the song cave

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

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By Greg Bem

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

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

To become one
With the universe,
You already are—

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

Of time travel—

(page 4)

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

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

Down, down,
I raced through
The canopy.

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

(from “White Deer,” page 46)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(page 68)

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

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

You can find the books here:

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

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

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

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

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By Greg Bem

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

(from “Rainy Day Song,” page 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from “Wash Your Hands,” page 31)

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

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

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

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

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

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