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The Elvis Machine by Kim Vodicka

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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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Reviewing Jennifer Firestone’s Two Latest Books of Poetry: Ten and Story

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By Greg Ben

Within six months, poet Jennifer Firestone published two pivotal works: Ten and Story. Both books of poetry follow 2017’s remarkable Gates & Fields (published via Belladonna*), and both resemble a conceptual understanding of their predecessor’s interest in poetic movement and observation, voice, and the poet’s relationship to time and space.

The two leafless trees operate by wind,
look happy.
When one behaves the brain responds, the gesture
absorbed. (Ten, page 11)

In Ten, the first of the two published works, Firestone presents a series of 10-line poems that were written during her time restricted to a single room. In circumstances that follow knee surgery, these poems of constraint are matched with and blended through a second sequence of prose narratives exploring the underlying architecture of emotion, livelihood, and creative liberation.

While the 10-line poems are fascinating on their own, the prose interjects and offers context, and clues into the why of the writing and the how of the writer. The earliest section of prose describe the moments leading into the surgery, which would result in the 10-line project: “What you can say is there was a burning, up, up the body. They had given you the meds too late. Isn’t that basic, make sure the patient gets her meds before pain kicks in. You cried right before going in. Yes it’s knee surgery, but you pleased, ‘I have kids!’ It was genuine but you also thought maybe your tears accompanied with saying ‘kids’ would get extra attention.”

As the quote reveals, Firestone’s writing is closely aligned with the lived, daily experiences she encounters pre- and post-surger. The short journey of Ten is not just summation; Firestone is concerned with an examination of self-determination, exercising power and action within constraint, and exploring the openness of possibility within an explicit physical environment. The result? Firestone’s creeping sense of wonder glides between concrete and abstract observations:

The setting shifts. I am a tiresome sea.
Surely, sight has value. Say it. Thoughts
quaking. Quietly I shift,
anxiously awaiting the end.
“I am infinity,” claims he. (page 17)

The world within her room crosses through the window to the world just outside, and the poems only expand from there. Within the 10-line poems especially, undefined characters with their own fragments of language support the liminal and the ambiguous within Firestone’s project. The tone is cryptic and shifting. Firestone’s poems contain rhythms seen and unseen, as hinted at through this moment ars poetica: “The idea is to freshen up, give things a twist. When you’ve stretched out each menial task as far as they might extend, putty that becomes so thin it’s stringy, you look at Ten. There it is, bricks stacking. Its tidiness deceiving. The words rush, then slip” (page 51)

While in many of its moments the book feels like a day log composed of curious observations and poetic maneuvering, Ten is also a longitudinal expression of life within recovery. There is imperative and there is urgency and there is, really, a longing to overcome and thrive. While reading Ten, I was reminded of Frida Kahlo’s life working with spina bifida. I was also reminded of David Wolach’s 2013 examinations of chronic illness and the “Hospital Industrial Complex” in Hospitalogy. I also thought of my own, similar history as an artist—in 2013 I suffered a blood clot, and was bound to my home under physical recovery, while engaging with an incessant opiate addiction. Far from melodramatic, Firestone’s work is ever-personal, a clear portrayal of self, a chiseled proclamation of experience, and it also feels incredibly relatable.

To have a book from 2019 concerned with questions on how to be an artist in times of constraint feels oddly like a premonition or foreshadowing. Today, under COVID-19, many of us see the same rooms, stare at the same trees, hear the same voices each and every day. Our world shrinks. The world becomes cyclical, repetitive. As a result, our minds deflate, become tired, and the world melts, becomes more abstract. Blurs and blends. Is Firestone’s book of poems, then, a representation of what we are currently experiencing? Or perhaps it is a rhetoric, a blueprint, for how we can respond. Either way, Ten is an applicable, evolving document that I cannot recommend more in mid-2020.

If Ten explores the power behind and overcoming of constraint, then its follow-up, Story, exercises the inverse. It is a book more rooted in the future, more concerned with the past. It is a book about remembering, about defining memory, and about the construction of reality through language, through poetry. It is also a book about trauma and traumatic experience, and how we—as individuals and as groups—respond to trauma during its initialization and presence.

The book’s story is also nearly inverse the story of Ten: the protagonist and her partner are tourists in a tropical locale when they encounter a terrible accident, an event of such violence that the tension of juxtaposition is ever-present. The book is about that violence, just as it is about arriving to that violence and trying to live beyond that violence. Story is also that locale, that setting, and the implications inform the book’s narrative. Story pushes the world into a meaningful constraint, an identifiable form, though through filters of glaze and dream.

Like Ten, Story shows Firestone’s attention to form and container as significant and prioritized. A much different book visually, Story contains mostly pages of four lines, listed in the following order: a statement unbound by quotation marks, a statement bound by quotation marks, a statement unbound by quotation marks, and a statement bound by quotation marks, as with the following:

When the body wriggled like a fish on land, lines of logic dissipated.

 

“Slim fish, films.”

 

It was like this: she wondered is this my narrative?

 

“Waves crack, pour.” (Story, page 32)

Lines are distanced from one another. Each inform each other in more or less direct ways. There are themes between the quotes and the unquoted. The voices are never defined. There is puzzle building and puzzle solving. There is synchronicity and asynchronicity. As the book unfolds, the observations from the past surface. It is fascinating to look at the weaving between the two strands of thought, and wonder where these strands originated. Perhaps there are more than two strands—the ambiguity is intelligent and concerning, keeping the book pinned open, keeping a narrative from reaching any level of comfort as it develops.

While a book completed through just the patterned language described above would be captivating, Firestone splices her work on multiple occasions with variance of form. Story, like Ten, also contains a strong sense of rhythm. The first splice in the book, for example, breaks down the form from the four lines into a single line: “To my dear story      gristling in the wind” (page 48). Two pages later, a set statements are listed in rapid succession on the page, including:

The bar man prepared several ornate tropical drinks repeatedly.
Presumably the ambulance crew patiently rattled protocol while lifting.
Presumably another tourist couple hopped into the back with humanitarian kindness. (page 52)

This falling and rising through language mimics thought processes and memory: from the focus on a single image that can sit in consciousness for what feels like an eternity, to the focus on a barrage of images that feels relentless and overwhelming, trauma is never so simple as ebb and flow. With memory systems within Story driven by images of the locale’s water, tide, and beaches, Firestone’s language is compelling. It is empirical while also feeling distant. It is focused while also feeling spread thin. The poet explores these movements of trauma, the approachability and untouchability of it, through the content and its form. And there are many surprises to both, which are worth discovering through a read of the book directly rather than second-hand, here.

When considering what is said versus what is quoted, when thinking about what is proven and final versus what is felt and squishy, Firestone considers larger constructs of polarization and contentious relationships in how we learn, how we feel, and how we know. Where Ten held a much more lenient understanding of the connection between concrete and abstract, the weight of both feels much more intense in Story. Knowing what is concrete and knowing what is abstract suddenly is filled with implications: what happened that day, on the beach, and what does it matter? How is it processable? In thinking about process, I was reminded of White Noise by Don DeLillo, of Staying Alive by Laura Sims, of Things That Go by Laura Eve Engel. In each of these works, there is a “large something,” and understanding that something is the point, and the point can only be reached by reaching forward, by attempting to grasp. In a way that differs completely from Ten in intention, Story too is about power.

Did she emerge wet and coronated, past the sorrows of her human face?

 

“With grace, murmurs.” (page 72)

Much can be said about Story and I hope a lot is; the work is significant and complex and there’s nothing quite like it. And there is so much about it as a collection and as a paradigm that feels important to our world today, right now. To say it too is timely would be an understatement; that so many are struggling to learn, understand, and even identify the source of the global public health crisis is applicable to this text. And derivable from this text.

Firestone’s writing feels as if it was written about our world right now, with each day feeling like a distant memory and each moment of thinking and feeling combined into a mixture of the exhausting and the enthralling. When thought of alongside Ten, a book of so much “stay alive, stay inside,” I find incredible lengths of beauty and intelligence.

It would be a disservice to not mention that like Gates & Fields, both of Firestone’s latest books are precisely and adamantly feminist. Jennifer Firestone is front and center. Her voice is front and center. And her work contains comments on gender—via presence, authority, and relationships. It is exciting to me to see Firestone’s trajectory, her personal canon, continue to explore the world, personally and generally, while also honoring her personal experiences and her voice. We have strong works to keep us company while in anticipation of Firestone’s future creative projects.

You can find the books here: https://uglyducklingpresse.org/publications/story/  and http://www.blazevox.org/index.php/Shop/new-releases/ten-by-jennifer-firestone-518/

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

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By Greg Bem

It rains morning to night
I still have enough to survive a hundred more years
so I’ll just lie down and sing
man’s forever song
about the infinite horizon
vast enough for countless cemeteries
don’t stress
we have a million lives

(from “Rainy Day Song,” page 1)

Through the mists and the murk of our global crisis, the current COVID-19 pandemic, a book of poetry arrives and may be able to inform and console, to demonstrate and guide. Paper Bells, a collection of poems written in Vietnamese by Phan Nhiên Hạo and translated into English by Hai-Dang Phan, is now available via The Song Cave. It is a collection rotating between storytelling and moments of rejuvenation that never loses its vision and momentum. The collection is a “selected” from his previous publications in  Vietnamese and the poems he has written since he arrived to the United States in the early 1990’s. Most of the works come from the Summer Radio (published in 2019 in Vietnamese), which followed the 2005 Linh Dinh-translated Nigh, Fish, and Charlie Parker. Overall a combination of older and newer works, Paper Bells as a collection contain variations on visions of survival and what it means to thrive after difficulty. They share what has long been of interest to Phan Nhiên Hạo: documenting the lived experience of a Vietnamese refugee and exiled poet who has sought and continues to seek that thriving through poetry.

Thematically in this collection, Phan Nhiên Hạo’s works move back and forth between microscopic and macroscopic worlds within Vietnam and within the United States. A prose poem near the end of the book reflects the worlds in the context of time and memory. The poet writes: “Once on Ngo Thoi Nhiem Street I saw an old woman squatting against one of the high walls of the hospital, weeping, tears pouring out of her face like fresh juice squeezed from a sugar cane machine” (from “Saigon on a Good Day,” page 48). Many of Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poems contain images like this: remarkable moments of interruption and awe spurred on by the anonymous world around us, or a world surreally distanced in time and space. This convergence of experience and identity find life within their center and unity. There is a sense of the allegory, of the symbolic story, of the world that opens and blossoms sending into breath, or is rung, like a bell, sending reverberations from poem to poem. These reverberations also feel like brutal logic, feel of an urgent commonsense, as in “Fragments,” which calls forward the nihilism of machines and weaponry: “A rusty gun is still capable of killing someone, / but a feeble mind can’t do shit” (page 39).

Indeed, from within their logical core, line by line, to their larger impressions as individual works, the poems feel linked, and delicate, and unpacking the book of a poet who has seen and felt many worlds, many difficulties, and many moments in between, takes time. Time ultimately informs the poetry itself, which often uses rain as a circumstantial image, an image of transformation, and, like an ellipses, an image of pause. Included in this collection is Phan Nhiên Hạo’s “Seattle Memory,” which uses a city familiar with rain to serve as pin for connecting and opening vast distances: “Day rains, stops, afternoon blazes and night comes late. Summer in Seattle, I remember Da Lat” (page 5). Lines like this one reveal the poet’s interest in juxtapositions. The self may exist now, but continues to exist in other forms and locations.

Examining location and presence through Paper Bells is extremely fulfilling. I write this review in social isolation, in a world that is “on lockdown,” this lens seems to only widen as I engage with Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poetry. When he writes of “man’s forever song” in the poem “Rainy Day Song” quoted above, I think about my own longitudinal story in space, in community, in life and being. Though different, as all stories are, I cannot help but think of the world that becomes cushioned by patience, compassion, and rest. I think also of Jennifer Cheng’s House A, and her time spent moving around the continental United States with her parents, who as immigrants explored and discovered (and rediscovered) identity, location, and stability.

While positivity and success tend to show up in many stories of survival, Phan Nhiên Hạo’s words are far from universally pleasant and straightforward. The poet here has crafted works founded in struggle that cannot be unbound from death and disruption. There is movement, flight, and escape, but a final sense of stability or rest seems impossible. Here we have a Catch-22, a schism that is profound and worth a dozen examinations: the poet’s commitment to rebirth, and the incessant loss of identity and heritage for that continued life. This poet figures this loss into his poetry in many ways. Typically, I examined loss in Paper Bells through the poet’s highlights of absurdity; they struck me as both feeling commonplace and containing multitudes of emotion:

the swampy city a breeding ground for mosquitoes
where breasts are squeezed in the beery halls until broken
and thrown into the bloody river with hyacinths

(from “Wash Your Hands,” page 31)

Phan Nhiên Hạo intercepts any sense of complacency with surprise, disorder, and decay. Nothing is perfect and rebirth will always come with a cost: again, the world is delicate and can be creased, and those creases are our memories.

Though dismal, the book is not a morass of challenge. Tension is alleviated; still, there is the rain. The rain that cleanses is also the rain that keeps us inside, keeps us at rest, keeps us centered to where our minds can transport through memory and commitment to our former selves, situations, and locations. And remain stable, fervent, integral.

As I read Phan Nhiên Hạo and think about his bus ride across the country, his time working as a delivery man and janitor, and the many other movements literal and symbolic contains in the poems and also described before and within this book’s incredible introduction, I think of the world within and beyond these poems. I refocus on COVID-19 and the crossing over from the poetry’s contained reality to the reality where the poetry is contained. While the spotlight on the virus does not equate to or replace war, oppression, and forced removal of peoples and cultures, I cannot help but think about the poet’s stories and how they seem relevant to our own shifting society. Much like Phan Nhiên Hạo demonstrates in Paper Bells, each of us can take the moments afforded to us to look at our own journey, our own stories, and the world’s rotations and rejuvenations. With that I ask, what are the greater implications of works like Paper Bells?

As long-time collaborator and translator Hai-Dang Phan puts it in the introduction: “The dissident politics of Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poetry resound precisely at a historical moment when the United States and Vietnam are reestablishing diplomatic and economic relations, and in the cultural and literary sphere much of the talk is about peace and reconciliation” (page xi). This publication of Phan Nhiên Hạo works, as translated into a thorough, indefatigable contemporary English by Hai-Dang Phan, feels of the very present, of these very days which we can learn to breathe deep and relearn, as both necessity and opportunity, our entire selves. It also feels of the future, of what can be, and where being can take us, as individuals and as a collective.

You can find the book here: https://the-song-cave.com/products/paper-bells-by-phan-nhien-h-o-translated-by-hai-dang-phan

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.

 

 

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.