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Considering Chapbooks

Noah Eli Gordon reviews
23 recent American chapbooks

This piece originally appeared as two separate columns in issues 200 and 202 of the Poetry Project Newsletter. These brief mentions are meant to draw more attention to the existence of these works. This piece is 2,000 words or about four printed pages long.

Celluloid City (Potato Clock Editions, 2003), a collaboration between poet Michael Friedman and artist Jim Ringley

Chris Stroffolino, Scratch Vocals (Potato Clock Editions, 2003)

Elizabeth Willis, Meteoric Flowers (Atticus/ Finch, 2004)

Cynthia Sailers, Rose Lungs (Atticus/ Finch, 2003)

Anthony Hawley, A f i e l d (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004)

Juliana Spahr, things of each possible relation hashing against one another (Palm Press, 2003)

Aaron Tieger, Sea Shanties of Old Vermont (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2003)

Paul Killebrew, Forget Rita (Poetry Society of America, 2003)

Mark Lamoureux, 29 Cheeseburgers (Pressed Wafer, 2004)

Mark Lamoureux, City/ Temple (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2003)

Sarah Mangold, Boxer Rebellion (gong, 2004)

Africa Wayne, tiny pony (portable press at yo-yo labs, 2004)

Brenda Iijima, Color and its Antecedents (Yen Agat Books, 2004)

Sean Cole, Itty City (Pressed Wafer, 2003)

Rebecca Stoddard, home? (Noemi Press, 2003)

Tristan Tzara, Twenty-five and One Poems (Toad Press, undated), translated by Nick Moudry

Jules Boykoff, Philosophical Investigations inna Neo-con Roots-Dub Styley (the interrupting cow, 2004)

Erica Jane Kaufman, from The Two Coat Syndrome (Boku Books, 2004)

Paul Stephens, Potlatch, Correction, Potluck (A Rest Press, 2004)

Naomi K. Long, Radiant Field (TinFish Press, 2004)

David Perry, Knowledge Follows (Insurance Editions, 2003)

Edmund Berrigan, your cheatin’ heart (furniture press, 2004)

Karen Weiser, Placefullness (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004)

Celluloid City (Potato Clock Editions, 2003), a collaboration between poet Michael Friedman and artist Jim Ringley, juxtaposes seven iconographic, Brainard-like, black & white ink drawings with seven prose poems. Friedman’s poems here are carnivalesque, humorously compelling, and completely self-renewing because of his ability to lend a sense of duration to the often disparate sentences he strings together.

Chris Stroffolino, on the other hand, prefers not only to string together the direct speech of his rambling Scratch Vocals (Potato Clock Editions, 2003), but to tangle, knot, tie and untie it. The thought engine that drives these poems consistently derails itself, lending the work a surprising density based on the accrual of buried puns and bursts of clarity within his sometimes exhaustive sentences.

The torque of the sentence is central to Elizabeth Willis’ latest chapbook of prose poems, Meteoric Flowers (Atticus/ Finch, 2004). Here, each one asserts the elegant control with which Willis evokes and embraces a fertile image garden; yet, it is the depth of meaning buried in the skip, leap, or interstellar jump between them that sets one’s mind blooming.

More ominous in tone, looser in rhythm, and punctuated by a self-aware Gothic sensibility, the prose poems of Cynthia Sailers’ Rose Lungs (Atticus/ Finch, 2003), take as their backdrop the films Nosferatu, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Memento, and Fury. Think of Rimbaud, in all his “I is other” glory, given a good dose of the last century’s worth of cinema and you might come close to the shadowy, shifting intellect emanating from these poems.

Although no less shadowy, the shifting that takes place in Anthony Hawley’s A f i e l d (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004) seems to be one of continuous thwarted approach, where the inclusive pronoun “we” crawls, camps out and canoes through a linguistically amorphous, neo-pastoral landscape. The journey here is as much in the rhythmic ricochet of assonance, produced by colliding syntax, as it is in the actual varying terrain the words themselves represent.

This sense of simultaneity comes through in Juliana Spahr’s things of each possible relation hashing against one another (Palm Press, 2003), where, well, things of each possible relation do hash against one another, specifically, things pertaining to the ecosystems of Hawai’i. This anaphora-based exploration of commingling natural habitats, and the effect that human intervention has on them, employs a system of language mirroring that of the natural world; new phrases are assimilated into, and immediately, though subtly, change the course of the poems’ outcome. Spahr closes the chapbook with a fascinating note on the problem of nature poetry’s myopic view, her procedural method and various source texts.

Another site-specific serial poem, Aaron Tieger’s Sea Shanties of Old Vermont (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2003), weaves a nostalgia-producing return trip to Brattleboro with the memories now ghosting this one-time home of the author. A straightforward earnestness, given a jolt of punk rock angst, and its subsequent petering out once one reaches one’s thirties, covers Tieger’s acquaintance-infested Vermont.

Populated with numerous conversational exchanges, and a hint of nostalgia, though of the more digressive variety, wherein a clausal extension often overtakes the original subject or content, only to itself be overtaken by whatever follows, Paul Killebrew’s Forget Rita (Poetry Society of America, 2003), selected by, and featuring an introduction from John Ashbery, inaugurates the new Poetry Society of America chapbook series. Incidentally, one can’t help but chuckle at the irony of Ashbery’s admitted uncertainty as to why Killebrew, “...chooses to reiterate the phrase ‘in the end’ six times near the beginning of the poem...”, as Ashbery’s infamous double sestina, buried within Flow Chart, was, perhaps, the inspiration for Killebrew’s own use of a buried Ghazal, which explains the reiterated phrase.

Speaking of reiteration, Mark Lamoureux’s 29 Cheeseburgers (Pressed Wafer, 2004) uses the conceit of this quick — if not too health-conscious — meal to construct a seemingly autobiographical account of a life led in greasy diners, hovering around family grills, art museum cafeterias and chain restaurants. As in one’s actual life, the meals here — each is assigned a specific location — function as a backdrop of sorts for the poems, which progress from Lamoureux’s childhood in Connecticut, through his college years in Vermont, trips to New York, and current home in Boston.

Lamoureux’s range as a poet is evident via comparison to another recent chapbook of his City/ Temple (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2003), which narrates a third-person account of Jin, an enigmatic figure, who, like the Jin (or Djin) of the Koran, occupies a mortal space partway between human and that of the divine.

Wholly rooted in the human side of things, Sarah Mangold’s Boxer Rebellion (gong, 2004) takes a documentary approach to the poetic sequence, mining a source text, The Reminiscence of Mrs. Roy C. Smith, Jr., published by the U.S. Naval Institute, to splice together an account of, and argument for, the individual voice our larger notion of history so often effaces.

Evanescent yet evocative, the fragmented images that charge Africa Wayne’s tiny pony (portable press at yo-yo labs, 2004) point toward, without making claims to, the various meanings buried within objects and actions that easily pass undetected through our daily lives. From “a mile/ long stretch of beach” to “light inside a high rise,” Wayne’s panoramic sequence constitutes a quiet imperative for paying closer attention to the world.

Surely such an engagement must start with color, an argument for the importance of which Brenda Iijima makes manifest within her latest chapbook, Color and its Antecedents (Yen Agat Books, 2004). In this work, which attests to the relationship all poems have to one another via the use of color, Iijima threads together various color-related quotations, poems, and her own commentary to create an essay which, in its openness, so resembles poetry that one would be hard-pressed to call it anything but.

One could think of a few colorful things to call radio-personality Sean Cole; thankfully, Itty City (Pressed Wafer, 2003) makes poet foremost among them. Performative and playful, though never letting the joke get the better of the poem, Cole’s chapbook demonstrates a surprising diversity of form. From the epistolary to the abecedarian, outtakes from daily writing projects to homophonic reworking and variations on better known texts, the poems here are wakeful reminders of both the depth of fun available via language and the depth one can manufacture from having fun with it.

Rather than particular subjects or various formal methods, which, although present, are not immediately foregrounded, the poems in Rebecca Stoddard’s home? (Noemi Press, 2003) coalesce around a lyric tone of playful eroticism, with the occasional foray into anachronistic diction a la the neo-dandyism of Jeff Clark. Stoddard, in fact, cites Clark, along with John Zorn, Gerhard Richter, and others, among her coterie of ekphrastic and intertextual influence.

Speaking of influence, both the more humor-laden side of language writing and its rambunctious, googlized stepchild Flarf, (along with most versions and variants of New York School aesthetics and pretty much any maverick worth her salt) owe a hefty debt to the original ringmaster of confrontational absurdity himself, Tristan Tzara. Twenty-five and One Poems (Toad Press, undated), meticulously translated in its entirety by Nick Moudry, is all too often pejoratively relegated to Tzara’s Dada period; yet, it is here that the work remains, to employ a purposeful double entendre: mind-bendingly fresh.

One might say the same for the tour de force that is Jules Boykoff’s Philosophical Investigations inna Neo-con Roots-Dub Styley (the interrupting cow, 2004). Sewn into a file folder, Boykoff’s chapbook features multi-media collages of the erstwhile actor and politician Ronald Regan on the left facing pages; on the right, one is given sonically spastic, humorous and politically charged poems that enact the imaged meetings between Jamaican reggae and dub musicians and various international, and often evil, political figures. Boykoff’s choice of Jamaican music is not an arbitrary one, as Dread Talk, the Rastafarian dialect ubiquitous among reggae artists, was created as an empowering re-appropriation of the inherited colonial language, wherein, words broken into their constituent morphemic elements are reconfigured to trump preexisting hierarchal relationships ( i.e. oppressor becomes downpressor; understand becomes overstand) and “I” is often inserted into the beginning of multi-syllabic words as a unifying gesture.

And what isn’t more unifying to us Americans than a dose of good old honest, non-histrionic, non-epiphany laden, expressive subjectivity? Well, perhaps alcohol, but barring that, the poems in Erica Jane Kaufman’s from The Two Coat Syndrome (Boku Books, 2004) demonstrate that the self, construct or not, can be pretty damned endearing, as Kaufman writes, “I think historians make/ history. what I make/ is expression.” With refreshing spontaneity and a near continuous, tangential focus on fashion, the poems move between childhood memories and pseudo-real time events to sculpt an embodied and engrossing voice. The highlight here is the title poem, a crown of sonnets that navigates the intimacy of the I/ you relationship.

Paul Stephens, in his beautifully designed chapbook Potlatch, Correction, Potluck (A Rest Press, 2004), prefers to negotiate the implicate linearity of a single, thirteen-section prose poem sequence. The distinctively intelligent wit at play in this work, at times reminiscent of early Liz Waldner or Michael Friedman, although wholly its own, weaves together a paratactic template for the reader’s mind to both linger on and work through, as happens here: “In a jet flying westward at the right latitude you can watch the sun set perpetually. Things turned out OK.”

The things in Naomi K. Long’s Radiant Field (TinFish Press, 2004), also a single prose sequence, have an evanescent feel to them, merging with the ghostly narrative that often gives way to aphoristic pondering. Although there are border crossings, a love affair, long drives and train rides, the real subject of Long’s work is how the intense and sustained concentration of the mind on these events produces an evocative and satisfyingly unresolved series of questions and assertions.

Part peripatetic, subtle, yet quite cerebral, complexity, part humorous, and anecdote-laden travelogue, part meditation on place, simultaneously of the text and the empirical world, David Perry’s Knowledge Follows (Insurance Editions, 2003) is an all together dynamic assemblage of precisely deployed, lineated stanzas, interspersed with bits of narrative prose. Loosely documenting a trip to Chiapas (in Mexico), though in the more Objectivist sense of specificity of focus, Perry’s dexterous and attentive writing renders time itself an almost palpable entity. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that as the publisher of another recent chapbook of his, New Years, I am a biased reader; however, this chapbook just further solidifies my commitment to continue following the work of a poet for whom I have the utmost admiration.

Who wouldn’t admire the way Edmund Berrigan, in your cheatin’ heart (furniture press, 2004), tames the syntax beast by letting it pounce around before pulling in the leash? The controlled wildness of these poems shares something with the working of the mind on the morning after an all-night bender; even as time is seemingly slowed or elongated, the hyper drive of thought incessantly careening into itself produces a slew of startling & strange images which twist into an almost awkward kind of beauty, one whose authenticity is akin to that of a country ballad played to utter perfection on a guitar with two broken strings.

A completely different sense of what constitutes “country” is the partial locus for Karen Weiser’s Placefullness (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004). She writes, “Can you push me into the box Country and call it Nature? Between here and there is story, one you tell, one I bury under potted plants on the windowsill.” Written in reponse to Etel Adnan’s There (which itself was written, according to an interview with Adnan, to re-conceptualize struggle, specifically that between East & West and Israelis & Arabs, “through a self-questioning and a dialogue”), Weiser’s poem furthers both the self-interrogation and the possibility for understanding, and perhaps change, such a project entails. The questioning here, as with Adnan’s book, is multitudinous: what makes an other, an enemy, a country; how is one responsible for one’s history, family, self? Of course, the issues are much more complex than that, which is what makes Weiser’s work — in its ability to fold, sometimes into a single sentence, the conundrums of self, text, memory, national identity and history — not only compelling, but necessary.

Noah Eli Gordon

Noah Eli Gordon

Noah Eli Gordon is the author of The Frequencies (Tougher Disguises, 2003), The Area of Sound Called the Subtone (Ahsahta, 2004), and chapbooks from Margin to Margin, Anchorite, and Duration Press. He publishes the Braincase chapbook series and is relocating to Denver, CO in August of 2005. He has published reviews in Rain Taxi, Boston Review, The Poetry Project Newsletter, The Poker, Slope, Wordforword, Verse, Jacket, Xantippe, Sentence, and elsewhere.

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