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