SELECTED POEMS by Nick Demske
(Fence Books, Albany, N.Y., 2010)
A MYSTICAL THEOLOGY OF THE LIMBIC FISSURE by Peter O’Leary
(Dos Madres Press, Loveland, OH, 2005)
HOSTILE WITNESS by Garin Cycholl
(BlazeVOX, Buffalo, N.Y., 2009)
UNABLE TO FULLY CALIFORNIA by Larry Sawyer
(Otoliths, Rockhampton, Australia, 2010)
AIN’T GOT ALL NIGHT by Buck Downs
ANSWER by Mark DuCharme
(BlazeVOX, Buffalo, N.Y., 2011)
NEW POETRY COLLECTIONS
FROM PREVIOUSLY ENCOUNTERED AUTHORS
“All great cultural epochs are epochs of political decline.”
The U.S. poetry scene seems large and shapeless, which is at times troubling. There are no stars to latch onto in bookstore poetry sections, as there were back in the days of Bukowski, Levertov and Milosz. It’s exciting to ponder lines of demarcation along the poetry landscape, starting perhaps as others have with the publication of Lord Weary’s Castle in 1948, hugging the eastern Black Mountain shore of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Creeley and pulling into an electronic port, somewhere in North Carolina, with Ron Silliman or John Ashbery. I find it surprising reading an online journal poetry section with the feeling that the list of authors might be the local poetry club publishing clamorous strophes about spiders or their first car wreck. There seems to be an abhorrence of status of name recognition. Although there might be something to be said for a good poet remaining forever anonymous, I also think there is in this phenomenon a neglect of the resources of modern publishing. If you read a writer that you like, that says something to you in a lasting way, you naturally would want to read that writer again. There are many contemporary poets the new works of whom I would be interested in pursuing. For example, I was elated to hear that Philip Levine was recently appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, recalling reviewing his collection What Work Is when it came out and making sure I had a first edition of The Mercy in my personal library. It’s as interesting to explore the poetry scene as it is to read Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us.
The following brief notes are of new works by a mere scattering of writers whose previous books and chapbooks I’ve enjoyed and hoped would be continued. Do they share common traits or themes? In some ways they do. Garin Cycholl’s poems have a Modernist historic elliptical fascination that I think excites many U.S. writers’ aesthetic aspirations. Also, these writers seem to share a feeling that current culture is deceptively censorious. They seem to agree that the U.S. today is somewhat “brutally dull” and undemocratic. Especially Mark DuCharme despairs of finding real emotion. In any case, the following is a bit of a confidential from the world of poetry.
SELECTED POEMS, Nick Demske, Fence Books, 2010, 87 pp.
In these days and nights of protest, the expectation for poetry is of a vision. Nick Demske’s award-winning 2010 selection of his poems from Fence Books in Albany NY characteristically provides something unexpected. Demske defends the protests. His collection is a placard in the flooded streets that says, in the manner of Don Quixote, these people deserve to be treated as free people. I think Don Quixote was tall. So is Demske. A librarian at the Racine Library when he’s not out battling windmills, Demske runs the exciting Bonk poetry/music series in the downtown Racine Arts Center that has brought some fabulous performers into Southeastern Wisconsin. Downtown Racine, like many downtowns in the Heartland of America, is a dilapidated remnant of the Golden Age of the middle class. How could this be? With the regional 1950s-1960s auto industry moribund, downtown Racine sports a different sort of dream or promise, but in a new millennium possibly a higher one. The scene of Demske’s writing is a stage set for the Beat Hotel, with “The key to the brainwashing…kept beside / The porch in a hollow, plastic object designed to look like a rock.” But at least in the alley you are assured the world is round, and you don’t get any argument on the subject. Demske’s main objection is that living in the “greatest Democracy in the world,” he has no freedom. He can’t be what he wants to be or say what he wants to say. He’s forced to be a “simpering” car salesman, dispensing a wisdom that is so convoluted or hamstrung that it’s difficult to pronounce the words that describe it. “Undistorted majesty demands / Its own grotesqueness.” He wants to “kiss you / And reveal my secret feelings for you.” But this is brutally forbidden. Perhaps he would sell more copies if his ideas were plagiarized. Interestingly, in my opinion tellingly, Demske received a congratulatory letter for the publication of his collection from his Congressman, Paul Ryan, which is featured on the back cover. But perhaps, rather than the Tea-Party Republicans, gallantly furnishing us with a perfect excuse for failing in life, it is safer to blame ourselves for our problems. With skills as an entertainer and an impresario that match his talents as a poet, Demske will, I hope, be doing big fun Andy Warhol-type things for us all in the future in Wisconsin and everywhere.
A MYSTICAL THEOLOGY OF THE LIMBIC FISSURE, Peter O’Leary, Dos Madres Press, 2005, 18 pp.
In the public (non)debate about evolution, what is lacking is a competent description by a poet or painter of the mysterious processes involved in creating (a work of art). To my mind, the idea that Man/Woman was originally put together like a doll maker sews legs and arms onto a doll is equally as ridiculous as the idea of speaking of the difference between one or eight billion years ago. The processes of creation simply have nothing to do with this sort of mode of thought. The birth of life could not have resulted from a laborious, some-assembly-required process (the human method of reproduction alone tells you this), just as the birth of the universe could only have preceded the concept of time as we experience it today (both in the scientific and the common sense model).
Appropriately, Peter O’Leary’s brief (18 page) chapbook from Dos Madres Press in Loveland OH gives a roughly complete introductory explanation of what I am talking about. The Table of Contents lists a symmetrical number of poems, eight, with titles such as “Angelology,” “As Twilight Into Noonday Knowledge Gyre,” “Dissonance,” “Lepra,” “Meditations.”
“As Twilight Into Noonday Knowledge Gyre” begins with a dedication to Robert Duncan and an inscription from St. Augustine’s City of God: “In him therefore, [the angels] have as it were a noonday knowledge; in themselves, a twilight knowledge.” Interspersed with some “visual” work with Greek letters and terms from geometry, what follows is three pages of creative blending of Medieval myth and modern deconstruction of Christian spiritual fragments, such as:
Imagine a star in motion, swiftly passing all the other stars: a curvature blur.
Imagine sequences of stars, each successively swifter, purer in speed.
Imagine God’s wildly gyrating action a stillness oversettling blowing matter like hot glass. Imagine
God a singularity
to which all motion draws but himself so fast he’s beyond any moving.
“Meditations” contains a similar three-page free-form epic philosophical trash barrel burst of ideas and phrases starting with and emanating from a Gospel scripture concerning fire and salt.
“An inwardness of fire soothes though the gliding fires of heaven do live.”
“Knowledge is fire, not symbolic. Igneous fluids drain from the dragon sinus of God into a parched throat, gruff with blistered vocables, red as a blazing carbuncle.”
“It lolls with angelic authorities, a vague spaciousness, a material foam.”
“This is God. The universal empire of fire.” And this is his and, as any good antique dealer might perceive, in fact the only Creation, an unbelievably incomprehensible relieving mystery, not a tedious burdensome plate of plastic.
HOSTILE WITNESS, Garin Cycholl, BlazeVOX, 2009, 77 pp.
In his 2005 collection, Blue Mound To 161 (excellently reviewed by Steve Halle in the 2010-2011 online issue of Moria), Garin Cycholl did an heroic job of creating and portraying, through description, historical records, newspaper accounts (“found texts”) and his imagination, a landscape of the memory and of the past meaningfulness of his favorite life. Theoretically the title referred to a stretch of road somewhere in southern Illinois, but the hovels, trees , waterways, animals (including turtles the size of dogs), the people along that road were carefully arranged to convey Cycholl’s sentimentality for what type of objects are intrinsically native and what are invasive. Smoothness, middle-class housing developments, big box commercialism did not appear in the portrait. Darkness, unkept-up stands of trees, creeks, branch-covered moons, abandoned mines were included. The reason for calling this “heroic” is because it is done only through a critical look at what one has been.
Cycholl’s 2009 collection, Hostile Witness, could be viewed as a sequel. Again set in primeval southern Illinois, the poetry is written in the same descriptive substantive paragraphs that interweave temporal and geographic detail with a somewhat scholarly and philosophical monologue of reflection, in the same manner as we all experience while driving American highways and byways. The backdrop of Hostile Witness is made from two unrelated events: A riveting series of three 1940s boxing matches between Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano and the 2003 arrest and conviction of Illinois Republican Governor George Ryan on racketeering and fraud charges. Cycholl’s overriding question seems to be are these events equal? Does corruption belong to the memorable and meaningful prominent features of the treasured landscape of our lives, an in-itself that vaults into existence from outside the borders of law-abiding daydreams (in the manner of droughts or a man crying). Or is corruption associated with the monocultures that cruelly suppress meaning, causing our histories to remain incomplete? In the ultimate hyperworld of mind and moral being, does mold and rust give off a foul or an aromatic smell?
For the time of reading Cycholl’s poetry, it doesn’t matter. His excellent and useful poetry is like paging through history books with a lot of photographs, keepsakes, letters and newspaper headlines—and perhaps wildflowers and colored leaves pressed in the pages. It is exciting and fun to browse, and it makes you want to read more. What’s useful is that the right sort of soil is being cultivated, not a soil that grows form but a soil that grows content. My only criticism is that at some point you have to leave your hometown and test its character against the rest of the universe. You have to be like Zale and Graziano agreeing to fight on the other man’s turf. Someone’s got to lose.
UNABLE TO FULLY CALIFORNIA, Larry Sawyer, Otoliths, 2010, 128 pp.
Chicago, the “city of big shoulders,” is also the city of writers, many of whom were born elsewhere but all of whom are, in a sophisticated way that supersedes nativity, adopted Chicagoans. Larry Sawyer, at the moment comfortably ensconced, came to the Windy City originally from far-away Texas via Ohio, an unusual path, that I sometimes suspect might have included a brief stop-over in Sicily. Sawyer currently lives and works in Chicago with his partner, writer Lina-Ramona Vitkauskas, where he talks on local radio and curates the respected Myopic Books poetry reading series in Wicker Park. Sawyer’s excellent 2010 collection, Unable To Fully California, from Mark Young’s Otoliths Press in Rockhampton, Australia, is, I think it is safe to say, among his early writings and possibly his first full-length collection. The publishing credits listed in it include Sawyer’s poems that appeared in The City Visible, a 2007 anthology of contemporary Chicago poets. I recall noting of that anthology that Chicago was more the inspiration for the writing than the subject of the writing. In Sawyer’s new collection, he seems to have carried that formula far into space to some nth degree, so that it sheds light on at least one of the universe’s most puzzling problems, the cosmic dead-end of entropy. For me, what’s most remarkable about Unable to Fully California is the ease with which its author has produced an abundance of fine poems and poetry in the imaginative and elegant collection. Yet Chicago is mentioned only once and then only as something like a brand of laundry soap or a Gallup poll. It’s as though Chicago, the most vigilantly imperfect of American cities, and, along with it, the host of an unbelievable barrage of current political problems, is an oversized blankness and silence, like an Elsworth Kelley painting. The poems transpose nothingness into a new writing.
Worry and frustration are having their picnic
But we leave them there and go inside
With our poem that cannot look like a poem
Out of the darkness, the particles of complexity and matter reconfigure. “The calligraphy of a car slices / through evenings’ infinite violet.” The universe isn’t headed toward destruction after all but remains, in Planck’s terms, a reversible process.
AIN’T GOT ALL NIGHT, Buck Downs, Lulu, 2010, unpaginated
There remains a legend from drug days of long ago of a car full of stoned hippies returning from a Rolling Stones or Grateful Dead concert on the Interstate. The hippies notice a flashing light in their rear view mirror and pull over to the side of the road. The cop gets out of his car—so the legend goes—walks abreast of the hippies’ car and asks, “How fast do you think you were going?” “Oh about sixty,” comes the sheepish reply through the frosted window, careful not to immediately betray its gruesome, mad speeding criminal ways. “Thirteen,” replies the cop.
Guilt originates from many sources. It’s all around us, apportioning our speed, our words. But, then, even we could be far off in knowing how fast we are going or where we are. “we are what / ambition / has made us,” writes Buck Downs in his self selected / collected Ain’t Got All Night. “got to get that / watch dog off / my back”. Why would anyone want to pick on Buck? “Captain Cryptic” as he is affectionately known around Bridge Street Books. By all the same tokens, there’s nothing wrong with being careful of what you say, especially in Washington D.C. One wrong word and there goes the Civil War again. One wrong word and there goes Democracy in America as we know it. It’s a misconception to despair of Democracy as an opportunity for abusing freedom. in one form or another, Democracy, far from being a tired powerless implement of the past, is the government of the future, throwing open the door of greater responsibility on the part of individuals and the community. For it’s we the individuals and the community that must decide about our planet—about its rocks and continents—successfully effecting a prosperous and peaceful future. No one is going to do it for us. And it’s now that those decisions need to be made.
In that regard, Buck Downs, though he might deny it, is an engage poet. He serves on the Board of Trustees for the Washington D.C. Arts Center, faithfully attends its events, along with other events in the lively D.C. poetry scene. He published a series of poetry books titled Buck Downs Books (and got them reviewed). At one time he edited a small poetry journal, Open 24 Hours. And his ongoing series of Post Card poems is well-known among a general audience.
So which of those winds is blowing at our backs—the winds of guilt or the winds of change? Downs has definitely stepped up his output of late. Following Ain’t Got All Night, Recreational Vehicle and Small Pieces Loosely Joined, along with his sporadic “remixed” notes and files from “The Hopper,” all brought to the public on his website, Buck has happily just published a new full-length collection, Black Peppermint, the colorful cover of which is designed by James Huckenpahler.
ANSWER, Mark DuCharme, BlazeVOX, 2011, 101 pp.
What I enjoyed about Mark DuCharme’s collection Infinity Subsections (2004) was the way that in poem after poem he was able to describe thought too frequently produced from its proximity to a visual reference point, especially thought that leads to action. He described thought formed as cliché, half-thoughts leading footsteps in accustomed directions resulting in crowds, thoughts attracted to recognizability and convention.
DuCharme is good at tracing the origins of words he encounters in common use. He is sensitive to what people are saying amounts to them really saying in the way that some people are sensitive to grammatical mistakes. Like Whitman, DuCharme might hear America singing; he might hear America marching, but what he’s particularly good at hearing is America gone off key and become unconsciously discouraged. In his 2011 collection from BlazeVOX in Buffalo NY, Answer, what DuCharme has become attuned to most recently, like the other writers mentioned, is a strained politeness, a refusal to allow one’s opinions to come out, pent-up feelings turning into resentment. He’s turned himself around from his previous collection and now finds, not clichés, but “Symbols of repressed thought.” Perhaps it could be something more serious. What he hears is America too put upon and embroiled in irrelevance to bother trying to say anything worthwhile at all, which is a bad thing in a society that is fueled by dissenting opinion.
In the book’s first section, ‘Inappropriate Content,” in the poem “Imperfect World,” DuCharme begins: “Stilled along the / Way, to where / It is, we are going. Where it is, we / Are going / / Anymore…” Instead of constantly challenging his readers’ sensibility to improve, he offers them a resting place for their troubled hearts. He sympathizes with his readers by fearlessly using the word “sympathy.” He dares to write a lament. He listens for the quibbling pauses that hold back a closure that is logical, and from them he creates a somewhat sad, slow-moving restful melodic tempo that respects and comforts one and all, including those ignorant of technical names. “What I want is foreign news or shrinkwrapping / The sublimity of animals bears this out.”
In the place of harrying questioning, Answer puts a well-crafted lullaby for a nation suffering from insomnia, with a tormenting song stuck in its head, trying to catch up by doing its laundry at all hours of the night. It is the expression of feelings that might be considered “hostile” or “unrefined” or “complaining,” that might be “Brakelights revolving / forgotten.” Answer in its advanced oppositeness offers also a new type of language, one that doesn’t indiscriminately confuse or accuse. “Touch. To touch where / Ridiculous, you struck me / Toward a vocabulary of what was stable…” Answer saves, souls but other things too, energy, coughs, cars, pennies in the family piggy bank.
DuCharme, a resident of Boulder CO and holder of an MFA from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, is telling us that as “peartrees in the jungle” we must learn the skill of forgiving not only others but also ourselves.
Other new books of familiar authors RECOMMENDED:
GREENSWARD, Cole Swensen, Ugly Duckling Press, 2010
THE DOOR, Margaret Atwood, Mariner Books, 2007, (C.D. included)
SACRED RIVER OF CONSCIOUSNESS, Tom Hibbard, Moon Willow, 2011
DISPOSSESSIONS, Judith Goldman, Atticus / Finch, 2009
ONE STICK SONG, Sherman Alexie, Hanging Loose Press, 2000
CITY OF CORNERS, John Godfrey, Wave Books, 2008
COLLECTIVE INSTANT, William Allegrezza, Otoliths, 2008
NOW THAT MEMORY HAS BECOME SO IMPORTANT, Karl Gartung, MWPH, 2009
Tom Hibbard has had recent work published in the last Australian issue of Jacket, and the current issue of Moria. He also has a new collection of poetry, Sacred River of Consciousness, from Moon Willow press. He is currently involved in the political struggles in the U.S. and world against mindless far-right extremism.