Thursday, December 22, 2011



To Light Out by Karen Weiser
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, N.Y., 2010)


Duties of an English Foreign Secretary by MacGregor Card
(Fence Books, Albany, N.Y., 2009)


The poets tell us these two works were written as “companion” “volumes” or “books.” Card has it in his “notes/sources” that most of the “poems have several lines or phrases in common” and that they are “drawn from weekly collaborations, 2001-2008.” Weiser has it that they “share many lines” and are like their authors “familial, growing jointly out of weekly writing sessions,” according to her “acknowledgements.” Right there we have indications of their differences, though, as well. It is Karen who calls them “books,” while Mac refers to them as “volumes.” The tones of those two words may well set the tone of this important difference and the value of reading both.

That Karen Weiser says the works are “familial” is in line with the poetry she presents in To Light Out. The author blurb Ugly Duckling puts out for her says first that she is “a mother.” The book is dedicated by her to her mother and her daughter who carries names based on those of that grandmother. Her other grandmother is poet Alice Notley who wrote a familial work published by United Artists in 1979 called Songs for the Unborn Second Baby. It is a familial tangle that ties this book to the world, but not just in a family tree. Weiser says in her “Introduction” that the poems “diagram” an “act” of listening to something from her body’s pregnancy: “When I became pregnant my brain and body were suddenly filled with static” (13).

That static is described in what might seem like metaphorical terms: “less a sound than a sense that the flickering snow on a tv screen had been made into liquid and pumped into my veins.” I strongly suspect, however, that this description is somehow more literal. Its reference to the days of broadcasts interfered with on their way to us through the air presents a familiar image to me as a man who lived with rabbit ears and with Spicer books. One struggles to get the signal one wants, and one gets instead the signal that will come through. Weiser says that it became “difficult to think, hard to do anything at all.” We might see a sluggish woman there, but there’s another way to read this when you get it that Karen “couldn’t hear (her) own ways of thinking or feeling with this other person’s atoms multiplying inside of (her). It was the sound of the big bang,”—that background noise of the universe—“and my own radio brain was tuned in.” This might be a beautiful fiction, or it might be the real story of Sylvie Beulah’s beautiful beginnings. Either way it frames this work, these poems, in an on-going tradition. Weiser mentions Swedenborg, who brings in Blake; she has Notley standing by, who brings in the whole theory of the heiresses; and both of those bring in Ginsberg at Columbia, Spicer at home, and all the visionaries from Lamantia to Weiner and wider. But this framework also never leaves the realities of pregnancy. I could circle out to Robin Blaser’s theory of the “male womb” here, but what I want to focus on is the way these poems also are literal. That intro claims that Weiser “realized that it was her signal” (13). This means the fetus’s, the baby’s, the “other person’s.”

That intro moves from Swedenborg to loop through Spicer and come to a claim of being “interested in the messages from what usually lies beyond perception” (12). There are titles throughout the book, especially thoroughly in its first section, that can be seen as referring to the pregnancy. The theoretical aspects of the intro cross the literal line in poems like “IN THE PRESENCE OF ANOTHER” where every line can be read as “about” the state of carrying a baby and getting a sense of its being or as “about” writing poetry, especially in collaborative exercises involving seed lines.
The dispatches, possibly, picked up
a static I couldn’t register
multiplying in hypotheticals like cells
when lo! The tall belfries discontinued
for the hundredth time and in mid-sound snow
I picked up the crackling of another

The truth would seem to me to be that this is not actually beyond what I have heard from pregnant women that they perceive. The messaging is not from Martians but from an outside within, and I like it because that’s right where we all suspected Spicer was getting his messages all along.

One thinks of his complaints at the end of that poem:
You hear the dead are unregenerate
tuning out or in at the edges of your ears
I grieve to think of this murmur’s
frnge of vague moves static to center—

cross it and you yourself are leavened
hawking the sound of space
still pushing out the big bang

And the machinery of this poetics is apt enough for telling of what we living do in thinking of our dead or those yet to come and bear the links; in the next poem (“TO TOUCH INHABITED CREATURES”):
elements use every damn instrument
to play the turning over of absence
like the world has found a rare plum
in its invaded silence
something bitten through
this loose blue tableau
turnkey in relation to what it inhabits

The next (“SO IT GOES “) and the next (“DO YOU FANCY WE REMAIN INFERIOR MACHINES”) speak through and of this machinery as well:
In its minute bumping against the walls
the future’s at the center of every room
a message for eyes roaming in place

Forget the machine is only a device
as it shapes the exit from womb to physical
séance, …

So it goes, and a mollusk can not draw
the machine as we can not draw the heart
with its hot round push
the future is but another form of retort
between machines with eyes
that see but a part

The puns in those last lines keep Spicer close (“can not” is different than “cannot”; “retort” is a smart remark and an alchemical tool; “a part” is an oldie but goodie that holds together why we apart from each other and other beings can not see but a part of what is to be seen) and carry Weiser’s meaningful possibilities clearly and concisely. There’s fun here but it’s made of serious stuff.

MacGregor Card’s volume is full of laughs right from the get-go. It’s epigraph from an obscure poet named Sydney Dobell, who is credited as being of the school called Spasmodic. Card’s title comes from an 1852 essay by Dobell, according to the “notes/sources.” There is a tone of mockery and seriousness from title through contents to those notes here. As it says in the publisher’s jacket blurb: “These poems are inexhaustibly sophisticated” and they express “longing for that which is a putative past, a past no one lived through.” They are wry but show “sure footedness in the terrain of nostalgia.” They express feelings based right where Odysseus got into trouble, heading for a home that wasn’t the home one left behind. Even the titles here are wry; “OFFICE OF THE INTERIOR” seems to be written from the p-o-v of those who stay inside looking inside themselves. “CONTEMPT” uses the sudden turn of lines to express its attitude:
In what peace can a Christian
Home in the dark
Put out the light
Eating its young

We get a few jokes there about light and darkness and homes and the youth they purport to nurture, and I for one get the sense of contempt. In “THE LIBERTINE’S PUNISHMENT,” there’s a tone familiar to readers of Ron Padgett:
Something is moving beside me
Nothing’s supposed to be there
Either I have a heart of stone
or I haven’t got a heart
perhaps I have only a stone
and that stone is not my heart
and that stone is neither like my heart
for I have no heart, I only have a stone
following down to the sea

In “RULE OF HOSPITALITY,” there’s a plea that speaks to the sense of these poems:
I alone were fraught with confidence
Doubt offset by counter-
Doubt to fuckdom come
But I need you
To feel my pretense

I can’t help but feel that this plea in its mockery of such pleas actually reveals the stance of these poems, quite quite different from Weiser’s. It goes on:
I alone were fraught with confidence
                      The key in my hand
                                 Made me horny
Because I was telling the truth—
                      I was here on my own authority
And it’s none of my business
           Walking on air
With my friends to your door

Card comes to our door bearing prizes and poems that display the “dignified hilarity” that won them that publication nomination from Martin Corless-Smith in the Fence Modern Poets Series, but the poems embody less than one hoped for. They form a volume not a book.

What I’d say finally about these works centers around the word and concept “body,” and comes from this title poem of Weiser’s book:

To light out is to burst into young legs
toward an opening in the newly made wild
toward the stain of gold machines we have set in motion
around the curtain of bad weather

In the opening of its glimpse the conversation flutters
like gardens that are the garden’s brother
I say pass me my book of gardens
to cultivate a generosity of opening

You say the gardens are heavy with saffron associations
and we are kneeling in its applied territory
a blistered web of circumstance
distributing the way we desire ourselves
having been built by these environments

Take your horn out of the night
garden of constellations
and vow me a club of body
an endlessly opening frontier of rapid sketches
pressed between the pages of knowing



T.C. Marshall is busy occupying his life, seriously supporting movement actions on the Cabrillo College campus where he teaches and in the S.F. and Monterey Bay areas where he lives. He has been writing and publishing poetry since first grade, literary criticism since his college days in the U.S. and Canada, and nature writing here and there. His latest publications include online essays and reviews as well as poems online and on paper in magazines. His next project is a set of poems incorporating photos to be published on a blog, all of which were originally posted on FaceBook. They are called Post Language.


na said...

Another view of MacGregor Card’s DUTIES OF AN ENGLISH FOREIGN SECRETARY is offered by Jonathan Lohr in GR #16 at

na said...

Another view of MacGregor Card's DUTIES OF AN ENGLISH FOREIGN SECRETARY is also offered by Peg Duthie in GR #15 at