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Water: A Visual and Scientific History by Jack Challoner

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By Greg Bem

I don’t tend to read “science” books and I don’t tend to review them either, but I have been fascinated with water and all-things-water-related for years now, in my ongoing visual studies, and I couldn’t pass up Jack Challoner’s recent tome on the subject. Water: A Visual and Scientific History is a volume meant to appeal to anyone intrigued by water and its many contexts, be it the history of water, the history of studying water, the implications of water, the chemistry of water, and the relationship between living things and water (to name but a few of those contexts).

A science/history (or science history) book is overall what this feels like: each section is dense with explorations of concepts, terms, and the work of many scientists. Challoner’s approach to exploring water is literally exploratory: there is hardly a sense of linearity to the flow, despite the book’s six sections (“Water, Water, Every Where”; “Blue Planet”; “H2O”; “Across Three States”; “At Water’s Edge”; and “The Hub of Life”). Instead, reading from one cover to the other cover is following a person as passionate as I am about water trying to bring as much as possible to the reader. There is some form, but otherwise it’s a flood of information.

Where the book and its arc leads is a bit trying, and as I read it (again, from cover to cover) it felt a bit like reading a textbook, but the phenomena of water and phenomenal visual aids make the read compelling and hydrophilic, to say the least. Still, I wouldn’t recommend reading from cover to cover unless you have the passion, drive, and attention that won’t succumb to the walls of text. Instead, the book may serve best as a reference text for your work, or a “coffee table” book that can lend its inspirations in more approachable pools and streams.

The book’s “visual history” is more elusive in Water, and I found, as a poet, that there could be a significant expansion on the cultural elements of water as explored in the book. I appreciated Challoner’s inclusion of famous and not-so-famous lines of scientists, artists, and even poets across the chapters (the book’s first section, “Water, Water, Every Where”, is taken from Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Water is held up to a high poetic standard (as, honestly, it should be). And yet much of the book loses this poetic gilt after a few pages into each section.

Challoner does a good job at establishing an understanding of the cultural importance of water (overall) and alluding to the canon’s reliance on the aquatic across the generations and across the globe; however, the deeper dives into how humans interact with water beyond sustenance leaves much to be desired. I could easily see an expansion of this book that includes more significant exposition on the history of our relationship with water and religion and spirituality, art and performance, athletics and sports, astrology, exploration, and even sexuality. The book does contain acutely artistic images, many of which are pulled from open sources or the public domain, but I never felt like Challoner reached the “visual history” that the book proclaims to contain. One exception that resonated with me during my read, and is a highlight of the book as a whole: Blue Planet’s descriptions of Wilson Bentley’s photographs of snow crystals and Ukichiro Nakaya’s creation of snow crystals. This literal form of visual history (more specifically: photographic history) is compelling and supplements the science of the book wonderfully, albeit briefly.

Visual history aside, Water is full of exceptional moments of discovery, and having the information in one text feels generous and significant for scientists and artists. A Wikipedia rabbit hole may eventually lead to much of the same information, but Challoner has pleasantly and consistently designed a reading experience that will quickly expose the readers to countless terms and concepts (and inspirations) across a mere 200 pages. Of my many discoveries during the read, I learned about pancake ice (sea ice that bump together have raised edges) (page 62), that some of the molecules in my coffee may be the same that were “shed as tears by William Shakespeare” (page 46), that water vapor on Earth is always mixed with other gases and cannot exist here in its pure state (page 104), and that a glass of water is heterogenous (it contains a structure and is not ubiquitous (page 121). These facts feel like a collection of trivia at first, but for those of us writing through water, thinking about its properties and interactions, this text demystifies and alleviates the unknown.

As we move toward water scarcity, water wars (and other conflicts), and an ongoing critical approach to improving our relationship to water (globally), I cannot help but think this book arrived at the perfect time. Why take this amazing, miraculous substance for granted? Why not learn more about it? Challoner has offered a fantastic opportunity, and I cannot recommend it more to artists, writers, and people of the everyday to improve their own relationship to and thinking around water.

You can find the book here: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/water-2

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

Dear Ted by Kim Vodicka

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By Greg Bem

Following on the heels of her similarly absurdist conceptual books  The Elvis Machine (Clash Books, 2020) and Psychic Privates (White Stag, 2018), Kim Vodicka’s latest collection of poetry is a hyper-focused menagerie of the grotesque and the unsettling. It is a book that examines violence and sexuality directly. It is a book that feels like it belongs in the True Crime section of Barnes and Noble, but could just as easily find a home among the trendiest young poets writing today. Dear Ted is not for everyone.

It is blunt in its descriptions of brutality and sexual extremes, and it is wholly unique in bringing them together through a hardened feminist stance. How far the reader makes it through the realized hell is reflective more on them than on the poet.

Our skeletal structures were too visible
beneath the skin.

Our skin was too tight.

Our bones were too revealing.

Our skulls didn’t smile enough.

(from DSM-69, page 69)

Here the Memphis-based Kim Vodicka writes bitter and witty missives into the void of Ted Bundy. Dear Ted is partially a book of anti-love poems, fueled by a feminist charge to explore and overcome the brutality of Ted Bundy’s serial murders of women. Vodicka brings an everyday approach to describing the murderer, acknowledging Bundy’s appearance of normalcy alongside the reality of his actions.

As described in these short but jabbing poems, the murderer feels like the archetypal foil to the poet, a wretch of masculine violence whose trail has long been forgotten to many. The poet’s mix of sardonic and empathetic responses linger. Vodicka raises questions through her a usual barrage of extremes and extenuations, which find solace and counterpoint through sexual kink and a mild perversion.

What greater torment than happiness?

Or the soothing sounds of a nervous breakdown.

What greater torment than trying too hard to make everyone happy?

Or the soothing sounds of losing to evil.

(from “Courtesy Flush,” page 92)

The book is divided into three “circles” (sections) including Circle of Mania, Circle of Shit, and Circle of Blood. The book opens and closes with additional poems, both titled “How Do You Feel About Love?” which are each sequences of short fragments littered across the pages to form their whole. These clue in the reader, set the stage, and gently open a book that is concertedly powerful and distressing.

Stanzas like “Preciousness howls, / going nuclear” (page 21) in the book’s opening contains multitudes and little does the reader know what awaits them within the trilogy of circles. Similarly, closing lines like Frankenstein’s monster / tossing a little girl into the water, / just like a daisy.” (page 177) summarizes the speaker’s experience exploring relations and commitments with the killer.

Vodicka’s earlier works have been supported by similar feminist initiatives, and in Dear Ted we have a collection that feels complete. But it also feels long. The swelling of emotional difficulty (especially when the poet writes alongside Bundy’s image) is consistent to the point of incessance; and even in some instances the pieces themselves feel tired and repetitive. Still, Vodicka’s design reflects a very particular catharsis and writing through a serial murderer seems to make sense in this book of serialesque letters.

Now, I am a monster too.

A hypothesis proven.

A myth made manifest.

(from “Poetic Justice, “page 160)

If Vodicka’s aim is to overwhelm, to inundate, to bury the reader, she succeeds remarkably. The final section of the book, Circle of Blood, repositions the idea of the murderer, of the owner of violence, onto the speaker. In an act of absolute horror, the poetry describes an inversion that probably will shock and awe almost every reader.

Despite the occasional superfluous language and tones that often work against one another, Circle of Blood forms a stark and depressing yet effective conclusion that breaks the male gaze and the triumph of masculinity in murderer forms. This is poetry that feels unpolished and even sloppy on its surface, yet contains multitudes within. It may be that the reader does not last long enough to witness those multitudes within the book’s near 200 pages.

You can find the book here: https://rlysrslit.bigcartel.com/product/dear-ted-preorder-kim-vodicka

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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A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers edited by Kyle Schlesinger

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By Greg Bem

Where do books come from? How are they made, distributed, edited, written, censored, unrealized, destroyed, recovered, and in some cases, reprinted, anthologizes, and canonized? I wanted to take books apart with my hands and put them back together again in order to understand how they were made, a way of knowing by doing, to unravel biblio-histories, and mysteries. (Kyle Schlesinger, page ix)

The book under consideration is a book about books, but more so it is a book about people who care about books, who have committed themselves to books, and are restlessly taking the movement of books of small presses to new heights. In Kyle Schlesinger’s A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers, Schlesinger introduces the world to leaders of small poetry presses in sixteen distinct interviews. These conversations, often one on one but with the occasional small group conversation, form a remarkable collection of voices from, stories about, and descriptions of the world of small press poetry projects in the west in the mid and late 20th century, up to the present.

As a result of Schlesinger’s personal studies and his own work in small press publication, the editor has collected across the last 17 years (2005-2018) these interviews, despite their range across the years they feel fantastic in one volume. I found myself wildly pensive as I move from interview to interview, each similar in theme and content yet incredibly unique for its range of voices and contexts. The interviews are not chronologically organized, and it is unclear why these publishers were selected (beyond their shared quality of publishing small press poetry), but still, they flow together across theme and topic. Ultimately, Schlesinger provides the reader with an encompassing snapshot and the miscellaneous collection is indeed a marvelously cohesive whole, one that could easily be repeated in additional volumes.

A Poetics of the Press opens with the 2012 interview with Keith and Rosemary Waldrop, whose Burning Deck Press in Providence continues to be revered for its breadth in publications as well as its endurance over the decades. The press operated from 1961 to 2017. Each interview is preceded by a page or two of introduction, setting context and providing some of the more substantial historical details. While Schlesinger’s interviews often touch upon the many strange and captivating details of small press life, having these notes provides significant structure and balance to an otherwise book of surprises, twists, and turns.

Alongside the introductions and throughout each interview, Schlesinger has embedded images, scans of the covers and pages of notable (and infamous) titles that are the stuff of legend. The Waldrops’ interview includes scans of Jackson Mac Low’s 4 Trains, Clark Coolidge’s Bomb, and James Camp’s Camp Printing. Observing the collage and explosions of text across the page in the latter is fantastic. As the interviews explore, much of bookmaking is creative decision making, and in the case of the Waldrops, printing was its own visual art.

While it is helpful to have context for the presses represented in A Poetics of the Press, the real joy is within the interviews themselves. Schlesinger’s interviews make up the majority of the text, and each interview holds its own. These conversations came into existence individually over the years, following Schlesinger’s own relationships with those he interviewed. Most were previously published and are generally strong pieces of writing. They stand as literary feats in themselves, with Schlesinger’s cunning and insightful questions consistently met with a strong sense of humor and a knack for many nuances of historical knowledge. The interviews as experiences are positive and productive, rarely without compassion and an intensity toward exploring the world of the press both rigorously and honestly.

The book has a huge range, and there is a sense of a sort of comfortable chaos as one interview leads to the next. The interviews themselves also feel spontaneous, with structure given through distinct, poignant questioning. Schlesinger’s questions may be brief (you might feel like you’ve overheard them from a conversation at a park bench) or longer (as overheard at an academic conference). Part of this might be the result of the interview format (some were done in person; some were done over email). Regardless, the questions are navigational and matter of fact but exquisite, intellectual and provocative yet practical: “I’m interested in the intersection of ontology and the book—particularly the question of how, where and in what sense it exists” Schlesinger opens in a 2008 interview with Steven Clay of Minneapolis’s Granary Books (page 208).

“Unfortunately, ‘fake antiquity’ extends beyond typefaces: walk into Urban Outfitters and you’re ambushed by pre-faded T-shirts, or go to Crate & Barrel and you discover one fake patina after another. Same goes for typography. My hunch is that consumers are attracted to this because they’re looking for authenticity—meaning, history.” Schlesinger adds to a 2015 conversation with Jonathan Greene of Gnomon Press.

His contributions may feel normal in the context of the interview, but for the reader, Schlesinger’s presence and the presence of his own ideas adds an additional arc to the book, a foundation and consistency that not only supports the engagement with the interviewees but shines light onto Schlesinger’s own relationship with printing. Still, Schlesinger expertly takes up little room and the spotlight is mostly off the editor, thanks to open questions and pointed navigation.

In his 2005 interview with renowned poet Tom Raworth, whose magazine Outburst was a significant publication in the 60s (carrying the work of writers like Levertov, Dawson, Dorn, Olson, and Creeley), and who also published via Matrix Press, the two discuss how poets and publishers communicate, how the publications are funded, and so much more.

In the sense that I’m always working on something, you know, there’s never anything I’m working on but what goes through my mind. (Tom Raworth, page 38)

This interview resonates as a conversation, clearly recorded in an intimate space and filled with positive energy. The details of setting up a press, the movement from one publication to the next, details like these form the meat of the interviews.

Poet Lyn Hejinian, whose Tuumba Press was a pivotal structure in the 70s and 80s for many American poets (including Coolidge, Fraser, Armantrout, Robinson, Silliman, and more), was interviewed in 2005. At a pivotal moment in the middle of the discussion, Schlesinger asks about the publisher’s role with the press. Hejinian explains how she came to printing and publishing, and the act of discovering that the decision to run a press is looted in learning:

So I liked that sort of breaking-news quality of the chapbook; I liked the size, and I thought it was something I could do because it wasn’t technically overwhelming. I understood how to staple things, but I didn’t understand how to perfect-bind, etc. So I decided to start Tuumba. (Lyn Hejinian, pages 46-47).

Often books of poetry and interviews with poets position the poet as a monolith, whose accomplishments speak for themselves, whose processes are vague and whose growth is assumed. In A Poetics of the Press, the opportunity to learn more about the “before, during, and after” within the poet’s journey is refreshing and invigorating.

Learning, process, and growth are no better observed than in the 2008 conversation with Anna Moschovakis and Matvei Yankelevich’s Ugly Duckling Presse (UDP). Many of the previous interviews dive deep into defining artist books and fine arts, and the rare book. UDP’s identity is exquisitely antithetical, and the casual and practical discussion with Moschovakis and Yankelevich illuminates the rapid engagement of a collective that looks to centralizing teaching and learning over perfection:

Between ourselves, we may disagree. We want to make mistakes, even deliberate mistakes, in a useful way. If experience was all that really mattered, we would make everything look identical. (Anna Moschovakis, page 290)

Intentional mistakes are one thing, the differences between intention and result another. Alan Loney, in a 2007 interview, discusses the act of creation, anticipating results, and discovery after a book is made:

[…] I always find, after the piecemeal acts of making in the book, that the finished book is somehow other than I had imagined. As if the whole is never, for me at any rate, simply the sum of the parts I have put together (and sometimes wrestled with). […] That the entire making process is now over seems to mean that another order of perception is then in place. (page 79)

To see, even briefly, the act of decision-making and self-awareness through growth, moments of struggles (and of ease) through which the poets found themselves, makes this collection not only crucial to a better understanding of the presses and press culture, but also to find humility across that more voidish moments of the poetry world.

This humility finds its way in across the genius of all those interviewed. In the editor’s 2008 conversation with Charles Alexander (of Tucson’s Chax Press), the challenges of publishing are foiled by Alexander’s acute awareness of community:

Part of the reason for being involved in poetry, part of the reason for starting journals, part of the reason for starting presses, part of the reason for talking to you sitting on this bench right now, is all about building something together. We’re not necessarily always conscious of just what we are building, but the language we work with is social material. (Charles Alexander, page 240)

Amidst the gossip, the drama, the bullshitting, and the genuine reflections on the logistics of setting up and learning letterpress and running a press, are moments like these. A consistency of respect for the community (and larger sense of Community) run through the book from cover to cover. It’s marvelous to learn about the relationships, and also more acutely understand the goodness and support between the poets, from the many corners of the country.

Over several hundred pages of interviews is exhausting, but I found each interview varied so differently from its peers that the book spurned the reading process, never sinking into dullness, never flatlining through repetition.

The final interview of the book, with Austin’s Scott Pierce (Effing Press) from 2010, is especially profound, closing the collection with remarks on community, the lack of a “scene,” and the life a city without a lot of poetry going on. Following 15 interviews that manage to cover the culture of the small press in renowned hubs (like the Bay, like New York), the interview sheds light on what is a very distinct spread of brilliant poet publishers and their niches in the world.

Needless to say, I didn’t go to New York. I never made it to graduate school. I got my education from the back room of painters and poets, staying up all night ,reading, writing, being introduce to very simple machines like a binder or a very small press—you know, a very small proofing press, or how to cut a woodblock, show to design a stamp, how to circumvent sending manuscripts and typescripts to large printing houses, how to do it yourself: a. to save money; and b. why do you need them? What else are you gonna do with your time? (Scott Pierce, page 328)

The positioning of the Pierce interview at the end of the book positions a critical conclusion to what is beating at the heart of the book from its beginning: that every poet featured here has followed a unique path, often intentional, but also often fluid and amorphous. It’s impressive to find this fluidity across the smallest of details that may also have the largest resonance. Whether it’s seen in a 2007 conversation, where Poltroon Press’s Alastair Johnston comments on working with Frances Butler following a deadly car crash and the artist’s coma, or a 2012 conversation with Philip Gallo of the Hermetic Press, where he discusses being inspired by flawed sign language in Minneapolis, these details are sprawling, and they are everywhere in A Poetics of the Press.

Schlesinger’s book represents a prolific contribution to the genre of the interview. The collection of interviews is brilliant closed with a significant glossary (“Notes on printing terms, printers, publishers, producers, and printshops,” page 345). In it, you’ll find brief biographical notes of important poet/printer/publisher figures, descriptions of historic presses, and the terminology you would expect to find in a book about presses and their output.

Look no further to learn the meaning of “rounce” and “hellbox” and “widow.” Learn about “dwell time” and the “Centaur” typeface. Inclusive of the terminology used in the interviews themselves, the glossary could easily stand on its own, a micro-publication that sheds light on an exquisite subculture.

In the context of our current shifting technological landscape, one that promotes innovation and experimentation in new digital technologies, and one that embraces the historic, the tactile, the heavy, A Poetics of the Press is dutiful and obliging to the efforts of those who have lived at the historic crossroads of this spectrum of media and form. Some of the interviewees have maintained a commitment to small batch printed works, while others have moved toward more massive production. Some have dabbled in the digital with design, but in these interviews, we do not see anyone moving away from print entirely; the interviewees share a common language of the printed book. As such, while A Poetics of the Press is apt and relevant in the context of changing technology, its scope also alludes to a need for more interviews with other publishers. The voices of those who have more fully moved away from print await a collection of their own.

You can find the book here: https://www.cuneiformpress.com/blogs/news/a-poetics-of-the-press

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.

Content Warning: Everything by Akwaeke Emezi

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By Greg Bem

Akwaeke Emezi’s Content Warning: Everything is both deceptive and illuminating. It begins with the appearance of a typical poetry collection but grows through its breadth into so much more. Unfolding like a quilt, the book’s patterns and stories develop with each new layer, each new title, each new line, each new image. That does not make it an easy book or necessarily an enjoyable book, as its title might suggest, but it one of surprise and utter engagement.

Many of the poems investigate the horror and trauma of human experience across gender, race, family, and religious history. The poems contribute to a milieu of both pain and catharsis, often with intense and intricate images serving as foundational markers intellectually jaw-dropping and capable of carrying awe within the otherwise morose silences. The breath and its absence is amazingly intricate in all of the poems. Form occupies attention throughout the book, with the anticipated short length of the collection (39 poems) expanding in size like an accordion through dense poems that can be read in multiple ways. The effect of subtle and effective innovations in structure leave us with questions and the urge to dive deeper.

Emezi’s stanzas often make use of splicing by way of the forward slash (“/”), affording the reader with an outstanding degree of complexity that makes a single read of the poem barely an introduction to its fullness. I was particularly affected structurally by the poem “Self-Portrait as an Abuser,” which takes the form in question and duplicates it into two columns. The poem is like two voices speaking to one another, or two cameras positioned away from one another, documenting multiple spaces on conjunction. The power of such an approach is that additional interpretations and readings are both imperative and guaranteed.

A favorite sequence in the aforementioned poem pairs the following, difficult to display here and worth viewing in its original visualization within the book:

she trusted me / i am fresh water /
dark instinct / against abandoning /
i choose when it’s over / i have to choose
she won’t release you / while you’re useful
you’re so useful / my love, i remember /
what it was like / how easy it is

(page 41)

Emezi’s works are halting. Their works are often electrifyingly photographic and deal with the exquisite nature of combining multiple perspectives, images and internal reflections, often starting in one position and actively moving through a scene or snapshot of an experience to a new position. The active movement of the image in this way vibrates with energy and only adds to the curious captivation of the line. Poems like “What if My Father Called Jesus a Bastard” exemplify this method:

he looks at me with those eyes / they scared my mother / almost as much as the
dead bird beating / its wings under his hand

(page 38)

As the title of this poem suggests, the book as a whole connects the poet’s life experiences to biblical themes, stories, and characters. While not overtly critical of Christianity, biblical motifs and their implications are deconstructed through a complex lens bringing together both the poet’s experiences and feelings. Often these come through the speaker’s voice in the context of religious structures and literary relationships. “Christening” opens with priests who “spat” the speaker’s name back and closes with a self-affirming embodiment: “but my throat is a river / full of the holiest water” (page 5). Juxtapositions like this are both helpful and quizzical. In other poems, Emezi’s poetry displaces the speaker’s point of view with a more abstract voice. For example, in “Healing,” Christ is examined through exaggerated and enveloping language:

the son of god says / imagine your chest as a soapy bubble / your collarbone as
a landscape / a horizon stretching [. . .]

(page 26)

The movement between the characterization of the speaker(s) within the book is yet another quality of the complexities the poet brings to the table. Each poem is stunning, and often feels uproarious immediately upon its completion, demanding another read, another look, a step or two back or to the side, to second guess, question, and feel. Occasionally this process carries additional mesmerizing effects when their writing is even more astounding. In “Scraps,” a poem that references Toni Morrison and Freddie Gray in nearly the same breath, the speaker’s lines close with a figurative ellipses indicative of our irresolute world:

there is a story somewhere here,
lost in blood and ash. i don’t have
enough air to dig it out.

(page 23)

The book’s title directly implies the traumatic difficulties faced by those under systemic oppression both past and present. Emezi writes through multiple lineages and of multiple identities, which further solidifies this book as a must-read for anyone who cares about the crossroads of poetics and social justice. The poetry blends difficult subjects into the fold, often flipping the pace of the book through an embedded presence of racism, gender oppression, and sexual violence. The appearance of “everything” is not formulaic; it often reflects reality in that it is both sporadic and universal in appearance and tone, and the poetry reflects the persistence of violence and horror in a matter-of-fact way, again reflective of the systemic reality so many face.

And the book foils horror with hope. “Salvation” opens with some of my favorite lines from the book:

i believe in new skins, even nightmares
can be maps, the space between existence
and function, between performance and effect

(page 42)

“Salvation” in my mind is not a poem of absolution as much as it is possibility, the possibility of individuality and the possibility of process. It is one of critical existence, just as all the poems speak to the possibility for growth; illumination as a result of difficulty and complexity. Like an awakening, the newness that arrives with the beginning and end, and the rereading, of each poem affords not only new experiences but new possibilities. It is an outlook of the perpetual and exponential, with roots of autonomy and self-control.

Content Warning: Everything arrives to the world as books are continued to be banned, Black folks are continued to be murdered, and the world continues to deny Trans people their presence and livelihood. It is a book that confronts these brutal circumstances while also offering the reader a glimpse into Emezi’s unique experiences (and storytelling) by way of diverse, rapidly-shifting points of view in accelerated sequences of events. It is a book you must read but it is a book you should read, and it is a book we can all benefit from reading more than once.

You can find the book here: https://www.coppercanyonpress.org/books/content-warning-everything-by-akwaeke-emezi/

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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Punks: New & Selected Poems by John Keene

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By Greg Bem

I enclose a radical simplicity, which could be taken or mistaken as art.

(from “Gift” in “Ten Things I Do Every Day,” on page 67)

Across seven distinct sections and over two hundred pages in length, John Keene’s Punks is a book of poetry worth the investment of time and focus. A collection to fall in love with, it chronicles a poet’s wanderings across a textured milieu of urban and pastoral landscapes of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and it chronicles the poet’s maturity across decades. It reflects a commitment to a poetry of the queer and Black soul. It is a testimony to a soulfulness that it is exquisitely intimate. Keene’s is a poetry derivative of and channeled through human connection and proximity, the range of which takes many hours of reading Punks to see in range.

Relationships are powerfully described from poem to poem, reflected in a poetry that is, at times, outwardly sensual, and, at others, deeply hermetic. The poetry thus is a terrain, a landscape through which hold snapshots and recounting of Keene alongside a large cast of people who have filled his life. The living documentation is marvelous as a collection. At times the individuals are vague and fuzzy in their presence, almost as ghosts or blurs in the totality of human experience. Keene’s expressions feels like result of a liminal proclamation or curiosity in the annals of memory:

until dawn fills
our eyes with sighs
allow me these
tattoos your funk

(from “Western Avenue” in “Playland,” page 17)

At other times, Keene’s focus is distinct and quite specific, as with another early poem in the book, “A Sonnet to Tyson Beckford,” where Keene exquisitely offers,

[…] though every lyric is a voucher
of our failure there are times
when only a poem
like daydreams or a lover’s arms
can satisfy a certain quality of hunger

(from “A Sonnet to Tyson Beckford” in “Playland,” page 26)

Often intimacies like these feel natural, humble, and fixed in time as if there was no other way they could be. This confidence, across time and poem, feels inspired by other voices that preceded Keene. Amidst the book’s third section, “Ten Things I Do Every Day,” Keene channels Whitman via the title of the poem, “The Soul is Always Beautiful,” (page 89). Open and absorbed with the audacity of human experience, Keene certainly feels Whitmanesque. His spotlight travels across many corners of Americana, and its many communities, feels at once universal and undeniably personable. And often there is a blur between the lines, as we read of Keene’s muse and subjects: “you speak in / a song – so low I / have heard – in dreams / between us – […]” (from “Scatter” in “Trees” on page 109).

Much like the line that opened this review, Keene’s work is often easily accessed through deconstruction and dissection, his lines often a collection of aphoristic glances and moments and conclusions. In the poem “Underground,” Keene writes: “On the other side of this weeping / is a world built of blood” (on page 140 in “Dark to Themselves”), a line that cuts and crops. In the prose poem “Postcard: Decadence,” the poet mysteriously asks, “Does the newness of you make the darkness gleam more greedily?” (in “Ten Things I Do Every Day” on page 76). Sometimes the statements and questions are mysterious, and sometimes that is all the reader needs to feel how their presence stems from the poet’s consciousness.

Musings like these are many across Punks, a collection ultimately so large it implies the power and accessibility of Keene’s fragments above all. Each poem, when sliced, connects further to Keene’s own dreamlike trance, when otherwise we see walls of text and poems that read like epics. When taken on their own, each poem tells a story and posits a reality; but en masse there is phantasmagoria and a distinct leaning toward the surreal, toward bending across and between lines.

Punks poems originate from multiple decades, and when together in a single collection it’s fascinating to watch Keene grow from poem to poem, milestones or celebrations in tandem. The historical effect is a remarkable representation and one not always found in selected works. The last two sections of Punks, “Dark to Themselves” and “Words,” spin the end of the collection in a new, exciting direction. Keene’s poems take forms and distinctly move away from lyric and storytelling found in the book’s earlier sections. Experimentation and playfulness are central, and there are often elements of performance that enter the work.

In “Blackness,” Keene writes a collective consideration of Black folks and ends nearly every line with “black people,” who are literally and symbolically present in each line from start to finish. Within this poem of presence and consistency, there is the mantra: “When I begin a poem I often do so/ because I love black people” he writes (in “Dark to Themselves” on page 175). Keene’s poem “Words” also pulls together a list, opening with “When you said people did you mean punish? / When you said friend did you mean fraud?” (page 181) and continues powerfully across multiple pages.

Keene’s conceptual leanings are substantially rooted in music as well. An early lyric poem, “Apostate” in “Dark to Themselves,” describes the experience of being within performance, of witnessing it and its energy:

Tonight: amped to decibels to blow
the eardrums clear of hearing,
bassists and keyboardists
whose names you never learned
or cannot remember […]

The poem moves through the emotions and tribulations of being audience, arriving to an elegant and blunt description of power, energy, and impact of musical performance for both Keene and the performer:

Passion is a song you sing
on your own terms: the set opens,
and you hold your breath
to map the evening’s destiny: sound.
Death, get ready.

(on pages 162 and 163)

The lyrical examples found earlier in Punks lead to experimental poems like “Dear Trane (Lecture on Something)” (page 171) and “Grind” (page 197), which evoke musical scores by projecting fragments like matrixes across the page. Across multiple columns and stanzas, the improvisational and conversational are reinforced through visual patterns and an open flow. Like Coltrane’s whimsically spiritual foray across space and time, so too do we have examinations from Keene, though the literary presence leaves a performance of the work by Keene desired.

Punks ranges from start to finish with stories and introspection, but it takes the book’s entirety (from start to finish) to truly begin an understanding of Keene’s poetics. Tyehimba Jess writes of Punks, “Keene’s masterfully inventive inquiry of self and history is queered, Blackened, and joyously thick with multitudes of voice and valence.”

The book’s final poem, a final cry of love, passion, and intimacy also, contains a resounding reflection on this poetry, as it speaks to identity, as it speaks to emergence, as it brings forward a lifetime of multitudes: “Love your and others’ chatter and its proof of the expansiveness / of nothingness” (in “Beatitude” in “Words” on page 202). A line as starkly positioned as this offers strong advice: dive back into the intimacies of Punks for another look, another story, another moment with the poet.

You will stay and write until

your heart runs out. You will take this

dark knowledge and spread it.

(from “Alain Locke in Stoughton Hall” in “Dark to Themselves” on page 155)

You can find the book here: https://the-song-cave.com/products/punks-by-john-keene

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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The World’s Lightest Motorcycle by Yi Won, Translated from Korean by E. J. Koh and Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello

World's Lightest Motorcycle

By Greg Bem

Originally debuted in 1992 and then published in 1996 and 2007 in Korean, Yi Won’s The World’s Lightest Motorcycle is now available in English thanks to the efforts of E. J. Koh and Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, under initial guidance by Korean American poet Don Mee Choi. The book is a phenomenal accomplishment of keeping the Yi Won, a “computer poet,” current in the third decade of the new century.

The book presents Yi Won’s work in both the original Korean and the English translation, offering readers the opportunity to explore the form and format of the work between time and space. The poet’s works combine verse and prose in the same sequence, each piece rarely taking up more than a single page. There are two sections to the book: “When They Ruled the Earth” and “The World’s Lightest Motorcycle,” both which use a techno-surrealist base to explore identity, transformation, and, most prominently, the movement of the human figure in various situations and circumstances. These themes collect and coalesce to merge the literary and the digital into similar consequence.

Yi Won follows in the footsteps of the great feminists of Korean poetry, namely Kim Hyesoon, whose work has seen widespread attention and examination across translations across the last few decades. It is fantastic to see Yi Won’s work emerge alongside that of Kim Hyesoon, particularly as someone who has been both influenced by Kim Hyesoon and as someone who is gratifyingly similar in femininity and horror. As I have written about previously, Hyesoon established a mesmerizing and chaotic poetics capable of taking nearly all preconceived notions of the human body and deconstructing them in the context of the fluidity of life. We see this approach to poetry abruptly in Yi Won’s “A Night at the Gas Station”:

The man rips off the woman’s left torso, lifts the host and pumps gas. With his other hand, he strokes her neck and hair. (page 53)

Appendages emerging out of bodies, natural and human-made objects standing in place of humanity, and the mutation of perception alongside bizarre identities are all distinctly visible in Yi Won’s work, as influenced by Kim Hyesoon and others. And yet with The World’s Lightest Motorcycle, what we have is less blunt, more subtle, and more representative of presence than established or fixed image. As I read Yi Won for the first time, I was blown away the surrealism was so connected to a world of vast new connections, networks, and conceptualizations by way of technology. As early in the book as the first poem, “PC,” Yi Won comments on the presence of our dependence upon (and living through) computer hardware—so much so that it even dictates our human existence:

I lost my feet and my breath at the corner of the road I couldn’t reach to the end. I press the ‘me’ from that moment to print out those years. Some parts are faded or erased.

(page 3)

Yi Won’s comments on the blending and blurring of bodily form both human and computer is a delightful (if shocking) early peek into a cyborgish future of accessories and mobile devices, but there are darker, more foreboding subtexts that can be found within the wit as well. In “Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick,” a poem discussed thoroughly in the book’s translator’s notes, Yi Won’s everyday world is staggered and interrupted; the brief prose poem describes the life of a female protagonist, a life filled with interruption and disruption. Represented powerfully by the translators with English grammar, we have a world that is undergoing transformation and it’s encountered by the reader through visual and verbal tension:

she, stays still, stares at the shadow, tick, tick, the shadow disappears, she, continues to stare at the door, pours water in a cup, the world sloshes, there’s an empty road inside the sloshing sound

(page 11)

As with other surrealist Korean poetry, everyday objects are incredible symbols reflective of adversity and crisis. Yi Won’s work is no exception, namely as we watch movement describes by the speaker of these poems. Movement is relative to the speaker’s interactions, as well as perceptions. By far the greatest conduit of perception in this volume is “the mirror,” a dusty symbol that amazingly avoids cliché as it’s revisited in the digital age. In “A Bright Room,” Yi Won’s mirror is repetitive, ever present, fixed as an object at once hyper and abstract. I could not help but be reminded of the television show “Black Mirror” as I read the lines “In the mirror there’s a place that can’t get any darker / In this place the blinking stars keep rolling around” (page 47).

Even later, the mirror returns in the book’s second section, where it serves as both an object representing infinity and expansion as well as an object representing hollowness and stasis. “The mirror is endless,” Yi Won writes at the beginning in “My Face Runs.” Later she closes the poem: “My face is frozen in the mirror because it’s running too fast” (page 95). With similarities to Icarus, the speaker is both charged by and paralyzed from the potential movement seen in this complex object. How telling of the world that surrounds us!

The translators share that Yi Won was influenced by a plethora of visual artists, including painters Edward Hopper and Francis Bacon, and photographer Robert Frank. Links to vast worlds constructed by and explored with elements of the visual are heavily present in this book across its pages, and in combination with the themes of abstraction and identity mentioned above they present a scenery that is at once connected in its nature and disconnected in the poet’s experience. Perhaps the attempt to explore and understand can be traced to the incredible movement of the characters of the poems (when they aren’t busy staring at themselves in the mirror). Exquisitely the poem “Nike—Edge” shows us this movement directly:

Wow-wow-wow! In the heavy downpour, children run to the square. This world is inside of an egg. Torrential rainfall. It pours downward at such an alarming rate that it becomes a wall of rain, yet in a matter of seconds is dismantled. The concrete floor is impervious to the collapsing world.

(page 79)

If the world is collapsing, be it by way of history and technology, Yi Won offers a resounding response. It is within the practices of measured examination that this volume offers stability and foundation throughout the horror. Process and reality is, as translators Koh and Cancio-Bello have demonstrated, rough and choppy, but within the chaos is an elegance, persistence, and awe.

You can find the book here: https://www.zephyrpress.org/product-page/the-world-s-lightest-motorcycle

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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Contra natura by Rodolfo Hinostroza Translated by Anthony Seidman

diseno de tapa echavarren paperback

By Greg Bem

And by then Reality was / an impetuous phantasmagoria

(from “King’s Gambit,” page 15)

At long last, the Peruvian poet Rodolfo Hinostroza’s majestic Contra natura is available to the English-speaking audience. This work is a crucial component of late 20th-century poetry attuned to the modernist collecting, the surrealist melting, and the complex humor that follows the community footsteps of poets throughout South America. Contra natura is not a long sequence of poetry, at roughly 60 pages, but it is packed with stunning lines, overlapping themes and symbols, and the voice of Hinostroza himself, a witty and multifaceted master of poetic ceremonies who bridges a range of tones and examinations within the heart of the book’s sequence.

Goodbye fucked dreams, goodbye your pulse,
brilliant carver

(from “King’s Gambit,” page 17)

The text was originally published in 1970, having been acknowledged and awarded by Octavio Paz via the Maldoror Prize in Barcelona. The storied history of the poet and his work is worth examining in the book’s extensive introduction, graciously provided by the book’s translator, US-based Anthony Seidman. One might find elements of Paz’s distillation in the text, just as one might find the devouring essence of Lautreamont himself, but more prominently we have a book of wholly original and undeniably impenetrable poetry that both fits and stands unencumbered without comparison.

In many moments, this incomparable core matches the poet’s consciousness and intentions, flighty and sturdy and beckoning: “the world for which I fancied myself mediator / never existed,” he writes in “Imitation of Propertius,” page 31. It is awesome indeed to see the poet call forth the style and concerns of Sextus Propertius in this example, though one needn’t dive deeply into the history of Latin poetry to understand the calm binding to history within the Peruvian’s lines. The layers between word and reference remind me of exploring Olson or Pound at length, wondering and wandering, exploring how deep each reference might go.

The uniqueness and brevity of this book fits well within a relatively straightforward translation; straightforward in the sense that the poetry makes sense, is digestible, and tends to match the Spanish succinctly in a masterful though playful way. Seidman has done a marvelous job at capturing Hinostroza’s energy and making it feel freshly contemporary, arriving today, and yet it maintains a touch of the late modernist period as well, moving around the essence of culture and community through which the book was originally written.

A wave of migratory birds flew over your forehead
you were the girl of the orange trees

(from “Problems of Brabantio,” page 55)

Visually stunning, the poems often read like a descent taken down a magnificent staircase toward some destination of rest. (The poet himself remarks, in another section of “Imitation of Propertius,” “there is only one singer for the ascent / and a thousand for the descent” (page 43). So true in the application of style and form from poem to poem.

Often stanzas last dozens of lines, only cut off by way of subsections within each poem, or new poems entirely. I was taken by lines like: “and that summer we stretched out on the beaches of Spain / incandescence of eyes,” which open and shut an image in a single breath (from “Celebration of Lysistrata,” page 47). Later in the book, where the poet begins to bring in visual symbols and explore limits of the written word, we see Hinostroza’s internal comments fulfill and instill a density to the image: “it was not the vibration of the protoplasm / not a shapeless thing not a swamp / confused libraries yellowing beneath the sun” (from “Hommage à Vasaraely,” page 65). The splicing cluster comes as quickly as it goes, powerfully incising like a haiku, relieving, and confounding, all the same.

Images often make up natural divisions in theme and structure, though they are not kept to a line, a couplet, or other traditional boundaries. The poems read with a sense of ecstasy or exasperation, reflecting the energy of Hinostroza and his peers. The attractiveness seems to logically connect with the poet’s fame in younger and current generations of poets in Peru.

Still, the book is no cakewalk and is as difficult as it is accessible. For each image that feels astounding, there results a sequence of questions over the image’s placement and inclusion, a puzzlement muddying the overall trajectory of each poem. This messiness, a beautiful, organized chaos, is what Charles Bernstein describes in the book’s opening review quotes as a “a gift to English.” Even Paz once remarked to Hinostroza that the book would change Hinostroza’s life. The whole book is a treasure, but often the value, I think, is within its mysteries, its complexities, its nuances, similar to the work of Uruguayan poet Marosa di Giorgio.

A desert, no doubt, something sun-scorched. The sun. Remember it?
There’s a sun outside!

(from “Dialogue Between a Prisoner and Deaf Man,” page 25)

It is impossible to succinctly describe the folds that go into the content, both of scope and meaning, in Contra natura, so instead I invite you, reader, to find this book and explore on your own. Like Blaser, like Spicer, like Waldman, like Baraka, there will explode within the confines of the page lines pluming and spinning and expanding. It may or may not feel as of or against the natural, but it will catch your focus all the same. It is an optimistic book, one that captures attention and imposes drive, imposes will. Moments of chaos are often closed with a vibrance or slow fade into harmony (if not a forlorn form of it), as we see in the book’s title poem: “the peace and beauty of this world have spread over me / our bodies / successive timeless hommages to the daybreak of life” (page 111). It is in these moments, inclusive of all the emotion bound to history and compilation, that we can read a permanence in Hinostroza’s work.

You can find the book here: https://cardboardhousepress.org/Contra-Natura-Rodolfo-Hinostroza

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.

Pandemic of Violence Anthology

Topsy Turvy

Featuring poets Howie Good, Rustin Larson, Susana H. Case, Dee Allen, Alex Carrigan, Naila Francis, MaryAnn L. Miller, Megha Sood, Steven Croft, TS Hawkins, Lauren Camp, Chad Parenteau, Henry Crawford, Thaddeus Rutkowski, Michael T. Young, M.J. Arcangelini, J.C. Todd, Antoni Ooto, Byron Beynon, Jane ‘SpokenWord’ Grenier, Linda Nemec Foster, Sean Howard, Brian Donnell James and Greg Bem

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/12/27/pandemic-of-violence-anthology/ 

A Feeling Called Heaven by Joey Yearous-Algozin

a feeling

By Greg Bem 

I wanted to show you something

that would give you pleasure

before the end of the world

(page 3)

Climate change. Ecological disaster on a global scale. The coming and going of empire, civilization, the human imprint. The collapse. The Anthropocene. It is all very present and very intangible and, no matter how we spin it, the end of the world (as we know it and have known it) is nigh. And so, what are we going to do about it? There are many who believe that the only two responses are complacency and response, where response is solution oriented. But there is a third, humble option: acceptance.

The embracing of finality is a core concept in Joey Yearous-Algozin’s A Feeling Called Heaven, a book surging with as much pause as activity. Within this remarkable collection, Yearous-Algozin takes the poet’s approach to disaster and hopelessness by finding a contemplative, curious, and stable position of observation. Not without difficulty, the poet’s form is as much didactic as it is conceptual: the poet is one of instruction and of a simpler positing within the calm reality that the horrific exists and it probably really is too large for us to manage.

I want you to focus your mind

on denouncing the hope

embedded in the idea

of our momentum as a species

the belief that we will somehow continue

even after we’ve gone

(page 40)

The book is composed of two poems: a first that lasts most of the book, and a second that serves as a coda to close out what is, overall, a sequence of meditations, mantras, prayers, and cathartic rest. The poems total just over 60 pages in length, and I felt them gently urging me on from the moment I opened the book. I felt the poet’s breath, the angles through which the dismal was approached, and reconciled, and I read on and on until the last line. There are natural pauses throughout the book’s first poem, “for the second to last time,” but they feel more like the space between the pulse than any full rest. It is an active book, after all, one that accounts for stillness but radically approaches stillness with full energy and availability. Even the title indicates that the fullness of acknowledgment and existent may sit within a single second, which for readers of poetry may be further elaborated as a single poem, a single book, a single read.

A Feeling Called Heaven is calm, and much of the calmness, despite the terror that surrounds us, can be connected to the simple and uncomplicated language Yearous-Algozin has filled within the pages. I attribute the plainness of the poet’s speech as a method of contrast to the failings of the human world’s complexities: what we, as a society, have created across time and space have led us to this point, this point that will soon be gone. Is it the poet’s job to continue the damned lineage, or offer relief and radical shift? The speaker here follows the latter path, though not without calling forth several examples of our burning world:

and the sun glints off pools of irradiated water

outside a freeway on-ramp

or hospital parking lot

in which a few discarded syringes

and fragments of plastic tubing

bob in the light breeze

(pages 12-13)

Like other post-apocalyptic descriptions as we’ve come to know them in recent decades, the imagery within A Feeling Called Heaven is as bleak and valueless as it is slightly exaggerated as relic and memento. It feels human while lacking the humanity, feels moving while utterly still in the confines of the poem. The poet, on the other hand, is not completely still. The speaker murmurs their way through the lines that scatter like dust across anonymous landscapes and situations that are grayed, sitting beyond the realm of truth and beauty. These moments that float through the page are as much liminal as they are in the center: the blind spot that is within each of us as we exist in an ever-fading moment.

Yearous-Algozin calls out this ever-fading moment as beyond-verbal. It may be hard to imagine a situation, a system, a reality that is outside of the confines of language, but that is yet one more radically-shifted premises of this book, and it is not just a premise but a truth that is absolute:

a non-verbal certainty

that a time will come

when the residue of the human

will have disappeared

almost entirely

(page 16)

When Yearous-Algozin writes “almost entirely,” it is the crucial piece of this recipe: we are not quite gone yet, and this is a moment we can refer to as the “feeling” of “heaven.” The last stretch before the end is one that is reconciliation, catharsis, and embrace. It is fullness. Finality. Totality. It is utter loss and the resounding silence we can feel at the end of our collective existence and knowing that it has come from us and will exist after us.

In Social Text Journal, Barrett White writes of Yearous-Algozin’s book, “Through its radical acceptance, A Feeling Called Heaven teaches an important lesson about pausing, being present, and deeply listening, both inside and outside ourselves.” While in agreement, I also believe that the book offers an additional lesson on our capacity as creators. Yearous-Algozin has written a book that offers a nullification of the creative process, an anti-inspiration to take the pause and escape the creative act; unlike any other book I have read, A Feeling Called Heaven positions itself as a rational counterpoint to tangible production and artistry. In the book’s second and final poem, “a closing meditation,” the poet writes:

my speaking to you now

produces an image like the reflection of the sun

or more accurately

a space for your thoughts to inhabit

(page 55)

Indeed, this book causes process to cease, time to fold, and the mind to warp beyond thought. For that feeling alone, I can’t recommend it more highly during this Winter, this season, this precipice we have found ourselves upon.

You can find the book here: https://nightboat.org/book/a-feeling-called-heaven/

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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