Harriet

Categories

Follow Harriet on Twitter

About Harriet

Blogroll

rounding up and rounding off

By Stephen Burt

As some of you know, I write– indeed, I promise various editors that I will write– reviews and essays about other people’s poetry with an almost depressing frequency. When I started trying to do that sort of thing I would visit this wonderful bookshop, pick up an armload of poetry books, and try to review them. At this point I’m lucky enough to get books in the mail– lots of books, though surely not as many books as Douglas gets records, more books of some interest than I can review under a byline or at any length.
And as a few of you know, my spouse runs this neat blog, which offers posts from authors and journalists on many a Tuesday through Friday and the occasional Sunday, and, on many a Monday, a roundup of links and brief descriptions of material that couldn’t be covered at length.
I’m going to emulate it, and her, and try to do justice to cool things that came in the mail. Discussed below: the mind-body split, Joyelle McSweeney, Jenny Browne, Stephen Oliver, Kevin Carollo, a couple of litmags, rock and roll, and the mysteries of made-up words…


One of my favorite pieces of mail last week was a giant package from Action Books, a new small press out of Notre Dame with a focus on translations, involving some of the same people I read three to six years ago in Fence. The package came from poet, translator and blogger Johannes Goransson, but the inclusion that caught my ear so far has been Joyelle McSweeney’s bizarre and entertaining novella or plotted prose poem or parody-detective novel Nylund the Sarcographer.
“Sarco-” means flesh (a “sarcophagus” is literally a flesh-eater, since it contains and hides dead flesh) and McSweeney’s eponymous guy is a bumbling detective who is always writing and thinking through his own flesh. He’s an antenna for his own past, attracting memories of his own childhood– a childhood consumed, almost like Humbert Humbert’s, by a lost love his own age, named Daisy; he’s also a guy who works in a furniture store whose over-the-top fey manager wants to sell durable goods by staging fake rooms in which household murders took place; finally, he’s an unlikely detective who has to collar another guy, called the Grandson, in order to solve a murder… if he dares. He exists somewhere between Maldoror and Guy Noir, and he’s part entertaining cartoon, and part excuse for McSweeney’s flights of campy-cum-lyrical post-Ashberyan prose:
“The ride down is always faster than the ride up, though Nylund, lurching hellwards on rickety wooden escalators, catching glimpses of shoes and suits and luggage and his own reflection stretched taffy thin in the smoked disconcerting mirrors… The cold moved up through his shoes and in through his jaw. Looney medical advice assembled itself before his mind’s eye. One lump or two? For toothache, tie a dinner napkin under the gullet. For a fistfight, don a beefsteak mask. The former to ward off enemies. The latter, shiny, dull, to invite another slug.”
The Daisy parts are actually sexy, the murder-mystery parts and the furniture-store bits are genuinely funny, the language dissolves into stream-of-consanguinity post-surrealism and then resolves into a plot again. I finished it today; it’s recommended.
I started today– and certainly didn’t finish– a book that’s now out and looks like I might like it a lot: it’s Jenny Browne’s The Second Reason, and all I’m prepared to say about her right now is (a) that she seems to write well (like Larissa Szporluk, like Elizabeth Alexander, like Laura Kasischke, and like almost nobody except Plath who published much before 1980) about taking care of a very young child, and (b) that she seems to have assimilated more completely than anyone else in America– more completely and effective (I think) than even Larissa Szporluk, and more consciously or deliberately too– the hard-to-handle influence of the early-ish, and the best, work of Mebdh McGuckian. If you like McGuckian, you’ll know what poems these lines of Browne’s resemble, and you’ll probably like them a lot– I sure did:
The day makes a map of disappearing, frenzied
rumor of hummingbird between
how we see and are seen…
The day makes a map of disappearing
and the ants need a bridge
for carrying crumbs twice their size.
There are moments I pretend I am popcorn
swelling fourteen times my original size
and nobody ever looks surprised.
I think it’s a poem about pregnancy– it’s certainly, later on in its one-page elaborateness, a poem about watching other people’s kids play… I’ll likely have something to say later this season if I like the book as much next month as I like it, so far, tonight.
Books I’m awaiting (books that I hope come in the mail, though of course like any poet-critic with ethics I’ll buy them if I can): among others, the book-length outing from Ray McDaniel, which Coffee House brings out this spring, and the March ’08 debut from Sandra Beasley, whose poems I keep on enjoying in magazines.
Books I’ll have to find for other reasons: one of the students taking my class on recent poets from outside the United States has been trying to turn me on to Stephen Oliver, the NZ-bred poet who began by paying homage to James K. Baxter and later became obtrusively postmodern. I’m still trying: I’m not sure what I think yet.
One non-book that came my way last month and stayed in my mind car: Minnesota, where I used to live, filled up during the 1990s with people who split their time among poetry-reading, poetry-writing and indie-rock, and stayed serious about all three. One such person is Coffee House Press poet Steve Healey, also the co-founder of Conduit magazine, and the former drummer in the piping-hot indie rock band Frances Gumm. Another such person is our pal Kevin Carollo, a frequent contributor to Rain Taxi, a professor at Minnesota State-Moorhead, and the moving force in the New Instructions, whose new CD I can’t keep out of our Subaru: if you like Mission of Burma or its offshoots, you’ll want to hear the crisp, well-practiced, harmonically odd rock Kevin is making now.
Finally, no roundup of this sort would feel complete without at least one link to an opinion piece you can simply click and read: I give you the high school basketball coach, commentator, essayist, and classical historian Clay Kallam, with a brand-new paean to sports. Favorite poems about basketball, anyone? (Yes, you can start with the title of Major’s book.)

Comment (1)

  • On January 16, 2008 at 11:27 am Jenny Browne wrote:

    Hi Steve,
    Thanks so much for taking time to have a look at the new book. I look forward to what more you might have to say. Moreover, I’m always impressed by the associative way you frame your criticism, creating connections rather than compartments. I have read McGuckian for a long time and have perhaps underestimated the reverberations of her voice in mine. Still, I take most anything connecting me to her as a compliment.
    -jb


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, January 14th, 2008 by Stephen Burt.