Pleased to Meet You: Juliana Leslie

The joys of discovery! I’ve never heard of Juliana Leslie before I came across the following tweet from “Poetry’s Cross-Dressing Kingmaker” (I just love that)

Stephen Burt‘s recommendation didn’t disappoint. Clicking on the Everyday Genius link, I immediately fell in love with the first two lines of “Confluence,” the first of four poems by Leslie:

A patient feeling I heard you say
a patient mouth absorbs the spark of a secret train

Leslie writes great opening lines, and when I say “opening lines,” I don’t only mean this poem and the other three (“Softer More Radiant Signal,” “Two Ideas,” and “Two More Ideas in a Different Mode”). I’m talking about how all four “parts” of “Confluence” have great openings. And middles. And endings.

Let me correct myself then: Leslie writes opening great lines. More examples:

Actually, after reading the prose poems John Gallaher shares here, Leslie writes really beautifully, whether in lines or not. Rob McClennan’s review of Leslie’s debut collection offers more samples of her prose poems and lyrics, both short and long.

Now I’m itching to buy a copy of More Radiant Signal AND its follow-up, Green is for World, scheduled for release this November. In the meantime, I’m going to look for more of her poems online and will just leave you with this short video of her reading some poems.

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Man on the Dump 2

Because I need to start closing tabs on my Web browser:

  1. Benjamin Friedlander‘s One Hundred Etudes and Citizen Cain (Friedlander interviewed by Nada Gordon)
  2. Bryan D. Dietrich’s “Gotham Wanes,” Chad Parmenter‘s Bat & Man: A Sonnet Comic Book, and Stephen Burt’s essay “Poems about Superheroes.” Samples of Parmenter’s work, though not all are sonnets:
    1. “Batman Leaves a Sonnet on Selina Kyle’s Voicemail”
    2. “Batman in the Garden of Eden”
    3. “Batman vs. Osiris”
    4. “Batman in Mr. Freeze’s Glacierworks”
    5. “Batman’s Closing Time”
  3. “These Great Sentinels” by Geoffrey Nutter is a contemporary nature poem I like. And yes, I initially thought it was about these Sentinels.
  4. Caryl Pagel’s Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death
  5. notes on Umberto Eco’s “Dreaming of the Middle Ages” and “Living in the New Middle Ages”
  6. “To Be Not Stupid” (great title) by Amy De’Ath (great name) from her collection Caribou (great song). Earlier collection: Erec & Enide.
  7. Susan Schultz’s “Memory Cards: Oppen Series” (prose poems that begin with a phrase from George Oppen’s New Collected Poems)
  8. I actually first came across Oppen’s “lyric valuables” through Hank Lazer. Here’s a review of his essay collection Lyric & Spirit.
  9. excerpt from Andrew Mossin’s Drafts of Shelley
  10. A blog entry displaying a collection of vinyl from Dischord Records.

Five From Cole Swensen

And now, Cole Swensen, with five poems from the same journal where I read Stuart Dybek. Although I’ve listened to a lot of the clips on Swensen’s Pennsound page, I’ve never quite had the chance to actually go deep into Swensen’s work, apart from some rather tangential encounters:

  1. the list of poems Swensen recommends as “required reading” has me vigorously nodding along in agreement
  2. a teacher mentioned her in passing a few years ago, and my ear caught on Swensen’s first name, which is the same as my son’s
  3. Nick Lantz‘s ruminations on Swensen’s Goest were beautiful and insightful but now sadly taken down from his blog archives*
  4. two years ago, I bought Caroline Dubois’s You Are The Business, which Swensen translated from French

Now I don’t think I can write about Swensen as well as, say, Forrest Gander does here, but I can gush over, say, how the first two poems combine prose sections with the usual lineated stanzas. It’s a “look” (shape? structure? form?) I’ve always loved in the works of Jack Spicer, Michael Palmer, and Ann Lauterbach, though I’m ashamed to admit I don’t know of any earlier instances. (George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky maybe? Egads, I need to bone up on my history.)

In terms of title and content, I should like “What Is On The Page” a lot and I do, actually. Swensen’s poem begins with “There is no ink on the page but a shadow,” and ends with “…I do not allude, though / we are fond of words / and use them when we can.” I’m reminded of some of Michael Palmer’s 80s poems though, as well as my own proclivities. I can read “What Is On The Page” again and again like a close friend, but it doesn’t quite make me feel as if the top of my head had been taken off. It’s comforting, which is both good and bad.

That the second of Swenson’s poems here is called “Bastille Day” is appropriate. My head does feel taken off, blown off, with lines like: “I finish the letter as the sky fills with toy windows, the smell of water and an irregular pulse.” I’m not sure what it means, but these images are provocative, stronger in their effect on me than the metalinguistic pronouncements of “What Is On The Page” (although it does have the beautifully enigmatic “…the ocean / left out in the rain you wear for dying”).

The three poems that follow are more formally conventional: no hybrid of prose and lineated verse, just the latter in the irregular short lines common in the contemporary lyric form. But I just love these, because they certainly belong to Visiting Wallace and should have been included in that anthology: “Wallace Stevens Waking At Night,” “Wallace Stevens Walks By The Sea,” and “Wallace Stevens Walks Along The Beach At Night.”

Interesting linkages going on here, as evinced from the titles and some recurring words and images. The first poem begins with “Something from the dark sea / rises and flies,” and it becomes an easy temptation to read the other two poems as happening in the same “imaginative space,” especially when the second poem starts with “And now it is that it rises” and the third with “The edge of the dark sea rose.”

(Some questions: why is the first poem in the third-person–a “he” which seems to be Stevens–but the other two use the first-person?)

Some of the words and ideas also appear freighted with significance in Stevens’s own poems: the sea and the ocean, flight, “…what freedom / resists the mind and everything” from the first poem. The second poem repeats some of these and adds “Everything beautiful is also in motion,” motion and movement being important to Stevens since Harmonium and after.

Things get really interesting for me though, in the third poem. There is “a ghost in an open mind,” but this phantom becomes flesh by an insistence on the carnal and the emotional not always seen directly in Stevens: “And that which might have been a man / made of blood and love and grief.” There is a necessary violence before we reach the late-Stevens sense of simplicity (the plain sense of things, perhaps?) and slowness, and the direct rhymes emphasize the words: “The world rocks down to its / direst simplicity / and the shock of evening / which settles in slow.”

And when it ends with “Far back in the town / I hear my house burning,” this image of a noisily-burning house, one that is heard as it burns, is a shock, certainly unlike the quiet decline and abandonment of “[t]he great structure [that] has become a minor house.” The destruction is closer to the aural Sensurround-Stevens of Harmonium, rather than the quiet physicality of a late poem like “The Rock.”

I don’t know whether Swensen has other poems directly addressing Stevens like in these three poems. I don’t think she needs any more–these three have more than enough substance to work with–but if she has more, I for one would love to read them, as atypical it may be of her usual work.

Bonusa blog entry on Swensen’s identification of “four specific modes of ambiguity.” Now I’m interested in Noise That Stays Noise, her book of essays.

* If I remember right, and I may not, Lantz had a three-part reflection on the ghostly in three poetry collections. Though I can no longer be certain, I have a lingering impression that one of the two other pieces was on Cornelius Eady. I wish I saved a copy of those pieces. Aside from Lantz’s poems, those pieces were instrumental in getting me interested in him as a writer.

Five From Stuart Dybek

Somewhat odd bringing up two American contributors (one here, the other in the next blog entry) from the Spring 1990 issue of Manoa, given how this very issue of the “Pacific Journal Of International Writing” features a special focus on Papua New Guinean literature. Still, I rather enjoyed the “five fictions” by Stuart Dybek and the five poems by Cole Swensen that I read this morning. I’ve come across Dybek’s name before, but I really don’t know his work.

Both Dybek and Swensen get three pages each, the former’s “fictions” more microfiction than standard-length short stories, at least the type of short-short pieces Lydia Davis is known for.

The first two pieces, “Confession” and “The Girl Downstairs,” are relatively straightforward in their depiction of situation rather than story, down to quirky little details: confessing to alcoholic Father Boguslaw “deadly sins” like “hitch-hiking, which I’d been convinced was an offense against the Fifth Commandment, which prohibited suicide” in the former and the latter with a narrator who wakes up in alarm one night only to be reassured that “it’s only the girl downstairs, the ordinary-looking one who wears rimless glasses and her hair in a bun, it’s only her moaning a floor below in that steady rising chant that she can’t know has disturbed me.”

The other three are progressively weirder and further away from conventional fiction.

“The Knife Thrower’s Daughter” is again situational about its title character like the second story, but while “The Girl Downstairs” has a conventionally descriptive first sentence in “The girl downstairs is moaning again,” the third story begins with a litany that displays more stylistic flourish: “Each evening at the dinner table, knives, forks, chopsticks, skewers, corkscrews, can openers, broken bottle necks, jagged-edged cracked plates of food embed themselves in the wall directly behind her.”

The first sentence of “Who” is even more breathless, taking eight lines of the nine-line piece to ask “Who has been stealing from me, picking my locks, bludgeoning in my windows and screens, rifling drawers, stalking the rooms leaving footprints of plaster dust up and down stairs…” It ends with the two other sentences that make up the piece, both questions that begin with another interrogative pronoun: “What am I missing? What did they find left to carry away?”

Finally, “Seven Sentences” is simply a paratactic enumeration that begins with “One. Tonight the moon has a street number,” and ends with “Seven. It will take more than a few days to erase tonight’s moon.” In between are the five other sentences, one barely so (Breath: a concertina of evening air pressed back and forth between us in a doorway.”), none of them enumerated with numbers like the first and the last. Instead, we get Lilacs. And Proverb. Also, A Novel. And Curtains.

Dybek’s Wikipedia entry has links to longer stories, none of which I’ve read yet, so I can’t say whether he’s better at longer stories. His views on the “flash fiction” trend a couple of decades ago can be found here and certainly illuminate the five pieces he published in Manoa twenty-two years ago.

From Marvin Bell to Ozzy Osbourne?

I first came across Marvin Bell when I read his opening remarks to a conference on camouflage held five years ago. In some ways, his linking of camouflage to poetry was somewhat formative in my own thinking as well, how “poetry doesn’t easily reveal itself,” how “it can be the lie that tells the truth.”

At the bottom of that page was a Dead Man poem of his, which I felt was an interesting figure the first time I read it. That Bell’s Dead Man is both alive and dead seems to have inspired my Heidegger short story, I now realize.

But because of the HTML coding of the Web page and how it ended up looking, I misread an important formal characteristic of the structure of Bell’s Dead Man poems, namely, how “each line of poetry in a dead man poem is a compete sentence, long or short,” which means enjambment is set aside as a device. The impression the poem left on me then was based on a misreading: I admired what I thought were long lines dramatically enjambed into shorter chunks that seemed to be hanging on for dear life.

If one looks at “The Book of the Dead Man (#70)” as printed in the Introspections anthology, Bell’s formal choice becomes even more interesting as it happens on the printed (albeit virtual) page. With the leftmost margin reserved for the start of a new sentence, sentences too long for the width of the page end up indented in the next line. Here, enjambment seems (forced) to take place, even if Bell says, “[L]ong thought and practice lay behind my decision to let the sentence determine the poetic line.” He continues:

“Free verse” is not a form, nor an absence of form, but a method for inventing new forms. In the Dead Man poems, I redefined the free verse line by discarding many of its material particulars: the common emphasis on enjambment, for example. … I have always felt that the key to free verse is the sentence. That is, syntax provides the opportunities to enjamb or not, and syntax determines the character of the line. The free verse line without reference to syntax is like a train without reference to tracks.

While there may be quibbles about the definition of free verse as a method (metaphorical though it may be, it seems oddly more precise to borrow Umberto Eco’s notion of the novel as “a machine for generating meaning” and call free verse a machine for generating poetic form), Bell’s assertions are fascinating, especially given my love of enjambment, an amour fou that led to my mistake of reading the line ending as a yellow light to beat, rather than a place to pause for a beat.

For one thing, the importance of the sentence to Bell’s understanding of free verse is parallel–separate yet aligned–with Annie Finch and her defense of meter, which she sees as a ghost haunting (American) free verse. I’m still not sure how much I accept the idea, but there is a third parallel: James Longenbach presenting prose poetry in The Art of the Poetic Line as “suggesting that the very power of line asks us to wonder how it would feel to do without line.”

The other thing point of interest is Bell’s figure of the train. A train may be derailed from its tracks, and certainly the tracks it normally must move on become more emphasized when that happens, but it’s interesting trying to link this with Bell’s recognition of and hesitation towards the “well-wrought urn.” Bell says, “The very sanity of the polished lyric is its own reward,” but follows this with a caveat: “Though I came to writing through the lyric tradition, I am not wholly of it. For I came to understand that I was crazier than that.”

Poetry as a crazy train?