Poetry News

The Boston Globe Reviews New Books from Rob Halpern and Hoa Nguyen

By Harriet Staff

Over the weekend, The Boston Globe's Michael Andor Brodeur reviewed Rob Halpern's book Music for Porn (Nightboat Books 2012) and Hoa Nguyen's As Long as Trees Last (Wave Books 2012). Brodeur reviews the two books separately, the only connective being that Halpern's "digs a different trench through similar concerns." First up is Nguyen, who "does all this hard work very delicately." "There’s a void between those systems that shape life and the shape of our lives — Nguyen seeks to illuminate it." More:

Nguyen has a way of arranging an idea that lets you walk freely through it, as though a deft staff were opening doors for you along the way — which certainly doesn’t mean you can’t get lost. While her lines seem to enact our darting contemporary attentions with their sharp turns and often frayed syntax, she keeps cool and contemplative; her poems make landscapes of anxieties.

“Mr. & Mrs T. Bloody Mary mix/ above the Sierras and near/ the most toxic concentration basin/ a former buffalo wallow/ My soil: alluvial/ the fertile where my mother birthed/ The cab driver saying/ I should have more children/ and me wanting seriously to be/ fifteen people all at once.” (“Ridiculous Couplets”)

Her poems ache for rain — you sometimes get the sense they’re so spare for lack of it. And while something ominous constantly feels looming just out of view — whether a rainstorm or a financial collapse — the collection is suffused with spring. Birds and chinaberries are everywhere — though the latter’s decorous, poisonous fruit feels emblematic of our toxic culture.

“As Long As Trees Last” offers a skillful capture of the struggle between the inner experience and outside influence — turns out that private place we call the personal is actually quite penetrable.

As for Halpern:

The body — the very vessel of our most intimate experience — has become reduced to a unit in the larger mechanism of history. War, empire, and power corral and control us, and the body is the frontier of resistance; Halpern’s is fully a poetics of the body — of embodiment, “the spirit and the beef.”

“Music for Porn” is a sweeping, varied, ambitious work, as indicative of Halpern’s diverse array of poetic chops as of his fearless pursuit of ideas that (frequently) cross into territory that can’t be reprinted here. Split into nine sections that leap between dense poetic prose, deceptively airy lyrics, and loose sketches that lay the critical framework for the collection, Halpern’s inquiry is thrilling in its depth and unsettling in its resultant darkness.

“Whatever militates against our dreamier pleasures I have/ Become the same meaning utopia’s crude petroleum jolts/ Coded rubber heat singing things that turn blind eyes to waste/ Erasing worlds being serial resolves my fate in theory I think.” (“Into this Suspended Vacuum”)

Central to his exploration is the figure of the soldier. In an interview with the Poetry Foundation, Halpern described this figure as “an obstruction in sense as the poems struggle to imagine what a demilitarized world might feel like.” For Halpern, this militarization extends beyond the thrust of empire and into our most private desires. The soldier — traced from Virgil to Whitman to Genet and to the present — represents “two kinds of ‘fire’ — amorous and martial.” In his “Notes on Affection and War,” he puts it plainly: “Even while prohibiting it, military culture stimulates homoerotic affection in just proportion with a paranoid disavowal of its usefulness.”

Read the rest here.

Originally Published: August 7th, 2012