Eight Poets Recommend New and Recent Titles

Welcome back to The Seawall’s semi-annual poetry feature. This season, eight poets write briefly on some of their favorite recently published titles. This multi-poet/title feature is posted here in April and November. The commentary includes:

Daisy Fried

on Delinquent Palaces by Danielle Chapman (Triquarterly Books/Northwestern)

David Roderick

on Wild Hundreds by Nate Marshall (University of Pittsburgh Press)

Lee Upton

on Dome of the Hidden Pavilion by James Tate (Ecco)

Elaine Equi

on Scattered At Sea by Amy Gerstler (Penguin)

Martha Silano

on Incarnate Grace by Moira Linehan (Southern Illinois University Press)

Gillian Conoley

on The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven by Brian Teare (Ahsahta Press)

Oliver de la Paz

on Sand Opera by Philip Metres (Alice James Books)

Eric Ekstrand

on Anyone by Nate Klug (University of Chicago)

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Daisy Fried

Delinquent Palaces by Danielle Chapman (Triquarterly Books/Northwestern)

This is a first book of great breadth, means and detail. Chapman’s landscapes — mostly American, all over America — are familiar and strange, animated by startling metaphor. In “Expressway Song,” the expressway “throws her hair/ in snakes over the stadium.” In “Malibu,” speaker and companion drive “through/billboards, oil fields, mechanical beaks pecking the soil/till wildflowers sparked the cliffs and our wish/for love mounted the coast like an infatuated angel …” In “Epicurean,” things morph rapidly into other things, as Chapman layers images:

A forty-dollar tangerine of nutmeat
ribboned by slender Greek
fingers of lovers so charmed
his coiffed stubble matched her armpit hairs
was handed to me, apotropaically …

Chap_manCover.jpgApotropaic: having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck. Chapman writes about darkness often — sometimes comically. “O Chicago Purgatorio” is set in an underworldish winter where sidewalks are “rinks / left by icicles / freakishly large and aimed / from garage shingles / like an arsenal / of Viking death tools” while garbage trucks spin wheels “on brined black slicks / and a devil / belching from his hole:/ six hundred sixty-six / more weeks of this.”

A Chapman image is never static, and is frequently deliciously dramatized. “The Brighton Basement” rhymingly narrates a cheerfully grubby one-night stand — or rather the before and after, with the during gone tastefully dark:

The DJ put on “Sex Machine.”
Last orders please! the barman called.
A number for the sexual assault hotline
was scrawled in marker on the stall.

When I returned the bloke declared
The German birds are having a thing.
Let’s go, he said, then snogged me hard
against the bar’s wood paneling.

The poem ends with the pair on the beach the next morning, unapologetic, looking at a ruined dock in what reads as a watershed moment:

Gazing out at that ornate disaster
it seemed that I could hear the moment
at the moment it was outlasted.

In a seemingly different lifetime, there are whimsical poems written to small daughters, and frightened, vigilant poems about a desperately sick spouse. “Rituxan Spring” (Rituxan: a drug made of tissues from two species) ends in wrung-out respite: “Love, let me kiss / the rodent / who died for this.”

Chapman.jpgGod — search for, absence of, faith in — especially inflects this book. The people, detritus and “delinquent palaces” (the phrase is from Emily Dickinson) of New York’s Lower East Side are no mere backdrop in the 12-part, 12-page “A Shape Within.” The poem feels flaneurist, but also questing rather than idling, ambling and recording. Seasons and the quality of urban light are constants, and constantly changing. How to turn a notebook of impressions into a performing poem? Other New York poets offer ways: Frank O’Hara with his flickering recognitions of death in the midst of headlong breathless life, Anne Winters charting psychologically-charged moments between individuals against backdrops of secular, probably atheistic, commerce and international capital. Chapman’s vision is different again. In a section of “A Shape Within” called “Grand Street,” a catalogue of sights is set inside slant visions of the numinous:

Chinatown flashed like a brain in creation:
chrome frying cages, rotisseries for sale,
fluorescent egg-glazed mung-bean buns,
silver scales brandishing smelts’ silver scales,
trim businesspeople in razored suits
inspecting growths on bulbous vegetables,
laborers stippled pale with drywall chalk
darting out of the subway tunnels,
and the tiny sages in oily rags
hobbling through the alley villages —
the light judged integral to all.

Chapman’s quest is “For intensity,” writes Ange Mlinko, aptly, on the book’s back cover. And for, I think, meaning, which might be the same thing. In “A Shape Within” the speaker searches for a spiritual communion in terms of the human, the physical and the secular. Here’s “Mercy,” the poem’s final section, in which a summer storm makes the hallway go dark “as if I’d breathed a rag of fine black lace / doused in chloroform or kissed an incubus… //Make me pure, I whispered, and a vision appeared.”

I love the speed with which Chapman shifts registers. The vision here is of Mary, mother of God, looking “medieval and weird …//… her bodice intricately/brailled with pain …” Intricate indeed, but the next line empties out into something streamlined and lovely, and brings us back into the empirical world, as Mary, in the acrid storm air, is

a cool blue shape within that burn
that left its stain on the apartment’s atmosphere
that I might remember no one once loved me there.

[Published April 15, 2015. 72 pages, $16.95 paperback]

Daisy Fried

is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice (University of Pittsburgh 2013). She is a member of the faculty of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.

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David Roderick

Wild Hundreds by Nate Marshall (University of Pittsburgh Press)

In 2014, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen offered readers (and white readers especially) an extraordinary, sophisticated view of the subtleties of racism in contemporary America. Her timely book appeared in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder and dovetailed with national news stories addressing a criminal justice system that unfairly targets and abuses young African-Americans, and African-American men in particular.

MarshallB.jpgNate Marshall’s debut, Wild Hundreds, complements and extends Rankine’s ambitious book by offering a youthful, male, urban perspective on the same themes. Trained as a spoken word performer, rapper, and activist, Marshall left Chicago’s South Side not so recently. From what I can gather, he is 26 years old, earned degrees from Vanderbilt and Michigan, and entered academia as a professor of English at Wabash College in Indiana.

One might expect the academy to temper the youthful energy and verbal dexterity of a writer such as Marshall. Fortunately that’s far from the case, as he has managed to preserve in his poetry the elements of improvisation and surprise that are elemental to live performance. The poems in Wild Hundreds thrum with energized diction, description, and sculpted rhythms that read percussively even when read silently. Here’s a short passage from a poem titled “picking flowers”:

Grandma’s rosebush
reminiscent of a Vice Lord’s do-rag.
the unfamiliar bloom in Mrs. Bradley’s yard
banging a Gangster Disciple style blue.
the dandelions all over the park putting on
Latin King gold like the Chicano Cats
over east before they turn into a puff
of smoke like all us colored boys.

I’ve devoured enough hip-hop music to detect in this passage the rapper’s vigor, propulsion, and surprise. Though Marshall doesn’t organize his lines into hip-hop’s signature couplets, he employs the dense rhythms of the tradition. Consonance such as thick “d” and “b” sounds thump through the first four lines, and assonantal “o” sounds close out the passage (“gold,” “Chicano,” “over,” “before,” “smoke,” “boys”). This sort of verbal play is the rapper’s bread-and-butter, and Marshall carries it to the page with exquisite deftness. His rhythmic arrangement feels organic and yet driven by a practiced ingenuity. Because rhythms and rhyming are chief priorities in hip-hop, there’s not much room in each line for detailed description. As a result, dense figurations, such as metaphors and similes, become crucial elements. Marshall’s metaphors spring delightful surprises. In “picking flowers,” a good example of the poet’s talent in this area is the “unfamiliar bloom” that bangs “a Gangster Disciple style blue.” The reader’s sense of delight grows even more pleasurable when the extended metaphor gathers into a sort of social commentary as the poem progresses. We understand, after reading Marshall’s brilliant descriptions of the flowers, that the young gang-members’ lives are as colorful and fleeting. What a refreshing and original juxtaposition of the urban and pastoral.

Some of Marshall’s poems are short, direct narratives that illustrate the lives of urban youth on a small, personal scale. Here is his poem “buying new shoes” in its entirety:

he sees the Nikes
boxed, beautiful,
hundred plus. he
hopes. he holds
the box under his
arm like a briefcase
for the unfortunate
business of being
told no.

MarshallCover.jpgLook at the lyricism and rhyming in that first line (“he sees the Nikes”), the keenly calibrated alliteration throughout the poem, and the figuration of the Nike box as a briefcase — which brings into relief an adolescent’s yearning for the kind of buying power he knows he might never gain. Marshall’s line breaks are crafted with tonal variations at almost every turn. “buying new shoes” is a quiet, tragic poem — the effects of a whole national economy distilled into yet another youth’s dream deferred.

Other poems in Wild Hundreds chronicle the life of the urban teen struggling to survive in the midst of violent circumstances. These poems represent the book’s most powerful work as they dare to lend a voice to a whole disenfranchised generation — the proclaimed “wild hundreds” threatened by urban gangs and the failures of the criminal justice system. The first and last poems in Wild Hundreds, titled “repetition & repetition &,” rise above the burden of having to remind us, again and again, that Black Lives Matter. The first of these poems begins:

ours is a long love song,
a push out into open air,
a stare into the barrel,
a pool of grief puddling
under our single body.
a national shame
amnesia and shame again …

we are limited to the hood
until we decide we’re not.

The collective “we” here passionately calls for hope and solidarity even as it reminds us of the many ways in which our country has failed young African-Americans. This call becomes even more direct and powerful as it drives toward an anthemic conclusion:

baby we are hundreds:
wild until we are free.
wild like amnesia
& shame,
amnesia until
we realize that it’s
crazy to keep forgetting
& we ain’t crazy
baby we are wild
we are 1.
we are love.

As the rhythmic energy tapers toward the end of this poem, Marshall speaks with a youthful authority and idealism rarely seen in American poetry. I hope the publication of Wild Hundreds signals the arrival of a new poetics that is more civically engaged and less academic in tone and prosody. If you’re interested in understanding the circumstances of urban youth in this country, and also appreciate elegantly crafted poems, track down Nate Marshall’s first book. His vital, unique voice has arrived at the right time.

[Published September 9, 2015. 69 pages, $15.95 paperback]

David Roderick

is the author of Blue Colonial and The Americans.

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Lee Upton

Dome of the Hidden Pavilion by James Tate (Ecco)

James Tate’s poems can be simultaneously devastating and buoyant, piercing and effervescent, tender-hearted and unrelenting. The poems let us breathe all the more freely for their shrewd end-runs around agreed-upon reality.

Tate.jpgDome of the Hidden Pavilion appeared in August, weeks after Tate’s death on July 8 at the age of 71. This final collection by a profoundly influential poet draws together 108 poems that refuse containment even while depending on restrictions. Tate works purposefully within general constraints: hairpin turns of conversation, usually between two voices framed by repetitive speech tags; a uniform length for poems (almost all run to the end of the page or slip over a page by no more than seven or so lines); rhythmic devices that refuse to call attention to themselves. Within those constraints he sets up poems like a series of mirror balls reflecting what we might otherwise ignore. The poems bring into consideration shifting and unreliable identities and cultural violence. They expose how a general sense of bewilderment about contemporary reality isn’t creeping up on us; bewilderment has been with us for some time now.

TateCover.jpgIn the collection, a banker is made of wind-blown leaves (an apt metaphor for our financial system), worthless antidotes are prescribed by authorities, and the wrong questions are routinely asked. A doctor dies of fright. All supposed authorities fail, for these are poems that confront unfailing mortality. Yet the poems don’t collapse into ultimate despair. Instead, Tate gives us in good measure evidence of the imagination’s vitality as a renewable power, whether he writes about delivering beer to the fairies or meeting a goddess who takes out the garbage.

In one of the collection’s most haunting and achingly sad poems, “The Afterlife,” a dead man falls out of a tree. The neighbor who discovers him isn’t alarmed. He greets the dead man:

“Well, I’ve never met a dead man. I’m
pleased to meet you,” I said. “I think you’re supposed to
scream or something,” he said. “Oh no, I’m really pleased,”
I said. It’s really kind of you to drop by.” “I didn’t
drop by. It was the wind,” he said. “And then the wind stopped
and I fell into the tree.” “How lucky for me,” I said. “You’ll
be going with me, of course, when I leave. You’ll never be
coming back,” he said.

For all the seeming absurdity of conversational turns in Tate’s poetry, the possibility of newly serious discovery awaits. What, after all, is a Dome of the Hidden Pavilion? Is it a mushroom, as line drawings on the title page suggest? Or a secret known only to those who entertain “nothingness”? In the title poem a man asks for directions to the Dome of the Hidden Pavilion. The poem’s primary speaker replies:

... “Almost nobody knows,” I said. “Then why do you know?”
he said. “Because I am the Priest of Nothingness,” I said.
“Are you really?” he said. “No, I just made that up,” I said.
“Oh, so you’re a comedian,” he said. “Yes, I’m a comedian,” I
said. “Well, you’re not very good,” he said. “I know,” I said.

Is the Dome of the Hidden Pavilion the imagination itself, especially the faculty to entertain the contradictions upon which comedy thrives? Or is the Dome that part of us that is stubbornly unknown and that we have no idea how to gain entry into? Our dilemma may be like that of the titular character in “The Blob”:

… It was drooling now, and its little red eyes popped
in and out of focus. “I hate it when you act like that. I
wish you would talk to me,” I said. It stopped wobbling
and seemed to look at me. “Talk to me,” I said. “I am an old
weathered bag,” it said. “Bag of what?” I said. “How could I know
what’s inside? I have never been there,” it said ...

Some poems by other poets judge us. We feel guilty and diminished and wanting, and that may be a source of those poems’ power. Tate’s poems work in the opposite direction. Even when a bleak narrative emerges, most often a compassionate and wonderfully wily and forgiving spirit hovers there. The poems are ingenious in their renderings of vulnerability. They are affirmative, too, because they refuse to let us avoid the weirdness of our situations, or the winsome and liberating imaginative flights we most need.

[Published August 4, 2015. 142 pages, $16.78 hardcover]

Lee Upton

is the author of Bottle the Bottle the Bottles the Bottles: Poems (2015) and The Tao of Humiliation: Stories (2014). She teaches at Lafayette College.

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Elaine Equi

Scattered At Sea by Amy Gerstler (Penguin)

I’ve long admired the way Amy Gerstler’s poems combine meticulous craft with a buoyantly effusive, surging enthusiasm that, at times, borders on the ecstatic. Often she expresses a desire to lose herself and become one with the process of endless becoming, one with desire itself. Consider this fervent request from “Sea Foam Palace”

Give me a swig of whatever
you’re drinking, to put me
in tune with the cosmos’
relentless melt, with the rhythms
of dish-washing, corn-shucking,
hard-fucking, bed-wetting, and
folding the bones of other loves
into well-dug graves … may they
never become lost to the world.

While the title of this book evokes the idea of scattering a loved one’s ashes, it also suggests a scattering of mind -- of thoughts, beliefs, remarks, lists, bits of letters, instructions, and curious facts. There are a number of poems that talk explicitly about death, in particular a suicide, and the process of mourning, but they don’t read like conventional elegies. There is grief, but also humor, inventiveness, and a healthy dose of eroticism as evidenced in these lines from “What I Did With Your Ashes:”

Shook the box like a maraca.

Stood around like a dope in my punch-colored dress, clutching your box to my chest.

Opened your plastic receptacle, the size of a jack-in-the-box. But instead of gaudy stripes, your box is sober-suit blue, hymnal blue.

Tasted them. You’ve gained a statue’s flavor, like licking the pyramids, or kissing sandstone shoulders. I mean boulders.

GerstlerCover.jpgThe emotional impact of these poems and how they navigate loss is further mediated by the fact that rather than following one narrative or set of characters, Gerstler delights in creating numerous microcosms and striking tableaus that flash up and dissolve in an instant. She is an excellent storyteller, engagingly adept at slipping into another’s point of view – as if part of a poet’s job required a readiness to inhabit a wide range of landscapes, people, animals, even inanimate objects. Among several persona poems or monologues are a “Self Portrait as Cave Lady,” and a soliloquy by “A Terribly Sentimental Fork.” This constant sense of transformation, reminiscent of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, is the subject of one of my favorite poems in the book, an “Account of Former Lives” which I’ll quote below in its entirety. In it, the speaker catalogues all of his/her past experiences in a series of wonderfully succinct and hilarious rhymed couplets:

In one life I drank so hard I always had the spins
In another life, I breast-fed several sets of twins
In one life blips of happiness
kept me contented, more or less
In another I slurped wet harvests from between her thighs
In another I lived celibate, terrified, and disguised
In one life my head was full of catchy songs and dances
In another I got high on taking awful chances.
In one life I was guillotined
In another I drank kerosene
In one life I stuttered
In another I regretted every word I ever uttered
In one life I fell from a ship’s rigging
In another I was a scrawny boy obsessed with digging
In one life I had a painful case of housemaid’s knee
In another all I ever wanted was to flee
In one life I accidentally blinded a child
In another I was soundly beaten and exiled
In one life I was a dandy with a wispy beard
In another I was a dullard who wept as sheep were sheared
In one life I was a monk who won a newborn in a bet
In this life Lord knows what is to happen yet

The lack of periods in the poem heightens the continuousness of each experience, blending the many into the one. It also showcases Gerstler’s dexterity and quick wit, as she repeatedly condenses each lifetime into a single emblematic line.

Gerstler.jpgBut one shouldn’t be deceived by Gerstler’s light-hearted banter. Behind it, there is a good deal of spirited soul-searching and real pain. From start to finish, the language of prayer suffuses this book, almost as if, for the author, the words “prayer” and “poem” could be interchangeable. There is an “Erotic Psalm,” (“If god can’t find a hole to enter us by/ he will make one.”) an “Ancestor Psalm,” “Rumbles from a Minor Deity,” a “Kitchen Annunciation,” as well as a poem entitled, “Elijah, dead prophet, roams the earth.” It seems fitting to have a mix of Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, pagan, and New Age allusions “scattered” freely throughout to offer what solace and advice they can to someone who is bereft. The Stoics and early Greek philosophers also chime in prompting the not very comforting realization: “Wild minds we have only in fragments / Because whether papyrus scraps, birch bark / Or this mortal coil / Dammit, matter just doesn’t last.”

Amy Gerstler’s writing has always had a strongly devotional side that finds the seam between the sacred and the profane – or alternately, that seeks to illuminate the sacred in the mundane. She has the passion of a mystic, but also the generous, forgiving nature of a confirmed humanist, as when she unabashedly declares, “In Search of Something to Worship, My Eyes Lighted on You.”

The book ends with a “Gratitude Prayer” whose final word is “Wow!” I have read many books of poems, but none has ever ended with “Wow!” It is so colloquial, yet reverential – so hip, so bold, so sincere but not without irony; it is, in short, so multi-faceted, so perfectly Amy. I can only echo it here.

[Published May 26, 2015. 96 pages, $20.00 paperback]

Elaine Equi’s

latest book is Sentences and Rain from Coffee House Press. Her other collections include Click and Clone, Ripple Effect: New and Selected Poems, and Voice-Over. She teaches at New York University and in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at The New School.

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Martha Silano

Grace by Moira Linehan (Southern Illinois University Press / Crab Orchard Series)

Moira Linehan’s newly released Incarnate Grace (“grace embodied in flesh”) is an extended meditation on facing mortality with a fierce and abiding attention. Chronicling the speaker’s travels from her suburban New England home to the Pacific Northwest, Ireland, France, Amsterdam and back, these poems expose the reader to a mind and heart actively engaged in the daily practice of paying attention. Birds, yarn/knitting, paintings, illuminated manuscripts, her old house’s frozen pipes: no subject is too large or small for poetic introspection — a welcome chance to make sense of a world in which she is “nothing more than a tourist / here for the moment” (“At Sainte Chapelle”). Fixing her gaze on the beauty that surrounds her, Linehan deftly demonstrates how God’s grace manifests in the physical world.

Linehan.jpgThe title of the first poem is a direct quotation from Psalm 150: “Praise Him in the Temple of the Present.” However, the first line of this poem takes this command and turns it on its head: “though who ever can?” Comparing the present to “yarn / hand-spun and coarse, slips of thatch in the skein,” Linehan sets the stage for a book whose backdrop is the emotional, religious, and philosophical turmoil wreaked on her upon learning she has a malignant margin in her right breast. Because Linehan is a poet on whom nothing is wasted, margins (in the natural landscape, as well as in illuminated texts) figure prominently throughout this nervy collection.

It takes only a few poems into the book for the speaker to move from shock and fear to “Naming It”: “This gift. Like binoculars, so I can see / up close with both eyes what’s out there” and ends “What I could not name save for these binoculars, / this new way of looking. This breast cancer,” a clear signal that the speaker (and, in turn, the reader) will not dwell in drear but instead be graced by the miracles of day-to-day living, the “white ring at the end of [a] bill” of “a ring-necked duck migrating who knows where.” It’s as if “this breast cancer” provides the speaker with a more powerful set of eyes, ones that enable her to see, reflect, and write even more clearly. For instance, in “Wild Swans at Winter Pond,” she notices the yearly return of two swans, surmising how:

They have no purpose in this pond
save their own incarnate grace. And why don’t I see my claim
as no less?

This questioning of one’s own worth and purpose is threaded throughout. In “Calling,” she declares herself (gorgeously, I might add)

a lozenge in the world’s mouth.
Not nothing. At least infinity’s last
nesting doll. Maybe a nanosecond
of rain in the desert

And in the penultimate poem, “Last Wishes,”

let my leaving
be an imprint of grace: the eagle
I once saw drift down over a river,
extend its talons, graze over the water, and lift.
The imprint of that long, slow swoop —

In both instances the speaker, in coming to terms with her own body’s limits, allows the reader to do the same. In recalling her childhood chapel, we are reminded that “something’s always being bull- / dozed something’s always rising” (“[The Way You Used to Enter]”). The speaker yearns to be healed, as in the poem “Against the Slow-Falling Snow,” wherein she spots a bird’s “flash of pale red” and “feast[s] on that ruin of color” against “the year’s unending snow.” Balancing courage and fear comes to a head in “Ferry,” where she announces, “Charon’s /already claimed [her] as his passenger,” yet, “so slowly do we glide I don’t even know I’m on board.”

LinehanCover.jpgOne of my favorite poems in Incarnate Grace, “The Plumber Said,” reminds me (with fondness) of Robert Frost’s dialogue-rich poems (think “Death of a Hired Hand” and “Home Burial”). Here, the plumber’s words take center stage: “Don’t you see how it slopes down toward the valve?” (a loose-iambic line of ordinary speech Mr. Frost would admire). Because the speaker is open to who or whatever crosses her path, she contemplates his intonation that she must “live with it,” asking “But when have I ever lived with / anything?” While reasoning that “Eventually everything thaws, even grief,” and resolving to wait it out, she doesn’t spare us the truth in the final line: “I tell you, never have I been so long so cold.”

These moments of un-sugar-coated frankness place Linehan’s poems in a category not only with Frost but with the unflinching voices of Seamus Heaney, Wislawa Szymborska, and Eavan Boland (whom she pays homage to in the aforementioned “Calling”). Dipping into this book is as bracing as a dip in an icy sea, listening to what it says:

Face it.
You’re a dot on the landscape, a sheep’s droppings
before this god.

Bracing, but worth the plunge.

[Published March 16, 2015. 69 pages, $15.95 paperback]

Martha Silano

is the author of four books of poetry, including The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception and Reckless Lovely, both from Saturnalia Books.

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Gillian Conoley

The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven by Brian Teare (Ahsahta Press)

Abstract Expressionist Agnes Martin (1912-2004) used a limited palette with lines and grids hovering over subtle, sometimes barely perceptible, grounds or washes of color. Space, metaphysics, internal emotional states (happiness, joy, freedom, innocence, non-attachment) are continually explored through drawing, printmaking, and painting. As Brian Teare tells us in his preface to his striking new collection, The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, Martin was often thought of erroneously as a minimalist, though the work is expansive and spiritual as the best of Rothko (whom she praised as “having reached zero so nothing could stand in the way of truth”).

TeareCover.jpgFor Martin, the grid became a ground through which a mythic or mystical expression could find presence, flight, release. Like John Cage, Agnes Martin experienced a life-changing, aesthetic revelation once she encountered Zen Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki, whom she heard lecture at Columbia. After living from 1957-67 in Manhattan, she headed west, built her own adobe studio, and lived and worked largely as a recluse in New Mexico until her death. Martin absorbed Zen thought as ethical code. Her own aphoristic writings influenced many artists, writers, and critics drawn to both her disavowal of the art world, and to her commitment to the purity of creation.

Many of Martin’s writings carry the weight and humor of Zen koans: “The worse thing you can think about when you’re painting is yourself. It will stand right in front of you, and you make mistakes.” In a video interview conducted by Chuck Smith and Sono Kuwayama in Taos in 1997, Martin says, “I don’t have any ideas myself. I have a vacant mind, to do exactly what the inspiration calls for. It seems today that the artists have the inspiration, but before they can get anything onto canvas, they’ve had about 50 ideas.” In this rare footage of a major American artist, one discovers a generous ascetic given to short responses: “I used to meditate before I trained myself to stop thinking. Then I learned to stop thinking ... I gave up evolution, atomic theories, all thinking, so that when something comes into the mind you can see it.” One of the most quoted aphorisms of Martins’: “I think everyone is born 100% ego, and after that it’s just adjustment.”

Teare.jpgLike other artists before him, such as critic and filmmaker Lizzie Borden, or artists and writers Jill Johnston, Douglas Crimp, and Hugh Behm-Steinberg, Brian Teare, in writing The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, engaged in a long study, relation, and aesthetic conversation with Agnes Martin, seeking out her work in all available galleries and museums, catalogues, and writings. In his preface, however, he explains, “Those who were compelled to visit Martin in New Mexico often felt they did not wish to disappoint her by falling short of the ideals she and her art embodied with admirable and rigorous purity. Alone with her work for many years, I felt the same way until I didn’t.”

And so with Teare, we get a poet who is sorting through her ideas, entering the work in a way that ekphrastic work often does not: through inquiry, argument, and yes, sometimes, agreement –– though he is no acolyte. Instead, Teare is engaged in his own journey through a chronic illness. He first discovers Agnes Martin at the onset of the disease, and found in her Writings, and in particular “The Untroubled Mind,” an ease, a possible respite from pain. How can one write oneself into empty mind so the pain disappears? In one poem, Teare writes:

reading Agnes Martin
on the bus I think
about her “perfection”
for about four blocks
until I begin to hate it

in the drawings I love
she leaves evidence
of process fraying
the grid’s edge
like leftover math

This seeking, skeptical, questing impulse, driven by a seriously ill human being seeking relief and comfort (the happiness, the release Martin’s work often promises and provides) is what separates this book so exquisitely from ekphrasis (which we should remember in Greek means “to define”). It seems that if, like Martin, Teare can get himself to quit thinking, he can move past the pain. And so, throughout the book, it is as if Teare lays the grid of his poem onto the grid of Martin’s paintings. The titles of his poems are either titles of Martin’s work or excerpts of her writing. One witnesses an artist (poet) sorting, pushing through, engaging deeply into the work of another. It may be important here to remember that Teare is not only a poet but a fine book maker and printer. One senses the physical hand and placement of Martin in this book as much as one experiences the care and exactitude of Teare’s hand. In the first poem, “watercolor and graphite on paper, fifteen by fifteen inches,” Teare writes:

:: and complete because of its tensionsI am speaking ::

:: of illness and the critical situation it revealsas my own ::

:: embodied gazethe loom upon which materiality turns ::

:: pictorial its likeness to fabric heightened by fibers swollen ::

:: torqued by tintcaught in its operationsI insert a knot ::

:: between the warp and weft of the observed surface words ::

:: to stop the work of the lyricto stop the mortal thought ::

Many of Teare’s poems enact a grid-like surface, while others allow a reader to read the lyric either horizontally, vertically, diagonally, or circuitously, as though to indicate there is no one way in, but many. This process reproduces how one might gaze at an Agnes Martin painting–– with our eyes free to roam a grid just before or at the moment one sees a whole or gestural shape released:

illness shares
its few virtueswith artpain
as anomalous
as imagination

in not being “of”
or “for” anything

even language
lacks the quality
of their solitude

pure process
like artillness is

Perhaps most thrilling is the way Teare creates a third space between the work of Agnes Martin and his own lyric. Teare invites us into the work as one might be invited into a room:

to write is to draw
between the mark
and its support
the soft grid a size
I can walk into

Throughout the book one senses the slow, careful building of Teare’s extraordinarily crafted poems; each word feels almost carved then pinned to the page, as one would hang a print on a wall: “I needle each word / until it bleeds” is the last line of a poem that begins with the more casual, wry, Zen-like tone of “illness means a lot less / self which isn’t so bad.”

AgnesMartin.jpgAgnes Martin was born in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan in 1912. One of the few details we know about her life is that she claimed she could remember the exact moment of her birth, entering our universe as a small figure with a sword: “I was very happy. I thought I would cut my way through life ... victory after victory.” Martin’s mother, however, was a silent, rejecting figure, and Martin felt despised as a child. Martin revealed to her friend journalist Jill Johnston that in later years she did come to find value from the sternness, rejection and emotional pain inflicted by her mother: self-discipline, solitude, and self-reliance. Teare weaves these biographical details of Martin’s life beautifully into the imposed discipline and solitude one also experiences in illness. The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven is full of poems that pierce, ache, and arrive at a rare courage. Eventually, in some of the most haunting, gorgeously rendered lines, both Martin and Teare dissolve, and art reigns:

a little figure with a swordI have this mind
I thought I was goingfrom present to future

to cut my way through lifeno joyno sorrow
victory after victory I was surethis body steadfast

I was going to do itone thousand three hundred nights

[Published October 1, 2015. 81 pages, $18.00 paperback]

Gillian Conoley’s

most recent books are Peace, a collection of poems from Omnidawn, and a translation, Thousand Times Broken: Three Books by Henri Michaux from City Lights (2014).

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Oliver de la Paz

Sand Opera by Philip Metres (Alice James Books)

Phil Metres' Sand Opera is an interrogation of the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and the ways in which stories, much like the bodies of the men, women, and children that bear them, are subject to further violence and annihilation through the manipulation, redaction, and destruction of the various texts they generate. In fact, the book’s title is a redaction of "Standard Operating Procedure" with parts of "Standard" creating "Sand" and the first half of the word "Operating" becoming "Opera." But the book goes beyond a simple erasure poetry project. In key ways, Metres represents the violated bodies of those who are part of the story but no longer have the agency to own their own words.

The sequence opens with "Illumination of the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew" where Metres writes:

they bend & tend to him / as if
tailors or healers & not rending

skinning from limb / their eyes
narrowing knives . . .

MetresCover.jpgThere are multiple accounts of his death but all agree that St. Bartholomew was flayed alive and crucified. A statue of St. Bartholomew rendered by Marco d'Agrate reveals the upright saint draped with his own skin around his shoulders, the striated muscles visible in the likeness. Things once hidden beneath the skin are now bared and are closer to the air where the wounds are seen. The flaying of the body is an act of violence that denies self-hood -- the skin that once formed over the muscles and bones to shape the contour of the self, taken. Metres' book, much like the statue, reveals what lies beneath the skin. What's particularly extraordinary about Sand Opera is how it performs the act of erasure through direct and indirect actions that make, in the end, the reader complicit. The story of St. Bartholomew's martyrdom becomes the thematically centralizing premise in Sand Opera -- the idea of the skin being removed or redacted in text.

The book is structured in five acts like a polyvocal libretto in which many voices rise, are erased, and disappear. The set pieces move, change, and transform. One poem that demonstrates the book's multi-voiced nature but also its dynamic form is "Black Site (Exhibit M)," a poem in two page layers. When placed together, the layers read as testimony and portray one of the Abu Ghraib sites:

the doctor with the disfigured
hand shined a light on me
noted my marks
on a diagram of the human body.

The dual-layer text is followed by a blueprint schematic of the torture area. On turning the transparent page, the image of the schematic disappears, leaving a blank space where the lines "the doctor told me I was going / to a better 'place'" close the poem. Pages, much like skin, are turned, pulled, removed, and reveal the raw nerve-endings of an exposed body.

Throughout Sand Opera, voices are also redacted by black marks. These erasures eerily parallel the removal of flesh described in the first poem. In "The Blues of Lane McCotter" Iraqis appear:

all of them missing
their hands or their

■■■■ story

Further, in "The Blues of Ken Davis" the speaker testifies about the tortures he witnessed and states:

you still can hear ■■■■■■■■
■■■■■■■■■■■
■■■■■■■■■■■■■■

And again in "Testimony (after Daniel Heyman)":

They stripped the father and son, this man says,
■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■
They made the father strike the son.

Metres.jpegThere are other erasures and redactions that occur in other forms. For example, one of the series of poems entitled "(echo/ex)" contains no direct black mark redaction signifiers but rather reveals only the pronouns of what must be the remains of a redacted testimony cascading down the page in a shower of signifiers.

Cumulatively, all of the erasures within Sand Opera at once create the sense that the reader is actually viewing censored documents put forward by a US Government agency, the sense that bodies are in peril, and the sense that the reader is "skinning" the body with "their eyes/narrowing knives." It is a chilling book that piercingly interrogates language, power, and how it is possible for words to embody even in their ghostly and obliterated remains.

[Published January 13, 2015. 100 pages, $16.95 paperback]

Oliver de la Paz

teaches at Western Washington University and in the low-res MFA Program at PLU. His fourth collection of poems is Post Subject: A Fable (2014). He is a founding member of Kundiman.

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Eric Ekstrand

Anyone by Nake Klug (University of Chicago Press)

Anyone is a blade of a book, not only because of its width. Klug’s aesthetic is a study in what restraint can open — and I want to call his poems perfect now, not as compared to anything else, but because they couldn’t be another way, perfect in themselves. Ideas in a setting rendered as careful sound pared to essentials: it’s like his theory of poetry is just trying to be a regular poet, but why am I exhilarated?

All along the chopped-up sidewalk
(the need to keep

breaking what we make
to keep making)
the concrete saw
plunges and resurfaces,

precise as a skull;
it glints against
the small smoke
of its own work.

The mind and faith (the skull) sharpened into (by?) language “glints against,” “plunges and resurfaces,” “breaks,” “keeps,” “chops,” “makes,” “keeps,” “makes.” You will think of Dickinson and also Bishop in her obsession with surfaces and what lies beneath them difficult to tell. A poem or two after “Work” quoted above, the image of something sharp glinting against smoke that is small and semi-subterranean is projected to the heavens in “Milton’s God” where “a ponderous thunderhead” (hear the puns on “ponder” and “head”) is momentarily lit from inside by lightning “flipped / like a flashcard” (see the line break as a pun), borrowing a description from the Third Book of Paradise Lost,

edges crinkling in, linings so dark
with excessive bright

that, standing, waiting, at the overpass edge,
the onlooker couldn’t decide

until the end, or even then,
what was revealed and what had been hidden.

Klug.jpgWhile Bishop’s presiding metaphor is the shell, Klug’s is the edge: both as what cuts-through and as what’s in-between. As in Bishop, the reader is shown everything and has the nagging sense that what is most important has been withheld — a poetics; also, Klug tells us, a life of faith/thinking. In “Work,” I haven’t told you yet, but the concrete saw blade “turtles” into its handle.

Here is what Milton says, “ . . . thee, Author of all being, / Fountain of light, thyself invisible / Amidst the glorious brightness where thou sitt’st / Throned inaccessible; but when thou shadest / The full blaze of thy beams, and through a cloud / Drawn round about thee like a radiant shrine, / Dark with excessive bright thy skirts appear, / Yet dazzle heaven . . .” It is unfair to put Milton next to any young poet, but I don’t think Klug would mind. The two are both trying to discern what perception has to do with Being. In a cheerfully odd poem called, “Letter of Introduction, Samuel Palmer to His Patron,” Klug writes in persona,

I like the look of light
ruffling mosses and knotgrass, the way
perception rambles to catch upon
the particular heat of an oak tree’s

barky furrows: a life,
in other words, spent far from globosities
of Art, and not without its own
excesses . . .

Perception is to “catch upon” life (we will take up that word “catch” later) by “rambling” — that might seem like a misplaced word in a collection as manicured as this one, though think of wandering the upland moors as well — distinct from any cosmopolitan Art, nothing so fully-formed as that, but happens in glimpses under “spoiled spectacles” like those shot from the side while passing young women in the decidedly not cosmopolitan Lancaster. Mortal perception won’t access the ground of Being, but isn’t it fun anyway?

A translation from the Aeneid (remember that the deathbed edition of Paradise Lost is arranged in twelve books in homage to the Aeneid) printed en face with a poem called “The Choice,” argue a further paradox: faith/thinking is both stilling and mercurial. The war in Latium is stirring early in Book Eight (read Rude Woods to hear more of Virgil in an English that is dutifully clear, and do not misunderstand me to mean only “understandable”) and Aeneas has just heard from the envoy Venulus that Turnus holds the Latin citadel and is gathering force to rival the Trojans. Aeneas, the tactician, begins to play-out all the available moves in his mind, but graspingly “as if to elaborate his fate from every angle were to understand it,” a moment familiar to the anxious that is given this striking figure:

so the light
held within a copper bowl
of water, shaking back the sun
or a moon’s glimmering particles,
will flit and work upon the walls
and crannies in the empty room,
rising to strike the ceiling, trembling,

though both water and bowl are still

Klug gives this selection the title “Thinking,” and there is that word “work” again, “will flit and work upon the walls.” Notice also the recurring treatment of light across the poems as a metaphor for the mind and as really light. To pull-apart the image, though I probably needn’t, the mind itself is still but its thinking projected, reflected, tremulous. On the next page, the reader is presented with a choice:

To stand sometime
outside my faith

to steady it
caught and squirming on a stick
up to mind’s
inviting light

and name it!
for all its faults and facets

or keep waiting

to be claimed in it

KlugCover.jpgThe work of naming, which the speaker undertakes, is contrasted with being claimed in the faith the speaker struggles to name, that is “catch”— a claiming the speaker has no say in, so to speak. Rest and effort together: it sure sounds like writing a poem, it sure sounds like thinking. Memorializing the return from Babylon, the anonymous prophet of the 6th century BCE whose writing is later attributed to Isaiah ben Amoz, sings, “Comfort ye my people . . . make straight in the desert a highway for our God. / Every valley shall be exalted / and every mountain and hill shall be made low: / and the crooked shall be made straight, / and the rough places plain . . .” But it is still a desert to travel even on the King’s Road and Israel was in Babylon a long time. Liturgically, Klug tells us, Anyone is an Advent book.

[Published March 26, 2015. 64 pages, $18.00 paperback]

Eric Ekstrand

is the author of Laodicea, selected by Donald Revell for the Omnidawn 1st/2nd Poetry Prize, published in April 2015. Ekstrand teaches at Wake Forest University and is a former Ruth Lilly Fellow.