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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Review of The Best American Poetry 2004, edited by Lyn Hejinian

Okay, obviously I am not completely au courant with the poetry world (hey, I live
in The Provinces!) if I am reviewing this book two years later, but I didn't buy
it when it came out and saw it in the library on that one Saturday afternoon visit
I made with Lee a few weeks back and picked it up. I've been reading it since and
figured it would be "behoovy" (to use a Stephen Colbert coinage--or is that Paul
Dinello's writing coming out of Colbert's mouth? Hmmm.) to say a few words.

First off, I'll say it's worth snagging a copy; there's much writing that holds up
to sustained readings, and you will find this dirt-cheap online because they print
a shitload of these every year and obviously supply exceeds demand (it's poetry!).

I didn't even read Lyn's introduction, went right to the candy, but I did see she
ended her essay with a splendid Eigner poem. Isn't it cool that Larry Eigner went
from Swampscott, Mass. to California where a whole generation of soon-to-be
language poets embraced his writing. I've seen very good critical writing on his
work by the likes of Bernstein and other language schoolmates. Hell, remember that
Ron Silliman dedicated In the American Tree to him! What a wonderful, lasting gift
Mr. Silliman made with that gesture!

Okay, so I figured I'd just glibly go through poem by poem and obviously I'm going
to be brief as it's almost 1 a.m. and there are seventy-five poets represented
here!
I am going to notate poets who have a language poetry affiliation AND who appeared
in the anthology I just cited above with an "ITAT" next to the poem. I'm going to
be doing that by memory so I might miss one or two, and there is no negative
judgment implicit in drawing attention to that. These are the editor's peers and
writing colleagues for many decades, and of course she is going to appreciate the
writing of many of those poets and desire to share their writing with a larger
audience.

I am going to put an asterisk next to poems I feel merit inclusion in an anthology
titled The Best American Poetry, which is of course just a taste game, mine set
against another's, the usual de gustibus...

The anthology is organized alphabetically, as usual, so....

Kim Addonizio, "Chicken." Poet Jenny Bitner spent several years in Harrisburg and
one of her trademark poems was a poem about Chicken Little deconstructing it as a
sexual allegory of how relations between the sexes should be conducted according
to the masculine powers that be. She usually gave this a highly sexualized reading
which totally ensorceled the male poets of Harrisburg, much to the amusement of us
gay men present. Later, she moved to California and I think became almost famous
or something. Sorry Jenny if you're sitting next to Quentin T. and I missed that
fact. Mad props, girl! Anyway, Addonizio's chicken poem starts "Why did she cross
the road?" and this one doesn't really go the sexual route but more the hardluck
feminism route, and it doesn't really work. The poem ends somehow with a down by
law convict who we are told will feel "a terrible hunger / and an overwhelming
urge / to jab his head at the television over and over." Jabs his head over and
over. Like a chicken in a chicken farm. Get it? Bathos is reserved for when the
effect is unintended, and unfortunately I think it was unintended here, and it's
quite bathetic. Not a good start for the anthology, and not the sort of poem I
would think Hejinian would select in a million years. Okay, it is a poem about The
Dispossessed. But formalistically? No way. The poet lives in Oakland, California.
Is there a proximity affection at work here?
Will Alexander, "Solea of the Simooms." This is not my favorite poem by Mr.
Alexander, who arguably would deserve the title of "the poet most influenced by
Aime Cesaire writing in the English language." I understand he is undergoing some
serious ill health right now and my best wishes for the restoration of his good
health! I believe he was caught without insurance between jobs, so if you would
like to help out, just Google his name and "contributions" and I think it will
direct you to a site with info on how you can help. It would be a very nice thing
to do in this America of the unforgiving insurance game. Let's hope more humane
times are coming.

Bruce Andrews, excerpt from Dang Me. ITAT. Bruce's writing may be of the sort you
should experience performed where the sonic wall becomes an assault on that part
of the national(istic) conscience(lessness) that has been engrained (against your
will) into your soul through the assault of metastasizing media. I have always
found him difficult to read on the page with some occasional great memorable lines
like sound bites sandwiched between poetic longeurs that do nothing for me.

* Rae Armantrout, "Almost." I think it's beginning to become apparent that no poet
has so successfully transcended the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school's self-imposed
limitations as Armantrout, whose poetry seems a fruitful confluence of the poetics
of Creeley and say, Lorine Niedecker. It's a very 21st century, media-savvy type
of poetry that is deeply philosophical, often, in its questionings of the
variously constructed and nesting realities by which humans live. This piece is a
trenchant little meditation on what survives of the past to justify the use of
belief in identity, told as a personal anecdote (one of Armantrout's favorite
devices). The first standout poem for me in the anthology.

Craig Arnold, "Your Friend's Arriving on the Bus." One of those talky poems which
seems to arrogate importance because it's about an American's experience of Europe
(here Spain) and briefly meditates on the Basque struggle, if rather glibly
("You'd like to meet the Basques / They look like they are into heavy metal." Not
sure if he's trying for a Frank O'Hara effect in here, but this talky poem falls
flat for me and has a clinker of an end line which the poet must have struggled
with.

John Ashbery, "Wolf Ridge." I'm not the person to speak of the merits of an
Ashbery poem, as I lost interest over a decade ago, and this poem is pretty much
typical fare of the sort that caused me to lose interest. He seems a very nice
man, and is very funny in interviews...a great avuncular presence in American
poetry. Wait, did I just write an Ashbery title?: "A Great Avuncular Presence in
American Poetry." I hope not. God bless the man. Maybe I'll find a book later I'll
like again. The Darger book looked like it might hold my interest. Is that one
different?

Mary Jo Bang, "The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity." The great
title is the best thing about this poem and it's the title of a charcoal work by
Odilon Redon (one of my feyer loves). This poem seems to aspire to a Marianne
Moore-like intricacy but the "deep questions" it asks are questions that were
asked constantly in the 1940s and 1950s in American poetry, and asked in a more
interesting manner. Seems atavistic to me.

Alan Bernheimer, "20 Questions." ITAT. Was he in that anthology? I think he was!
Bernheimer has some memorable poems I've enjoyed in early collections for some
years now. This one works I guess, playing in a very humorous way with how we
decide something is even a question...playing with the various types of things we
call a question even when they are not (ex. rhetorical, nonsense, etc.) Probably a
great poem for readings, as it's brief and punchy, somewhat pithy. Not sure I'd
include it in a BAP anthology, but this might be one of those attempts to draw
attention to a clearly overlooked poet in the culture.

Charles Bernstein, "Sign Under Test." ITAT. Bernstein is one of a handful of poets
in here who often make poetry the handmaiden to theory, and with varying success
at various times as that's such a difficult enterprise. (Yes, all poetry is a
demonstration of theory to a degree, but I am speaking here of poetry which
foregrounds theory--in one or more of its multifarious forms--and privileges it as
overt discourse within the poem itself). Lines like "When you say baroque you're
barking up the wrong tree, which suits me" and "Why did the turtle cross the
road?--To find the chicken" just don't seem worthy of the poet's time. Here I
think the subordination didn't work. The poem is too wheedling and winsome, by
turns glib and cutesy. Indeed, one could rather convincingly argue that this isn't
a poem at all, but a literary essay by the author on style, and a catalogue of his
own likes, dislikes and predilections. Of course, a postmodernist is usually
gratified when his or her writing falls between genres or renders genre-
assignation impossible. I recently read this poet's first book (published when he
was like twenty-five or twenty-six I believe) online and found it very readworthy
and moving. It's called Asylums I think (or something like that) and it must have
come out of the job he was working then as a medical transcriptionist...it is a
really plangent critique of/empathic attack on the psychiatric biz, deconstructing
the game as it was played in the 1970s (and don't I know it...my Mom was in the
system at that time). This can be found online if you go to Wiki I think (think
that was the portal I used). But I wouldn't include this poem she selected in a
BAP anthology. But do you think she's going to pass over Bernstein? Get real lol.
This is just community at work. Nothing dark.

Anselm Berrigan, "Token Enabler." Anselm Berrigan, son of Ted Berrigan and Alice
Notley, is in this anthology and so is his mother (one of the greatest living
poets, the latter IMHO). This poem has an interesting story behind it if you read
the notes in the back, so I was sad I didn't enjoy it. He reminds me of his
father's poetry much more than his mother's poetry. It's not bad, just doesn't
really have any chakras to it. Mom's poems always have chakras.

Mark Bibbins, from Blasted Fields of Clover Bring Harrowing and Regretful Sighs."
These are two prose poems from a longer serial poem apparently. They didn't work
for me. They were too desultory for my taste and just didn't have any foci of any
sort, visual, emotional, whatever...give me something.

Oni Buchanan, "The Walk." I had seen a really memorable poem by this poet once, so
was optimistic, but this poem about a strange encounter with a woman wielding a
hatchet in the wilderness didn't rise to the level of allegory or whatever sort of
meaning the poet was trying to create, at least not for me. I can only wonder. I
think this poet lived in Hershey, PA at one point (right down the road from me!) I
love her name.

* Michael Burkard, "a cloud of dusk." This poem is one of those that works on you
in mysterious ways. Reading it one thinks, nothing extraordinary is happening or
present here, yet one feels oneself oddly worked and moved. I don't quite know why
the poem is able to do that. It's a short, lyric twenty liner with no showy
devices or formalistic innovation...I think because it reads like a novel in a few
short lines. You really feel the expansive mystery present in life, and the
hopelessness of ever attempting any reductionist explanation of anyone's life.
Yeah, I think that's it. Maybe.

Anne Carson, "Gnosticism." This Canadian master of the serial poem has astonished
me many times with many different books. This medium length poem is really a
rather joyless concatenation of words and thoughts. There are lines trying too
hard like "First line has to make your brain race that's how Homer does it, /
that's how Frank O'Hara does it" or "Watch "naked" (arumim) flesh slide into
"cunning" (arum) snake in the next verse." The gifted linguist is perhaps showing
off a little too much here. Carson is one of the most interesting figures writing
today. Her books on literature are as readworthy as most of her poetry. I loved
The Beauty of the Husband and her book on Simonides of Keos. Whether bringing
Sappho into the modern world or meditating on ancient Greek poets or Celan, this
poet is rarely less than fascinating. But here she, unfortunately, is.

T.J. Clark, "Landscape with a Calm." This landscape meditation on a painting by
Poussin from The Threepenny Review is too mired in the conventions of literary
Modernism for my taste. It could have been written many, many decades ago. I
suppose that subgenre could be revitalized, but it would take a very gifted poet.

Billy Collins, "The Centrifuge." What does one say about Billy Collins? It was a
very readable poem. Many people will love it. He will sell more poetry books than
several dozen other poets in here combined who write circles around him. Does he
believe they write circles around him? Of course not. Why would he believe that?
He's Billy Collins. You go, guy! Okay, that was mean. To be fair, I have read very
little Billy Collins. I am saving him for my dotage. My extreme dotage.

Jack Collom, "3-4-00." Appropriate that this little nature meditation appeared in
a journal called Ecopoetics. Slight but well-done.

Michael Costello, "Ode to my Flint and Boom Bolivia." Three playful stanzas. The
genesis of the poem is interesting if you read the notes in the back. I only read
the notes on a few poems actually, as most poets are too fucking annoying when
they talk about their own productions. Not bad, but I wouldn't expect it to be in
a BAP. But when you think about the younger poets Hejinian selected for inclusion,
mustn't that be a wonderful thing? To be a young writer and have that sort of
accolade bestowed upon you? How can one not be happy for the younger poets who get
in here?

Michael Davidson, "Bad Modernism." ITAT? I forget. This poem was too smarmy for my
taste, and too self-consciously urbane and the Ashbery epigraph was superfluous,
and really comes across as a courting gesture.

*Olena Kalytiak Davis, "You Art a Scholar, Horatio, Speak to It." Davis gets a lot
of mileage out of the line from Hamlet, and the poem turns into a fine meditation
on the ghost of poetry that inhabits the poet. The poem is cast in the form of a
(self?) interrogation and comes off as a very clever analysis of how the art
enters the artist as a sort of metaplasia. The poet achieves a vaguely Szymborskan
effect and power here.

Jean Day, "Prose of the World Order." ITAT. I like a lot of Jean Day's writing;
books from early in her career and mid-career still reward rereading for me. But
here the poem's obvious attempt at critique of the (Newspeak) World Order
collapses into desultory word salad that really doesn't hold any interest for me
as a reader. Lines like these: "The plaid animal thought not / furiously cribbing
from notes / but willing then / to reset the counter at zero again / late as it
was and ruined / with finger trouble." I realize you could say "well she's showing
us how that's all bullshit, and subverting the rhetoric by putting it in a
blender" but in response to that I could turn on "Hell Date" and eat some pumpkin
roll. And wouldn't feel any more guilty or less American, mind ye. Check out her
earlier books.

*Linh Dinh, "13." Every time I see this poet, I keep saying "Please show us you
deserved that $250,000 Pew Fellowship you got so early in your career." Well, here
I have no complaints. It's a strong, smart sort of prose poem that seems to show
the influence of master poet John Yau quite a bit. Maybe a little Edson mixed in
there too. Some would argue this is really short fiction, but that's the
sempiternal debate when you encounter this type of writing. "You cannot understand
the story of a youth who falls in love with his own reflection in a spring. Where
you are, water does not reflect. Nothing reflects. One's view of onself is made up
entirely of other people's verbal slanders." Sounds like the poetry community to a
T lol. (See comment box below for a correction on the statement above about the
Pew Fellowship.)

Rita Dove, "All Souls'." Dove is occasionally an interesting poet, occasionally a
powerful poet. This Adam naming the beasts poem has been done so many times by so
many poets. And it's never interesting.

*Rachel Blau DuPlessis, "Draft 55: Quiptych." One of the finest living poets, Blau
DuPlessis's ongoing Drafts project is probably getting larger than Pound's Cantos
by now, and certainly was always much more interesting and better written. This is
one of those poets I referred to earlier who are master theorists and can, through
some miraculous agency, render poetry the vessel--the vessel for the most engaging
cultural, philosophical, sociological and historical thoughtfulness; en bref,
poets like DuPlessis capture the zeitgest in a transcendent and enduring
present/presence. Books by poets like these are more than just the life of the
poet...they are the life of the culture. You can't lose if you pick up any book by
this poet. Anyone who loves logodaedaly will love her work. It's playful and
constantly inventive: poems in Esperanto, neologism, marriages between words in
different languages, new ritualistic uses for words derived from recently-invented
technology, beloved typos embraced...it's all here. Ontological puns abound, like
the "Scraps re-collected in tranquiddity" in the selected poem. This poet also has
one of the best ears in the language. From Quiptych again, here obviously writing
on the paper-making process: "All soupy, slosh and pulp, soaked and stirred,/the
shredded porridge, then gets scooped,/netted in deckle, sprung, and hung to dry."
This Draft is one of those "meta" poems where the act of writing (reading and
writing definitely seem to be equated in this poet's universe) itself is
constantly examined as it occurs, as the world, literary and otherwise, sifts into
her daily life which must by now have a permanent grid waiting to catch these
siftings, so exact and meticulous is the gathering-process. "'I have' a national
space: its mine-field coup, its choiceless manipulation, obliviously wrecked, /
stuffed with obesities of things / and stroke-drunk stunned by pointed threats."
Her books embody a spiritual (and theoretical) evolution in the way the books of
someone like Celan or Jabes do. Few poets have studied language from the
phenomenological perspective (and using some of that methodology) as thoroughly as
she has.

*kari edwards, "short sorry." autobiography in the inimitable style of the late,
great kari edwards. This is one of those poets whose books I look forward to
acquiring and reading, as my familiarity to this point has sadly only been through
magazine and online publications by the poet, who died regrettably early.

*Kenward Elmslie, "Sibling Rivalry." Elmslie's almost zaum transfigurations of
media and personal languages can, I imagine, alienate many. He has such a great
ear (the librettist in him) but he also has a gift for the plangent and pathos,
which he can foist on you at the most unexpected moments. His elegy for his
partner Joe Brainard is a poem I will always cherish. Elmslie writes of the poem
that it "conjoins earthbound memories of my Colorado Springs boyhood (overt
narrative) and fragmented stanzas, narrative present and hopefully accounted for,
but layered within a shifting vortex of past, present and fantasy-ridden
imaginings of a future."
It has such delighful lines and images as "Jissom prisms. Counterfeit samenesses
in virtual reality center my innards" and "Cromwell. Rommel. Fraulein Zaza, gaga."
Inimitable Elmslie.

Aaron Fogel, "337,000, December, 2000." The author says he used a book on poetry
and painting in Song China as an inspiration/source for this four page rather
surreal, cerebral poem. The poem has a pretty drift to it that the inner-eye and
mind follow like a sinuous river, but the poem doesn't really build any inertia,
and the philosophical opining grows tedious as one senses it has no center or
direction. It's certainly well-crafted but I'm not sure to what end. Pretty Scenes
of China. A chinoiserie on a porcelain cup. Pound cake, anyone?

Arielle Greenberg, "Saints." A three poem suite which includes "Knives of the
Saints," "Chives of the Saints" and "Lives of the Saints." It has all the earmarks
of the most recent incarnation of the New York School, which really seems
superfluous at this point. The cutesy makes several apperances. She tells us in
the last poem (of the saints) that "They do not write the menu in script on a
chalkboard held by a ceramic pig in a toque." This is the sort of urban cutesiness
where the university meets the street. It's not always pretty. The first poem of
the three is the best but I would not have expected it to be in a BAP anthology.

Ted Greenwald, "Anyway." ITAT. Tercet pairs with some white space between them on
the page. Rather faithful to the early models of language poetry, and perhaps
borrowing some effects from the koans. It seems the broth of thought that people
speak, the cliches which reveal the culture's obsessions, but strung together here
in a sort of verbigeration. I think it has to be read aloud, and the intended
effect (which probably is catharsis or emesis) might be achieved. Not bad.

* Barbara Guest, "Nostalgia of the Infinite." And so we lose another master. Our
Rilke, basically. A mannerist poem, but then Guest made mannerism (and
romanticism) hip again. Splendid little piece. "A part of the tower / (Year 1913)
beckons to us." She knew her art, and lived it.

Carla Harryman, from Baby. ITAT. Obviously, Hejinian's good friend and frequent
collaborator is going to be present, and she's here for eleven pages. Harryman is
one of those writers I want to applaud in theory, but whose writing often strikes
me as so mannered and self-conscious, so calculated, that I can't enjoy it. These
prose poems (theatre, whatever) may be deconstructions of the various meanings
(god knows you could do a catalogue!) of "baby" in our culture, I don't know. Some
seem to be the calculated adult "baby" of sexual allure, some are definitely
actual babies as in cribs, and I guess we're supposed to relish the confusion and
the conceptually melismatic flow between incarnations of "Baby." It seems very
worked, and very full of thought, but I just don't get any enjoyment out of it.
The collaborations I've seen between Hejinian and Harryman I've read (excerpts)
I've enjoyed. But then I like a fair amount of Hejinian (definitely not all the
books). Hejinian seems to get better and better with the years too. I keep waiting
for my "in" to Harryman, but have only liked sporadic paragraphs here and there.

Jane Hirshfield, "Poe: An Assay (1)." I happen to be a Hirshfield fan, and admire
her ability to create these seemingly quiet little poems which one soon realizes
are seriously time-proof. Didn't she work as a translator of Ono No Komachi?
Certainly the fact that she is a student of world literature (and not just
anglophone poetry) comes through rather quickly if one reads any of the books. She
will often take an object or an abstract quality and just attempt to write a poem
that is rather like a phenomenological essay about the object, condensed to about
the density of a blackhole. When her poems fail they come across as studies,
sketches...when they succeed they seem like the dark matter twin of the object or
quality she was studying, and the effect is quite stunning. This poem, which
actually looks at a person (I don't recall her doing that in any of the books I
own; she tends to prefer things in those) and attempts to delineate him with a two
page poem. I don't think the poem is completely successful, but it's an
interesting piece. She puts Poe in a historical context and discusses all the
contemporary enormities he ignores. She has this one line which rather annoyed me
for its patent untruth: "In his 150-year-old prose there is only word you might
recognize as archaic." All sorts of words flood through my mind from his prose
without even cracking the spine of one of the volumes nearby: "assignation" and
"levin" and "immured," for example. While these words may still be used, they are
for all intents and purposes now archaic. They might not have earned that
designation in Webster's yet but they are now archaic forms of expression. If
someone says they "immured" something, you will laugh at them. If I tell you I
have an assignation, I will suffer for having used the word. That's archaic, baby!
She does give some interesting factoids and the poem reads well, but I'm not sure
it really captures anything of who Poe was, if say, someone had never read his
works and read this poem. It would tell you more what Poe wasn't, actually. Not
one of her better pieces.

John Hollander, "For 'Fiddle-de-Dee." This is bad verse, barking doggerel.
Hollander uses as a point of departure the question from Lewis Carroll asked by
Alice: "What's the French for fiddle-de-dee?" He makes jokes like this: "What's
the Punjabi for "fiddle-de-dabi?" / (That is to say, for "crucifer lobby") / "They
asked for dall but were sent kohl-rabi." That kind of "wit." This is the sort of
poetry you expect to find in your dentist's waiting room...that is if you have a
time machine and go to the dentist in 1948. Excruciating. I can only begin to
imagine what sort of reward Lyn gave herself for including this. A massage at the
spa? Some Godiva chocolates? Or did she flagellate herself like Swinburne in
private and weep uncontrollably for this crime of kindness? Building bridges is
never easy. God bless the peacemakers.

*Fanny Howe, "Catholic." ITAT. Fanny Howe is a genius and this poem showcases her
typical genius. I won't even try to begin to discuss a poem with as much great
negative capability as this one possesses. You need to just read it. It's a poem
about faith, but Howe's poems about faith are never sententious or simpleminded or
partisan. They are rawly human and have a spooky, genuine empathy the size of the
human universe. Check out her book on the writing craft she wrote a few years ago.
It's a great collection of essays. I forget the title but it has a wedding gown on
the cover if I'm remembering correctly--the idea of being married to the craft.
Here's a small excerpt from this wonderful spiritual photograph of America in the
present moment: "Asshole or jerk? Which one gets to be President. // You know the
man by the punishment he deserves and doesn't get. /He can actually perfect his
sin with malicious intent and no one will even notice. / Because we have an
infinite disposition for wanting the good."

* Kenneth Irby, "[Record]. A meditation on some of the poet's personal and mythic
dead (like Saint Patrick and the poet Ed Dorn) and how lives repeat like a record
even if they are unaware of their antecedents, and there is a strangely convincing
embrace of all humanity at the end of the poem. A very Whitmanian poem, but
Whitman updated to the pomo era. Lives of all us like "the cyclamen fading rosier
and rosier from blood-crimson to the tide gone into and the turning." A well-
wrought elegy that goes into death's dark tunnel and comes out the other side as a
poem celebrating birth and life.

* Major Jackson, "Urban Renewal." A meditation on history's obfuscations and
annunciations cast as a memory from the poet's schooling. Not daring
formalistically or anything but the poem has a certain timely power. "And the
mighty heroes at recess / lay dead in woe on the imagined battlefields of Halo."
In the future, people will ask, "What the hell is Halo?" when they read this poem.
* Marc Jaffee, "King of Repetition." A singsong poem but one with a lot of
negative capability. The poem is enjoyable to read and could be about ten thousand
different things, from the philosophical concept of identity to demonic digital
media.

* Kenneth Koch, "The Man." This is a multipartite playful poem very much in the
tradition of Koch's celebrated Bed. Short almost Tender Buttons-style lyrics are
subsumed under the composing rubrics of parts of The Man's body. That is, there
are poems titled "Penis," "Arm," "Nose," "Tibia," "Forehead," etc. When he gets to
"Ovaries," the entire poem is "What is it? Why am I here?" Which makes sense, when
you consider he is describing "The Man." This was written in 1953 and the poet has
left us, but it was published in the year this anthology is surveying. The
language is delightfully decadent and self-indulgent. For instance, the poem
titled "Penis" reads as follows: "Dancing away from your cars by the frond of the
sea I live; / The ramparts are pure rectitude: cut parachutes and deep-sea
powdered sugar, / A fine run in the silence of the rain." A niiiiice blast from
the New York School past.

John Koethe, "To an Audience." More poetry in the style of mainstream Ameican
poetry in the forties or fifties. It's a bit of an Elizabethan conceit, attempting
to define the notion of "audience," and frustrated that self and audience seem to
continually undermine one another as conceptual validities. Nicely crafted but
atavistic.

Yusef Komunyakaa, "Ignis Fatuus." What I just said about the last poem should be
cut and pasted here. It's a little more contemporary in feel, but meditations on
the untenable nature of identity or self are a bit tired now in literature. It's
very well-crafted and does read well. Maybe I'm being bitchy.

*Sean Manzano Labrador, "The Dark Continent." A seven page poem that is done
ninety percent in the New York School style (the other ten percent is sort of
undefinable) and yet the poem feels completely contemporary at the same time. It's
a strange poem that seems to be holding up the correct sort of oddly-fangled
mirror to reflect a mutable essence like love, which is so bright that it usually
annihilates its own details when you try to look at it. Labrador manages to limn
the strange moments and impetus which constitute love in its varying
manifestations. The poem is one of very few erotic poems in here...and I mean
erotic in the widest sense(s) of that word.

*Ann Lauterbach, "After Mahler." People often compare her to Ashbery, but she's
edgier and her poems are more philosophically responsible. Mahler's essence is
only the launching pad for this poem which calls itself a lullaby at the end, but
that's sort of a dark joke as the poem seems to be about unbridgeable otherness,
wherein lies both beauty and terror. Rather like music.

Nathaniel Mackey, "Sound and Cerement." I've never been able to find an "in" for
Mackey's poetry. He has a very great ear and he is among the most learned of poets
I think (I find his critical writings really amazing and like them quite a bit).
But his poems so often talk about the vatic rather than achieving it. They are
rather obsessed with the vatic, the shaman, the moment outside of time, but I feel
they are talking about these things, rather than achieving them. Maybe I need to
look at some books by him and see if the poems create a gestalt in there that I'm
missing when I see them anthologized or in mags. Lines like "tongue a thick worm /
in my throat" or "Hearts bled" just don't do it for me, seem sloppy. I saw some
poems by him once in an anthology which I really liked, but could never remember
the name of this anthology or find it again when I looked for it at A.B.E. and
attempted to Google it. I know Asa Benveniste was also in it, and it was only a
handful of poets, like three or five. This was many years ago. But it had some
very strong work by Mackey I thought.

Harry Mathews, "Lateral Disregard." A seascene rendered in colorful poetry. Well
crafted but not memorable or thoughtful in any substantial way.

Steve McCaffery, "Some Versions of Pastoral." A strange little poetic disquisition
in eight parts. This octet is probably one of the poems in this anthology closest
to the language poetry project's ideals (written by a Canadian poet, no less),
both formalistically and thematically. But the poem is a bit of a tepidarium of
language...nothing is truly hot or cold. The memorable line is "Perhaps Paul Celan
is the crematorium built especially / for Language Poets." Marjorie Perloff was
surely happy to see this included, as McCaffery seems to be one of her critical
charges. Reading this made me think of McCaffery's physical struggle to the death
with bp nichol, that amusing comic book of yore! Wasn't this poet on Ripley's
Believe it Or Not (on t.v.) back in the seventies playing some kind of strange
gigantic string instrument with the other Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Or am I
hallucinating?

K. Silem Mohammed, "Mars Needs Terrorists." A flarf poet appears in the anthology!
This poem would be strongest as a poem read aloud I'd imagine. It's very funny and
it builds in intensity as it nears the end, becomes rather anime, which is a cool
thing to be.

Erin Moure, "8 Little Theatres of the Cornices." Another Canadian poet if I'm not
mistaken. It's a poem in eight parts, or eight unified poems, I guess. Some
sections are good poems (like 5 and 8). Others just seem desultory, a random dice
throw of images. This multipartite poem reads rather as if an Eastern European
poet had discovered language poetry and wanted to fuse his or her style with it.
There is a a strong agrarian lean to the poem, which is filled with earthy imagery
like onions, hay, trees, rivers, fields.

Paul Muldoon, "The Last Time I Saw Chris." It's from The New Yorker. This is what
one has come to expect of that journal. I was shocked to read somewhere that this
bastion of ho-hum taste published an Armantrout poem last year. Maybe the winds of
change blow even in a mausoleum sometimes. Muldoon has written some great poetry.
This is not one of his more memorable poems, and I think he refers to a female in
the poem as "bush meat," although I hope that was obtuse reading on my part. It's
one of those poems that gives you cute little anecdotes and innuendo, like an
email from your septuagenarian aunt.

*Eileen Myles, "No Rewriting." If only her Presidential bid had been successful in
the nineties what a different America this would be, and I can guarantee you it
would be better. When Myles writes personal poetry it somehow always transcends
the personal, perhaps because she is always shaking the frames, sifting herself
down through these screens of culture like a hardscrabble prospector halfmad in
the wilderness, cursing as she watches the particles sift down into words on the
page. "Gold? Is it gold yet? Or is it just shit?" You know it's gold, Eileen! Stop
pretending!

Alice Notley, "State of the Union." Notley is the mother of another poet selected
for this anthology and probably a mother-figure to the poet I just mentioned last.
Sometimes I feel the age of visionary poetry is past. Then I pick up a book by
Notley and I feel ashamed for giving up hope. I don't think this is the strongest
excerpt to have chosen but I guess it was what was available. The critique of how
government is ultimately based on exploitation of women (the strippers of the
present poem) might seem a little callow: "the state of the union is strippers,
because starting with strippers the lime light leprous. and it is accepted. what
you accept. what you have accepted. genitals." Some strippers might take offense.
Hey, they're just trying to put themselves through college! Okay, a reverent
moment. Sorry, she is a divine. Just probably not the best excerpt in a long
strong work.

Jeni Olin, "Blue Collar Holiday." Pretty straightforward biographical anecdote of
childhood. Well-crafted.

Danielle Pafunda, "RSVP." This is pretty much a Shoebox Greeting sense of humor:
"Don't invite me to your pity party. / Don't call me up on your pity party line /
and invite me over for punch and cookies. / I won't come. I won't come / with a
pretty pity present." Maybe Hejinian was trying for a populist touch. Maybe she
promised herself she would include at least one poem she could read to her mom or
her aunt and not feel uncomfortable at the awkward silence that followed? Who
knows.

Heidi Peppermint, "Real Toads." Fun with Moore's memorable line. Playful word
substitutions are used to cause a defamiliarizing shift in language. Not great,
but the poet seems to have a promising gift.

* Bob Perelman, "Here 2." ITAT. Another of the great poet/critics/theorists
contributes a very strong four page meta-poem looking at his own life and that of
others lived in literature. "Here be epics/ here be epiphanies, / here be state of
the art oceanic marginalities(.)" I ordered his Collected or Selected poems some
time ago and the online bookseller turned out not to have the copy after all. And
yet I haven't gotten around to reordering it, but reading a poem like this makes
me more eager. A nice smart ass attitude prevails. "Better hold on to your donut /
or you'll be fed to the equals signs."

* Carl Phillips, "Pleasure." I think Phillips is one of the stronger lyric poets
writing today. It's a pretty pure sense of the lyric poem, his poetics. And yet
that purity doesn't come across as atavistic. His works are often composed of
these small tercets which alternate abstractions with the concrete, desire with
realities. He seems a strange triune fusion of Creeley, Gluck and possibly Rilke.
Maybe he reminds me of Frank Bidart some also. I imagine if you read too much of
his poetry at once you might end up feeling ghostly.

Robert Pinsky, "Samba." If poems were still being written to be published in
newspapers, they would probably sound like Pinksy's poems. That's not necessarily
an insult. He has a good eye for pertinent and interesting detail. The ear seems
so-so. The poem stumbles around and ends at what one senses is a predetermined
line count the poet wanted. This is one of those multiculti poems that seem very
self-consciously multiculti. I think all derivations get embarrassed equally when
one senses calculation like this in art. But in newspapers...

*Carl Rakosi. "In the First Circle of Limbo." A perfect little poem of 22 words, a
prayer to the Muse no less, and yet it seems perfectly timely. To think of this
poet attending poetry readings at the age of 100 is a wonderful thing. Rakosi I
always read as almost a brother of William Carlos Williams, and with a poetry
often as rich as that master. They seemed to share a worldview that was somehow
equally realist and idealist, lusty and moral. Here's one to sincerely miss.

*Ed Roberson. "Ideas Gray Suits Bowler Hats Baal." I think Roberson has one of the
more forgetive imaginations in American poetry. His language is lush and
disorienting, his poetics political in a subliminally charged way. This is not one
of my favorite poems of the many I have read by him, but it's still rather
engaging. Check out his books. You won't be disappointed.

Kit Robinson, "The 3D Matchmove Artist." ITAT. His work seems to still read like
the first-gen (vintage?) language poetry in In the American Tree. Many of the
others in there have evolved off so many different directions. I would believe it
if you told me this poem was written circa 1986. Non-initiated or non-sympathetic
readers will see it as desultory as hell; sympathetic or partisan readers will
find in it a strong political statement of the utmost urgency.

*Carly Sachs, "the story." A poem that might be a story, or a story that might be
a poem. The narrative has been severely assaulted (as it seems the narrator might
have been) and the poem comes to us in dislocational and disorienting lines. The
mind receives the images prismatically and the poem/story remains engagaing. Some
horrific stories can only be told in this way. I would like to see more by this
writer.

Jennifer Scappettone, "III." This poem could be interpreted as an open field poem.
Or is it three separate poems to be read in the separate verticalities of text? Or
is it a matrix that we should read across as well? The grid always poses these
questions. The language is somewhat engaging. Again I am surprised this found its
way into the BAP anthology.

Frederick Seidel. "Love Song." As poetry in traditional or received forms go, this
is very well-crafted and moving. And yes, this is the bourgeois dramatization of
self that most experimental poets hate. Empathy, reader, empathy!

* David Shapiro, "A Burning Interior." I had to go to the notes in the back
because I had read several of these poems in different books and wondered about
the consolidation that was occurring here. Shapiro has apparently cemented several
poems from several periods and books together here, and the poem does indeed read
as if it was cobbled together, rather than organically grown. Shapiro's poetry
often strikes me as too chiseled even in its transgressions; it often strikes me
as Modernist and throwback in its conception of surrealism. Surrealism has
undergone quite an evolution and has been synthesized interestingly; often
Shapiro's brand seems Old School. And then when reverence entered his poetry
somewhere mid-career it elevated a lot of his poetry spiritually...I know what
book this occurred in but I can't remember the title...it has the memorable
"Harrisburg, Mon Amour!" How can that not be dear to the heart of a Harrisburg
resident (raises hand). And yet when I ask poets here if they know the poem, they
invariably don't, which I find funny. The strongest poems here are sections four
and section six, to my mind. There are great lines throughout, but again you get
that atavistic feeling reading these poems. He's almost like a melding of Stevens
and someone like Tzara (or more likely Arp). But I think he probably should have
gotten the Pulitzer for that book I mention above, whose title eludes me. That
book was pretty much a quantum leap and very rending, very strong poetry, braiding
European, American and Judaic lyric traditions with no feeling of vitiation of any
of the composing lyricisms.

* Ron Silliman, "Compliance Engineering." ITAT (Duh!). Strange that Ron has to
explain to the world outside of Pennsylvania that sleeveless t-shirts are called
(very funnily!) "wife-beaters." But maybe his sense is right...maybe you folks far
from us don't know that basic fact! This is a pretty straightforward poem; it's in
love with the evolution of language and Silliman is filling it chock-full with the
language of our "moment": "Toyotathon," "Pop-up Video," "Pirbuterol acetate." Or
the poet telling us that Waldo's evil nemesis is "Odlaw." The poet believes in the
present. Or does for this poem. It has the feeling of being a William Carlos
Williams "dailiness" poem transposed into the 21st century, one of his earlier
poems written in oh say, Philadelphia! It also has the feeling of a Schuyler
aubade, somewhat. It is enjoyable to read and enjoyable on the tongue. Silliman
has always been a believer in what he sees on the streets and skies of America as
much as he believes in the factitious abstractions and categories "floating"
through his mind like flossy clouds at an early production of Four Saints in 3
Acts, and this diurnal quality is actually pretty disconcerting in a poet one
expects to lean much further towards the side of abstraction. Until you realize he
is perhaps describing things a little oddly, perhaps slowly chipping around the
concrete to show you where it's hinged to abstraction and vice versa. That would
be just like someone who works in computers, wouldn't it?

Bruce Smith, "Song of the Ransom of the Dark." A poem of two minds, consisting of
two interwoven strands of thought. I thought when I read it, "oh yeah it's time
for this type of poem (formalistically) to appear in the anthology." A touching
story about adoption practiced between two cultures.

Brian Kim Stefans, "They're Putting a New Door In." This would be the whatthefuck
poem in the anthology. No doubt Stefans's respect earned as a sharp critic of
digital media, etc. snagged him this inclusion. I don't really know much of his
poetry, only the works I've seen in magazines and online over the years, and I've
seen work much better than this. (I remember a serial poem he published on his
blog a few years back which I used to enjoy reading--on company time--when I
worked for that now evil empire DHL Worldwide Express.) He also has made a great
deal of very worthwhile art available through his UBUweb site, so I thank him for
his work as a purveyor...check out that Jessica Grim book he "published" online a
few years back which seemed to go completely unnoticed. It's mahvelous. Back to
"New Door." Maybe someone will ask "But did you get the reference to Stein's
Tender Buttons with the "Boiling potatoes?" Why yes, I did. And I repeat:
"whatthefuck?" The poet in his notes on this (I just had to read that one) says
this poem makes him smile. So the Buddha-nature in me (buried under thirty feet of
sludge with some alligators lying in it) says "I am happy that you are happy."

Gerald Stern, "Dog That I Am." ITAT. (Just kidding!!) He has a summer home or
something in Perry County just north of me so I'm not going to say what I think of
this poem. He might send some thugs down to Steelton.

Virgil Suarez, "La Florida." Quote: "or by the mystery of sun showers when the sky
opens up / and pelts the earth with a momentary lapse of crying," or "this magic
of fireflies / zapping their phosphorescence in the night air, jasmine" (zapping?)
or "Lugubrious days pass with the amplitude of manatees." I weep for poetry. I
take it back, Brian. I have to remove the whatthefuck laurels from your
digitalized-media brow and place them on this poet's brow, which will be very hot
to the touch....with all that poetic fervor going on in there.

*Arthur Sze, "Acanthus." Sze is the poet of earth's weird synchronicities and
unseen linkages. He practices a quantum physics poetics. Not one of his best
poems, but he's almost always readworthy. I return to the books I have by this
poet quite a bit.

* James Tate, "Bounden Duty." A very funny fur-tongued poem about patriotism. Tate
is just traveling further and further into his own universe at this point, but
when you read his recent books, you realize this conflation of the sensibilities
of Steve Martin and say, Edwin Arlington Robinson or someone that turgid, is
actually America's mind. He's got it down just about perfectly.

*Edwin Torres, "The Theorist Has No Samba!" A funny, tongue-in-cheek manifesto for
a "New Instantism." Who knows, maybe we should all try living there. Maybe The
Matrix would fall away.

Rodrigo Toscano, "Meditatio Lectoris." Another of the anointed next-gen of
language poets who seem to be in line for a likely apostolic succession. The
poetry is smart, polemical, timely...and yet it bores me to tears. If this is the
language of the revolution, not only will the revolution not be televised...it
will not be conscious...because this well-crafted diatribe is better than
diphenhydramine for easing you off into lala-land. Here are some lines that always
work when visualizing sheep doesn't cut it: "And guy modest ego rolled in to get
it done neo-baroquely post-modernist and won it." Or try: "Stacked. / The
threshold mass-unit. / They see. / They hear. / Some asseverate." Or he turns
playful: "To plabor be plicked." Or I should speak for myself. Maybe he declaims
like Mayakovsky when he reads this stuff. Clearly, it's poetry written for
preaching to the choir. I'm sure there is no dearth of "Hallelujahs!" roared back.
This is not poetry in the demotic. Not even close. I can imagine the
twentysomethings superjazzed after the reading saying "remember when he said
"Cultural hydraulics. / Capital dynamics."? Yeah! Well, I loved that part! Yeah,
ME TOO!" This is late capitalism, yes, but I'm not sure which is worse--
countenancing with silence the mass murders it practices globally, or indulging
the self-exorcisms of its intellectual elite and, by this indulgence, pretending
one is engaged in a a viable and practicable mode of dissent.

I'm hungry for some tuna! Am I almost done??

Paul Violi, "Appeal to the Grammarians." A very funny posthumous publication by
the man who could teach a golf ball to write a pantoum (or was that Kenneth Koch?)
Oh well, Violi was a great teacher too, and great friend to poets. This is a
humorous poem appealing to grammarians to introduce a new form of punctuation, the
upside-down exclamation mark. It's cutesy and goes down smooth. But it's root beer
and not whiskey. I liked it. But you'd be shocked at some of the shit I eat.

David Wagoner, "Trying to Make Music." Not for me. The Tortured Eloquence School.
Been there, done that myself.

* Charles Wright, "In Praise of Han Shan." Atavistic and marvelous, as this poet
is wont to be. I love arguing with his poems and try to talk them out of their
atavistic behavior, but somehow they always shrug and win out and I come back
again and again, just like a john to the well-practiced whore. I'm a fan.

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