Discipline by Jane Yeh (Carcanet)
I have been reading Jane Yeh ever since I came across her first book, Marabou (Carcanet, 2005), some years ago. Since then, she has published two more books: Ninjas (Carcanet 2012) and Discipline (Carcanet 2019). I decided to include Discipline in this year’s list because I did not want to wait until her next book was published as I think Yeh’s formally inventive poems ought to receive more attention in the United States.
Yeh, who grew up in New Jersey, earned her undergraduate degree at Harvard, and her MFA at the University of Iowa, has lived in London for many years. The “I” in Yeh’s poems is fictional. As she told Natalya Anderson in The Poetry Extension: “My poetry is pretty much non-autobiographical; it doesn’t draw on my personal experiences. I’m not one of these poets who write about how their parents met, or their grandmother’s story, or about my own life.”
Eschewing the transparent “I” of ethnic identity that the American literary establishment craves, Yeh often writes dramatic monologues made up of aphoristic lines. For her, identity is a performance, a construction, an artifice, and a costume. Through her attention to language, she can turn a cliché on its head, as when the speaker in “The Detective” points out, “the road to hell is paved with fresh / Burritos.”
Or she can point out how easily we are satisfied by the superficial, as when she writes in “A Short History of Migration”: “We joined a fruit-of-the-month club to widen our horizons.”
In “Why I Am Not a Sculpture” – whose title alludes to Frank O’Hara’s “Why I am Not a Painter” – Yeh writes from at least two points of view, being a sculpture “carved by Bernini” and being someone whose “arm breaks off […]. The interplay between the inanimate and the animate enables Yeh to introduce a wild array of facts and observations (“or sip oddly-named liqueurs that taste like semen”).
In “A Short History of Style,” the opening poem of Discipline, Yeh pays tribute to the New York performance artist, stage artist, and drag queen Joey Arias: “Her violet ear / Makes sense if / Something wicked is / Being said.”
So many feelings are compressed into this line. Density and nuance dancing together in precise flights of the imagination are the hallmarks of Yeh’s poetry.
Jump the Clock by Erica Hunt (Nightboat Books)
In 1994 I wrote about Erica Hunt’s first book, Local History, for the Village Voice. In that review I praised an “insistently high level of self-consciousness” that “pressurizes ordinary perceptions until some small truth that tells on the poet bursts forth.” Almost three decades and several books later, her intensity of utterance continues to produce a verse that springs revelations from the commonplace. Containing selections from all of her books and additional unpublished material, this volume testifies to a sustained vision and the development of a language that veers from the personal to the abstract so smoothly you can’t quite tell the difference. This slippery slope is fully in evidence as “Coronary Artist (2)” opens:
Though what I live now is ordinary, I have lived through the glory of numbers. I have visited zero in the sense of absolute beginning to watch fate bleed uncontrollably through a vast chain of explanatory footnotes wound like a bandage over the simplest matter.
To “wound like a bandage” is the sort of offhand paradox, as well as teasing homonym, that requires and rewards the reader’s double-take. Hunt’s poetic intelligence shows itself in modes both discursive and pointillist. And there is always music: “some of us chew ice and others suck chalk / some crave salt before there is savor.” An abiding sense of intimate speech pervades her many volumes, but this voice, angular and erudite, is never inattentive to the necessity of its own seductive energy.
Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me by Choi Seungja; translated by Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong; edited by Joyelle McSweeney (Action Books)
Cathy Park Hong, a poet I have long admired and whose books of poetry I have reviewed, expanded her horizons in 2020. Her memoir, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, was widely praised by the mainstream press, and rightfully so.
What is less publicized, but to my mind equally important, is that she and Won-Chung Kim co-translated a large selection of poems by the South Korean poet Choi Seungja (b.1952); Seungja belongs to the same generation as Kim Hyesoon (b. 1955), whose works has also been published by Action Books, and translated by the prize-winning poet Don Mee Choi.
In her “Introduction” to Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me, Hong writes: “Metonyms of the body as waste pervade her [Seungja’s] poetry: the piss, shit, and vomit that the body rejects and that we recoil from because the emissions remind us of our own mortality.The barren womb is also a central motif, evoking the disgrace she feels as a childless woman in a society where a woman is the sum of her children. It is also a metaphor of the motherland whose soul has become corrupted by capitalism.”
I have cited this passage to give a sense of what Choi accomplishes in her short, powerful poems. Her writing is brutally visceral, disturbing, powerful, emotionally raw, with masterful control. “Already I,” the book’s opening poem, begins: “Already I was nothing:/mold formed on stale bread,/trail of piss stains on the wall,/a maggot-covered corpse/a thousand years old.”
There is nothing like Choi’s direct, pared down, impolite poems in America, which is one reason to buy this book. The other is that the poems don’t read like translations. They go down as smooth as venomous honey.
Blood Feather by Karla Kelsey (Tupelo Press)
Karla Kelsey’s fifth book of poems could easily be categorized as a theatrical script as it features three long poems each narrated by an invented female persona (an actress, the wife of an architect, and a film director). But these voices are, in fact, comprised of a chorus of voices — evidence in each case of the narrators being enmeshed in a web of personal, social, and historical relations. The degree to which an actual self can be separated out, constituted as singular, from these entanglements is Kelsey’s overarching theme. Drawing on diverse sources and figures — Lilian Gish, Stravinsky, Maria Tallchief, Maya Deren, and Corbusier, to name a few — she dramatizes our porous spatial and psychological boundaries through her characters’ openness to narratives not their own.
Appearing in a stage production of Anna Karenina the actress contends with multiple intrusions: “delivering Anna’s lines I perform with / a little speaker in my ear / the director talks into it telling / me right on the stage what I // have to say….” The filmmaker’s narrative dwells on the career and writings of Deren as a guide to her own work and understanding of what it means to be an artist; she, too, ruminates on the fiction of an autonomous self, the malleability of the tale ourselves:
your narrative now attracts other orbiting bodies and those orbiting bodies as you watch begin to attract other bodies the camera’s complexity creating at times the illusion of being itself almost a living intelligence…
Kelsey’s interwoven voices and allusions vividly enact issues confronting the female artist, as well as power relations, and the felt insistence that art address the conditions of its making. A productive relation between the poet’s ear for subtly percussive melodies (“ribs mouth pulse palm filmed as / ecstasy splinters in her hair dust”) and her disjunctive syntax embodies the tension inherent in the notion of a dialectic identity. The final stanza of this often ravishing book can be read as ars poetica for the work itself: “a conduit between materials animate and / inanimate organic and inorganic the source / of being and art a dissolution / felt first in the gut then / following out past the body in / a chain of image and syllable.”
POETRY AGAINST ALL: a diary by Johannes Göransson (Tarpaulin Sky)
Johannes Göransson is poet, essayist, and translator who specializes in translating from Swedish and Korean. He runs Action Books with Joyelle McSweeney and teaches at the University of Notre Dame. When he was 13, he and his family emigrated from Skåne, Sweden, to the United States. This is the conventional way to describe Göransson, but, as I wrote about him in my review of Haute Surveillance (Tarpaulin Sky, 2013): “[He] is one of the few contemporary poets who bring disgust into his writing without cloaking it in irony or some other self-protective device.”
POETRY AGAINST ALL: a diary is the most recent genre-bending book from a writer who detonates the lanes that in which mainstream writing is content to stay, from the predictable frisson caused by coolly deadpan conceptual poetry to the packaged emotional uplift of what Ron Silliman called the “School of Quietude.” Written on a trip to Denmark and Sweden, while he was working on The Sugar Book (Tarpaulin Sky, 2015), the writings in POETRY AGAINST ALL: a diary were, we learn from Göransson, “first written to be part of The Sugar Book, but I cut them from the manuscript because they seemed too personal.”
Interesting words from a poet who has written: “I have a nightmare about a girl covered with blood and when I wake up sweating/my wife tells me a fairytale” (Haute Surveillance). Against what Göransson characterizes as the “strangely compatible” paths that conceptual poetry and the School of Quietude has taken, when it comes to the messiness of feelings, he makes himself “vulnerable to the ravishing images of art,” understanding that being open in this way may lead to uncomfortable places, thoughts, and associations. One artist he is open to and writes about in his book is the photographer Francesca Woodman, who committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22, and is best known for her black-and-white nude photographs of herself in abandoned houses, her face blurred or hidden.
Göransson exposes himself rather than writing about these photographs in academic art speak. He brings up David Wojnarowicz’s hustler photographs of himself “receiving a blowjob in some ruins” and Hans Bellmer’s partially dismembered and reconfigured dolls as well as “crime-scenes-as-erotic-art.” Göransson’s writing about Woodman is the best I have read because it deals directly with issues that mainstream critics avoid, as it implicates them: pornography, voyeurism, death, fascination, and kitsch. This only accounts for part of POETRY AGAINST ALL: a diary. The rest is just as good. This book of 45 short prose entries may not be poetry in either the conventional or avant-garde sense, but it is poetry nevertheless.
Collected Poems 1946-2016 by Harry Mathews (Sand Paper Press)
Novelist, poet, translator, and raconteur, Harry Mathews’s death in 2017 brought an end to a literary career marked by the insouciant rigor one might expect in the work of the French group Oulipo’s sole American member. Among his many ingenious outings, Mathews authored short dialogues composed only of consonants, a novel that featured a gold adze as the prize for winning a worm race, and a volume of short fictions devoted to the subject of masturbation. His poems were published by small presses in limited numbers (an early volume, The Ring, was issued by Trevor Winkfield, who also did the cover, in a mimeographed edition of 200), so this gathering of somewhat unfamiliar material is most welcome.
Wordplay — at every level, from letter to syllable, from phrase to overall form — enlivens many poems whose playfulness masks a serious exploration of linguistic variation. (I once gave a reading with Mathews and he asked that I take on the role of the second speaker in that dialogue of composed entirely of consonants; he later complained about my faulty pronunciation.) Others are infused with vigorous strains of French Surrealist verse blended harmoniously with American idiomatic speech. “Perverbial Poems” offers wry (if not perverse) turns on proverbs:
Every cloud blows no good. You can’t make an omelet in a storm. Red sky at morning waits for no man, Time and tide gather no moss. Every cloud, sailors take warning. “It never rains”?—twice shy. It’s an ill wind that has its day. East is east and west is west, but it pours.
Mathews’s delight in the improbable image and the unexpected modifier is contagious; he candidly pursues an aesthetic of amusement. Indeed, the term “fancy,” in its 18th-century employment meant to embrace the erotic, odd, spontaneous, and excessive, is applicable to his entire output, no less so his poetry. The incongruously titled “I Know My Redeemer Liveth” is followed by this flight of the aforementioned:
Why Susie, please stay— A centripetal bird That’s threading the maze In the chowdown space May prop up your stool Of slitted sticks Or her black parted beak Turn your red rash pink.
What is the chowdown space? Or a centripetal bird, for matter? Not to be found in the usual poetic haunts. Instead, they reside the glittery domain of chez Harry.
Now It’s Dark by Peter Gizzi (Wesleyan University Press)
In the title poem of his eighth book, Now It’s Dark, Peter Gizzi strikes a Tennysonian note that calls to mind both the tone and imagery of “In Memoriam A. H. H.”: “Sky opening into blank. / I thought grief is a form of grace.” The poem proceeds through inflections confessional (“When my brother lost his voice I lost my childhood”), social (“I am overpowered by the gigantism / of commercial governing”), and existential (“I am an incident trapped in thick description), all the while maintaining a deceptive ease of expressiveness that belies the underground swell of disquiet, which marks the entire volume.
“Marigold and Cable,” a 30-page sequence of episodic, short-lined lyrics, is a tour de force of word-painting that revels in the emotive potential of visual display. The brooding complexity of Gizzi’s images doesn’t dim their lush allure:
Poetry’s sun freaked, full, un- governed, ruddy, the morphic clouds impress, the head blooming, in this man paperwhites, black lines glare, Euclid sings in the heart.
A section of the volume titled “Garland” presents prose poems (or poems that make use of prose lineation) that employ ellipses as the only punctuation. The effect is cinematic, the brevity of each syntactic unit mimicking the sweep of a camera moving through an almost Gothic interior landscape: “I wandered all night with my corpse… passed over the scene… I was waking and I was dawning… to watch moonlight cross a face….” A volume rich in formal invention and soaked, it seems, in an elixir of pensive rapture, Now It’s Dark condenses into its crystalline beauties the sensation of living on the brink of nothingness.
Savage Pageant by Jessica Q. Stark (Birds LLC)
“Forensic science / what a bother. // A little know-how and you’ve / lost the fairytale. Exhumed // dirty limbs only to reveal / the not-so features of another.” Whether anatomizing the frontiersman in this poem, “Daniel Boone’s Bones,” or the genealogy of Jungleland, a Hollywood zoo that provided animals such as MGM’s lion and Mister Ed for the film industry, Jessica Q. Stark maintains a nimble, comic, and knowing tone that allows her reader to participate in her fresh discoveries. The poems in this first book take an investigatory tack; the poet brings her research skills to bear on historical, biological, and medical matters to consistently sharp effect, as she does in “The Burn Pits”:
It is possible to not know what lies underneath your skin. The smell of gas, a minor accident— say fuel element failure. We touch the pieces of dried grass on our descent, gather back together a bundle in place of a vocabulary for names.
Although the volume’s overarching subjects could be said to be the commonality between humans and animals and exploitation of the kinship, Stark doesn’t grab the reader’s lapel to press her case. In a tone both matter of fact and insinuating, she relates incidents from Jungleland’s past and thus we learn that the chimpanzee featured in Ronald Reagan’s Bedtime for Bonzo “attempted to choke her co-star” and had to be “tranquilized on set.” The telling kicker to the anecdote, delivered deliciously deadpan, informs us that his “necktie, pulled so tightly, has to be cut off… with a pair of scissors.” The declarative mood in these poems is always experienced as interrogative — as a question precisely aimed at our comforting assumptions about who is and isn’t sentient.
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