Selected Book Reviews
from the Fall 2000 and Fall 1999 issues of Traffic
Traffic Spring/Summer 2001 is now available in print.
(Rem Press, 1999).
A brief review like this can't do justice to Caroline Bergvall's achievement in her new book, Goan Atom, but let me try to enumerate a few reasons why members of Small Press Traffic might like it.
Bergvall has few peers in invention and theatricality. The twists and turns of her language would have branded her a witch in medieval times, for in her grip words are tortured almost beyond recognition, hanging on to their previous identity just barely, or not at all. There are characters entering the text from unexpected places, with nefarious errands; their voices spill out across and down the page like crossword answers: "Hefty lab onktanks ad hoc rigged up shag the rut all butts too shine a collection of holes bafr to ckont/ indifferently hangs off each other's throats." Words are split, syllables peeled away as though under a coroner's knife (vide the anatomical drawings of US artist Phoebe Gloeckner), "foreign" languages intrude indecorously, the better to capture the amazing powers of disgust and the unsettlement of nomadism—it's a poetry without a home and with too many bodies, a charnelhouse that speaks: "Mankind, that's me!"
Like Tina Darragh, her American contemporary, Caroline Bergvall is fascinated by the dream and its implications for waking life—both as therapeutic remedy and as hideous object lesson. One valence balances the other, or does it? Perhaps dreams add the horror missing from our mundane existence, filling a lack, helpful thus, but perhaps the horror is not needed (manufactured) by consciousness but is actually the dark letting-in of some other, malevolent death force? The achievement of Goan Atom is to bring these issues into contemporary poetry and to present them with an incredible, vivid, wrenching music. If you enjoyed seeing Big Pussy speaking out of a fish's mouth in the climax of last year's Sopranos, this is a whole book of it.
– Fielding Fitzhugh
Norma Cole ,The Vulgar Tongue
(a+bend press, 2000).
The first lines of Norma Cole's book begin, "at some point, or at gunpoint/ human is to wander." And so I'm wondering if Dante wrote his De Vulgari Eloquentia in exile what corresponding exile might inhabit the space of Norma Cole's The Vulgar Tongue?
borrowed nature, neighborhood
dated by experience
"I'll kill that bitch"
She escapes into the margins
might be an appropriate response to this question. For maybe there isn't a corresponding exile but a thread of displacement from language in this work, a kind of alienation where the vernacular struggles to know itself. "What is depicted is zero/ between the figures and an elsewhere". How does it form, how do we make it, support it? I don't mean this in an etymological kind of way but a mysterious way that we, the regular masses make and build language. "Plan one: as if we're all the whole supporting// cast. Plan two: you let your thought drift through the wall."
There is a dependence on the mini-narratives throughout the piece to flush out the spoken. And I feel like I could name them: the one about the stolen purse; the guy with the naked children; the death dance. But when I go back they are fragmentary, all seeming to be in service of the speech or words which compile them. The '"I actually" said Miranda' and '"my treat" to Rosa' seem like nods to Dante's criticism of Italian dialects but without the rancorous judgement. Still, there is an echo of, "If you have said this…" in the pages.
This text also incorporates phrases like: "Xtreme reading" and "superior user experience," with the same respect accorded to older language, not using it as a sign of alienation but a sign of movement. Much like the cover photo of the graffiti tagged semi. Language is always moving, coded, art for everyone.
– Sarah Anne Cox
Pamela: A Novel
(Atelos #4, 1998)
When has euporia of such stunning invention rung the changes of aporia so absolute? Pamela: A Novel marries the ability to generalize with the endless unrolling of the self as it readjusts to its own failure to exist. Lu tracks the doings of L, R, C, A, and the narrator, I, as they look at a mall, eat at a Malaysian restaurant on Clement Street, go for a walk. L, R, C, A, and I are instances of themselves, functions, mispronounced words. Lu conveys the boundless artificiality of their experience and the particular nausea of imploding infrastructures in a pastiche of eighteenth-century style whose artifice is never broken and whose solemn periods are as measured as a Handel march.
I prefer to think of Lu's sentences as Ciceronian and to read Pamela as classical revival in the tradition of the early modernists like Isadora and Nijinsky. Here are the generally held truths, What oft was thought, expressed in old new sentences ringing with collective confidence. Lu's generally held tenets call for a disbelief so extreme it acts as faith.
These truths, ne'er so well expressed, are emitted by We, a glorious pronoun in which Lu builds a social space and founds a society. Like any court society, the function of each member is to be a little different from the others in order to create fascinating permutations of like and unlike. Pamela could be a collaboration of Madame de La Fayette and Maurice Blanchot, but "the community of doubt" looks like a rotary club next to the L, R, C, A, and I!
Archimedes said, "Give me a place to stand and I will move the world." But what if the place to stand turns out to be too far away? Then he would be in a good position to comment on the disappearance of the subject. The combination of intimate and distant, full and empty, fertile and arid, expectation and loss, and the sheer might of Lu'sprose, fills this grateful reader with a mournful jubilation.
Brian Kim Stefans, Free Space Comix
(Roof Books, 1998)
It would be hard to write a straight five-paragraph essay on the nonstop silly putty of language that stretches across Free Space Comix, as objects of satire get slingshot just short of earshot and reader after reader goes boing, boing, boing on the soundboard of hilarious, remixed English that is the standard of any passionate "communication error" nowadays. An adroit channel-surfer of all things pop-cultural, cross-cultural, hypothetical, and hyper-real, Stefans champions the drag value of vocabulary as rerun or essay as Saturday-morning cartoon, twanging the stolen strings of his lyre until he achieves an electric distortion somewhere between art noise and an air Orpheus jumping across rooftops with the hip, global synthesis of Keanu Reeves in The Matrix:
Islet igloos inundated with
edits, fetishists, phagocytes, ambidextrous
lipsters -- Flips
attitudes (rexed) vexing the
"Lyle Wagner Presidents Day Special" a
twenties — pranked, susurrant ‚ of
Along the way, Stefans visits and contends with late-capitalist consumer/media overload ("Wanna hear my Ray Liotta impersonation?"), homophonic neo-translations of a pluralist society ("If your lapis lazuli is sounding more like a rapper's Rizzoli, you probably need more ESL"), the intellectual scene of contemporary avant-garde poetics ("Fashion is a mental toy: call the poem "Hole Puncher" and it is in fashion"), and Pynchonesque, American-cheese characters ("Barnum & Nash," "Beavis totalizer," "Fiona Bermuda") who stumble through digitized, composite landscapes of free-space consciousness. If the "world, leaking, requires its Depends," then Stefans' comic book sops up much of the excess, unleashing waves of rampant free trade between phonemes and dialects, and recycling the sludgefest compendium of mispronounced phrases, eavesdropped slogans, and synaptic imagery that escapes from the collective amnesia of the moment. Readers and aficionados of loopy post-materialism will find more than enough to fill their carts at this warped Costco of giddy, poetic sensuality.
Scott Gibson (editor), Blood and Tears: Poems for Matthew Shepard
(New York: Painted Leaf Books, 1999)
A year ago, when I first heard of the death of the University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, it called into mind so vividly the death of the poet Lorca, and this book shows that many poets came away with the same impression. After a memorial service for Shepard in Boulder, Colorado the seed for this book was born out of Gibson's feeling of futility and anger, apt double response to a crime at once so violent, and yet so pictureseque, that it captured the imaginations of not only gay people across the world, but many straight ones moved by injustice and agony. For whatever reason, many of the finest poets writing today have written some of their finest work for this anthology. Oh, there are some duds, but they are few, and the important thing is to have this book as witness to an atmosphere of violence against the different, a climate that will not disappear. Overtly political poetry's been, in recent years, scorned in favor of a politics of textuality; the referent's embarrassing, too bold and brassy, no longer relevant to an age where everything is everything anyhow; so it's interesting indeed that these poets have mounted a counterattack on every aesthetic ground from the pure language energy of Abigail Child to the oblique French/New York School lyric of John Ashbery to the powerful aleatory combination work of Juliana Spahr and Kristin Prevallet and the modernist mimetics of Linda Smukler. Okay, so Shepard was slight, blond, cute, his very tininess made us think of a child being beaten--as though Macaulay Culkin had been brutalized--in the Old West of John Ford--and lying against a fence his broken body, described everywhere as a "scarecrow's," remained for eighteen hours propped up in that liminal spooky space between life and death, and here all these responses animate this body for the instant time it takes to read a little, cry a little, tears like breaths under the blank faceless sky of heaven.
--Winnie SantiagoMichael Amnasan, I Can't Distinguish Opposites
When, a long time ago, I first read Michael Amnasan's novel I was blown away by its precision and its cunning sensuality, its sense of revelation a little bit at a time. Reading it again now, fifteen years later, I marvel at how well it's stood up to history, to the proverbial test of time that have knocked down a dozen of my other 80s favorites. What seemed back then a grim, shivery picture of the so-called "blank generation" to which its title alludes now reveals itself as a maze of intricate narrative miracles along the lines of Nabokov—but sparer, purer, more intense. Like other books praised for their "style," it's actually a plot-driven narrative, and that helps hold the whole thing together--compressing it from within like a centrifuge. What then seemed like a thinly disguised roman a clef--thus fulfilling the requirements of our New Narrative models--now reads like a gallery of well-realized and embodied character, in no need of the canyon-echo recourse, the frisson of "reality," that the roman a clef is said to provide.
Still the old pleasures return to haunt one, like the Preminger film Laura. There's the part where the heroine, Joan, explains her current malaise to Amnasan's hero, Tom: "Yesterday I poured myself a cup of coffee then set it on my desk. I walked into the bathroom and saw a second full cup of coffee on the clothes hamper. I pictured myself setting it there and then leaving the bathroom. I heard a woman and a small boy laughing and talking as they rushed through the hall outside my apartment. If this is my character I want out." These bleak, Bergmanian monologues explore the narcissism, the desperate search for authenticity, of everyone who's ever looked into a dark plate glass window and wondered who that stranger was, why he or she is so attractive, so mystifying. But God, remember 1983 when a pack of cigarettes was seventy-five cents!!