3 quick book reviews
|Read  Jan Clausen, If You Like Difficulty (2007, Harbor Mountain). Assured, formally various collection from a poet I didn’t know previously; have to confess that the presence of a blurb from Rodney Koeneke was the sell, that and the fact that the work didn’t look immediately inane when I flipped through it. The opening, longish but short-lined “Voxology” is playful in ways distinct from much ecriture feminine.|
on all fours
while feeling sorta
After which one is less surprised to find an epigraph from Yvonne Ranier on one poem (extra points for the title “If You See Something, Say Something”) than a ghazal, a pantoum, aggressively sing-songy quatrains (“Page Turner”). I’m a bit more taken with less overtly formal but tighly-sounded poems, like the outaged, choked-off “Rout”:
See thugged out
Yankee Doodle don
of the brave.
the clotty goregarb
gouts and gouts.
The turbaned day.
Tart up the spoils.
Final section, “Ablation,” turns up this not to a volume I found a little self-righteous, with one sestina that mostly complains about the “whiteness” pervading the writer’s retreat at which the poem was written, and a second, more verbally playful, that connects the poet’s enlightened vegetarianism to other social concerns. (Endwords: people/pig/organic/transplants/advance/factory) Final two poems, one on an NYC blackout, are further evidence that the poet would rather that human civilization (e.g. not just capitalism) had never arisen. I confess that I find this a limiting view, and one that comports oddly with Clausen’s techniques.
Read  Pattie McCarthy Verso (2004, Apogee). I don’t think I understand the concerns driving the short though not wholly-discrete lyrics in the middle of the book – they’re too disjointed for unity and symmetry to be the point, but the relatively mild shifts in register in tone don’t seem to be an end in themselves either. The other two sections are constructed by similar means (a sort of round-robin attention distributed among roughly a dozen sources, arranged to produce both connections and “interference”) The first, “otherwise (an eke name),” loosely centered on naming and the decline of Irish as an independent language, seemed diffuse to me – I had difficulty sensing a motivation for the page-by-page alternation of prose blocks and field composition. The final section, “piseogs” (an archaic term for a spell or charm) compares favorably to its likely antecedents in Susan Howe. The work’s spine is the execution as a witch of one Bridget Cleary by her husband in 1895, when such practices were hardly common any longer; both this through-line and the interstitial material on folk cures and magick (if there’s a line to be drawn between these) is fascinatingly specific, and the poet’s investigative anger– which extends to the deftly chosen cover image of a 1960 FBI line-up of “presentable” women – is palpable. The book’s success in getting this content over only makes Ron Silliman’s infamously oafish blurb – “We can still count the number of women who attempt writing on such a scale on the fingers of our hands” – all the more inexplicable.
Read  Matthea Harvey, Modern Life (2007, Graywolf). The prose poems here are clearly after the “cracked internal logic” effect of, say, an Edson, but Harvey doesn’t trust the represented content enough to avoid sounding fussy “creative writing” notes. (Almost at random: “Her ladyship, who trails sheets of seaweed like floaty green skirts, is lovesick for the sailor who used to stain her lips with wine before each voyage.” The descriptive clause kills this for me.) The limitations seem most evident in “Strawberry on the Drawbridge,” where an appealing seedling of spooneristic wordplay (“drawberry”/”drawbridge”) is rationalized, rather leadenly, by an extensive narrative frame. The two lineated series “The Future of Terror” and “Terror of the Future” seem to me much better, as writing: as discussed near the end of this interview the loosely employed procedure (each poem hits alphabetical “marks” taken from the dictionary between the keywords’ of the title) gets Harvey out of some habits, and she’s quite adept at using the verbal material that comes to hand to evoke (roughly) an post-apocalpytic/Hobbesian/paranoid atmosphere. The effect is somewhere between Matthew Derby and Auden’s The Orators:
From the window, we shot
At what was left: gargoyles and garden gnomes.
I accidentally shot the generator
Which would have been hard to gloss over
In a report except we weren’t writing reports
Anymore. We ate our gruel and watched
The hail crush the hay we’d hoped to harvest.
The poems are better at expressing “our” present predicament and fears than at examining how we might have gotten this way – something, I’ll say in passing, I also felt about Laurie Anderson’s recent performance Homeland, seen  at Lincoln Center last week. (Musically, though, quite satisfying – not a surprise with Joey Baron, Eyvind Kang and Greg Cohen in the ensemble.) One might with some justice object that this is partly a matter of what art is good at -- but it’s problematic as a response to this complex of topics.