Friday, July 29, 2011

Chat Review: Chris Martin, Becoming Weather (Coffee House Press 2011)

Chris Martin’s new volume of poetry (Coffee House Press, 2011) may be called Becoming Weather, but its cover depicts a cloud-like smattering of paper and paste.  Intrigued, (r) & R took to online chat—for all they know, a new medium for discussion-based critique—to see if they could review the volume via written conversation.  On a Wednesday afternoon, hiding from adjacent rainstorms, they tucked in with a cup of tea for a chat…

R: Dear (r)!

(r): Dear R! Do you ever feel as if you are becoming weather?

R: Often. Particularly in mid-summer. Yourself?

(r): On this point we are agreed. If I disappear before we've finished speaking, assume I've deliquesced like a mushroom!

R: Either that or a faulty internet connection..."An affinity for visions//implicates a structure//of permeability" (45).

(r): I couldn't have said it better myself! In keeping with our commitments to collaboration and generosity, perhaps we should start by saying what we like best about Chris Martin's recent collection. You may go first!

R: Well I adore anything that feels even a tiny bit Naropa-style, so I was somewhat sold after I glanced at the back-of-book blurbs and epigraphs/invocations. On this point, I wasn't disappointed. Martin navigates a loaded form--casual verse--without ever quite giving up on meaning, even if his poems veer to "avoid//the mistake of closure" (28). The book pays affectionate tribute to its resident deities--Ted Berrigan, Jack Kerouac--yet manages to offer a collection of brief, assertive, quotidian lyrics that are brusque but never vacant. What did you like best?

(r): Well, you've already hit on at least one thing, which is that line about "avoid[ing]/the mistake of closure." I think it sums up so much about Martin's poetics: his commitment to processes over ends, the sense of movement that animates his short lines and the sprays of white space that divide them, his feeling for the gerundive and the present progressive (BECOMING weather). Heidegger, as Martin openly admits, is all over this one.

But what I liked best, perhaps, are the poems that (respectively) end the "Disequilibrium" section and the section called "The Small Dance." These prose poems, the first entitled "A Short History of Order," the second "Toward Corporeal Order," seem to function as a linked set. Together, they wrestle with the hard problem of how the impulse to order might be related to embodiment--and also how bodies seem to buck that impulse. "The first act against the body was to fashion a first" (56), Martin writes. And then: "In this abundance, this dance of answers, one answer was the form from which the others emerged. This answer, of course, was the body. And the body, of course, is full of answers. We called it corporeal order: that which speaks volume in overspill, excess, slip, and surprise; that which will not be still" (92). These poems seem both to set out some of the major concerns of the collection and also to be the points at which the dialectical process to which Martin is committed finds its fullest expression.

R: Yes also, "I still want to be real/as a hamburger" (23).

(r): Who could forget?

R: Because that's another expression of Heidegger or maybe just Modernism tucked away in here too, right? Thing-iness.

(r): Yes--though I'd qualify by saying Martin's relationship to thinginess is pretty vexed. He's always becoming, it seems to me, & never quite arriving. The hamburger's an ideal.

R: I couldn't agree more. Consider the section "This False Peace," which we must also read as "This False Piece." At one point, Martin writes, "I wanted to leave a testament to the real to things/verily happening above truth punching voices /to always go sincere to always go sincere in the blur" (109). Isn't this Spicer's lemon and what we can never seem to stop wishing was WCW's wheelbarrow?

(r): I like that very much. Spicer's lemon is one of the few that doesn't give you lemonade when squeezed (though I'd argue it maybe gives you something just as good). The way objects drift in and out of this collection seems to hark back to all sorts of modernist debates about how to balance abstract and concrete. And this is a question that feels very alive in Martin's verse: "the fixture of the man that sits/ huffing glue beneath the Psychic's eave/ clutches a crumpled brown paper/ bag to his heart/ can this here still be a nature poem?" (74)

R: Precisely, or this inverse of that thematic composition: "I was out interviewing clouds amassing/the notes of a sky pornographer" (83).

(r): I love clouds.

R: Not as much as Chris Martin. Has it rained there yet, (r)?

(r): It's just beginning. There?

R: Thrice already. "probably the world is too/sure about its things" (72).

(r): You're ahead of your time. "The poor own the clouds/and we love them for it" (82).

R: The storm defies expression. "Do you explain/ice by acting/slippery?" (65).

(r): I don't, as it happens. Look, speaking of slippery, what did you think about the relationships between sections in this collection? Did any section receive your particular favor or censure? What about the arc of the collection as a whole?

R: Well let me see. Poem 9 of the first section proclaims, "It is abhorrent/to me to know/beforehand what a thing is//to become" (15). To me these lines say something about form and momentum.

(r): Oh good.

R: I confess I didn't pay much attention to the sections, finding the whole volume fairly cohesive, or at least consistently anti-cohesive. Your thoughts on the matter, (r)?

(r): Well, formally, they all seem to be doing something (slightly) different. "Disequilibrium" begins the collection--it's composed of short, lineated stanzas.

R: Slant-ly different? And presided over by Nietzche's rejection of ultimate stability.

(r): "The Small Dance" makes much more use of white space, which often seems to take the place of standard punctuation. By the time we get to "This False Peace," lineation gets muted in favor of prose form, though the white space introduced in the previous section remains active. And then "Coda" returns to the short lineated form of the first section. It seems to me like there are probably reasons behind those formal divisions.

R: Perhaps those reasons are related to "A Short History of Order," the extended prose piece separating the first and second sections. (Of which, of course, you spoke earlier.)
"The body was flayed and became words. The body was weighed and became money. And money, like language, is for burning. So no one was surprised when the body went up in smoke" (57).

How might the volume's guiding form--its textual body--go up in spoke, to return to its starting point? Free verse becomes free verse under erasure becomes prose-like becomes free this too big a stretch? Can you offer a competing theory of form?

(r): You're convincing me. (I enjoy your "go up in spoke" especially.) I think your phrase "under erasure" is the most revealing. I say that because this is a book that begins and ends in abstraction: From "Not that what/ is is" (1) to "only to return from there/to air, to/being of" (123). I think Greek tragedy is actually a rather useful analogy, given that the last bit of text is a "Chorus" that cites some of Martin's presiding spirits: figures like Bergson, Hejinian, Deleuze and (of course) Heidegger. Martin's playing with the idea of a drama of being--"being of" and, of course, not being at all. He's also interested in how effective a poem can be merely by being barely there...

R: I'm with you. Did you try to picture the chorus actually chanting something? From Creeley to Clover...

(r): I am now...

R: Yes, there is the idea of the poem doing by being, or by being only to a certain degree, which offers a sort of appealing rejection of the premise that poetry can or should act. (P.S. How much did you love the fact that Jeff Tweedy was in the chorus?)

(r): (So much! Also Will Oldham!) You make me think of Martin's observation about Newton, that he "died a virgin no wonder everyone thinks the planets remain apart to have loved without resorting to gravity to touch that which touches through the color" (116). Martin always seems to be playing with whether the ordering impulse can be an unvirginal one--that is not ideal but real, not sterile or abstract but embodied, wrapped in all the messy matter we can't get out of. What kind of ordering impulse is the poem? he seems to say... (I'm not sure he ever decides one way or the other.)

R: What kind, indeed. In a poem that meditates on a pun (middle-medium), Martin writes that "We disclose so much simply/by beginning again" (75). Perhaps we return here to the question of momentum. Poems seem to stop in the middle, as if the conclusion is artificial--the synthesis is synthetic, to return to your invocation of the dialectic--and as if the really important thing is that another poem will be dashed off, for...what was it Martin said, about the sword becoming a pen once it's inside the body?

(r) Yes, yes! This. The way a wound tells a story about its own happening.

R: "to want these things to thing for us" (99)... as if their independence is dependent on our desires. The cleft between cause and effect. Better: "Being a thing it bursts/into events" (84).

(r): Yes. And, as always with Martin, the uncertainty about whether it's nouns yearning to be verbs or verbs yearning to be nouns. Is it better to be a process or a product? Or is the line not so easily drawn as we might wish?

R: "Do I suffer only/from abundance?" (21). So many ways to read that line. To flit over to one of the most direct references to Kerouac...Martin writes in poem 10 of the first section that "[...]a transient/serenades himself with Sam/Cooke in the keyed/gleam of an advertisement/for a European-produced compact/disc promising NOW!/as if the satori of hundreds/of bodies rushing together//wasn't enough" (16). What might we make, dear (r), of the mix-tape made commodity? And what might this have to do with satori--what Kerouac translated as "'sudden illumination,' 'sudden awakening,' or simply 'kick in the eye'--and what does it mean for this kick in the eye to come from, or happen to, "hundreds/of bodies rushing together[?]"

(r): Well, a good mix-tape does that ideally, doesn't it? You juxtapose a number of disparate things in the desperate hope that together they will be--sudden illumination--a kick in the eye--satori. I wonder if, in a way, Martin's poems don't reflect that mixological impulse.

R: Martin's Mixology. I dig it. What if we call that the structuring impulse? Not-being-while-also-being-mixed-up. No wonder Oppen made the chorus.

(r): Well, he would, wouldn't he? And yes, let's definitely call it--mixology--the structuring impulse.

R: Can we talk about nature, then, just for a second? Why "Becoming Weather?" Why not "Becoming Whether?" Is it weather as noun, as verb, as pun? But how can it not also be just plain weather, just plain sheer natural force?

(r): Do we have to decide? I'm invoking negative capability on this one.

R: Touché. But no, there is a strange closeted spirituality here, there has to be "a flock of strangers/outside the movie theater--There/is nothing arbitrary about this"

(r): Interesting. I guess I see that less as a spiritual impulse and more (in this context) as a preoccupation with emergence--pattern--the way weather has patterns.

R: Okay. I can give you that.

(r): I see where you're coming from with "nothing arbitrary," though.

R: Because patterns can still be arbitrary, right?

(r): I'm going to have to think hard about that one!

R: I know, me too! It's not a question for a rainy day. "Today is wrought by a lingering/thingishnessless" (66)

(r): Chris Martin! Why do you have to bring philosophy into this? Why? Never mind. Just answered my own (existential) question.

R: To sum up, will you glance with me at page 68--poem 6 in "The Small Dance?"

(r): Sure will. Oh good, a visit to the underworld!

R: The poem begins, "Then having forgone the rectangle/of tamed light for a structure that is itself/rhythm hymn-like" Here we have pattern as substitution and structure, as untamed, as rhythmic, as spiritual or at least spirited, or spirited-like. Then...we go to space. Tell me what you see.

(r): "galaxies . . . so big they run/right into one another and never/ even touch" Distance is a constant concern for Martin. What you do with the distance between stars and clouds. But also what you do with the distance between people.

R: Precisely.

(r): It's the ending, though, that delineates the problem: "afraid/ the dead will see/ I'm not very brave/ or worse that/ I am[.]" In that moment, the poem's the place where the Classical hero opens a vein for the dead to drink, where Orpheus looks back and sees Eurydice dwindling behind him. For Martin, becoming weather means becoming nothing as often as it means becoming something. And it's that view of becoming--as unbecoming--that seems to me the place where all his impulses concentrate.

R: We're on the same page, then.

(r): Quite literally.

R: "It's said one's either/poet or assassin/but we've grown/conspiratorial being both" (66).

(r): Oh yes we are.

R: Perhaps these poems do so much by/as doing little. How to sign off then, now I've led you to the underworld?

(r): We say farewell. Til next time. We say: I am with you. Don't look back.

R: ...for "I am becoming weather/and/I don't/plan on doing/it alone" (83).

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Epistolary Review: Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press 2011)

Tracy K. Smith
Life on Mars

Dear R.,

I had a dream about you once in which you were hosting a slumber party for the shades of the Brontës & Dorothy Wordsworth & several other luminaries of that sort. You were sharing around dishes of tea with honey & Anne & Emily had discovered reality TV, which they totally loved! Are you back from England yet? Did you find marvelous things?

I have weaknesses, dear R., I confess I have many weaknesses. Two of my weaknesses are—though you scarcely need reminders—glam rock & domestic science fiction, which is probably why sections of Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars worked on me like a kind of poetic kryptonite. I mean this in a good way. I mean this in a bad way. You know what I mean.

Some poets fear proper nouns. These are the kind of poets who (in mild cases) think, like Yeats, that the right materials for poetry are only those things & ideas that have gathered a few centuries of moss & (in extreme cases) worry about things like whether readers—now & a hundred years from now—will know who Rock Hudson is (What, dear R., do you plan to be doing in 2111?). Smith, thankfully, doesn’t suffer from this particular phobia. One of the delights of this collection is the way she mixes those mossier preoccupations (God, love, death, sex, parenthood, the trajectories of certain stars) with a wide sampling of cultural detritus & personal history. Smith likes proper nouns. Here are a few of her favorites: “Charlton Heston,” “Larry Niven,” “Jupiter,” “2001,” “Tina,” “JFK,” “Albert Gaxiola,” “Brisenia Flores,” “Johanna Justin-Jinich,” “Elijah,” “Smith Street,” & (of course) “Bowie.” (Life on Mars recalls to the David Bowie song of the same name.) The poems I liked best—I thought the fourth & final section rather weaker than the first three—take up the cosmic & the personal at once: “Blast off! she likes to think, though/What comes to mind at the moment/Is earthly” (46).

There’s an obvious debt to early New York School here (Smith lives in Brooklyn)—not that that’s a bad thing. The best of Smith’s lighter poems rush forward with a dashing, intimate breathlessness that makes light of their own virtuosity. For instance, it’s hard to read the final section of “Don’t You Wonder Sometimes” without thinking of Frank O’Hara. “Bowie is among us,” Smith writes, “Right here/In New York City./In a baseball cap/And expensive jeans” (20). Dearest R., Lana Turner has collapsed!

But Smith has other moods too, other modes. In poems like “Sci-Fi” & “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” she offers at once a critique of a genre & a paean to its potential. “Critique of a genre” is, perhaps, not quite right; for Smith, “science fiction” is less a genre than an epistemology—a way of knowing the world:

                        There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.

History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,

Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice . . .

Eons from even our own moon, we’ll drift
In the haze of space, which will be, once
And for all, scrutable and safe. (7)

Here, “science fiction” means utopias & dystopias—the kind of grand, epically polarized futurisms of the 1960s & 1970s expressed in projects like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes. Smith is at once admiring & suspicious of this kind of science fiction. “No edges, but curves,” Smith muses, referring to those strange & risible design elements in old movies about the future (The tenses, my dear, the tenses!). She recognizes that part of the allure of science fiction lies in its emphasis on the possible—it lasers our nostalgic impulses to a pile of ash. (The optics jibed./We saw to the edge of all there is—/So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.) But the price of the ray-guns & the silver jumpsuits is high: the poem argues that a certain kind of shallow futurism can exist only at the expense of the past. It requires us to forget history, to leave behind the weird fetish for the hardcopy of the past & our unfashionable preoccupations with species long extinct, whether they be a matter of paper or dodo birds or the events that have shaped our own experience of the world. In this kind of science fiction, the only way we can make things “scrutable and safe” is to give up the mode of knowing we call memory.

Throughout the collection, in poems like “The Museum of Obsolescence,” “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” & (most especially) the title poem, “Life on Mars,” Smith tests out modes of science fiction that might offer more effective ways of dealing with history both abstractly & personally (Many poems here function as an elegy for her father, who was a reader of Larry Niven as well as a worker on the Hubble Telescope.). I’m not sure some of the “science” part of the equation is as developed as it might be but the “fiction” application is finely limned (I’ve read several recent collections that have bypassed science fiction for science proper & none has seemed to me nearly as successful as this one.):

Tina says dark matter is just a theory. Something
We know is there, but can’t completely prove.

We move through it, bound, sensing it snatch up
What we mean to say and turn it over in its hands

Like glass sifted from the sea.

As I’ve said, I liked the last section of the collection a bit less than what comes before it—not because the poems in it are bad poems—but because the science fictional concerns are more muted there. But perhaps the phrasing of Smith’s collection merely argues that a turn to the homely, the earthly, is the logical—& perhaps, the desirable—conclusion to her investigation, that science-fiction-as-epistemology—science fiction as mourning—is not & cannot be a sustainable means of knowing the world. Her seeming affection for the cultural touchstones of the genre militates against that line of argument but, I confess, the arrangement of the poems is a strong point in its favor. It’s an optimistic collection & yet I kept thinking, of David Bowie, the collection’s household god, not only in his role as the inimitable Starman in The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars but as Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Have you seen that one? Bowie plays an alien secretly sent to Earth to bring back water for his dying home planet. But it’s not easy being a secret alien, not in our little oonaverse. You have to learn about fashion & sex & money & liquor & even if you figure it all out you’re still a secret alien & you probably have an addiction problem & when you reveal your true identity to your girlfriend, she probably won’t be able to deal with the real you. Mostly it’s about a person who tries to save the world and fails.

Don’t look so sad! Haven’t we been stargazing

before/after all?


Dear (r),

You say we must and must not give up memory but that is also a question of form.  I too read Life on Mars several weeks ago, but then I didn’t pack the volume before embarking on a long journey.  Coming home to your review felt rather like finding a map of a place I could swear I had visited but couldn’t say when.  The pages I’d dog-eared: unfamiliar.  The quotes I thought I had found: lost.

This is not to say that Life on Mars is forgettable!  Rather, I think Smith’s poetics resists possession: “When the storm/Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing/After all we’re certain to lose, so alive—“ (3); “Still, It resists the matter of false vs. real./Unconvinced by our zeal, It is un-/Appeasable” (17); “So much we once coveted.  So much/That would have saved us, but lived,//Instead, its own quick span”;  “I’m ready/To meet what refuses to let us keep anything/For long” (57).  And all this even in a science-fictional universe!

It is possible that I am blaming Smith’s poetics for my failure of memory.  I too see the New York School connection, but miss the take-away, the versed bottle-cap-in-the-pocket, O’Hara’s “and everyone and I stopped breathing” or “which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it[.]”  But Smith’s is a cultivated strangeness—so much is given, yet something is withheld—resulting in not only elegy but also impersonation of elegy, in science fiction not co-opted, but deeply felt.  “Everything that disappears/Disappears as if returning somewhere” (24). 

You mention alien encounters.  At the end of “The Universe is a House Party,” “we” welcome our strange visitors:

How marvelous you’ve come!  We won’t flinch
At the pinprick mouths, the nubbin limbs.  We’ll rise,

Gracile, robust.  Mi casa es su casa.  Never more sincere.
Seeing us, they’ll know exactly what we mean.

Of course, it’s ours.  If it’s anyone’s, it’s ours.

Dear (r), who is meant by “ours?”  And what is meant by “it?”  We are at once human and stranger; it is at once domes and universe.  Here, at last, possession is accomplished—or at least, possession by dissolution and possession by default.  

As you say, dear (r), Smith makes it new and makes it old, makes it science-fictional which means making it fictional which means making it real.  You describe the experience of reading the volume so effortlessly and yet I cannot remember reading it for the first time.  Such a lapse is unlike me.  “I am writing this so it will stay true[,]” (65) writes Smith, portraying poetry as cause, effect, and antidote to/of fragmented memory.  I am reading this so it will stay true, too.

Yours ever,