How’s the Cows by Jess Mynes
(Cannot Exist, Madison, WI, 2011)
The Just Rewards of Jess Mynes
The new book of poems by Jess Mynes has pulled me into its obscure orbit for months now, since I first came across it in rural Massachusetts last summer. I’ve had the luxury of reading Mynes’s work for seven years, the necessary time for a slow reader like me to wander around his language, and absorb the inner pleasures he draws with his poems. Mynes himself is a devoted reader, and this is evident from both his poems and from the growing catalogue of his magnificent project, Fewer & Further Press. This micro-press broadcasts work by poets as varied as Joseph Massey, Stacy Szymaszek, Arlo Quint, Aaron Tieger, Michael Carr and John Coletti (to name just a few personal favorites) in beautiful handmade editions, where the poem is given its proper space to fully breathe. Great work can always be expected from Fewer & Further, and we can likewise count on Mynes to surprise and move us with each new publication of his own.
How’s the Cows begins with a joke, a quip from Muhammad Ali, and we’re off. The first poem floors me each time I reread it. It’s called “Eastern copper” but the titles in this book are not meant to ground or guide the reader. Rather, like the odd epigraph that opens the book, they’re meant to throw us off-guard, lead us into the mangrove of words and phrases the poet sometimes collages, other times slices into each other, with full stops that evoke a manual typewriter’s jerks and rings, a laptop’s pleasant background tip taps, or the notebook’s scribble chants, scraping pen tip carving off a miniscule thread of paper as it moves. It’s the fingers leading the way, a physical act we are encouraged to imitate in our reading, that is, to let go of the linear pursuit of a form or concept that might cohere the poem. What we’re given instead is this type of musical endeavor, from the second half of the opening poem:
Brothers Live Poultry Hero Shop
big bird shadow merging chrome
to flowerbox stray range
leisure record, if showing happens
editions deep sing song scouts
operatives dawn advancing prime
remiss white winter sea legs
look up stand alone
maybe shotguns someone pointed
His book is that “leisure record,” an itinerary of swerves and divagations sustained by Mynes’s seemingly inexhaustible ear. My preferred method for reading it has been in pieces, opening its pages at random and then going from there, sometimes straight through, at others meandering. The results are always different. One of my favorite of Allen Ginsberg’s “Mind Writing Slogans” makes so much more sense after you’ve read Jess Mynes: “Surprise Mind.” The intersection between vastly different words, images and rhythms that Mynes establishes leaves so much productive room for the reader. So that in my aleatory encounters with the book, I stumble onto this gorgeous fragment:
may larger scale attain reasonable ports
wasteful bless petal douses
clinging singers background hence
(“lies in hiding”)
I fall in love with that pair of words, “clinging singers,” every time I read this poem. Like a wall of flowers at dusk in the summer, or the sustained movement of forest branches when you stare at them all morning from your porch with a notebook and a coffee beside you, or the sound of the wind through a garden, this is the type of “background” that emerges for me when I read these poems. Subtle yet ecstatic delights.
This is a book made for the drift of vowels roundly spoken into a microphone night, but as quietly as the tapping of my fingers just now. When the aforementioned poem reaches its final line, the jolt is unexpected no matter how many times you’ve read it before (“just rewards of how to too far”), the sudden repetition that breaks the line off as it ends, and you’re left nearly stuttering, then released so ably in finite loops of pleasure. That’s the destination of these poems: “to too far.”
To read Mynes today, we might revisit his essential full-length collection Sky Brightly Picked (Skysill Press, 2009), which I have beside me on my desk as I type. The act of reading Mynes leads to writing, I go from him to my notebook, at once inspired by a sound or signal and by the reminder of pleasure’s centrality in the poem. These are fun poems, but also serious or shrouded verse drama. Piled on top of Sky Brightly Picked tonight I also have scattered issues of Asterisk, the magazine pamphlet Fewer & Further Press puts out sporadically, featuring one or two poets in beautiful fold-out pages. The selection of poets is eclectic and impeccable, just like Mynes’s own poems.
One title stands out as emblematic for the entire book: “oddball cataloging.” What these poems evoke is a careful yet loose stroll through the poet’s daydreams, maybe awake in bed scribbling stray thoughts, or at work stealing a few notebook minutes. The sense of timing in Mynes’s poems is ecstatic, yet measured and quiet. Referring to his sequence of poems loosely based on the paintings of Mark Rothko, Sky Brightly Picked, Clark Coolidge wrote: “Irrepressible, that urge to form the irreducible poem.” We can appreciate that urge in this new collection, as the shards of various days and minutes are sculpted together in such a way that the fractures between them add to their marvelous music. The marvels are in the way Mynes uses language static as a means of training his readers’ ears, so that by the end of the book we are attuned to his own version of seeing:
thin memorable fingers
edged in chorus
to outlast that we end up
leaves and twigs the same
with detachment lots of
empty on the first this wants
living filled with entrance
consumed to feel ways
not here and that you are is what often
tug song wrecking flutter
In his handling of the material sounds of his poems, Mynes at times evokes Coolidge’s devotion to soundscapes, as when in The Crystal Text he writes: “This book called the unread text might not be the one / the crystal reveals. The text of crystal might / reveal everything but itself.” That is, the everyday, the spoken can be employed for the sake of a poem of mystery, play, investigation and flawed perfections. In some way, Mynes is writing secretive poems that reveal those details of our daily routine that glow with a particular ambience. And like Coolidge’s “crystal text” Mynes’s book closes without having revealed much about itself or its author. But the reader has been given a new set of eyes, for the English language and for the immediate world we inhabit:
every iridescent blue butterfly
going through your progressions
reversal domain fractions
indifference heavy delays erase contamination
seasons in exigent mystery
I should note that this volume is officially a chapbook, according to the publisher. But the poems contradict this categorization, as they form a completely self-contained and vast universe. The reader leaves its pages changed and energized, with a sense of having encountered an event whose outlines will not fade. The stapled binding and beautiful artisan cover merely remind us of the limited amount of copies printed of this book, which means you should try to get one soon before they sell out, which they will. And once they sell out, hopefully someone will print a pirate edition, or maybe the author can e-mail you a PDF copy, or we will see it reprinted years from now in a collected poems edition. I received the book a few steps away from the amazing garden the poet keeps at his home, so when I read it I think of the particular landscape of rural Massachusetts where they were produced. But I suspect these poems have a portable brilliance that will reflect wherever you might be when you’re lucky enough to read them. Like a mysterious crystal, How’s the Cows acts as a type of organic machine that changes each time we read it, depending on what we might pick up in its miniscule vibrations.
My own tastes lead me to John Wieners when I read Mynes’s new book. The accumulation of sparkling details that are masterfully fractured by an oblique diction are thrilling to read, and they never lose their glamour. In his unclassifiable (poem, essay, memoir?) Conjugal Contraries & Quart, Wieners writes: “Did we ever get lost, traipsing through the golden-rod, the field thrushes, hedge thickets. Lose our short-tempered spirited blusteriness as our pink-organza shoulder strap slipped off deliberately the left arm to fondle his majestic afternoon brain-waves and blesst tits.” I think How’s the Cows accomplishes a similar intensity of psychic landscapes, with its agility and humor that always evoke generosity toward the reader. In “raring to go,” Mynes concludes with another emblematic line: “all day, I’m money.” And he is, this book is a bank and Jess Mynes is money.
Guillermo Parra is a poet and translator who lives in Durham, NC. He has published two books of poetry: Caracas Notebook (Cy Gist Press, 2006) and Phantasmal Repeats (Petrichord Books, 2009). He has written the blog Venepoetics since 2003. In 2012 University of New Orleans Press will publish his translation: José Antonio Ramos Sucre, Selected Works. An edition of translations of José Antonio Ramos Sucre is also forthcoming from Auguste Press in San Francisco.