PoetryWeekend

Popeye, Dopplegängers, and the Sea: Four New Books of Poetry

Comic by Glen Baxter (image via literodditi.wordpress.com)
Comic by Glen Baxter (image via literodditi.wordpress.com)

Unless treating established (even better if dead) authors presented in “collected” volumes, reviewers and editors at mainstream publications tend to shy away from covering poetry, especially contemporary work. Hence this occasional series of comments and speculations about more or less recently published volumes.

Counterpart by Elizabeth Robinson (Ahsahta Press)

“Dopplegänger,” a poem in Elizabeth Robinson’s new collection, begins with the perplexing imperative “Cure the echo.”

The piece explores the vexed relations between opposites (“between heaven and hell, / a new cosmology intervenes”), things divided (“bifurcations of the self”), and things twinned (“two same things mated / with each other abolish / mirrors”) and in doing so sounds a thematic note that echoes (incurably) in many of these poems. Robinson favors the straightforward declarative sentence (“The land before you is perfectly flat, surely”; “One site in the alphabet / needs mending”) as a means of initiating her poetic argument.

The clarity, though, is deceptive. Phrases and images densely contrived to sound out the possibility of self-fractioning and self revelation often follow: “We like singed feathers. Quills. Ink. / We drew our parts with them, two-faced, / apart. Singing or singed, / ink drew / down the body, a dark circle, / hand in hand, a ring / around.”

The other part, the “counterpart,” balances, completes, or opposes. “The voice recognizes its hoarseness as echo”: Articulation and its effect are dependent, consequent upon one another. Self-consciousness is inescapable. But Robinson reminds us that this parsing is only so useful. The next line, “Blue glass shimmers in the throat,” asserts the primacy of felt experience and perhaps points a way out of the circular loop of knowing what we know.

Flashes by Jennifer Firestone (Shearsman Books)

flashes _CVR.inddHow does memory show up on the doorstep? Too quickly for words. But they are all we have by way of welcome, and Jennifer Firestone deploys them with such care that, at first, we might not think them deft enough to do the job.

But, it turns out, the steady pacing and equanimous tone are well suited to capturing those fleeting correspondences between lived and recollected life:

Weather changes at a loss
Tying bows on necks of trees.
Wind chill got the best of us.
When almost dead came in our ships
We used them till they really died.

Firestone strikes elegiac notes offhandedly and yet the effect is never less than sharp. The multilayered complexity of urban experience is the terrain of these episodic poems—they do “flash” past us as trains, sirens, and other pedestrians might. The in-betweeness of this seeming chaos is where Firestone finds respite:

Neighbor: I love I love your dark blood ruby what do you call them
They were here for weeks and then vanished
And many times I had to pause.

If we “add up how we’re doing against the rest,” as the poet suggests, this adding — to the storehouse of memory, to the senses in any moment — will always be subject to comparison: to the rest of the world’s buzzing confusion, as well as “the rest,” the moment we pause, remember, and maybe understand.

Four Elemental Bodies by Claude Royet-Journoud, translated by Keith Waldrop

Here for the first time in English are assembled the volumes of Claude Royet-Journoud’s tetralogy, Four Elemental Bodies. The French poet began publishing these books in 1972 and the last appeared in 1997. As a fan of American postmodernists such as George Oppen, John Ashbery and Louis Zukofsky, Royet-Journoud has not only translated these poets, but brought their influence into striking evidence in his own verse.

The same stylistic paradox that animates the work of these Americans — abstraction’s elusiveness purposely pitched against concrete imagery and sensation — charges Royet-Journoud’s stanzas:

delicate contours
seeing
this and that

everybody grouped
against the sea
the image spoke
without parentheses

The pastoral scene is readily visualizable: a group looks out over the waves. But what are we to make of what they see — “the image” — speaking? The synesthesia is further complicated as this utterance arrives with a particular grammatical cast — it lacks parentheses.

A commonplace (beachgoers observe the sea) subtly evolves into a near epic moment: they are “grouped against,” thus in seeming opposition to the sea, and their opponent answers their challenge clearly, without qualification or pause. The absent parentheses are decidedly present if only in their mention; indeed, they hover quite palpably over the skyscape, the entire tableau reminiscent of de Chirico.

Royet-Journoud is ever alert to the fact that “the noun diminishes / before each utterance, / each metaphorical achievement,” and his poems labor to forestall (or group against) this diminishment by seeking a purer, plainer speech, a poetry in which language is fact, yet ever mutable.

Balloon Pop Outlaw Black by Patricia Lockwood (Octopus Books)

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The very first line of Lockwood’s book hooked me: “The oldest living cartoon character is the word “’popeye.’”

The authoritative verve combined with the sense-distortion of defining a word as a character, and one that’s rather elderly to boot, is an admixture that plays out with comic ingenuity throughout this freshly conceived volume. But the humor, as well as the inclination to upend conventional locutions, serve serious purposes: Lockwood offers a pointed meditation on aesthetics, on language, on the nature of the “real.” That first piece continues:

His pants are not white, they are empty. His face is not white, it is empty. His arms are not white, they are empty. When we say “pants, face, arms” what we mean is “where the ink ends and the rest of him begins,” or, “the him that the  ink contains.”

His parts are letters. Letters make up his mind, and also emerge from it. And the point where a needle touches his thought bubble to burst it is a letter also.

If “popeye” or popeye-ness is the subject of this opening poem, the focus on the sometimes narrow, sometimes vast space between words and being extends to nearly every title. “The frames hang straight and still know nothing,” we are told in a piece that alights in a “Frame Store.” What’s inside and what’s outside, what’s art and what’s non-art is an abiding, provocatively posed question here.

What if, as the poet suggests, “your landscape is taken over by the Frame Store,” and it’s “Frame Store as far as the eye can see”? Is that utopia? Postmodernism? Or the way it’s always been?

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