Modern Life

Modern Life: PoemsModern Life: Poems by Matthea Harvey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a bit of a rush, but I want to get this quick review off to you. Modern Life is the third in Harvey’s collections of poems and is most notable for the two sections, “The Future of Terror,” and “The Terror of the Future,” which anchor the book like two firm columns running through this seven sectioned collection. Please pick up a copy at Graywolf. Like much of Harvey’s work, the book as a whole is extremely organized, with a parallel section structure that runs roughly like this:

The Future of Terror
Art section I
Robo-boy section
Art section II
The Terror of the Future

Poems in the TofF and FofT sections follow a similar rigid organization, as Harvey describes in the notes: “the poems “The Future of Terror” and “Terror of the Future” were inspired by making lists of the words in the dictionary between “future” and “terror.” They are not strict abecedarian poems because they are not acrostics, but they do mimic the abecedarius’s alphabetical footsteps. The words “future” and “terror” act like “A” and “B”–they were the markers that mattered.” And one feels this alphabetical counting strongly, moving forward in the TofF section and backward in the FofT, which has this cumulative, somewhat bewildering effect on the reader’s sense of time, especially as we seem both in some imagined future and some imagined present. This is the core strength of the collection, I believe, in that Harvey seems to accomplish what so much science fiction cannot, by bringing her strange universe and her strange futurism to a very private level in the reader. No doubt, Harvey is characteristically challenging, colorful, and witty, and any reader thinking this collection to be a critique of the War on Terror is right only insofar as Miami is representative of America (thanks Jay!). TofF speaks, mostly, from a soldier’s point of view, and FofT speaks, mostly, from a citizen-in-maybe-post-apocalyptic-world point of view (what better place than these parentheses to mention that the sense of apocalypse in this collection is very sophisticated–perhaps, that it’s not even post-apocalyptic or dystopian, but some caffeine-addled dream of the mucus-drenched entanglement of the two). Here’s a taste of The Future of Terror, from “The Future of Terror / 3,” which has my favorite image in the collection, though I will not get to it below (why not here: “Periodically, we started projects: one man / made dents in the shape of stars on the inside / of his P.O. Box with a Phillips head screwdriver.”):

Our protestations sounded like herons
on the hi fi. Even armed with invoices,
it’s human nature to proceed inch-meal.
We were a sad jumble of journeymen and here’s
the kicker: a few of us had never been love.

And here from “Terror of the Future / 9”

The teacups tied to strings along the walkway
stayed silent, had no warning songs to sing.
We shook talc onto our tastebuds
and watched the skyrockets, starry-eyed,
until night blacked them out like a giant
malevolent Sharpie.

While the projects of these two sections provide the most ostensible place to go for meaning, they are not in fact what I most enjoy about this collection. Like many things, I think there are many great moments in these poems, but too often I feel the form a bit clumsy, and while I like stepping alphabetically up and down the aforementioned feeling this evokes, I prefer Harvey when she is a bit freer to design her poems according to image. Which, let me mention, Harvey is a design poet, something I like to fancy I am. I don’t mean she’s a formalist by any means, but time and time the meaning I get out of her work is a direct result of the way she designs things, her counterpoints, juxtapositions, transfigurations, etc., and, if you would be so kind as to remind me next week, I’d like to get into this idea more thoroughly: poetry as design (as opposed to poetry as testament).

The geometrically true center of this collection is in the Robo-boy poems, and as the blurbs on Graywolf’s site suggest, this is very involved in this sense of fragmentation, of being in-half, a monster, half-human half something else, missing something, etc. Robo-boy, by the thorough involvement by the poet in hashing out several poems on him, develops the strongest sense of character, and in this way is perhaps the lightest reading of the book in the clarity of concern the poems have. He’s somewhat hapless and pitiful, but loveable and very relatable in pretty standard ways–we all feel his sense of estrangement, his robot-among-humans confusions. But by no means are these feelings limited to this group of poems. Rather, they are extremely pervasive throughout the collection and, I think, the strongest meaning in the book, our collective contemporary state of estrangement, both from the governing principles of our societies and institutions, and, sadly, from each other. Hence the title Modern Life and not Future Life.

Harvey has a great accomplishment regarding this latter notion, in that, throughout the remaining prose poems, she is able to write pieces playfully surreal, creating what feel almost like installations on the page, and others that are much more deeply personal, direct addresses, matters of romance, perhaps, or certainly intimate human connections, which are especially prevalent in the closing section, whose emotional tenor is satisfyingly amped. The variation makes for peppy reading.

Let me close this by giving two examples of the prose poems, the first being this kind of “installation” poem, and the latter being this more intimate one. From “Waitressing in the Room with a Thousand Moons:”

The moons desperately want to circle something, so when a dish comes out, they dive-bomb it, bump into each other and a dusting of moon-rock falls into the food. They know the plate won’t be a planet. We’ve been here for centuries and not once has a planet come in. I guess they do it just-in-case. Having lived most of their lives too close to everything, their sense of perspective is poor.

And, “You Know This Too,” in entirety:

You Know This Too

The bird on the gate and the goat nosing the grass below make a funny little fraction, thinks the centaur. He wonders if this thought is more human than horse, more poetry than prose. Sometimes it’s hard not to abandon the whole rigmarole of standing at the counter–using a knife and fork to politely eat his steak and peas–to go outside and put his head in the grass. But what his stomach wants, his tongue won’t touch; what his mouth wants, his stomach recoils from. Through the restaurant window he sees flashes of silver and pink in the river. It’s so clogged with mermaids and mermen, there’s no room for fish. And under the bridge, a group of extremist griffins, intent on their graffitti–Long Live the Berlin… The spray paint runs out and while they’re shaking the next can in their clenched claws, the centaur spells out Wall on his napkin, and sketches next to it a girl in sequins getting sawed in half.

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Disclamor (American Poets Continuum Series,) Disclamor by G.C. Waldrep

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
So Disclamor is a weird book, and I have to say my least favorite of Waldrep’s three full-length works, but let me also say that it is the book one who has yet to come to Waldrep should read first. I’ll caveat, too, that I’ve read Waldrep’s oeuvre out of order—this is his sophomore collection, but the final one for me to read. It exhibits many qualities we associate with second collections: there is an anxiety over a more thematically bound project; there is a searching quality, an attempt at different styles; there seems to be a kind of haste—it’s oddly ill revised, in my opinion, and so forth. The collection is also more characteristically BOA—it has a more narrative bent, its speaker is more subdued, spiritual, etc, which are qualities I associate with BOA titles. I mention all of these things not as general assertions of right or wrong, but more that I find them at odds with the poet I’ve come to know as G.C. Waldrep, who has an unforgiving intelligence and writes crisp, challenging poems that, in their confidence, inspire one to be a better reader, rather than demand a better poem, and then provide the subsequent rewards.

As I write that, I’ve actually got three other reviews of this collection in my head, so you should go to those as well. I mention this in particular because I think Al Maginnes in his Gently Read review really describes exactly how I feel about Waldrep, so let me quote him to segue into the heart of this is review:

Someone coming to Waldrep’s poetry aware of his back story—a PhD in history, the author of the study Southern Workers and the Search for Community, an adult convert to the Amish faith—might be forgiven for expecting a quieter, more narrative poetry. The poems in Disclamor as in Goldbeater’s Skin, Waldrep’s first collection, are edgy, angular, possessed of an itchy energy but tempered by a long view of the human enterprise that rescues them from joining much of the talky, hyperkinetic poetry that has been the vogue in American poetry for the last half dozen or so years.

It’s this “long view of the human enterprise” supporting the “edgy, angular” quality of language that makes Waldrep, for me, one of our finest poets. I so often feel that humanity and artful play come at the cost of each other, even if it might not seem so as they are abstracted the way I have just done. The result in poetry-land is a constant battle of taste—the accessible is boring, the experimental coldly pretentious. I find myself so often defending work that challenges, that requires a dictionary and minutes (god forbid) of focus on three words strung together, that I often forget the joy with work whose values are in character, verities to human rather than philosophical dramas. Waldrep tends to satisfy both, and never are both more present than in this collection.

The problem is, both are rarely present at the same time, and that’s what makes this collection so problematic to me. It’s less refined. It’s individual stabs, countermeasures, over-compensations, so the landscape of the collection as a whole is uneven in a displeasing way. To make a simple and perhaps ill-fit metaphor: I have this pair of headphones that have just started shorting out. Of course, it’s not that they’ve gone dead, but rather, as I move down the street, I get the left ear, then the right, and it’s piano, a snippet of a phrase, cymbals, etc, flashing quickly on either side of my head. I don’t know how to explain this, but if such a piece of music were recorded and meant, I could find the pleasure in it—but knowing that this more cohesive thing is under there somewhere makes the fragmentation of it extremely frustrating. I know what many artists would argue to this, that accidents can be happy, that technical difficulties can inspire, but I don’t think the value of that is a hard rule anymore than it isn’t.

But I’m off topic—my point is, the unevenness of this collection feels more like a technical difficulty than a conscious rendering from source human experience. And I’ll agree with Cameron Conaway that the Batteries cycle (see the other reviews for more on this) exhibit it in a central kind of way and are, in fact, my least favorite poems of this collection, despite their being the collection’s raison d’etre. Here is the first section and a half from “Battery O’Rorke:”


What is written here fades quickly.
           Faces drawn in chalk,
                                                  the idea
           of defense, of a beach
                                 ripe for landing.

West, east, the longitudes of war.
            This is no place for monuments. 


If I had ever doubted
             then  hid  for  cry ,  gill  for  gull 
                                 and the incision
                   a careless thing,
                                         stain of interval

What begins as something fairly reasonable, coherent enough, making its little challenging pushes with enjambment, turns, in the second section, to something almost unrecognizable. We have the benefit of the section break, which transports us automatically to an empty stage, but regardless, these two sections feel like utterly different poems. I don’t favor one over the other. More, I can hear the poet getting bored with himself and upping the ante, but this drama is not used to serve the poem, it just exists, and the poem never engages it nor recovers. The feeling, perhaps, is one of tediousness, and we get that in many other places, like this from “Many of Us Identify with Animals:”

…Thin branches
of the river myrtles reach through them.
They move in slow groups, as if just returning
from a war. They are trying to believe
something they have forgotten.
Or to make us believe it.
In the same way that the elaborate
miniature landscapes surrounding a model
train set make us believe.


In another poet I might like these lines, but for Waldrep, this just feels plodding. Compare either to the opening of the title poem in Goldbeater’s Skin:

Ask for an axe, a syringe, a length of rope
plein air, coiled or loose. Working from nature dilates focus,
draws form from its pale circuit—point beyond which
each sphere reckons its ovation.

Ask for a clip, a pin, a charge, a powder.
Denounce the offset: heaven knows the personal
expands to fill a visual field, colonnade or any aural space
incurred as penalty. Ask for self, ask…

Or the opening to “Who Was Scheherazade” from Archicembalo:

My job was to pick rocks. From his field. In lieu of rent. But the rocks were all limestone and were crawling with tiny fossils of various crustaceans and cephalopods & wavy ferny things that looked like plants to me but, on second thought, probably weren’t, probably weren’t plants at all but animals in the same way that a tomato is a fruit and not a vegetable.

I know I’m comparing poems out of different collections, across greatly different occasions, etc., but I think it’s evident in either of the latter excerpts that the poet is greatly more certain of what he is trying to achieve and lets the poem run. In “Battery O’Rorke” I still hear the poet figuring it out, and while the index of that process is interesting it offers no satisfying contribution to the poem’s central areas of focus, even the basic one of a meditation on a place of history.

And so the rest of the collection goes, Waldrep engaging more narrative works, more characteristically languagey ones, even odd moments of surrealism like “What Lived in Our Mouths” or odd moments of humor like “Feeding the Pear,” and a lot of the time the poet just doesn’t feel right in those suits.

Now, I say all of this having come to the collection with some preconceptions and expectations, and there are two primary reasons that make this, still, an excellent collection (pretty weak backpedaling there, right? But I mean it!). First, there are a handful of poems that will blow you out of the water, and within those, lines that will do the same, like these from “Soldier Pass:”

In the marrow of the long bones of my legs
a sweetness gathered. From the valley, diptych of a single bell.

Or, try on “Evensong: All Eyes Sharper,” “Every Apple, Every Dreamer, Every Prime,” “Electuary,” “Bishopville,” and “Semble.” Here’s the opening bit from “Semble,” which is much more characteristic, I think, of Waldrep:

                       With all vigor of the saints.
         In an upper story.
A fine grain against the wrist like gold stubble.
                                 Is one way we defined time,
               then. In that cluster of hive-like houses.
                   In that corridor of sprung beeves.
         And were not ashamed,

Second, and perhaps more importantly, is that this is the collection where Waldrep does come closest to the humanity, the pensive meditation more accessible to us, and it is useful, good, and enlightening to see him inhabit this looser, moodier territory, to attempt, at least, to bring what he’s learned in the constricted environments of his language play to the ruminations on natural, human, national and personal history and their dramas for conclusions. Though I don’t think this effort is a total success, I think it nonetheless offers something new in terms of hybridizing the disparate poetics that plague the American scene, and certainly checks the attempts of narrative and language poetries against each other, that they might support one another.

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The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth

The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth by Joshua Marie Wilkinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Joshua Marie Wilkinson has been in my radar for some time, though this is the first proper response I’ve really had to his work. I first came to him at the vehement request of a better read friend of mine back when I was poetry editor at Dislocate, that we solicit some collaborative poems Wilkinson and Noah Eli Gordon were then getting out to periodicals in advance of what, I guess, would become Figures for a Darkroom Voice. I mention that “guess” as caveat that, other than this collection, I’ve only otherwise read Lug Your Careless Body out of the Careful Dusk. His (and Gordon’s) kingdom is vast, impressively prolific for his age, so I feel a little embarrassed that I am about to draw such large conclusions from merely two collections. That being said, I’m hoping for a shorter post and review, so now that the obligatory hyperlinks are out of the way, let me get down to it.

If you are at all familiar with Wilkinson, you know his writing is most often fragmentary, near tanka-like, and his voice is defined by great mystery—these kinds of dark narratives of childhood and youth, often in rural settings, with strong bents toward fable and quite often an almost painterly delivery. This collection is no different. I am tempted to call him a surrealist, but that’s not entirely true—every time I go and seek the actually fantastic in his work, I find nothing but the utterly possible, the, in fact, plainly possible, the quotidian, a great population of objects that suggest otherworldliness simply by their delivery and combinations. We get, for instance, lovely lists like that which makes “deer & salt block:”

One boy hides a turtle from his brothers in a dresser drawer. One boy is mute & sluggish from the hurricane sirens. One boy took a long time in the bathtub reading the comics. One boy loops a tractor chain to the ceiling fan & tears the whole roof down. One boy speaks through a keyhole to the others about a shortstop’s hex.

And so forth. On one hand, this seems a rather run-of-the-mill catalogue meant to establish a summarial description of life in that place, of boyhood there (perhaps, as a result of his draw from films), and yet, on the other, the deep specificity of each sentence, not to mention the really striking imagistic qualities, resist our summary. Despite the fact that one could very well have experienced any one of these, that one sees a self-recognition from one’s own youth, the grouping as a whole is indeed surreal, and this is partly because it is difficult to draw a really tenable narrative or thematic line between them all. There’s an overriding furtiveness in the actions, perhaps, which evokes that quiet place of boyhood imagination and the private machinations of figuring-out-the-world, but the distance between territories is still so great that it challenges the reader to not rest simply there. Such arcs are translated more often across entire sections, in this case across the various “books” that makeup the collection, which secures a stronger sense of each little asterisks-bounded moment as an entry in a catalogue. They are curios, and there is an inherent difficulty, then, in deriving a larger concern for the sections or for the book as a whole.

This is what I think Wilkinson does best—he makes the ordinary seem otherwise, and within the specific realm of youthhood, childhood, I really can’t think of someone who does this any better. He will capture you with his stories; he will make you want to stay. Of course, I have a problem with this, too, in that the tableaus of the child’s more enraptured mind also fall into these sorts of crutches. One is that he populates so much of the text with old-timey nouns. Like this, from the section “The Book of Trapdoors, Thimble-Light, & Fog:”

A fifty-cent piece in the sweeper’s

Thief’s daughter
clapping in the game

behind the cistern.

Not lurk, just lisp
or coined through.

Another is that he populates so much with a kind of slick darkness, like this from “The Book of Falling Asleep in the Bathtub & Snow:”

Carry your sister’s ring
in your hidden pocket.

Carry this song
in the hood of your throat.

My quarrel is that “fifty-cent piece,” “cistern,” “hidden pocket,” and metaphorical pairings like “hood of your throat” have already had all the poetic work done for them in the past—there is no argument that they make for compelling surrealism—they seem, in fact, like staples thereof. They are almost anachronisms, and in that way they feel like nostalgias. And this is not something exclusive to Wilkinson—rather, I see this as a larger cultural trend among the young, urban, and artistic, the “hipsters,” but I will address that more thoroughly in another post. The point here, for this collection of poems, is that some of the text seems to sacrifice truly adventurous, risky image-making, image-making that could fail (and therefore, provides the tension of that as a possibility) for a more flawless, dependable design. In a sense, I feel slightly marketed to, at moments. Largely, however, this book will blow you away with a really stupefying array of powerful images.

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Archicembalo by G.C. Waldrep

Archicembalo Archicembalo by G.C. Waldrep

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s worth mentioning right off the bat that few reviews will really cover the territories in which Waldrep finds himself in Archicembalo, which is so thick with reference, ambitions toward varying styles, difficult words, difficult images and metaphors that the reader, or at least I-as-reader, went to sleep after finishing the book muttering asunder. This is good and bad, and many reviewers have already touched at least on Waldrep’s difficulty. I feel mostly compelled to engage this quality of the book, too, and I guess I should just accept this bourgeois response as my own. It’s a tough book, kittens, so let’s perhaps describe it through a series of anxious caveats, and maybe we can get a general sense of what it achieves and doesn’t achieve.

Caveat number one: Waldrep is smarter than you. It’s not just that he’ll break your iphone with a fury of dictionary queries, but he seems to know the words as well, I mean, they fit in such lovely arrangements. I’ve really discussed all this already, so I’ll take up from there and tell you a funny little story about what a terrible reader I am. But not yet.

Caveat number two: anyone else thinking of Tender Buttons? I think Stein is more successful, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll explain that later.

Caveat number three: it helps if you know a little bit about music theory and history, not to mention archaic poetry, but, just like all his fancy words, isn’t this a good opportunity to go and educate yourself?

Caveat number four: what the hell is an archicembalo? The key, for this book, methinks, is microtonality, as in finer-than-your-usual-gradations. Think in terms of metaphorical linkages, juxtapositions of image, and the real poetic of the book emerges. Forget all that “gamut” malarkey in the blurbs—that fails, to me, and I will explain that. I promise.

Caveat number five: the only true caveat: I’ve only otherwise read Goldbeater’s Skin, so that kinda still makes me a rookie, maybe, but who measures these things?

Caveat number six: okay let’s get serious: I’m going to approach two issues with this book, neither of which is really good at explaining what seems the meatier riches of the text: I want to look at local examples of the amazing, just sublime images Waldrep achieves, and then I want to discuss the pacing of the text as a whole. This leaves out the troubling issue of what individual poems are getting at, and again, I’ve mentioned that at plotsandoaths already.

Ha, now watch how short this actually ends up being. Okay so my story: page 3, “What is a Hymn,” I got to this:

When thrown to the harp as eggs, as pelican, as license, as cheese it makes a simple roaming, it splays tethered, it does not go far.

And spent the rest of the day trying to explain to my non-poet but otherwise ridonk-in-the-smarts-department friend the metaphorical beauty of my gross misread “it sprays tethered.” “Splays tethered” makes more sense, is of a violence a bit closer to what we can imagine, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t think “sprays tethered” was about the most intriguing little mashup I’d seen in a long time (seriously, I went a good week thinking Waldrep was a genius. I still kind of do, but now I am too!). So let’s just pretend that’s what he wrote. How do you tether a spray? O, this will be tedious. Is it, for instance, that the head of the spray (are you thinking of a hose yet or do I need to come right out and say it?) is tethered, or the body there below, and the thing sprays wildly, whipping back and forth, like a fire hose still connected to the hydrant? Or is the spray itself tethered? This, if you are me, is the gate of beauty for the image. Like, each little particle in the spray has its own little tether (fray?) pulling it back to the source, so the spray itself collapses back, like in rewind. See what I’m saying? There’s a tension—something wants to be free, something wants to disperse, and something else will not let it. And I hope you are recalling archicembalo now and the finer gradations thing I mentioned earlier. My argument here is that this is his poetic, for this text. The mind zooms out across landscape, across the lexicon, and each particle of thought hits it’s own individually determined end. That end can be in the title. It can be in the approach. It can be in the form, but mostly I think the particles of thought (we are really having a good time now) are bound by each other—they are forced into a whole shape, fanlike, perhaps, so we get the simultaneous feeling of their movement away and toward one another. In many ways this describes all poetry difficult in the images it conceives, and in other circumstances I’ve called such connections between images or constituents of an image as “bulbous” or “synaptic,” but let’s just go with “tethered spray” for Waldrep.

If you don’t believe me (I hate you) here’s another example where he (actually) gets at it, from “What is Key Signature:”

A stone is a plenary terminus.

We’re you expecting more? Again, we can’t help but think of the constituent particles of the stone, and their end is their togetherness—they have been made into one by no other than geological forces. This is the force of poetry, too. So largely I think of this book as Waldrep, locally and globally, forcing really fine, subtle things together, making a new order, a new thing (ahem). And it is for this reason that I think the shorter poems succeed more than the longer ones, since they give a little more white space to really let things sink in, though certainly a book of short poems might be little better, so I give Waldrep the benefit of the doubt and just go on reading each poem for the lines only, as though no titles were given.

Which is a shame, because the poems do differ from each other. We have “What is Opera,” whose ambitions and looseness set it apart. We have more narrative, almost parable-like poems such as “Who Was Scheherazade.” And we have a handful of studies like “Who is Steve Reich” (great example, FYI, of a direct look at gradations) or “What is a Bass,” which is a character study of the months of the year so lovely and interesting as an etude it belongs in any intermediate workshop as an exercise primer. And in these cases Waldrep makes good on his multi-entendre promise of the gamut, of showing his range, of running like a series of keys a series of voices and approaches.

But, his range, in the end, simply doesn’t impress. Perhaps I should reiterate the caveat that I’m really not giving enough time to the book, and I might be missing finer or allusory differences between poems that would set them apart, but time and again I felt like I was floating in one central poem between rare if albeit fascinating islands of more strikingly different ones. The crutch, largely, is syntax, which is truncated, so often subjectless, sort of your typical, pushy sentence structure. From “What is Sforzando:”

A new town, midsummer. Classical sidestreet allusions. A slur thrown, as from a car; unwanted pet. Soon to be feral.

From “What is a Cittern:”

Figuration of the neck, three heads—two human—armigerous. As for fray, for vitrine. What issues. An identity: a Maltese cross, a game of chess.

Fourteen arguments are running through my mind right now as to why I shouldn’t criticize him for this, so let me just give you a knee-jerk Dad reaction and say I simply don’t like how much of this is going on. This is especially true in the latter parts of the book, as others, I think, have mentioned.

But if you are deciding whether or not to read it, just read it. Spend time with it, keep a dictionary handy, freaking meditate on the images, because they are some of the best around. Kate’s cutting onions in the kitchen so my time is up. I love you/I hate you Waldrep.

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Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form

Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form by Matthea Harvey

I came to “Pity…” after having read “Sad Little Breathing Machine,” so my thoughts on the collection are a bit in reverse. Dean Young’s string-of-similes blurb, “this book astonishes me the way I am astonished by jeweled clockworks, siege machinery, the musculature of the shark and hummingbird,” thus, in hindsight, seems more fitting for Harvey’s second collection, which is much more a collection of little machines of ornament and maneuvers (not pejorative!). Thus, I am in fact struck by the coherence of the poems in “Pity…,” the fidelity to scene and conceit they exhibit. There are in fact quite a number of narrative cycles, all of them stunning, though perhaps the most narrative of note (and I think the best) is “Thermae,” a collection of prose poems that follows a very tight sort of day-in-the-life.

Of course, the “Ceiling Unlimited Series” detours a bit and is perhaps my all-time-favorite of the collection, and really, for what I can gather, links us as readers to Harvey’s future endeavors, hints at, foreshadows, etc. It’s most adept at musically linking a quickfire chain of statements that feel too distant from each other to offer the kind of tenable arguments and complete scenes the other poems afford. When these are most successful the feeling is that of a fusillade of aphorisms (even when the lines are descriptive), which, for me, is accomplished exactly because of the proximity of the lines to one another. In other words, she is being pretty D. Young here; she is making metaphors that we can’t explain in paragraphs:

…Like most
cadenzas I need something to come back to.
I push the rubble out of the second-storey window.
I put the money in an envelope and it’s sucked up
a transparent tube. Only the rusted bits of roof
stand out against the sky. Yellow water
in the gutters–always the fault falls somewhere.

Now I feel like I must mention the other sort of detour Harvey takes from fidelity, though, ha!, it also just supplants one for the other–her perhaps most frequented technique (I mean, these is almost a new entry in the Book of Forms she nails it so fully) in the collection is this thing that all the Goodreaders (me too!) are having a really difficult time naming, the “carry over,” the “enjambment,” etc. Essentially, the line breaks, and the next logical word appears, but that word is now, in the new line, ACTUALLY functioning in an entirely new syntactic structure, i.e., the natural ellipses between statements, the synapses, are actually CONNECTED by a single word that is performing double duty. This does not happen at every line, but the effect is that every little area of concern, every argument or scene becomes kind of modular, connected to the next by a “joint” or “hinge.” Ah hell e.g.:

Again housewives took blue pills to magnify the moment
When they rounded the curve of a chocolate cake &
Were about to find out whether the frosting would
LAST year when something truly predictable happened…

From “The State of Expectation.” My emphasis. See what I’m saying? A lot of folks are put of by this, but I have to put myself in the OMG-Love-It camp. Doesn’t this remind people of the “Miss Susie” game?

Miss Susie had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell,
Miss Susie went to heaven, The steamboat went to…
Hello operator, please give me number nine,

It’s a pretty clear, formal conceit–I think it’s form introduced from on high, and while I’m one to think that that doesn’t typically lead to glory and flowers, in this case–well Harvey is just brilliant–she really pulls it off, she UNDERSTANDS what this technique can and should do, and she wastes no time getting us there. This is not to say she is ALWAYS successful. The most successful moments are, perhaps, like above, when this advances us into a new scene, esp., moment in time–other instances of the technique feel slightly more random and not quite as finely executed, perhaps, inhabit that same superficial space as pun? Taken from the same poem:

Something went wrong with the lottery & someone won
Though the government claimed it was one of series of
Tests in school were rarely given but frequently announced…

It’s difficult to measure when we are only reading the excerpt, but here, in that old workshop adage, function seems to be serving form, and we give Harvey a B+ for it.

O but I’m so sorry to end on a sour note. Read this book. More importantly, read it twice.

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Selected Early Poems–Charles Simic

Selected Early Poems, Charles Simic; George Braziller, New York: 1999

Covers “What the Grass Says” (1967) to “Pyramids and Sphinxes” (1979). Simic comes across as pretty consistent, with his hallmark tight poems, easy, not too pushy surrealism, with some notable and equally consistent departures with poems like “The Tomb of Stephane Mallarme” or “Furniture Mover,” which toy with more disruptive enjambment and a more incantatory rhythm–poems like these, in fact, feel like the anti-Simic, and yet his sensibility is still there, so the collection as a whole is still Simic all the way. Also of note is the more direct images of warfare and aftermath in the early works, as example, the poem “The Lesson” or the really startling “A Landscape with Crutches”–this feeling, the kind of silence-immediately-following, is much stronger in the earlier works, I think, as represented here.