Fulcrum 5 is an amazing collection of writings, with artwork by e.e. cummings and Esther Pullman. With more than 500 pages of great writing, it is a feast for the mind. The poems, by Vivek Narayanan, Joyelle McSweeney, Alexei Tvekov, John Crowe Ransom, Seema Amin, Kit Robinson, Michael Palmer, and others, is remarkable. The essays about Paul Valéry, Plato, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Wallace Stevens, Fernando Pessoa, Frank O’Hara and others illuminate important ideas about poetry and poetics.
On the cover of Fulcrum 5 is Esther Pullman’s photograph of a greenhouse in wintertime. A snow bank against brick walls is showing signs of melting, and the old wood framing the window is scuffed and the paint is chipping. That photograph, part of a five-photo greenhouse panorama, has an engrossing grab on the viewer: a bench in an open room in the winter greenhouse is covered with a large plastic tarp, and barren grape vines with dead leaves drape over a metal trellis.
Anny Ballardini’s “Desert” begins with “family tensioned unsolved pasts / heat levels down movement / apprehension builds in / how can a poet take his life? / pain of an hyper-sensitized body in the soul / echoing & tearing the everlasting sorrow.” The following stanza is a cascading list propelled by the a strong unifying device, the anaphora “a desert” — “a desert_not to meditate...a desert thick with manipulations_buried under kitsch melodramatic icons...a desert eaten by cockroaches_fetid_filthy / a desert beaten by whores and mercenaries.” Those images are both harrowing and imaginative, rigorously crafted. I like how the final stanza begins with “in the midst of carbon monoxide saturated trafficked streets ambulances screaming.” Ballardini creates a strong effect by gradually shortening each of the poem’s final lines, to take the poem in a different direction than that established by the middle “a desert” stanza —
we ask for the rising of Onofri’s white lily drops of dew dark protective eyes
in which to get drowned into promise of unremitting love into fluid
freezing silvery-azure mercurial water steeply skidding on
polished stones happy the green majestic imprint
of imposing trees their codex a subliminal
otherworldly alphabet of
to cover of Skip Fox’s
book received yesterday
Kit Robinson’s “Trash Talk of Birds” is great. The title is funny, snappy alliteration. The images move in a mercurial way — “Sun cloud brings soft hints of, hits of, the breeze in the eucalyptus, the cracks in the sidewalk, the light, taken for granted. The weekend is a warm enclosure.” Robinson’s right, the weekend is a warm enclosure. “Trash talk of birds, circular wing nuts of buzz, small craft advisory, snap of purple dis” — the cadence percolates, and the language is percussive.
Pam Brown’s “Polka Squares” jumps off the page with quicksilver jumps in language and imagery — “in Double Bay: / coming soon / Mitzi Skyring / made to measure” — compelling snippet by way of Australia. More lines follow that yoke attention to details with a sense of the transcendental — “heaven to lie on a couch / on the earth / as it wanders & wobbles / off axis,” and “blu-tacked / to a locker door — / ‘cheese is milk’s leap towards immortality’.”
David Blair’s “Easter, Good Pope John XXIII” travels through wild stretches of language and images, such as “Easter is large-eared...such a feeling is immensely practical, / among rural supplies, a wooden barrel / full of dried snouts for the dog to chew,” and “the loneliness ending with every crack / of an aluminum can in the humidity, / and some hardboiled eggs already / peeled for us, already salted.” I like how the title is simultaneously specific and indeterminate: Blair states the day but not the year.
Michael Palmer’s “The Classical Study (4)” begins with a haunting series of images — “I asked the Master in Rochester / how far the music would carry us. / Past the eglantine, the briars and the bloodgrass? / Past the power station in flames, Martyr’s Square, / and Suleiman’s Gate?” Those lines evoke images of civilizations and struggles in the Middle East — ancient, modern, and contemporary. The poem continues — “I asked the master in Rochester / how far the body would carry us. / Past the donut shop and the Lubyanka and beyond?” It is fascinating how the speaker of the poem asks the “Master” (like Dante and Virgil) about the nature of things, and how the locale shifts from the Middle East to the KGB’s headquarters. The poem goes in a surprising direction at the end: “I asked as we ordered coffee for the journey ahead. / But first a round of billiards / the Master said, to settle the nerves, / a game where silence matters / above all, or do I mean sound?”
Joyelle McSweeney’s “Percussion Grenade” explodes with bristling lines:
Is it ok to live inside this percussion grenade
giving the highsign to the frogmen sucking mud
the allclear to the women rolling their hair into Forties processionals?
In my gondola of clouds
I loafe and invite myself to lock and load
dine under the table
stir the alphasoup with my epiphaneedle, the thick hours with my riflebutt
It is interesting how McSweeney embeds the allusion to Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in her poem, taking it in a spiky direction. In “Crescendo! McCaw! I’m a magpie with a caralarm and an airplane a patented genome a reinforced cockpit door and a poptab brain a vivisected aquifer shunted and split ten ways between here and the San Fernando Valley and the Rift Valley and the Kusk Valley the Rhine and Tuscaloosa and South Bend and St. Marks Venice and St. Marks” and other passages, she juxtaposes spleen with exuberance for language play.
The Fulcrum feature, entitled “Poetry and Harvard in the 1920s” and edited by Ben Mazer, is a collection of essays and poems that sheds light on that scene and decade. Mazer states in his essay entitled “Cambridge in the Twenties: Notes on Some Forgotten Texts,” “it is hoped that these little known and intimate texts will invoke something of the particulars, or of the particular nature, of the tapestry of life from which poetry comes.” His essay focuses on the poetry of John Brooks Wheelright, Richard Palmer Blackmur and John Joseph Sherry Mangan. The poems that follow Mazer’s essay brightly invoke the particulars of that scene — those by Malcolm Cowley, R.P. Blackmur, H. Davenport and Dudley Fitts. It is intriguing to read these poems and think about how they relate to writings by other Harvard alumni, such as Eliot, cummings, James Laughlin, Olson, Creeley, Ashbery, and others.
Lisa Goldfarb’s essay entitled “‘A Distinct Flame’: Philosophy and Music in Paul Valéry’s Poetics” astutely highlights important parts of Valéry’s work, especially relationships between his poetry and essays. For instance she explains how rigorously Valéry explored and parsed language — “the philosophic usage of the word ‘être’ is merely expedient in a relentless ‘jeu de mots’ [word-play] — and contends that the verb itself cuts language off from ‘being,’ or expresses it clumsily, at best.” It is remarkable that a poet as brilliant as Valéry would preoccupy himself with his doubts regarding language’s limitations — “he extends his condemnation to all language: ‘Tout langage naît dans l’à peu près et y plonge ses raciness” [All language is born in approximation and plunges its roots there]”. Goldfarb finishes her essay by analyzing Valéry’s “Un Feu Distinct...” (“A Distinct Flame...”), which includes these stanzas —
Why if their joy bursts, an echo that wakens me
Has left but a corpse on my shore of flesh,
And my strange laugh hangs from my ear,
Like the murmur of the sea is to an empty couch,
Doubt, — on the edge of an extreme marvel,
If I am, if I was, if I sleep or if I wake?
In “The Poet-Critic vs. the Poeticritic: Toward a Metapoetics of Innovative American Writing,” Paul Stephens begins by examining environmental artist Robert Smithson’s assertion that “critics are generally poets who have betrayed their art, and instead have tried to turn art into a matter of reasoned discourse, and occasionally, when their ‘truth,’ breaks down, they resort to poetic quote.” Is the critic a parasite? What is the division between creative and critical literary production? Stephens examines these and other questions in his engaging essay. His essay expounds on poeticriticism, which he says, “typically questions the notion that there can be a ‘definitive interpreter’ (including the poeticritic.” Later Stephens writes —
...poeticriticism is important not just to understanding how the avant-garde produced its own reception but also to thinking about the continuing viability of avant-gardism as a movement. If the avant-garde is characterized by its ability to be critical then to declare the death of the avant-garde is to declare its relevance as a form of social critique.
Throughout his essay Stephens effectively articulates tricky issues in contemporary poetics and explores hybrid creative/critical writings, as they relate to the writings of Walter Benjamin, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Nathaniel Mackey, Charles Bernstein, Laura Riding, Tristan Tzara, Anthony Braxton, Louis Zukofsky and others.
Fulcrum 5 teems with more great poems and essays, a strong manifestation of work that looks to the past, present and future.
Daniel Godston teaches, writes, and creates music in Chicago. His work has appeared in Chase Park, Versal, Drunken Boat, 580 Split, Kyoto Journal, Eratica, California Quarterly, after hours, and other publications, and is forthcoming in Moria, horse less review, and Sentinel Poetry. His poem “Mask to Skin to Blood to Heart to Bone and Back” was nominated by the editors of 580 Split for the Pushcart Prize. In February 2007 he curated the Forth Sound Back event, in the Red Rover Series. He works with the Borderbend Arts Collective to organize the annual Chicago Calling Arts Festival, which provides opportunities for Chicago based artists to collaborate with artists living in other locations around the world.
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