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Going Negative

A “necessary skeptic” says what he really thinks about new books by Jane Mead, D.A. Powell, and John Poch.
When a book of poetry receives a tough verdict we often label the review “negative,” and speculate about the reviewer’s motives, the agenda behind the takedown. Indeed, behind words like “negative” and “agenda” and “takedown” lurks the sense that the reviewer is the one making the trouble and the book of poetry–whether it deserved a kicking or not–is being bullied.

The negative review is a curiosity, unique to anxious enclaves like the poetry world. It’s not that people who review movies don’t say harsh things—they do. But when a book of poetry receives a tough verdict we often label the review “negative” and speculate about the reviewer’s motives, the agenda behind the takedown. Indeed, behind words like “negative” and “agenda” and “takedown” lurks the sense that the reviewer is the one making the trouble, and the book of poetry—whether it deserved a kicking or not—is being bullied. We’re far less paranoid about motives when, say, a movie receives a tough review in the New Yorker or Slate or Rolling Stone, even when we disagree with the verdict—even when we’re so outraged we fire off an e-mail to some editor’s in-box. This is because negative reviews of movies (and LPs and TV shows, etc.) represent the norm, and aren’t usually labeled “negative.” Movie critics with whom we disagree are merely wrong; poetry critics (and politicians) go negative.

Maybe poetry is so marginal, so fragile a commodity, we worry about kicking it when it’s already pretty clearly down. Whatever the reason for our anxiety, the negative review, when it appears in magazines like this one, is often more of an event than it ought to be. But negativity, I’m starting to think, needs to be the poetry reviewer’s natural posture, the default position she assumes before scanning a single line. Because really, approaching every new book with an open mind is as well-meaning but ultimately exhausting as approaching every stranger on the street with open arms; you’ll meet some nice people, sure, but your charming generosity won’t be reciprocated most of the time. What’s worse, a tack-sharp taste, dinged by so much sheer dullness, will in time become blunted (into blurb-writing, no doubt). When braving any new book of poems—particularly by an author you’re not too familiar with—it’s best to brace yourself and expect the worst. This needn’t involve cynicism. Indeed, you probably shouldn’t be opening the book in the first place if you aren’t, on some deep level, already hoping for the best—that is, the discovery of a great poem. But hope should remain on that deep level, well-protected, until the shell that shields it is genuinely jarred.

After all, how many volumes of new poetry published in the last calendar year will still be jarring us in five years? In one? Shouldn’t the negative review, if we’re honest and adult about it, be the norm? And if so, shouldn’t we retire the adjective “negative” in favor of something far more accurate, if a little awkward, like “necessarily skeptical,” as in, “Man, William Logan sure has gone necessarily skeptical on that poet?”

These are not purely rhetorical questions. If you’re frequently having the top of your head taken off—Emily Dickinson’s description of what authentic poetry does—I’m glad for you. But you’re reading better books than I am. And Emily, too. After all, the gist of her metaphor, it seems, is that such head injuries are by definition exceptional. Rare. Don’t expect any in the next few pages, from the poets under review or from me (there just isn’t enough of that kind of writing around). And for the love of poetry, be skeptical.

The Usable Field, by Jane Mead.
Alice James Books. $14.95.

On the back cover of The Usable Field, the third collection by Jane Mead, Ira Sadoff proclaims: “Jane Mead’s our Emily Dickinson, our most ambitious solitary.” But come on. The sheer fact that Mead has a book with blurbs—published in her lifetime and supported by Guggenheim money—should cast doubt on her cred as a recluse, at least of Dickinson’s kind (Dickinson, recall, published but ten poems in her lifetime, all anonymously). Mead, of course, is only the latest poet to be named the next Emily Dickinson. Anne Carson held the post, briefly. Kay Ryan, too. Nowadays, we understand a recluse to be someone who doesn’t want a JPEG of herself on her dust jacket, or to teach an MFA seminar. Even our most skittish writers—the holed-up-in-a-panic-room types like Thomas Pynchon—have made cameos on The Simpsons. If there is a recluse of Dickinson’s genius and originality out there, we likely won’t know about her until much later, for the simple reason that we can’t yet imagine her or the language in which she’ll speak to us (if we could, she wouldn’t be a reclusive genius; she would probably have a blog). One thing’s for certain: she’ll be nothing like Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson wasn’t even her era’s Emily Dickinson.

We can imagine Jane Mead’s language all too well. Indeed, it’s the Language of Our Time, a verse that’s free (though not too free), with a dash of John Ashbery and a hint of Jorie Graham (though not too much of either), a verse that’s aimed squarely at a woodlot. There are no valves of attention, or dots on a disc of snow, or nerves sitting ceremonious as tombs in The Usable Field. Rather, Mead, less poet than stenographer, substitutes a vague, blurry shorthand for the specific, vivid images one finds in the work of visionaries like Dickinson but also in the lines of our better, less celebrated contemporaries. For example, the poet Eric Ormsby, a specialist in the specific, vivid image, describes a rooster’s “dark, corroded croak / Like a grudging nail tugged out of stubborn wood,” a simile that, no pun intended, nails it. But Mead, faced with a similar challenge, describes the sound of cowbirds as, well, “the sound of cowbirds / in sudden excellence.” Ormsby’s simile carefully transcribes the complexities of bird-sound; Mead opts for (surrenders to?) shorthand and, in another poem, actually writes “complexities / of bird-sound.” Instead of recording (and, via memorable simile, amplifying) some bit of birdsong, Mead muffles it with meaningless gauze like “sudden excellence” and “complexities.” Her poetry, then, doesn’t so much describe its objects as obscure them with prefabricated language as airy as bubble wrap:

            The waves between us—
house light and transform motion
into the harboring of sounds in language.
          —From The Origin

                         All manner of
knowing pushes up, out of
visibly nowhere
          —From It Was Not Anything After All?

                           I wanted to know
about the earth and the sea—about the unleashed moments.
          —From Same Audit, Same Sacrifice

                  some great thing
is crossing our path, into dusk.
          —From The Flesh Is Fear

In retrospect, those hazy titles — which “Origin”? whose “Flesh”?—should’ve been the tip-off to the lazy shorthand they label.

The objects of Mead’s work, however, are themselves limited. The periodic table from which Mead mines the basic elements of her poetry includes light, river, wind, wing, heart, bird, and grass. But even when Mead gets precise and identifies a specific kind of bird or plant, her ultimate goal is not clarity but mystery. One of her go-to gimmicks is the question; not, mind you, the sort of question a poem will propose for the purpose of puzzling out an answer. Mead’s questions—“What / can one person say to another?” or “What / / do the weeds know . . . ?”—are unanswerable, smoke machines that pump dry ice into her lines, leaving them (and us) in the fog.

“The sub-arguments of the moving mind are endless,” observes one of Mead’s speakers toward the end of The Usable Field, and it’s a valid point. But it’s an old point, too, and the poetry it sometimes produces—vague, disjunctive, inconclusive—doesn’t so much track the movements of our minds as reflect them at their muddiest. And anyway, I already know that my mind is unreliable, meandering, fucked-up; why would I want to see it represented on the page? The minds I want to watch at work—Dickinson’s, Frost’s, and, more recently, Samuel Menashe’s, David Foster Wallace’s—understand the costs of careful thought too much to devalue it. These are minds struggling to cut a crisp path through the dry ice.

Chronic, by D.A. Powell.
Graywolf Press. $20.00.

“That title is so good, you shouldn’t even make the picture, you should just release the title!” So declared Orson Welles when his protégé, Peter Bogdanovich, asked Welles what he thought of the title, Paper Moon. Bogdanovich didn’t know what a paper moon had to do with the movie he was planning; he knew only that he liked the title. But a good title—e.g. Snakes on a Plane—can generate excitement even when the work in question turns out to be kind of questionable.

Many of the titles of the poems in D.A. Powell’s fourth collection, Chronic, are so catchy they constitute events in and of themselves, micro-masterworks of wit. In his earlier books, the first lines usually doubled as the titles, lending the poems an offhand cool; poems so self-sufficient they spoke for themselves. Four books in, Powell’s poems now have proper titles, some of which threaten to upstage the main acts. They include: “lipsync [with a nod to lipps, inc.],” “chia pet cemetery,” “[not the musical:] south pacific,” “congregation in glory,” “scenes from the trip we didn’t take to the antarctic,” and—echoing that hilariously abbreviated obit from Lolita (“picnic, lightning”)—“plague year: comet: arc.” It’s a bit disappointing, then, to read the poetry that follows these titles—poetry that, in a sense, can’t possibly fulfill the promise of such brief but brilliant openings. For instance, while the title, “coit tower & us,” is taut and clever, the slack poetry it’s attached to—

some nights I feel that loss as if my own trembling musculature lies concealed under a rubbled city, listening to the mission bells

you pull me from this collapsed architecture, you too a kind of pillar you almost have that same heft, as we climb, I see you stronger
—is stock footage, so familiar you’d swear it was filmed on modernism’s backlot, the rubble trucked in from some crank’s canto. In the playfully titled “meditating upon the meaning of the line ‘clams on the halfshell and rollerskates’ in the song good times by chic,” the speaker confesses the sort of unplayful sentiments that make audiences squirm at open mics, like “who could have guessed love’s a palpable thing,” and “touch: that sensation I’d almost lost,” and:
                                        it’s still 1980 somewhere, some
     corner of your dark apartment
where the mystery of the lyric hasn’t faded. and love is in the
     chorus waiting to be born
You might expect some fun from a poem called “the expiration date on the world is not quite the same as the expiration date on my prophylactic,” but the poem collects maudlin paraphernalia such as “old phone nos.,” “all the unused appliances,” and a “grim barge to oblivion.” Like the author of dull academic studies, whose only joy is coming up with the titles—“He’s a Maniac, Maniac: A Study of Manic Depression” (title mine)—Powell frontloads flat writing with frothy wit.

Initial hijinx aside, Powell’s poetry is mostly serious stuff, and contains references to disease, decay, ruin, a dodgy environment, and one “mangy green triangle where two freeways form a crotch,” a striking, maybe superb image even if one wonders what civilization can do to dress up a graveyard abutted by freeways. But civilization—seemingly embodied in what one poem calls the impulse to “master nature”—is, as usual, the problem. So, too, is referentiality. As another poem insists, “clarity never arrives, it is a spar in a far mine, it cost us dearly.” Indeed, Chronic’s poems avoid clarity (which, Powell’s right, does “cost us”—the time and effort required to achieve it) for a more easily attained opacity (although opacity is always easily attained). The title poem itself tallies up some of the book’s, and contemporary poetry’s, more fashionable gestures, including: reliance on buzzwords (“the profession of absence, of being absented”); distrust of order (“white and red perimeters where no perimeter should be”); distrust of linearity and having a point (“here is another in my long list of asides: / why have I never had a clock that actually gained time?”); anxiety over what words mean (“and by resilient I mean which holds”); romantic bluster (“this wondrous swatch of rough”); imprecision (“this wondrous swatch of rough”); sympathy for small critters (“I saw that heron I didn’t wish to disturb”).

The clichés are compounded by Powell’s now-familiar style, which includes a long, fragmented line, colons followed by gaps of white space, and a refusal to capitalize anything but “I.” These stylistic tics must’ve seemed risky once. Perhaps the refusal to capitalize was a sign of quirky, anti-humanist modesty. Perhaps white space was supposed to clear the reader’s head, give her pause, a chance to pitch in and help the poem make some of its meaning (whatever that means). But such tics have long since become codified short cuts to mild shock, like those T-shirts that claim their owners to be “PUNK.”

Still, the sensibility behind titles like “hepatitis ABC” and “democrac” (sic!) and “clown burial in winter” is clearly so sharp it could laser off tattoos; I only wish it was the one writing the poetry.

Two Men Fighting with a Knife, by John Poch.
Story Line Press. $14.95.

John Poch’s second collection contains the sort of poetry that confronts most reviewers most often: poetry that’s not especially bad but not especially good either—poetry, in other words, that should be guarded against at all costs. After all, we can spot and reject the awful easily enough. Books of poetry that are merely OK constitute a much more insidious norm that, over time, wears reviewers down, undermining initial gut reactions which, since taste is subjective, are always right, but also always in danger of being second-guessed. The result is the gutless review—a non-review, really—in which mild praise cancels out mild reservations, leaving the reader without a clear verdict and the poet, if he’s lucky, with a blurbable quote.

And yet: there are some fine moments in Two Men Fighting with a Knife, and if I have reservations with the bulk of the book—and I do—they aren’t meant to mitigate my praise. The opening sonnet, “The Ghost Town,” appeared in the Paris Review and probably deserved to, which surely can’t be said of most poems composed in any given quarter:
It need not be a desiccated
wreck of boards, completely uninhabited,
adobe bricks regressed to mud, hay. Heck,
It might be verdant and jackrabbited.

The wind might not lament; the gift shop door
could jingle bells, the jasmine candles wafting.
Beyond some seniors at the convenience store,
you might observe a fisherman shoplifting.

But say it’s vacant and bunch grass gray. Then torch
an image, scent, or song from your present life
to reconstruct the step, the stairs, the porch,
the house, town, two men fighting with a knife.

Much like the architecture of a sonnet:
a step, and suddenly you die upon it.
The robust alliteration (“hay. Heck”) and chewy imagery (“bunch grass gray”) offer instant pleasures, but the self-reflexive payoff—a risky move for a formal poem—succeeds in running the reader through on its final line. “Independence Day” is another keeper, which ends with these exquisite lines:
                                            Small children tamed
by night looked out from family cars, leaning
toward sleep. We parted without touching on
what family means or meant: our fathers gone,
our mothers scrubbing through a collar stain.
The sky gone black; the stars were intervening.
Most of Poch’s poems, though, aren’t up to the standards set by these examples. There are no out-and-out disasters; Poch’s commitment to craft—to ensuring that his lines scan and rhyme—guarantees that the slightest of his works are always readable, even enjoyable (an advantage that mediocre formal verse has over mediocre free verse). However, it’s this same commitment to craft, to satisfying a pre-imposed pattern, that can lead Poch’s verse into subtle but costly contortions. The resulting limbo never falls on its face but nevertheless looks awkward, as demonstrated by the opening of “John Poch”:
A smaller Jackson Pollock, my polar blues
in cursive curse and scratch. A wasted fire
to write myself lies scribbled, smolders. Moods
instead of house-high flames’ emotion mire
a vision. Ink, they lie.
Frost’s great innovation—a voice so natural you don’t notice the iambs—remains much impersonated but, as Poch proves, rarely possessed. Poch simply doesn’t make it look easy.

Even that fine sonnet “The Ghost Town” has its flaws. A couple of the lines I just quoted—“Then torch / an image, scent, or song from your present life”—sound a little unnatural. And the first few lines of the previously praised “Independence Day”—
My father’s birthday—how could I forget?
A friend and I had come to where, at sunset,
a band plays Sousa marches every year.
Thousands on the green, and children orbiting
antique family blankets. Steadfast, or slipping
to outer shells, held by the nuclear
—sound a little clunky, too. Perhaps the critic Yvor Winters was right: poems are either great or not. We can charitably point out the pros of those flawed poems that make up the middle ground—where, let’s face it, most of us, including yours truly, reside—but it’s a safe bet posterity won’t be as tolerant as we are in mapping out a gray, demilitarized zone between the durable and the perishable. So I guess I’m mitigating my praise.

But finally, the real failing of Two Men Fighting with a Knife—a failing, to be fair, shared by most of the collections which smart, well-meaning editors, even now, are FedExing to their rosters of reviewers—is the lack of game-changing metaphors. Pan the verse of John Poch long enough and you’ll uncover glints of gold like his description of a fork lying in “the shadow of a napkin’s knee.” But in the absence of such brilliant images, Poch’s clever quatrains are just that—clever:
Dear Doctor, don’t get me wrong. I adore my wife,
but you looked inside me. Maybe it’s the morphine
talking, but love abounds in the surgeon’s knife.
Expect a card on February Fourteen.
Certainly Poch’s subjects—desiccated Americana, the stepladder at the Strand Bookstore, spinal surgery—brim with potential, but his actual language—“I’m dead / yet want to open, close, and surprise / like a heart or sunset”—is business as usual.

“I sometimes think there is no good news about translation, ever,” wrote Michael Hofmann recently in these pages. I sometimes think there is no good news about poetry, ever. Or today, anyway. That’s negative, maybe, but that’s how I know poetry exists: when I’m least expecting it, when everything’s dross, when I’ve given up hope and have my head down—that’s when the real stuff, like so much low-hanging plumbing, clocks me. Or takes the top of my head off. Or whatever poetry does to us, those rare, rare times we run into it. Stay positive.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

  • Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Going Negative

A “necessary skeptic” says what he really thinks about new books by Jane Mead, D.A. Powell, and John Poch.
  • Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

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