PATRICK JAMES DUNAGAN Reviews
Life by Elizabeth Arnold
(Flood Editions, Chicago, 2014)
A Several World by Brian Blanchfield
(Nightboat Books, Callicoon, 2014)
The Open Secret by Jennifer Moxley
(Flood Editions, Chicago, 2014)
Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008 by Hoa Nguyen
(Wave Books, Seattle, 2014)
WORKING THE WORK: REVIEW AS REMIX
Anselm Berrigan’s Introduction to Hoa Nguyen's Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008 looks back at the loose, young poet-coterie of friends and associates himself and Nguyen were part of in San Francisco during the late 1990s citing Robert Creeley's admonishment "to regain authority for the innate coherence of whatever it is that we propose as life" as a defining proposal. Berrigan sees an engagement with Creeley's charge an innate piece of their evolving lives as young poets at the time and key to their work. Indeed Creeley's words may be said to stand in back of many a poet's work. They are certainly embraced and expanded upon by all the recent collections remixed for review here: Elizabeth Arnold's Life, Brian Blanchfield's A Several World, Jennifer Moxley's The Open Secret, and of course Nguyen's Red Juice.
Creeley's words may be seen to serve as keel for a shared, insistent need upon which to frame response to large, rather opaque, if not arguably downright vacuous, yet nevertheless ever relevant questions. Namely: What is life? Where is meaning to be found in it? How? These are among the most basic of questions to be confronted by the poet's consciousness once the needs of shelter and food are met. While the distracting demands of advancing digital communication technology and subsequent entanglements only seem to increase daily these basic questions remain the same. A search for "innate coherence" within the messiness of it all continues unabated.
"something to go home for
and begrudge a little, a gentle
but not binding lease on this
supposedly commodious freedom
(we check messages like addicts)"
(Moxley, "The Longing for Something to Protect")
Caught up in the onslaught, the poet checks her daily experience for a measure of solidity; looking for a spot of physical, grounded space in which to trust. Allowing for a moment when her preferences might arise and attract her attention over those outside distractions to which all of us are increasingly discover ourselves otherwise subservient.
"To find indoors the bell ringing, ringing still, recommender
thereby of bells, answerable man high in his range.
Where can I submit this preference over digital?"
(Blanchfield, "Thank You Mood")
In the act of writing the poem the poet reverts to the physical fact of her body within the surroundings she lives in, asking herself, on behalf of everybody, what's now left as pertinent.
"What's lost? A possible us
growing like new foliage out of stony ground, emerging?
Last voice, first, a whole world calling---
awful, inaudible---into the unstoppable loud (roaring!)"
(Arnold, "Looking at Maps")
Thankfully, and not for nothing, the pleasures found in looking remain. Wondrously staring about, the poet lets herself be consumed by wandering thought: poems of days passing. The daily is always a dependable context for the poem's occasion.
"grey laundry sky
soaked through sun knowing
or to name narrows some
sense in me wishing fish
would swim through air multicolored
(orange white red) going somewhere"
The poet also often repeatedly turns to describing a state of loss... of some kind, somehow. The poem is not always any more assured or assuring than the poet herself.
Moxley, for instance, describes how "the soaked crow," sacred to many a poet (see Anselm Hollo),
"has lost his definition. His smooth
bird outline and shiny blue-black
feathers---once used by poets
to describe the color of
their beloved's hair---
are dulled and dripping. He seems
attired in unkempt fur, wooly.
Like a yak."
Is this not an adequate metaphor for what might be said of the state of poetry itself? Does it not feel that many a poet these days is found bleakly scattering lines uselessly aiming for coherence amidst a confusing swirl of piled up references and historical note-takings?
Blanchfield's "The City State" sees us as all in it together. Dragged into the unavoidably drifting nature of remembrance that is but a continual forgetting, the opening lines of the poem recall a historical scenario: "Remember in Corinth, walking home from the piers, wet / in the aftermath of a squall?" While the closing lines return us to the present day:
"[...] Remember how soon
we found none of the old options applied. Talk. Listen. Door.
I do this one thing all day long and so do you, I know now, first
Corinthians. I squat on the fire escape for better connection."
We're left by the poem's end in the shared tatters of our present daily living with our desire for a "better connection" to the wireless world. A reality in which we're seemingly always stuck either wanting or waiting.
However there is in poetry's exploration of observation record of the possibility for many surprising revelation, visually imaginative or other.
"Look: the palace wall's on fire---no!
It's made of water."
(Arnold, "Campo San Barnaba")
The poet is tasked with confronting the vast unheralded mass of history's weight, aware how evident it is what a sagging lot we're all wading through. Moxley's "The Various Silences Lie in Shadow" relates the struggle through the lens of the Eurydice/Orpheus myth. From it's opening:
"Your lyre is muffled with silk, a column of darkness,
A sheltered self, some kind of hell. It follows and dampens
The harkening, who is singing in the distance?
I can hear nothing from this shore."
To the third and final section:
“[...] Those faces in the darkness
Are not an illusion. Sparagmos: and he will rejoin Eurydice
In pieces. The notes come free of the staff, the song scatters
As leaves from the branch. Yet these songs cannot be
Lost or depleted. Open your lyre to the sky and catch them."
Moxley lays out the charge that comes with the picking up of this "lyre." Why bother to give one's life to this art at all? Whereas Nguyen sees it as part of the same struggle of a continual self-doubt, questioning: Why be this "Maker-of-useless-things / write poems" ("Calm-lived") where's the payoff to this activity? Again: "Why try / to revive the lyric" ("Up Nursing”)
With every poem the search is constant. A search for
Alive, or only
seeming to be living?"
Along the way poets echo other poets, combing through each other's salient tropes and associated images, attempting to master form; possessed by the unassailable desire to figure a means out for capturing the elusive qualities behind the work itself.
Blanchfield, perhaps unwittingly, echoes Wallace Stevens:
always has a jar, this one, too, large
enough to contain much more"
chemical happening when he
made the sound in the jar sound?"
Container for the nothing that equals everything: a poet's assumption of order.
"So I can be anything but empty doll
all jammed body doll a pregnancy
to be 'natural'"
(Nguyen, "[I'm almost your cat's pajamas]")
Moxley’s "Gray-eyed Athena" describes it as "This language I stumble over, that language I long for," yet despite all the unavoidable longing there's still the assertion of the poem’s absolute relevancy:
"Words are not the compromise
I made because I could not sing. Writing is not a failure.
Reading does help."
The meaning of the poem arrives bound within its making: the creation of a shared sense of reality.
"Him I found in the dative case
thrown concussive on the very air, west expectancy:
he said I sat close enough to notice if I wanted
his black eyes burgeon at cruising altitude
and before descent he could, he believed, if I wanted,
taste it rocking back,
like dialing a memory."
(Blanchfield, “Nurse Mustn't Rummage")
Material for poetry is discovered in every aspect of life, even as despair only seemingly mounts. Broken as things may be felt to be there's always the business of rebuilding to strengthen the resolve to continue no matter how bleak the outlook: the poem as sorting house of dispirited means where myth and history merge with the imagination.
"The statue was said to make the sound
of a lyre string snapping at dawn
---some called it singing---
until the emperor ordered repairs
and Memnon never sang again.
Two millennia later
we broke. We'd
become too seated,
lounging around the big house in our
separate rooms, in the same room
---the pieces of us
ever to be regathered by the god?
Regathered apart in separate cities
a thousand miles between
we are reborn."
(Arnold, "Osiris in Pieces")
Poems must be made from what's at hand. The poet is to be found delighting in the poem’s advancing discovery of its own means.
"I think I've found my building blocks. I know how now."
(Blanchfield, "Brownie's Motel Plus”)
As the poet learns from what's worked before.
"Mix up your human parts with animals'
Ibis head and neck
Bird staff (carved)
A letter-scramble carried in a shallow dish:
Gate wheel speaks and entreats
Goddess of Darkness Egyptian Venus"
(Nguyen, "Dying Light")
Moxley's "R.I.P." performs a benedictory prayer of after-the-fact re-envisioning life for predecessor poets gone before. Presenting a careening journey, from Hart Crane
"put on a jacket and sailed to Mexico,
calmly came up on deck, folded
the jacket over the rail, and then---
arrested by a vision of spread-eagled sailors
descending like angels through
the turquoise sky---"
to John Wieners, or perhaps its James Schuyler, maybe both
to swallow the sea, freed from Payne Whitney,
walked right on through the psychiatric
state hospital and out the other side,"
onwards to freely meshing Charles Olson and Frank O'Hara references
"the dead liver tissue miraculously mended,
smoker's cough silenced, cured by sea air
of old gray Gloucester, jumped into
the beach taxi and drove down the beach
gesticulating gaily toward the setting sun,"
Moxley would have these poets (all notably male)
"not undone, unloved, forgotten, nor
filled with despair, not punished for talking
with angels, not unhappy or alone,
not misrepresented nor misunderstood
nor nauseous from drink or drugs or depression,"
reversing tragic circumstances of their lives, to have them
"loved respected and read
long-lived healthy and happy
celebrated by all in life before
dying contented in a comfortable bed." (34)
Scattered to varying degrees on the edges of society, tossing their selves to the wind, as it were, for poetry's sake, Moxley returns these poets to the body: i.e., the earth.
As Allen Ginsberg's closes his 1954 "Song":
I always wanted,
I always wanted,
to the body
where I was born.
The words crunched out in the earth under the feet. Poets dig in. Letting the poems bear witness. The trick, as Creeley’s words ever remind, is for the poet to "regain authority" by way of aligning her bearings with the pursuit of whatever she has decided upon to "propose as life." Looking about the expansive scene(s) found within poetry world today, there's a deluge of possibilities continually thrown out by innumerable poets yet few hit the high marks reached by Moxley, Arnold, Blanchfield, and Nguyen. The poet confronted by the chaotic nature of the world erects the poem to gain a foothold against the torrent.
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. Other recent book reviews by him appear at American Book Review, Bookslut, Entropy, New Pages, Rain Taxi, and The Rumpus. Das Gedichtete (Ugly Duckling) appeared in 2013.