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Nothing but the Music by Thulani Davis

Thulani Davis Cover

By Greg Bem

& then, of course, “the jazz life” joints
we smile after hours on the lower east side
steppin’ & stompin’ & steppin’ & stridin’
where dairy bars hop with hip tales
all the living legends gather
over record dates/historic gigs/dope stories
music intrigue & sudden disappearances
“rough life”/”no breaks” unrecorded
among boppin’ feet/gippin’ hips

  • from X-75-VOL. I, HENRY THREADGILL / “SIDE B (AIR SONG/FE FI FO FUM)”, page 31

Newly-released, Thulani Davis’s Nothing But the Music is a collection of poetry that feels at its core musical and alive—living songs on loop in bustling centers of humanity. It is a collection that embodies jazz, embodies soul, embodies funk. It is a poetry of resistance and a poetry of liberation. It is also uniquely its own through love, through description, through tones of spontaneity and concentration.

Strongly a selected, a mix, a range, this collection features works published as early as 1978 and many published closer to now. Its core rings true. It is a jewel of the Black Arts Movement, a collection that sings and roars addressing the significance of presence, of now, of time and space and place, and of performance.

Distinct and vocal, Nothing But the Music features most prominently the music of Davis’s voice. Thulani Davis’s voice resonates that reflects a mix of edgy poetic underground and street-side vernacular. It feels of the clubs and cafes that these poems originally found audience within. It feels of the lives of New York, San Francisco, and DC, and of Gorée Island, Senegal, and Harare, Zimbabwe—places Davis found these poems, created them, and presented them. It is a voice that connects across time, spinning historically forward from the 1970s to the present.

More literally is the book’s connection to music. The “Music” of the book’s title is in reference to the source of these writings. As Davis acknowledges in her book’s opening, “many of the poems here were performed with an umber of musicians in different improvising configurations” (page 1). Indeed, the improvisational subtext feels quite clear from poem to poem, that rambles almost as a score would ramble down a page. Ghostly, the accompanying instruments are absent, but Davis ensures through her own instruments, her language and voice, that the rhythm is percussive, and the poems are in harmony with their origins.

Davis’s work as printed often feels like one of many configurations, alternations, contextualizations. The page poet’s presence is just as improvisational, and as such, the feelings of the reader as the poem is intercepted.

some springs the Mississippi rose up so high
it drowned the sound of singing and escape
church sisters prayed and rinsed
the brown dinge tinting linens
thanked the trees for breeze
and the greenness sticking to the windows
the sound of jazz from back
boarded shanties by railroad tracks

  • from C.T.’S VARIATION (page 45)

The verse within Nothing But the Music is incredibly agile, spanning a vast swathe of content and subject matter. As Davis’s friend and poetic collaborator Jessica Hagedorn says in her foreword:

“We were curious and passionate about everything, from Jimi Hendrix to Anna May Wong to Jean-Luc Godard and Tennessee Williams. Thulani turned me on to The Original Last Poets, Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess, Archive Shepp & Jeanne Lee’s “Blasé,” Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, Pedro Pietri’s Puerto Rican Obituary, Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping,” and Amiri Barak’s “Beautiful Black Women” (page 6).

These literary interests, alongside the influence of jazz legends like Thelonious Monk, fosters a space of both inquiry (study) and soul (spirituality). They also reflect an active, engaged pursuit to create and to be on the edge of creativity, to know much and go further alongside the bounty of expression that live performance can support. This engagement is reflected in the imperative statements serving as one of a handful of motifs from poem to poem:

this is not about romance & dream
it’s about a terrible command performance of the facts
of time & space & air

  • from C.T. AT THE FIVE SPOT (page 22)

Reinforcing the imperatives and necessities of the poems themselves is the stunning introduction from literary critic Tobi Haslett: “Darting through these poems is an answer to a question, posed by multiple and overlapping waves of Black artists: How do you account for the dynamism at the heart of Black expression, and its centrality to the wider culture it’s been forced to resist?” (page 11) . . . “These are backstage poems. By which I mean that they issue from a place of sophisticated doubleness, slung between intimate complication and the blast political life” (page 12).

Haslet’s commentary explores the poetry, and the poetry is the documentation of life and lives within certain positions, within acts of restoration and rebellion. It is also a poetry within the margins that have always existed for Black artists and have existed in particular and ongoing forms over the past 50 years. Documentation is one lens through which this book can be received.

Like the work of Thulani’s husband Joseph Jarman, this book also invites the reader to actively learn as a participant, through a relational agreement, through intimacy, and allowing connection to what experiences and images Davis and her musician and poet peers have felt, have created. These are the gifts that have elevated and served to reposition, to repair, to rebuild. Such a collection is impossible to generalize here. The nuances are too ecstatic and complex. Davis’s work is compelling but not only as an idea of itself, but as an action of being read, being explored, being listened to by the readers who have the opportunity to find it.

You can find the book here: https://blankforms.org/publication/thulani-davis-nothing-but-the-music/

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 www.gregbem.com

Everything You Hold Dear by Jamie Sharpe

everything

By Greg Bem

The J. Sharpe Award for Poetic Mediocrity
#Tomorrow’sSomethingElse

(from: “Bootstraps / And Where Best to Purchase Them,” pg. 17)

Following 2017’s Dazzle Ships, Jamie Sharpe’s latest collection of poetry is cunning, confusedly irresolute, and filled to the brim with a thinly-veiled sorrow-cum-cynicism towards poetry and the situations of living writers. Despite his outlashes toward the stereotypical situations that poets find themselves managing, Sharpe’s wit carries Everything You Hold Dear, which is compiled of 28 lyrical bursts and 27 micro-biographies. Often the anonymized vignettes and lessons that fill each page reflect a certain autobiography, alluding to Sharpe’s own struggles through the world of the literary, of publishing, and of poverty.

The book begins with the reflective “Turning the Alphabet Into a Band-Aid,” which in six lines informs the reader that this book is both within and beyond the deadpan of a poet’s futility and hopelessness. “When I was nobody, who I was / didn’t distract from what / I said.” (pg. 9) opens the poem, and the book. Admitting to ego and a history of self-determined success, Sharpe props the door for all manner of storytelling. This book, thus, is concerned with the problems and burdens of experience, and how experience damns us all.

Amongst poets I know,
wealth is “fiercely original.”

(pg. 16)

The manifestations of experience and the lived life of the writerly types are presented through an alphabetical concept of biography. Every other page is a poem about a writer who is only identified by their assigned letter within the alphabet, and each letter is represented both abruptly and distinctly. These stories, often allegorical and proclamatory in tone, exhibit a typification of the common situations poets find themselves in. It could be me, it could be you, it could be any of us who encounter the world of fame and recognition, advances and meager award money, and the many dead-ends of employment.

No job. Limited prospects. U, what’s to
be done with you?

I’d run

(if U weren’t a thinly veiled I).

(pg. 54)

As distanced and chiseled as they are, these alphabetical iterations also represent Sharpe’s own criticism and critical points of argument, at times scathing and at other times subdued, of the world keenly observed. That the book has been published during our time of supreme isolation, during a global pandemic, feels fitting, for the many of us who can only glance and gawk in a general, lamenting peanut gallery at the trials of our peers, as flat the failures and successes may be.

Interspersing these stories is a lazy string of poems that feels resonant of Sharpe and Sharpe’s own experiences. They are lyrical poems that often feel disconnected and irrelevant to Sharpe’s larger message within the alphabetical pieces. Many of the poems have occasional glimmers of potency, where the poet finds catharsis and, occasionally, self-actualization, but there is a thickened layer of ego fat that fills in all of the gaps. If Sharpe has been intending for a flighty sense of the mediocrity of experience to fill the spaces of insight, this intention has been accomplished.

Everything You Hold Dear, its title emblematic of an irony that haunts these pages, follows the many writers of the 19th and 20th centuries who have sarcastically engaged the canon and the general milieu of “the writer.” Sharpe follows in the shadowy footsteps of many relatively recent authors, like Joyce, Nabokov, Plath, Kerouac, and Bukowski, who have similar practices. These, and countless others, have gone to extreme lengths of fictionalization and memoirification to capture the feeling of the destitute and “alive” lifestyle of those damned, poetic souls. The ones who wander the earth in something between paralysis and determination. These salty critics often rely on sardonic methods to make their point regarding how ridiculous (and absurd? existential? nihilistic?) the writer’s world continues to be. Sharpe’s contemporary, Seattle-based Thomas Walton, operates in a similar manner through his recent lyrical essays.

At the end of the day, and the end of the collection, we are reminded that the world around us, the world for poets that must be dealt with by the poets, continues. Sharpe closes with a couplet, called “Foreword,” which symbolizes something greater (or, at least, mediocrely the same) around the corner. But that corner is not determined: it is not solidified and proven to be true other than the graying of a very Sisyphusian landscape

The book closes and turns our attention back onto itself, in a folding manner, encapsulated within the collection some vague, curious, greater offering. Sharpe is inadvertently contributing an ars poetica, stiff and defiant. It may be sloppy and blurry, but Sharpe, either consciously or not, is yearning for something more, something greater, something that contains fulfillment. As the book’s title suggests, Everything You Hold Dear is as much about the joy and a positive reason for being as it is for the shadow lurking behind. Thus the “dazzle” continues. Thus, Sharpe’s beautiful, quintessential poet’s damnation persists.

to view Alps
puke sour suns.

Thick, yellow voltas.

(from “Avalanche Kills One,” pg. 29)

You can find the book here: https://ecwpress.com/products/everything-you-hold-dear

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 www.gregbem.com

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Requisite by Tanya Holtland

requisite

By Greg Bem

“through each other we become”

(from “Inner River,” page 51)

Natalie Díaz, in her 2020 collection Postcolonial Love Poem, writes: “I am fluent in water. Water is fluent in my body– / it spoke my body into existence.” The water around us, fluid and encompassing, vital and nourishing, fills space, creates impressions, and harnesses stories. As the world changes, as the climate morphs, these stories—who we are, where we are, and how we are—shift too. Tanya Holtland’s first full-length collection of poetry, the glyphic and mesmerizing Requisite, explores these shifts in a full sense, in a sense that is aquatic and liquidous, heavy with weight and fluid with transition at once.

Holtland’s intentions, rooted in a “spiritual ecology” inspired by Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee’s book of the same title, contain reflection upon the changes of the world and its environments, and inquiry and observation into those changes. In this balanced and strong approach to an eco-poetics, Holtland applies meditative aspects to the exploration of the imperative: that the world is undergoing “dis-symbiosis” and the threat to wellness is real, and that comment is necessary.

Following a brief introduction to the text are four sequences of poetry. Each sequence connects with space, with life, with water, in a way that reflects our stories. Each sequence is a flush of the linear that also feels balanced between the open and the terrestrial—rooted in the daily practices of our lives. With Holtland’s speaker, the embodiment of life can be found in gazing through a window, conducting research and reading the stories of the world’s climate crisis, and pondering the memories of the self, the home, the community, and the global collective. This reflective range, when spread across the page, exhibits a powerful transformation between the concrete and the abstract, with abstraction serving as invitation for the reader to be present and to wonder, as Holtland does, of the imaginative and the possible.

I cascade down to the marrow of a thought

its parts—my parts

(from part four of “Fated,” page 13)

The first sequence in Requisite, titled “Fated,” is a four-section work originally written “as a libretto, set to music by conductor and composer Daniela Candillari and performed by mezzo-soprano Lucy Dhegrae on November 1, 2017” (from the end notes, page 92). The work’s literary iteration is powerful, its lyrical origins connecting it to music are obvious. “Fated” takes a deep look at our relationship to the world and our relationship to life. It elevates an image of the people of Greenland who live with ice. It embodies early, indigenous knowledge, posing it as more than memory. It looks at time, and the moments of time, as being interrelated to the self and personal identity. “Fated” is a surge of an opening that closes with an image of the moon and the world as systems of communication and iteration knowable and curious.

the river giving way to all its water
part of a lifelong relationship to instability is this

(from “Inner River,” page 30)

Following, “Inner River” is the second sequence in the book, a single poem that stretches roughly 25 pages. The sequence was previously a chapbook, and holds space on its own as well as side-by-side the other works of Requisite. Holtland’s long meditation is concerned with the idea of the river, the symbol of the river, and all its properties. While reading it, I was reminded of Joy Harjo who wrote, in 2020’s American Sunrise, “Rivers are the old roads, as are songs, to traverse memory.  / I emerged from the story, dripping with the waters of memory.” Among her many considerations, Holtland examines the Duwamish River in this section, the river that was transformed by the colonial Europeans not long after they arrived to the area of the Pacific Northwest now containing the city of Seattle.

As much difficulty there is in the river, Holtland’s poetry examines it in a way that is compassionate. “imagine the cells of all your loving / loving a body of longing” she writes on page 34. These “songs, to traverse memory” are bound to and carried by and cleansed with a larger river, one that exists between and among and surrounding the collective memory. The spirit, or Spirit, of the world, which includes and is beyond humanity, makes many obvious and hidden appearances in “Inner River.”

The penultimate “Other Names for the Future” reads both as a long poem and a series of entries in a daybook or journal. The poem opens and closes with the sun. It opens up and acknowledges change, and the potential, natural violence within change: “It is more than a belief that we are changing. / The wind’s violence is in the trees.” (page 61). Prophetic and at ease, the tone carries sorrow and urgency as well. Holtland’s poetry is multifaceted, much as the way we as humans interpret the environments around us. While “Fated” and “Inner River” take shape over many pages, “Other Names for the Future” carries a form that feels sharp and instantaneous.

And yet it is full of more questions and considerations, it is subtle, and its pace continues from its predecessors. Themes include fate, include logic, include process. Holtland here is also concerned with life, death, and the renewal. The poem closes with “In front of us now / a tree grows in the city, / following through / on all its commitments.” (page 66). And the sentiment rings: to observe, to be present, to see hope but also to, more flatly, more plainly, see the beginning led to an end of multiple possibilities—is one of many lessons contained.

The central energy within Holtland’s closing sequence, “The Story,” is Brahma. Destruction is central here, with Brahma’s closing eye, which can remove and recreate in a blink. And it’s a fascinating concept Holtland describes: what is now, what is our reality, is just before the blink: “We are the story we watch / as the eye closes.” (page 79). There is a solemn, matter-of-fact approach to this destruction. Surrendering to what is and what will be, and acknowledging the power and powerlessness of that surrender is yet another invitation. It is also an invitation to act, in a way that resonates with communities of practice, communities of meditation, communities of being present and sharing experience.

The spiritual ecology to Holtland’s works finds a pause with “The Story,” and is a pause that feels modular and unclosed, in a way that asks for more, asks for action and activity, alongside acceptance and agreement. But these concepts are abstract, and they are bound to the medium of poetry, which, like a river, is capable of holding much—much interpretation, much understanding, much conversation.

Requisite is a book of many waters, and is a book of many insights. It is an outstanding and exceptional release from a poet who is deeply connected with, interested in, and invested in the rapidly changing world. It is both quiet and loud, both enduring and abrupt. It calls forth, but also listens. It is demonstrative of shifts the way the world is, and the world is better with this book’s presence.

You can find the book here: https://platypuspress.co.uk/requisite

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.

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A Better Place is Hard to Find by Aaron Fagan + Rough Song by Blanca Varela, translated by Carlos Lara

fagancovermockup_800xrough

By Greg Bem

In Aaron Fagan’s third poetry collection, one of this Fall’s releases from The Song Cave, A Better Place is Hard to Find, the poet seeks moments of rest amidst the chaos and loss of the everyday. It is a book that is chiseled to a core that is multitudinous and multidirectional. It is pensive and loud at once. Fagan writes with intention: voluminous details are marred with minimalism one moment; stories of exasperation open temporarily like flashbulbs in a cavern the next.

The result of this spectrum of hook and drag, catch and release is powerful in its sense of juxtaposition and the quaking heartbeat of reality. The rhythms are full and challenging, as with some of the book’s opening lines in the poem “One World at a Time”: “Every word is a delusion, and I / Say too much and too little.” (page 1). This delusion is the amorphous wonder of poetry: a palace of crystalline structures, smoke, mirrors, and the fullest sense of humanism. Humanism meets a sense of Eastern eternity soon thereafter in “Quandary”:

To become one
With the universe,
You already are—

Breath, a portal
To the present,
Doubt, a form

Of time travel—

(page 4)

Fagan’s voice lingers in every poem. The reflective lyric, the interior itching outward. These are moments, utterances, gasps that document and describe. Often the scenes are so vast they feel unsettling in Fagan’s tight, constricted forms. When he writes “. . . your hands / Tug at your face / In Quiet oblivion. The sky is clear. / You can see for / Miles in every / Direction” (“A Complete Nobody,” page 8), Fagan filles the columns, fills the towers with retrospective and a resounding, a reverberation.

The poems in A Better Place open with references to cities and towns, a bland (and opaque) American urbanism that feels like the echoes of the poet’s daily life. That sense of pensiveness, that sense of booming curiosity, is at odds with time and distance. Existential in this collection is exploration of process and commitment. Often the answer, or the key, feels vaguely pastoral. Natural. Becoming beyond the behemoth of the city. Nature’s artful relations are cruel and absorbing in Fagan’s literary twists and turns. The poems feel critically uprooted or mysteriously evaporative:

Down, down,
I raced through
The canopy.

Tearing my skin.
Lashing my face.
Breaking my bones.

(from “White Deer,” page 46)

The poems never fully connect. Fagan always appears an arm’s (or breath’s) length away. As such this collection persists in a harrowing sense of dissatisfaction and depletion. The loss is resultant and, in the context of these poems, a highlight, a resolution, a summary. To end is to move into and with the “end.” The book ends with the lines “Wading our past the bend, joy rips me / Asunder, carrying your body back to life– / Where everyone seems lost in conversation.” (from “The Deluge” page 68) and this ending feels beautifully within the shroud of contrast.

Never fully a reckoning, Fagan has created a series of moments of collapse. There is no room for drama as the dust has not yet settled onto any surface. Utterly unique is the effect: a lingering opening for life’s departure before the worst to come, within the next beating of the heart.

Hearts and moments of contrast are prevalent in The Song Cave’s other major release of the Fall: Rough Song (or Canto Villano) by Peruvian poet Blanca Varela, gorgeously translated from the Spanish by Carlos Lara. Despite widespread acclaim and achievements in her country, this bilingual collection is the first translation into English created, which is exciting given the profundity of the work.

At roughly 40 pages of translated poetry, Varela’s Rough Song is also minimal and constricted. Many of the poems feel like poignant, segmented statements or aphorisms, a la Char, and many feel poignant in isolation, a la Lorca or Williams. Most of the poems feel brief, and their density is a quality that affords a blend of certainty and uncertainty: an invitation into revelation and extraordinary confusion.

The effect is one of perplexation and prudence. Varela’s philosophical descriptions of experience and environments are painted intensely with Lara’s gritty intellectual tones. The translation is one that stutters and explodes as much as it passes along quietly.

Almost every poem, regardless of its tone and pace, is striking. “Eve Leaves” closes with: “and the word / slithering / will be your footprint” (page 41). Lines pocketed into “Monsieur Monod Doesn’t Know How to Sing” subtly rip the poem apart: “the scent of fish and spoiled milk / dark mouth of the wolf that conveys you” (page 50). Examples flow past like flotsam and jetsam, a conceptual anti-space that opens and closes like a chasm. Lara describes Varela’s work in his afterword succinctly:

“Varela’s focus zooms in and out of physical reality until we are faced with the troubling observation that everything is alien when you call actual attention to anything.” (page 83)

The intention of focus and movement within Varela’s works is profoundly jarring, and reading it in our digital age reminded me of the glory behind the shock of beauty in Avant Garde cinema from 100 years ago. “slowness is beauty” opens the poem “Speaking Softly” (page 56) that furthers this sense of material and time. And indeed, the book reads slowly and steadily, the words careful and collected, of calm and ease.

And yet, while a peace may be found within such ease, and while meditations abound in Varela’s poems, there also exists a serendipitous quality, one of flamboyance and rupture, even slightly twitching with playfulness. Lara writes: “There is imminent loss, pain, but also the spontaneity of beauty, and the beauty of spontaneity, in these poems” (page 85). Examples spin across the reader’s experience time and time again, as in this section from “Road to Babel”:

bird of the city
bird of the kitchen
blue slag of the morning interrupting
our nocturnal meditations

(page 68)

The lines wail and pound, break down across the page in that same flow, with kinetic energy building upon itself, growing exponentially, revealing the other side of the coin: there is totality and a figuring to this work. Varela’s consistent contrast is one to both tastefully console and radically depart. The book identifies that she was respected by peers like Breton, Sartre, Michaux, de Beauvoir, and Giacometti: it’s clear that her work was in electrifying conversation with theirs.

And also: her work in electrifying conversation with self. The poet is distinctly of her own mind. The work barely feels emulative, no matter how surrealist it gets. Varela’s poetry is beautifully unique, a phantasm that reveals extreme strength in its features of light and dark, of being and of absence. Rough Song is a collection capable of impressing, lingering, and becoming the dream that it enticingly imagines.

You can find the books here:

https://the-song-cave.com/products/a-better-place-is-hard-to-find-by-aaron-fagan

https://the-song-cave.com/products/rough-song-by-blanca-varella-translated-by-carlos-lara

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 www.gregbem.com

Hysteria by Kim Yideum

hys

By Greg Bem

Contemporary translations of South Korean poetry reveal a world of many layers and many breakthroughs. The quasi-recent collection Anxiety of Words, which features Seattle-based poet Don Mee Choi’s translations of three late 20th Century female poets serves as a cornerstone for feminist voices coming out of South Korea. Ch’oe Sung-Ja, Kim Hyesoon, and Yi Yon-ju are featured in that text, and their distinct styles are brought together in a text both compelling and informative. As Choi wrote early in the book’s introduction, it’s important to remember that there was “an emergence of a feminist consciousness in [South Korean] women’s poetry beginning in the 1970s.” But that emergence is not limited to one time or place. As with any understanding of feminism, its development is fluid and across generations.

Around 50 years ago, the poets listed above started bringing the world to their works and vice versa, and yet Anxiety of Words was released in 2006. The translations are utterly present within the 21st Century, and feel exciting and exacting, inciting and insightful. In one moment, rage and compassion and a visceral coming-to-terms are thrown into the blender of the poems. In many ways and from many angles the poems carry more energy and inertia than the dominant voices of the Americas and Europe. In many ways, these are the voices of liberation and independence. They reflect the art of breaking free from bondage and abuse. I have written of Hyesoon’s works of body and horror at length in multiple reviews and could write about her and Sung-Ja and Yon-ju extensively. Their works are symbolic and deserve space, and yet what I am curious about today is the next generation of work from South Korea. Let us turn our attention to contemporary South Korean poet and feminist successor Kim Yideum.

The 2010s and 2020s will be generations marked as a shuffling along, a rounding the corner, and a subduing of life amidst infinite crises. Information overload challenging the global populace at every moment is impetus for achieving both satisfaction and numbness. Kim Yideum is a poet whose words reflect this sense of paralysis and challenge. In Hysteria, poets and translators Jake Levine, Soeun Seo, and Hedgie Choi bring a fresh and immediate presentation of Kim’s works through vigorous translations that are as harmonious and consistent as they are defiant and excruciating.

Hysteria is, as one might guess from the title, a book that finds balance between the mundane and the extreme. A throwback to the concept of hysterics and reactionary moods as defined by male doctors in the 19th and 20th Centuries, the book investigates, through a feminist lens, the way the poet and world collide today. It is often harsh, unpleasant, and at odds with truth and beauty. And yet Kim’s poems, poems of hysteria, are, in their trials, puzzles and conversations.

I have this hobby where I go to the back of the bus
and lean on the window and stare out
until I fall into a sleep so deep I don’t breathe.

(from “Aori More Than Aura” on page 2)

The book goes far in exploring the relationship between self and world in the long format. The poetry is divided into three sections: the first feels utterly nihilistic and opiated; the second reflects the anger and fury constantly under the surface; and the third extends to the pettier qualities of the everyday filled with humdrum and melodrama. The arc across the book is exquisite because on the surface there is a sense of failure; however, the arc challenges how neat and polished collections of poetry serve only to reinforce structures and historical power. Kim’s work explores each poem’s interconnectedness and these threads are exposures into an authentic and versatile every day. That truth and that beauty that is covered up is actual and gritty. It is noisy and full of disjunction.

Finding a middle ground is reaching a point of absurdity. It feels, through a quagmire of emotions, impossible to be at one with the atrocities of everyday life and the rhythm and unstoppable reverberations of that life. Kim writes in “Correction” that she is “Writing like someone suffering / something they haven’t lived through / winners of million-dollar prizes, whatever” (page 19). The attitude toward this space is sardonic and demeaning, but also Kim is consistent in elevating an understanding of what it means to be authentic, and how right and wrong that is. This sense of absurdity feels like the works of American poet Rauan Klassnik, who challenges the machine while riding the machine all along.

Kim’s speaker is in no way doing one thing or another; there is never a clear position or stance within the voices of these poems. When taken side-by-side, the poetry as a collection often feels disconnected and, as such, incorrect. And this is where Kim is so profound. Hyesoon poetry, contrasted, is wild and filled with awe-and-wretch-inducing moments, and there is a fantastic sense of the whole as one consistent, blasting chorus across poem-time and poem-space. And for Kim? Kim’s answer is to throw the sense of the fantastic into the gutter.

Even if you cover me with a wrinkled blanket
you’ve got to understand that a buttercup’s character is so fiery
it can’t be buried. Not even by a snowstorm.
I’ll never be weak.

(from “The Flood” on page 58)

In 2019 and 2020, this sensibility, as captured within these poems, feels relevant and insistent. There is enough destruction in the sentiment to feel like Dada feels, or like Grunge feels. To feel as though the world we’re facing, with screen addictions and a fallow/hollow sense of relationship and commitment, is a world to reject. And in the process of rejection there are poems, and what those poems are, as padding or as output, is fascinating and inspiring. But as it feels unsettled, it begs the question: what next? Does there need to be a next? The emotion of rage and wrath Kim elegantly includes suggests that there may be something more loving, more accepting, more inclusive. But that is not in Hysteria. It is not the point of Hysteria. Making space for positivity is something Kim’s future works may consider, or not. I suppose it all depends on how much of the world weighs down upon us, and how trapped or numb we feel about it.

You don’t have anything else?
a woman shopper asks me and
I become a different person
who wonders what it would be like to be someone else.

(from “You Are Suddenly Green” on page 76)

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Hysteria-Kim-Yideum/dp/0900575824

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.

Riven by Catherine Owen

Riven by Catherine Owen, ECW Press

By Greg Bem

Sweet disappeared man; sweet disappearing river
I sing to you this is all I have.

(from “Two Stanzas in Autumn” on page 18)

Grief looms around each corner. Down each path. Beneath the canopy, beneath the stones, across the lawn to the riverbanks, in the river itself. Grief is huge, and it’s often left out of conversation, left out of the social experience. As an often-solitary experience, grief often feels elevated and urgent in poetry. The opportunity to experience another’s exploration of grief and grieving is daunting and awestriking. In Catherine Owen’s Riven, we have just that: daunt and awe through Owen’s commitments and difficult attention to this crucial process.

Riven (defined within the book as a “a word that echoes river and means rift”) combines the poet’s tangible explorations in her immediate world with explorations of grief. The work’s concept is the ritualization of writing through the Fraser River. The work’s basis is writing through the grief of a lost spouse, who died from drug addiction in 2010. Owen’s work is monumental in that it balances a strong, Cascadian ecopoetics as examined via Fraser River with a challenging, cathartic, and human inquiry into death and loss of another human. Owen’s life and writing, as they shift from poem to poem, across moods and a trajectory of the spiritual and the practical, reflect recovery, understanding, and balance.

The poems connect with the river across time and space. Owen’s proximity to the water within the river reflects a conduit that pushes the boundaries of the temporal within poetry. While each poem feels like a new step, a new pathway, there is the persistence of the river itself:

forever happens while so near behind our window, the dark river rides the / shoreline, draws some of the land in it, then further down / what was sunk into something like commitment / is dry on the banks again [. . . ]

(from “Sundays, in the frozen construction site” on page 33)

The undefinable space of grief aligns poignantly with the river, ceaseless but wavering and textured in our conceptions and perceptions. A lingering sense of the past, a restless haunt, is present in these meditations. It is known but not. It is felt but feels unfamiliar in its newness. Each poem, like each day, provides a fractured vision of the river and of history. A revisitation that surprises. Owen’s writing is elegant though thorough, curious though cautious. Juxtapositions do not feel forced but feel adaptive and founded in growth and learning despite the shadow of pain and discomfort.

The juxtaposition that affected me the most was the imposition of reality. Owen’s push towards the river, toward a constrained, intentional artistic immersion never fully achieved as such, the world continuously occupying and imposing. Owen writes of this as Pamela Manché Pearce wrote similarly in Widowland and Phil Elverum sung on A Crow Looked at Me. Owen’s approach to the presence of the world and the disillusionment within is subtle and gestures towards grief’s relentless challenge. It is not a realm of feeling that can go away, despite distraction and interjection:

So you wait beyond concepts of waiting. I’m telling him – the grief regions are vast. I may call out hello hello I live only here now but the truth is a geography. Saw whinges. Click of trucks. The overexposed heron doesn’t celebrate quickly. Lollop of otter. Fish whipping and eh elusive option that this is not, again, a hook. Falling 1000 feet into your memory.

(from “Conniption: The River” on page 63).

The other end of contrast is the opportunity of the beauty within the world Owen is writing. Loss and presence of human and river are still surrounded by impeccable circumstances, and these sequences of imagery fill Riven with ornamentation and symbols. A fullness results and resounds. The ritual of presence fills the poetry. Line spills to line with Owen’s reiterative world-building. It is a translation of that which daunts and that which awes. It is the sprawl of minutiae based on time of day, angle of reference, and the exquisite biological and geological layers through which the images form and become complex.

In the wake of the passing, another wake.
The water does not return to itself.
There is a gleam, a density.
The sun pivots in the wound

where a white bird retires its flying.

(from “Love should not be written in stone, but in water” on page 71)

Within the construction of the image, we find the construction, subtly, of another layer of grief: that river (that riven) echoing Owen’s loss. The world is bigger than the self. Bigger than the lost spouse. There is an ecological sickness, far larger in scope, more global in the lack of nurturing and stewardship. Owen observes this in the wildlife, in the watercraft, in the pollution, in the built environment. Grief’s other face is the slow decay. It’s the intolerable, fractured steps toward environmental destruction:

Our minds can assimilate all horrors. / Is the problem. / The animals will disappear and those small, strange invertebrates; // the bees will vanish and in the well-oiled waters, fish / will surge their deaths over the sand bags.

(from “Nature Writing 101” on page 13)

It would be difficult to claim Riven a book that feels conclusive or filled with solutions. It may have solutions. It may have conclusions. But it is much larger: it goes to the precipice and knows the precipice. It approaches the chasm and knows the chasm. The investigations, the pauses and pulses—they indicate resolve, they reflect immersion and presence. The difficulty, the discomfort: these are the qualities of grief the reader is exposed to, the ones that are that opportunity we rarely, as social beings in need of healing, have.

You can find the book here: https://ecwpress.com/products/riven

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 www.gregbem.com

All the Useless Things are Mine by Thomas Walton, with Etchings and Drawings by Douglas Miller

useless

By Greg Bem

“We’re all working hard every day on composing seventeen or so words that will decorate our headstones.” (from “Bitter Pills,” page 41)

Thomas Walton’s a poet’s poet. But not only in the ways you might think. He writes poems with allusions, with complex symbols, and with a literary imperative, but his writing also expresses a more automatic, emergent language, a language reflecting a growing relationship with the surrounding world. And Walton’s latest book is a poet’s book that captures this, but it’s also difficult to pin down, challenging to categorize and understand, as we are sometimes wanting to do with poetry. All the Useless Things are Mine—the title is bearably funny while also being deadpan. When it comes to the poems, this is a collection with a name fittingly accurate and inaccurate all the same—there’s a lot here, and it might be useless, and it might be useful, but to Thomas, it’s a matter of taste and curiosity, the poet finding their self and their voice emerging from a world that is inconsequentially available.

Let’s step back. Let’s see this availability in form. The book, on the surface, is a collection of Thomas’s 17-word aphorisms, loosely packed and fitting nicely into rigid and flexible sequences of theme. Thomas is following up last year’s investigation of marriage failings, dutiful fatherhood, and a relentless commitment to Gertrude Stein, The World Is All That Does Befall Us (Ravenna Press, 2019), and the previous year’s collaborative investigation of art history in Rome, The Last Mosaic (with poet Elizabeth Cooperman, Sagging Meniscus Press, 2018). To say Thomas is on a roll would be underwhelming; Thomas’s newest release flows (or stems) from both of his predecessors. Each aphorism is a statement. It harkens to the lyrical essay. But each aphorism lives on its own in a slightly more liberated (open?) circumstance.

“Concentration is a kind of levitation, and when you’re in the clouds it’s easy to love indiscriminately.” (from “All Poets Are Lunatics,” page 63)

The titles of each sequence, each “poem,” tend to be wayfinding tools if anything. Each adds subtext to the aphorisms within. “At the Crack of Up” and “All Poets Are Lunatics” and “I Guess I Don’t Travel Much” are a few examples of Walton’s layering of humor. “Love and Sex” and “Birdsong” and “The Afterlife” balance things out. And this is a book of balance, despite its sprawl and flexibility. The poems are compacted nicely into a book that feels nice. Like the others mentioned above, this collection is also a relatively small physical shape. It can fit in most pockets. It can be pulled out and examined in a flash, or a breath, and repocketed for future engagement.

Or, for readers like myself, it is a book of deception. The book feels small, but the print is as well. And the aphorisms keep on coming. I devoted an entire evening to reading it—and it took the entire evening! Such is the way of Walton’s latest works, which drag and twirl mesmerizingly. The lack of any narrative structure, any overall argument, entraps the reader further. Stepping into All the Useless Things are Mine is a visit to the poppy field, a long beach with ceaseless tidal crashings, a labyrinth not of “how” or “why” but of “when.”

Cat

Time, duration, mortality—the nature of our beating hearts—these qualities blossom within this text through the inclusivity of Douglas Miller’s etchings and drawings. The images are straightforward—household objects, animals, insects, trees—each page-long visual is presented in stark black and white. The materials used feel rough and emergent. There is a flow to the scrapes and scratches upon the page. Some images feel rough, even resembling drafts through the presence of outlines. But the they are also hardly such; as documents of the creative process, Miller’s visuals resemble the fixity of Walton’s seventeen-word form. Whether they contain everything or only part, they are complete and gorgeous. The sense of emptiness, of incompleteness, juxtaposed with the reality of finality instills a haunting (or chilling) effect: it is existential. This is what we have, and this is when we have it—the now, the immediate, the temporary.

“I walked out with her, looking hard at things, hoping to break into living with my eyes.” (from “Do Your Job,” page 26)

The temporary is linked through the visual, and the visual is mighty in Walton’s aphorisms. It is a construct, a poet’s world, remembering, assembling, forever revisiting. It is moving; this poet’s world is a space, a field, ever-expanding and ever-enveloping one and the same. What often does not translate into a book-length work, which is often confronting form on a large scale, with distinct purpose and message, is how that world’s expansion and envelope is fluid and in flux. Walton’s previous works alluded to the phenomenon of the everyday poetic practice, and All the Useless Things are Mine dives right in. While not a daybook or journal, it still reminds us that the notes, the scrawl, the scribbling existed to lead into the book. There are roots. There is the prototypical core.

owl 2

Intimately, Walton’s latest work allows the reader to feel like we’re walking down the block, resting in the park, holed up under some bushes in a garden, or off in some shadowy nook of a house. But not to linger—to merely capture the moment, to create a literary impression—and then to move on. Walton’s work is once again spirited, and balanced within the two covers that hold it close. And yet the fluidity and sprawl of the world Walton has documented, like the haiku of Matsuo Bashō, the walking poems of Frank O’Hara, or the contemporary American Sentences of Paul E. Nelson, insists on the “something more” of process, of origins, and of linearity’s charm.

You can find the book here: https://www.saggingmeniscus.com/catalog/all_the_useless_things_are_mine/

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.

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Summer Reading Recommendations Based on readership- Top fifteen books reviewed at North of Oxford January – July 2020

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The War Still Within: Poems of the Korean Diaspora by Tanya Ko Hong

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/05/02/the-war-still-within-poems-of-the-koran-diaspora-by-tanya-ko-hong/

Soul Sister Revue: A Poetry Compilation by Cynthia Manick (editor)

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/02/01/soul-sister-revue-a-poetry-compilation-by-cynthia-manick-editor/

ÜBERCHEF USA by Jennifer Juneau

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/01/01/uberchef-usa-by-jennifer-juneau/

The Dead Kid Poems by Alexis Rhone Fancher

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/03/01/the-dead-kid-poems-by-alexis-rhone-fancher/

What the Owl Taught Me by Annest Gwilym

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/05/31/what-the-owl-taught-me-by-annest-gwilym/

Paper Bells by Phan Nhiên Hạo (Translated by Hai-Dang Phan

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/05/02/paper-bells-by-phan-nhien-hao-translated-by-hai-dang-phan/

The Weight of Bodily Touches by Joseph Zaccardi

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/02/01/the-weight-of-bodily-touches-by-joseph-zaccardi/

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

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/01/01/on-an-acre-shy-of-eternity-micro-landscapes-at-the-edge-by-robert-dash/

The Elvis Machine by Kim Vodicka

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/07/01/the-elvis-machine-by-kim-vodicka/

Obit by Victoria Chang

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/05/31/obit-by-victoria-chang/

Getting to Philadelphia: New and Selected Poems by Thomas Devaney

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/04/01/getting-to-philadelphia-new-and-selected-poems-by-thomas-devaney/

Someone’s Utopia by Joe Hall

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/02/01/someones-utopia-by-joe-hall/

Library Rain by Rustin Larson

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/05/02/library-rain-by-rustin-larson/

Flow by Beth Kephart

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/03/01/flow-by-beth-kephart/

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/04/01/in-the-dream-house-by-carmen-maria-machado/

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The Elvis Machine by Kim Vodicka

elvis

By Greg Bem

But at some point, I stop dancing
and start poking meat.

At some point, I stop wondering
and start looking.

(from “High Tea,” page 47)

Kim Vodicka’s third book, The Elvis Machine, is the follow-up to 2018’s rambunctious Psychic Privates. It contains an explosion and a resulting silence—a collection of poems worth feeling uncomfortable by only to slowly be empowered by moments later. Featuring a myriad of ecstatic tones, collages of images and ideas that wander through and between each poem, The Elvis Machine is a collection of intensely beautiful feminist poetry that ruptures and coats. It is a book that takes up time and does not give it back: each poem features narratives with a sense of the imperative—these are Vodicka’s speakers’ moments, at once intimate and relentless.

I wrote a note near the beginning of the book that describes a cursory understanding of how the poetry is working in The Elvis Machine: “balance between delicate and chaotic—juxtaposed.” On one hand, Vodicka reaches a totality that blends between these qualities. But that’s also a superficial way of describing her work. There is much more going on from moment to moment, from poem to poem. The poems’ speakers, which tend to feel both similar and distant from one another, contribute to the collective; The Elvis Machine embodies a choral quality, and with it comes empathy and a sense of reflective endurance.

The rage of the wounded feminine lifts me.

I vow to be a famous mass murderess.

I vow to let you clean up the carnage.

I vow to grasp without ever even reaching.

I vow to wear wicked withc shoes for the rest of my days.

(from “Blue Flowers (Reprise),” page 61)

What is being endured? Systemic misogyny, for one. These poems contain a lot of love, but that love is persistent across time and space of pure, awful agony and difficulty. Plights and oppressions galore await the casual or intentional reader of Vodicka’s works. These bounds never sit still in their horror, their trauma, and any of the bravery behind the confessions. Many of these poems contain language that disturbs, sickens, and twists the guts into a rigidity or spasm. It is the type of work that could force one reader to shake their head in disbelief and another reader to throw up their lunch. Because Vodicka does not hold back.

But she isn’t only out to provide the grotesque. Much of the highlighting concerns active, dynamic sexuality that arouses. The stimulation edges the reader along, maintaining concentration, deepening satisfaction. As rhetoric, as pedagogy, Vodicka’s work is an alignment emphasized by viscera and an ultra-realism. It is this visceral work that produces lingering effects, effects of insight and inspiration. Readers of Vodicka’s previous books will know these feelings well—The Elvis Machine is further refinement of techniques perfected in earlier works.

But I will fight to the death
to retain my sensitivity.

Which means I’ll die of love.

Eaten alive by those who say right
but mean wrong.

(from “Babalon Fantasy,” page 114)

Despite the work being “ultra-real,” some readers may relate and feel the resulting elements of survival contained within. That chorus calling for new minds and voices within the readership. The stories, while holding that imperative, are much more than a series of urgent “calls to arms.” They are also uniquely positioned as vignettes that illustrate a fluidity concerning sexuality and relationships. Vodicka’s speakers blend in their own form of identity collage. This is a unique collective of humanity that, while at its core resembling a distinct feminine energy, contains many folks with many identities. That fluidity moves through gender, moves through sexuality and sexual orientation, and is wonderfully queer. The risks that are taken here, in what sometimes comes off as a freefall or dance between each poem, are immense. But Vodicka’s poetry satisfies that immensity with humor, ironic crassness, and a profound attraction toward the guttural. Some of the most complex differences between humans end up being solved with our shared ability to laugh, mate, orgasm, and produce bodily substances.

What The Elvis Machine reflects is a commitment to exploring the self of selves. Vodicka’s work is an ongoing epic meta-narrative that fits well into an era of distraction and hyper-consumption. I believe it carries a poetics that embraces technology and emerged senses of knowing with unsolved, systemic issues faced by women for millennia. I believe it also connects to the issues faced by trans, gender fluid, and gender nonconforming folks as well.

Cuz the moon is a rogue,
and the muse I on repeat,
and my gaze has been thusly affected.

Respectable receptable, man-infested.

Kingly queen with delusions of infamy.

(from “Milk PTSD,” page 41)

Vodicka’s poems are not solely concerned with solving those issues but rather, like the trickster hero(ine), concerned with pointing them out and doing so in a powerful, incessant, and beautiful way. The language is as crisp as a lake’s edge, as rigid as daggers, and it sweetens the world like a brief lick of blood. It is poetry capable of challenging and chiseling. It calls and it crumbles. And it knows what it is capable of from cover to cover, allowing risk to manifest as subtle, tense experimentation.

Whether readers have a history with feminism or have never heard the word, whether they have read feminist poetry or have never imagined they could, The Elvis Machine is a great place to start. And with as many doors as it shuts in its forceful, chaotic elegance, it opens just as many for us to depart, screaming all along, only to sit still, rest, grow, and sigh empathetically. Vodicka has once again, through effort that bridges gaps between chaos and delicacy, between formalities and madness, crafted a gift of a collection that will educate, will infatuate, and will salivate the gentle reader’s understanding of, and belonging to poetry.

You can find the book here: https://www.clashbooks.com/new-products-2/kim-vodicka-the-elvis-machine

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.

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