Sunday, April 16, 2006

Let me sing the praises of the brand-new issue of the University of Montana's literary magazine, CutBank Poetry 65, to which I have contributed a short review of Shanna's delightful Down Spooky. Back in the day, for one year, Nicole Cordrey and I (Nicole, do you still have a blog?) were co-editors, but the magazine the current students have put out edited by Brandon Shimoda (of the ongoing poemblog Peek Thru the Pines) and Devon Wootten, is a horse of a different color. With this issue CutBank leaps into the forefront of student-edited literary magazines, though it's anyone's guess if they'll be able to maintain continuity after Brandon and Devon graduate. The poetry selection is both tasty and filling, with standout work in full-blown Post-Modernist (or maybe just Late Modernist) Baroque mode from Cal Bedient ("It's what Messiaen calls active rhythm, as when one character / punches another in the face"), Jennifer K. Dick ("Unabashed resting place for castor oil and musk sacks"), Katy Lederer, ("Once plucked, the happy self will run, the parts will move in unison, at once!"), Jill Magi, ("those croaking frogs equal bad weather approaching / so come // look at my quilting"), Gina Myers ("indescribably arrives something / in the mouth"), Amy King ("This is a badass bar you can bring / your children to"), Peter Richards ("thinking it unnatural as his mouth / sought out my fingers in the metals / ribbons and bright hooks I undid"), Elizabeth Robinson ("The cistern dries out into a primitive lantern"), Janet Holmes ("Confronting / the Adamant ////////// Mind"), Stacy Szymaszek ("fuck your little / bottle of saffron / even if it did induce / a significant cough"), Karen An-hwei Lee ("a window of time opening slowly / to the road of an open hour, rallentando or an allotrope of carbon with gradual / intensifications"), Jon Thompson ("Oh Sarah, Landscape is vague how to hunt the beast with corrupted nature, see signs of salvation, the world is to spew us out"), Adam Clay (with possibly the best title/first line in the issue, "The sad Russian Masters are sad no more"), Joyelle McSweeney ("The seed vision runs like rain or money into the periphery"), and many more. Plus many pages of reviews, long and short; translations of Vietnamese poems by Linh Dinh, translations of Virgil's Georgics by Kimberley Johnson, plus an interview with D.A. Powell which includes two prizewinningly provocative paragraphs:
Oh, I hate talking theoretically about poems as if they're in any way governed by theories—theories don't write poems; they very often don't even help to explain poems. I suppose we have to say something more about a poem than "I like the image of the cow" or "you sure know a lot of dirty words." But at the same time, I keep hearing O'Hara's marvelous aside each time I say something remotely lofty: "but I hate all that crap." The balloon of speech should never be more than twice the size of the character's head; I think that's the rule for cartoonists. When I feel the balloon swelling, I want to go back and let out some of the hot air.
I think it's time for the pendulum to swing back. I think it's time for poets to reclaim the power of words and to use langauge in a manner that is precise. It doesn't mean we can't still comment on our distrust of authority; it doesn't mean we can't still call into question the cognitive domain of language. But at some point we also have to understand that words do mean. If I say "the US has been hijacked by corporate monkeys" it's not the same as saying "the language is a trope." (Thanks, Barrett Watten, for pointing out the most obvious thing and pretending you've given us insight.)
A sneer and a smear, maybe; but the thing I like about Powell's comments here is my sense that he's actually gone through all that stuff and found it wanting: this is not the knee-jerk response of someone who doesn't want thinking to mess up all the pretty pictures in his head. Finally, there's a chapbook length poem in the center of the issue by Dan Beachy-Quick (next up, with Matthea Harvey, on April 29 in the SOON reading series here in Ithaca) titled "This Nest, Swift Passerine: 3rd Movement." Beachy-Quick's writing is often deeply yet idiosyncratically engaged with American writing from the nineteenth century and earlier; his second book Spell swallows Melville's Moby Dick flukes and all (see my review of it here) while the crabbed and sensuous lyrics of his first book, North True South Bright, which I am coming to think might be the more original of the two, pool and eddy in the sensibilities of Thomas Traherne and Thomas Hariot. This new poem makes me think that Dan is pursuing old-school American Studies to its limit through verse: centering on the epistemologically resonant image of the stream that both reflects what's around it and is clear to the bottom, he pulls in texts and fragments from the American Renaissance: Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, perhaps others. Its forms are various: one passage, a kind of self-unwriting, reminds me of Ronald Johnson:

Echo, I pine.                           *    o  pine

Looking up. Over the water. My voice * watermyvoice
has no edge. I am the edge. I pin * I am edging
My voice to a leaf. The water is * leafthaw eros
not thin. Light betrays the surface. * inlight yourface
Will you be seen? Over the water. * bein water
A wave is thin. The shore is no sound. * away is now
Pine bough the empty sleeve. I am * empty eve
Looking up. My voice. If I am alone. * voice my own

I pine, Return. * in Return

I think this is major work: it returns to these texts in something like the spirit in which Anne Carson returns to the Greek myths: rediscovering their contemporaneity, in part through freshness of form. A wholly unironic form of disjunction. I'm happy to have read it, happy to know that my alma mater's magazine is, at least for the moment, in such good hands.


morescotch said...

I think you're right about Powell, though of everyone I doubt he really needs to take a shot at Watten. At least, it seems like there's some implicit now that that's happened, let's have this happen-ness in what Powell says. Acknowledgement being preferably to the drooly stare.

Josh said...

Yes—I'm highly sympathetic to criticism of the now-enshrined positions and beachheads established by postmodern theory, but I want that criticism to go through the theory. That's one of the reasons I got so excited about Bob Baker's book The Extravagant, because it uses the old-school Romanticism (which I think at the end of the day I'd have to identify Powell's position with) of Wordsworth, Rimbaud, and Dickinson to dialecticize the positions of thinkers like Lyotard, Bataille, and Derrida. I'm still a little uncomfortable with spanking Watten, because he represents a position of unabashed intellectualism which is already much-besieged in our culture, so that a casual attack on him can be mistaken for anti-intellectualism pure and simple—the "drooly stare" I've encountered in numerous poetry workshops.

Just looked out the window of Gimme! coffee where I'm typing this and I saw a guy wearing a yellow T-shirt that read, "I've got a black belt in keeping it real." I'd say Powell has a purple belt and Baker's got the black one.

Anne said...

Thanks for the tip -- I've ordered a copy. Sounds like some good stuff!

Johannes said...


I am a little surprised to see you use phrases like "the forefront" and "major work", a little surprised to see them used as positives.

I for one am not interested in journals that want to be the "forefront" with "major work". I am generally much more interested in minor work.


Josh said...

Johannes, you've put your finger on my contradictory feelings about poetry as cultural field. On the one hand, I too celebrate the "minor" and believe that the vast majority of interesting writing is happening in small presses and online, out of sight of the self-perpetuating literary center. On the other hand, I can't help wondering if the minority of this work is the only reliable index of its quality, or if in fact it's simply better than most writing from the "center," which works in active and passive ways to reinforce the minor in its minority. If the latter is true, then I want the minor to become major—I want more readers to encounter this work, and so the idea of innovative writing becoming "major" enough to attract more attention is attractive to me. I'm pleased to think that CutBank, the voice of an institution, is at least temporarily in the hands of a passionate editorial vision (mixed metaphor city right there). But the DIY-scene, with its anarchist overtones, is rightly suspicious of institutionality and would like to see any idea of any literary "center" overthrown. I'm sympathetic to that, yet I'm enough of a pragmatist to want to make what we do have—namely the academic institutions in which I more or less make my living—work on behalf of "the minor." If the major supports the minor, one must swallow the other—my hope is that the usual course of history might be reversed, and that the pirhanas will live long and exuberantly well on the body of the whale.

John said...

That excerpt from Mr. Beachy-Quick is gorgeous and your phrase, "A wholly unironic form of disjunction," grabs it right. Not unlike RJ.


Johannes said...


I keep thinking I should post a response but it seems it's a more complex issue, so perhaps I will take some time later to write about it on my own blog rather than blog down your comment field.

For now I will say that I don't consider most poets publishing (or not publishing at all) with indie presses are "minor" (here I am using Deleuze and Guattari's terminology).

DBQ is a prime example. He's not published by a major press ( I don't think), but he certainly - as you note - writes in a "major" vein (visavis literary history, language, authority, tradition, sense and sensibility etc).

Also, I don't think it's enough to bring new people into the center ("forefront" as you note). I think we need to undo the hierarchies.

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