greg bem

Someone’s Utopia by Joe Hall

Joe Hall - Someone's Utopia - Cover
By Greg Bem
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to give a heavy falling all things do but I keep time
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will push through the wall where you stand alone on the conveyer line
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of a massive retailer of a baby’s mouth as who looks back on a man’s violent desire
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of milligrams in dosage of poem stop singing
it all   together—through yourself—it can fall
if there’s someone to catch it
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(from “Amnesia, 1997 / Closing the Vents,” pg. 31)
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Someone’s Utopia is a mess of poetry that careens through the sordid faces of history both recent and not-so, across into the present, with unspoken truths lingering on the tip of the tongues of the future. It is deeply chasmic, almost impossible to approach at points, and carries a blankness at once riotous and shackling. It is difficult and with its difficulty, and its commitment, is triumphs as a howl and as a whisper, but nothing tolerably-in-between.

Hall’s trailer-strewn, antiquity-as-proclivity atmosphere returns following in the bloodied, entrenched, mouth-foaming footsteps of his formers Pigafetta Is My Wife and The Devotional Poems. The atmosphere is one of suffocation and distraction in its images of longing that bridge desperation and exasperation. It is an atmosphere that rages with a poetics driven by defensive structures in language, lingual nihilism, and a self-made pathfinding/wayfinding sentiment to grind the reader from one parapet to the next. It is filled with love, and not filled with love, simultaneously:

It is a world, a built environment, a fortress that is founded on history, founded on text found, founded on collage and ekphrasis. For example, some of this fortress of letters harkens at times back to the quasi-colonial-cum-industrial, anti-or-faux-spiritual ridiculousness of Oneida’s John H. Noyes (late 1800s) and his targeted efforts as patriarch and disciple of or for agony. It also includes ekphrastic derivations from Tirzah Miller’s journals, she who is Noyes’s niece, she who was suffering acutely from the utter misogynistic ownership of women by their abusers. It also includes more contemporary though gritty conversational approaches to industrialism and poverty a la a conversation with a one Mary Scire.
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There’s also, most brutally, the transcriptions and echoes of transcription of time Hall spent in manual labor, or documented of (perceivably proximal) peers who did the same. The factories and warehouses and oppressive architecture of the endless machines punches across the page and sputters and flows in tandem.
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My wife stares at the sun. Her scabs turn to birds
Dyed red after red until black.
A opossum tooth is in my fist. In my mind is the man
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Choking on his nephew’s fingernails
After eating the live from his belly.
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(from “Someone’s Utopia: Love as Refusal,” pg. 142)
drain games small moves whorl
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reed bone color can’t say next
move to fiber in the morning planet
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shaves cell seep fill sleep formation
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Ever Ever Ever the unvarying word
itself thunder overrun under
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(from “Amnesia, 2007 / Nightshift, Mandatory Overtime I,” pg. 99)
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Hall’s mastery of giving into form and theme, a practice that arrived much earlier in his story as poet and artist, is seen here. It is a bleak shower of numbness across time, space, and project. Worlds upon worlds collide, requiring information but being deprived it. The rumble and rubble of chaos is protected through its own relentlessness, a Catch-22 of corrosion that entrances, enthralls, and brutalizes.

These texts of what could be late-stage humanity seep with drama, with utterances that can suck us in and whip us dry, as the collision of our inabilities to our necessities, universal and forever, remains striking and paralytic.

Throbbing across the book is the resemblance of love. This love is cloaked in the maddening disorder already stated, but it’s there, there to read, there to seek out, there to latch onto. It is the heart and the guts of the otherwise wretch of rudiments spewing from the covers. Love opens the book with an absurd sequence entitled “Greetings: Play for 2 Voices,” a 9-poem-long first section of the book that reveals attraction, attachment, and obsession amidst the whirrs and sonic ripples:
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[. . .] 1: You can’t

hurt—as a Player at the Keys. 2: Now I want you to do something for me.

I want you to close your eyes. The back of your head is resting
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in someone’s hands. 3: Someone is holding your head, and you rest
like that, like a buoy in waves. Who is it? Who is
holding your head like a buoy folded in faves? [Often a communicating spirit cannot
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(from “Unfoldment,” pg. 11)
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Later on, in “Talk Piece: David” contained within the second section of the book, “$ ∞ / HR,” we encounter discourse between Joe Hall and “David Hall,” (the specific David goes undefined), which reflects bonding, reflects initiation, reflects bondage.

The piece with Scire, “Talk Piece: Mary,” extends this flittering socializing process. Again, the love, the need, the presence, the indefatigable. The book hints at it throughout, and this spattering song balances text while provoking the reader into a cruel sense of hypnotic submission: the perfect situation for the muck and the crack of a nuanced poetics of tear and wrought, tare and rot. “Talk Piece: Mary,” affords the reader with excellence in the grotesque nature of our split affections by mildly erasing (a la the strikethrough) all of the verse in the “piece,” and leaves fully intact a distributed interview with Mary Scire. The effect is uncanny, though resolute, as seen below:

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in mind never to the nearest hold my finger slips eggs foam slow useless to
the nest I know people strokes my hair a man pays heavy with some virus
to eat centipede song thousand legged
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so you see a new basis you still got to do something about it
 
[. . .]
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M: When my parents built their house in Virginia, in Shenandoah Shores, we spent or summers down there working as a group. It was cheap labor. We all worked together to help build that house, from the little kids getting water or stones. [. . .]
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(from “Talk Piece: Mary,” pg. 105)
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Lest not we ignore the fountainhead of love itself, “Someone’s Utopia: Love as a Fountain,” a poem that strikes the reader, barrages them, with the poet’s reflections on enduring connectivity. Despite “the cannery,” despite the alchemical and industrial transformations of life and substance, there is the direction outward, the direction inclusive of bond-making, sharing, collectivity:
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We cut three names into a tree.
And when I burned my wrist in the cannery
So badly it began to bubble,
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You were there with a bucket of cold water.
Among tons of softening apples
You smelled like cinnamon burning.
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(from “Someone’s Utopia: Love as a Fountain,” pg. 129)
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The balance between the creep of chaos and form, between cavern and home, between polarity and proximity: these are Hall’s points and counterpoints, these are the poet’s arrival to disturbance and peace. In an odd, disfigured, brutish way there is harmony following fulcrum, transformation above stasis, and reflection beyond the juxtaposition. There is light between the cracks.

When I think of Joe Hall, I envision the human behind the phalanx of writ, the maestro commanding a presence of stacks of lines of poetry in darkly-lit theaters. This book has etched this image, in conjunction with the former works. It is a crude image, and it is one that supplements a book that needs its keeper, a keeper that needs its book, both illuminated, rhythmically in the dark.

While the stage’s pit coughs up that which is despicable from the world outside, and the floor runs slick with the sweat of the efforts of our sordid and malnourished collective: Someone’s Utopia instills the brittle, angry reactant to a truth we can always try to and never quite fully imagine, never quite realize completely. It is a challenging truth in being partial. It is difficult to accept though there is power in it being a beginning. It is more alive, this book, than not. And some readers might have a hard time accepting the universality within.

You can find the book here: http://www.blackocean.org/catalog1/someonesutopia

Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at gregbem.com.

On an Acre Shy of Eternity: Micro Landscapes at the Edge by Robert Dash

on an acr

By Greg Bem

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“When it comes to exploring, it’s possible to travel real distances without going far at all.”  – Robert Dash, from the “Preface”
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Epic encounters across time and space are often represented with examples of time and space. Such is the case of the 2017 book of poetry and images by photographer, naturalist, and educator Robert Dash. In his insightful, exhausting collection, where he examines the microscopic through the lens of the human, Dash reveals that time and space do not need to be large to be encompassing. This is a book that at its core explores the artistic fervor of the scanning electron microscope, Dash’s tool and medium of choice, and it is a book that explores how the photographer might internalize and become captivated by the worlds that fill their imagery.
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“A community of processes, creatures and tools–termite jaws, fungal hyphae,
tunneling earthworms, wind, ice, drizzle, springtails, pecking nuthatches,
chemical magic, entropy, the ruthless blender known in slang as time–built this bridge.”
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(from “Gossamer Thin,” page 99)
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On an Acre Shy of Eternity reveals what an artist can do in a confined, constrained landscape. The muse cries out as a collective: from cliff rock to bunch of moss, the inherited imagery that is within, beneath, deeper still, is that imagery which is cherished and collected. In making this book, Dash situated himself across time while focusing on the subject of his home: the microcosmic subject matter within and along the periphery of his property, his corner of one of the San Juan Islands in the Salish Sea. The world is vast and vaster still, and it is one of mystery and intense—enormous even—forms of inclusion.
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Camas Lily, by Robert Dash

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The book is divided into four natural categories: plants, animals, water, and stones. Their presence reveals a quasi-alchemical relationship to reality and materials, and yet the subjects within carry range and precision. These are real images, a captured reality freakish and exquisite. Like the description of the X-Ray in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, the use and results of the scanning electron microscope feel hyper-potent and, at times, unfathomable. And in their space of fringe, in being known and untouchable one and the same, Dash provides juxtaposition, and tension. This leads to romance. To poetry. To feverish, undoubtedly spiritual insight.
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“this one hops me back across decades
and reveals every wave, leaf, cloud, shadow and feather
as a trace of eternity.”
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(from “Small Wonder,” page 57)
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This circumstantial structure is directed by Dash’s own poetry. The poetry begins with the photographs themselves. Dash has given relatively straightforward descriptions to the plates within the book, which when strung together read as a poem themselves: “Grass pollen: four hundred pollen grains would span a pinhead,” “Garry oak leaf in autumn,” and “Cliff ice at sunset,” to name a few. The educator, the naturalist, in collector’s mode, constructor’s mode, educator and describer, traveler of the unknown universe beneath our limbs.
Poetry is here: poetry is reflexive, and it is functional, and it is emotional. The photographs may be visual poems through and through. And then, too, most of the photographs in the book are paired with their own short, lyrical poem. The text is elegant and brief—enough to entice and allure. It is poetry that is as cleverly portrayed as the subjects of the photography. The verse may commentary on the process itself: “and you can’t parse these facts / and sometimes life falters even when relief is at hand” (from “Relief at Hand,” page 72). And at other times, Dash extends the lesson or intention of the photograph with additional explanation:
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“Down below, water shatters bedrock, free silica for diatoms
who float free to make half the globe’s oxygen,
only to come back around
wed to hydrogen
a lover returned.”
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 (from “Water is a Lover,” page 82)
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Dash’s efforts to provide a mixture of science and art is what I consider this book’s best quality. The photographs and the images each add to the weight and the significance of the overall message within the book. Much of this has to do with the flow of material across pages. Book designer Robert Lanphear allows Dash’s work to shine—quite literally, the expansive and intricate imagery is set evenly alongside the text. Images and poetry complement and provokes, in a dance between representation and self-awareness. As much as this book is about the tides that sit swollen alongside Dash’s island property off the coast of Northern Washington, so too is this book about the rhythm of the artist who inhabits, who occupies, who respects the surrounding and enveloping world.
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Vac-High PC-Std. 15kV x3400 (46mm)

Camas Lily Pollen by Robert Dash

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All but three of the photographs in the book were taken on this small nook of island geology. Three others were taken while in a boat, not far from the property. This proximity is fascinating when also considering the process of Dash’s poetics. The invisible hand of the writer, the invisible hand of the photographer: a sense of place is only afforded through the work itself. But Dash is generous in his literal descriptions of the work and offers challenges to the reader after setting the stage. This context, this establishment of bond, I can’t help but imagine reflects the bond Dash has discovered between his life in the macrocosmic alongside his life in the microcosmic.
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Since the publication of On an Acre Shy of Eternity, Dash has continued his use of and passion for the scanning electron microscope, and the abundance made visible with such a tool. His collection Food for Thought – Micro Views of Sustenance: Threats and Prospects looks at the resources we (and the world) consume, from food to soil, from crops to deforestation, and the conversations in between in the context of climate change. Dash’s photographic work has evolved into even greater levels of precision, and curation. To see his early microscopic work thrive alongside his recent, empowered imagery is marvelous.
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Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at http://www.gregbem.com.
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A Slow Boiling Beach by Rauan Klassnik

slow boiling beach front cover

By Greg Bem

“The sound of a train, ship, flute. Children drift into the trees. Heads on poles, on the back of a truck, firing into the air. They sing birthmarks and stiches all over me. Red and green mirrors. A blurring knife.” (from “MOTHER AND CHILD”, page 11)

Rauan Klassnik, author of The Moon’s Jaw (2013) and Holy Land (2008), has once again painted a portrait of a universe as disrupted as it is confident, as demented as it is formulaic: A SLOW BOILING BEACH is that portrait and it is as fascinating as it is ornamental, brute ugliness and attraction rippling with horror and total, existential embrace of traumatic moan, sigh. The language of an interior of pain, violence, and sexuality is masked with hallucinations and thrills. There is the heartbeat rhythm that lines these pages as they slice and splay organized disorder from page to page.

“I wrap it around me as I’m jerked up into the burning air. Cold swaying hooks. A knife pushed slowly into my heart. The dog’s head comes off in my hands.” (from “A DESTROYED NERVOUS SYSTEM”, page 13)

The “antithetical literary work” contains a fairly structured format. Six sections composed of scattered prose that strings together the monstrous, horrific story of an individual or sequence of individuals (depending on how far you lean over in your chair while reading it) who come together to merge or separate in active, desecrating union. There is a sexuality that is vicious and filled with animosity. There is a figuring of Thanatos that flares time and time across the individual pieces. These motifs blend and blur. They exaggerate and suffocate. They are united as much as the human and other animal figures are united. And it is profound, A SLOW BOILING BEACHin its potency to persist as an unnerving guffaw into the 21st Century abyss.

“An owl sits in a tree. I’ve had enough pain and euthanasia. When I climaxed it felt like someone shoving knives in my eyes.

“You are asleep, digging into the cold. I swallow them all gliding in over the snow. Boys hanging in the trees.” (from “IN A PYRAMID”, page 38)

The book’s six sections have underlying threads, which show their surfaces elaborately and illusively. There is illusion and there is provocation. Tones move from mercurial to vainglorious. There is ever the hint that this world can be refracted. It is at once cubist and at once dominant in its language and the underpinnings of the literary reality that may or may not matter. In the end: these are prose poems that can continue to end as much as they can continue to begin. Like Battaile and Camus: the mythos is captured through an ever-consuming sense of awe and dread that glistens and terrifies one in the same. For Klassnik’s speakers, the swirling appearance of this horrific reality is both urgent and disturbed, both inspiring and damning. It is a kaleidoscope of realization (epiphany towards meaning) and function-meets-nonfunction. It is opportunity and it is suffering. The resulting aesthetic, developed across the pages, is one of shadow and that which is long-since wrought. It is, as the title of the book suggests, a slow boil.

“A sky bruised like a corpse. So peaceful. A horse dipped in gold. And she’s sitting in the garden, painting the lunatics. Bloodshot. Thieves.” (from “THE RICHEST YACHT”, page 43)

As with Klassnik’s former collections, there is a distinct emphasis on the multisensory imagery of material and surface. That which we (as living, livid beings) are composed by. That which we must work with. That which we can use and abuse. In which we find constraint. There are holes, niches, corners, and funnels. There are places of privacy and intimacy, and places of public affect. There is metal, plastic, and wood. There is flesh, feather, scales, shells. Materials are universal, collected, and polarizing. Within the book, examined is the material world of detritus that forms our contrasted realities and perceptions of the agony of experiencing and knowing within those realities. It is also the material world that affords us the symbols that allow us our rituals. From anuses to eyeballs, from fetuses to cakes, living means confronting all of the lived experience without exception. It is fuel for the speakers of this book to persist in their desires and their agonies.

“I take the bus. A bunch of convicts lighting up the skies flowing beneath their cages. They love the river. And the gaudy azalea bushes. People are killing. People are kissing.” (from “PHEASANT IN THE ROAD”, page 51)

Much like Dante and de Sade, the realities by which and through which Klassnik writes are largescale and appropriately daunting. They are unconquerable, indomitable, and forever chastening.

“You call out like birds.

“You are filled with mist, a scent, livid, flying and triumphant.

“You come from the womb and anus. A giant eye with little eyes hidden around it in the branches and grass. Plague creeps through.” (from “POLLEN”, page 95)

Philadelphia’s Kim Gek Lin Short partially describes the book as a “slashed paradise to the max—the civilizing byproduct of subjugation.” Both inviting and unreasonable, A SLOW BOILING BEACH finds its invitations and antagonisms through its sourness, its revolt. It is the difficult to swallow. The awkward and punishing. It is the bright that leads to blindness. It is ripe with upset and disintegration, and can cause brows to raise and buttocks to clamp shut ever-so-slightly. Ever so demonically, ever so mildly. It is a book that stiffens the back and smothers the breath. And it is also a book of imaginable solutions to the world that has shattered and fragmented. Through Klassnik’s megalomaniacal efforts, the poetry of this landscape still rings with Keatsian romanticism. It is still raw with the rupturing, inescapable beauty of our consciousness, no matter how agitated and impalpable at times its heights reach. To be with these efforts is to swallow Klassnik’s worm, to approach Klassnik’s giant eyeball, to await the outpour of fluids and results and to process them the way we always process them: with the agonizing intention perpetuating hideous and beautiful growth and, like the speakers themselves, a drowning sense of fatigue. And it is our sense of fatigue, collective, systemic, and from the skull that weighs all of us down towards the earth. “Its face is a skull. It pulls a soft face on,” writes Klassnik (“MY WEDDING DRESS”, page 74), and with this meeting of the intimate we find the grotesque, clever and relentless as ever.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Slow-Boiling-Beach-Rauan-Klassnik/dp/1688984313

Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at gregbem.com.