Cam Terwilliger on Millennial Teeth, by Dan Albergotti. Southern Illinois University Press, 70 pp., $15.95.
Chet'la Sebree on Gabriel: A Poem, by Edward Hirsch. Alfred A. Knopf, 78 pp., $26.95.
Ron Tanner on Nonprofit, by Matt Burriesci. New Issues, 237 pp., $26.
Hasanthika Sirisena on The Deep Zoo, by Rikki Ducornet. Coffee House Press, 126 pp., $15.95.
G. C. Waldrep on Alkali, by Craig Dworkin. Counterpath, 130 pp., $18.
G. C. Waldrep on Missing the Moon, by Bin Ramke. Omnidawn, 101 pp., $17.95.
The winner of the 2013 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry open competition, Millennial Teeth is Dan Albergotti’s sequel to his acclaimed first collection, The Boatloads. Readers familiar with The Boatloads will be delighted to find that Albergotti’s new collection contains the same tenuous balance between high culture and daily experience, the same eye for the beautifully disturbing and the disturbingly beautiful, and the same crackling tension between the poet’s skepticism of religious faith and his yearning for some kind of spiritual order. Yet if The Boatloads delineated the bounds of Albergotti’s enterprise, Millennial Teeth represents his true mastery of it. Far more concerned with form than his previous book, Millennial Teeth has the condensed, crystalline sheen of language put under intense pressure. Most notably, Albergotti has invented his own peculiar take on the sonnet (a form he jokingly refers to as “the Albergonnet”), which is composed of rhymed couplets that slowly extend then contract in length, making the rhymes seem to fade away as the lines grow longer, then return as the lines grow shorter. Formal challenges such as this push Albergotti to be magnificently inventive with his verse. However, what is most magnificent is the fact that despite these self-imposed chains the poet’s voice never once grows stilted or baroque.
The new rigor of form also feels like a perfect counterweight to the fact that Millennial Teeth imposes no boundary whatsoever on its subject matter. The poems range all the way from contemplations of cosmic time to the fine-grained domestic strife of the poet’s family. In terms of influence, we can clearly hear the great poets Dante and Keats echoed at the same time that the poet draws on the twentieth century in the form of Jack Gilbert and Philip Larkin. Rock and roll, too, is one of the book’s minor obsessions, and it appears in the form of references to Radiohead and Joy Division. Through all of this, however, Albergotti has one underlying task: his struggle to redeem the brutal, senseless world we have inherited through the art of language. As he suggests with his poem “Aphelion & Aphasia,” this is the central—yet nearly impossible—task of poetry. He writes, “A wall of wind has swept enormous trees / off the face of the earth, and a sick man / has killed twelve strangers in a theater, / and I’m supposed to craft an art from air— / make something here worthy of memory, worthy of speech—” In the fallen world we know, it would be easy to succumb to the paralysis of despair. But Albergotti never does. With Millennial Teeth he does indeed manage to craft something worthy of memory, worthy of speech.
Gabriel: A Poem, by Edward Hirsch. Alfred A. Knopf, 78 pp., $26.95.
There are enigmas in darkness
There are mysteries
Sent out without searchlights
In an interview with PBS NewsHour’s Jeffery Brown about Gabriel: A Poem, Hirsch said, “I found a comfort in trying to solve some poetic problems, because there were human ones I just couldn’t solve.” In Hirsch’s book-length elegy about his adopted son, long-listed for the National Book Award, the eponymous Gabriel, who died of a GHB overdose in 2011, is both the enigma and the mystery. Overwhelming the reader like grief itself, the poem’s unpunctuated tercets guide us through Gabriel’s life and death, as well as through narratives about others who have lost children.
Hirsch’s poem, among other epic qualities, begins in medias res:
The funeral director opened the coffin
And there he was alone
From the waist up
I peered down into his face
And for a moment I was taken aback
Because it was not Gabriel
The poem immediately invites readers into an intimate, uncomfortable, and for many, familiar moment, where Hirsch almost doesn’t recognize the well-manicured, lifeless body in the casket. Time and time again, Hirsch zooms in on these intimate moments as the poem jumps from the casket back in time to Gabriel’s adoption in New Orleans and proceeds episodically through Gabriel’s frenetic life, which was complicated by developmental disorders and the medications used to treat them. At the end of the poem, we return to Gabriel’s casketed body with Hirsch, who is “…leaning down and kissing him / On the eyes the forehead the cheeks / The lips colder than ice.”
In a New York Times review, Emily Rapp captures the experience of reading Gabriel when she notes that the structure of the poem “forces readers to grieve Gabriel’s loss that much more acutely because we have seen him so alive”:
Like a spear hurtling through darkness
He was always in such a hurry
To find a target to stop him
In the poem, Hirsch develops Gabriel not just in stories but through the disorientating unpunctuated tercets. With ten tercets per page, these brief stanzas give Hirsch the freedom to weave in and out of different narratives. The structure prohibits readers from finding their footing as the poem jumps from birthday cake candle blowing to a young priest falling off a bridge. We’re never allowed to stay in one place, in one moment, too long, until we join Gabriel’s loved ones on the hunt for him when he disappears during Hurricane Irene, until we return to the casket. The disorienting accumulation of memory that precedes his death makes the slowed down, crystallized memory of Gabriel’s disappearance so powerful, especially as it is one of the few moments not contained in one ten-tercet page.
And though I agree with Rapp’s conclusions about seeing Gabriel “so alive,” I would go on to say that we feel his death so acutely because we’ve also seen him so human. As opposed to seeing Gabriel elegized on a pedestal, readers see him imperfect and flawed. Hirsch is honest in his depictions of his energetic and, at times, troubled son, whom he occasionally describes in epithets:
King of the Sudden Impulse
Lord of the Torrent
Emperor of the Impetuous
And while depicting Gabriel’s human qualities, Hirsch investigates his own and the ways in which grief is “primal.”
Although I’m interested in the navigation of grief and memory in this poem, I am also mesmerized by the conversation of grief and faith and the human powerlessness that Hirsch investigates. In an interview in Poets & Writers, Hirsch said, “I couldn’t live with myself without trying to write about my loss, and about Gabriel. Where someone religious might say Kaddish, I found myself trying to write things down to grapple with the experience.” In this poem, where Hirsch grapples with his experience, he also grapples with faith:
I understand why the old Jews
Tear their clothes and cover the mirrors
Maybe it’s not the best time
To think about God’s absence
The insensibility of nature
What else are there but rituals
To cover up the emptiness
Hirsch looks at a number of faith-driven rituals that attempt to “cover up the emptiness.” Through narratives of others who have lost children, Hirsch looks at how people turn to faith in their grief and how faith fails them. For instance, he references Issa who lost three infant sons and prayed his daughter would live:
He believed his two-year-old flitted
In a special state of grace
With divine protection from Buddha
But he was wrong he could not bear
To see her body swollen with blisters
In the clutches of the vile god of smallpox
But Hirsch’s investigations of faith aren’t limited to organized religions; he looks at how belief in art can also fail a griever, as was the case for Mallarmé, who could never finish the poem for his deceased son, Anatole.
Hirsch even looks at the griever who does not believe, like himself, but wishes he could in order to find peace or relief from grief:
I wish I could believe in the otherworld
I wish I could believe in a place
Of reunions outside of memory
Hirsch, in his grief, is as human and as unforgiving as Gabriel was in his life:
I don’t want to hear anyone
Scolding me from her wheelchair
Because I’m crying too hard
The navigation of these desperate, hopeless moments alongside the poem’s unrelenting structure, demonstrates how grief is a human problem that Hirsch cannot solve, not even through this propulsive poem:
Some nights I could not tell
If he was the wrecking ball
Or the building it crashed into
Nonprofit, by Matt Burriesci. New Issues, 237 pp., $26.
Here’s a funny book: Nonprofit, the 2014 AWP award-winning novel by Matt Burriesci. It’s a satire about, yes, the world of nonprofits, their self-inflated importance, and their Alice-in-Wonderland machinations. In fact, the book reads something like Alice’s adventures as our feckless hero, John MacManus, stumbles through the gantlet of fund-raising politics. John is a decent guy who wants only to do a decent job and live a reasonably happy life. But he is a victim of a bad economy and bad luck and very quickly finds himself surrounded by imminent disaster both at home and at work. This makes him an engaging, thoroughly sympathetic character. A Chicago native removed to Washington, D.C., after the Big Crash of 2008, to run a venerable literary organization called Quill & Pad, John discovers—in the second month of his directorship—that this highly respected organization has been woefully mismanaged by his predecessor and, as a result, is millions of dollars in arrears. But John can’t reveal the malfeasance to the public because 1) he desperately needs the job, 2) the scandal would ruin his career because he’d be implicated no matter what he said, and, worse, 3) as the new Executive Director, he’d be liable for the damages. At home, his wife is desperate for a baby, only to learn that John is nearly infertile, though a delicate operation may revive the few viable sperm he possesses. If his operation is successful, then John and his wife will attempt in vitro fertilization, which they can’t afford. Saddened that they have moved so far from family and friends and frustrated with John’s increasing distraction with his job, whose mounting disasters he doesn’t dare share with her, his wife seems to be drifting. So, John has lots to worry about. And we readers worry about John. Will circumstances immolate him or will he somehow find a way out of the burning building that has become his life? Told in a second-person point-of-view that works really well, because it’s clearly John talking to himself, the story offers plenty of laughs as John plays Alice in this Wonderland. Here he is in a rich donor’s bathroom:
There is also a staircase in the bathroom. You have never been in a bathroom with a staircase. It leaves you momentarily confused and paralyzed. It leads up a full floor to a tiny commode, and you ascend after you recover your bearings. You piss in the second-story commode. Then you walk back downstairs and wash your hands ...
When you are finished, you exit the bathroom, and the servant is waiting for you right outside the door. You almost want to give him a report.
If I have one complaint about Nonprofit, it’s that it moves too fast. I’d like to see John skate longer on the thin ice of his bad situation and, better still, attempt some sharp maneuvers to show his smarts and surprise us a little more than he does. Also: Burriesci’s jab at pretentious literary artists is dead-on but his depiction of one in particular is too predictable. Nevertheless, Nonprofit is a most welcome romp through a landscape whose inhabitants take themselves way too seriously and who are long overdue for the sharp-eyed critique that Burriesci delivers. If you’ve ever sat through a fund-raiser dinner or tried to get a prospective donor to write a check to keep your well-intentioned organization solvent or wondered why it’s so frigging hard to get people to do the right thing, you’ll want to read this funny, page-turner.
The Deep Zoo, by Rikki Ducornet. Coffee House Press, 126 pp., $15.95.
The last ten years have seen the rise of the lyric essay from esoteric aesthetic practice to cultural force. Writers such as Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, Eula Biss, and Elena Passarello have tested the boundaries of genre and in doing so have offered some of the most exciting and innovative writing being produced. Rikki Ducornet in her latest, The Deep Zoo, contributes a major addition to this body of work.
The Deep Zoo fearlessly tackles and ties together subjects as far-ranging as Ottoman calligraphy, Abu Ghraib, Silling Castle, the death of Victor Jara, the life of Kaspar Hauser, Walter de La Mare, and on. While any one essay can stand on its own, it’s the accretion of detail, the pairing of an energetic and capacious intellect with finely honed craft that gives these essays their most power. Ducornet has something important to say: art—especially writing—has a moral obligation. Such a contention might from a less passionate and committed writer feel didactic and forced. For Ducornet, though, this plea takes on a moving moral urgency. It is words after all that turn the irrational into the rational, and, as she writes, “Empire fears and resents rational discourse, the tested intuitions, the bare facts that offer us the means to approach, unmask, unriddle the enigmatic and vertiginous world.”
In 2003, Ben Marcus hailed the lyric essay as offering the writer a means of breaking the shackles of narrative by freeing the writer from the need to mimic the passing of time. It struck me, though, as I read The Deep Zoo that the lyric essay offers not a means of bringing about the death of time—as Ben Marcus called for—but another means of linking and associating time through the connection between ideas. Certainly, while Ducornet’s essays dispense entirely with the confines of narrative, they do assert story. One whose intellectual and emotion force seems simultaneously of the political, social, and cultural moment and eternal.
Alkali, by Craig Dworkin. Counterpath, 130 pp., $18.
Missing the Moon, by Bin Ramke. Omnidawn, 101 pp., $17.95.
Craig Dworkin’s Alkali feels like the bastard child of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Victorian geologist Charles Lyell, Darwin’s friend, by way of Utah’s Great Basin. Clark Coolidge is the tutelary master here, cited in an epigraph, a dedication, and several of the notes along with Derrida, Ponge, Bataille, Proust, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, the English art historian and theorist T. J. Clark, and a soupcon of vintage texts of natural history. Dworkin’s ear, however, is finer than Coolidge’s, and it’s the ear that sets this collection apart. What Dworkin attempts is a tuning of the ear—the ear of the language, of language itself—to geology’s refracting and refractible resonances. Dworkin’s true métier is the philosophy of language, which imbues this volume with a sense of profound interposition, language settling into the crevices of a landscape Ponge never knew, into frankly gorgeous postures Hopkins nevertheless would recognize: “the martelling peen,” “the lacquering staunch,” “A wake of grain eddies from the lathes.”
Bin Ramke’s restless, particularizing intelligence orbits contemporary American poetry, these days most surprisingly and effectively in scientific and philosophical registers. Missing the Moon ranks (in spite of the cute title) with Tendril among Ramke’s most ambitious works. Wild swings of idiom and diction are now standard in American poetry, but few accomplish these with as much high-wire intellectual panache: reading this is what reading John Ashbery might feel like if Ashbery’s day job were as a research physicist. Etymologies, the Bible, Japanese landscape screens, the 20th-century avant-garde composer Giacinto Scelsi, differential geometry, Tristan Tzara, the early history of the periodic table—all achieve brief, glittering apotheoses amid the vortex of the speaking I and its intimate, autobiographical traces. Ramke is perhaps our only contemporary poet (with a dutiful nod to the late, lamented Jorie Graham of the 1990s) who can subtitle a poem “(Hilbert’s twentieth problem, an elegy)” and mean it. This is the most intoxicatingly intelligent collection of verse I have read in recent years, more opulent and less severe than, say, Miroslav Holub. When Ramke insists (in “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis”) that “Air takes its shape from gravity, its edge,” I find myself holding my breath, while the world we think we know shifts slightly towards some truer guise.
—G. C. Waldrep