greg bem

All the Rage by Rosamond S. King

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By Greg Bem

All the Rage is an outstanding book, capturing the moment of the pandemic, the fight for Black lives, and the movement to understand emotion and life within the borders of our everyday life. It is a book divided into seven sections, and each section could feel like its own book, and the entirety wrapped together feels ecstatic and boundless. Rosamond S. King is not only a storyteller but a mediator of truths, a gateway into the archetypes being born today. This is a book that, like the recent work by Claudia Rankine and Divya Victor, captures a contemporary feminist approach to discontent within America, and also follows in the radical, performative Black poetics of Douglas Kearney, Terrance Hayes, and Tyehimba Jess.

This book is for
you, whether you quarantine
stuffing your face
or (and) reorganizing drawers
streaming
staring

(from “This book / is for you,” page 1)

The book opens matter-of-factly, inviting the reader into a world of quarantine and the mundane. It is from this stable beginning that King leaps off the edge into the known and unknown simultaneously. This leap, this dive through text and literary spirit, is done with subtle critiques to and amendments of style and standard formatting. Take “America the beautiful,” an early poem in the book’s opening section. “Beautiful” is left uncapitalized. The poem’s punctuation is highlighted, emphasized as taking on importance akin to the words themselves. The poem ultimately moves from a focus on lines of beauty to lines of bondage:

. True
, some never make it out, but while they’re here, we
distract them with baubled accessories and bubbled beverages

(from “America the beautiful,” page 6)

King is concerned with flow, and the absence of flow. Or its interruption. The following poem, “Etymology of a Scream,” calls forth Yoko Ono’s tweet during the 2016 election. But this is not a poem about 2016 so much as it is a poem about now, about always. Amidst the subtle narrative, King writes: “. Mourn those who came / before and the absence among those who / remain.” (page 8).

As with any astute, mature and conscious poetry, King is able to balance between trauma and reconciliation, between wound and insight. It may take patience, but the reader can follow this volume and find the ends of the spectrum readily available from page to page. In “21st Century Goddamn,” King morosely writes: “Everybody knows / not every body / gets out of this alive” (page 15), alluding to the murders of Black lives from slavery to Baltimore to Staten Island to Cleveland (and so on, and so on). Pages later, the meditative sway of the pendulum: “Breathe / . As in what if / the shadow is gold / en? Breathe.” (from “Avante-Garde Is a Term of War,” page 24). The subtle art of the poet is one that bears multiple waves of resonance and multiple contexts of control over image, feeling, and time. King captivates without sacrificing a serious investigation into public and personal relations with violence over social brutality (a la white supremacy) and a personal, focused process of grief.

All the Rage is not a book that “ends” or finds resolution within its covers. The book, as rage, captures rage in its many forms. As such, there is a very intense and beautiful disintegration that occurs as the book evolves from beginning to end. A prominent interplay and exchange with words and their cores emerges, revealing not flaw but remarkably vulnerable risk-taking in language:

desire lead yu by the nose hairs, promising
love and panic just there
just beyond   desire will drown yu
an as liquid becomes pummeling wave

(from “Sunshine Sigh, page 96)

An emphasis on deconstruction within voice and tone recalls Toni Morrison and other fantastic and fantastically raw writers whose words will not be forgotten. King’s work here is unforgettable. It lingers, awash with the permanence only humanity can provide, with witness, with observation, with the capturing of our flight and our ongoing struggle to know flaws and pain, and growth.

You can find the book here: https://nightboat.org/book/all-the-rage/

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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Summer Reading Recommendations 2021

Top ten book reviews based on readership of North of Oxford

scott

A Little Excitement by Nancy Scott

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/04/01/a-little-excitement-by-nancy-scott/

erotic

Erotic by Alexis Rhone-Fancher

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/03/01/erotic-by-alexis-rhone-fancher/

danish

Danish Northwest/Hygge Poems from the Outskirts by Peter Graarup Westergaard

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/04/01/danish-northwest-hygge-poems-from-the-outskirts-by-peter-graarup-westergaard/

red rover

Red Rover Red Rover by Bob Hicok

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/01/01/red-rover-red-rover-by-bob-hicok/

RAZOR WIRE

Razor Wire Wilderness by Stephanie Dickinson

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/05/01/razor-wire-wilderness-by-stephanie-dickinson/

American Quasar CoverA Camera Obscura Cover

American Quasar by David Campos / A Camera Obscura by Carl Marcum

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/06/01/american-quasar-with-poems-by-david-campos-and-art-by-maceo-montoya-a-camera-obscura-by-carl-marcum/

world

The Likely World by Melanie Conroy-Goldman

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/02/01/the-likely-world-by-melanie-conroy-goldman/

HunleyCov

Adjusting to the Lights – Poems by Tom C. Hunley

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/03/01/adjusting-to-the-lights-poems-by-tom-c-hunley/

savant

The Philosopher Savant Crosses The River by Rustin Larson

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/03/01/the-philosopher-savant-crosses-the-river-by-rustin-larson/

come

Come-Hither Honeycomb by Erin Belieu

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/02/01/come-hither-honeycomb-by-erin-belieu/

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Carnation and Tenebrae Candle by Marosa di Giorgio, Translated by Jeannine Marie

CARNATION-web

By Greg Bem

There exists a most beautiful language whose words look like little houses made out of mushrooms. The loveliest runic letters pale beside it.

(page 19)

The Uruguayan surrealist Marosa di Giorgio has seen much poetry arrive in contemporary English over the last several years and a strong selection thanks to the work of translator Jeannine Marie Pitas. In 2010, Ugly Duckling Presse released Pitas’s translation of Giorgio’s History of Violets, and in 2017 I Remember Nightfall. Though we knew not then during their publication, these pivotal translations of some of South America’s most stunning, uprooting poetry served as portals inviting us to receive the newest release: Carnation and Tenebrae Candle. This long, episodic work reflects and refracts the fantastical, exploring the transcendent and otherworldly landscape of di Giorgio’s childhood in Salto, Uruguay. And yet as specific as this bizarre world often feels, it pulls and pulls the reader toward its rhythmic center, keeping stability in question and understanding a challenging process.

Now, I was a branch, a broom plant; I saw that I was nearly a rose. The wind rocked me gently. But at the same time I was firmly attached to the ground.

That was the way I died as a child in that mysterious part of the garden.

(page 39)

The book is long and staggering. At times it feels like Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. At other times like Alice in Wonderland. And at times like Grimm’s. At other times, the book feels balanced and mature in its reflections and wording, strangely aligned with some of the other recent surrealist and expressionist translations: Hirato Renkichi’s Spiral Staircase comes to mind, as does Salgado Maranhão’s Consecration of the Wolves. And it feels entrancing! I found myself throughout the book consistently mesmerized as though it was my first exposure to Lautréamont. Pitas points out in her afterword that, in addition to Lautréamont, di Giorgio was well-read and carried influences from Blake, the Brontë sisters, Poe, and Dickinson. I see their voices and faces in this book acutely.

In the end, I managed to turn around; on tiptoe, walking backwards, I arrived home. The wind was shining in the enormous windows; a silence floated over all the rooms. There were narcissi in all the vases. The fairy slipped away gently, round and gold like an egg.

(page 97)

But despite the similarities to other writers, Carnation and Tenebrae is a body of work unto its own, a poetry that contains substantial innocence, intimacy, and the potential for anything to happen—in a way that surprises and shocks even in 2021. That Pitas has concerted efforts at a time in our collective history where digital world-building is at its most prolific, where Minecraft is an alternate reality for most young people (and old people alike!), where virtual reality is finally accessible and desirable, where more people than ever are included in the conversations of creativity and construction, holds striking coincidence.

Carnation and Tenebrae Candle was originally published in 1979, but feels wildly new and also reminiscent of expressionist writers from 100 years back. The format, a numerical sequence of 124 sections (or entries) flows between prose and poetry in a way that feels natural, and reminds me of how one might approach jotting and scratching across a notebook as new ideas are born.

The sections are short (most are less than a page), allowing the book to be read in a flow that suits the reader’s needs and capacity. In this sense it feels like Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch. Ease is important in the context of the book’s density: di Giorgio’s genre might as well be called fantasy surrealism, or supernatural surrealism. The acclimation to these uncanny and beautiful snapshots or impressions takes time for the reader and often exhausts. There is a flirting with capacity and a tension with the stability of truth at play in almost all these poems.

Until you reach the immemorial garden of gladioli, the garden where I always knelt down, weeping and sobbing . . . But you remain omnipotent, ruling over those infinite flowers.

You took control of everything
even my memories of the time when I didn’t know you.

(page 55)

Within the long, rolling form of the book is a loose narrative that includes familiar, familial figures who come and go through domestic and filial circumstance, often (as seen in the quotes above) including elements of the pastoral or of gardens and natural objects. There is a theme of marriage as well, which is carried across many poems and raises questions, even if indirectly. The book’s origins are resounding of small town (or village) life—the perfect staging for the exploratory and imaginative inwardness of the narrator. I am reminded of Narnia, of the Upside Down, and of spaces of otherness that carry us away time and time again, generation to generation. And yet the fantastical breaks down those dichotomous framings and creates a more nuanced blend of realities. It is a mutant-like transformation of time and space; it is ideally surrealist as it moves back and forth between realities through some curious sensory connector left just beyond the reader’s awareness. It is a writing that finds a measured space between both worlds as one world, one unifying and captivating experience.

You can find the book here: https://cardboardhousepress.org/Carnation-and-Tenebrae-Candle-by-Marosa-di-Giorgio

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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American Quasar with poems by David Campos and art by Maceo Montoya + A Camera Obscura by Carl Marcum

A Camera Obscura CoverAmerican Quasar Cover

Two New Titles from Red Hen Press

By Greg Bem

As we continue to live our days through the latest chapter in our ever-unfolding, shared pandemic, and emerge from the darker months toward the light of the summer, two new titles from Red Hen Press arrive, and they are fantastic. These are not necessarily optimistic works of poetry, though they positively invite us to return inward and see the universe reflected within the self. I cannot recommend them enough.

The words of these poets who stare across the facets of existence, from the limitless sky to the great expanses of desert are pushing, pushing forward to question, reflect, and question further. These two distinct collections of verse, honoring many paths of the literary canon, are bountifully lyrical and entrancing. They arrive in our times of collective need, and shine upon the worlds that have continued to exist, worlds complex and beyond our human conflicts, burdens, and shadowy loss.

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“[. . .] plunging further into a continuum you recognize as your own.”

(from “[* * * *] No 4 [ Fata Morgana ]” in Carl Marcum’s A Camera Obscura¸ page 70)

A Camera Obscura by Carl Marcum is a book that feels full, feels like it is inspired by life itself (minutely and grandly) and the pact of pondering through a poet’s daily travels. This collection is filled with lines that stop us dead in our tracks, seek out the closest distance—the inevitable horizon—and beg to the nothing and the everything around us, “Why?”

It is an existential book, but it also takes the reader far from the gentleness of existentialism and philosophy. A sense of imperative action fills in the gaps between each stanza and leaves the stark poetry shivering in the zone of illumination, exposed like epiphany, insight, resolution. Poems often start with small keys that twist and unlock fuller worlds through textual portals. Insight is provided into recesses of our daily existence. One example is “Word Assimilation” (page 48):

If you’re looking for truth here, it’s only in passing.
If you’re looking for her, she’s in a room dreaming.
If you’re looking for them, imagine no English.
If you’re looking for work, see me at the door.

Marcum explores the border between the root of existence and the fringe, the tangential, the subtext. What is front-and-center and what is leftover, and why, becomes a series of questions that leads us to catharsis through their answers. All of this, provided in the narrative of the poems, opens further and further, a poetic field that is meta and direct at once.

Marcum’s work moves through the multilingual shadows, operating somewhere between Spanish and English, finding harmony (and harmony’s antithesis) within the translation of language and everything that occurs after. The poems in A Camera Obscura feel almost spontaneous. And yet they are process-oriented, just as the world is sculpted by infinite processes, infinite moments of translation, just as the hushed blend of cultures do their dance and the poet finds the self within that hush.

The poet’s voice is strongest in its acts of defiant questioning. Just as many before Marcum stared into the heavens and demanded answers, so too does he look upward and outward through his poetry. The cosmos is, throughout this collection, a grandiose muse, often starting and, subtly, ending each poem. In “Ojo de Dios” (page 60), Marcum begins: “Simple to understand: a star like our own that’s shed,” and closes: “Whose gaze is this? Whose soul growing exponential in darkness?” These are brilliant flashes calmed by darkness, by potential, by a sense of the beyond. The speaker grows through descriptions, through the process of describing, and by the ultimate loop into self-reference.

Time collapses into blank
& buzzing light. Something is bound to happen.

(from “Purgatory Adjacent: A Dreamscape,” page 39)

There is much to discuss with A Camera Obscura and, as its title alludes, much that alluded and cannot be directly seen. Overall, the book is an exceptional collection of elegant, intelligent verse. Each page, each poem unfolding, the lines felt monumental and momentous, creating worlds of text that last with flight and weight, paradoxically. Still, the joy resonates with the poet’s care intact upon each page. It leads to something, if not identifiable, still curiously certain in its sustained presence.

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All the mirrors are broken. and the sun refuses to show you my shadow.

(from “A Town Hall in America in Five Movements: II. The Condition of My Heart,” page 29)

There is also much to discuss with Red Hen’s additional release featured here, American Quasar. The work features visual art by Maceo Montoya and poetry by David Campos. It is a wholly different but familiar work, one that aligns well with Marcum in its concerns and forays. The cover of American Quasar features a figure, back to the viewer, hunched over and staring at some distant horizon, with stars spilling down into the frame. It is a mesmerizing image, and one that aligns with the core of the book and its many visceral images, which are scattered throughout the book, neither dominant nor submissive to the poetic text.

The book is divided into two sections: “American House Fire” and “Quasars.” The former includes distinct themes of transformation and disintegration within the poetry and its American images. The text focuses on ecology—namely drought and rain—and seeks to examine the objective and poet’s landscapes of America. Drought and rain, deprivation and provision, serve as accessible carriers for the larger conversations of the United States, the region, and beyond.

Within American Quasar is a world of dissipation and disappearance just as it is a world of discovery and identification. It is about seeing, about understanding through definition, and about incomplete and undiscernible truths. Campos’s work “This American House” (page 37) is a fantastic example of the poet’s commitments, as it evokes mixed desire and cynicism at once:

When I dream of America, it’s only as big as a house, a home where all our roles are left on the doormat. I don’t just wipe my feet, I scrape off the crumbs of my desires and leave as is my unkempt mouth.

The poem is attached to another image of a figure by Montoya, this one a silhouette, who is bathed in light or fire, and the image contains a single textual caption: “there was no judgment” (which is also in the poem). The tone contains multitudes: stoicism, fatigue, solitude, and reverence, to name a few.

Each poem draws out a core, undeniable question: how many stories within the context of America, of the United States, of the “house fire” proverbial and literal throughout the West, emerge through writings like these? Campos’s writings, alongside Montoya’s art, investigates humanity in an age of barred immigration, barred inclusion, militarized borders, and the ongoing narrative against connection, love, and compassion.

How long has it ben since America looked
into a mirror and saw its true reflection?

(from “Historian of Buried Stars,” page 45)

A later poem, “The Dormant Quasar in Our Center,” is matched with a similar figure to the one described above, but features a stronger, invigorated stance with vertical stripes that move upward and downward, dynamic and static together. The poem closes, “Please. Tell me / the unraveling sky hides no stars. // Tell me it gives all its breath to the empty.” (64).

Campos explores the world and, much like Marcum described above, reaches a newfound symbolism of the external and internal. Campos’s strength is in the visual, the image-oriented approach to crisp, clean verse. He connects to greater phenomena using extended metaphors and loops of images and ideas. It is a poetry capable of blending the microscopic and macroscopic into a single, unifying understanding. The result is the emergence of allegory, mystery, and beautifully complex imagery, as with the work “The Human Condition is a Drought” (page 17):

is this why the rain has stopped? Are there no more names left in our mouths?
The only water left is in our blood; everyone hides a knife in their pocket.

American Quasar holds a marvelous place in the contemporary Latinx poetry canon, one that can be examined again and again. Both it and A Camera Obscura make great readings as the sky opens up and beckons us into the possibility of life throughout the summer.

You can find the books here:

American Quasar with poems by David Campos and art by Maceo – https://redhen.org/book/american-quasar/

A Camera Obscura by Carl Marcum – https://redhen.org/book/a-camera-obscura/

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.

Consecration of the Wolves by Salgado Maranhão, translated by Alexis Levitin

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By Greg Bem

To bleed, one’s fortune written
by the scythe; to bleed
with wings stretching
to the stars.

(from “Consecration of the Wolves, part III, page 17)

Far from a stranger within the world of Brazilian poetry, Consecration of the Wolves marks Salgado Maranhão’s fifth release of poetry in English. This bilingual edition stoically translated by Alexis Levitin, presents the English translation and the original Portuguese side-by-side. It is a beautiful collection of verse. It is visceral, challenging, and surreal.

Like one of the poet’s direct influences, Mayakovski, Maranhão’s explores the relationships to our constructed world just as he explores the relationship of the self to the universe. The results reveal the systems of control and fatalistic exhaustion as much as they do the reckoning of power and the spiraling call toward freedom.

Following the reiteration of a Cherokee legend that situates the act of consecration through which the book gets its name, the collection continues in a deliverance through multiple strands. The book is structured in three sections. The book’s title poem, the 15-part “Consecration of the Wolves,” is sparse and tense. Each poem lasts no longer than a page and builds upon its predecessor through abstraction and the extremes of symbolism. Not satisfactory in a single read, these are not only sparse but dense poems containing multitudes. There is resonance of the 19th and 20th centuries. There was a bridge across time, and I felt the voices of Char, Trakl, and Lorca within the folds of the lines.

Within “Consecration of the Wolves,” Maranhão’s words follow a relatively acute structure, with nearly every line presented fully in sequence until the burst, the surprise, the explosive tabulation of a phrase. These lines jut out and tear apart the poem like a tremor, a spasm, or a seizure. They are revelation visualized in text, as subtle as they may seem, and they are uniquely Maranhão in their conciseness and spirit of resolve:

I speak to beat down
the flame above innocence.

The seeds of those
who seek neither gold

nor victory in blood
will come to us abloom.

(from “Consecration of the Wolves, part VII,” page 25)

What I find humbling is the twists and turns of Maranhão’s rhetoric. The poet’s speaker is one of personalism and personality: we are invited into the exasperated texture. It is a realm of extremes, often feeling psychotic and intimate, often frustrating, and yet mysterious. As ritual or lullaby, these are poems that feel imperative and yet could be read as a whisper between states of consciousness.

The book’s second section, “Larvae of the Fracture,” is filled with additional sequences of symbols and questions. The poems here appear to speak of horror and monstrosity, though often superficially and analogically. Much like Justin Phillip Reed’s indispensable The Malevolent Volume, Maranhão zooms into the common figures of our surroundings, the evil lurking within the periphery, and sharpens focus.

“The Living Dead” provides a perfect example near the beginning of the sequence: “The dead are alive—/waxen scarecrows/of rotten joy” (page 47). Throwbacks to films following the same name and formula can’t be helped. There is a general return to and reminiscence of George A. Romero and more contemporary designers of the genre in this poetry of Maranhão. Other featured creatures include shades and hordes and a cult, and two poems are labeled as “Fractures.” But these are not genre poems and they do not feel ridiculous. Instead, they draw the reader toward a mature reflection on a center that is uneasy and filled with discomfort. Maranhão’s symbolism reaches surreal proportions in its demand for us to question and seek to look within transformation of image and scenario. “Daggers (Fractures 1)” is an exquisite example of this type of examination:

They have turned to daggers—
what once were sprigs sprouting in the rain.

(page 59)

The collection closed with a sequence of great difficulty: “Like a River.” The 12-part poem is filled with an energy of pain and open wounds. In it, Maranhão paints a world that is haunted by inequity and stasis. It is hallowed ground and hollow souls. In many ways, it is nihilistic, like the late Alfredo de Palchi, where the world may hardly be worth saving, though it is impossibly present. Maranhão writes in the ninth section:

Without calendar
or destination,
I gallop these geographies,
this tribunal of blood
and bone.

(page 93)

The poet continues with the jabs and the pokes of the broken/abstracted lines. The poet writes of presence despite struggle, suffering, violence, and death. And yet in doing so he has also provided us with a supreme juxtaposition: a fantastical situation where the voice’s presence is counter to the brutal reality which it describes. Brutality feels so fixed, and yet the poet is on the move. The poet, as body of water, can pass through to some distant elsewhere, as undefined as it may be. Beneficially, the reader may float along and bear witness while moving toward that unknown future as well.

Toward the end of the book’s closing essay, written by Professor Jack A. Draper III, there is a brilliant comment on the bestial qualities of those who are sovereign during a time of crises (page cv). When laid over Maranhão’s collection, I am left mesmerized. These are poems composed in sovereignty despite their active exploration of rising into a liberated stage from page to page. Maranhão has accomplished much with this collection on liberation and has in turn created a puzzle for his readers. The book is indeed worth every moment of opening, unbinding, and freeing even further through the subtle act of reading.

Consecration of the Wolves feels like a fantastic gift as it arrives in the middle of the pandemic. The translation between Maranhão’s Portuguese and Alexis Levitin’s English were completed in February of 2020, and their delivery to the world was prolonged. In many ways, the dagger-like verse that points and stabs toward the reader is as unnerving out of context as it is within the context of COVID-19. Each moment of suffering, each moment of yearning toward openness, and each sobering recognition toward liberation will forever be symbolically aligned with the pandemic’s veil and our collective, though individualized too, sense of endurance.

You can find the book here: https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781734653502/consecration-of-the-wolves.aspx

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

Nothing but the Music by Thulani Davis

Thulani Davis Cover

By Greg Bem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • from C.T.’S VARIATION (page 45)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything You Hold Dear by Jamie Sharpe

everything

By Greg Bem

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

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

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

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

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

(pg. 16)

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

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

I’d run

(if U weren’t a thinly veiled I).

(pg. 54)

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

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

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

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

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

to view Alps
puke sour suns.

Thick, yellow voltas.

(from “Avalanche Kills One,” pg. 29)

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

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

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Requisite by Tanya Holtland

requisite

By Greg Bem

“through each other we become”

(from “Inner River,” page 51)

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

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

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

I cascade down to the marrow of a thought

its parts—my parts

(from part four of “Fated,” page 13)

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

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

(from “Inner River,” page 30)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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