Archive for the ‘Living Review’ Category

Living Review: Robert Fernandez’s “Pink Reef”

For this living review of Pink Reef, I talked for awhile with Dan Rosenberg about two poems from the book. It was a natural tack to take: our respective poetry classes recently read the book in common and discussed it at length in an e-mail exchange, part of the PXP program that Robert Fernandez will participate in a couple weeks from now.

The nature of the living review is to occupy a wider swath of time than ordinary in living with and thinking about a book. The dialogue that follows is, then, a beginning — something Dan and I will return to in time, as different poems or different ideas strike us. Please find the poems discussed, reprinted from Pink Reef, below the text of our dialogue. — AS


AS: [“I am shrill”] feels to me, even early on, like a departure from the general tenor of Pink Reef. The speaker is isolated as he appears to me to be in most of these poems, but is in a distinct physical space, behind the veil of a waterfall, bringing a strange lucidity to the act of perception.


DR: It’s funny that you’d refer to it as “lucidity,” since lucid is derived from lux, light, which plays such a central role here.


AS: Right. But I’m thinking of it in terms of the other kind of lightness — like a feather falling. I think of snakes, for instance, as having a sort of heaviness about them — a gravity, a specific weight. But with all this water and color falling around, the snakes cooling themselves seem to me to be relieved of that heaviness. They become cool in the way that water becomes mist. They are light. Perhaps in the sense of illumination that you mean, as well.


DR: I wonder if this poem unites the two? When my students wanted to talk about this one, they focused on the permeability of the landscape here, how the repeated “take their color” shifts from a literal reading (“falling water / & the sky” do lend color to things) to more imaginative and impossible bleed-throughs. The odalisques receive not just the reasonable color that comes from light refracted in water, but also the unreasonable but suggestive color reflecting from the snakes.


AS: I’m struck by how unified the poem actually is, how direct — whether or not it’s unifying the different sorts of lightness we’re discussing. The litany of things you mention, each of them giving color to the odalisques, seem at first to be conditional, suggested — but in fact there’s nothing conditional about the poem. It’s pure statement. The act of perception is over at the outset, isn’t it?


DR: I agree entirely that the language is unconditional, potent here — but I actually tend to think of this poem as a process of discovery, as the magic by which perception is transmuted into beauty. There is something so insistently visual about this poem despite its opening claim to shrillness. It seems obsessed with the interpermeability of landscape and body (or am I just obsessed with that and seeing it here?), of the material and the immaterial. I know that Robert claims among his predecessors the surrealists, and I can see their fundamental project of bringing together public and private realities as a driving force here, and in the book in general. (That’s another of my obsessions. Do I just love this book because it lets me think about what I want to think about?)


AS: [“we become soft”] is another poem I’d call “insistently visual” — another poem water moves through. In this case it wells up, it comes pooling through blue holes with all the weight in it that I saw drained from [“I was shrill”]. The speaker’s condition is more complicated here, however. The poem opens with a surreal transformation of the plural speaker into “soft / light in purple wafers,” but then that plural speaker disappears (almost) entirely into another permeable waterscape.


DR: Does the speaker disappear, or is the rest of the poem a litany of transformation? Grammatically, we could read this poem as a list of things the “we” becomes — which, indeed, erases the speaker by making them everything.


AS: I think that’s probably the most interesting way to read the syntax, but it’s not definitive — I can as easily see the transformation you’re talking about finish off in the second couplet.


DR: Yes, or even the first.


AS: And it’s this richness of choice in terms of how to treat the speaker as transformed into or observant of the waterscape that makes this the more satisfying poem of the two we’ve discussed.


DR: Are you trying to start a fight, Stallings?


AS: See, [“I was shrill”] is rich and direct in its sonic qualities, and I take a lot of pleasure in that. But while the series of statements that make up its landscape of perception are interesting, and resolve in another purity, the beauty of rainbow light, I’m ultimately left with a single understanding of that landscape, a single perceived thing that hinges on each listed thing’s relation to the odalisques. But in [“we become soft”], the complexity achieved by the transformation of the plural speaker into “soft / light in purple wafers” carries through the rest of the poem’s opening out, suggesting and then attaining a spiritual level that the first poem, for me anyhow, does not.


DR: I agree on the relative syntactic stability of the first poem, but I have to take issue with the notion that such stability limits the landscape to a single significance. When I think about how that poem unfurls I find myself following trails of thought — how this poem creates its physical reality, how it’s a poem of creation, how its gleeful embrace of the impossible goes unremarked (as if all this color-swapping is natural, as it might be in a dream), etc. — all buoyed by the sonic and imagistic pleasures you described.


AS: What you’re saying is that you see the first poem as also attaining a spiritual level. And I would agree with that, upon reflection. The two poems are more similar even than I’d thought to begin with, perhaps. Their motions are different, their syntaxes are different, but they’re aimed in a direction that is, if not exactly the same, similar. Like most of Robert’s poetry, they move with, or toward, spirit.

from Pink Reef

I am shrill,
barking through

a waterfall
at black rock

these odalisques
on the moss

take their color
from the falling water
& the sky

take their color
from the snakes
that cool themselves

& drink
between the rocks

take their color
from the fine

the rainbow’s

from Pink Reef

we become soft
light in purple wafers,

a depth of

blue holes

in the limestone

& spirits,


from limestone punctures,

manta rays,

in limestone fountains


Living Review: Caryl Pagel’s “Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death”

(Note: a living review is one intended to occur over the lifespan of a book — one naturally encounters a book of poems over a year or a decade rather than a day or a week, in which sense to fully review a book for purchase shortly after it appears can seem a disingenuous proposition, if a valuably disingenuous proposition. This review form is intended as an alternative, a record or representation of one reader’s ongoing relationship with a book. It is meant to expand and alter with time, each response integral to the whole and thus not replaced but amplified or reframed by a later thought. Check back. –AS)


available here

Caryl Pagel’s first book has a sense of humor. It isn’t the first thing you’ll notice, it’s rather grim, and I sometimes wonder if I’ve imagined it, but no, it’s there, most evidently in “Common Plant & Animal Names (Existing & Not Existing),” also notably in the sonnets she called in her public letter “gothic, spooky” — especially “A War-Time Parade” and “Gravedigger.”

I suppose I could make a likelier statement, but it seems worthwhile to note that this undercurrent exists in a book that has, for good reason, been taken to be rather deadly in its serious matter and its serious impact.

I see it here:

                       I glimpse this minute your syrupy skull
                       bobbing along & cracking itself half-
                       open into a grin           Who can still           tell
                       if that’s my arm waving HELLO?           You who–
                       yooo whooo–can you?

and here:

                       Because I am the Gravedigger I can
                       no longer be the Mayor

and truth be told, even here:

                                                                                He says: I
                       watched in awe
           Says: I’ll tell you what
           I’ll tell: The small one ate
                       the large one on — his first flight out

That’s funny, right?

And seeing it here as an undercurrent, I confess that I begin to see it everywhere. The humor of deepest anxiety, the agape mouth confronted with true and crushing irony, true and overwhelming wonder. And thinking this way, I go so far as to imagine that the ending of “Verdical Hallucination,” NOT FUNNY, NOT AT ALL, has some amount of humor in it. It can’t be. I must be crazy, it’s a trick of reading I’m playing on myself.

Except, except: I think it actually isn’t.


Close cousin to this kind of funny is terrified. Terrified is what I am reading “Levitation” and “A Vision,” the opening and closing poems in Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death. In a completely different way, I am terrified reading some of Cesaire’s poems. That aside, I can’t think of other poems that genuinely make my skin crawl:

                                                                                                       After recording a blank mouth slack hands
           straight back           all will conclude that what one witnesses is made: string smoke mirrors
           It is           not The walls hum & quake; a grim audible gasp escapes the lips of a           lady


           See: there are dark soldiers at my back

           They compose an army

           This morning I am aware that if I take one step forward they will take one step forward

           If I take one step back I will join them

The key to my terror is the remarkable calm with which these lines are delivered. Though they seem to come from the furthest reaches of nightmare, the images are related so lucidly and with such simplicity that I am forced to confront them as ordinary occurrence. And they may well be ordinary occurrence — but damned if that isn’t the most frightening thought I’ve had in awhile.

Living Review: Hey Folly by Mary Margaret Alvarado

(Note: a living review is one intended to occur over the lifespan of a book — one naturally encounters a book of poems over a year or a decade rather than a day or a week, in which sense to fully review a book for purchase shortly after it appears can seem a disingenuous proposition, if a valuably disingenuous proposition. This review form is intended as an alternative, a record or representation of one reader’s ongoing relationship with a book. It is meant to expand and alter with time, each response integral to the whole and thus not replaced but amplified or reframed by a later thought. Check back. –AS)


(available here)

There is something off-kilter about this book of poems, something singular in the relationships of part to part, speaker to world, familiar stance to bizarre extrapolation. A poem here bristles, not defensively, but in the sense of a motion made. It crackles with wit and sonic explosion, twists of diction and sudden bursts of rapture. A poem here is an experience worth waking up for, worth being knocked off your feet by.

In the opening lines of the opening poem, “[The Chapter of the Inner Apartments],” an instance: “I’d been on that hill, grazing. / It was time to return / to my cell. I returned / to my cell. Got so still / I flew. I wore incorporeal / backseam silks, jessamine / slathered my nape.” The first four lines establish a familiar sort of speaker in a familiar sort of condition — it’s an imagined situation, not to be taken literally; the lines move in half-sentences, the sentences move responsively; the line breaks set up a micro-drama of small pauses. While it’s a pleasing sequence, there’s nothing unusual in it. In the last quoted sentence, something shifts. A particularity emerges — what are backseam silks? who says jessamine, much less slathers it on a neck? I’m turned around here by the tight-hewn sound of the language, turned into the face of some unexpected details that tell me this speaker is not ordinary.

The speaker seems aware of this oddness — later in the same poem, “But I was weird / against the door / when I got together / my usual refrain / addressed to a pomade / composite named Frank.” Now there’s a way in which oddness can become a sort of badge, and rapidly lose its genuine quality thereby. In much of the poetry I read, an address to a pomade composite named Frank would be something far less than promising. In these hands, it becomes, oddly, a springboard to a sort of beatific rapture of an ending to the poem: “all I wanna do / is eat dinner rolls & get / beatific” leads to “How one & beatific — flash / blindness, a groping / — how one for one thing / is what we get & get”. Now where did that come from? How did I get to this wonder from that pomade composite? I wouldn’t mind staying a little while in this kind of jarring complement of tones, and in the following 80 pages, I’m able to do just that.

There’s a similar skewed familiar in the final poem of the book that I’d like to think more about, but will note for now. In a form borrowed from Alice Notley — “”Her velvet shed” “She eats sedges” / “Her feet paddle” “We are unsettled” “By the fact of her!”” — the small addition of regular usage of the exclamation point makes a gigantic difference in how I read these lines compared with the lines in Notley’s “The Descent of Alette.” What it adds is a weirdness, a counterpoint to the hard-breathing flattening effect of the insistent quotation marks. So that the poem can get silly — “”They are beatboxing” / “& play accordion” “as if each is” “A haunted Balkan” — while retaining a touch of desperation.


What kinds of effort make for awareness?

What amount of a hot book is hustle, getting out on the road and the internet enough to make other poets, other readers, take notice and push you further out into the world?

I ask out of a lifelong concern for the books I encounter in libraries, the nearly anonymous single volumes of poetry, never checked out in two decades. One or two per author, anonymous presses, and the covers say they teach somewhere.

I ask because this book is so much better than those books are, so much more alive, humming with the singular perspective of a strange and lovely sensibility.

And yet, with all respect to the publishers, who did a good job with this book, I’d never heard of Dos Madres press until I received this book. When I look at their website I see that, in spite of the fact that Hey Folly came out mere months ago, it’s already moved off their list of new releases into catalogue obscurity. One has to click three times to get to it. It hasn’t been reviewed anywhere.

Here’s a book that anyone reading it would agree demands acclaim and a wider audience. Because this is the week of the infamous Harper’s article that launched a hundred stirring rebuttals, here’s a book that would serve as a counterpoint to that thin and unhappy appraisal of our vibrant poetry — if only one could find it.

A beautiful and accomplished book. Published by a small independent press. Whose author is a mother of young children, who can’t — just can’t — hit the road to promote her book without making sacrifices that any parent will tell you aren’t worth making. And which author would likely say anyhow, that kind of promotion isn’t the point.

There must be some way to alter that equation. To make certain this book gets to the readers who need it. Who will recognize the strangeness of this poetry, and its value.