Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review by Martin Abramson
By Pierre-Albert Jourdan
Translation by John Taylor
Chelsea Editions,
New York, New York
$20, 332 pp. Paper

Reprinted with permission from Book/Mark,Summer/Fall 2011 Issue.

Pierre-Albert Jourdan, almost unknown today in his native land, had been honored in 1987 with a collected edition of 512 pages by Mercure de France and had thereafter been promptly forgotten, the collection allowed to go out of print. High praise from such luminaries as Jacques RĂ©da, Yves Bonnefoy and Philippe Jaccottet have failed to produce a new edition in France; but thanks to the efforts of John Taylor, we English speakers have a generous selection of Jourdan’s work in a beautiful, bilingual edition which is miraculous both in terms of the original poetry and Mr. Taylor’s translation. The author of several weighty studies of French literature, many published translations and several books of original poetry, John Taylor is eminently qualified for this task.
Mr. Taylor offers us a goodly sampling of extracts from Jourdan’s books: The Language of Rising Smoke, The Dead Angle, The Entryway into the Garden, The Straw Sandals, The Approach, At the Mercy of Maxims, Journal Pages and Fragments. And the facing translations make much of the material accessible in the original, even for high school French scholars like this reviewer.
The poems are so incredibly rich that it’s impossible to just read this book continuously like a novel. Each sentence sends the imagination spiraling off into a different spectrum of images and memories. Each phrase may be savored and contemplated as a separate poem.

A knife! The tiny gash in the forest!

The fragrance of cypress beneath the eyelids.

The solar ladder up which the lizard climbs…

…the road of reality narrows to a tightrope.

Mysterious alms of the foliage…

A whispering leaf can be heard through dense forests.

…the sound of a distant flute crossing the ages…

The curse lies in the threshold being laid like this.

…the wind that is beating between the hedges…

…a remote song that rolls in to die as foam on the sand of today.

The grass keeps its heaviness of flesh…

A gunshot dragging a whole season behind it…

All gestures are petrified, coated with moss.

…ecstatic armfuls of possibilities.

I have picked out pregnant phrases that resonate for me. Most of them are embedded in paragraphs that are enriched by their presence just as they themselves are enhanced by their contexts. Many other images will resonate for you as well.
Most of the pieces are written in a mixture of prose and vers libre. The most easily recognizable as poems appear in the first, second and last sections: “The Language of Rising Smoke”, “Fragments” and “The Straw Sandals”:

…the shapeless kite is like a mauve cinder in the sky.

A rooted nothingness.

A single teardrop in which the world trembles.

A moment too acute for words to come out unscathed.

…words must go through a body in order to come to light…

Tomorrow we will have brand new blindfolds.

The shadow of a wing on the plaster. The plaster flakes off, the wing rots. The flight remains…

Let us allow this voice to grow quiet, it is lying in wait. Let us leave the field open.

Pieces in the second half of the book tend to be shorter and less interrelated. Jourdan honors France’s long history of maxims and aphorisms, following La Rochefoucauld, Chamfort and Joubert, by composing dozens of his own. In the middle sections of the book (one is actually entitled “Maxims”) Jourdan scatters tweets, blog-notes,diary entrees,anecdotes,quotations and more prose-poems. They range from the profound to the prosaic.

The “straw sandals” that give the last section its title are not footwear for the beach but standard hospital supplies. It’s material occupies half the content of this volume. Facing death as his body slowly gave in to the inevitable, and tied to the hospital’s umbilical, here Jourdan left us his deepest thoughts about life and death. They are in diary form and dated. Those included in this collection extend from Jan.1, 1980 to July 21, 1980. Others continue to April 1981, the year of his demise.

The “I will never have enough time” has not been digested. Not vomited back up. It is like a lump that keeps going up and down. Sunday, 6 January

You have to climb all the way up to the branch that is too fragile if you wish to perceive clearly what is happening below. Thursday, 10 January

You lead your life between layers of paper. Monday, 4 February

That the abyss is a mere crack does not mean that it cannot swallow you up at any moment. Wednesday, 6 February

Living thus from beginning to end, in incompleteness. Monday, 25 February

Even by scratching away at this sheet of paper every day, I will not be able to uncover the radiant fresco underneath the shadows piling up on it every day. Wednesday, 5 March

They came and showed their wounds because wounds were all they had to bind them to the world. Monday, 7 April

Light suddenly bursts out as if projected from an exasperated desire. Monday, 21 April

The butterfly…on the stone half-opens its wings as someone might turn the pages of a precious illuminated manuscript. Sunday, 27 April

We will not overcome this defeat unless we wholly accept it. Wednesday, 25 June

Thought puts on its cloth slippers. But the room with its polished wooden floors is empty, and the furniture has been covered over. No one is there. Tuesday, 2 December

The pathos of these last words depicting the poet’s pain and debilitation cannot be exaggerated. But it is enthralled into a kind of stoic resignation laced generously with light, splendor, natural beauty and profound wisdom. We are deeply indebted to Chelsea Editions for making this important body of work available, and to John Taylor for supplying not just a literal translation into English sentences, but a luminous transmutation into English poetry.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Book Review by Martin Abramson

Moonlight in the Redemptive Forest by Michael Daley
Pleasure Boat Studios: A Literary Press, New York , NY
$16.00, 111 pp, Paper

Review first published in Book/Mark Spring 2011

This collection is difficult in the manner of much modern poetry; much indeed of the very best. It recalls styles practiced by poets like Pound or Ashbery: elliptical, fragmented, personalized, ambiguous, with missing referents, elusive meanings and seemingly random geographical or temporal settings. But if poetic abundance is an indication, Mr. Daley has indeed achieved a form of ‘redemption’ in his re-creation of a long, eventful life. A list of some the book’s major venues would include Poland , Turkey , Auschwitz , Maine , Oregon and New York . Some of the characters who appear include members of the poet’s family, either viewed directly or in parable. They are often offered with titles that revisit Chaucer: “The Daughter’s Tale”, “The Wife’s Tale” and so on.

One of the more accessible works is “The Pariah’s Tale”. The “Pariah” has been an unwelcome guest of “sour odor’ who “spilled” his “bowl on the table or dropped” his “pants to the neighbors.” He's a self-imposed exile who arrives in a foreign land, a “little island,” without any of the memories or mental detritus of a former life. It's a place where the church and schoolhouse are “locked in the daytime” and an “eagle circles the courthouse”: a courthouse stuffed with superfluous writs:

"You could scavenge all your life the bones of our romance with justice unfurled on a morning's swashbuckling breeze."

He swims out to steal fish from gulls, gill-netters and pleasure boats. “Over the rail the shadow of” his “head in the water/ fills with white foam” joining his “... petty brain to vegetable flotsam”.
He finally cries:

“Who will love me? Who will want me now? Keeper of rock, oasis in space.
I have drifted so far from the map now everybody’s angry.”

“The Child's Song” conveys a unique loveliness that expresses a child's perception of the natural world.

“Thunder on the rocky beach… wild strawberry…Indian Paintbrush, orange and black. …And the sky goes to stars, their milk filling the body of the Bear…” The child stares at the “shapeless sea…where we must go…out from the boughs of the forest.”

The truth of these poems is always concealed behind veils of hallucinatory diction. In “Moonrise After Moonrise”, Mr. Daley gives us a quick synopsis of earth’s history: “Stone age, Golden Age, Silver, Bronze Age, Iron Age” etc. followed by snapshots of our own era and its faults:

"When log trucks are slave ships,
patches of ground burned bare of mystery—
…the figure of virtue no longer suitable in halls.."

Clear enough, but what are we to make of associated lines like these:

"memoirs of criminals snatched from their sewing machines…
…terrazzo floors mutter the steps of prizewinners
…sacred groves machete forbade in, rusts in..."

Of course they are highly charged and dramatically suggestive, but they contain no clues to syntactical relationships and might suggest such radically different things to different readers that those expecting some sort of cohesiveness, have cause to complain. In a brief but glowing addendum, the poem contrasts the simple but pure consciousness of a robin hopping “down the branch into thick rhododendrons … a moment she remains eternal within”, with the preceding evils of civilization.

A beautiful poem called “On Air”, which provides glimpses into several biographies, changes scene and character abruptly in the manner of “The Wasteland”. (Daley borrows even more obviously from Eliot’s, “Ash Wednesday” in “The Daughter’s Tale” which repeats the “Because” opening throughout; also in the obvious spoof, “La Figlia Che Concupisce…”) At any rate, “On Air” begins with the child awakening at his grandmother’s house: “Lit dew halos my curtain.” The Second World War is raging and his father bluffs his way into the air force (reiterating the theme of air). Then it’s 1961 and the boy is living with his uncle Danny Donovan, a fisherman, who regales the young man with homespun philosophy: “He said,/ now I shall live to see what no one in the last decade…could live to believe”. In the next section, the narrator, having “lost my faith in air”, takes to riding the rails, meeting strange characters and having unsettling dreams and many dream-like experiences.

"where was it? Reno ? Albuquerque ?—
when one of Jesus’ shoeless boys sang on the night air,
and walked the desert calling all us drifters?"

We get a last look at his grandmother “…waving on the porch she rides/ past Jupiter and Venus”. And we close as the father, standing in the cockpit of a warplane over the Aleutians,exults in his freedom:

"you leaned into the ear of the pilot a low
whistle, a sigh, a breath, laughing on the air."

Hopefully the foregoing is sufficient to give the reader some of the flavor of this highly idiosyncratic poet. There are many poems that sing the sensations of childhood. There are several long poems such as “Teacup & Cookie” or “Frankie The Milkman’s Song”, which contain a wealth of images, experiences and human emotions that are well worth close study, but present deeper complexity than can be examined in a short review. I can confidently recommend Moonlight in the Redemptive Forest as both a notable instance of postmodern style and an extraordinarily rich quarry of poetic invention.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Exit Lines by Kevin Brown
Reviewed by Martin Abramson

Exit Lines
Plain View Press
Soft Cover, 101 pages
ISBN 978-1-935514-34-3

Link to Purchase

Striking cover art by Danielle Lesperance is our entrance to Exit Lines, poems by Kevin Brown. The poems can be roughly divided into two major categories: religion and lost love. As a follower of no religion, I often wonder that the great religious poetry of Donne, Hopkins and Eliot moves me so deeply. Of course it’s great poetry. But perhaps there’s some innate wish to believe in all of us. At any rate, I was strongly affected by Brown’s evocations of faith.

In “The End is Near”, Mr. Brown speculates that the homeless man, the pimp, the prostitute, the street-corner prophet and the schizophrenic who sees holy visions, might be actual harbingers of heaven. But we’ll never know because we have “mangled the mystery of God”. Forms of this mangling are cited.
“Fortune Telling” describes the various ways we seek to know the future: astrology, therapists, tea leaves. “And/while we arm wrestle/ with our destiny, today/ has us pinned to the mat”. While our Elijah’s and Isaiah’s are consigned to the desert

…Those who have ears to
hear have turned up the volume of the TV,
claiming to want to know the state of affairs,
but it is only the glow they wish to see.

In “The Church of Divine Reality, Inc,” the writer asks who is financially responsible for all the damage done by religious fanatics. “Someone has to take responsibility/ for God, after all; it’s not like/ we want him running wild”.
In “The Saint of Lost Things”, the poet yearns for the innocent pleasure he once took in small things like “the baseball signed by Carl Yastrzemski”… when he did not fear…

the tomorrows, which wait for me
like a second-rate bill collector
who would rather break my knee
than see me pay off my debts.”

The powerful “Begging for Blessings” contrasts the minor favors he might ask of God, such as clearing a traffic jam so he can get home early, with prayers for cancer cures or for dead children; where people “face God with/ their fists, stare down the divine,/ and dare him…while I wheedle and whine”.
“Memory Lapse” reminds us how in foxholes or in falling planes, we turn to God; but on the days when “we’re skimming the/ surface of life”, the days “between horror/ and hallelujah”, we forget Him.
“Entertaining Angels” has the speaker wondering what to serve angels: popcorn? hors d’oeuvres? And what sort of movies would they like to watch: “perhaps they/ like Bergman”. When they leave, assuring him ominously that they’ll return, the speaker doesn’t get it. He thinks “next time/ I’ll be ready. I’ll even have dessert”.
“After Effects” is a slightly undecided work that says some interesting things about Lazarus and pointlessly compares him with Jesus in terms of after-death experience.
“I Forgot To Ask About the Checkout Time:” strikes me as an ingot of burning truth. Especially the last two lines.

And it was at that point, in the
midst of my tirade, that
He reminded me that life is
like a cheap motel:

you get the basic necessities, if
you’re lucky, some of which may
not work and none of which
will be clean; you’ll share
the space with creatures
you would prefer
not to have any contact with;
and your wake-up call
will come
when you least expect it.

And anything else you want,
you’ll have to pay dearly for.

Brown generates considerable voltage in “Seeing the Light” when he tells us:

…its flash
sears saints as easily as

it does devils; its
radiance rips apart the
lives of the lovely and

the losers alike. We
would be better served
if, instead of hoarding

flashlight batteries,
we spent our seasons
staring at the sun.

Some of the secular poems edge toward the didactic and some of the religious poems lean towards sermonizing e.g. “The Last Sunset” or “Soul Searching”. “Moot Point” contains the just plain silly stanza:

Can I not even leave a
message for the messiah,
or is the call waiting
out of order?

“Serving Grace”, on the other hand, is an excellent poem and a good example of the extended metaphor style that we find in the ‘lost love’ poems. It sees God as a cook, the waiters as clergymen “mumbling about their/tips” and the customers as petulant children who do not deserve the steak they have and who “forget that there are those who/ have never seen a steak”.
“The International Forgiveness Institute” is the scene of an earthly interview that captures the speaker’s rush to authenticate his moral innocence as it crashes into heaven’s adamantine beaurocracy, where the interviewer keeps asking, “Why? Why? Why? Why?” And he feels that he will be “answering/ her questions for the rest of my life”.
There are echoes of T.S. Eliot in the last stanza of “Day One” and in “Garbage Day”, Mr. Brown paraphrases Dylan Thomas as he claims that the discarding of our gods and prophets “separates us from our/ minds and hearts” and that “…the divine/ conflict rages, rages against/ the dying of their lives”.
“In Search Of” is a Zen-like poem that contrasts holy suffering with ineffectual attempts at humor:

Getting through the fiery
furnace is easy, but what
good is a religion that won’t
help you do the dishes?

“A Second Chance, Of Sorts” is a truism and “Alternative History” is naively ironic. “Salvation” is as subtle as a barker’s sales pitch. But “We Are All Savages” delves into the flesh of life to come up with a philosophically significant revelation. After posing a list of vicious and sinful acts people commit, Mr. Brown concludes that our real guilt is not in the evil things we do “but because we have our reasons for doing so”. Anyone who can come up with insights like that is well worth our time.
While “Habits of the Heart” seems too easy; its companion piece, “A Vocabulary of Faith”, strikes a deeply authentic note in describing a woman who finds her salvation in a warm coat, her grace in a serving of pie and her “Amen” in her bed of castaway clothes.

Formally, Mr. Brown employs short sentences with occasional rhymes and a preference for dactylic meter. They are loosely set out in blank verse with enjambment deployed freely throughout.
The sequence of ‘lost love’ poems begins with “Left Standing At the Alter”, a tribute to the callow, superficial groom who gets shoved aside at the last minute when the true hero claims his bride. There’s the implication that ‘jilted John’ may have really loved the girl and that his pain, like ours, “…continues long past/ the last box of popcorn and/ the exit of the cleaning crew”.
Most of these poems are built around extended metaphors. “The Dictionary of Failed Relationships” uses a reference book that, in the end, “could never define/ the complexity of our love”.
“Diagramming Won’t Help This Situation” centers on the rules of grammar.
Newspaper form provides the analogy for “Bury the Lead”.
Falling is the metaphor for “Lover’s Leap At Rock City”.
Interesting uses of negation are employed in “Not What It Seems”, “Not For Nostalgia’s Sake”, and “Cupid’s Pockets Aren’t That Deep”.
The title poem uses the theater metaphor with the usual “missed cues, unspoken lines”. But the parallel effort, “No Exit, Stage Left Or Right”, is more successful; instead of just ‘skulking away’ as in “Exit Lines”, he ends up standing on a

darkling stage with nothing
but a crumpled playbill and
bad reviews to show for my life.

“Equal to Zero” applies mathematical terms to the defeat of the relationship.
“Eco-Friendly” begins as a circus act and ends in a trash heap after the author’s figurative “two and a half somersault/ with a twist” leaves him “lying flat on my face/ at the bottom/ of the/ big/ top”.
Other examples use “Method Acting”and “Molecular Biology” to provide the frameworks. The problem with the extended metaphor is that it resembles a conceit…a puzzle, where the reader becomes an ally of the poet as both search for terms that justify the analogy. And more often than not, the original passion is lost in the word play.
Other ‘lost love’ poems rehearse the history of the relationship, or recall certain poignant moments or reflect on the meaning of their failure… sometimes with sorrow, sometimes anger, sometimes resignation. All the stages of mourning are here and the author’s pain bleeds through the most contrived pieces. Mr. Brown is a moving writer and no one can doubt his agony, but we can wish for a mode of expression that transcends and masters it more effectively.

Reviewed by Martin Abramson.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

At the Threshold of Alchemy

Book Review by Martin Abramson
At the Threshold of Alchemy
by John Amen
Presa Press
Rockford, Michigan
$13.95, 85 pp, Paper

Writing perilously At The Threshold of Alchemy, John Amen occasionally crosses over that crucial threshold to places where this reviewer fears to follow. Thankfully, most of the works in this collection remain this side of the mystically obscure and are well worth considering.

The collection offers many short pieces and several lengthy ones. Mr. Amen who typically composes in 12-syllable lines (sometimes expanded into prose-like periods of fifteen to twenty syllables) employs a quasi-conversational tone that partially conceals a deeply underlying poetic core.

Love is the theme of many of these pieces, a frequent subject being the author’s wife, Mary. These poems display great depth, often concealed by a deceptive clarity.

Simply your profile
as you sit in the eggplant dusk
on the edge of the bed.
That I could somehow touch
your future lives with my love.

From, “Dharma”:

You were driving, and I was mesmerized
by October, the wonder glow, your secrets
sitting between us like a chaperone.

From, “Ellen”:

…You really were a Texas girl, Ellen.
I’m glad I kept this snapshot, you on that terrace
in a purple dress and Stetson, watering a bougainvillea.

The tribute called, “Portraits of Mary” is the longest piece in the book at twenty 13-line stanzas. And Mary resides at the epicenter of the author’s identification with alchemy. Ecdysiast, goddess, white witch, lioness, maiden, crone, Kali, Persephone. She is “tapped by the divine”. “Masks/ crumpled at her feet”; “colored stones and purple orchids” fill her hallsit’s easy to see why the poet adores her freedom and artistry. But his terrifying memories of a smothering “mother despising me” create a second, sadistically fantasized Mary who inspires “protracted/ scenarios of bondage”; visions of “mammoth breasts” and “labia lined with incisors”. He then becomes a “ravenous swine/ groveling at Circe’s feet”, a viper who has “slithered through lifetimes to find you”. He perversely wails, “The comfort you create/ wrangles me; I am, I suppose, in love with barbs/ and brambles”.
Mary’s human side is also evident. She is seen “rummaging/ in the…sofa for loose change…her sugar levels plunging’. She rides “a riptide of tears…arrow lodged in her spine”. Yet the poet maintains, “We’re collecting ripe moments,/ rushing towards death”. And he concludes, “Mary, our blessings, they hang in the air like dragonflies”.
While Mary, “tired of being responsible, wants/ to skip through the desert in cowboy boots, topless”, he’s running errands and doing the laundry. At the mall, she buys shoes and chocolate, and on the way back, stops to rescue a dead hawk. As he struggles with dozens of household necessities, she insists they “feng shui every room, eliminating all traces/ of entropy and disrepair”. But he “can’t/ bloom in a place where nothing is broken”. “Envy wanders the suburbs” as Mary peacefully sleeps and her lover dreams of: “The bloody knife in the hamper. The pistol/ rattling in the drawer”. He wonders, “For how many lifetimes have I played the saboteur?” Yet there is no resisting

…Mary naked in the doorway. Mary folding
sweaters in the kitchen. Mary meditating. Mary modeling
a green belt. Each image…a mandala
at the turnstile of oblivion.

Stanza viii is a powerful depiction of the contrast between a Jew (Amen) and a Christian (Mary); the former ranting about the Holocaust, the latter tending the garden. While she “basks in her/ emerald sea of Anglican protocol…buoyant with logic and Greco-Roman efficiency”; for him, “Smoke belches from the drains./ Ghosts everywhere, their tattoos still blazing”. And later: “She tosses me a Coptic cross wrapped in a snakeskin”.
Her example teaches him “to fall in love with particulars”, to appreciate “a meticulous yoking of polarities…balanced symbiosesatoms, protons, neutrons/ quarks, antiquarks”. And when she leaves, “a heaviness/ pervades the house” as the poet darkly ponders the “divine energy passing/ through doomed animal forms.” He concludes: “Please Mary, wrap up your explorations./ Come home soon…”

Several of these poems speak of friends, alive and dead. In “Triptych”, Levine pours out his paranoid terrors en route to the Mental Health Center. Elsewhere, the author is seen drinking all night with friends of the comatose “Martin” whose self-destructive habits led him to a fatal collision. “Jim” cannot conquer his addiction to booze “…a force field/ palming his brain, his soul in the grip of a current stronger/ than love or logic”. Jim, who, after ignoring endless efforts to help him, stopped returning the author’s calls. When he sees Jim’s ‘jowly’ mug staring up from the obits page, the exasperated author simply grunts: “Fuck you, Jim”. In “Icons” he remembers Scott whose repressed rage suddenly emerges when he beats a mugger bloody. “

Some of the most affecting poems tell of the author’s mother; her life and death. In “Burying the Story”, we’re told how, in the year he and his wife ministered to her cancer, the stress “gutted” his libido and resulted in the wreck of the marriage. In “What I Haul Along”, alluding to his mother, he mentions that he will “…retrieve my testicles from lockboxes and/ cadenzas of despair”. “Salient Matters” begins with his mother’s funeral and the terrors that reverberate through the author’s young life and finally result in his addiction. In “Enough is Enough”, the author realizes that his mother “…was simply a child sent to a boarding school too early”. After her parties, fights between his mother and his furiously jealous father would have the youthful author “…running a mad gauntlet between house and lawn,/ engineering truces between mad giants”. Haunted by their strife all his life, the liberated author finally avers, “Valerie, Bill, I no longer need to keep your graves unmarked”.
An attempt at surrealism called “History” begins, “The detective whispers to the nun,/seven girl scouts held hostage in a library.”
“All Night (or Kyros: The Eternal Moment)” takes first place for name-dropping. Practically every famous or notable person you ever heard of is described doing absurd and outlandish things during the course of a Walpurgisnacht that hop scotches all through history and across the globe.
“Rampage” seems to be a derivative of “The Waste Land” complete with quotes in German, French, Russian, Greek, Italian, Chinese; and, of course, endnotes.
“Gnostic” succeeds as surrealism thanks to more carefully controlled language and strong details:

…you collected rusted
padlocks and frayed wallets. your rooms were filled with blank journals and
unused paints. you wrote songs on your father’s guitar.

So much of this material is shot through with biographical agony that we are tempted to quote Mr. Amen’s “Enough is Enough”. Still, there are things to admire in “Culmination”, “”Birthday” and the seven “Missives”.

There is fine poetry and lots of it in this volume. Even the blemishes are vivid and engaging. Yet this reviewer regrets that the poems mentioned in the last few paragraphs were not replaced by work up to the distinguished level of the rest. Mr. Amen wields an arresting style and imaginative brilliance; I look forward to reading his next poetic oeuvre.