Monday, June 29, 2009

Jorie Graham, Sea Change

Ariel: Full fadom fiue thy Father lies,
Of his bones are Corrall made:
Those are pearles that were his eies,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a Sea-change
Into something rich, & strange:
Sea-Nimphs hourly ring his knell.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest (First Folio, from Project Gutenberg)

Pulitzer Prize-winner. Successor to Seamus Heaney at Harvard. Regarded as hermetic, even mantic, Jorie Graham is a difficult poet to review. Investigating the "sea-change" of global ecological devastation (resulting, in turn, from "sea-changed" carbon) and the political sea-change after 9/11 in the US, Graham speaks with a voice of quiet assurance and devastating (literally, laying waste to vistas in her incredible feel for detail) observation that - echoing Shakespeare and the Psalms (and, in its cadences, the New York Times) - has an almost devotional quality. It's a difficult poetry to answer back. It's a poetry that pushes itself further through the repeated gesture of "& how," an exploratory -- even axcavatory -- development that draws the reader deeper into the mysteries.

Graham creates chinks in the poems with her frequent tactic of an assertion followed by "no", yet these confound the reader into further dumb awe y enhancing -- even staging -- her control of specificity. I found myself writing out phrases and stanzas in a rapture (not easy considering the intense length of her lines -- so long that Carcanet had to produce an unusually square book to accommodate them), reading poems three or four times, sometimes backwards. Some -- particularly in the middle section -- are legible and lovely lyrics about ageing, seasons, and intimacy. But the breadth and density of her poetry is like that of the oceans. Rather than leading me to coherence, to an essay, her poetry makes me want to revel in it, to swim and dive and splash.

So here are some watermarks from my reading -- partial and scattered. I imagine reading this book again and again -- and feel almost shy of asserting to cohesive a reading. I want to hold onto the white space that striates the pages.

How does Graham's book concern itself with The Tempest? It's poetry as oceanography. It pairs the sea and death, counterpointing the constancy of death with the sea's mutability. It's concerned with the magic of making -- especially the late magic of Prospero's final speech -- and "this inch of finishing." But Prospero is also "the torturer" (and the poet Ariel) in "This," which speaks of "the sound of / servants not being / set free". And the torturer is Bush -- especially in the extraordinarily angry "Guantánamo" and in the spine-tingling "Full Fathom":
those were houses that are his eyes— those were lives that
are his
eyes—those are families those are privacies, those are details—those are reparation
agreements, summary
judgements, those are multiplications
on the face of the earth that are—those are the forests, the coal seams, the
carbon sinks that are his—
as they turn into carbon sources—his—
. Those "eyes" are also Graham's interrogation of the lyric I (and the personal I that is attacked, and dismantled, by torture), equalled by her savage and direct invocation of Bush, the torturer, as "you" in "Guantánamo."

Sea Change recognises very directly, in the stretch and elasticity of its long-line poetics, that Guantánamo, climate change and the credit crunch come from the same monolithic (and monotheistic) neo-conservative mindset. "Futures" and "Loan" use the poetic economy of repetition to essay/assay the way in which the "this / message 'I'", money and water all depend on circulation (and are eroded by exploitation). The book is predicated on a moment of crisis that is personal (ageing), political (the US' loss of credibility under Bush), ecological -- and linguistic, concerned with the redaction and devaluation of language under the Bush government and in the era of texting. Sample from "Futures":
I your speck tremble remembering money
where "speck" suggests "speculation" -- the act of imagination itself reduced to mean monetary mind-games -- and further to a mote in the eye/I that produces the tears that flow through the poem:
wind which the eye loves so deeply it
would spill itself out and liquefy
to pay for it
"Just Before" torques speculation further (or in reverse) to present a speculative poetry: "a pool. Of / stillness" opens out into a science-fiction in which
... there was no standing army anywhere,
& the sleeping bodies in the doorways in all
the cities of
what was then
just planet earth
were lifted up out of their sleeping
bags, & they walked
away, & the sensation of empire blew off the link
like pollen—just like that
The words are short, simple, plangent but the vision they offer is expansive, utterly original. This is science fiction that is "far from un- / earthly, it was full of earth." Immanence is one of the big themes of the book, delinking the maker from any grand Maker. And on the subject of making, Graham is constantly pressing and examining the act of writing and the status of poetic language.

In "Loan," thinking about how poetry uses the world, she writes: "all this taking is not our taking", asserting that poetry is exactly the work of circulation, of giving and returning, rather than keeping (or more, accruing) meaning. Similarly, "Loan" reminds us that
irrigation returns only as history, a thing made of text,
& yet, listen,
there was
rain, then the swift interval before evaporation, & the stillness
of brimming,
Despite the long lines and the many vocabularies, this is a poetry that seems to aspire towards something beyond words, or at least beyond their accumulative nature and economics of meaning. In "Day Off", Graham foresees
the day of
days, where all you have named is finally shunted aside, the whole material man-
ifestation of so-called definitions, imagine
that, the path of least resistance wherein I grab onto the immaterial and christen it
thus and thus &
something over our shoulders says it is good, yes, go on, go on, and we did.
There's the echo of Molly Bloom's soliloquy and of Beckett in that final line that takes up the play on "day of/f judgement" to suggest an ending as release from meaning rather than entry into it.

That turn is encoded from the first poem of the book "Sea Change," which exhibits two of the recurring tropes in the book: Graham's hyphenation of and caesura on "in-" and her exact use of the ampersand. The former allows her to invent words such as "in-clingings" and query words such as "in- / dispensable," asking what the inwardness -- or inversion -- of each might be, and how internality and refusal/reversal might be related. The ampersand is curioser, littering the page like a Celtic loveknot, at once less and more than the word "and": it opens up the word that links "rich and strange" to suggest we might, culturally, delink them. It asks us to sea-change its knotted notation into and out of language.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Abi Curtis, Unexpected Weather

Abi Curtis' debut collection, Unexpected Weather, sounds like a quintessentially British divertissement, opening as it does with "Lady Jane Grey" and closing with a "Bean." But Curtis gets wryly and slyly to the Gothic heart of the English country house/garden, revealing its passionate heart and eccentric imagination, particularly in several poems about English inventors such as George Gabriel Stokes.

Stokes is one of several figures who stand at the edge of cliffs (see also "Poem at the Edge of a Cliff") both literally and metaphorically looking across the chasm that separates Britain from the rest of the world. Curtis' poems are often avowedly archipelagic, looking with a loving eye at the flora and fauna (especially the lovely "Mole") of the British Isles, but they also explore -- and expand beyond -- the seductions of our island mentality. "I was a gwailo," begins "Hong Kong", a prose poem dense with the shock of encountering the textures of another island ("the rot of blue eggs boiled behind doorways" gives you a sense of her command of alliteration and rhythmic patterning) that Curtis weaves into a history of empire -- or rather empires, with the island as a fault-line between the tectonic shifts of British and Chinese history.

"Hong Kong" is also a love poem, an account of an intimate meeting (encoded in its dedication, "For Simon") and love is the book's most consistent unexpected weather. While only the first few poems are explicitly I/you lyrics that intimate a confessional voice, they create a prevailing atmosphere skying over a terrain created by the meeting of two people, the shifting and uncertain borderland of love somewhere between one and two. This unexpected weather leaks into the love poems, shifting easy presumptions about the confessional voice, especially as the reader encounters skillful dramatic monologues that expand the whether of the confessional first person.

The most striking group of monologues, spread across the book, concerns circus performance ("Trapeze Artist", "Lion-Tamer", "Bareback Rider"), tales of daring feats, of balance and violence, that curiously echo the circusification of pop music on the one hand, and the Gothicisation of circus (I'm thinking Cirque du Soleil and post) on the other. Family entertainment turns bloody in the lion-tamer's "ache to be reopened" by the lion and the bareback rider "picturing how a simple slip / might be enough to free us." The poem subtly invokes not only the sexual connotations of barebacking, but the reasons for its transition to sexual slang.

Horses, like moles and beans, become desiring strangers rather than comforting signifiers of Englishness: like the lover -- or the Wizard behind the curtain in "Oz" -- these are figures that become stranger to read the closer we get to them, "ignis fatuus" (to take one of Curtis' section titles) that misleads us through familiarity and -- like the unexpected weather that scuppers Antonio's ship at the start of The Tempest -- brings us out somewhere rich and strange.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Claire Crowther, The Clockwork Gift

Maybe it's something about getting sucked into watching Wimbledon -- the way the regular thwack-and-forth of the ball somehow eats up the minutes and hours, the way that Centre Court acts like a giant sundial with that L-shaped shadow eating up the late afternoon -- but I want to write tonight about time as (a) present in Claire Crowther's The Clockwork Gift.

Not one to maunder about wearing a purple hat, Crowther turns a weather eye on women and ageing in her second collection. In poems that are at once metronomic in their deft rhythms and syncopated in their tripwire vocabulary and image-making, Crowther presents a paradoxical vision of the clockwork gift: that the passage of time brings with it both repetition and entropy, with seasonal cyclicity as the balance between.

The poems bloom not with polite garden flowers, but ruins, rust and inflorescence -- all treated lovingly, disinterestedly, rather than as an Iain Sinclair-esque baroque of disintegration. The book's various careful, and often witty, approaches to age remind me of Agnès Varda's wonderful documentary about what's thrown away and the people who retrieve it, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse. The lucite clock without hands that Varda keeps on her mantelpiece, and which she cuts to after a shot of her ageing hands, might stand as talisman for Crowther's recovery of the discarded, the way that she sets decay back into the natural cycle.

That's a radical move against our current cultural fear and exclusion of that which ages. She finds in age exactly the glow produced by late blooming, the fire of energies that have been banked and are flaring up. Of her grandmother she writes:
She would have been in her element, arc-lit

in gold water, being filmed on stage
reading poems about sun, flanked by flowers,
her face a gleam of all her profiles projected
at once...

No skull but a newly-coined queen.
That which is devalued is "newly-coined" in a luminous account of memory and inheritance. It's a triumphant conclusion to the poem "The Herebefore," a title that suggests some of Crowther's subtle play with time, memory and age as cultural -- and specifically narrative -- constructions. This is most acute in a startling central sequence, "St. Anne's Apocrypha" that brings St. Anne and St. Joachim into the twenty-first century, with Joachim coaching a team of elementary particles and Mary having acupuncture, hinting at contemporary tales of older mothers conceiving by IVF and (in Joachim's Kaons and Pions) the scientific redefinition of the miraculous.

More playfully but equally astute, "Unexpected Goal" finds "St George / overlooking a grey-haired woman striker playing / with a boy among bikes left where they fell, mid-roar." The overlooked (in its dual sense) among the abandoned, the striker and the roaring -- it's a juxtaposition that gets at the uncanny fear and fascination of another game invoked in "Street Football," that of Grandmother Wolf. Crowther is and isn't the wolf in grandmother's clothing: hungry for language and its scenes, she essays an appetitive poetry that is inspiring in its openness, its generosity in giving time -- and its effects -- to the reader.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Lisa Jarnot, Ring of Fire

or... I wish we all could be California girls.

Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles: the sun-cities of the sea-edge recur through Lisa Jarnot's collection Ring of Fire, her first full-length collection to be published in the UK (although it contains a suite of poems, Heliopolis, that appeared as a chapbook from the late-lamented rem press). Jarnot was born in Buffalo, experimental poetry capital of the East, and the East/West tension between avant-gardes (as weather systems, and vice versa) plays lightly through her book.

Heliopolis includes a) a poem called "Suddenly, Last Summer," which turns the sunny-side down in its invocation of the 1959 movie (Elizabeth Taylor's finest moment?) and b) a poem called "O Razorback Clams" dedicated to Daniel Kane, author of the new book We Saw the Light, which concludes with a conversation between Jarnot and New York-based filmmaker Jennifer Reeves, in whose film The Time We Killed starred Jarnot as an agoraphobic lesbian erotic writer.

Kane's book is a conversational history of the (all-male) connections between avant-garde poetry and film in 1950s and 1960s America, and the Reeves/Jarnot conversation seems to underscore his argument about the radical interconnections between the Beat scene and the New York underground -- but it also detourns it and queers it: not only are they the only women featured in the book, but the only pair who actually made a film together. I'd like to write more about the conversation they have, but I can't get the e-book copy Iowa sent me to download. So it's all speculation based on my hallucinatory memories of the wonderful The Time We Killed.

It's interesting that Jarnot and Reeves combined forces in NY given that film's sear(ch)ing light appears as part of the Californication of Jarnot's poetry: its desiring, devouring brightness. Hers is, after all, a book about things on fire (particularly cars: the American dream goes up in smoke spectacularly in "What In Fire Did I, Firelover, Starter of Fires, Love?"). But then the Reeves/Jarnot New York is neo-noir, a chiaroscuoro (high) contrast to the helter-skelter heliopolis of Ring of Fire's "specific incendiaries of springtime." There are foreshadows in "The Bridge" and "The Specific Incendiaries..." of Reeves' most recent film, When It Was Blue, which shares with Jarnot's poems a paratactic approach to the catalogue and a situated take on the lyric.

"The Bridge" positions the lyric voice as both conditional and as a logic problem -- "that I write about myself" -- the grammatical (and rhetorical) construction requiring a completion that never comes. The "I" is a thesis for which there is evidence, both eyewitness and anecdotal -- the speaker of the poem, prefiguring Anne Carson's Men in the Off Hours, is Thucydides -- not a fact. Similarly, the poet's position (job?) is rung through its changes in "Tell Me Poem," where the narrative imperative is transfigured: this is an impulse that reappears in "Autobiography," where the poem first proposes a sexual algebra, then geological parallels, and finally an anti-lyric moment.

One of the poems (why can't I remember which or refind the resonance?) in "The Book of Providence" reminded me of Maya Deren's iconic avant-garde film Meshes of the Afternoon, with its shifting scale of the intimate and the tectonic. Deren, the quintessential New York avant-gardist, made her most significant films in Los Angeles; Jarnot returns from her Californian dreamscape to New York (as marker of distance and strangeness: "terrific, living / on the Hudson, inside the months of spring, an / underwater crossing for the cows in dreams") in "Poem Beginning with a Line by Frank Lima" -- which in its turn has become an animated short film:

Friday, June 19, 2009

Three Poets: Esther Raab, Denise Levertov, Larissa Miller

And what connects them? Of different generations and divergent experiences, all three are, by descent, Russian Jews (although Levertov was raised Christian, something that inflects her recent work increasingly overwhelmingly).

In grouping together three poets linked only by their choice of lyric poetry and their ethnic background (claimed or dis-), I could essay a naïve comparison that would get entangled in issues of "national", gendered and Jewish voice. Instead, I imagine the three poets as alters created as a single historical life (that of the Russian Jewish woman in the twentieth century) took its different diasporic turns: to Palestine, to England and then America, and staying put through Communism and glasnost. Loosely, I imagine the three poets I'm annotating here as split-off personas along the line of the multiple protagonist of Sherri S. Tepper's novel The Margarets. As an advocate of diaspora, a believer in syncretic, nomadic formations, I present the poets in chronological order of their birth, which also appears to reverse the supposed narrative of that 20th century Jew: rather than going from Russia to Europe/the US to Israel, I work backwards from aliyah to Russia, asking how the poets' lyric attention to landscape, to memory and to voice is involved - deliberately or not - with larger political questions of home and land.

Esther Raab is canonised as the first "native-born" Israeli woman poet. Living in Palestine, Egypt and Israel between 1894 and 1981, her long writing life is entwined with -- and contributed to -- Israel's mythopoeic "birth of a nation" narrative. As her translator Harold Schimmel writes in his introduction to Thistles, the Selected Poems published by Peter Cole's very fine Ibis Editions, in Raab's work "Topography of the land becomes a human topography. The one merges into the other." All well and good, perhaps, if you are Emily Dickinson (one of Raab's major influences) in the United States (and not so innocent then, as Janet Holmes' The ms of my kin shows so eerily in its erasive take on Dickinson's Civil War-era poems) -- but harder to maintain as apolitical in Israel. Schimmel hints that Raab became an increasingly hardline Zionist as time went on, but it's hard not to hear the construction of a nationalist ideology through lyric tropes even in her early work:
"My heart, homeland, is with your dews,
at night on fields of bramble,
and to the cypress' scent, and moist thistle,
I will extend a hidden wing."
The poem argues that its speaker will "move forever" -- it's hard not to hear, and has moved forever -- over the land, which is minutely described in terms of its flora but as (if) uninhabited. In this, Raab comes close(r) to the American pioneer poets who wrote Manifest Destiny over the landscapes of Turtle Island, erasing the humanscapes. When figures do appear, they are Orientalism-as-background-colour/threat, as in "Return," where Cairo is onomatopoeically presented as "Tarbooshes, tarbooshes / Berbers, blacks, / beat, tarrarum, trilli!" like the drums in the dark of colonial horrors such as I Walked With a Zombie. The final poem in the book, "A Landscape Not of this Place," written only days before her death, imagines: "Me and him - just / the two of us - and a world entirely empty." Of course it's unfair to ask poetry for a two-state solution (is it?) but such an imagining, even as a dream of the edge of death, strikes a deeply wrong note in me. It's hard (again, for me) to take Raab's "concealed hand extended: / mercy of tender bindweed", when the bindweed is "dangling by a thread on the fence" that marks out the colonisation of Palestine. These poems, in their minute attention to flora, have a myopia that Dickinson's work never falls into, and -- when they speak of eternity and other imagined places -- an imprecision by which Akhmatova (another key influence) is never seduced.

I was sad to discover that Levertov, a poet whose 1950s and 1960s work I discovered as a teenager in crumbling second-hand American editions, has also fallen into imprecision. Her work, for me, always combined a crispness of observation with a limitlessness of vision, a Blakean ability to step from the leaf to eternity. But A Door in the Hive / Evening Train, the first of her work to be published in the UK by Bloodaxe, slides into sententiousness that her orotund yet accessible diction cannot carry over, or through. I'm still in love with her "o" sounds (in the patterning, for example, of "I had lost you long before, and mourned you, / and put you away like a folded cloth / put away in a drawer. But today I woke" in "To R.D., March 4th 1988", where the varied "o" do the work of mourning) but her need to elongate inelegantly, to explain it to the back row McKee-style is onerous. In A Door the sententiousness is partially attributable to her choice of model: Rilke, perhaps the modern master of the Blakean aevum, its lift and awful majesty. It's not because it's her childhood Essex that "For Instance"'s "gleam of East Anglian light" seems not to equate to the poem's closing line "Erde, du liebe...", not the place that's pedestrian but the insistence on exposition. Her forms lack Rilke's musicality, even when she styles a poem as psalm, threnody or chorus: and she cannot quite conjure the inner-yet-impersonal speakers of these modes.

Perhaps it's such a lack of sense of the reader/writer relationship as continuum or community (located in the exclusivity of Christian prayer?) that informs her lack of trust in the reader's intelligence. Yet the poems' frequent conclusory dying falls seem odd, given her modulation and management of complex syntactical and narrative structures to open the poems. She is utterly, wonderfully confident at directing the reader's eye and ear as in the opening deflections and returns of "A Sound":
An unexplained sound, today,
in the early sunlight
and no wing stirring the leaves,
of something breathing
surrounds the house
. "A Sound" is part of the finest group of poems in the double collection, Part III of "A Door," which also includes the Dickinsonian "Complicity," with its complex Penelopeian doing and undoing of visibility. These lovely poems, with their focused attention on the remarkable paradoxes of the natural world, culminate (for me) in "Flying High" in which Levertov contrasts herself with the "Cloud poets, metaphysicians, essayists, / fabulists of the troposphere": it's true that she's earthier, and unfazed by air travel's optical illusions, but she still gives in to a conjuration -- in the final line -- of "epic epiphanies." Likewise, "The Life of Art" steps from the brilliantly-conjured edgy "borderland" of impasto
striate, gleaming - swathes and windrows
of carnal paint -
or, canvas barely stained
to the flabby suggestion that "one almost sees / what lies beyond the window, past the frame, beyond..." Could there be anything lazier than that ellipsis directing the reader towards a vague, homogenous horizon? For me, this is where Levertov's idealistic politics fall down: despite (and even in) her choral ode on behalf of the murdered of El Salvador, she seems to lack trust in the agency of her readers (and subjects). She tells rather than shows, closing the poem out to ambiguity and readerly effort. It's a didactic practice, one that suggests a less liberal politics (or classically nanny-state liberal politics) informs her activism for social justice. This direction culminates in poem titles such as "Witnessing from Afar the New Escalation of Savage Power." Maybe I'm of a generation that codes all its grand récits in layers of irony, but I want something more thought-provoking, less easy, than "the world's raw gash" (from "Witnessing").

Larissa Miller's Guests of Eternity was a punt, based on a review in the Guardian (rare, as I find British newspaper reviews of poetry to be a lot like lassooing clouds, and don't make reading decisions based on a puff of air) and a lot of respect for Arc. I hadn't come across their Visible Poets translation project previously, and I'm looking forward to discovering further contemporary poets through their facing-page editions. From the dedication to Arseny Tarkovsky (poet father of the better-known filmmaker), I was intrigued by the edition's ability to set Miller in an historical and aesthetic context (with an excellent introduction by Sasha Dugdale) while creating while space in which her plangent, alert poems can be read (more space would be even better: two poems per page can get rather crowded). Her poems are mouth-sized, thought-sized, a poem that could be carried (and honed) through a working, surveilled day to be noted down on a scrap, a flyleaf. Mostly untitled, with rare epigraphs from the span of world literature (with an emphasis on outsiders from Villon to Lewis Carroll), Miller's poems have a humility that is also a breathtaking confidence in their own precision. Setting out a narrow remit for herself -- "And instead of grace - a hint at grace" -- she leaps "even over the abyss."

Like Raab's, Miller's work is enriched by the language of the psalms -- grasses and shepherds, cliffs and reeds -- but, contrastingly, they are lifted out of a landscape (the landscape of Canaan) into a soulscape that shimmers with the tropes of fairy-tales and folk songs ("the smile of the mother / blossoms over the light cradle") that work in specific contrast to nationalist ideologies. By reclaiming at once the varied and mighty landscapes of Mother Russia, and the idealised Soviet myth of motherhood, Miller's seemingly timeless poems have a gently astringent effect on the monumentality of sanctioned Soviet art. At once modest and ironic -- "What do you pay to stay here" one poem asks, answering "'It's all for free... / whatever you give it will always be too little'" -- her poetry immerses itself in the personal not as an antidote to the political, but as a remaking of it back to the scale of the individual who is at once part of a community (not a nation, not a schoolroom):
Where are you from?
Like everybody from Mama,
from darkness, from the old drama,
from happiness shared with disaster
Dugdale notes in her introduction that Miller's poetry is particularly rich and flexible in its use of rhyme ("Each backstreet," notes her most explicit poetics statement of a poem, prefaced by an epigraph from Mandelstam, "is full / of the torment of the soul and yearning / for feminine and masculine rhymes"), and Richard McKane's translation never forces English, relatively impoverished in full rhyme, to echo the Russian. The singsong effect of Mama/drama fits with the riddling nature of the poem. Such gestures of discrepancy do make the translation "visible" as the series hopes, inculcating -- for me -- a curiosity about the relationship of form and prosody in Russian. It made perfect, intuitive sense when I discovered that Miller's website has a lovely page where you can listen to delicate musical settings of her five of her more recent poems: her work has something of the anonymous folk song as expression of collectivity, with its invocations of elemental constants in conversation with human emotion and history. She has the lyricist's gift of great and immediate precision combined with universality: in "English Lesson" the "English verb in the infinitive" is "bored and thirsts for transformation." That is what Miller brings to the units of poetry - words, tropes, rhymes, phrases, relations - through her humble eye and sense of presentness. As a guest of eternity, she hangs by small words onto now, not preserving it or mourning it, but setting it in motion:
I teach the word that is flying,
and the tenses, that eternally confuse past and future.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Elizabeth Treadwell, wardolly

or, when is poetry like a doll like a war?

Elizabeth Treadwell's fifth full-length collection, wardolly (chax, 2008), comes on like the Ritalin-addicted younger sister of Juliana Spahr's thisconnectionofeveryonewithlungs. "Very unfair, lady butchery —" might be Treadwell's response to that -- and indeed, the poems defy easy quotation and analysis. Engaged with the randomness of information in the hyper-density of contemporary media and urban space, her poetry takes a buffalo stance amped up by femme-inist electroclash ("A Thousand Virgins Shout Fuck Off" -- note to Christina Aguilera/Le Tigre: this is the first single for your album!).

It's doll-poetry the way Hans Bellmer's work is doll-art - twisted deep play with the structures of bodies, minds and sentences that undoes, by doing, the fucked-up twists of the military-political complex. Dolls, like poems, are miniaturisations, representations perfectly rendered, at once sweet and sinister (that extra -y on wardolly recalling Nabokov's economic Lolly as well as the dolly used to move the cameras now embedded with troops). Dolls are not your brother's war toys, GI Joe excepted -- frilly and pink, Treadwell's dollies are unashamedly female, laying out la ville in haphazard urban blazons wherein Central Park is seen (critically) as New York's "Hooch." Her flanerie, with its disavowals ("she did not know the parts of the city") and coinages ("witcharms from the wastelands", both from "Mars & Orchard") suggest Abigail Child cutting-up Frank O'Hara.

Like Bellmer, Treadwell is fascinated by parts and what hinges them together/takes them apart. Rather than the conjunctive and conservative forces of traditional lyric and narrative, Treadwell takes up urban connections: using lists and indices, the poems in Vespers are at once the phone book and Lombroso's criminal catalogues. But there are no hierarchies here, and no moral judgements: in her generative language of the mundane and the surreal, Treadwell undoes the eugenics of description by which lyric values one moment, object or word over another. The city and the list fall over each other as sites of repetition and the uncanny in "(The city of horror)", a terrifying illustration of the capitalist war machine's reductio ad absurdum; the titular parentheses at once suggest the aversion of eyes and our compulsion to look as the phrase is repeated ten times, at the start of ten lines.

That determination to look - and look widely, with the fixed and seemingly flat eyes of the wardolly - acts to re-mean "Animation" as life-force, not corporate product: this is poetry that wants "more than gritty blobs." That liveliness is underlined by a poem that isn't a poem, the "Notes to several of the poems," which collates and recalls quotations from across the text. Elisabeth of Schonau, Anita Loos, Kim TallBear, Francoise Barret-Ducrocq, Aphra Behn, Etel Adnan, Eileen Myles, Camille Roy, Gertrude Stein and others join the doll army Treadwell is marshalling.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Tethers, Carrie Etter

Over the next few weeks, I'm planning to write something (not reviews per se, but reading notes, ditherings, connections, fascinating facts) about some of the magnificent poetry that has accumulated in Delirium's Library, including a pile of Just One Book books from the Save Salt campaign. After reading (and proofing) lots of prose non-fiction, it's amazing to be reading poetry again -- like climbing a glacier! Difficult sometimes, but the view (and the delicious fresh air) is so worth it.

First up is actually the newest, bought only last night at its London launch: Carrie Etter's The Tethers (Seren, 2009). With its teasing and tangential glimpses of London, it was the perfect read for the Tube-stricken bus ride home. Etter's poems - short, dense, unfurling - remind me of Virginia Woolf's love of the crystalline and curious moment in which we catch ourselves thinking (and feeling) ourselves into being. Familiar objects, locations, shades of sky act exactly as "tethers" for the speaker, in poems that often drift upwards like a crane shot -- as in "Crowd of One," from the cracked egg to the ceiling.

"Over the Thames," one of my favourite poems from Etter's reading set, is precisely about this mood of suspension (which can hover, as in Woolf, over a crowd and create minutely- and generously-observed social comedy, as in "The Review" and "Indian Summer"):
there is no universal
for what keeps us aloft, but O
I cherish it.
Cherishing in turn buttresses the suspended eye as it takes in everything. In its attentive and wily work with language, such cherishing also creates the details that "tether" the (this) reader, poetic interpellations that are partial and blushingly private: words like "Cassandraic" ("Citizenship"); the reference to Hungerford Bridge (my favourite Thames crossing) in the wonderfully Roni Horn-esque "Collecting the Ridges" (no accident: Horn's Thames photo series collects poetic "ridges" from Eliot, Conrad, Poe, Dickinson and others).

Despite the book's titular reference to rooting and binding, these poems are full of water and its flux: not only the Thames, but the paper boats of "The Daughters of Prospero." In remarking the constancy of water, Etter overturns Catullus' cliché: that the words of women should be written on water, because both are untethered and trustless. Like "Millais' Ophelia" (another fine observational poem), Etter knows the weight of water, its bound composition. In "The Bonds", where the poem's title resonates through multiple discourses from chemistry to "the -ologies of more elusive chemistries", water reflects back history's constancy in mutability, coded through language's adaptable clarity, words like water's surface revealing hidden treasures in their depths. Findings rich and strange arrive with each re-reading.