxes, I'm pretty sure Zawacki's discourse on "I without//I: be grass that/bristles, thistles//to thresh, a thresh/-old of hunger & linger &//thirst" (23) perfectly adapts Robert Browning's "Two in the Campagna" to VIDEOTAPE's technology.]]]

(r), you know me.  I love to linger in refraction & over transhistorical phenomena.  But what surprised & delighted me most about Zawacki's deliberately clunky (post-)modernism was the way in which it offered one synthetic response to a false binary that keeps bubbling up in ecopoetic/ecocritical discourse, that is, the distinction between "nature poetry" and "ecopoetics," or neo-Romantic vs. experimental (but of course you know I think these categories are often one & the same) responses to ecological crisis.  With tremendous, rusty delicacy, Zawacki's VIDEOTAPE offers us a new vision of poetic naturalism in which technology & its debris--mechanical, digital, linguistic & artistic--are constantly overgrown by whatever it is that we would simultaneously mourn and save.

From its very first lines, VIDEOTAPE illustrates the collapse of terrestrial and technological realms, rendering the mechanical and the environmental inseparable: "Grayscale breath on a fluid/field, with lo-fi/rainpatter--petrol blue--,/a 60-watt sun uns/-crewed from the/woebegone sky" (1).  The conflation becomes Orphic almost immediately: "Signal glitch is a cut flower/ghost, aghast/in the A/V cable" (2); "fast/from the meadows, the ex-movie-/plex, each raindrop/a prism/its spectrum/a trick of machine" (3).

In VIDEOTAPE, the story of our consumption (we the consumers, we the consumed) is writ on the landscape: "in post-consumer/Pennsylvania/where snow like a/rose knows no/why" (5); "'faux para-snowfoam'" (95); "earth is a topo-/graphical map & geodetic/survey of itself--/dental floss rivers, parks/in parquet--scaled to the splay/& manicure of a micro-/chip, or a mother/-board" (13).  Mother Earth's a motherboard, the mind in the machine, not only a scientific reality but also a framework we're constantly de- & reconstructing.  "Muzak of the spheres[,]" indeed (40).  Or, "the world exists to end up on DVD" (52).

Someone once told me poems don't have arguments, but if VIDEOTAPE has an argument, then it's this one: "There is another world & it/is this one" (57).  In that world, the "sun [is] a disco ball, a bulb,/clouds a lean-to with least to lean/against" (63); poetry is one of many technologies "that turn in the wind/& turn the wind" (74).  If poetry has anything to offer in the face of ecological crisis, it's this aesthetics of debris, this technological memory, this flattening.  "What is the world.  What isn't" (103).


The re/up-cycling of literary history to address major social issues takes a radical and radically different form in Julie Carr's brilliant new book, RAG (Omnidawn, 2014), which renders overspilling ache in another register.  Ambitious and expansive, RAG conjures and creates an (anti-)Whitmanic, feminine figure in the midst of familial intimacy and in the shrapnel of tragedy encountered every day: "A city is an efficient way of carrying./And if I beg here, a cry pens itself toward the prying sun.  A target.  A wretch./The cars parked each morning like lines from a poem always the same and always/misremembered.  Each night the cars renew themselves like sleeping children [...] every participant has his hand to his mouth.  To find a place of rest, a place not/busy with men, I walk" (22-3).


A woman might be a kind of postproduction medium, or a filter through which
the desires of the ground are felt

Buried to her chin in dirt, the dirt made out of her own skin, does she play the
waves of her spit on her tongue, spit mixed into that dirt?


In RAG, embodied, formal and philosophical expansion allow the poem(s) to weave the world into a dark mythology, a mythology in which that "Hair in the grass///Looks like smoke, like tomorrow's//Problem" (47-8).  Or, rather, the body electric exposes itself as "body slum" (66).  Along with its multiplications and additions, the book is full of erasures, names & stories mentioned & then never revisited, never concluded.  Long-line paragraphs end with absence ("Lunch over, nothing to throw away, no crumbs/to wipe off the table, no table/////Where is Carolyn?" (55)).  Echoes of Oppen, here, & of Oppen's Whitman, reimagined.

Part of all of this is to assert a sort of auto-elegaic poetess in the Victorian tradition: "Happily I type:///Dear Daughter/Here is your gift: a piece of cloth/To wrap me in" (57); "--my own body / not myself--" (81).  But in 2014, the poetess is political: "The nine-year-old shot in Arizona is not///Mine she is mine" (82).  & thus a radical feminine anti-Whitmanic voice envelopes us in a world without any closure save the deadbolt lock.

Nota bene, dear (r): if you read RAG on the train, you'll start overhearing people.

Carr explicates RAG's poetics in this expansive iteration/capsule poem:

But this is a vibratory nation poem--and it refers to the law
that dictates hair grow more thickly on the left side of the face than the right
(a universal truth).  Prepubescent girls give off terrible smells from their soles
The "emotional body" and the "aural body" experience a huge thirst
forcing the shoulders too far forward.  I'm speaking about the fertility
of Wisconsin's girls.  Her mouth doubles.  Her skin
a functioning product.  Feeling is space slipped into time.


There's a discomfort associated with being in a woman's body in the world, a painful newness, a gentle monstrosity.  But RAG's praxis also insists on a "she" that's capacious, holding, endless:

[...] --lively on earth, a rag on earth--

--and she is the genre of infinite call--


One way to understand the title, then--a slip of paper, a bandage, feminized--is to focus on absorption.  RAG almost but never quite deifies--and certainly mythologizes--its dark but empathic imagining of the absorptive woman navigating the leaky boundaries between fact and story, mother and daughter, space and time.  And space slipped into time is, we remember, feeling (69).  So RAG mobilizes and rides against a Whitmanic technology in order to activate a mode of mourning, in order to write space for sentiment.  Make it old, dear (r), make it old.

The universe contracts and expands, or so, at least, they say.  You are a ray of light journeying through a pinhole & I'll see you on the other side.

Until then, my friend:



Tuesday, April 29, 2014

oonavent: Symposium on Experiment, New Brunswick NJ

ex • per • i • ment


1.  a procedure undertaken to make a discovery, test a hypothesis, or demonstrate a fact.

2.  a deviation from accepted norms, forms, and methods.

3.  a question or category of style.

4.  a historical and/or trans-historical formation in art, literature, and culture.

5.  an under-theorized site of evaluation, debate, and surveillance.

A collection of poets and critics, among them your (r) & R, convened a symposium at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey in order to interrogate the category of literary/artistic experiment in relation to methodological innovations, formal deviations, and questions of style and history.

Captured: Stephen Burt and Charles Bernstein discuss controlled & experiential experiments (moderated by Margaret Ronda).

We hope you enjoy listening in, & look forward to continuing the conversation!

Yours ever,
(r) & R

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Applbaum
Thanks to Curtis Dunn at the Center for Cultural Analysis for facilitating this recording.