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Reviews

Sortes Poundianae

cantos41jz1qflUVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
The Cantos of Ezra Pound
by Ezra Pound
New Directions, 1996
896 pages / $25.95 buy from Amazon

1. In the Middle Ages, as a practice of divination, as a method of drawing lots and to soothsay, to learn what might be the wrath to come, to draw out a linear progression from a dark mass of chaos, those with access to Virgil’s Aeneid might practice Sortes Vergilianae. The instructions were simple: fetch a copy of the epic poem, let the weary spine fall where it may, and whatever passage the eye lighted on the reader interpreted as indicative of prophecy.

2. My copy of The Cantos of Ezra Pound is a fresh New Directions paperback with the spine still intact. Regardless, it looks ominous. The backdrop black with serifed white letters stamped down on the cover. At twelve years old and knowing nothing of Ezra Pound, I picked the book up because it looked Biblical and heavy, like  תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, the waters of Genesis 1:2.

3. The Cantos present chaos before the Spirit of God levitates over the deep. Although Pound principally brings forward “light” as his favorite element of spirituality and mysticism, darkness pervades the poem. It’s universally acknowledged that the work turns on an axis based more on Inferno than Paradiso.

4. Interviewed by Donald Hall in The Paris Review, who spent three days with Pound in Italy during the early 1960s, a restless and writer’s block-inflicted Pound comments, “It is difficult to write a paradiso when all the superficial indications are that you ought to write an apocalypse. It is obviously much easier to find inhabitants for an inferno.”

5. After publishing Thrones de los Cantares, the penultimate section of the Cantos, Pound admits, “Okay, I am stuck.” One imagines him gazing out the window, sunlight revealing a Roman street where, if you dig far enough, discoveries of pagan rites abound. He continues, pulling at his beard, “The question is, am I dead.”

6. The aforementioned Hebrew typically translates as “without form and void” (KJV). It can also mean “utter confusion,” a feeling most readers share when tackling the Cantos. Pound’s classic outline for his epic poem, from a letter to his father (who was appropriately, I kid you not, named Homer), begins, “Live man goes down into world of Dead.”

7. Pound, like his hero Odysseus, descended into Hell and still lived to see daylight. Kept outdoors for many weeks near Pisa, Pound was a caged panther, captive of the US military in 1943. During this time or immediately afterwards, he promptly went insane, dubbed mentally unfit to stand trial, housed in the “bughouse” of St. Elizabeths Hospital for thirteen years. As the story goes.

8. To draw lots, to soothsay out of an inferno, is simply not done. It reminds one of the Faust legend, or Robert Johnson’s railroad deal with the devil. Like a Oujia board for literary nerds (or, more properly, “bibliophiles”), a variety of sortes tempt many.

9. But The Cantos beckon. Suck a poor poet into their orbit. They are sirens. Robert Frost mentions, in a 1960 interview with the Paris Review, how Ezra Pound practiced jujitsu on him in a restaurant. “So I stood up, gave him my hand. He grabbed my wrist, tipped over backwards and threw me over his head.” Like its writer, the poem practices a similar sort of action on the reader.

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July 29th, 2014 / 12:00 pm

Reviews

Something Wrong With Her by Cris Mazza

THUMBNAIL_IMAGESomething Wrong With Her
by Cris Mazza
Jaded Ibis Press, 2014
388 pages / $18  Buy from Jaded Ibis or Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

This amazing “real time” memoir by Cris Mazza deserves a love-letter, and also a review or maybe six, written at different points while the reviewer is reading. Some would be awed and respectful, some would be infuriated, or in tears.  I was obsessed,  and ended up forming intense bonds to the characters, the love story, and the way of telling. It’s such a complex book, it’s taken me months to try to write about it, and even now….

The basic format is that Mazza sets out to explore what she characterizes as her sexual dysfunction, which she intends to both confess and try to explain (to herself and to us), through an examination of her sexual and emotional history. But as she’s working on the book, she gets back in touch with a high school boyfriend, and the story she thinks she remembers starts to change. She begins to include the story of their current emailing, along with old journal entries, earlier draft versions of the same chapters, and excerpts from her previous published books, which have fictional versions of real events, remembered and re-created at different points in time.

A strange note: The book was supposed to come out in fall 2013, and a cover was released and some advance reviews came in, but due to problems with the publisher, it was finally published with a different cover in April 2014.

Most of the other writing on the book has addressed its feminism and sexual politics—Mazza is a well-respected writer of experimental literary fiction with 17 books to her name, known for graphic sexual content and a feminist bent. A previous novel was titled Is it Sexual Harassment Yet? She edited a collection of “chick lit” before that was a term that meant a pink-shoe. And yet in this book she confesses that she has or had vaginismus (a spasming condition that makes penis-in-vagina sex painful) and has never had an orgasm. She also admits to many un-modern-feminist thoughts, like considering herself to be frigid, and thinking her body is dirty.

Her honesty is brave, rare, and hopefully might be helpful to other women who suffer from the same problems. Mazza found talk-therapy to be useless and something called Pelvic Floor Therapy helpful in decreasing the pain during sex. It’s refreshing to hear a woman—especially an older woman—speak honestly about sex, especially when she’s admitting to the uncoolness of not liking it. As she points out, we usually hear from women who are having too much sex, and though this is presented as a flaw, “isn’t the unspoken aura that these women are—for the same reasons—exotic, worldly, exciting, charismatic, provocative…or just plain cool?”

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July 28th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Reviews

All Movies Love the Moon

MoonAll Movies Love the Moon: Prose Poems on Silent Film
By Gregory Robinson
Rose Metal Press, March 2014
96 pages / $14.95  Buy from Rose Metal Press or Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robinson1

“In 1894, Fred Ott sneezed. Thomas Edison’s cameras were there to transform the event into a motion picture, appropriately named Record of a Sneeze,” So begins moving pictures, and Gregory Robinson’s brilliant new meditation on silent film, All Movies Love the Moon, out now from Rose Metal Press. In this work, he juxtaposes frames from silent pictures with musing prose poetry. He explores works by the Lumière brothers, Georges Méliès, and Fritz Lang. Just the filmography he provides is fascinating, especially if you’re like me where these films have always chiefly evoked classic Smashing Pumpkins music videos: Méliès (Tonight, Tonight) and Lang (Stand Inside Your Love).

Like Simic’s treatment of Joseph Cornell, Robinson brings a poet’s eye to the project. He employs information,misinformation,history, and histiography; and the result is often very funny, offering up strange errata and juxtapositions.

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He tells the story of Ralph Spence, a “film doctor” responsible for taking unfunny early films and making them watchable, by writing witty title cards. READ MORE >

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July 25th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Juliet Escoria & Scott McClanahan’s Honeymoon Tour Diary (Part 2)

 

 

Read part 1 here.

 

 

WEDNESDAY, JULY 9 2014
DENVER TO OMAHA
SONG OF THE DAY: NEIL YOUNG “GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY”

SCOTT: I liked driving through Nebraska because I’m a big Willa Cather fan. This was our loooooong day of driving and we were in the car for 9 hours. I think we both got a small case of what truck drivers and bikers call “monkey butt.” Definition?

Monkey Butt (noun): When the back parts of travelers get permanently red and give off a strange odor that attracts wild animals.

We also almost ran into a tornado during the middle of the day. The storm turned over a couple tractor trailers along the highway and we started getting nervous about tornados and being carried away.

We saw a rainbow in the distance and we started calling it “the rainbow of doom.” Rainbows are mean as shit. Our conversations about the rainbow of doom sounded like this.

This rainbow looks friendly but it is actually a stone-cold killer.

This rainbow looks friendly but it is actually a stone-cold killer.

I don’t have anything else to say about Wednesday.

UPDATE: Two hours after emailing Juliet my Wednesday section of the tour diary this happened.

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Tour / 2 Comments
July 24th, 2014 / 11:00 am

Reviews

Hardly Getting Over It: A Review of See a Little Light

SeeALittleLightSee a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody
by Bob Mould with Michael Azerrad
Little, Brown and Company, June 2011
416 pages / $24.99  Buy from Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why would anyone expect the ex-member of a famous rock band—those fertile dens of back-stabbing, girlfriend stealing, passive-aggressiveness and all around hurt feelings—to offer a healthy recounting of his time in said band? It’s like asking a combat veteran to empathize with the people who shot at him.

Yet, for those rock artists we truly admire, we crave that kind retelling. They’ve blown our minds so many times in the past with their transcendent work. If we’re disappointed they can’t deal with their issues enough to tell their band’s story in a fully-realized way, it’s only because we’ve learned to expect that much from them.

I skipped reading Bob Mould’s autobiography See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody (Little, Brown) after hearing Mould was less than resolved about his time in the formative post punk band Hüsker Dü, and in particular with his relationship with drummer/songwriter Grant Hart. I was a big Hüsker fan in the eighties and nineties, and I’d identified closely with Mould’s rage on classic albums like Flip Your Wig, Zen Arcade and Warehouse: Songs and Stories. I’d fallen away from his work around the time of his last album as the frontman of the band Sugar, and steadily found myself less interested in him as the years passed. The singer was so associated with the blood-curdling screams he’d let loose during his Hüsker years, I preferred to think of him as conquering his fury, moving on to better things, getting over it. Yet here was Mould, supposedly getting thorny about Hart and bassist Greg Norton in book form. Not interested.

But those who skip See a Little Light for these reasons will miss much of a story that few but Mould can tell: of Hüsker’s beginnings and ascendency, of the nascent eighties hardcore subculture in America that would lay the groundwork for the massive grunge movement in the nineties, not to mention refreshingly candid insights into Mould himself, one of his generation’s most conflicted icons.

Mould didn’t get riddled with rage by happenstance. His upbringing in rural upstate New York with an alcoholic, abusive father was plenty turbulent, and discovering his homosexuality in adolescence only further alienated him from those he grew up with. Most harrowing to me was when Mould was eighteen and for the first time away at college in St. Paul, Minnesota, trying to find his place in a confusing world. Not only were they stringing up homosexuals like deer back in his hometown, but, Mould writes, “the weekly phone calls with my family were difficult enough, especially the ones where my father threatened to sever my financial support or escalate his violence toward my mother.” I can only imagine a young, scared Mould desperately needing to make urban Minnesota work for him, knowing he had no home to go back to.

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July 21st, 2014 / 10:00 am

Reviews

Green Lights by Kyle Muntz

tumblr_inline_mx2ddvugfB1r6esemGreen Lights
by Kyle Muntz
Civil Coping Mechanisms, May 2014
108 pages / $13.95  Buy from Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Kyle Muntz’s Green Lights, we’re exposed to wavelengths as beams of prose, an unnamed narrator whose world is flooded in the disparate hues of existence. There’s a meditative quality throughout, a detachment borne of Kafkaesque inquiry and a yearning for communication that teeters on the fiat lux’s of every day creation. Not just through visible light, but the invisible nanometers that escape normal sight. “I want to talk about color,” the book begins, and the colors of the spectrum quickly become a metaphor for revelation and metamorphosis. The characters, from the moon turned into a woman, to an old man embodying evil, become symbolic accoutrements for the journey which turns out to be an excursion to another dimension. Elements of the fantastic shine as in the “Blue” chapter when the whole neighborhood is covered in noirish film shades that masquerade as night, and then, “The world froze… Ice had taken over the world.” Winter isn’t just the congealing of the veins and muscles, but a coat of futility wrapped around his routine actions. “After much effort, I thawed my room. I’m not proud of the things I did to accomplish this,” he confesses, then further reveals, “I got a job carrying a flamethrower around the neighborhood, melting people. My coworkers treated me like shit.” The frost of survival is just as bleak as the cold treatment of his colleagues and the blending of colors weaves the conflagration of pain with the inferno of transformation.

There’s a melodic beat to Muntz’s writing, terse descriptions of events interspersed with sudden bursts of graphic visuals, often macabre in its evocations. It’s a delicate balance, but one he masterfully navigates, exploiting minimalism to maximize emotional defibrillations, injecting the grotesque to animate the mundane:

“One time when I was walking in the darkness, I stumbled over something, and it was him, sprawled on the ground, unable to move. He didn’t have eyes anymore. Maggots crawled amidst the remnants of his skin, fibrous muscles like totted spaghetti. Worms fucked his intestines. Beetles were chewing his brains.”

Like signal lights, there’s a revolving flow of ideas that are given free rein and then brought to a halting stop, warning yellows demarcating the blurry boundaries between illusion and reality. That border is often where Muntz’s narrator lingers, rarely surprised by the absurdity of the surreal events that happen around him, instead, levitating past the barriers. It’s almost as though the green light were always on and physics broken free of limitations to innovate. Muntz revels in experimentation, relishes the opportunities to change up the traditional narrative as he bakes x-rays of playful contemplations into the atlas of his construction:

“Sometimes when I looked into the distance, I remembered that the darkness I could see there  was actually the mountain, holding up the base of the universe. If I were to walk that way, the neighborhood would never end, but eventually it would become less real… The road continued even where the world began to change colors.”

His main companion is his love interest, E, who is as curious as the narrator about the frontier, a geography that challenges the intellectual as much as the physical. Both are intertwined and both affect each other, a symbiotic terraforming that is volcanic in its effect.

“Nearby, behind an abandoned house, we found an immense flower growing from the ground. The flower was at least a hundred feet tall. Beads of water clung to its sides… She nodded. ‘It looks like a picture of itself, meaning it looks better than real. That means something. It implies amazingness.’

‘Should we climb it?’

‘Probably,’ she said. ‘If we didn’t, we would feel bad about it later.’”

There’s a lot of climbing in Green Lights and like E, we know we’d feel bad if we didn’t venture upward. Along the way, we get dashes of the videogame classic, Earthbound, embedded with David Lynch, Borges, and doses of Marquez. The combination acts as a variety of hues to assault our senses in this quirky and likable hike while at the same time, Muntz weaves his own identity through the narrative. I just wish there were more colors in the spectrum.

***

Peter Tieryas Liu is the author of Bald New World and Watering Heaven. He entropies at entropymag.org. He loves green lights. And red ones. And blue ones too.

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July 21st, 2014 / 10:00 am

Andrew Duncan Worthington Interview

walls

Tamped-down rage never quite enunciated hums quietly beneath the surface of Andrew Duncan Worthington’s debut novel Walls, a new release from Civil Coping Mechanisms. Narrated by a twenty-something Ohioan, Walls strings together banal humiliations, flat-footed conversation, shitty jobs, and shittier sex to create a convincing tableau of millennials marooned in boredom. Worthington is also a founding editor of Keep This Bag Away From Children. Recently, we talked shop over G-Chat because we were both born after 1980.

—-

Tracy O’Neill: You begin Walls with a lengthy history of a failed building project. We find out by page three that this description is spoken by a tour bus guide. In some ways do you see the novel as a tour of a failed project, and if so, what is the failed project?

Andrew Worthington: I hadn’t really thought of that, in terms of the novel being a tour of a “failed project.” I did want “Ohio” or “northeast Ohio” to be a character, in a way, though, in the sense of it being ever-present almost as much as the main character. The main character as a failed project? I don’t know. But that character of “Ohio” is a failed project. It’s not its fault, though. It was just a body of land that people moved to because they couldn’t have enough land somewhere else. Ohio embodies, for me, the most extreme but also the most mundane aspects of what is wrong with the United States. I’m getting off your point, I think. Maybe if you told me what you mean or think, that would be easier.

TO: What do you think is wrong with the United States?

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July 18th, 2014 / 2:10 pm

Reviews

Eternity by the Stars: An Astronomical Hypothesis

Eternity_by_the_StarsEternity by the Stars: An Astronomical Hypothesis
by Louis-Auguste Blanqui
Translated by Frank Chouraqui
Contra Mundum Press
202 pages / $20  Buy from Amazon or Contra Mundum

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eternity is a concept rather dubiously tough to wrap the mind around. Throw in the idea of duplicate worlds and simultaneous events with differing end results, replicating yet infinitely fracturing the day-to-day reality we recognize as “the real,” and the average reader’s head begins to spin. While these matters are not always tidily handled within Louis-Auguste Blanqui’s Eternity by the Stars they are dealt with utilizing a fair amount of pith.

Blanqui after all was a ubiquitously engaged nineteenth century French revolutionary thinker and “man of action” who wrote this book from May to November of 1871 while under constant threat of armed guard in a heavily fortified jail on a small, rocky island just off the coast of Morlaix where waters of the English Channel mix with the Atlantic Ocean.

Translator Frank Chouraqui’s introduction provides orientation concerning the biographical details behind Blanqui’s work while also marvelously untangling some of the thornier scientific scenarios presented in his argument. There are two key scientific authors whose work and ideas Blanqui cites, often contentiously: Pierre-Simon Laplace and Francois Arago. Chouraqui irons out the creases in Blanqui’s presentation of each author’s argument in relation to his own.

The science passages in Blanqui’s text are among the most challenging material for unfamiliar readers. Having Chouraqui’s lengthy introduction to refer back to along with the endnotes he provides to the text are of enormous assistance, as is his extrapolation upon the clear relevance of Blanqui’s writing to the work of Walter Benjamin, Jorge Luis Borges, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

In and out of trouble with French authorities most of his adult life, Blanqui fought his way through numerous ups and downs accompanying several frequent changeovers within the government throughout his lifetime. These were a series of political changeovers which both in his writings and actions he did his best to ferment. Imprisoned inside Fort du Taureau (Castle of the Bull) Blanqui conceived of and wrote Eternity by the Stars while awaiting his trial, insisting that the text was an integral part of his defense.

Chouraqui describes how, locked up in the island prison, “Blanqui found himself surrounded by a world of repetition.” Confronted by such a situation, Blanqui laid out an argument for the prevailing destiny of everything in the universe that would serve to counter the frustration he felt, as Chouraqui describes it: “The main claim of Eternity by the Stars is that the discrepancy between a limited — albeit great — number of possible events and the infinity of time and space necessitate the infinite repetition of all possible events.”

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July 18th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Juliet Escoria & Scott McClanahan’s Honeymoon Tour Diary (Part 1)

 

SUNDAY, JULY 6
SAN DIEGO TO LAS VEGAS
SONG OF THE DAY: ELVIS PRESLEY “I CAN’T HELP FALLING IN LOVE”

JULIET: We packed up my stuff in the car, said goodbye to my family, and were on the road by 2pm. We stopped for food and gas in Elsinore. I decided that it would be a good idea to buy a pack of cigarettes (I quit smoking in November and haven’t had a cigarette since) and smoke one for every state we went through, in order to “celebrate our honeymoon.” As we drove, we listened to the mixes we made for our wedding. Most of the drive involved us discussing funny moments from the wedding. EXAMPLE: My dad apologized to Kendra Grant Malone for being so drunk. Kendra told him not to worry about it. My dad responded, “Power to the people.”

At some point, things took a turn for the worse. We passed the word “Calico” all big on the side of a mountain, which I’m not sure is a town or a street or a gang, but the conversation shifted to all the calico kitties pushing those rocks together with their paws. New characters were invented, such as Man Who Thinks It’s Still 1989 Politically and Woman Who Becomes Belligerent When She Sees Red Honda Accords.

Plate of stick-shaped items from buffet

Plate of stick-shaped items from buffet

We arrived in Vegas around 8pm. Our hotel room featured two bathrooms, a Jacuzzi bathtub, a shower with three showerheads, a fireplace, a dishwasher, etc. Everything was modern and sleek looking, to the point that the room felt vaguely terrifying and everything was difficult to use. I went on the computer to find a good buffet for Scott and me to eat at, because we had decided we wanted to eat until we felt sick. I found two ones that looked really good but that would have required us to walk so we ended up deciding to eat at the buffet at our hotel even though it had bad reviews on Yelp. The buffet was, as expected, mediocre. I ate one oyster anyway, even though I was afraid it would give me food poisoning (it didn’t). Scott drank five Diet Cokes.

We took a short walk afterward in order to feel slightly less fat, but didn’t get very far because it looked like it might start pouring rain (it didn’t). On the way back, we saw a very tall but handsome foreign guy walking arm-in-arm with two prostitutes. We discussed the nature of prostitution, and how it differed from stripping. It was concluded that prostitution was more honest and therefore in some ways more honorable. Scott seemed to know a lot about prostitutes, which troubled me.

At the hotel, I took a bath in the Jacuzzi bathtub. The tub was very large and oddly shaped and it made me feel like a lobster. I enjoyed the bath, and my lobsterness.

Juliet’s lobster bath

Juliet’s lobster bath

SCOTT: Yep.

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Tour / 5 Comments
July 17th, 2014 / 2:58 pm

Reviews

20 Points: When a Lady (Shakes Hands With a Gentleman)

when a lady front
When a Lady Shakes Hands With a Gentleman
by Nikolai Bokov, Mark Insingel, Gertrud Leutenegger, Claude Ollier
Red Dust Books, 1982
96 pages / $8.95 buy from Amazon

1. Throughout the course of When a Lady, a very engaging 1982 collection from Red Dust, Inc, the contributors display a rigorous commitment to the avant-garde tradition of de-automatizing perception, as outlined by Shklovsky, and broken down like a boss here by A.D. Jameson

2. The Belgian novelist/ Concretist poet Mark Insingel reworks aphorisms and banal lanuage tropes.

3. “When a lady shakes hands with a gentleman (plucks out a gentleman’s eye) she does not remove her glove.”

4.

5. “How can the drop that made the cup run over be the same as the drop to which the cup is drained? (How can the drop to which the cup is drained be the same as the drop that made the cup run over?)”

6. “A Loves B who loves C who is adored by D, the only concern of E who wants to get rid of F who is courted by G who receives attentions from H, the idol of I who would be content with J who cannot leave K in peace who will not part from L who would prefer to go to M who has gone off with N who cannot forget O who would like to go back to P who has an eye on Q who would gladly be wooed by R who is making advances to S who is only interested in T who likes U, U need not despair at any rate (V, W, X,Y,Z).”

7. 

8. Insingel looks for entrenched meanings and potentialities. He is repetitive, and redundant, and often very funny. The big blocks of mutable text ultimately represent his project, a sort of frustrated response and working with and through degraded language.

9. “Rare is beautiful/Rare is wonderful/Rare is awful./Rare is horrible./Rare is incomprehensible./Rare is possible./ Rare is deniable./ (You don’t have to accept it as true, you are not obliged to see it (it isn’t being thrown into our teeth), you need not have anything to do with it (go into it) it can’t frighten you at all (the chances are much too small), you can dream about it (wet dreams—nightmares), you can actually have a cozy chat about it.)”

10. Claude Ollier, explores sensations connected with memory images. In his project he interrogates some of the “word as signifier” aspects of language, dwelling on strange associations and essentially personal multiplicities in words.

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July 17th, 2014 / 12:00 pm

Reviews

25 Points: Even Though I Don’t Miss You

Even-Tho-final-for-web
Even Though I Don’t Miss You
by Chelsea Martin
Short Flight/Long Drive Books, 2013
112 pages / $11.95 buy from SPD or Amazon

1. In this book, Chelsea Martin reminds me of my girlfriend. She reminds of all my ex-girlfriends, she reminds me of everybody’s girlfriend. It’s hard to pinpoint why. Is she the essence of contemporary girlfriendness?

2. It provides an insight sometimes into particular shades of emotion that I don’t necessarily seem to understand (not that I want to get all ‘Men are from Mars, etc ’ or some such popular-silliness about this point).

3. Other times, it’s nice to know that I’m not entirely wrong in my assumptions about ‘What might be wrong?’, ‘When something might be wrong?’

4. I have to declare an interest and that is that I’m not really in a relationship with Chelsea Martin but this book feels so much like being in a relationship as much from a male as from a female perspective that I can’t help but think that I am and that this qualifies it as a great success in that department.

5. “There is a piece of clothing thrown on the floor in the shape of what I look like to myself”. This is a beautiful, economical image; an everyday occurrence raised to something just v profound. I imagine it to be a denim skirt for some reason.

6. It reminds me of a line from an e-book, by someone, an old free e-book by someone, possibly Richard Brammer that I can’t find at the moment (maybe I imagined it) about ‘Your bra will fade on the radiator just like the rest.’  Any ideas?

7. The sentence that many reviewers have picked from this book is worth repeating in full:

“Being in a relationship for a very long time  feels just like being single except that I can’t remember the last time that I was alone for five hours.”

This has the same periphrastic quality as that which I discussed in relation to Spencer Madsen (elsewhere in a 25 Points Review for HTMLGIANT).  It’s almost like a really good, lengthy title appended to a very successful piece of conceptual art. I can see why so many reviewers chose to pick it out.

8. The relationship theme is undercut throughout with the many conversations between the ‘I’ and the ‘You.’ Often humorous, sometimes sad, occasionally refreshingly absurd, like a transcription of direct speech really is. See – this is what I meant in points 1-4.

9. Again, and in relation to a Spencer Madsen review that I have just written and so which is fresh in my mind but which might as well be seen as a recurring theme, a necessarily recurring theme, of all contemporary literature, that of the wide-open spaces of potential for metaphor, analogy, etc., when it comes to everyday technological digital life, a relatively fresh opportunity ripe for figuration, Chelsea’s line: “I feel like everything I write could be mistaken for theory about Adobe Photoshop’s Clone Stamp Tool” takes some beating. Apologies, that was an awful sentence, I wrote it backwards.

10. I don’t think I’m going to apologise for mentioned other writers in these reviews. Everything has a context, right.

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July 15th, 2014 / 1:50 pm

Reviews

A Review of Vulnerability on Trisha Low’s The Compleat Purge

TheCompleatPurge-TrishaLow-KE-443x567The Compleat Purge
by Trisha Low
Kenning Editions, 2013
240 pages / $15.95  Buy from Kenning Editions or Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I listen to NPR’s Morning Edition on Verdi’s 200th birthday. Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky says she loves Verdi’s operas: “People can relate, and say ‘Wow! I’m not the only person who fell in love with the wrong person,’ or ‘Oh gosh, I’m not the only person who made the wrong choice.’ Verdi makes people realize it’s OK to be human.”

This “realization” is the purge. Finger down the throat, razor from the drawer, opera on the stage. Purge. It’s OK to be human.

Trisha Low’s The Compleat Purge: a purge in three acts.

*

Act I: Low writes her last will and testament, turns a legal formality candid, into “gushy epistolaries” at age 6, then 13, 15, 17, 19, 20, 21, 23, 24. Suicide notes to her parents, to first loves, old friends, new friends, apologizing, professing undying love, willing Hitchcock DVDs, quoting from Murakami and Batman.

Low’s suicide notes are not gateways to reading her work, they’re the work itself. She’s keenly aware of Plath, Sexton, and Woolf. With Low brushing off the coup de grâce, the letters refuse ‘authentic’ truth.

Vulnerability as “elaborate conceptual joke.”

In an interview, Low quotes Joseph Kaplan: “I am interested only in the successful, annihilative manifestation of the poem, as an absolute violence.”

In John Cassavetes’ film Faces, characters pulse through impromptu sing-a-longs, threats, slaps, insults, a buzz of reverie and devastation. Overcome after cheating on her husband with the young playboy Chet, Maria downs a handful of sleeping pills. Chet finds her on the floor, tosses her in the shower, sticks his fingers down her throat, anything to wake her up, slaps her until she cries herself awake. Moment of calm. Chet lights a cigarette for her, leans back on the bed. “Nobody cares. Nobody has the time to be vulnerable to each other.”

Vulnerability as violence.

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July 14th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Reviews

The No World Concerto by A.G. Porta

15647100476730LThe No World Concerto
by A.G. Porta
Translated by Darren Koolman
Dalkey Archive (Spanish Literature Series), 2013
339 pages / $16  Buy from Dalkey Archive

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been getting over this cold for about ten days now, and last week I had an especially bad night. I had taken 10mil of tussin pretty late, and now I realize the medicine was keeping me awake. At one point in the night my left leg lost circulation, and when I woke up, I thought, “Oh great, now that leg is entering the No World.” And as I slept, waking every hour or so, I had this creeping fear that more of me would fall into the No World. A terrifying prospect to be sure.

For A.G. Porta, the No World isn’t Bizarro World, but the subliminal articulated in a language we can’t understand. In The No World Concerto, out now from Dalkey Archive, A.G. Porta considers the limited tools we have for approaching reality and the so-called subliminal.

Like Cortázar’s 62 a Model Kit, The No World Concerto takes place in an unnamed city “the neighboring country’s capital” aka Paris. A “Screenwriter” obsessively writes a script that follows his relationship with a young piano prodigy, “the girl,” herself writing a sci-fi novelized account of their affair. The plot of The No World Concerto, comes across as somewhere inside and outside of all of these texts.

1982_blade_runner_the_final_cut_001The girl’s novel follows the story of an aging Alien-hunter.

Early on in The No World Concerto, the girl outlines her relationship to the No World:

I hear voices, the girl confesses. I think they come from another world. The young conductor asks her how she can be sure. How doesn’t she know the voices aren’t just inside her head? But she’s utterly convinced of it, and that should be proof enough it seems. The young conductor says no can know if something exists in and of itself outside the mind…They’re not even voices from this world, insists the girl, they’re from a false world, a No World created by some alien consciousness…(her novel) touches on this…the No World she writes and rewrites without ever getting anywhere; the No World that’s always expanding inside her, ever ripening, while never reaching maturity.

After co-writing a novel with Roberto Bolaño in the early 1980’s, Porta reportedly shut himself off from the world rereading Joyce and Wittgenstein. In No World, he lays the Wittgenstein on pretty early and pretty thick, highlighting the central paradox of the novel: Although our reality is bounded by language, language cannot describe all of reality.

Consider the joke: “Jean-Paul Sartre is sitting at a cafe. He says to the waitress, ‘I’d like a cup of coffee, please, with no cream.’ The waitress replies, I’m sorry, Monsieur, but we’re out of cream. How about with no milk?’”

For Porta, the act of literature is a negative act, naming thus negating imagined realities, because each “reality” corresponds with a multitude of unknown realities. Jacques Roubaud identifies this as the plurality of worlds. He says: (since I think/that the real/ is in no way real/how am I to believe/ that dreams are dreams)

So while the constant iteration of realities (via literature) might voice a critique towards a status quo, that critique will always be limited by the language we have. The infinite No-Worlds and Bizarro Worlds and alternate realities, (Crises on Infinite Earths, etc) of this world and reality are not really positive (or negative) mirrors, but rather frustrated slidings along an unknown continuum. Blanchot identifies this as the lot of author’s struggling away at a “work,” somehow existent, although ephemeral. Knowing that the transfer of this “work” from the subliminal kills it, and that the true triumph of literature comes somewhere in it’s ability to hold up the shortcomings of language.

While this might sound a little overwrought, Porta has a very light touch. And The No World Concerto is funny and enormously readable. Outside of her novel, “the girl” flirts with New Music stardom, adopting a John Cage-like rejection of rigid serialism in favor of indeterminancy.

Her Little Sinfonietta group performs a piece very reminiscent of The Green Table by Kurt Jooss.

By the third act, the “Screenwriter” sinks into mad-monk schizophrenia, and the action culminates in a very Robbe-Grillet-esque shocker. Although hailed in Spain as “one of the top ten Spanish-Language novels of the decade,” The No World Concerto resists simple interpretation, as it interrogates literature and compulsion in the modern world.

***

Joseph Houlihan lives and writes in Minneapolis, MN.

1 Comment
July 11th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Reviews

Addicts & Basements by Robert Vaughan

tumblr_inline_mx2elnLMdc1r6esemAddicts & Basements
by Robert Vaughan
Civil Coping Mechanisms, February 2014
142 pages / $13.95  Buy from Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While waiting for clothes to dry in a dingy, low-maintenance laundromat—leaning beside an out-of-service soda machine was a discolored Fisher-Price Playset (in case anyone wanted to conveniently scare/scar the hell out of their kids)—I tore into Addicts & Basements, Robert Vaughan’s slim collection of brisk, tightly-constructed miracles of human endurance both humorous and sad (often beautiful), as coin machines, some entirely gutted, struggled haphazardly against insurmountable odds:

A man is mailed his ex’s pubic hair; a lonely waitress perusing personal ads becomes smitten by Bondage Man; a father kidnaps two siblings who may or may not be his kids; and a husband surfs porn sites while wearing his medicated wife’s panties.

Vaughan’s talent in handling the plights of characters many would write off as pathetic grotesques is masterful, and he does it with love and sincerity:

He decided to give it a whirl in the toilets of Grand Central Station. He stopped by Wigs and Plus on 14th Street where the owner, Sunny, would sell him a cheap piece “for his mother.” Then he’d prop himself in the furthest stall from the door every Sunday morning. Wig in place. Like a parishioner. Or a TV evangelist. Or a congressman.

When it comes to flash fiction (those brief, punchy, not-quite-prose-poems) Vaughan is an upper-level video game boss. “Gauze, A Medical Dressing, A Scrim,” with its impeccable comedic timing, might be one of the best I’ve ever read. “Neighbors,” about two suspicious pet owners, isn’t too shabby either:

He likes her smile, imagines seeing those guinea pigs ripped into shreds. He untangles the leash. “C’mon, boys.” He imagines what she looks like covered in whipped cream. Even her heels. They keep laughing.

“On the Wings of a Dove” turns the nightmare juice up to 11 with Vaughan’s haunting tribute to Matthew Wayne Shepard, a young man tortured and killed by homophobes in Wyoming:

his coma was so quiet,
one of the killers would
later say, you could almost
hear ice rattling down the canyon

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July 11th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Reviews

25 Points: You Can Make Anything Sad

MadsenCover
You Can Make Anything Sad
by Spencer Madsen
Publishing Genius Press, 2014
90 pages / $14.95 buy from PGP

1. Spencer Madsen’s new book has what you might call ‘a classic Alt-Lit title.’

2. Like many of his contemporaries, a fair proportion of this work is considering ‘What if…’ something happens and musing on ‘What ifs’ generally. I think this has something to do with the virtual world and what it has done to our brains. As a strategy it is, in itself, almost materially virtual.

3. There are many proper nouns. For me, proper nouns are essential.

4. Computer/technological device interface metaphors, analogies, etc., are a growth area to a large extent pioneered (as far as today’s technological landscape goes anyway) by Alt-Lit writers themselves. Madsen is very good at them. Here is one by him: ‘When you turn the screen brightness down on your computer, everything looks the same but seems a little shittier.’

5. On October 1st, 2012, Spencer encountered a man in a gym and mused on his ‘meaningless’ hairstyles, tattoos, and muscles (‘he does administrative work’) but notes that in a way this gym muscle man ‘is more authentic,’ ‘more purely veneer’ than your everyday person. This is deep, man! By which I mean that the way in which much Alt-Lit concerns itself with screens is down to the fact that screens, smoothness, etc., represent the spirit of our current age (and any age that we can imagine anytime soon on the, now non-existent, horizon) so it is important to face up to them, even if it means facing them to do so. This whole ‘life in front of small screens, large, intermediately sized screens’ is so ubiquitous it needs to be looked at. Alt-Lit does it very well, as does Spencer.

6. ‘A Tumblr called Girls Doing Things featuring photos  of fully clothed girls doing normal things like standing in line at the post office or walking a dog’ would be the most genuinely erotic Tumblr of the year. Think about it, folks.

7. Nothing happens in this book in that way where everything happens or rather so many things happen that nothing seems to happen. Word thinks this is ‘verb confusion’ but it is really more about the state of things.

8. I say nothing happens but there is a half-hearted worry about coming to the end of a relationship which is recurrent but which isn’t foregrounded. Although coming to the end of a relationship is a big thing (like moving house, as they say, not enough novels about ‘moving house?’), it’s inevitable that something else will start.

9. Something else does start. He starts going out with someone new.  It’s new; he likes it as we all like that kind of thing.

10. He’s good at the old poetic trick of mixing everyday concrete noun combinations like ‘cereal and milk’ with the slightly more amusing concrete noun ‘ice cream’ with a sudden abstract noun ‘emotional stability.’ This is an old trick that will never stop working. He executes it very well. I laughed.

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July 10th, 2014 / 12:00 pm

A Sloth’s Perspective

Beach Sloth, cult blogger-extraordinaire, is arguably one of the few things you should actually pay attention to on the Internet. A magnificent poet and semi-anonymous (though some know his secret identity), Beach Sloth is the spirit of discovering new art—plucking it from the depths of the Internet and hidden crevices of the unknown in effort to make us aware. The style of his reviews are poetically analytic and hit off on major points of each work he’s featuring. He covers a wide variety of literature, art, film, music, online activity of Internet poets, and other mediums that peak his interest. Beach Sloth wants to make his art into a money making enterprise. He wants to extend his three fingered claws and touch everyone with his work and insight. You can paypal him at: pleasepaybeachsloth@gmail.com. He tweets at @Beach_Sloth. He also allows you to advertise on his blog. (There’s nothing this sloth can’t do.)

I interviewed Beach Sloth over a course of a week through email about his project, the artistic “struggle”, and his views on indie lit. Being a prominent player in the “alt lit” scene, the blogger’s responses were eye opening and unique to his own. So kick back, relax, and enjoy this sloth’s perspective.

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What is Beach Sloth? Why was this alias created? What is your slothy purpose?

Beach Sloth is my way of interpreting the culture I see created online every single day.

I created Beach Sloth after a series of really strange events began to happen in my life. None of them were bad but I was feeling a little bit too comfortable with the daily routines I was going through. Hence Beach Sloth kind of served as a challenge to me to engage more with the world (and Beach Sloth as a project continues to challenge me with a near-endless stream of work).

My purpose is to support others and have others support each other. If that happens I am happy.

How satisfied are you with your work thus far? What would make it better? What would make it worse? 

I am pretty happy with my work thus far. I think I am moving in the right direction and I am constantly trying to improve what I do. Some of the work I did in the past seems a bit ‘underdone’ compared to what I do now, in that I am a lot more focused on keeping things concise and edit a lot harder.

My work probably would be better if I ventured outside of my immediate social media realm. One of my goals for Beach Sloth in 2014 is to try and expand my horizons outside of the blog. This has meant a chapbook for Peanut Gallery Press, more submissions elsewhere (I’m bad with submissions in general) and trying to move into more visual work (I want to do a better job of taking advantage of Tumblr’s focus on the visual, something I know I haven’t done enough of in the past).

Honestly I am pretty hard pressed to think what would make it worse. Probably the worst thing I could do would be to sort of shut off Beach Sloth to a few specific writers. I try to keep up a variety of coverage so people do not see the same names all the time. My focus is also on those whose work I particularly enjoy and people who I think deserve more credit. READ MORE >

Interviews / 13 Comments
July 9th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Reviews

This Isn’t a Room to Rest In: A Review of Brett Fletcher Lauer’s A Hotel in Belgium

A-Hotel-in-Belgium-front-coverA Hotel in Belgium
by Brett Fletcher Lauer
Four Way Books, March 2014
116 pages / $15.95  Buy from Amazon or Four Way Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brett Fletcher Lauer’s debut collection, A Hotel in Belgium, resists. The poems resist narrative as often as they sneak over towards it, snag some, and then move back over the boundary—however arbitrary and fleeting that boundary might be—into a lyric. The poems challenge the reader to follow along with the narrative and/or lyric and then, just like a magician snapping her fingers to get you to look that way, the logic falls apart, falls inward, collapses, rearranges itself in the cavern it fell into, and then shouts back up to you on the surface, saying, “See? See? Didn’t I tell you there was a hole here all along?”

That sense of resistance also becomes a venue for doubling, so that, one thing becomes two, becomes multifaceted, not because everything necessarily exists in a state of constant change, but because the speaker exists in a state of constant change, so his view, his language, reflects that:

In the beginning, my eyes were angled
out a window on a point providing
conclusion while periodic vibrations
of fear aggressively governed
my anatomy. There were others
kept ignorant of the latitude of this
municipality, the river’s proper name,

and its source in a local mountain.
It’s important this isn’t construed as
a sales pitch, just a sensible presentation
of the future, sealed as its caskets
like some distant city encircled by
horned predators. Don’t wish the dead
are not. They are.

— from “Stockholm Syndrome”

Even the opening epigraph from Goethe delivers this sensation of a doubling and of a resistance: “It is as if a curtain had been drawn from before my soul, and this scene of infinite life had been transformed before my eyes into the abyss of the grave, forever open wide.” It is this uncovering, this unveiling, that alters the view: from infinite life to an abyss of the grave, both existing “forever open wide,” but, in one instance, a peaceful, joyous experience, and in the other, a darker existential reality. The action, though, remains a singular event. It is our interpretation of that action, our view that alters the thing looked at.

Beyond the poems’ resistance to fitting into a binary, the reading of the poems—the syntax and sentence structure, the rhetoric—resists a single, easy read. These are poems we must return to, that we want to return to, so that we can get a better grasp of this poet’s mind. And after reading the book a handful of times, I’ve come to no conclusions on these poems, because the poems don’t conclude their thoughts. There is no resounding, final chord, no final return, no abiding image. Instead, they resonate. They trail off. They get somewhat lost because, the poems suggest, getting lost is a legitimate reaction to the world these poems present and occupy.

Our situation is complicated, full of negations
and negations of negations. To remember

experience rather than what’s occurring—
this detachment replaced with strangers

other strangers recognize.

— from “In a Station of the Metro”

Occasionally, a line arrests us in these poems with its desire to connect with the reader (“Don’t cry. I am touching//your shoulder.”) More often than not, though, the speaker’s sense of confusion returns—which we share as the reader—so, yes, we receive a Frostian momentary stay against the confusion the speaker feels, but, just as soon as we feel that, we’re tossed back into the mix, back into the rubble of ideas, logic and concerns that determine the course of the speaker’s life.

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July 7th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Reviews

Tombo by W.S. Di Piero

tombo_cover_FINAL_STORETombo
by W.S. Di Piero
McSweeney’s Books, 2014
65 pages / $15  Buy from McSweeney’s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tombo is a book about place as much as anything. It’s about San Francisco. Many poems are about place – whether they are explicit about it or not. Di Piero is explicit in Tombo. W.S. Di Piero recently won the Ruth Lilley Poetry Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, the Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Award, and writes for the New York Times, among other places. He is an incredibly distinguished poet and McSweeney’s bills him as “a master of the adjective, a master of sound and story.”

I’d never read anything by W.S. Di Piero before this book, which I read primarily at cafes not in San Francisco. Di Piero starts the book by addressing, you, the reader, “Life, as you say, my friend, / is lived in its transitions.” Life is funny like that. The first poem, The Running Dog, involves a brunch I could envy “A breakfast of poached eggs, / spiked coffee, newsy talk, / crushed sun behind the clouds, / marine layer vapors phasing / blue to green, and the body / quivers through its days.” In fact, like living in San Francisco and eating brunch, there’s a lot about the life of the poet that seems enviable, depending on your disposition.

I would highly recommend this book if you appreciate poemy poems full of foghorns, flowers, and random interjections in other languages. Di Piero prides himself on sound and music, and there is a certain music in these poems – while they’re unrhymed free verse, there’s a recognizable rhythm and music throughout.

The poem Sleeping Potions reminds me of a story I heard from a local bike mechanic: A man came into his bike shop, and took a used bike out for a test-ride. The man never came back. He had left his bag with a laptop, credit cards, wallet, and other valuable things, at the bike shop as collateral / insurance. A few days later the bike shop gets a call. The police had found the man “several hundred miles” north of the bike shop – he had no explanation for what he had done – he didn’t know or remember the previous several days. The bike was returned to the shop and the man got his bag and valuables back. But what happened between the shop and hundreds of miles north?

And what’s happened in Tombo during the intervening fugue paragraph? We’ve moved from Hayes Street, to Duboce Triangle, to the N-Judah. We’ve got a look at Market and the Mission and Dolores Park. Di Piero has said that his books “start out as miscellanies.” The poems in Tombo don’t have the kind of narrative arc or grand teleological direction. They’re brief meditations. “If my poems come out right, they tell what it feels like to live in a world of troubled relatedness,” Di Piero said in an interview. I like this idea of troubled relatedness – and I think it’s an interesting way to talk about poems.

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July 7th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Reviews

Death Centos by Diana Arterian

Death Centos 300dpiDeath Centos
by Diana Arterian
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013
24 pages /  UDP Page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When my 12 year old daughter rolls her eyes at me, I tell her stop it. I say, stop it. You shouldn’t treat me like that. I’m going to die someday.

She says, Mom, I know.

My husband says, Both of you, stop it.

But I can’t. I can’t stop. So I tell her, we’ll be dead forever. Just think about that: forever. Infinity. All of time. And we are only alive for a little second of it, and we barely even get to know each other, and you want to waste the little time we do have being alive rolling your eyes at me.

My husband says, Please, Sara. Not this shit again. Don’t say that.

Jeez, Mom. Seriously. I know we’re going to die.

But you don’t get that it is really soon. I could die tomorrow. So could you.

My husband says, Stop. No more. Stop saying that shit tonight. Just not tonight. Let’s just watch a show together, and enjoy our evening. Please, he implores, not tonight. No death stuff tonight.

The book of poems, Death Centos, by Diana Arterian is a book of poetry made by collage and with constraint. Arterian has created a mixed tape of famous figures’ final words. Her poems pull the final phrases of famous persons from their resting places of mythology and arranges these phrases into poems. Death Centos, conceptual in conceit or not, is a book of poems that is rich and profound. The author doesn’t seem as displaced as in most pieces of conceptual writing. This contributes to a feeling of stability within the text. The poems are full of hearty material. The words are the actual final words of folks before death. Most of the folks quoted carry some importance in the trajectory of civilization. These words lend to the power of the poems, but that isn’t the whole story. The arrangement of the words is of paramount importance. I am not a poet. And because of this I can consume poetry in a way that allows my mind to form ideas from the poem, or access to the subtext in a way that feels more mystical than an outright technical analysis would. I’m talking about feelings here. I feel that the work is good. I feel the poems are strong. I felt stirred by them, and provoked. I take this to mean that art is working.

In the first poem “I” in the section LAST WORDS OF THE DYING there is a list at the side of the page highlighting the people whose words have been arranged in the poem: Ludwig van Beethoven, Frederic Chopin, Thomas Edison, Franz Ferdinand, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Victor Hugo, Timothy Leary, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Theodore Roosevelt, Tom Simpson, Rudolph Valentino. There are only ten stanzas in the poem and the punctuation defies orderliness. There are no clues here, just a list of contributors. From the first I realized there would be no real correlation between the order of the contributors, and the poems’ inclusion— or, if there was, it would be more work than any book of poetry should be. I found myself wanting the poem to align with list of personas so that I could figure out who said what at the end of his life, but Arterian wasn’t going to let that happen.

Perhaps this description of my experience with this conceptual piece of work seems pedestrian to you. I think though, that my experience is worth talking about. For so long I felt shut out of conceptual work. That is a huge part of the culture to miss out on. Conceptual projects and poems intimidate cultural consumers. MFA programs like the one I went to are rife with what could be either interesting experiments or half-hearted attempts at grabbing some attention. You have to get close to tell the difference. Only now, years after school, do I find myself brave enough to get close, to engage, and to speak about the work. However, by no means am I an expert. I am a dilettante.

Arterian’s first poem taught me how to read the rest. It taught me what to do from the first. I think this says something about the accessibility of her work. About the potential appeal. Not everyone is going to care about poetry, but everyone should feel welcome to engage. I think that the content of Death Centos is inviting. Macabre, yes, but death is coming. To each of us. And “this is the fight of day/and night.” This is a space of common ground. This is a book of inclusiveness. This is a book of successful appropriation where the original text adds up to so much more than any of the snippets.

Each of the poems begs to re-read. There is a smoothness despite the punctuation. The poems flow and drip. Arterian is a master at moving you down through poem at a steady pace. In the poem “V” in the first section of LAST WORDS OF THE DYING three names are listed down the side: Warren G. Harding, Frida Kahlo, Martin Luther King Jr. I read the poem “V” three times in each voice, letting each one of these famous persons own the words of the others in a vision of their respective deaths.

Make sure you play “Precious Lord”
tonight—play it

real pretty. That’s good.
I hope the exit is joyful

and I hope to never

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1 Comment
July 4th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Reviews

25 Points: His Master’s Voice

Lem_HisMastersVoice
His Master’s Voice
by Stanislaw Lem
Northwestern University Press, 1999
199 pages / $16.95 buy from Amazon

1. I first read Stanislaw Lem after seeing an anonymous review of The Cyberiad on HTMLGIANT.

2. I’ve read two of his books. A year or two ago I read Solaris, then last week I read His Master’s Voice.

3. His Master’s Voice, published 7 years after Solaris, echoes the earlier book in pleasing ways. The most obvious to me was that neither ever directly answers the mystery near the heart of each book. A reader will not definitively learn the nature of the ocean on Solaris, or what the letter from the stars says.

4. HMV places human failure more centrally than Solaris. The narrator of HMV, Peter Hogarth, is (after the fact) a complete pessimist about humanity’s time facing their impossible task.

5. The book is philosophical, often profound. For example: “Our ability to adapt and therefore to accept everything is one of our greatest dangers. Creatures that are completely flexible, changeable, can have no fixed morality.”

6. Or, “Psychoanalytic doctrine reveals the pig in man, a pig saddled with a conscience; the disastrous result is that the pig is uncomfortable beneath that pious rider, and the rider fares no better in the situation, since his endeavor is not only to tame the pig but also to render it invisible.” Hogarth does not have much love for psychoanalysis throughout the book.

7. Lem would eventually focus most of his effort on writing philosophical essays and abandon the novel. Knowing this made it hard to separate Lem and Hogarth during these tangents.

8. Something I find particularly engaging about Lem’s writing is his way of introducing the reader to complex scientific and technological ideas on which he was likely not an actual expert, and doing so with authority. I’ll come back to this.

9. At one point in the book Lem uses Hogarth and another of his characters as mouthpieces for his own personal views of pulp science fiction. Lem was famously not a fan of most of his contemporary genre writers, and when the character Rappaport hits a wall in his research he resorts to reading a stack of apparently mediocre SF—“expecting variety, finding monotony.”

10. One of several reasons Lem gave for no longer writing fiction was his inability to keep up with the increasing number of papers being written on the cutting edge of science. This meant that he could no longer keep writing books involving cutting edge ideas with the sense of authority I earlier admired. Maybe he feared that without that he would be just another indistinguishable pulp science fiction author.

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July 3rd, 2014 / 12:00 pm