Monday, January 17, 2005

Morning Reading Roundup

The new Jubilat is outstanding, to judge from its first sixty pages. It kicks off with a baroque list-poem extracted from Rabelais and is followed by poems by Timothy Donnelly and Kelly Smith. Timothy's poem, "The Last Dream of the Light Released from Seaports," is a sinister piece of unacknowledged legislation; its speaker, who occasionally addresses a factotum named "Wendy," reminds me of nothing so much as a Dale Cooper who, after his possession by Bob, has returned to Washington as Undersecretary of Homeland Security. Smith's poem, "The Gulf," manages a kind of sensual abstraction that I admire with lines like the first and the last: "Beach tar on the soft / humidity of bruises" and "we were thinking again: bull or matador? / water flexed many spines          what glides". A real standout follows: a selection of e-mails from a pair of researchers who spent three months or so tracking penguins in Antarctica. It demands and refreshes all the tired adjectives you could ever want to apply to nonfiction prose: beautiful, inspiring, funny, haunting, sad. Michael Earl Craig has a couple of poems in the style of the Ashberian pop culture surreal that I like—plus he manages to write about Montana in a way that makes it recognizably one of These States while rendering it as strange as it and These States really are. Malinda Markham's "In the Fifth Position of Asking" does nice things with uneven couplets, in which the first line is many stresses shorter than the second and so, aided by compressed syntax, the second seems to hurtle into the first of the next line like an inmate running into a padded wall:
A horseback
Soldier wrapped the head in twine its color not

The accident you'd think. A breastplate
To sleep in a wall around the skin. In the sky

The Maypole
Will sever and drown. Sing the child said and covered

Its body with leaves
Sandra Miller's "Oriflamme" (a book by that title is forthcoming from Ahsahta) is a longer, truly lovely poem using little centered units of text (usually three lines, sometimes a single word) that drift and drop across the pages. The centering reminds me a little of Ronald Johnson but the diction's her own and I love lyric fragments like "pilt / the seraph / twin" and funny ones like "from lavender comes the ocean / with problems." Amazing how the surprise of a line break still manages to surprise. After that comes a short prose poem by star-of-the-moment Ben Lerner; it seemed slight, but I like the title: "from The Angle of Yaw." The editors' taste for that pop culture surreal whimsy is confirmed on the next page with a short but illuminating interview with John Ashbery, who seems a little less elusive than usual. I was surprised, for example, to hear him making earnest use of the workshopism "to earn" (as in "[students] put in a now that hasn't really been earneed by a major change in the course of the poem"). Some poems of his follow, and they are excellent examples of the mash-ups of whimsy and heartbreak that characterize late Ashbery. I love the effortless and slightly frightening democratization of objects that happens in the first lines of "Broken Tulips": "A is walking through the streets of B, frantic / for C's touch but secretly relieved / not to have it." A prose poem, "The Snow-Stained Petals Aren't Pretty Any More," contains the laugh-out-loud sentence, "It all involves fetishes, those poor misunderstood employees of the sexual closet." Another favorite from this batch is "The Red Easel," which is rich with Turner Classic Movies-style diction: "Say doc, those swags are of the wrong period / though in harmony with the whole."

That's as far as I've gotten. I continue to be impressed with Jubilat: the editors have defined enough tastes to give it a genuine and recognizable personality. Fence doesn't need more maligners, but I have to say the latest issue doesn't seem to have the same coherence as this Jubilat does. Coherence isn't the right word—what I mean is that the editors of Jubilat are discovering an idiosyncratic pattern whereas Fence seems more of a miscellany. (Fence also includes fiction, which Jubilat doesn't, and I admit to being prejudiced toward all-poery mags.) Even more important, Jubilat isn't the giant freaking tome so many literary magazines are—although perfect bound at 150 pages or so it still feels like a magazine should: ephemeral, without straining toward monumentality, and emphatically engaged in taste-making.

In other reading news, Loren Goodman's Famous Americans was about to be returned to the publisher this morning, so I went ahead and bought a copy. Glad I did. Goodman did himself no favors with the post-avant crowd when he became a Yale Younger Poet—the book has been slighted by the charge of slightness and damned with faintest praise (I see one Amazon reviewer sums the book up as "Lyn Hejinian meets Billy Collins). But you know, it's a genuinely funny book and a smart one, logopoetically dancing through our culture of cliches that at times achieves the poignance of a je [m']accuse. He's hard to quote effectively because—and this mitigates against the charge of slightness—the book's power is cumulative. I read with growing admiration his diagnosis of the American reality show disease, with its culture of competition that naturally enough does not exclude poetry. He seems to have anticipated his own book's reception with a poem like the O'Hara-esque "The Prize": "I don't win the prize— / I call up Charles and we decide to meet / Charles also fails to win the prize." But you'd have to read the whole poem to "get it." A lot of people don't "get" this sort of thing, because it's so contextual. Goodman's poetry is inorganic, but not to the degree of actually being hard to read; if he's underappreciated it's because he's so easy to read. But the nerve endings of his lines don't all run into the single system of a given poem—they reach outward into American culture and the history we half learned from Schoolhouse Rock. On my personal Kinsey scale he reads like a 2, but his "gettableness" is probably a 4, maybe even a 5. Which is a ham-handed way to try and theorize humor. Why is Andy Kauffman singing the "Mighty Mouse" theme so funny? It just is.

(Apropos of nearly nothing, I'd like to take this moment to urge everyone to go out and see Kauffman's masterpiece movie, My Breakfast with Blassie. Yes, the title's a one-note joke on My Dinner with Andre, but it's a deeply funny and unnerving film—it's the Tennis Court Oath of wrestler movies.)

FINALLY, I'm spending part of the afternoon with the new-ish The Poems of Marianne Moore. I find the idea of Moore to be off-putting, and I haven't given her much study because I'm perhaps too interested in the lineage of modernism and her role as ancestor isn't as obvious as Pound's, Stein's, and Williams' are. But in person, so to speak, she has a disarmingly dry and epigrammic wit. Maybe reading around in Pound's semi-Catullan lyrics (and before that, D.H. Lawrence's) has softened me up toward her. And her ear is really quite tremendous. Check out this little epistle to EP himself:
Ezra Pound:

"'Frae bank to bank, frae wood to wood I rin.'"

The rinning that you do,
Is not so new
    As it is admirable.
       "Vigor informs your
    SS Shape" and ardor knits it.

Good Meditatio
And poor Li Po;
    And that page of Blast, on which
       Small boats ply to and
    Fro in bee lines. Bless Blast.
Isn't that simply a perfect thing of its kind? I am looking forward to more time with Miss Moore.

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