Friday, October 31, 2008

Lynn Crosbie reads Sid Vicious and Entertains A Few Questions


You were my little baby girl

And I shared all your fears.

Such joy to hold you in my arms

And kiss away your tears.

But now you’re gone there’s only pain.

And nothing I can do.

And I don’t want to live this life

If I can’t live for you.

To my beautiful baby girl.

Our love will never die.

—Sid Vicious, 1978

One of the sutures that holds together the romance of Sid and Nancy is the line "And I Don’t Want to Live This Life," which is the title of Nancy’s mother, Deborah Spungen’s memoir about her daughter.

It is also, roughly, the name of a Ramones song about the couple, one of many tributes such artists as The Exploited, Crazy Town and Ministry have recorded about the doomed pair.

Alex Cox’s 1986 film makes no use of the line, as he would have Vicious and Spungen meeting, at the film’s end, in another dimension, and sailing off like a punk Olivia Newton John and John Travolta, in a magical car and living forever, as pretty vampires whose love is eternal.

The line is from a poem Sid Vicious sent Deborah Spungen after he murdered his girlfriend, the twenty-year-old Nancy Spungen, in their Chelsea Hotel room, on October 11, 1978 with a single stab wound to the belly.

Vicious wrote it while being held in Riker’s prison, awaiting bail.

It accompanied a long, tortured letter about how desperately he loved her, which made frequent reference to his inability to "survive" her being gone. The passive language of the sticky panegyric excludes any possibility of admission or culpability. Vicious writes as a child about his loss, as if utterly uncomprehending why his "poor baby," his "beautiful baby," is gone.

The cynosure of Spungen’s death is the image of her, widely available, slumped under the bathroom sink where she crawled to die, in a black bra and black panties, her blonde head drooping like a marigold; her pale body washed in blood.

This image appears on a number of fansites, one of which includes comments such as "In all honesty, I don’t think Sid did it," a fairly conventional theory about the death of the woman hated with a terrible passion by virtually everyone she met (Malcolm McLaren refers to her as a "dreaded disease," concocted by "Dr. Strangelove.")

Vicious’s lovely little poem would seem to confirm his innocence, as it is a masterpiece of exclusion, or occlusion.

"Nancy" is best read as an octet (I believe that Deborah Spungen accidentally grafted the last two lines to the poem, where they were meant to be read as a formal dedication: syntactically, and rhythmically, they make no sense here.

Viewing the poem as such, we see this rhyme scheme: ABCBDED (how creepy is the last tercet.). And very cleverly it rhymes: the bluntness of the sentiment and language evoke the perfection and elegance the writer imagines in his subject and in love; while insinuating a certain sinister regard for these very qualities.

"Such joy to hold you in my arms" is a trite sentiment, yet the following verse, "And kiss away your tears" is tenderly macabre: one thinks of the arch-Romantics and their insistent fusion of beauty and cruelty, of love and death ("Love Kills" being, of course, the film Sid and Nancy’s slogan; the phrase attributed therein, to Spungen.)

As with all lyrical, Romantic poetry, the "I" of the poem transcends its subject and asserts its artistic, feeling domination: the "fears" and "tears" of the eponymous Nancy are not explained and relevant only to the speaker’s ability to diminish them in his arms and with his kisses.

In her absence, further, the speaker is bereft because of his own pain and because there is "nothing [he] can do."

There is nothing he can do but die, as he states, far more eloquently, in the last two verses.

This shockingly adept little poem says everything it needs to, and confesses more, if slant.

Straight, is the fact that Vicious could not endure, and died himself, on February 2, 1979, of a heroin overdose.

Did he die of love? He was sleeping with his new girlfriend at the time of the overdose, and prior to meeting her (he moved fast), had broken the terms of his first bail by attacking Patti Smith’s brother Todd, after hitting on his girlfriend.

Is "Nancy" about Vicious’s love for Nancy Spungen, or about his own inability to live without their horrifying dynamic of pain and passion?

The poem suggests that the speaker is a father-figure (in the unfortunate manner of Plath’s "Daddy" however): a nurturer, whose love is predicated on soothing the anguish of the reduction that is Nancy the "baby girl." Why does she cry so much? What is Vicious (AKA John Simon Ritchie AKA John Simon Beverly) telling us in these fugitive lines?

Deborah Spungen recalls seeing her daughter shortly before her death, and removing stitches from her ear. Her ear was ripped off, she claimed, by her antagonists, the same people who beat her black and blue, some months earlier.

The last time they spoke, Nancy admitted it was Sid who beat her, Sid Vicious, the owner of the knife that stabbed her, the fake-bottom in a heroin-addled relationship, who was always so sleepy, he seemed incapable of violence, in spite of his long history of sudden, violent attacks on any number of people including fans, including his (repeated) "baby girl."

Stomach wounds are said to be the most painful of all injuries, and they lead the victim to seek out water, desperately, hence, Nancy beneath the sink.

Vicious never arose from his drugged stupour to give her a mouthful of water.

The year before they came to America, they visited Paris where Sid shoplifted her a set of fancy underwear.

This seems to be all he ever gave her, the underwear she was stabbed in, that looks, in the picture, like two censorious bands over her broken body.

"Nancy" is better than most criminals’ poems, better still because of its admissions (constructed by way of omission) and because of the promise it makes.

In "Nancy," and after so many years, the object rises and asks the speaker to honour all of his fatuous claims.

And he did, in the arms of someone else, as his, as Sid and Nancy’s love died with its murderer.


LH: Lynn, you've published--at last count--nine collections of poetry as well as several novels. You also write a wicked weekly column in the otherwise dry Globe & Mail. Your recent piece on Locklear depicts the double-bind of celebrity women and hints at the sublime problem of physical embodiment and love of rock and roll and the spotlight. An earlier piece on Paul Newman points out the difference between being a great actor and a great movie star. But this territory is also explored in your creative work. I'm wondering if you see a split at all, and whether you would describe yourself as a poet, writer, journalist, public figure, commentator, enfant terrible, all or none of the above? Something else entirely?

LC: I am so many years past being an enfant anything. And it is a term I don’t like for its reductive qualities and ability to evoke very old bilingual "Bad Boy" commercials. After working in so many genres for so long (I am a professor also, so there is the lecture, the lecture voice), I do feel it is that old Doris Lessing/The Golden Notebook business of having worked toward finding one voice. That said, writing, say, a fashion article about Botox and my crippling love affair with the same is different than writing a poem about, oh I don’t know, being crippled by Botox. I like to think there is now one voice with many regional accents.

LH: I wouldn't describe you as a formal poet, but that would be a mistake on my part it seems. Recently I rediscovered some of your earlier work, pieces such as "Carrie Leigh's Hugh Hefner Haikus" in which you knit a series of haiku together maintaining a deceptively simple narrative. Is form something you think about when you think of writing poetry? Is that ultimately the only difference?

LC: I don’t know how anyone writes poetry without submitting to at least one of its formal attributes. I think my work, all of it, most closely resembles the skeleton of the English sonnet, state, restate, stamp and twist. I think the envoi has had the most formal influence on me, other than the complex "I" of lyrical/confessional poems.

LH: Your work has consistently engaged in contemporary subjects, and most often subjects that are on the edge. Further you are able to imagine yourself in places few would want to imagine--the mind of Paul Bernardo or Karla Homolka for example. Is this an essential aspect of art for you? Is there a time or space in which you aren't pushing yourself toward an edge?

LC: No, because sitting down and being, essentially, leashed to one’s chair, is so shockingly boring and unnatural, I need a variety of distractions to keep me here. There is also my sense of writing against the wave of what enervates and murders writing; that is, stasis and consensus.

LH: It's telling I think that you chose a song lyric to read for your contribution here, and I love that you did. Where does such a category fit in to the world of Canadian poetry, or does it? And I guess I'm not just speaking formally here, but in terms of the lyric voice in the poem--the troubled brilliance, the punk God, the odd circumstances the pair find themselves in, again, difficult territory.

LC: It is not a lyric but an actual poem Vicious wrote. It fits in because I am a Canadian poet writing it, and the last time I checked, we are allowed to wander across the border if our documents are up to date. I was young once. I faintly remember how love kills; I strongly remember Sid and Nancy, as the criminals of my youth (as Bonnie and Clyde or Ian Brady and Myra Hindley may have been for others.)

LH: There is much discussion these days on the question of mentorship and writing, particularly for women. Have you had a mentor?

LC: No. I have no mentor, and if I have been one, I regret it. These relationships are always poisoned when the mentoree develops a mind of his or her own. My mentor is the world, as it reveals itself to me like a burlesque queen.

LH: What are you reading now? Do you have a particular attitude or habit of reading?

LC: I read every night for hours. I always have and am almost blind. One habit I have is to read things that can in no way unduly influence me when I am writing. Another is to pile stacks and sub-stacks by my bed, of books I pick through, and others I tear through. Right now I am reading a book about dogs, (rereading) the Ian Curtis biography and one about Marilyn Monroe who is on my mind. Also, way too many magazines, Derek McCormack’s new book, a not-so-good Rebecca Miller and have dragged out a dictionary of literary criticism and a plain dictionary, as words have begun to evacuate.

LH: What is the last book you read that blew you away?

LC: A book of photographs of Harlem funerals. A collection one of my students made of poems and pictures about wasps and maggots. An article in Radar about Eminem. Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. Chekhov’s short stories. A story in the tabloids about a violent woman arrested in a chicken suit.

LH: Wish list for a strand of Can Lit? An ideal world?

LC: A strand? In this ideal world, we imagine our country as an aesthetic map. And travel, and travel in our minds, are not reproached for not being 100% proof Giller. We sit on the empty chairs at PEN benefits and ask, What about us? We expect the unexpected and bear arms. We are less obsessed with injury than love. We are surprising.

Lynn Crosbie is a Ph.D in English Literature who is currently teaching at OCAD University in Toronto. She writes a weekly column about pop culture for the Globe and Mail and is working on a collection of tiny, evil stories.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The problem with northern British Columbia

People going around in circles while resources are pulped and shipped to other countries who then imagine, manufacture, and ship us back goods. What happens now that the mills are all closing too? Coal-bed methane? Mining? Or pipeline? Either way it seems nothing stays and is of use to the people of northern Canada.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Patrick Rosal reads Robert Hayden

Frederick Douglass

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues' rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

by Robert Hayden

As of now, I am a mere forty-eight hours returned from the young and energetic democracy of South Africa – Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town – where I met many, many poets and lovers of poetry and as many, if not more, lovers of freedom. Our last night on stage (we did one performance in each city), I bid farewell to South Africa with Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass”.

When I read this poem for the first time fifteen years ago, it moved me immediately, and for many reasons, one of which is that I could hear a version of it in the air even before I’d read it aloud. The poem, as compact as it is, has the qualities of the bardic, its repetitions and its catalogues of epithets and appositives.

It’s one of the few poems I have memorized, one that I recite to myself in the subway or on line at the bank. Once, I was stalled in the basement of the Middlesex County courthouse waiting to be called up for jury duty. When we were directed to wait in a second chamber upstairs, the bailiffs made it clear we had to leave everything behind – bags, books, notebooks, pens. All I had was this poem in my head, reciting it over and over silently among strangers in a courthouse in New Jersey.

With no apologies to strict formalists, “Frederick Douglass” is a sonnet. What better vehicle to address the notion of freedom than a form with a long tradition of austerity. Look how the first line blatantly violates the ordinances of a conventional sonnet – 18 syllables, nearly double that of the strict iambic pentameter line. It bursts out, breaks through the imagined right margin – and not with iambs, but with a predominantly anapestic feel. Not the stately march of ‘unstress-stress’ or one’s resting heartbeat, but the rhythm of running.

Hayden dismantles other formal strictures: there is no end rhyme and, more subtly, there is no real discernible turn. Through rhetoric and syntax the poem drives itself from left to right and down the page with a ferocious pace, trades volta for voltage. This is not to say that Hayden recruits only a full-on acceleration. There are graceful syntactical maneuvers here. The visual and rhythmic isolation of “exiled” in medial position and “alien” in terminal position is impeccable, the latter, on the verge of white space, silence, vanishing. These moments, framed by commas, are beautifully timed, i.e. they are natural to the breath, urgency, and energy of the poem.

I do want to mention the choice of the word “needful”, which feels musically precise (when we consider the obvious but clunkier alternative, “necessary”). It’s not a word we use much in American vernaculars. For a poem that is about the wish for freedom to be common, the word choice seems to rarify, rather than familiarize, the diction. We have to remember the idealist side to Hayden’s assessment of himself as a “romantic realist”. For Hayden, political, spiritual and personal transcendence is a movement upward. Note the title poem of his collection Angle of Ascent (a tribute to Gabriel García Márquez); note also “The Diver”, whom Hayden portrays as witness to the horrors of the deep, “began the measured rise.” I think, too, that Hayden resists “necessary”, the Latinate word, in favor of “needful” which has Proto-Indo-European roots. The Latin has strong associations to empire, but more importantly the word “necessary” is built with the negating prefix “ne” or “not”, where “needful” ends with an explicit fullness, a brilliant and appropriate paradox – to be full of need.

I also want to point out a particular line that offers several performance options: “this man, superb in love and logic, this man”. In length, it is much closer to a traditional pentameter line. One might even consider it predominantly iambic. However, much more can be emphasized in the line’s contour. First, its construction is stunning; “this man” is what holds the line together on either end. It is an embrace – “this man”. Also, the pronoun “this”, which appears repeatedly throughout, insists that the poem is not an elegy, but a celebration of what is alive right now. It is not nostalgia or some far-flung history; it — freedom, liberty — is present in this very moment and Hayden wishes it to be alive in our very blood and muscle: “diastole, systole,/reflex action.” For this, I say the line is almost entirely spondaic. In performance, one might even stress the word “and” in which case there are only two unstressed syllables in the whole of the eleven-syllable line—“superb in love and logic”. In Western society, one has been riven from the other. For Frederick Douglass, love and logic, dream and reason, are fused together again. (To quote one of my own contemporaries, Steve Scafidi, and is a “little Jesus”.)

In such critical times as we find ourselves now, I’m comforted and emboldened by this poem. I like to think there is not a corner of this nation (or perhaps the planet) that could not benefit from such a marriage of wisdom and rhythm as Hayden has composed here. Admittedly, I am still haunted by Soweto, KwaMaShu, District 6, Mitchell PlainsSelma, Watts, Crown Heights. What is it that hobbles us in our post-segregation/post-apartheid era? We have a tendency to give notice and adulation to poems for how perfectly they are made and ignore how clearly they must see. A great poem has to behold all that is gorgeous and terrible in what has come before us, in what lies within us, and in what our leaders have imagined or failed to imagine for us. In our work toward freedom, the poem alone, even Hayden admits, will fail us (as will monuments and myths), but a poem, like this one, can be the vehicle through which we finally arrive at “fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.”

Patrick Rosal is the author of My American Kundiman, winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award and the Global Filipino Award. His first book, Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive won the Members' Choice Award, from the Asian American Writers' Workshop. His poems and essays have been published widely in journals and anthologies, including Indiana Review, Harvard Review, Ninth Letter, Brevity, and Language for a New Century. He has been a visiting writer at Penn State Altoona, Centre College, and University of Texas, Austin, and has just returned from touring South Africa with the Urban Voices International Poetry Festival.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Margaret Christakos notes toward an essay on

As I mentioned earlier, Margaret Christakos was in Montreal to read at the Coach House/Snare book launch last weekend. She closed the show with aplomb, but it was the longer reading the following day at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute that really allowed readers to get a sense of Christakos larger project, a grand poetic that unsettles ideas of domesticity, subjectivity, desire, communication, lyric...

Christakos is one of those poets who seems to remain under the critical radar or, as someone said at the reading, a poet who seems engaged with and "writing for the next generation..." even though she is in fact using tools and tactics very much of the moment. In her last collection, Sooner, she proved that she is a master of the recombinant text, creating bitingly satirical and luminous collages of either self-generated, or google-generated material. I've discussed Christakos before, never at great enough length or in great enough detail. She is also a generous community-minded spirit who sees her work as singular, but plugged into a larger network of poetry and cultural work. She is community minded, and concerned with fostering poetic discussion. To that end she has been running the Influency series out of the U of T's Continuing Education department and causing quite a buzz (take a look at the line-up for Influency 3!). This poetry workshop asks eight poets to encounter and respond to the work of eight other poets and brings the discussion of these poets, as well as the poets themselves, to the classroom. Pedagogically brilliant. And even more brilliant is the idea that these poets not simply bring what they know to the table but that they themselves reach out of their usual frame of reference.
Not only is this series interesting for the poetry it introduces students to, and for the conversation between the poets themselves, but for the way it illustrates reading practices.

Christakos is also a great reader of her work in terms of her presentation of it performatively and in her discussion of it. Those up for poetry at 12:30 on a Monday and who managed to make it to the Simon deBeauvoir Institute were treated to a good hour of text, from both from Sooner and What Stirs, Christakos new book. What Stirs traces the notion of the "latch" both literally and figuratively as a sense of connection between mother and child, between reader and text, self and other, subject and referent, door and lock, and so on.

Christakos describes her own work as employing strategic word pairings harvested from the internet and elsewhere, to construct "forceful collages." The indeterminate narrator undoes, or troubles lyric expectations. The latter isn't perhaps news anymore (Hejinian, Howe, Moure, Robertson, Zolf, Riley, and so on), nor are Christakos methods of troubling lyric, but what she does with all of that certainly is original and effective. Thematically What Stirs operates, as I stated, as an exploration of the word "latch" and its many implications, most importantly the notion of entitlement and comfort. Grace Jones comes to mind here, her strangely haunting disco hit from the early 1980s in terms of our endless desire for comfort and capacity for entitlement. What if what we have is enough, Christakos asks. What if we are sated? Why are our fists still out for more?

One of the powerful forces at work in Christakos is the complicated representations of motherhood and domesticity. I talked about this in my essay on Canadian poetry for the Gulf Coast Review, but Christakos is the most inventive "domestic" poet I've ever encountered (other than perhaps Elizabeth Treadwell, post on her to come). Here we see a poet/mother figure who traces desire textually/linguistically/and literally through her texts such as "News & Now," "Mumsy," and "Used:"
Be a letdown Always match Cleverly
match the gaunt Be up up
vain All the cleverly the punk
bowtie with some nice elbows Zesty

Almost gaunt.
The desiring mother with her nursery rhymes and status as President of the Frank Sinatra fan club serve as markers here, the text using the tropes of mother/child expectations: the repetitions that soothe and the differences that surprise and offer pleasure. Throughout the text Christakos returns to latch, turning and turning the word on its head, so that we see the "maternal subject negotiating her desire to resist the suction of the 'latch'" through costuming in poems such as "My Attache Case," for example, the usual shopping tropes in "Visual Splendour Coupons," and "Lost ('Immortal')" There is a lot of fun in this text. Very subversive fun. "Turret Door," had me laughing out loud:She
She lifted the hyphen dash and entered the turret door, while the lady and I waited below.
SheHe'll dash on fine initially, then he pulls off and pops himself back on with a shallow dash.
SheThe pink one has a hyphen dash for the lid and would look real cute on a chain.
SheSo they think because there is a hyphen dash you push under a flange a bear could not watch you once and figure the whole thing out.
SheI will have to come up with some sort of hyphen dash.
SheI admit that I am an addict.
SheDash hooking is my life.
The latch becomes what we click down, attempt to hold in place, rely on, undo and do. Finally we see the very structures of language, letters latching one to the other, piercing and clicking our own tongues.

I thought that Sooner showed the poet at the top of her game, but What Stirs is an even more concise exploration of similar themes and a lesson in the possibility and power unleashed in innovative poetic craft. What is the difference between this and flarf? That would (and I think will) be an intriguing discussion for I think the efficacy and power of that mode should not be underestimated. These are rigorously honed syntactical and etymological machines. Anyone who thinks that feminism or motherhood isn't sexy, simply hasn't read Christakos. She pushes the envelope here in her willingness to offer up details of the body and its yearnings as much as she is instructing us on the practices of using found text.
If the geese thought they'd still have time
they were wrong

A bonk on the wing is better
than sewer rats for lunch

The way to San Jose is aquiver
with few and fewer friends

Ba ba ba ba ba ba-ba bah-
Anyone engaged in recombinant or google sculpting must contend with Christakos. And she has set the bar high. The only aspect of this poetry that frustrates is the fact that encountering it without the benefit of discussion can be so unproductive. But I think that the lack of critical engagement with such texts is the problem ultimately, not the texts themselves. Having sat in on a lecture on collage in the art department the other day clarified for me that absolute desert of poetic discourse. Where might one hear a similar lecture on the use of collage in poetry, for example? Ah yes,

(In the interest of time I'm posting this in progress. Samples of poems to be added. Meanwhile you can see two Christakos poems on an earlier post, and recent poems appear on Ditch. In a few weeks there will also be a guest reading of a Christakos poem.)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Where do I start?

Where do I start?, originally uploaded by Marico_.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Annie Finch reads Claude McKay

One of the most useful powers of the sonnet is its ability to keep a moment, to hold a feeling or experience and turn it around in the light of our awareness until many facets are evident. The quality of exploring all facets of a subject does not mean sonnets are always calm; it also means they are able to carry the full force of a lyric outburst with complete conviction. This authority gave Claude McKay's sonnet "If We Must Die," written in prison in 1919, an urgency so powerful that eventually it became a talisman in the civil rights struggle:

“If We Must Die,” Claude McKay (1919)

If we must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die—oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

The first two quatrains have a somber tone, a heaviness emphasized by the repeating phrase “if we must die,” with its sonorous spondee. But at the turn or volta at the beginning of line 9, with the phrase “Oh, Kinsmen!,” the sonnet seems to stop, take a deep breath, and regather its energies for a big push to the finish.

Many factors, including syntax, meter, trope, word-music, and connotation as well as meaning, conspire to make the turn as effective as it is. Take the word “must,” for example. If you read aloud the lines containing this word at the beginnings of the first two quatrains, you will hear something between resigned bitterness and sad determination conveyed by the spondaic stress on the first “must,” and a firmer, mounting determination in the second “must.” But after the volta, the same word has changed its intensity entirely, the spondee conveying an unstoppable force that floods over the expected unstressed syllable in irresistible exhortation.

Word-music plays a part in this change, as the three “m”s in “men,” “must,” and “meet” gather together to surpass and overwhelm the previous “m”s in “making their mock” and “monsters.” It is also significant that one of these “m” sounds happens in the syllable “men,” contrasting “men” with the simile of “hogs” that opened the poem, and setting the stage for the transformation that will happen by the end of the poem, where the African American prisoners will have become “men” while their oppressors still remain a “pack” of dogs. The phrase “Oh, kinsmen!” right at the volta is the heart of the sonnet not only because it brings in the word “men,” but also because it does so through the word “kinsmen,” emphasizing that it is only in their sense of brotherhood that the prisoners will find the strength they need to prevail.

Reading the poem aloud, I find a noticeable rise in energy level and pulse-rate rise after line 9. I think the most significant reason for this change is metrical. With the word “kinsmen,” the poem begins to take on more trochaic feel. The caesura after “kinsmen” sets the stage for the rest of the line to sound strongly trochaic: “We must meet the common foe” sounds exactly like a footless trochaic line, and phrases such as “far outnumbered” continue the powerful rocking trochaic rhythm, in contrast to the doggedly iambic feeling of the octave, where the only trochaic words (“hunted” and “making”) are dutifully confined to their traditional and most impotent place in the first foot of the line.

The trochaic undercurrent of this poem is no surprise in the context of African American poetics; the trochaic meter has been used by African American poets as a powerful alternative to iambic meter in such poems as Cullen’s “Heritage” and Brooks’ “The Anniad.”
It’s hard to imagine “If We Must Die” in another kind of poetic form—a ballad, or quatrains, or free verse. Who would have thought the sonnet, known so well as the vehicle for plaintive or poignant poems of love, would also prove the perfect vehicle for McKay’s revolutionary call: at once big and loose enough for the pacing and circling of authentic power, and small and structured enough for the channeling and building of directed force? How can a poetic form be so versatile? We might as well ask, though, how can a human voice be so versatile? Something in the shape of the sonnet seems so well suited to convey human feeling that it can feel almost like a throat, a hand, a voice—and yes, also like a stanza or room that is especially well-proportioned to suit the human form.

Annie Finch’s books of poetry include Eve, Calendars, and The Encyclopedia of Scotland (Salt Publishing). Her other works include the definitive translation of the Complete Poems of Louise Labé, five anthologies of poetics, and the essay collection The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self (in the Poets on Poetry Series from University of Michigan Press). Her collaborations with theater, art, and dance include the libretto for the opera Marina. She is Director of the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Southern Maine.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Coach House/Snare Launch

Toronto poet Margaret Christakos read at the Montreal launch of Coach House and Snare Books along with seven other writers on Sunday night at the Green Room in Montreal. Host JP Fiorentino, charming as ever, kept the pace moving but it was still long, long, and yet, a good night all around. Highlights were Jeramy Dodds reading from Crabwise to the Hounds, Kyle Buckley's The Laundromat Essay, and Christakos reading from What Stirs. Montrealer Pasha Malla was clearly a crowd favorite and for good reason: the text is funny, accessible, and he knows how to work a crowd. Other readers included Concordia and Matrix's own Mike Spry in a witty turn that reminded me a little of early Corey Frost, and finally Michael Blouin, Geoffrey Hlibchuk and Mike Hoolboom. (Yes, that's two Mikes and a Michael in one night.) Of the fiction, which is harder to get a sense of in such a short reading, The Steve Machine stood out for it's utter quirkiness.

It isn't just the title of the Dodds book that appeals (though I do think a reference to Hound is always a good thing). The book--which I've not yet read in its entirety--seems to signal a continued synthesis of the best in Canadian poetics to me: a continuing complexity language and lyric modes, riffing simultaneously off the juicy syntax of the likes of Dennis Lee and Ken Babstock, as well as the procedural and language based modes of people like Christopher Dewdney, Christian Bok, Darren Wershler, Christakos herself, Rachel Zolf and others. I like that it references both Tim Lilburn and Dewdney and that it features a transliterated or homolinquistic translation of Ho Chi Minh, but I was a bit surprised to see it so slender.

Buckley's book also appealed on the strength of the reading alone. It's a narrative of detours and folds in on itself, a smart, self-reflective and expansive text--expansive is something that I crave these days. Take me out! Or perhaps more accurately, Think me Out.

There was another Montreal launch a while back: Oana Avasilichioaei's feria: a poempark, and Yedda Morrison's new book. This to add to the long list of books received and not yet reviewed, which includes Emily Shcultz, Jacob McArthur Mooney, Stephen Brockwell, Tim Lilburn, Mary Burger, Vanessa Place, Liz Treadwell, K.Silem Mohammad, Sachiko Murakami, Stephen Collis, Daphne Marlatt, Kate Greenstreet, Mary Burger, Dodie Bellamy, Alison Pick and so on.

More on Christakos reading to come shortly.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Biblioteca de Catalunya

Biblioteca de Catalunya, originally uploaded by lluisanunez.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Carol Moldaw reads Gjertrud Schnackenberg

Some said they heard the pegs squeaking in the holes
Of the lyre as if the god were setting a text

To the music of wooden wheels
On a stridulous cart passing out of Thebes

Forever—and indeed, nothing here is hidden,
And it never was, not even long before

These Thebans were brought to birth,
And eyeless Necessity unreeled

Her crimson thread
To angle it before the kitten-Sphinx

Flexing her paws on the steps
Of the Theban palace, a thread

She seized and lashed with her tiny claws—
Nothing is hidden,

But whether his eyes are open or closed
The god sees

A wooden cart that has left Thebes behind
In the far, far distance: a flea-circus cart ridden

By a miles-away, miniature king,
An irritable king, impetuous, Mycenaean,

Threatening with his goad—
And coming to visit the god,

Coming to inquire about the fate
Of the three-day-old he put aside.

The unnamed one. At the sight of which
The god stops the strings’ vibration

By pressing the strings with his palm,
As if he were patting the ashes

In overloaded urns, the ashes of tyrants
Packed with the dust of so many people:

This was the house of Labdacus;
These were the people of Thebes.

--from Throne of Labdacus, by Gjertrud Schnackenberg

The Throne of Labdacus
Supernatural Love: Poems 1976-1992
by Gjertrud Schnackenberg
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Review by Carol Moldaw

In “Laughing With One Eye,” an elegy for her father, and the first poem in her first book, Gjertrud Schnackenberg writes of her father’s filing cabinet, “Packed with years of writing working toward/ A metaphysics of impersonal praise” and, after reading Supernatural Love: Poems 1976-1992, which all but collects the poems from her first three books, “metaphysics of impersonal praise” seems a just way to describe the ambitions of her work as well. From the beginning, Schnackenberg’s poetics has been shot through with the historical and the moral: her intricate sometimes ornate style, her elaborate metaphors and extended sinewy syntax, her erudition, all have contributed to a sense of encompassing interconnectedness and inexorability in her work—the inexorability of fate, the interconnectedness of God and “the secret workshops/Of the silkworm”—of everything, if one only had the requisite depth of perception. In her new book length poem, The Throne of Labdacus, Schnackenberg maintains her complexity of vision while writing her most austere, and arguably most beautiful, work to date. Based on the story of Oedipus, The Throne of Labdacus is written in flexible occasionally rhymed couplets, and the couplets give the workings of Schnackenberg’s intertwined winding images room to breathe. The focus of the poem is less on Oedipus himself than on the relationship between the gods and humans, between the gods’ language and human language, between language and silence, and the “gap/Between what is done and what is seen,// What is seen and what is known.” Structured around a handful of recurring motifs such as the image of a housefly, the oracle’s “ruthless jewel,” Laius’ cart, the writing tablets of the gods, and the image of the god’s hand at the strings of his lyre “as if plucking a single fate/From a heap of entangled fates,” the poem unfolds in a deepening spiral.
originally published in The Antioch Review

Six Questions for Carol Moldaw

LH: Carol, Schnackenberg is a poet I keep hearing about but have never found my way to. Can you tell me how or when you discovered her work?

CM: I discovered Schnackenberg’s work either during college or shortly afterward. The first edition of her first book, Portraits and Elegies was part of Godine’s chapbook series. I was much taken with the opening poem, “Laughing with One Eye,” an elegy to her father, and in particular the dream sections in italics. My favorite one, the most lyrical, that ends “slowly quite/Slowly you turn blindly to me the white/Featureless deep lily of your face” was left out when the poem was reprinted in Supernatural Love. But in general, I found the intricacy of her work—the technical, intellectual, and emotional subtleties—impressive and memorable.

LH: I am most familiar with your collection, The Lightning Field, which I was going to describe as being far from the tight metrics of the selection above, but I realize that I was thinking of the title poem, and in fact the range of poems in that book is much more formal than I recalled. The beginning of "Anastylosis," for example:
Was it my wrist contused in the sarcophagic groove
Under a bas-relief horse’s red-stained hoof?
And the beginning of the title poem:
Four hundred equidistant stainless steel poles,
Twenty-five by sixteen, gird and grid the mile-long
Kilometer-wide field that was once a plain.
If I recall, you see the use of constraints as similar to more formal poetries. Does that also apply to your reading? Do you feel drawn to work that is similar to your own, or do you find yourself drawn to work that feels distant, challenging?

CM: Characterizing my own work is something I try not to do and don’t feel particularly adept at—if I’m drawn to work like my own it’s completely subliminal. When reading, something either intrigues me or it doesn’t; I can’t always say why. I do know that I can be attracted to work that seems very free, uninhibited, straight from the source—which is probably very different from mine—even as I’m aware that the sense of freedom that work gives off is the result of hard-won art. I like to be challenged in my reading, but I suppose it depends on what you mean by challenging. I like to have some ground, however narrow or precarious, to stand on. And by that I mean I want the work to give me a way in, to pique my interest, to arm the experience of reading with a certain pleasure rather than to be akin to the punishment of Sisyphus.

Formal constraints, or formal experiments, can be a great diversion for the conscious mind and can therefore release unconscious material and connections. These constraints can be metrical, but they can also involve other poetic techniques—repetition, rich sound patterns, stanza shape, the interweaving or extension of an image. When executed well, these techniques create a fabric so that a poem’s content and form are at one, inseparable, and this is of course among the delights that distinguish poetry. I don’t consider myself a formalist though and find the usual distinction between formalists and experimentalists rather shopworn.

LH: You have recently published a novel, haven’t you? This is a rather predictable trajectory for a Canadian poet, but isn’t it unusual for an American poet to move to the novel form?

CM: Yes, my novel The Widening was published by Etruscan Press this past spring. I don’t know how unusual a step it is for an American poet--Forrest Gander has also just come out with a short novel and I know a couple of other poets with novels-in-progress. I think a lot of novelists at one time or another wrote poetry, but that is a different story. For a moment, it looked as if American poets were all writing memoirs—perhaps there is a shift. I think there is a lot of excitement these days about the possibilities of cross-genre and it makes sense that poets, always sensitive to the impact of form, would experiment.

LH: Was it a difficult leap?

CM: Well, yes and no. The Widening is written in self-contained, lyrical segments, most of them under a page, and each segment is a kind of episode or moment in the character’s experience and consciousness. It takes a girl’s sexual experimentation as a vehicle for exploring her growing consciousness of self, and the book hews very closely, though not completely, to the girl’s point of view. So section by section and in regards to its interiority it is somewhat akin to poetry. In my poetic practice I’ve always been fascinated by syntax, by the relationship between the line and the sentence and the ways in which the structure of a sentence is one element controlling pace and the flow of information even as it maneuvers around, or is maneuvered by, a poem’s lines. I enjoyed letting sentences be unfettered for a change. The book as a whole is intricately woven though and constructing it was an interesting challenge.

LH: Are you working on poetry again?

CM: Yes, I’m working on new poems and very happy to be doing so. Poetry is my base and I certainly think I have more to explore there. I can’t imagine feeling finished with poetry, though sometimes poetry is finished with us. In 2010, Etruscan Press is going to publish a volume of my new and selected poems, So Late, So Soon.

LH: You live in New Mexico, far from the madding literary crowds. Or perhaps there are crowds there too? Do you think of yourself as part of a poetry community?

CM: There is a wonderful vibrant literary community in New Mexico and I very much think of myself as part of it. The poets Arthur Sze, Miriam Sagan, Mei-mei Bersenbrugge, Dana Levin, John Brandi, Renee Gregorio, Greg Glazner, Jon Davis, among others, are all very active. I find it a very supportive community. But I also think of myself as part of a far-flung community of poets: friends whose work I admire, who’ve been supportive of me and I feel supportive of, including some writers I’ve known since college, with whom I still exchange work. I’m not part of an easily defined group; it’s a very personal thing. And then, when you read a poem deeply that poem and the poet who wrote it become part of your community, whether you know the poet or not, whether the poet be living or dead.

Carol Moldaw was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She holds an A.B. from Harvard University and an M.A. from Boston University, and lives in Pojoaque, New Mexico with her husband, Arthur Sze, and their daughter, Sarah.

Moldaw is the author of a lyric novel, The Widening, and four books of poetry: The Lightning Field, Through the Window, Chalkmarks on Stone, and Taken from the River. A recipient of a Lannan Foundation Marfa Writer's Residency, a Pushcart Prize, and a National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, Moldaw's work is published widely in journals, including AGNI, Antioch Review, Boston Review, Chicago Review, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, FIELD, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Parnassus, Threepenny Review, and Triquarterly, among others, and in many anthologies, including Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry (McGraw-Hill) and Under 35: A New Generation of American Poets (Anchor-Doubleday).

Moldaw teaches at Stonecoast, the University of Southern Maine's low-residency M.F.A. program, and has conducted residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, taught at the College of Santa Fe and in the MFA program at Naropa University.

Montreal Launch

How Poems Works will be posted a little late this week, but it will be worth the wait. Meanwhile did you all see Jason Christie's excellent reading of Ryan Fitzpatrick, or a.rawlings reading of Donato Mancini??

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Amanda Earl

Amanda Earl, originally uploaded by johnwmacdonald.

BookThugs meet in Toronto to celebrate the launch of all sorts of new and exciting books.

Paul Hegedus (In Stereo), Philip Quinn (The SubWay), Victor Coleman (MAL ARME), Mark Goldstein (After Rilke), Amanda Earl (Welcome to Earth), and Steven Zultanski (This&That Lenin) will be reading from their new work.

Fall subscriptions packages will be available on site (get all 10 new titles for 25% off the cover price: $102) and you can (finally) become a card carrying member of BookThug Nation. Note if you can't make it or if you can't wait, you can purchase your subscription online at

Friday, October 10, 2008

Jason Christie reads Ryan Fitzpatrick

Ryan Fitzpatrick: This Poetry Seems Like a Good Racket

I am uneasy these days about my writing. I’m uneasy about the fact that language is at once a means of liberation from ideology and the mechanism that incarcerates me within it. Language forces me into a binding relationship with ideology that it would be irresponsible to deny. Poems that continue to operate solely on the surface level of discourse, dealing with the results of language, that continue to ignore the reality that we are entirely and thoroughly permeated by capitalist ideology, poems that continue to offer trite observations about the human condition or pithy political slogans tacitly reassure us that our way of delivering language is right without ever questioning what could be lurking in the background of our conversations. In a time defined by data and information, a time where the difference between the words swap and insurance can have drastic consequences, language is the direct route for ideology into our lives. We’re accustomed to ideology being obvious, state sanctioned political ads, marketing approved by lobbyists, down with The Man, but what happens when it is the medium as much as the message that is the delivery system?

I’m not advocating that writers should ostrich themselves into an avant-garde position that is no longer tenable, since the avant-garde gets cast as the bad boy in our hegemonic skit that makes every other person feel more securely (or insecurely) normal. We can no longer pretend that our very use of language to produce meaning or provide understanding is somehow worthwhile if we are being clever. Nor am I advocating that poets give up, or explode something to be radical. I think writers have settled into demonstrating the implacability of our position and often what gets touted as radical is merely symptomatic.

Faint glimmers are appearing in poetry books everywhere that suggest poets are moving beyond playing out a shocked stasis at our immersion in a capitalist culture cut off from the only means we thought we had for subversion: writing. Writers are beginning to move from contributing to the persistence of capitalist culture either as supportive force (lyric) or antagonistic force (avant-garde) and are directly criticizing the individuating forces that cause us to fragment, specialize and play the business game in the hopes we don’t disappear behind the next shiny façade like some second rate commercial. Without settling into either category, writers are beginning to effortlessly switch between avant-garde writing and lyric writing without the hand-wringing that usually accompanies such a movement.

I’m mainly interested by poetry that understands our complicated role as writers at a time when no matter what we are trying to say, we are always demonstrating our culpability with a system that benefits from its enmeshment with language and a lack of investigation of the same. Consider the following poem, taken from Ryan Fitzpatrick’s book Fake Math (Snare 2007).
This Poetry Seems Like A Good Racket

First off, my poem forgot how
peanut butter and jam tastes.
In kindergarten, a strong coffee
soap opera, my poem caught a fish.

Like a spoilt child, my budgie died.
Got kid deep in this dimlyness. Fog
of cadence a frog prince seems to like.
Shoot up the sky, a chirpy lullaby.

From true fireworks, rue voice soon burst.
Spare thee quarters when Klein takes
jobs in the junk. A jelly scansion drops
to the floor, a sack of strong coffee.
Fitzpatrick’s poem takes a shape that people with no interest in poetry can recognize; quatrains are a kind of nostalgic form but the words in his poem don’t follow the promise of familiarity that his form makes. He immediately introduces a tension between familiarity and difference, a tension that nostalgia has the power to ameliorate. Rather than let that tension between familiarity and difference disperse, he continues to wander back and forth across the nostalgic line. The form is reassuringly obvious, but the combination of words is frustrating, obscure and perplexing at first glance. Let’s take another look.

In the opening stanza of his poem, Fitzpatrick suggests something has been forgotten, that poems should be about sensual things, but a reader has to be wary in a poem with such an audacious title. For some people, peanut butter and jam are nostalgic triggers, and followed closely by kindergarten, strong coffee and soap operas, the metonymic chain adds up to a giant nostalgic hook. When Fitzpatrick writes that his poem caught a fish, we catch a glimpse of what he is doing with the highly nostalgic metonymy of the first stanza: poetry like his, poetry like the poems in the rest of his book, have forgotten to be nostalgic. More accurately, Fitzpatrick implies that poetry which falls into the category of being “a good racket” depends heavily on nostalgia, on acquainting us with our childhood selves, on authenticating those comfortable memories of peanut butter and jam, of the smell of strong coffee.

When Fitzpatrick writes that “[his] poem caught a fish” he refers to the nostalgic hook that writers use to capture an audience’s attention, to make us suspend our disbelief, make us stop looking at the medium and start paying attention to the message. Although Fitzpatrick employs the trick of nostalgia to invite his readers to relax into his poem, he eases us in with promises of peanut butter and jam, kindergarten, soap operas, he also pushes us out “like a spoilt child.” Sticking with the nostalgia leaves us “kid deep in this dimlyness” waiting for a frog prince to come along and tie everything up into a happy ending. Fitzpatrick frustrates and then provokes us to make sure we are awake (smelling the strong coffee) and paying attention to the devices that trick us into not paying attention while we are off imagining, transforming squiggles on a page into the first few years of our lives.

The successful catch in Fitzpatrick’s poem has a double hook: on the one barb he points to the fact that poems are often constructed with a hook, while on the other he attempts to pull us up out of our reverie to realize our predicament. The effect of this is to move beyond pointing at our immobility in the face of language (as writers and readers) and to provocatively tease the structures that would have us reify their solidity. Fitzpatrick isn’t saying nostalgia is bad – down with nostalgia and lyric poetry! – but he is advocating an awareness of what your art is trying to do to you akin to knowing whether or not the cold, crisp plums in your icebox are locally grown.

In the rest of the poem, Fitzpatrick works through the device of nostalgia and the potential for a political poetry that doesn’t depend on its intractable position as alternative or weird or one that offers pithy slogans in an attempt to sound involved in a larger debate. He works hard to create a thoughtful response to our predicament as people dependent on language in an age defined by data. What we get in his book are poetic equations that purposefully and frustratingly don’t add up even though they have the regular structure (stanzas, quatrains), typical content (childhood, pop culture), and sonic properties (internal rhyme) that suggest they should amount to a whole and proper poem. Scansion “drops to the floor” in the face of trying to adequately place his poem into a pre-defined category. Fitzpatrick combines the best of the lyric tradition with the compositional experimentation that has recently found its way into creative writing workshops everywhere to do something more than point awkwardly back at language and shrug. The last line of the poem reminds us that we can’t loll forever in a glib politic, that we can’t rest on weird laurels or pat ourselves on the back for being transgressive because the self-affirmed lyric poets don’t get it. Fitzpatrick reminds us that we might be nostalgic for the smell of strong coffee, but that coffee has a history. Someone filled the sack that provides for our tidy reminiscence.

Bio: Jason Christie is the author of Canada Post (Snare 2006) and i ROBOT (EDGE/Tesseract 2006). He is a coeditor of the Shift and Switch: New Canadian Poetry (Mercury 2005) anthology. Lately he has been writing about a forest. Some of these poems are featured online as a digital version of a chapbook by the exceptional people that run the Olive Reading Series in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The chapbook is called Like Wolves and can be found here. A previous post on Christie's iRobot can be found here.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The text is the text is the text

Or nothing is easier than making fun of Gertrude Stein.

A sharp reminder of both of these facts at the Colloque International on Gertrude Stein at UQAM last week. Marjorie Perloff gave a very good, old-fashioned close reading of Stein's portrait of Christian Berard. This reading it seems, was in response to the recent Poem Talk installment out of UPENN and KWH in which Jerome Rothenberg, Bob Perelman, and Lee Ann Brown discuss the poem in question. The Poem Talk episode is called "A Portrait, But of Who?" Does it matter if this is a portrait of Berard and not Picasso, the panelists wonder? And no the panelists seem to agree, it doesn't. The portrait, panelists suggest, is indicative of Stein's larger project in the portraits, a sweeping statement that conflates each portrait. Which means what? That it's all a wash? That one thing can be another?

The text, Perloff reminds us, should be the primary site of our thinking and investigating, not the existing criticism or biography. I'm sure it's a matter of time before Perloff publishes the essay, at which point I urge you to take a closer look. I'm tempted to recount the nuances of her reading here, but suffice to say there is clear evidence of the specificity of the portrait.

Other excellent presentations included Joan Retallack's "Language and Pleasure. Stein, Stein, Stein, Stein, Stein," which was itself a pleasure. What struck me in her presentation was simply the relief of hearing someone enjoy what they were reading and engaging with. Not trying to trump Stein (as other participants did), but engaging with the text. "If you enjoy it, you understand it," Stein said. I'm not convinced that it's that simple, but for a minute it's refreshing. There is something antagonistic about insistence that Retallack seemed to be saying gets at the "irrational, abject other within us..." that made good sense.

Barbara Cole, from SUNY Buffalo, gave a talk on Stein criticism, pointing out the overly-familiar and bodily attacks used in language of reviewers. She started out with an anecdote about Jerry Seinfeld talking to Merv Griffin and Griffin interjecting a Steinian line that Seinfeld doesn't get, tries to fold into his joke, etc. Tried to find that one on youtube because it sounds too good to be true. And hoping to hear more from Cole about her work in the coming weeks. The language of criticism really needs to be examined.(On a side note, TC Boyle reads Tobias Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain," a biting send up of a critic's last moments over at the New Yorker fiction podcasts.)

Lianne Moyes offered a reading of Gail Scott's My Paris, illuminating the use of French, and outlining some differences between Scott's Paris and Stein's Paris, while tracing influences and tensions in Scott's novel. More precisely, compositional strategies versus description. How much universilizing and erasure happens around Stein's commas? And what of Scott's use of the comma to include translation? I'm looking forward to the paper, and wanting to re-read My Paris with this in mind.

Unfortunately my French isn't good enough to report on the papers given by the French academics, but what I understood of Jean-Francois Chassay's "Euphemisme et politique: Stein et la bombe atomique," was brilliant. Made me want to do a reading of it here myself. Indeed how can we think about the atomic bomb? I mean really. Have a look at Stein's poem on the bomb here. "If I were a general I would never lose a battle, I would only mislay it..."
Journalist: Why don't you write the way you talk?
Stein: Why don't you read the way I write?
Finally, Jacques Roubard was there looking stately and absolutely warm and appealing--though much of what he said alas went right over my head due to language, not lack of clarity. There's a good review of Roubard over on Eyewear.

You can hear the Poem Talk segment here, and also subscribe to it in iTunes. There are other excellent readings, particularly the Armantrout and Berrigan. It's a great series.

Oh, and Rob Winger points out that Arc Magazine in Ottawa has been featuring How Poems Work segments, available here.

PS, found this bit of audio from Al Filreis over at Poem Talk that features Marjorie Perloff talking about Stein's Portraits, though not the one in question above. Things are always more complicated...

Monday, October 06, 2008

Does poetry matter? On the one hand a poet like Mahmoud Darwish, clearly motivating a generation of people. On the other, the recent uproar over the Issue 1 Anthology that Ron Silliman, Kenneth Goldsmith and others have commented on. Kind of gets at the crux of the North American contemporary poetry scene by holding a mirror up to its nose. All these poets with google alerts. Is everyone really simply reading and looking for their own reflection? The comments are pretty funny. You can read a note from the editor here, and the comments here.

Friday, October 03, 2008

a.rawlings reads Donato Mancini

How Poems Work: “Subjecthood and the Light Verb” by Donato Mancini
by a. rawlings

It is Tuesday afternoon in August. Like the past few Tuesdays, I visit with Holden F. Levack, a recent high-school graduate keen on words. Holden flips through Donato Mancini’s second poetry collection, Æthel, selecting as our subject the fourth poem in the book, “Subjecthood and the Light Verb.” This visual poem sits opposite the cheekily titled “This Poem Is Making You Smarter.” Both poems appear to hover in white space, masses of black ink curled in loops and swoops.

As its moniker suggests, the primary emphasis in visual poetry is on a text’s graphic presence. Any printed poem has a visible quality to it, and it is often useful to consider during interpretation a poem’s physical shape and the interplay between the poem-object’s materials (most frequently black ink printed on white background). In Mancini’s Æthel, the viewer is invited to place emphasis on the visual materiality of the text.

Holden and I stare at “Subjecthood and the Light Verb,” and then catalogue the shapes suggested by black ink on white page:
  • crucifix
  • underside of a ribbon for a present (you know those pre-made, sticky ribbons?)
  • directional arrow (North, East, South, West)
  • explosion
  • quadrants
  • rafflesia, hibiscus
  • anchor with wave
  • fish hooks
  • eyes of a needles
  • fork
  • crossroads
  • borders
Next, we close the book and list our recollections of the poem:
  • rococo or curlicue pattern
  • strong presence of fours
  • forced and sustained separation
With this backdrop of initial observations, Holden and I open the book again to examine our specimen. We dialogue.

ANGELA: The prominent top ascender of the ‘cross’ intrigues me. The curled serif intercepts the strong black line of the ascender, creates a white space overtop of where a black line should peek through the vacant space of the serif’s loop. This section of the poem piques my eye similarly to optical illusions. I thought I was looking at one fluid, interconnected pen mark, but this overlay shatters my assumption. What physical depth is at play within this poem? Is the white space opaque? Is it not empty? How is white space on a page never empty, but actually matter itself, capable of covering text?

HOLDEN: I’m intrigued by the frills around the outside of the poem, blooming. What was once a stable structure now opens, or falls, apart. What was once an ordered structure has since fallen into chaos.

ANGELA: This raises a question. What part of the structure, for you, came first?

HOLDEN: My impulse tells me the cross structure.

We stare at the page.

ANGELA: My eye is constantly drawn to the upper left-hand quadrant.

HOLDEN: Neat that we can name hemispheres, quadrispheres.

ANGELA: Yes, such an act feels like identifying stanzas within a line-based poetic structure. And the four quadrants or ‘stanzas’ within this poem have a similar overall quality though their individual marks are distinct, as though they rhyme.

We stare at the upper left-hand quadrant.

ANGELA: Arguably, this quadrant holds one of the larger blobs of ink. Notice it has a small white speck in it. It appears to have, within the poem, the most density of ink with least amount of white. The rest of the text has relative width consistency. This blob also appears framed within a curlicue (centred as though an apple’s core).

HOLDEN: In another quadrant, we’d find a lot of loops, but here it feels as though it’s coagulated.

ANGELA: The blob’s shape looks like a fish; this is possibly noteworthy given the earlier mention of anchor and crucifix.

HOLDEN: Yes, looks strongly like a Jesus fish – which brings me to something else I was thinking about: bottom left-hand quadrant. It reminds me of frogs. I see two frogs.

We shift our eyes to the bottom left-hand quadrant, where Holden traces black loops to delineate frog-shapes.

HOLDEN: Perhaps this parallels the fish.

ANGELA: Interesting how, when we start to identify visual shapes within the chaos, we can’t unsee the named shapes.

Holden and I take a little time to write down our thoughts. Mine emerge a wobbly, questing paragraph:

When we read poetry, we’re often looking for familiar letter-shapes that will uncover some meaning in how they interact with one another (to form words, for example). With an alphabet-based, lined poem, the shapes we interpret come ready-made in the form of letters and we engage them second-nature, without questioning how we identify and perceive each individual mark on the page and how all of the marks visually interact with one another. In Mancini’s poem, the familiar letter-forms are stripped away, offering instead an invented script that invites the reader to seek meaning through its visual materiality. How do I “read” this poem? How do I break down its visual components into something I might “understand?” Can I identify familiar (even archetypic) shapes within the visual poem? How do I begin to assemble an understanding of those shapes through their position on the page and juxtaposition with other shapes? How might I structure a narrative out of the interaction of these shapes?

Because the title exists in the page’s footer, Holden and I choose to grapple with it last. In his acknowledgements, Mancini suggests Æthel’s index-poem “proposes a theoretical framework for visual/concrete poetry.” With the list of compiled and composed lines, Mancini hints that some lines may be cribbed from fellow authors (and his acknowledgements corroborate this theory). We search Google for the titular phrase “Subjecthood and the Light Verb” in case it is, in fact, an allusion or direct lift from another text: no results. We hunt in reference books for definitions of ‘subjecthood,’ ‘subject,’ ‘-hood,’ and ‘light verb.’

Is ‘subjecthood’ a word? What does it mean? If not, what could it mean? Unable to find a tidy definition, we set about building our own.

subject: person or thing being described, discussed, dealt with
hood: denotes condition or quality; denotes collection or group
subjecthood: the condition of being described; a collection of things being discussed
Wikipedia informs us that a ‘light verb’ is a verb with “little semantic content of its own…; participates in complex predication (compound verbs),” and may provide some light indication of “event-semantics, such as aspect, mood, or tense” (ie. started reading).

Equipped with these definitions, our title conjures questions for us. How does a light verb in complex predication resemble a thing before it has been overloaded with symbolism? How could the visual poem suggest a thing needing to be discussed, calling into question how we interpret something, when we are interpreting?

The poem stares at us – attempts to decipher nostril curvature, ocular circles housed in circles, wind-whipped hair. The poem fashions us into the kind of narrative that would best comfort or challenge it today. The ‘we’ in the room becomes the ‘it,’ and vice versa. Each shakes a body all around; that’s what it’s all about.
a.rawlings’ first book, Wide slumber for lepidopterists (Coach House Books, 2006), documents a night in the life of Northern Ontario. rawlings co-edited Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry (The Mercury Press, 2005), co-organized The Lexiconjury Reading Series (2001-6), hosted Heart of a Poet (2005), and facilitates sound/text/movement workshops (2003-now). Her escapist fantasies feature kynlíf með álfum, Ghentish snails, and a theremin; and yes, someday she will escape. Meanwhile she blogs here.