BooksWeekend

Alan Felsenthal Emerges from His Song Cave and Sings to Us

In all of his poems, you feel Felsenthal finding his way from word to word and from line to line: he is not trying to tell a story or replay an anecdote so much as go where the words and phrases, sounds and meanings, lead him.


I do not know when Alan Felsenthal and Ben Estes founded their press The Song Cave, but at some point early on I began subscribing to their chapbook series, published in editions of 100, and got publications by Jennifer Moxley, Lisa Jarnot, Chris Nealon, Charles North, Dana Ward, Monica de la Torre, Fanny Howe, Rod Smith, Jane Choi, and Christopher Edgar, a favorite. As any press should do, they introduced its readers to new poets.

This is how Felsenthal and Este describe The Song Cave on their website:

[…] dedicated to recovering a lost sensibility and creating a new one by publishing books of poetry, translations, art criticism, and making art prints and other related materials.

Together, they co-edited A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind (2013) by Alfred Starr Hamilton, a poet who was first published by Jonathan Williams’s legendary Jargon Press in 1970, but who had received almost no attention since then. By all accounts, Hamilton was a loner who lived in rooming houses in New Jersey and subsisted on a small inheritance. As far as I know, he was never invited to hold a workshop or give a reading. I reviewed A Dark Dreambox and Song Cave’s reprint of Kenward Elmslie’s gorgeous The Orchid Stories; I also contributed a blurb for the press’s forthcoming Songs for Schizoid Siblings by Lionel Ziprin, another outsider deserving of more attention.

Alan Felsenthal

As a huge fan of The Song Cave, I was eager to read Alan Felsenthal’s first book of poetry, Lowly (Ugly Duckling Press, 2017), when it came in the mail, as well as understandably anxious — suppose I did not like the poems? By the time I finished “Two Martyrs,” the first selection in the book, my anxiety had left me.

It is hard to believe that Lowly is Felsenthal’s first colection, it is that good. Many of his poems arise out of his close attention to sounds. Others, such as “Two Martyrs,” pursue the inherent logic of a comparison (Two Martyrs stalked the earth/almsgiving equally/so neither knew the other/was capable of competition…) until it collapses under its own weight. Surely one way to read “Two Martyrs” is as a dissection of masculinity, but that is not the only way, nor perhaps even the most interesting. And in still other poems, the poet follows a line of thought, like a saxophonist working a riff, until it can go no further. He does not have one methodology but many.

In all of his poems, you feel Felsenthal finding his way from word to word and from line to line: he is not trying to tell a story or replay an anecdote so much as go where the words and phrases, sounds and meanings, lead him. Poetry, the writing of it, is a process, not a product to throw on the heap of predigested feelings.

In “The Problem with Rhyme,” Felsenthal has a conversation with his grandmother, who speaks with a “German accent”:

I asked if she confused
the words I used
with other words she knew.

The confusion begins in the similarity of three words: Rhine, rime, and rhyme — the river, the frost that forms on cold objects, and the correspondence of sound — which the poet weaves and unweaves throughout the poem, moving toward and away from transparency, even as “This lapse expanded/with each utterance…” Music, as much as meaning, guides the poem, with a lovely tension occurring between the two.

In “My Domestic Poem,” Felsenthal conflates “bedbugs” and “drugs” in a dance:

When you acquire bedbugs
you are blessed
for you only have one problem,
like when you are addicted to drugs.

Out of this unlikely comparison/rhyme, the poet explores various states, and makes this surprising observation: “Thinking of yourself/leads to rumination, your reaction/to distress involving bedbugs.” Halfway through the poem, which is full of wonderful descriptive asides involving bedbugs (their shit “smashed on its mattress,”) Felsenthal takes a sudden, unexpected turn:

Amanda asked me to write this poem.
She said, write about something
you do every day, something domestic.

Where another poet might have been inspired by Frank O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” aesthetic or tried to extend the personal or confessional mode, Felsenthal writes from a place of sympathetic imagination: he observes himself from a distance as well as sees himself in a larger circumstance. He is both inside his body and outside it. Even when uses “I,” he recognizes that he is part of the larger body politic. He can track his own worries without becoming anecdotal or closed-off:

When you Google what does a bedbug
look like pictures, you are not Googling
yourself.

Felsenthal’s ability to condense meaning while employing a wide range of techniques infuses his work with an engaging density. The pace of his poems is stately, always pulling the reader along. At times, the poetic logic reminds me of Wallace Stevens and Franz Kafka, which is to say outrageous and mythic.

Musically, Felsenthal can simultaneously channel 17th century Robert Herrick’s melodious lyricism and a jazz musician’s staccato dissonance, as in these lines from “Law.”

The lair of despair lies inside the law.
Grandma knew, gangsters know.

Don’t let them convince you though
your heart is said to lodge gold.

A goldsmith sold might–
might ghosts the old.

There is a level of conceptual thought that drives the poems forward. At the root of this forward movement is an attention to the features of language — its contours sound and meaning leading to rhythm and rhyme, a supple musical syntax. In his strongest works — and there are many in this book of thirty-two poems comprising less than sixty pages — you can count on Felsenthal to pare away the inessential. The poems never feel overwritten or overdetermined. He shapes a resonant space haunted on one side by the infinite and on the other by capitalism’s death dance of consumption and waste.

The beach shelters the ribs
of chicks once they burst with plastics.

There are many subjects Felsenthal touches upon in his remarkable poems. They have to do with being human, open and vulnerable, as well as where imagination can take us in these darkening times.

Alan Felsenthal’s Lowly (2017) is published by Ugly Duckling Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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