Monthly Archives: July 2011

Goest

book by Cole Swensen
annotation by Kimberly Bredberg

Goest, the archaic second person singular form of go, really? What kind of title is this?
I’d say a poetic one.
This title is Rorschach.
I am set into motion reading the ink somewhere between the past and present.
Here, at least from a poetic point of view, associating the word “goest” conjures “ghost” and I am drawn in to the drama of the volume at hand.
Goest is at once a charge
to dig for the ethereal and
to bask in the translucent ghost we discover.

The volume is divided into three sections, a larger middle section bookended by white: Of White,
A History of the Incandescent,
On White.

I begin with an observation of titles. Each one an invitation, no, a hook. All that I appreciate about this poet might be drawn from these two pages alone. In fact, the combined titles almost (but not quite) read like a list poem: “The Girl Who Never Rained”/ “The Future of Sculpture”/ “The Exploration of Fuor-Spar” and on and on.

Of Whit and On White contain poems that mirror, substantiating the “bookend” effect: “White Cities” : “Razed Cities” and “Five Landscapes” : “Five Landscapes” and “The Future of Sculpture” : “The Future of White” add sculptural shaping to the volume.
The middle section of poems, A History of the Incandescent, delves into the shine that illuminates, tricks the eye, reflects, and, into that which is core. As with other volumes of Swensen’s work, I find that these poems, on the surface, appear arcane, standoffish, even a bit snobby. But surface judgment is always a bad idea. The reader unwilling to work for engagement will surely be deprived of a treasure—rich language, creative syntax, sound, and image—gold worth the dig. There is much to glean from Swenson who makes precise intellectual observations, information that she then filters through the mesh of imagination.
A favorite poem in this volume, “Lacrymae Vitrae,” illustrates what I appreciate about Cole Swensen’s work in general. The poem is a terrific bundle of associations, one that highlights a dusty connection between humanity in the 21st century and humanity in the 18th century. Molten glass dripped into water produces a glass teardrop that is, on one end ridiculously strong and on the other ridiculously fragile. “scientists will note/we, who were all home at the time,/bursting into finest dust/if even the smallest fragment is broken off.” The analogy illuminates the ghost, challenges me to think and to act… to goest. This poem is at once physicist/psychologist/apothecary.
These poems honor the space on the page.

space is breath,

candescence,

chant.

Space is musicality,

is an ostinato

that moves weighted,

equalizes, dances with sound

is steadiness, familiarity.

Non-conventional punctuation, unusual point of view, the abandoned dependant clause, wandering tense, and seamless transitions from the objective to the symbolic are the qualities that beg me to engage with the world of these poems.

Swensen is a poet who does not shy from the substance of past, present, and future history or from the realm beyond what is seen. And she is a poet who challenges this poet to risk.

Perhaps what captures my attention above all is the palpable aromatic of these poems. I find myself isolating, steeping in the sonic: “scenes…mistaken for sails”, “back to the weal (the sun peeled) to a line, which is thin, to a dim/Give it back to him” and “and down into the spiral of our riches/still reign: falots or great pitch lit/at the crossroads/—and thus were we followed/through a city of thieves—which.”

These poems are
contemplative, philosophical,
painterly and poetic
Goest,
if you dare…

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The Black Back-Ups

book by Kate Rushin’s

annotation by Lisa McCool-Grime

Although I’d read this book once before and was moved by its content, I happily returned to it as part of a larger craft-oriented study on the impact of the short line. Rushin wildly varies line length throughout the book and within single poems, but in all cases, she seems to be using what June Jordan calls “vertical rhythm”. In June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint, June Jordan includes an essay discussing the manipulation of syntax and musical devices around the line break in order to create a vertical rhythm that either rushes the reader down the page or slows the reader at the end of each line. As an example of the latter, at the ninth stanza of The Bridge Poem, Rushin moves from longer but varied lines to a consistently short line:

Sick
Of having
To remind you
To breathe
Before you
Suffocate
Your own
Fool self

The pattern of rhythm established by the earlier longer lines gives these short lines in stanza nine a lot of space. I feel indignant, pregnant pauses at each break. The poem has built to this peak by using average-length and long lines to list all the things the narrator is sick of and here, at the ninth stanza, she is out of breath and out of patience with her listing. It is worth noting that, where she can, Rushin uses the line break in this poem to work with syntactical structure. Since the way we receive information is impacted by how our language organizes itself, working with the syntactical structure allows us as readers (or listeners) to pause without confusion. So the emotional force of the poem paired with short lines broken naturally with syntax, slows a reader down. In contrast Rushin does the exact opposite of this in other poems to create a fast pace, breaking against the syntax. In “Family Tree”, she breaks after prepositions: “A long line of / Uppity Irate Black Women” and “A coupon and one dollar to / Nabisco Shredded Wheat”. In these cases, the break against the syntax naturally rushes readers along because we want to finish the thought begun with the phrase. What I find particularly interesting is that I can hear these breaks as a unit of breath for a performance poet. In fact, it is typical for performance poets to affect a pause after a conjunction or a preposition. I now see that the consequences are similar—both keep the audience anxious for what comes next. The reader quickly reads on. The listener anxiously listens for the next line. This is particularly important for slam poets whose scores are related to how engaged the listener is during the performance. Choosing to break against natural syntax helps to up the suspense level of the work.

Whether slowing down or speeding up, Rushin’s carefully controlled, carefully varied dance between line break and syntax creates that vertical rhythm.

The Dance Most of All

book by Jack Gilbert

annotation by Stephanie Glazier

I’ve always been slightly vexed, particularly so coming out of the Translation Seminar, by non-English speaking (writing) poets’ vagueness. Latin American writers especially can speak of “the grief of lovers,” as Gilbert does in his poem, “Infectious,” and I’m affected by that. It’s charm works on me. (Gilbert is writing about an experience he had in Italy. I understand that he’s spend the last few decades in Greece.) This has bewildered me so because it’s precisely the opposite advice one receives in a writing workshop—specificity, concrete, clear images, the young poet is told. Today, it seems to me that one reason that foreign poets ‘get away’ with speaking generally, especially about emotion, is that other cultures are more concerned (and this is evident in the semantics of other languages) with the collective identity and experience. American poetry is much more interested in the particularity of identity and experience—individualism. It’s a matter of readership. Reading work in translation, I’m convinced by such generalities because they’re voracious to the experience of that poet’s cultural context and to her ideal reader.

The last poem in the collection, titled “We are the Junction,” employs one of Gilbert’s principal tricks—really weird syntax. Jenny Factor recently submitted to me the fact that each time I read a new arrangement of words, each time I’m surprised by syntax, a new synapse forms in my brain. When I read Gilbert and Matthea Harvey’s work—I have this feeling of being washed over. “When body touches heart/ they together are the moon/ in the silently falling snow/ over there” (56).  So much so that when I read this, when he tells me that our whole beings are the only vehicles we have to understanding, I believe him because he’s telling me in a way I’ve not heard it before: “Which is truth/ exceeding, is the residence,/ the sanctified, is the secret/ closet and passes into glory.”