Traffic reviews 2003-04

Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge
Berkeley, CA: Kelsey St Press, 2003

Settle yourself into a place of silence, of darkness --and, for the subject of your meditation, bring along Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's newest book, Nest. Are you comfortable, secure, in an accustomed place of contemplation? Look a little closer. What used to be familiar is becoming alien, menacing. The things you trust the most, take for granted, accept as constant, are becoming strange; they are no longer inviolate.
Once again, as I so often do, I find myself lulled along by the long, slow sentences of Berssenbrugge's work and the painterly quality of the images, until I stop, hung up on the connections and spaces between syntax, language, and abstraction. The lullaby has turned to inquisition and defiance.
As suggested by the title, Nest, Berssenbrugge's newest book from Kelsey St. is a reflection on domesticity and family. The poems trace the relationships between siblings, mother and child --particularly in terms of separation --and generations. The poems go beyond these frequently (and in this case, penetrating rather than overdone) explored themes to also touch on the family unit's ability to relate to the outside world. From "Erring":
Look at my family, so wrong in how they're laid out, no ethos of being together, like cards from a disoriented gambler, calling for play.
We don't see individuals, but intensities of events (cards, weather), which break off in the present or near ground.
In Nest Berssenbrugge continues her questioning of misrepresented identities inherent in perception and the impossibility of objectivity. She does this through jarring syntax, ambiguous word choice, and the appropriation of language from disciplines such as science and architecture ("I found I could take words from one discipline and intersect them with another--" from "Hearing"). Her poetry is replete with blank spaces, allowing her readers to fill in their own connections. Her lines, particularly in "Hearing," remind me of Zen koans ("A voice with no one speaking--", "bird falling along a stitched in and out of/my hearing it call and its ceasing to exist.") The reader is given elusive adages, which must be pieced together through the reader's own meanings and understandings.
Berssenbrugge creates a logic to the poems and the book as a whole by the use of recurring words and by returning to key motifs and themes that connect otherwise disparate ideas and lines to each other. From "Dressing Up Our Pets" (notice repetition of visibility):
Between its alleged color and its alleged visibility is a lining, like the double of a mouse, latency, flesh.
The surface of the visibility of a family doubles over its whole extension with invisible reserve.
In my flesh what's visible, by refolding or padding, exhibits their being as the complement of possibility.
The experience of reading Nest is like being lost - of always returning to the same point whether or not that's your intention and setting out again to find your destination. The book becomes like a pattern of sidewalk cracks with multiple centers that radiate out and intersect at various points.
Berssenbrugge takes language to its most essential levels, syntax and diction, and puts it together in jarring, disruptive lines, giving the reader permission to pull apart her poetry in the process of looking for connections and understanding. When one understanding is discovered, it reveals a whole new set of questions and challenged assumptions, layered within the words and fragments of her poems. Nest is a meditation to return to again and again.
--Nikki Thompson

Renee Gladman
The Activist
San Francisco: Krupskaya, 2003

Someone bombs a bridge. They demolish it. It remains standing. Some say it never existed in the first place. Activists, Feds, a commuter who claims, "nothing is worth this inconvenience."
Among this set of people Gladman does not name the accountable, she describes their movement, their change, and the confusion of blame and blind purpose.
The Activist is not for those who desire explicit and detailed explanation. There is no cause nor corresponding manifesto of righteous indignation. The activists twist themselves into a pretzel of inarticulate confusion. The ground shifts beneath them. Their unique language confounds and connects them. Strategy, loyalty, and allegiance to unquestionable purpose. They
stand. They speak. They collapse into a sink hole. Once their strategic map changes shape a gravitational pull brings them down, in terror, upon themselves.
The strongest aspect of this novel is the shifting map, its inability to lay direction, to provide scale, or orient the activists on streets or within ideologies. Reside in that moment, it lingers, like the lovers of the final chapter (White City II), longing for a physical representation, making manifest the impossibility of locating an exact site to target for annihilation or alteration.
The activists pin their entire program on a map that no longer stands for anything certain, accurate, or unchanging. As the Radicals Plan one lays on the grass, pretending to understand, "the inner life of a line." What do they make, these people, standing together or breaking apart, as so many points.
Gladman asks difficult and timely questions, when "our plan to protest globalization in a coherent circle around the towers is ineffectual without the towers, which were destroyed earlier today." Written as reporter’s notes the novel does not come together easily for the
reader. Which may be her point, the utter lack of coming together among "American groups," individuals, activists, insiders, outsiders, the state and the sympathetic field reporter who claims to Tour (in chapters one and seven) the reader while "studying the interiority of criminals."
The morphing map is consistently the novel’s strongest moment. Top of the Hour notes flow through the novel, interrupted by first person accounts, interior monologues, eaves droppings among the activists, field notes and dreams told by those unsure they are dreaming. I had great difficulty determining who was speaking. Unidentifiable I’s tell their story, but I never really know them (save the I of The State). This frustrates and requires second, third and fourth readings.
At 108 pages the novel is short, and leaves a great deal unsaid. Gladman alludes to the depths but does not always descend there. I trust her and hang on tight when the ropes she throws cover the distance. They do. Often they do not, and I am left aching for every line and every page to be as wonderful and tight as her insightful moments of sustenance and richness.
Her strongest writing fills the fifth chapter (The State), where the speaker’s voice resonates wondrously low across the readerůs eardrums and intellect. This section is powerful and perfect. Her obvious desire to explore deeply philosophical issues are developed beautifully from first line to last.
In contrast the first Tour (chapter one) only sets the questions before us, picking the brain with a boney finger that leaves the mind uncomfortable, and this reader unsatisfied. These moments irritate without illumination.
Perhaps the masses and the activists are afraid of the reporter’s ability to record, and perhaps his notes are like the activistůs map, locating nothing in its right place, where "the post-op assessment is failing." In the end, leaders are left speechless, old speeches are read, and
followers can only feel purpose and relief when told what to do, absolved from the energy required to change stasis into motion, while the map continues changing.
--Reid Gomez

Susan Howe
The Midnight
New York: New Directions, 2003

At the end of his life, Susan Howe's uncle lived in a managed care facility, with few possessions but several old books, among them Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Master of Ballantrae. In The Midnight, a jumble of prose, poetry, and photographs, Howe cracks open these discarded volumes for traces of her uncle, a heavy annotator. As America's leading poet-insomniac, she pulls back her bed hangings and reveals the connections between disparate bodies of knowledge that only a nocturnal creature can make.
She finds a spectral companion in the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who authored a "brief autobiographical fragment as a remedy for insomnia." (68) In 1868 Olmsted drove around the "bleak industrial" (62) city of Buffalo, New York, and designed not only its parks, but also the grounds of the State Insane Asylum there. A century later, Howe, a professor at SUNY Buffalo, wanders the city's industrial ruins with visiting poets, exploring a decaying grain elevator and the abandoned New York Central Terminal. Everywhere the immanence of the past becomes triumphantly present. "In relation to detail every first scrap of memory survives in sleep or insanity," ponders Howe. (68)
Though Howe is exploring interests she's mined before--the American Renaissance, the marginalia of the dead, and the blurring of boundaries between research, poetry, essay, and memoir--here her geographic and cultural obsessions always spiral out from the personal--and more often than not lead back to her mother, the Irish playwright and actress Mary Manning.
In the face of Howe's definition of the poem as "the impossibility of plainness rendered in plainest form," The Midnight remains elusive and private. (64, 124)
For Howe the book is a site where reading happens, a physical place populated by readers through time--readers who leave behind traces--margin notes, inscriptions, insertions and clippings tipped in or pasted down. If, as Howe suggests, readers haunt the books they once loved, then she has created a new haunted house from her twin identities as reader and poet. The Midnight is filled with trap doors, stairs that lead nowhere, texts that surprise and delight by leading back on themselves--a sort of Winchester Mystery House of association.
--Dodie Bellamy (Another version of this review appeared in Bookforum.)

Yedda Morrison
Berkeley, CA: Kelsey St. Press, 2003

The task of the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope. --Leonora Carrington
If you’re looking to poetry to feel better about yourself and your immediate environment, don’t read this book. CROP dusts us, picks us up, packages us, and re-distributes us in the marketplace with such provocative skill that we have no choice but to go with Ms. Morrison through the threshing machine run by "riotous it-girls assigned to the pump" (8).
CROP opens with three warnings: a Mark McMorris/Lady Macbethean prophecy that form cannot always restrain content; an on-site injury/malpractice/disability investigation; and the treacherousness of bleary-eyed pre-dawn stumblings of human production. Thus unfolds the dawn of the world as we have come to know it, full of error, limitation, natural and man-made disaster.
We are given a "table of limits" as our guide through four chapters that toggle the "double star helix" (7) between production/mechanization, and what is still intact of our "humanness" before it becomes cropped, edited, altered, augmented. The flaws removed, and/or the evidence cut away. We move between the synthetic and authentic, "each tissue commissioned" (8). Our personal plastics use without and within?implants, condoms, "inflatable bedrooms" (8), and our own bioengineered lifestyles:
The neon sign snaps on illuminating the early life of a broiler chicken, breast blisters puffing. dolly, my utility cell closes her mouth. once a scrappy jungle fowl, now edible biomass, skinny legs, and lacy cell life, breasting (46).
Like a Virgil or The Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, Morrison leads us by the hand to witness the deepest scars of our human penetrations, our "endless anonymous capacity for entrance" (11). From "The Manager Pilgrim and his Problems sitting naked in the field" (57) to an era of Carousel of Progress-like, "purely American efficiencies" (65), we bear
witness to the genocide, cultural litter, and biological discards of our nationhood, our "histories of physical damage emerge from the pits" (16).
how a cleaning solvent used for electrical appliances
a critical o-ring (missing)
a state-initiated rent-a-tent
fields of non functional vaginas (p.57)CROP is a pari-mutuel potlatch, a gift that asks something in return: that we pay attention, that we note how we "Drain and Burn the Lake after a less Productive Season" (79), that we remain on guard for the voice that creeps up on us to whisper, "pssst--biochemical gets the last word" (60), that we are careful not to play too close to the "sweeping Amberwave to drown in"
(59). So lobby your Congressperson today to have CROP installed as mandatory reading for every citizen of the world, before it’s too late.
--Kim Rosenfield

Rodrigo Toscano
Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2003

If experimental poetry were to claim its own slam champion, Rodrigo Toscano would surely run away with the title. Who else would open a reading with a recitation of Lucretius (in Latin!), as Toscano did in Berkeley this past spring, then bust into some of the most scathing critiques of globo-capitalist power-mongering this side of Howard Zinn, all the while
bearing in mind Zukofskyůs famous maxim, "lower limit speech, upper limit music"? But while he could certainly free a few minds on the Def Poets stage, Toscano is much more intent on shaking things up right where he lives.
In Platform, pomo poetry (Toscano’s preferred term, see also langpo, etc.) does equal time with despotic first- through third-world regimes as the target of heavy linguistic artillery. The result is a reminder that our own self-congratulatory assess, too, better follow lest the artifically reinforced ramparts of the "free world" topple upon us while we slumber
beneath our flimsy canopies of Russian Formalism, signifiers and new sentences.
For his part, Toscano’s money sits squarely at his mouth, and it is precisely his inability to draw a line between activist and poet that makes Platform so intriguing. As one of our most visible (but certainly not only) embedded bards, he may well be subsisting on a steady diet of tear gas and lies, but unlike those talking heads we all love to tune out, Toscano never
abandons his calling. And duty, in his case, is twofold. Yes, Toscano wants to overthrow the state. But not at the cost of failing to, in the process, get it all down. And if he can take a few well-reasoned swipes at those among us who would sit home and rest on their (MLA-emblazoned) laurels, all the better.
Interestingly, despite the density of Toscano’s references, his dizzying wealth of Dickinson-precise fragments, and his daring paratactic leaps, it is some of the shorter pieces in Platform that fall flat. With all that’s going on in these poems, a piece like "A Beginner’s Guide to Day Trading," for instance, lacks the space to breathe and, accordingly, possesses a one-dimensionality that belies the poet’s spitfire brilliance and wild wit.
"Beginner’s Guide" and a few others, primarily in the book’s second section (the poems are presented in five groups), don’t tell us anything we don’t already know. Or, if they do, they don’t do it with the inventiveness of a piece like "Poetics," which deftly underscores, through the structure of the poem itself, the way our nation’s past foreign policy transgressions have a
way of creeping back to haunt us. The poem answers, in a single word, the dually pertinent questions "how did we get here?" and "how soon will we forget?" (precursors to post-9/11’s ubiquitous "why do they hate us?"), then, in just a fraction of a beat, levies a rousingly flippant jab at pomo self-consciousness in the midst of all this truly serious shit. (Here, it
must be noted, Toscano’s status quo sparring reads not so much as a challenge to the avant-garde-cum-establishment as an admission of the poet’s ambivalence about his own place in this "scene" ). What’s more, by illuminating the architecture of the poem itself, the piece takes on an intentional openness we could only dream might accompany a document like, say, the Roadmap to Peace.
Pyongyang, if you’ll please STOP
in the poem
like this -
In writing to your
(that special critical topos
between an ideolophe fatha’
and a para-juridical mutha’)
Jangling -
Claim you
That this schizophrenic perpetual motion carries both a shorter piece like "Poetics" and the epic "In-Formational Forum Rousers - Arcing (Satire No. 4)," which clocks in at an even 70 pages, is testament to Toscano’s exceptional compositional abilities, not to mention the steadfast and
inspirational implication of all his work, that we - as activists, as artists, as humans - have both the ability and the obligation to create our own "series of standoffs/before the standoff." Platform may well be the tract of choice for such a showdown.

--Kristin Palm

Elizabeth Willis
Providence, RI: Burning Deck, 2003

Turneresque, the latest book of poetry by an important younger poet, represents the successful
collision of multiple spheres of influence, and one may judge as much from its cover: a departure from the charmingly simple, hand-hewn look of previous Burning Deck volumes, the book looks thoroughly modern, even high-tech, but the blurred image of waves suggests an homage to J.M.W. Turner, the 19th century seascape painter. Like Turner, who worked
within and borrowed from classical painting traditions while making his name as an innovator in the genre, Elizabeth Willis' poems contain impressive echoes of her predecessors--both Emily Dickinson and Barbara Guest come to mind--while remaining resolutely her own.
Visitors to a recent J.M.W. Turner exhibition at the Clark Museum in Western Massachusetts seemed to either appreciate the painter's landscapes as traditionally beautiful or else as exciting, forceful departures from the genre. In an ekphrastic section of Turneresque entitled "Modern Painters," Willis writes about one of his works "constancy scribbles itself
out in waves: a revisionary litter of brown light," and many of the poems in this book feel likewise highly inventive and colored--or colorized, as the book's title also seems to reference Ted Turner, whose Classic Movies channel was notorious for "improving" old black and white films. Willis' poems sometimes feel like "improved" Language poems, made more colorful
through the use of specific, personal voices, as in the poem "Arthur in Egypt," evoking Rimbaud in lines like "When my feet were gone I rowed ashore, beached on the word, pure." Which is not to say the work feels derivative: in fact, they feel like a genuine evolution, never striving to be something they are not. The intimate moments serve the sparseness well,
and Willis seems unafraid of genuine sentiment while avoiding sentimentality. In the same section, "The Young Blake" ends, sweetly but sharply, "You're a little one with sand in your eyes, with green on your horn, with milk on your chin. With flowering ears and hearsay." The poems feel grounded, whole, and in this sense, Willis seems heir to Barbara Guest--lines like "To hunt the doe/in a row of air/Things like sage or virtue/A reader desires/to be crushed by sun," from the sequence "Sonnet," feel particularly reminiscent of Guest. The comparison is apt not only because of Willis' mastery of fragment or use of imperative or interest in
visual art and the line, but also because of her use of "light" imagery: natural light, the spectrum of colors dappling the book, and also balloons, air, sky. The poems, like Guest's, allow for room to breathe.
But as much as Willis is clearly part of a modern and postmodern lineage, there is also a lyric attention to sound (and sometimes end rhyme), a spiritual searching, and a delightfully
arcane use of diction that evokes Dickinson, as in these lines from the poem "Elegy": "What unknown slippered thing of x is thou," "a decoy aurora'd in fig," "The soul's a fine thing/less than feathers/free to glitter/in no-light night." But my personal favorite section of the book
was the eponymous one, a series of ekphrastic movie prose poems, which sounds like neither lyric verse nor intellectual experiment, but is comprised of the kinds of mysterious visual moments which, when transcribed, embody an alternate universe, which here transform plot summaries into illustrations of gender machinations on an archetypal scale. From "A Stolen
Life": "She'll wait forever, an extravagant island. He's shown her the spume of his special place. She gets loved by accident, the one without frosting. Her sex is deep and refracted. She can hold her own at sea."
So can Willis. In the poem "September 9," she writes "the word comes at me with its headlights on, so it's revelation and not death," and Turneresque is notable for exactly this
clarity, and this hopefulness. The penultimate section of the book is "Elegy," in which the poet shows obvious concern for her cohabitants of this planet, especially those brutalized (Matthew Shepherd is among those treated with great tenderness here), but perhaps the book's final lines, from the sequence "Drive," best illustrate Willis' noble spirit, which so succinctly marries old with new: "Adore the big green nothing of the past, the rationing of calm late in the century, like the arches of a brick heart, letting go."

--Arielle Greenberg