Detail from Christine Wertheim’s mUtter-bAbel (Counterpath).

From Counterpath Press comes a brace of new books that involve us deeply into the historical roots not only of language, but of outrage and pain.  Often enough I think I’m the wrong target audience for Counterpath and perhaps I’m too whimsical or else, I’m too shallow perhaps and I just don’t get it.  Do you know what I mean about Counterpath?  The whole Denver Renaissance, an exciting explosion of talent from what I hear, has so far eluded me, though from afar I envy their joie de vivre and their family feeling.  In Boulder last September, at the &Now conference, I met many a poet and prose writer who swore that Denver was not the next big thing, it’s the big thing now.  I’m sure many of you know what I’m talking about, and I know that many young people, toying with the idea of getting an MFA in order to boost their status in the poetry world, are also looking now to the august Ph.D Creative Writing Program at the University of something in Colorado.  And now these two new books, both of them, as it happens by professors, from mighty Counterpath which seems to be cutting a swath through literature nowadays.  Maxine Chernoff is a talent who, though she had lived here in Marin County for decades now, I always think of as from Chicago.  I believe I first saw her read, with her then husband Paul Hoover, at a cafe on Mission Street by Clarion Alley, in fact it was known as the “Clarion Cafe” and it seemed to be the clubhouse for the Five Fingers Review gang and also the short-lived “Violent Milk” avant-garde.

Chernoff’s Here is an exciting collection of lyrics with long lines and, this time around, a deeply clean and refracted sense of image—an attention to the thing, which has always been a Chernoff specialty, but here focused (or “Here focused”?) into a nearly Objectivtst take on the noun somewhat new for her.  She writes a poem and lo! the object appears in its center the way my little mind imagines 3-D printing must work.  Of course this reminds me of Spicer and how he wanted, in the San Francisco of 1957, to have real lemons emerge as a result of his poem.  From “you starred in a movie,” in part two of Here:

“You were naked or clothed and wearing nothing visible except when you sat or stood or began to speak, and then the words were made of black yarn, and your fingers held them in an outline of reverie.  You were there and not there and when I partially held you, the idea of you faded into a hint of light tinged by a window in the westernmost sky.” 

You can nearly see and touch the prisoner in Guantanamo, unable to rise or sit or stand or “begin to speak,” inhabiting the tightly constructed spaces of these poems, and the words become “black yarn,” so brilliant.  There are poems with line breaks, and interspersed so cunningly with the prose poetry that the effect builds up slowly, like a family of beavers building dams, and all of a sudden it’s deeper than sunshine.

From another part of the world (Australia) we have Los Angeles-based artist and poet Christine Wertheim with her new book, mUtter-bAbel, also from Counterpath, which combines concrete poetry and neo-Lacanian psychoanalytic theory in an astonishing way.  It must have been an expensive book to produce, with its innumerable illustrations made up both of printed alphabetical characters and scribblish markings, hundreds on a page, that make drawings which always threaten to collapse into figuration.  mUtter is the mother, while bAbel is the child (s/he) for whom the relation to the mother is the key not only to language but to meaning.  Anyone who has seen Wertheim read from her work knows that she is a combinaton of Tina Darragh, Dottie Lasky, Yoko Ono, Ruth Draper and Anna von Hausswolff and can go from a whisper to a scream, like McClure’s “beast language,” in the space of a single line.  Here the capacious book format allows Wertheim to pursue her speculations into the troubled modern world, the drug trafficking in Mexico, the murder of women in Juarez, mass displacement in Uganda.

I flip over the back of the book to see the blurbs and it takes me a while, but soon I realize why they seem slightly “off,” they’re different, can’t put my finger on it and then it dawns on me.  Four blurbs, “gracious blurbs” Wertheim calls them in her endnote.  Blurbs from three poets and from Donna Haraway—Haraway of course another sort of poet, or pOet I’m tempted to say.  But all of them are professors and all are identified by the institution that employs them.  It’s not “Juliana Spahr, author of Well Then There Now,” nor even “Juliana Spahr” period, but “Juliana Spahr, Mills College.”  I don’t know, I love Juliana but this identification by affiliation is giving me the willies!  People talk about the increased professionalization of poetry, but from now on will books of poetry be blurbed only by actual professors?  Or is Counterpath for some reason following the traditional blurb patterns of academic books, where your book ain’t worth nothing unless “Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Columbia University” gives her two cents on it and signs that way.  I’m wondering about this, slightly.  I mean I know it means something, but I just can’t suss out what.  I feel like the future will resemble the blacklist era 1950s and from time to time, to do me a favor, kindhearted Juliana or Gayatri Spivak will throw a couple of dollars my way and I’ll write their blurbs for them and they’ll sign them and my family will be grateful (while still cursing the system that led to the state of affairs), I don’t know, what do you think?

Originally Published: April 30th, 2014

Poet, novelist, playwright, art critic, and scholar Kevin Killian earned a BA at Fordham University and an MA at SUNY-Stony Brook. Exploring themes of risk, iconography, invisibility, and vulnerability, Killian weaves fragments of misremembered conversation, sex, and cultural ephemera into his collage-based poems. In a 2009 interview with Tony Leuzzi...