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Recent books by Rick Barot, Chris Martin, and Karen Volkman

By Joel Brouwer Unrelated But Endearing Photograph of a Bunny in a Teacup

Hi, Harriet. I’m going to do some more recycling! I wrote this review for some peeps and they never published it. I thought this was a bummer, not only because I’d spent time working on it, but also because I thought these books deserved some notice. I cut-n-paste the review here on Harriet for those reasons, plus the reason of needing things to blawg about from a contractual point of view, plus to say nyah nyah to the aforementioned review-not-printing peeps, plus to satisfy a certain meta-curiosity I’ve been feeling, namely, whether/how/why my writer-writing differs — in tone, substance, form, content, etc. — from my blogger-writing. But ugh, don’t bother yourself too much about that last bit if it’s of no interest; it’s only slightly so to me. Instead read these reviews and let me know a) whether/why you do/n’t find my comments about these books valuable and/or enticing and/or whatever, and b) if you already knew about these books, what did you think of them?

Reviewed below:

Rick Barot, Want (Sarabande, 2008)

Chris Martin, American Music (Copper Canyon, 2007)

Karen Volkman, Nomina (BOA, 2008)

American poets have long debated the merits of “free” versus “formal” verse, but since all poems depend upon conventions of sound and signification in order to be read, they are all in some sense “formal.” If poets are to make poems, they can’t not use form. They can, though, choose how to use it, and therein lies the challenge (and joy) of writing poems. These three poets make very different prosodic decisions, but each author, in his or her own manner, demonstrates the varieties of tension and pleasure which thoughtful formal choices can engender. (Did you catch those slant-rhymes, reader? And that run of trochees? Reviewers have to make formal choices too, you know!)

Rick Barot titles his second collection with a primal monosyllable of longing, but his poems offer a smorgasbord of satisfactions. Barot’s speaker takes walks along the ocean, goes dancing, lingers in bookstores, libraries, and galleries, travels widely, reads constantly and variously, and is usually in the good company of a friend or lover. The guy has a boyfriend who roller-skates around the apartment in the nude! If this is want, what would having look like?

Formally, too, Barot’s poems hemorrhage loveliness even when we might expect some dissonance. Though they rarely adhere to strict patterns of meter or rhyme, their meticulous syntax and elegant rhetoric create a strong impression of classical grace and harmony. The effect is so relentlessly successful it leads me to a strange suggestion: These poems may be too beautiful for their own good.

The primary red striped onto the black, the dye
spotting the mirror and sink with
a kind of gore, a sulfur that is in the air for days:
you are twenty-two and this means

even folly has its own exacting nature. The hair
turned red, as easily as last month’s
blue; the piggish, miniature barbell pierced into
a nipple. At the club I watch you on top

of the speaker, tearing the shirt your brother gave
you, the music a murderous brightness
in the black room. Now you want it all off, down
to clear scalp. Your head in foam,

you ask me to do the places you can’t properly
reach: the neck’s mossy hairs, the back’s
escarpment, an edge of bone the razor nicks
to small blood, tasting like peppermint

and metal on my tongue.

Gore and sulfur! A torn shirt! The lover’s blood licked from a razor! This is ardent stuff, but it’s hard to deliver a convincing blast of l’amour fou in quatrains as gracious and polished as these. (Who, other than my college roommate who wore a cravat and smoked a meerschaum, uses the word “folly” with a straight face?)

The dozens of allusions to other writers and artists here may suggest a preference for the aesthetic over the real. Nothing necessarily wrong with that; carving out a refuge from reality is a defensible motive for making art. But Barot’s magnificence of expression sometimes seems less a respite than a flat denial. When he writes about a flood that killed thousands in his native Philippines in 1992, the devastation sounds upsettingly pretty (“rain was in love with the world”; dead bodies were “slick as fish”), and I’m reminded of Wallace Stevens’s idea that “since the imperfect is so hot in us,” delight “lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.” Barot is an absolutely lustrous writer, either unwilling or unable to utter a flawed or stubborn sound. Even when one’s wanted.

*

Chris Martin’s poems are as shambling and nonplussed as Barot’s are poised and authoritative. The speaker in Martin’s first book wanders around (usually in New York, occasionally elsewhere), works up makeshift theories of human nature, cracks jokes, and above all simply pays attention: a sidewalk tout hands out mysterious fliers for “Computerized Donuts,” someone accidentally throws a Frisbee into the giraffe pen at the zoo, “a jay // Crowds a turtledove / From the clothesline nobody / uses.” Through Martin’s eyes, the world’s supply of trivial but somehow remarkable dramas like these seems happily inexhaustible.

When Martin notices “the birthmark / On the bridge of the nose // Of the girl in the deli / Buying a diet Pepsi” on his way to check out a gallery in Chelsea, and then refers to another woman’s nose as “Currinesque,” in reference to the contemporary painter John Currin, he fairly demands comparison to Frank O’Hara, whose I-do-this-I-do-that-as-I-walk-around-the-city poems also displayed reverence for both everyday images and the rare air of the downtown art scene. Martin’s prosody, though, is distinctively his own. Every poem here cinches his digressive sensibility into triplets of short, choppy lines, and provides no terminal punctuation until its very end, so that by the time I get to line thirty or so, I begin to suffer the kind of craving for closure a soprano holding high C must feel.

My love is studying
Anatomy and I
Am a dilettante resuscitating

The moaning anomie
Of postmillennial drudgework
Into daily veer

As Watts teenagers writhe
And jolt like the victims of electricity
We diminish them

To be, an earnest rage born
Of the absurd, a fit
Response to an irresponsible

Age, each morning’s paper
Soaked in a bloom
Of limbs . . .

And so on, for another forty-nine lines of subordinate clauses and phrases, before Martin grants us a period at last, and lets us take a breath. Martin’s penchant for kinking his syntax further increases the sonic anxiety, and the combination of runaway sentences, strong enjambment, and syntactical inversions makes for a fretful but invigorating reading experience. I want to rush through the poem, since I won’t be able to comprehend a complete thought until its end, but at the same time, nearly every line forces me to stop, take stock of where I am, and wonder how I got there.

This formal tension neatly mirrors Martin’s chief thematic question, which is whether the poet’s job is to make sense of experience, or simply to record it. “I am / Not even a cinematographer wrenching / Beauty from an otherwise // Dumb panorama,” he writes, “I am that dumb / Panorama . . .” The poet’s investigative sentences seem driven by a desire to interpret and synthesize, but his halting line-by-line perceptions suggest he doubts poetry capable of anything more than “dumb” observation. It’s the collision of these two impulses which creates the strained but sweet “American / Music” Martin has “come to / Bring you you redoubtable ear.”

*

Instead of inventing a new form, Karen Volkman revisits a very old one. Nearly every poem in her third collection is an Italian sonnet, a form which poets writing in rhyme-poor English tend to avoid because it demands more rhymes than its English cousin. Volkman’s not daunted by the form’s challenges, and finds plenty of room to maneuver within what Wordsworth called “the sonnet’s scanty plot of ground.”

The blue blanched figures—system of a bird—
possess the future in the singing spring,
syrinx opulens, the eye a ring
noon will burn in like a perfect word

in a breathing sentence the silence blurred.
Principally throat, motion arriving
aural integral or static wing
comes to this remonstrance, harm, high, heard

and white kept opiate the nothing wides.
Palliative the skewed sky shackles, flails.
High integument that curts and glides

and beads the waters where its silver sails
the streaming numbers, aureate scales.
Enough says the girl and screams and hides.

Some might say Volkman can handle the sonnet’s prosodic strictures so easily only because she’s excused herself from the form’s traditional obligation to make an argument, or at least sense. What, after all, does this poem mean? Since when is “curt” a verb? Why is the sky skewed, and what does it shackle? Where did that girl at the end come from, and what’s she so upset about? Sonnets by hall-of-famers like Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Spenser may be (and are) subjected to multiple interpretations; still, it’s usually clear what they’re about on some basic level.

Volkman’s sonnets make a different kind of sense, though. I can’t offer a convincing gloss of the poem above, but if I overheard someone reading it aloud in the next room, so that I could make out its cadences but not the words themselves, it would sound completely intelligible, because its sentences are structured in ways I expect from a sonnet making some kind of argument. What Volkman’s sonnets are “about” is the syntactical and sonic rhetoric of the sonnet itself. The poem’s form isn’t a means to an end, as in a traditional sonnet; it’s an end in itself, a demonstration of itself.

There’s also a wily rhetoric of diction at work in these poems. Considered in isolation, the words which end each line in the sonnet above might seem to have been lifted from a deeply sappy, long-forgotten nineteenth-century poetess. In context, though, we see those stereotypically poetic words in pitched battle with the other registers of vocabulary in the poem: colloquial, erudite, foreign, even scientific. The poem enacts its argument not in the form of ideas expressed by its words’ denotative values, but by setting up a conflict between different types of words, their connotations, histories, and associations.

Nomina’s sameness of sound and scheme from page to page can make the poems begin to blur together, so it’s best to take them in small doses. Yet Volkman’s subversive exploration of the most venerable of all traditional forms is undeniably fascinating. Of these three books, hers is both the most volatile and the most fastidious. All three, though, are excellent specimens to wave under the nose of anyone who says there’s no freedom to be found in formal verse, or form in free.

Comments (18)

  • On July 29, 2009 at 5:34 pm Matthew Zapruder wrote:

    Joel, I really like in this review how, for each of the books, you acknowledge the way the poems push against certain expectations we might have for poetry, and then move through those potential objections to offer some kind of explanation for those qualities in the poems. I think that gives a lot of space for people who respond both positively and negatively to these excerpts to have interesting thoughts about them.

    Plus, I really appreciate how you gently point out (or perpahs just imply) that each of these poets exemplifies certain trends in contemporary American poetic practice, without overdoing it, or treating them merely as exemplars.

    I think there’s a lot of room here for a reader to think and rethink. It seems to me you have found a really excellent way to read critically without foregrounding your own personal preferences or judgments.

  • On July 29, 2009 at 5:45 pm Galen wrote:

    Wow, what a bummer–having to blog for money. I feel for you, babe. Gosh–you could at least dish and tell us the aforementioned magazine–that’s what blogs are for!

  • On July 29, 2009 at 6:45 pm Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Galen, I don’t think it’s a bummer at all. I’m continually and constantly grateful and gobsmacked by the honor of having been asked to blog here, and as a result try to take the job as seriously as I know how. (It is of course also the case, as with any job, even ones you love, that there are times when you feel at a loss for what to do.) If I created the impression that I take this job lightly I apologize. That is not the case.

  • On July 29, 2009 at 6:46 pm Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Oh, the magazine was Cat Fancy.

  • On July 29, 2009 at 7:01 pm Steve Fellner wrote:

    Hi Joel,

    I was bummed you became a teacher before I left Alabama.

    I’ve read your reviews in Parnassus and thought they were amazing.

    I have a blog Pansy Poetics and I felt affirmed: I said a lot of the same things as you.

    It confirmed that sometimes I sometimes I can be dead right.

    I thought you’d be interested. Here’s the link:

    http://pansypoetics.blogspot.com/2009/03/questionable-fastidiousness-poems-of.html

    Steve Fellner

  • On July 30, 2009 at 9:08 am Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    Joel, you’ve relieved me of trying to make sense of my scattered notes on Nomina, which line by line fascinates and baffles me. (Present tense because I keep re-reading it.) It seems part of Volkman’s project is to defeat glosses—which only works because, as you say, there is an undeniable something there that unites each sonnet’s associations in a way that feels important. I hate to used the overused word “compelling,” but her poems are that in a strange, not quite abstract way. Nomina suggests “numina” as well, which may be why the poems are so strangely evanescent. Oddly enough, she reminds me of Bill Knott at his inventive best, though Knott is fierce and funny where Volkman is obsessive and sober. Yang and Yin?

  • On July 30, 2009 at 1:40 pm Daniel E. Pritchard wrote:

    I really like Volkman’s sonnets, and I think they makes sense in a sort of super-imagist, almost gestural way — the words are used in a manner that stretches their standard meanings. But there is definitely a sense in the poem above.

    The opening lines (‘The blue blanched figures—system of a bird— / possess the future in the singing spring,’) are perfectly intelligible; from there she is dense, very dense, challenging the language to express so much (‘syrinx opulens’: the singing reed-nymph pursued by Pan, opulent — perhaps an overabundance of that reed). The Greek myth is echoed in the closing line, and in the ‘blurred silence’.

    Close reading is possible, I think, with patience.

  • On July 30, 2009 at 4:26 pm human wrote:

    Cat Fancy stinks. I’m a Cats and Kittens kind of guy:

    http://www.petpublishing.com/catkit/

  • On July 31, 2009 at 7:58 am Joseph Duemer wrote:

    Who, other than my college roommate who wore a cravat and smoked a meerschaum, uses the word “folly” with a straight face?

    Erasmus? Me?

  • On July 31, 2009 at 8:19 am Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Erasmus didn’t use the word; his translators did. Some 500 years ago. So he, for one, is doubly covered.

  • On July 31, 2009 at 8:43 am Matt wrote:

    kittens ARE cats…

  • On July 31, 2009 at 8:49 am Matt wrote:

    Folly: http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/9781931824231/folly.aspx

  • On July 31, 2009 at 10:19 am Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Click and flee!

    http://www.b3tards.com/u/420c52b7900bd7084f02/fluffdisast_cctv_store_cat.gif

  • On July 31, 2009 at 10:24 am Don Share wrote:

    Pearl cat or cat or pill or pour check.
    New sit or little.
    New sat or little not a wad yet.
    Heavy toe heavy sit on head.

  • On July 31, 2009 at 10:26 am Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Stein?

    It ain’t Old Possum.

    Is it?

  • On July 31, 2009 at 10:27 am Don Share wrote:

    I raise my Stein to you, for you have identified this correctly!

  • On July 31, 2009 at 4:24 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    Hi Joel,

    Your review stimulated my interest in Nancy Volkman’s Nomina, and I’m gobbling up everything I can find of her sonnets on the Web. One reviewer speaks of her “resolute rejection of closure,” which I think is knee-jerk post-avant pap; her poems slam the barn door pretty firmly, as in the example quoted here.

    That’s what a good review does, Joel, points readers to stuff they may like while raising what yellow flags as can. A bad review, and I used to write them many years ago, tears down their guy in favor of our guy.

    My take on Volkman is that the sonnets are deliberately aimed to frustrate “close reading.” You’re working to piece out a prose synopsis: she sees this bird, agoraphobic sky, she runs screaming, what was that latin? and while you’re puzzling, hypnotized by glittering rhyme, she slips you the mickey hiding in poet’s mind, which grants her the leap to the final line.

    Dylan Thomas said much the same thing about his poems working on the ereader on another level while the mind is laboring to understand.

    I’ll be on vacation for two weeks and checking Harriet only sporadically. Be good y’all. May you find the poems, may the poems find you.

  • On August 24, 2009 at 2:09 pm Dan Studebaker wrote:

    Barot is an absolutely lustrous writer, either unwilling or unable to utter a flawed or stubborn sound.

    You are very accurate with this comment. His writing is so beautiful I feel guilty reading it.


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, July 29th, 2009 by Joel Brouwer.