Gravesend, by Cole Swensen. University of California Press, 84 pages, $21.95
Insomnia and the Aunt, by Tan Lin. Kenning Editions, 52 pages, $13.95
Come and See, by Fanny Howe. Graywolf Press, 94 pages, $15.00
Notes on Irrelevance, by Anselm Berrigan. Wave Books, 65 pages, $16.00
Antigonick, by Sophokles. Translated by Anne Carson. New Directions. 180 pages, $24.95
Engine Empire, by Cathy Park Hong. W.W. Norton. 93 pages, $24.95
In one of the "Interview Series" of Cole Swensen's new book of poetry, the barmaid at The Three Daws pub is given to ask, "Ghosts? You're writing a book on ghosts? This place is full of them. It's the oldest pub on the river." That river is the Thames in England, and the town where the speaker finds herself is Gravesend—lending its name to Swensen's new collection. Swensen's mode of investigative poetics is fully blown in this, her thirteenth book of poetry. For readers familiar with her other books—what gardens were to Ours or opera was to Oh, ghosts are to Gravesend.
As with those previous works, Gravesend is an extended meditation with a seemingly singular focus, as she writes in "Varieties of Ghost": "Phantom shade specter wraith haint and then the revenant." Unlike her prior books, though, Swensen has grown more interested in fusing her documentarian mode with a strong and heavily-spaced prose. The form and unit of these poems is mostly the prose sentence, but with large caesaura-shaped chunks cut out of the lines, such that any given page looks oddly like the negative of an erasure. This allows Swensen a form suited perfectly to her investigations (naming, seeking, locating) and to her materials (the specter: disappearing, reappearing, shapeless yet formed). In other words, Swensen's gap-laden sentences (or near-sentences) allow for the lyrical leaping we come to expect from good lines of poetry. It allows the poet to embody the objects of her scrutiny while inscribing their peculiar absences as well.
In Gravesend's second poem, "If," the ghostly form of the writing appears as follows:
In fact, the margins are perfectly justified throughout much of the book; this seems to speak to order, to control, to the evenness of method, fact, and report. And yet, the varying widths of the caesurae ask the eye and ear and tongue to pause. Sometimes the syntax follows grammatically—and other times not. As such, it performs a peculiar dissonance in the order and structure of the poems. The justified prose seems to say, I'm telling a linear story that you may follow in the customary way; but the caesurae and lack of punctuation suggest the opposite. Gaps are present and information is missing. For Swensen, this tension produces a lovely double effect: telling her ghost stories in that gothic, children's book fashion ("It was a dark and stormy night...") while letting the absences of these spectral bodies shine through (perforating the customary "realistic" prose) and break with those conventional uses of traditional narration.
The effect is uncanny. We are someplace familiar and recognizable, only to be thrown out again by Swensen's famously odd connections, as with that closing phrase: "with its head in your lap like a window." Note that there's no caesura in this gesture: its discord is in the line's content (how could a dog's head in your lap be "like a window"?) rather than in the formal aspect of the line. This is Swensen's gift: some of the strangest connections in her work occur in seemingly normative places where normative syntax, grammar, and similes produce the oddest combinations.
In this way, Swensen's presiding forbear (despite her love of French poets and her many translated works) is Emily Dickinson. All those dashes, capitalized letters, slant rhymes, and odd breaks mid-line in Dickinson actually make us feel at home in her most peculiar syntax (I'm thinking of something like "The Stillness in the Room / Was like the Stillness in the Air—"). When we get to a seemingly simple line like "with its head in your lap like a window" or "when the word was first connected to what wanders off from the body" we are tricked into the stability of something that is unstable indeed—the trope in the former, and that metaphoric "wanders off from the body" in the latter line, from the poem "Etymology."
For Viktor Shklovsky, "the purposes of new metaphors is not to create meaning, but to renew perception by 'defamiliarizing' the world: unlikely comparisons retard reading and force us to reconceive objects that ordinary words allow us to pass over in haste." In Cole Swensen's Gravesend we discover that whatever the poet casts her attentive nets on is itself recast—remade, rethought, renewed—in the act of making.
My favorite book in recent memory is Tan Lin's Insomnia and the Aunt.. It's a work of prose, featuring photographs throughout—and beyond those basic facts, well, it's difficult to characterize. The opening paragraph reveals much:
All Tan Lin's interests—and there are dozens actually—seem laid out simply here. Like Swensen, Lin is using a kind of documentary prose to establish an apparent grounding, which he then thwarts and reworks to his own purposes. Instead of Swensen's caesurae, Lin uses the photograph to situate his prose (as documentary referent, as a kind of visual "proof" or evidence in support of the writing) as well as provide a sort of magical distraction from how unique the concerns of his prose actually are.
Like W.G. Sebald's use of images in prose, the photographs in Tan Lin's book—there are 7 or 8 of them interspersed throughout— stand both as reference points and counterpoint. They hang obliquely, without caption, summary, or any direct description. They seem to say, I am evidence and I'm here to illustrate the salient features of the text—but they defer to some other nonspace that heightens the peculiarity of the shifts in prose.
To my mind, Tan Lin is one of our best writers about race and immigration (and, as a result, tradition and heritage and family) because he's not interested in quaint insights, political correctness, or even shocking his readers. Lin is interested in language, and he's keenly aware—as few others are—of how language mediates and even produces our assumptions about subjectivity. Take a look at the figure of lying in Insomnia and the Aunt:
The most arresting aspect of Lin's prose is his shift from the specific story of visiting his aunt at her motel in Washington State to his peculiar general statements. Starting with something as improbable as a celebrity source (he cites Robert Redford earlier on the same topic), Lin moves into an eerie generalized prose of "lying is never natural...and is best expressed" and on to all-encompassing statements like "Everyone thinks you can make love with your eyes," "People who cry a lot tend to have more affairs," and "It is impossible to lie to a computer that's turned off." In other words, the lies take over the voice's subjectivity. It's unsettling, but somehow deeply a part of the prior narrative voice: this seamless/unsettling quality is Lin's achievement. We get woven into not just the story it wants to tell but also the lies of how it wants to process the story being told—which is to say, into its truths.
I have suspended until now the question of whether Insomnia and the Aunt is a work of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and so on. Compare the first big paragraph I quoted above to the latter one on lying. Seamlessly—in a very similar "voice" (that is, with a similar tone across the various kinds of sentences [specific to general, descriptive to metaphoric])—Lin completely shifts modes here. And of course, he's lying, insofar as any metaphor is literally false, and insofar as any hyperbole ("Everyone thinks...") is necessarily untrue by virtue of its register. This is Lin's uncanny force: what he elucidates from his journey back to his aunt (and from his recounting it for us) is not the subtle "truths" of an immigrant's journey from China to America, nor even from urban Spokane to the rural North Cascades:
This work might be nonfiction; this work might be utterly fictional. The split obviates a peculiar dichotomy: nonfiction is often about the artful re-telling and omitting, and as we know from Kenneth Goldsmith's Fidget, when one attempts to tell everything as it actually happens, well, another kind of literature is produced. And of course fiction is often about producing something that seems "true, realistic, and likely" to dupe us. The question of genre is beside the point, and it's only interesting when we realize that Tan Lin does whatever he needs to—disclose, lie, generalize, and recollect memoirishly—in order for his writing to live.
There's nothing particularly "poetic" about this work, in any received sense. It's too full of strange lies to stand as "creative nonfiction"; and it's too invested in the conceits of memoir to hang together as fiction. Much of its best writing simply belies the conventions of each. When Tan Lin fakes it, something funny, sad, elegant, and painful comes through: "In the years since my aunt's death, I have often thought about what holds the parts of a family together, and I think it may be lies told in families almost like ours." Through avoidance and pretending, or through obfuscation and confusion, even omitting and deception—and especially through the use of cliché, hyperbole, metaphor, and generalization—what his work forces us to consider is how lying to ourselves and our families in various ways is simply the social and cultural air we breathe. That Lin is able to perform those lies so well is the work's supreme pleasure.
In Come and See, Fanny Howe's new collection of lyric poems, metaphors like "The sky is a fish packed in ice" are fewer and more dispersed among limned truths that appear neither crystalline nor "poetic," but awkward, plaintive, and even painful at times. Howe writes in one poem: "You can only confess once. / After that, there is very little to say about anything, especially a lost chance." In another: "It was a terrible century: / consisting of blasted / oil refineries and stuck ducks." The author of over thirty books of poetry and prose, Fanny Howe is well aware of how "stuck ducks" (presumably in Gulf oil) sounds—overly simplistic, a sort of poeticized product—all the more unpoetic because of the clunky, obvious rhyme she lands on. There's something obdurate in these poems; perhaps it's her insistence on prying open the obvious, scouring the most basic facts we claim in order to discover what went wrong and where and how.
I think a few lines from her long poem "After Watching Klimov's Agoniya" give the best sense of what these sad, probing lyrics are after. One section begins: "We have to face reality. / We are glad we were born in the west. There. We said it." And it's as though part of the work of these poems is to finally confess and admit to something shameful. What Howe is after throughout Come and See is to interrogate history via complicity—what it means for those with privilege to have survived the 20th century only to reflect back on it through art.
Elsewhere in the same poem, she writes: "What went wrong when we were young?" and later: "To the seeker all objects are lonely and dangerous." What these lines share—with Tan Lin's work—is that drifting from the literal to the metaphoric in search of accuracy at whatever price. Howe's poetry is about reckoning, about facing it, and about the work of that grappling when we confront ourselves. For Howe, the wending, curious lyric is the mode—here in short lines, there long meandering sentences—best suited to the work of this confrontation by discovery realized through a kind of bitter acknowledgement. The same poem's penultimate line is instructive: "Absolutely nothing happened except recognition that left an ache."
Howe has been obsessed with injustice, war, and atrocity for a long time—her work has long excavated modes of lyrical thought to confront and combat the fact and residue of these themes. What's different about the poems in Come and See is her insistence on the strangeness of art to reveal ourselves in relation to history and to betray our various complicities. It's as though the moment she begins the poem, she knows she's after the world's more difficult conundrums, but these poems remain unwilling to speak on high without revealing the poet's collusion. And that's the torque of Howe's unflinching—even unpoetic—originality.
In a poem called "Written on Steps in Winter," she writes:
The flatness and prosaic quality of these lines are notable and disarming. Instead of the precise, pointed lyricism of her previous books, these long lines want to speak generally and work backward into their "privilege." Using broad brushstrokes—relying on "beauty or grace or fame" and even "a few decades in peace"—elides the characteristics of a life and the time spent living into a monochromatic pallor. Where her poems are least 'poetic' they are most disturbing, even devastating. They betray a speaker resigned finally to look back broadly and not leave the self upon a perch as an objective observer.
A signal piece of art—a metal bed hung by chain to a skylight, halfway between ceiling and floor—appears on the cover of Come and See as a bright photograph, and it's also the subject of a long poetics piece (the title work) at the collection's end. The image is of an installation by Dr. Suzann Victor called Third World Extra Virgin Dreams, and in the closing essay of the book, Howe asks, "Why does it seem as if this room existed in real time as the result of historical events?" In a sense, this kind of grappling is what the poet is after: How is the unthinkable true? How are atrocities borne in us—whether near or far—once time has passed? What is the subject's role in not repeating blatant injustice? Fortunately, for us, Howe always wants to re-ask the question: What is art's role with respect to these injustices? It's as if she's realized that, as she says in her poem: "Words know everything. That's why my fingers shake." As such, the very words the poet relies on betray the poet herself anew—complicit in her confrontation, always seeking and remaking, but never outside or beyond the history she speaks of.
Influence-obsessed, with the playful long sentences stranding just three to five words to a line, Anselm Berrigan's Notes from Irrelevance begins:
Berrigan's streaming hypotaxis—fusing play, wildness, lament, melodramatic purge (like a playful St. Augustine of the Confessions)—is on the hunt for a reasonable set of thoughts to belong to. That the poet trusts so little in his thinking is the reader's pleasure to relish. The entire book—a single long poem, comprised of a single long stanza—works like this excerpt, ending as letter to poet Dana Ward in a loving, direct address. Somehow Berrigan does the unthinkable: gelling abstract reveries of the Fanny Howe stripe while hilariously combining the dross of parenthood, all the while meditating back on his own fraught origins.
The title of the book is Berrigan's first good deception: the poem is far from "irrelevant," and in fact, it's hardly composed "notes." What we get instead is this tightly woven syntax of a young master. How Berrigan can be sad, silly, revelatory, awkward, and brilliantly dismissive in a single long sentence of poetry is his secret. Even narrating a simple stroll through an old neighborhood after canceling a class is inflected with a protean beauty most poets wouldn't dream of trying to convoke in such skeining detail:
The sentence goes on from there. Every sentence of the poem goes on, dizzyingly engaged with those "passing contours" the poet's in search of: bodily memory, the embodied and fleeting thought, memory recalled in language as metaphor and bizarre comparisons. Notes on Irrelevance is in constant search of those overlooked specks and flecks—little bits of matter and detritus that hang in the poet's imagination as impossibly small metonyms of experience. Earlier he writes:
Begun as a meditation on desire, a metaphor bends into the fabric of the poem ("as if a creeping / desire"), doubles it ("one that refuses"), even triples it ("to lean on what it means") to name, describe, and thereby fathom its meanings. In this way, Berrigan's seemingly effortless tracking of the ineluctable and just-out-of-reach contours of thought are woven into the poem "giving it flecks of purpose" relative to "the larger / aims of mind." Throughout reading and re-reading this book, I've wondered how a poem can be so funny and so sad (simultaneously) while relying largely on abstraction and an incredibly prolix orchestration of dependent clauses and phrases, one after the other in these brilliantly layered—and perfectly punctuated, I might add—prose sentences.
It won't be new to Anselm Berrigan's fans; they've long known that he's one of the most original, unsettling American poets of our moment. Notes from Irrelevance is Berrigan's best work to date—a veritable clinic in how to break every creative writing classroom rule: thinking, breathing, laughing, deriding, and feeling all the way—and into the very blood of your hands holding the book.
Perhaps you recall that elusive single sentence biographical note on the jacket of Anne Carson's older works: "Anne Carson lives in Canada." Carson's follow-up to NOX (an astonishing book-object exploring the nature of grief) is a translation of Sophokles's Antigone (renamed of course Antigonick). It's no coincidence that this is another beautiful object to behold and ogle: it is in fact another work very much about the memory of her dead brother. As we know, the original play is one of antiquity's most lucid dramas of violence and honor. Antigone sets things in motion by honoring her dead brother in giving him the proper burial denied to him by the king. I bring up Carson's biography because the speaker inside this work adds that she "teaches Ancient Greek for a living," reminding us that the violence she is doing by turning Antigone into Antigonick is not, itself, without honor (of the text she translates). Whatever we feel about the incredible alterations to meaning she makes to the play, it is hardly out of capriciousness or ignorance.
It would be easy to list—either in incredulity or admonishment—all the liberties Carson takes with the original. Not that I read Ancient Greek, but one can surmise that Virginia Woolf, G.W.F. Hegel, Samuel Becket, and Bertolt Brecht were not cited in the original text—they all appear in Carson's new version. And the "nick" of the title plays on "nick of time" as it does on the small, precise violence of nicking with a blade. It performs what Carson's own writing often does so brilliantly: it reworks a familiar cliché for us to reassemble the world anew.
But first, a note on the edition itself, which is extraordinarily published in a full-color hardcover volume by New Directions, illustrated bizarrely and wonderfully by Bianca Stone and designed by Robert Currie. Stone's illustrations appear in color as well as on vellum between pages of full text. The text itself has many particular features worth noting: it's been reproduced in handwriting, completely in capitalized letters, and alternates between red and black font. It will be impossible to reproduce properly—even online—for the purposes of this review, but when quoting from it I will stick (at least) to the color and to the capitalization.
The liberties that Carson takes underscore the violence and the radicality of Antigone's own choices in the play. Let's begin at the beginning:
Immediately, we get Carson's characteristic discord between playful humor ("SOUNDS MORE LIKE BECKETT...HE WAS PARAPHRASING HEGEL") and the heavy-handed melodrama ("BITTERNESS PAIN DISGUST DISGRACE OR MORAL SHOCK") that counters it. For Carson, overwrought emotionality is cut to the quick by the humor of misunderstanding, misstating, or a playful pun on words—and these registers, this silliness and drama, hang together, steeping.
Carson's signature gift is her ability to oscillate between all these emotional registers so deftly. Her peculiar and overdetermined prose sentences combine with neologisms to maximum effect—jarring us out of the text by noticing the writing, and then luring us back into the drama that they induce by their heedless flow: "AND UNBURIED SWEET SORRYMEAT FOR THE LITTLE LUSTS OF BIRS NOBLE KREON DRAWS OUR ATTENTION TO THIS EDICT YOURS AND MY ATTENTION WHOEVER [and here there is an enormous break on the page between paragraphs] TRANGRESSES IT GETS DEATH SO WHAT DO YOU SAY."
It's as though Carson wants us right in the heat of the drama but wants to foreground the material of the text as well. These would seem to be competing interests, but her translation (eliding most punctuation, jamming together sentiments, utilizing overblown melodrama and odd jolts of humor) serves the contradiction perfectly. We never forget how far we are from the sources of the text (from the Greek, from the Stage, from Ancient Greece itself), and yet Carson's version is a page-turner: the drama is aflame, renewed through these idiosyncratic nuances—sometimes beating us over the head, more often more subtly in invisible-yet-felt ways.
One of the most drastic features of the work is the layout. Mostly the text hangs on the recto pages, as in an art book, with the verso breathing blankly—with Stone's strange images (some elaborate, others stark) interspersed throughout. Occasionally, Carson curates the text even further by isolating certain words, phrases, and bits of dialogue on pages of their own. For example, after Antigone's lament, "I WONDER WHO SUFFERS MORE I WONDER WHO SUFFERS MORE," the chorus then, on a page of its own, replies simply, "YOUR SOUL IS BLOWING / APART." Yes, it's heavy-handed, dramatic, over the top even—but its effects are terrific as you read hungrily for what happens and how and to whom and what next.
Cathy Park Hong's Engine Empire is a sinister work, replete with subverted forms, bizarre neologisms, and a dystopian picture of the present that's as funny as it is terrifying. The title of the book should tell us a lot: two nouns resonating phonically together. Or is "Engine" here an adjective, working to characterize any of the myriad mechanized aspects of being alive in the 21st century? This is in part what Hong is after: how something innocuous (like an engine) might be set in motion next to something like empire and morph considerably in context, consonant as it is with a host of other familiar—vast, stately, historic, evil—connotations.
The first section in the book—a wild, funny, disaster-laden set of poems called "Ballad of Our Jim"—consists of ballads within ballads, each inventing a new language for the Old West (think pioneering, homesteading, gun fights, and covered wagons) that evolves our stereotypical myths of the past and recasts them through Hong's hilarious use of cliché and discombobulating neologisms. The first poem opens:
There are several things here that Hong does to refurbish the ballad to suit her purposes. First, she switches pronouns effortlessly ("we" to "they" to "you men"), which lends a disembodied approach to the telling and allows Hong to pivot her attention any which way. Secondly, those colons, without space between the word following, allow Hong to shift to direct dialogue and speech acts (interpolating commands and questions, pithy statements and directives) without ever identifying the speakers—or the addressees. Third, Hong invents dozens of neologisms: words like "leppy," "roddled," "sordor," "yamp," "kack," "glotten," as well as new compounds like "scullground," "tarrope," "clamguns," "pistolfire," and "Goddamnfilthy." Finally, Hong loves to use verbs and descriptors slantwise, so that they sound just a bit wrong, as when she writes: "They shout thinly" or "We pounce him" or "They ain't one bit sated, so full / their pent" or, my favorite, "windstorm feasting on the old man's belly fiddle." Here's an extended example to give you a broader sense of how Hong's sinister ballads feel and sound:
Aside from being funny, the neologisms draw on stereotypical sounds to overdetermine an already mythically stereotypical American history. Hong recasts myth and history with these tightly woven ballads as they shift registers between narrative storytelling, bizarre locution, radical violence, and pressurized images of a frontier that never was. Elsewhere:
The pleasure of these poems is their sonic play as images distend and unravel to parody the myths of origin. Hong uses the ballad—that old folk form used to transmit story to even illiterate listeners and tellers through its rhyme—itself to unseat and recast the stories we tell of our own past. That she has so much menacing fun spinning the yarn is our luck.
The second section of Engine Empire is comprised of parodic prose poems darkly spoofing an almost contemporary, overdeveloped world and its discontents. The poems are deliberately jammed together two to a page, with titles like "Of Lucky Highrise Apartment 88" and "Of the Old Ukrainian Embassy That Will Be Torn Down for the Hanger Factory." From the latter poem, we get the following:
Shangdu is booming! Guides will say that twenty years ago, there was nothing but a gas station and a few scattered pig farms along the river. I was one of the few born in Shangdu and it is true what they say about the farms but the guides do not mention how Officials used to dump all the cripples from the Capital into Shangdu. Now that Shangdu is booming, they have rounded all the cripples and exiled them to a remote outpost up north. That outpost is also beginning to boom.
That the poem extols overdevelopment as virtue only to acknowledge its flaws in plainly spoken prose—and thereby name the cyclical force of global overdevelopment—is what's unnerving here. One of Hong's gifts is the ability to switch from prose poem to ballad, from neologism to apostrophe, from aubade to serial free verse in ways exacted to her purposes and sensibilities. The result is an incredibly varied work as remorseless as it is hilarious, casting a cold eye on myths of manifest destiny and economic progress.
Engine Empire's final section, "The World Cloud," is the book's strongest. Hong casts the future in a dystopian lyric that's as piercing as it is haunted with, well, likelihood. In two poems addressed in the second person, Hong describes a future uncannily close to our own. In "Who's Who," she writes:
And here we are in the disturbed universe of Hong's immense poetics, as parodic as it is accurate, as futuristic and mythic as it is lived. Cathy Park Hong's work destabilizes every sphere of living in the 21st century—from the rote lies of the past to the seamless comfort of the present (predicated on others' suffering) to a future we're unprepared to reckon with. Hong is one of the smartest and funniest poets we have. She's also one of the scariest. I'll close here with a few lines from "Fable of the Last Untouched Town," Engine Empire's incredible coda:
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