December 2013


Bleed Through by Michael Davidson

Bleed-Through-375x515Bleed Through
by Michael Davidson
Coffee House Press, Dec 2013
256 pages / $17.95  Buy from Coffee House or Amazon








“Perhaps having power is like having images.” If the concentration of images behaves gravitationally, then may we be approaching a point of collapse? Sure are a lot of pictures out there these days. The basic law of structure formation in the universe is collapse. And perhaps ‘having’ images is an affliction linked to memory, that trick of consciousness which allows humans to substitute pronouns like me and I, us and you, into the visions that bubble up during the increasingly rare moments during which one is not in a state of interface. It seems we have ever more such ‘moments’ to cope with. One inverse outcome of the surveillance state is we now have a population which is pumping images into circulation as never before. Michael Davidson’s career retrospective Bleed Through resists this proliferation as a collection and yet accedes, on a poem-to-poem basis, to the idea that even an initially smooth distribution of matter will fall in upon itself. Images are conflated with words, and disintegrate from line to line, blurring across the sparsely punctuated sentences, as in Ready to Hand:

…it feels like ochre, a middle
in which a memo

is written, black crows
perch on the ledge
a small man below
becomes an object

and I seize it, it
comes off in my hands
like a handle
where there had been an intention

not to hurt
but to effect change
I wrote out the words
as though placing my hands

on a throat
it felt soft
and the blood was familiar
like middle C…

Davidson is well aware of a kind of useful violence latent in the process of reference as a professor of English, but in his poetry he seems to allow himself a moment of reflection. The title suggests that whatever is released by trying to grasp a scene, thing, or person is vital residue, but that the writing itself is in one sense confinement of the energy that suffuses the subject. Confinement here is a communal condition, and materializes as poetry, as criticism, and as image, in ways that are transparent about leaving something out. The ‘leaving something out’ is critical to allowing the subjects room to breathe an air of impossibility, which is what makes these poems semblances of life as a professor. A group of new poems is called ‘Bad Modernism’, scenes ‘between rationalism and whatever is left out’. The subjects that dwell here, in the most recent poems, generally resist being totalized, by way of their gentle intrusions into, and unexplained exits from, the world of each poem. While Davidson’s poetry is often grouped with the language movement, this is probably a bit inaccurate. While sometimes upending grammarians and often explicit about the pitfalls of language, a lyric relationship is still often present, if immaterial. His major output has been criticism, not poems, over the last decade, and this collection, although this collection is hailed as ‘A book we have needed for a very long time‘. I don’t think there’s any literature vital to our survival as a species, but I’m a pessimist unlike Ron Silliman. A grouping of things –systems, signs, speakers– will eventually not exert enough pressure outwards in aggregate to support its superstructure, and this is when collapse is imminent.

The collection spans thirty-five years of poetry, and narrows the work down to a single volume, so it is a well-contained environment. The distribution of the pronouns he uses changes as the reader moves from the older to the newer books, and recently the second-person singular has populated like wildfire in zones that used to be by and large by a first-person, and permutations of the third person. One of Davidson’s new and previously unpublished poems, The Friend, closes when “even the pronoun is laced with lime / as you pack it, ball and powder, / into a long gun, fire / and the report knocks you dead.” The friend in question turns away from the I, and dances gavottes on his back with his wife, turning the narrator into a piano of doubt. But the piano starts to sound like the same melodic register after some time. The same philosophical problems are sounded out via collage. Sometimes sounds of the program of inclusivity and access, sometimes reports that knock someone dead, but always the distant thunder of personal catastrophe bound up with the language of violence and questions about reference, as in the chilling ‘Before the Event’:

In the sex light
he meant a street lamp
she glowed over roiling water
spread along a passage

from him to her
in the street the cars
rolled along the pavement,
he thought

to point her out
among the stars
her womb a cup
his cock the handle

simple blackness
with a plan
like a man about to
mean something.

This poem displays a high correlation between sexual violence and some of the essential components of anglo-american language philosophy which has risen to power in the academy in the aftermath of Wittgenstein. Davidson’s objections to the way of living prevalent in the current academic labor force are present in different ways throughout the collection, although he has been affiliated with UC-San Diego in some capacity for over 30 years. Language poetry at its worst draws attention to its own ineffability while lording the power of the maker in a snide, academic way.There exists no image that contains the pain of having one’s home ravaged by a storm. But one can have so-called ‘philosophical’ interests and admit to being powerless before them. Language poetry at its best seems to perform a collapse of the rules of its system for a user of the language. Davidson’s work is filled with such moments of open vulnerability before the operations of the various systems. After one listens to so much loud music, deafness falls, but once everything is pictured what will become of the shadows?


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December 23rd, 2013 / 12:00 pm


Little Inferno Review

Little-Inferno_WiiU_coverLittle Inferno
Available on PC, Wii U, iOS, Android
Buy on Steam





The world is getting colder. Up past your chimney, the snow is coming down thick and fast. It’s been this way for years, but nobody seems to know, or really care, why. Whatever the reason, weather like this…it can’t possibly last forever. So why bother trying to figure it out?

Why bother going outside at all when you’ve got your very own Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace, courtesy of Tomorrow Corporation? It’ll keep you warm and entertained forever, or as long as you’ve got stuff to burn, which is basically saying the same thing. Thanks to the many letters and catalogs that keep arriving mysteriously on your fireside mantel, it will be a long while before you run out of stuff to burn. Of course that, too, can’t possibly last forever. But why worry about the future, or the past, when you can live in an eternally incandescent present?

Little inferno tomorrow corp

The aptly named Tomorrow Corporation is more than just a faceless, philanthropic corporate entity within the world of Little Inferno; it’s also the name of the independent game development studio made up of former World of Goo developers Kyle Gabler and Allan Blomquist, along with Henry Hatsworth‘s Kyle Gray. Combining elements of Seussian satire, Tim Burton-esque morbidity, and religious awe, Little Inferno (now available on multiple PC and mobile operating systems, as well as Wii U) delivers a harsh but winking upbraiding of the gaming industry, the wider entertainment, and industry as a whole; so harsh, in fact, that many critics at the time of its November 2012 release just couldn’t stomach it, finding the game unplayable and impossible to recommend. As the most important selling season of the year reaches its climax, however, and the various app stores flood with millions of Christmas and post-Christmas shoppers, this weird, cozy anti-game is worth revisiting—if nothing else, as a cautionary tale.

I call it an anti-game because, while there are moments of effervescent joy to be found in the playing, Little Inferno‘s best elements sit just outside the frame of its purposefully limited gameplay canvas, which tends closer to “toy” than “game.” To describe Little Inferno‘s design philosophy as “one note” would be to severely underrepresent its monocular POV and single-minded sense of purpose. In a rare example of truth in advertising, the Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace does exactly and only what the packaging suggests. The player is offered only three ways of interacting with its cheerfully bleak world: click through Tomorrow Corporation’s various themed catalogs to send items to your mailbox, drag items out to stack them just so in the fireplace, and click anywhere within the fireplace to ignite that pile of old toys, correspondences, binding contracts or personal memories. And until its horizon-expanding conclusion, Little Inferno provides you only one view of the world, staring into the bright heart of the fire itself. As your neighbor, Sugar Plumps, writes, “I can stare into the fire forever, but not backwards… .”

Letters from Sugar Plumps and a few other key characters, including Miss Nancy, CEO of Tomorrow Corporation; and The Weatherman, “reporting from the Weather Balloon, over the smoke stacks, over the city,” form the core of Little Inferno‘s narrative—a narrative that seems at times absurd, at times ominous, but always serves to reinforce the critiques leveled by the game’s structure. Textual elements, such as the refrain of “it can’t last forever,” repeated references to a relentless, irreversible march forward (Sugar Plumps’s typography is idiosyncratic at best; the reason, as we find out later, is that her keyboard has lost its Delete key, so that “The possibilities go FORWARD forever! But can’t ever go back.”), and the forbiddingly cold weather (Sugar Plumps writes in another letter: “The city is fillllled with people! … I can see theeeir chimneys…and smell the smoooke! … But even though they are everywhere…they are far away like leeetle burning galaxies…with leeettle smoking chimneys on their heads! Ooooo it makes me cooold!”)—even if their meaning is not immediately clear, these all form the emotional backdrop for the player’s activities…which, as mentioned previously, revolve almost exclusively around burning things.

little inferno fireplaceAs any young pyro can attest, combustion is an exciting but brief event; like everything else in this game, it can’t last forever. And once you’ve burned something, it’s gone; you can’t ever go backwards. This element made Little Inferno a difficult game for critics to review. On the one hand, all burnable objects react in often surprising and always entertaining ways. Heavenly bodies (in miniature, naturally) exert a very localized gravity that causes other objects to orbit around them; “Kitty Kitty Poo Poo” releases massive quantities of fast-burning cat excrement; mysterious wooden idols sing in three-part harmony; and a floppy disc containing the Little Inferno beta causes the fire effects to briefly tranform into blocky, low-resolution pixels. Combining these objects in different ways can cause chain reactions and emergent situations, increasing the entertainment value further.


December 23rd, 2013 / 11:05 am

20.5 “Books” I Found Especially Beautiful in 2013

Johannes Göransson said on Facebook that one thing he doesn’t like about the “list”-based idea of criticism is: “that you can’t challenge it. You’re not allowed to say: No this list is mediocre or whatever. Then you’re not a nice person.”

Here’s a list of books I’ve only read four of but find especially aesthetically pleasing. Be a nice person.


Brandon Brown – Flowering Mall – Roof Books

Dana Ward – This Can’t Be Life – Edge Books

Graham Foust – To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems – Flood Editions

Roger Luckhurst – The Shining – BFI Publishing

Vladimir Nabokov – The Eye – Vintage


Haut or not & Web Hype / 4 Comments
December 22nd, 2013 / 8:42 pm

Sunday Service

Sunday Service: Laurie Stone


In the panopticon we lived in tunnels, and the smell of petrol was pervasive. Food consisted of small hard rolls flavored with onions and potatoes. There were beets that smelled of tragedy and scraps of fatty meat that was hard to identify. We had not known seasons for years. All the papers were forged. All the fingers were blackened by ink and smelled of something pungent that may once have been alive. Alcohol was plentiful mixed with slices of lemon and lime. Everything was delayed. Cells were alienated and wouldn’t knit. We didn’t know the rules for touching.

In a room we could not see into, a woman looked down at us. She had trained the world to regard her with importance, and the world had changed. People pushed back at her after a point, but the point kept shifting. She resembled a cat with thin lips and a nose flattened to a button. Her hair twitched nervously as she hopped from foot to foot, her dead eyes waiting for a moment to pounce. It was surprising how compliant we were. In the dim light, we heard dripping.

I remembered a man on a train who was standing against a pole with his large suitcase and a smaller bag stacked on top. His hair waved off his forehead, framing intense eyes that were also kind and lost in thought. The seat beside me became vacant, and he sat, and I had a chance to study his long fingers with their wide nails. His skin was a little rough from long-ago acne. It heightened his beauty, allowing a space to enter. My life was like Chernobyl in that I could see but not touch the ordinary objects left behind. Flowers were growing up around abandoned things. Nature was coming back. It was coming back different.

In the house that traveled you woke up each day in a familiar place. In the house that traveled you could not be exact about appointments and the truth was harder to turn into a weapon. In the house that traveled your old life looked like girls getting dressed to go out. In order to be heard, you went deaf. In order to study at a university, your body ceased to produce insulin. There were people on the train and people who let the train pass. A woman wrote that people, naturally, consider suicide, finding the world too cruel. It was never going to stop, so why not step away? You heard something. You heard scraping.

As we approached the origin of our fears, we lived in several time periods at once. People of the future could watch their earlier selves in movies, and the various selves could communicate through a scrim that felt like foreboding or déjà vu. When we didn’t have language for something, the feeling was a shudder or a smell. It was what we did, bringing back the dead.

Bio: Laurie Stone is author of several fiction and nonfiction books. Her shorter work has appeared in such publications as Open City, Anderbo, Joyland, Nanofiction, Creative Nonfiction, St Petersburg Review, and Four Way Review. In 2005, she participated in “Novel: An Installation,” writing a book and living in a house designed by architects Salazar/Davis in Flux Factory’s gallery space. She is currently at work on The Love of Strangers, Micro, Flash, and Short Fiction by Laurie Stone.

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What I Want From Santa Claus

Christmastime is the best time. There are sparkly lights and cute reindeer and cute snowmen and cute songs, and so on. There’s also a lot of gifts to be given, which is great, especially if you like books and things, as I do. Alas, almost all Western culture subjects won’t get any gifts from Santa at all, as they only care about their Twitter feed, their sexuality, and leading a “grievable life” so that this doesn’t happen to them. But for those thoughtful boys and girls who don’t go around kissing dead Nelson Mandela’s tushy, they should expect estimable presents. These are the ones I want:

Gossip by Samantha Cohen: Gossip can be malicious and harmful, so everyone should do it.

Cunt Norton by Dodie Bellamy: While the cannon is actually quite commendable, so is cutting, which is what Dodie does to one of the Norton anthologies.

Salamandrine: 8 Gothics by Joyelle McSweeney: According to Diane Sawyer, those divinely deathy Columbine boys “may have been a part of a dark, underground national phenomenon known as the Gothic movement and that some of those Goths may have killed before.” So…

Begging For It by Alex Dimitrov: This boy was the subject of some criticism for his appropriation of some kind of AIDS-related art. But AIDS is silly, and Alex is sort of cute.

Butcher’s Tree by Feng Chen: Her Spork book, “Blud,” was really cute and sassy, so these poems probably will be as well.

Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic by Chris Tysh: Jean Genet was a violent, cutthroat boy, and I want to see Divine and Dainty Feet in verse.

Haute Surveillance by Johannes Goransson: Johannes read an excerpt from this at the first and only ever Boyesque Reading (also featuring Peter Davis, Tyler Gobble, and me). It was violent, stylish, and totalitarian.

The Memoirs of JonBenet by Kathy Acker by Michael du Plessis: JonBenet Ramsey was cute and tragic. This year, she published a collection of rhymes for my cute and thoughtful Tumblr, Bambi Muse. I want to see how Michael portrays the pageant princess.

The Mysteries of Laura by Andrea Quinlan: It’s a collection of poems that are Victorian and gothic, which is to say it’s Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte and Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.

Mother Ghost by Casey Hannan: I like ghosts.

Thank You for the Window Office by Maged Zaher: He once composed a very pleasing poem about Paris Hilton.

Since the outside is important too, you should be decking a delightful outfit while you wait for Santa to come. For girls, picking out what to wear isn’t arduous at all, as all girls should wear what they should wear all the time, a babydoll dress, a big but elegant hairbow, and ballet flats. For boys, choosing the correct clothes is much more vexing. Most boys hold the opinion that tight jeans and an ironic top are stylish. But this isn’t so. Style should have meaning. Boy in the vintage Supersonics Shawn Kemp jersey, can you inform everyone who Shawn Kemp is? Are you aware that he once showed up to the Cavaliers training camp as an unacceptable fatty? No, you’re not. Style, like literature, must have meaning. So, while anticipating Santa’s arrival, all boys should wear a meaningful outfit, like the one that I am:


Sunnies because eyes should be kept secret.

Basketball hoodie that I stole from a friend, because basketball players are like monsters.

Purple-striped dress shirt because it’s proper.

A skirt because boys should wear skirts.

Skull-and-crossbone pants because they’re deathy.

Werewolf purple socks to match the purple dress shirt.

Buckled shoes because they’re proper too.

I Like __ A Lot & Roundup / 4 Comments
December 20th, 2013 / 2:33 pm

27 Points: The Louisiana Purchase

  1. Here’s a gift idea: a two dollar bill. They’re fucking cool. It’s so usual and unusual. Here’s another one: a book of linked poems.
  2. An analogy is a comic roast. YOU ONLY ROAST THOSE YOU LOVE. Same with shooting a book. I only shoot books I love.

  1. Damn, that woke the neighbors.
  2. Tiny compressed mythologies.
  3. Fun fact: Thomas Jefferson was a bad, sloppy dresser.
  4. Numbering all whacked.
  5. There is a running, weeping elephant in this book.


Random / 1 Comment
December 20th, 2013 / 1:49 pm


Beyond This Point Are Monsters by Roxanne Carter

SB009-CARTER-COVER-03-FRONT-300Beyond This Point Are Monsters
by Roxanne Carter
Sidebrow, May 2013
210 pages / $18  Buy from Sidebrow or SPD








I’m a fan of bubble baths. Long, hot-as-you-can-stand-it, soap-suds-to-your-eyeballs bubble baths. Many people would agree, but few fiercely and biasly adore them. I confess to love them so much that if I randomly had a mud fight and then wound up in some place that didn’t have a bathtub, like a cheap motel or someone’s mole burrow of a studio apartment, I’d opt to go to bed filthy rather than take a shower.

There’s nothing like it. You sit there, you soak, you un-think. But, the best part isn’t what happens in the tub; it’s what happens afterward.

If you’re like me, you dry off, drain the tub, and lie down. There’s something about being in bed, fuzzy warm all over, with the sheets clinging to the damp crevices on your body. Being inert and liking it.

You know it’s kind of wrong, and if it goes on for too long, you start to feel selfish and irresponsible. You still have a million other things to do (fix lunch and iron your clothes for tomorrow, return a friend’s call, do some reading, etc) but it all just goes away and before you realize it, you’re dead sleep, the alarm clock’s going off, and you have less than 30 minutes on what’s an estimated 45-minute commute to work.

Roxanne Carter’s Beyond This Point Are Monsters reads like post-bubble bath syndrome. Although its strength is clearly the tub experience, or in this case, the written word, the book beds you like a cruel, delicious trance.

A brilliant cross between an Alfred Hitchcock thriller and Gloria Steinem pro-femme artistry, Carter’s novella is a loose literary adaptation of ABC’s soap opera of the early 1970’s, Dark Shadows. It describes the morbid truths of two women–Duchess and Darling (mistress and slave)–from distinct backgrounds. Carter deftly explores the strange relationship between the females in connection with a ghost (among other forces) staying in the house they occupy, working the blurred lines of their pain and joy, repulsion and attraction, fragility and strengths.

Each chapter in the book is another episode that delves deeper into the psyches of Duchess and Darling as they survive the trappings of the house. Early on, I got the feeling that much of the story was being narrated by the main ghost (a missing girl) in first person whose accounts of the two living characters I found more reliable than their own perspectives of each other.

Duchess has few words and an appetite forged by living in a lonely way through long years. the house hustling her, or the scenery.


Darling can’t imagine herself in any room with a window or mirror. without either, she wouldn’t want for a thing. for my-for her. darling is always talking about duchess. always parting her hair, shutting the two sides over her face-the same way she closes the curtains to keep out the thunder that’s chased her home.


i have obeyed what rules i can, and yet i have made a sound. there is a window, already. I don’t need to begin again. these are patterns i ought to know. birds flitting from one tree to the next. when i choose to look, i encounter too many birds to name. as i move around, i make mistakes. i make a sound and am heard, despite my best efforts. i look into the water and i see pictures there. i always carry this question: what will be enough?


Not knowing all the details added to the suspense of the story and came much as a relief, rather than a disappointment. The instability of the plot, paired with the disheveled appearance of the text, is what heightened the mystery continuously gnawing at my curiosity.

The only thing I ever felt sure about was the fact that Duchess had come to the house after doing something horrible that isn’t quite spelled out for the reader. Once again, not knowing all the details added to the suspense and came much as a relief, rather than a disappointment.

It’s kind of like the “black sheep” uncle who visits the family for the first time in 25 years during one Thanksgiving dinner. The distance in his eyes and the way he laughs at everything indicates he’s clearly disturbed, although he’s dressed to the nines in a tailored suit and genuine alligator shoes. You welcome and compliment him on his abrupt fortune, but your good manners and an instinctive pinch keeps you from asking what he’s been up to since the last time you’ve seen him.

Carter’s symphony of words is the book’s tailored suit and alligator shoes that kept me distracted much to my delight. The author’s uncanny ability to make the reader feel truly suspended in the air throughout the story with nothing to hold onto but the reality of her next word is forever present. And, she often draws parallels between the environment – house and sea – and the temperament of the characters which solidifies the story’s pace and adds layers to it. In doing so, the setting, of course, becomes its own character.


the house is bigger, more silent, more boring than ever. nothing appears changed. the clouds predominate, the house entirely subordinate to the sea. these do not make the atmosphere what it is.


Beyond This Point Are Monsters reads like a beautiful nightmare that you never want to wake up from. A literary orgasm created by a threesome of conceptual metaphors, vivid imagery, and the written word. A gothic narrative spitting in the face of its predecessors as it rebels against the genre’s norms.

Like post-bubble bath routine, the book possessed me, compelling me to tear through its pages. One of the only things I could’ve done without was the author’s inclination towards repetition which left me dizzy and frustrated at times. There were several episodes that I just didn’t get, but not understanding became part of the story’s sensual appeal and established as an acquired taste; you’ll need to exercise patience to finish this book and feel satisfied. Be prepared to sweat a little.


Lyndsey Ellis is a writer and media relations professional living in Oakland, California. She’s a Voices of Our Nation (VONA) alumni and has an MFA in Writing from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Ellis is currently a columnist for 7×7 and contributing writer for Shades Magazine with other work appearing in Know the Names of Things Online Literary Anthology, Synchronized Chaos, For Harriet, and InDigest. 

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December 20th, 2013 / 12:00 pm


Where to Go in Europe

81diIguhtTL._SL1500_Where to Go in Europe
Eds. Wendy Bracewell & Alex Drace-Francis
UCL Publishing Horizons, 2013
120 pages / $4.99  Buy Kindle on Amazon








Life seems to be an enterprise of attaching meaning to arbitrary artifacts and rituals, which seem themselves to embody something called ‘culture.’ I don’t think there’s anything immaterial to culture—it’s just how humans have lived and live now. We all have bodies which are (and have been) largely the same, but different cultures craft different rituals and habits, for whatever reasons. This doesn’t seem to mean anything, inherently: it simply is.

This book, then, is a short and delightful anthology of writing about experiences with foreign toilet technology, for lack of better phrasing. Aside from how interesting the book is as an exploration of people trying to “make sense” of intercultural experiences, it’s a delight to read because of the plethora of voices it contains: there’s an almost-voyeuristic pleasure to reading, say, Andrei Pleşu‘s account of an encounter with a highly-advanced Japanese toilet, or Savkovič’s description of going to a Bulgarian festival with a Belgrade model. The slim volume deftly creates a patchwork of different experiences, ranging from puerile to poignant, not imposing any critical framework on the reader but simply asking her to marvel at and revel in the complicated range of human emotion and expression that is available for topics like toilets, urine, and feces.

Not having such a framework is a modest decision, which makes this book very likeable. Like culture, it simply is: its economy is immediately appealing, and the irony of reading it while in the bathroom is, against all odds, delicious. Most importantly, built on the premise that we all need to evacuate our bowels and bladder, yet in so many different ways, Where to go in Europe presents a more important commonality: everyone judges everyone else for how they use the bathroom, in different ways. Everyone has not individual bathroom rituals and ideas of what a bathroom should be, and the bathroom is a crucial site for exploring our own cultural biases. To me, it’s somewhat interesting that this topic is so often explored in the context of humor— Žižek’s “toilet ideology” bit, David Foster Wallace’s “The Suffering Channel,” and ‘oodles’ of other somewhat-scatological postmodern stuff —as if, in trying to analyze the abjection of the encounter with bodily waste, ‘western’ analysis itself succumbs to revulsion, and must ‘laugh to keep from crying,’ as it were. Can we ever escape ideology? Is trying to imagine life outside ideology absurd?

Hard to say, but another pleasure of this text is that, while provoking such questions, it points to this class of questioning as absurd: instead of imagining hypothetical utopias, we should ‘air the dirty laundry’ of ideology, so to speak, and look frankly at how it is always operating through us and around us. Becoming more aware of ideology isn’t necessarily freedom from it, but it might afford some level of critical distance, in the same way that meditation asks us to simply, nonjudgmentally stay in the present, observing thoughts passing like clouds in the sky of the mind. The editors include an excerpt written by Giuseppe Baretti in 1770 where— in reaction to travelers like Sharp who generalized about all Italians based on the filth of Naples, in which, at the time, people urinated and defecated, it seems, at liberty —he writes about the stench of Madrid, and how it drove him to end what would have been a month-long trip and “be gone, and never think to see this town again,” but that he “will not blame the Spaniards for having suffered this evil to increase upon them age after age in such a manner, as to be now almost past remedy…”


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December 20th, 2013 / 12:00 pm


Hum by Jamaal May

by Jamaal May
Alice James Books, Nov 2013
80 pages / $15.95  Buy from Amazon or SPD








Robert Frost’s “Out, Out—” depicts perhaps the most famous dismemberment in American poetry: a young boy loses his hand while working with a buzz saw, bleeds to death, and at the end of the poem, his parents indifferently “return to their affairs.” The poem induces a naturalistic sense of spiritual doubt, and it’s also suggestive of a wartime paranoia about technology’s potential for violence and destruction. Jamaal May’s debut collection Hum (Alice James, 2013) is driven by a relentless confrontation of the lines between natural and artificial, and it reinvents all of our typical assumptions about the relationship between technology and humanity. In a sly invocation of Frost, “Hum of the Machine God” depicts a father who loses his thumb while operating a snow blower. But unlike Frost, May doesn’t evoke the expected sense of lost innocence: the boy is not the victim of the tragedy, but rather, the witness. The machine isn’t a harbinger of modernist alienation, but rather, a spiritual entity in itself:

The boy listened for the sea.
Gripped his shovel. Gripped his oar. Now, in a waiting
room, he bows to the florescent hum and begs. Ignore

my prayer, goes his stupid little prayer, please ignore
my voice. The thumb in a jar packed with snow,
will take a miracle for the doctors to reattach.

The poem sets the tone for the collection: there’s a sense of deep uneasiness about being alive, a constant teetering on the edge of violence and danger. If it seems risky to confront Frost, it’s worth noting that this is not only the second poem in the book, but also a sestina—a usually clunky form into which May breathes life (despite the fact that most of us can probably count the number of interesting sestinas we’ve read on one intact hand).

Numerous poems in Hum are concerned with machines: we see factories, broken-down automobiles, grenades, dead frogs stored in freezers, fallen industries—the book itself is dedicated in part to “the interior lives of Detroiters.” But in Hum, machinery isn’t a predictable representation of modern despair. Instead, it embodies a spiritual force, presenting a potential for energy, for both violence and renewal. May creates a world where the brand name of a G.E. freezer can stand for “God Engine,” and an appliance can stave off death and decay while “fly-dotted pears rot,/corpse-soft on the table.” Through a kind of inverted Romanticism, the poems waver toward the possibility of injury, often evoking a discomfort with the bodily and organic. Artifice is appealing precisely because of its ability to resist decay. We see this in the particularly memorable poem, “If They Hand Your Remains to Your Sister in a Chinese Takeout Box,” when the speaker encourages the reader to “Take solace that the plastic bag/carrying you to the cemetery will…/spend decades holding hands with a breeze.” Whereas the artificial, manmade world is (seemingly) able to transcend time and death, the human body is flawed. From “I Do Have a Seam”:

                                                   hello, you
careful seamstress, you
                                                   needle in my sternum—
stitch my selvage as it frays,
                                                   you know how ragged I’ve been


1 Comment
December 20th, 2013 / 12:00 pm