Staff Picks (October 2016)
Omg, we love small press books! And these are some of our favorites. Now they can be some of your favorites too...if they aren't already. Be sure to check in every month for a new handful to add to your reading list...lists...so many lists.
All October 2016 Staff Picks 20% off
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TENDER POINTS is short and intense. This lyrical narrative challenges trauma, sexual violence, gendered illnesses, and chronic pain. But that is not all that Amy Berkowitz does. She combines references from pop culture, to medical text, to lived experiences of fibromyalgia; taking up a visceral form of not only the text cover, but the text as a whole.
This book reveals the unfortunate truth; what is being heard, what is not being heard, who speaks, and who doesn't speak. As a reader there are times when you need to pause and take a breath. You may even tear up. Amy Berkowitz's words resonate honesty and fierceness out of a page even if it is in one short sentence,
"The problem is / you can't put pain on trial."
I'd been hearing about Tongo Eisen-Martin here in the Bay Area for at least a year before I picked up his book. Well, I get the enthusiasm now. Eisen-Martin is one of those poets with one foot solidly in the activist community, so part of the excitement might be because not a lot of activist-poets can write like this. On the surface SOMEONE'S DEAD ALREADY draws from poets like Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Barakai.e. a mix of "real world" daily experiences and political articulations cut with moments of crystallized if faintly surrealistic visionsbut the poems are more fragmented, and also more grounded in the practical work of social change, than Beat poetry generally was. Many of the formal touches, especially the way Eisen-Martin couches complicated syntactical moves inside unpretentious diction, kept reminding me of Vladimir Mayakovsky more than anyone. The line breaks and formal arrangements are sort of radically unsystematic, which is something else the poems share with Mayakovsky, and which I interpreted as part of a general "anti-craft" position, as if the poems are constantly checking the reader to make sure we don't think they're mainly about aesthetics. That, too, was compelling to me, but what makes this book really worth the time, at least to me, is how unpredictable the writing is from line to line. Yes, it's political poetry of a sort, and it's very much of our time, returning repeatedly to concern for Black lives in a system of unimaginable brutality (except it's easy to imagine it because, check it out, there it is), but the poems are also, plainly, never just that. Sometimes off-rhyme and other musical elements take the lead, sometimes a political argument, sometimes bits of intimate experiences, sometimes bits of social experiences, and sometimes it's so associative you're not sure what's going on. But the lived (at times livid) authority of the voice, the directness of the poet's ongoing cogitations, foregrounds all those shifts, and anyway, point is: this stuff is interesting, line to line and all the way across.
Michael Gottlieb's WHAT WE DO: ESSAYS FOR POETS is a fierce and singular book. The text proceeds Socratically, each short essay (rarely longer than 1 page) begins with a series of questions/ statements/ ruminations, e.g., "what are we here for, anyway?" "what does it mean to be so free that one has no audience save other poets?" To which Gottlieb might answer, does it really matter, or, are those the right questions anyway?
The middle section (the bulk of the book), "Letters To A Middle-Aged Poet," has Gottlieb at his most personal, (and dare I say) existential. This is the writing of a poet in middle age (naturally) coming to terms with his legacy, his limitations (and of community), and his aspirations. It's a fascinating read, voyeuristic, like going through a stranger's photo album (and empathizing what you find therein), there's a lot of history here, and with it some resignation (the world keeps turning and all that), "for how many is that the most enraging of all the blows? The realization that this, this finally is it. it is this and nothing more." But it's not all bleak, in fact I found myself creatively energized by these essays more than anything.
And despite the title, "Letters To A Middle-Aged Poet" is not only for middle age poets, in fact I would venture to say it has immeasurable value for poets my own age, there's a lot to glean here for the poets of my generation, the 30-40 somethings, the not-too-young not-too-old poets, the in-betweeners, those of us that are too deep into it to imagine doing anything else, but who feel that anxiety creeping in, the "what am I doing, where am I going, does any of this matter" stuff, some of the answers to those questions are found in this book.
EQUILIBRIUM is the whole at the center of a Russian nesting doll, the treasure one drops through layers to find. It's the curl insistent on its curve, its grace. It's the hymn, sometimes booming, sometimes just a hum. It is city, it is body, it is loss and taking, it is "flame-woven." Because it is whole, it is all, it is broken. Because it is whole it is both joy and sorrow, witness and actress, "lit with charge and wonder." It is a reminder that water does not alwaysever?cure thirst, nor food hunger, nor words despair and desire…that despite all precaution, "We destroy ourselves for splendor."
In THE MARKET WONDERS, your money anxieties are inescapable. Not that this is a book about economic strife per se, but Briante rather builds a poetic system that acknowledges the way economic structures i.e. the Dow Jones shapes one's existence, inseparable from our intimate lives. Weaving in the Tao, Briante imagines these structures as the deep code by which we live. The idea that poetry or art and aesthetics can exist outside of the market is refreshingly squashed on every page of this book (nearly every page is marked with the closing numbers of the Dow Jones on a particular date) and I hope more poets will concern themselves with the cold data we generate in our monetary lives. Rich with literary name drops and excellent titles like MOTHER IS MARXIST, THE MARKET WONDERS is a beautiful tale of the soul in late capitalism. Briante writes, "I have a friend who asks about 'truth' in poetry. Whenever he does, I want to send him a valentine on musty pink paper. He lives in a Mid-Century modern house with mid-century modern furniture carefully culled from vintage stores and eBay. He owns an old mahogany stereo cabinet, jacked up so you can listen to an iPod through it. That's the kind of truth in which I am interested."
In the darkness of post-World War II France, Pierre Reverdy managed to concoct this haunting work that wavers between despair and hope. We are lucky to finally have THE SONG OF THE DEAD in full (tr. Dan Bellm), in which Reverdy so deftly captures small and fleeting moments amidst the destruction. His compressed and imagistic leaps hit directly in the gut: “When you step into the murmurs of your memory / Your tepid breath falls deeper than storms / Against the banks of ditches / Forever tempted to cross borders.” In his bare lines, one is carried along in a serene rhythm, even as he explores the depths of grief and sadness. In the struggle, crevices of light are sometimes found in the fortress of doubt. This book is a must for anyone interested in 20th century poetry since WW II.
Through stunning prosody in lyrical runs of world-creation, Jay Besemer refines language to a translucent screen for his aims. These prose sequences explode and reconstitute cosmological coordinates of embodiment. To chelate, to bond away poison in a body, chelatebearing pincers. The dazzling concatenation of sentences in CHELATE have this ameliorative and piercing effect. His poems transform syntax itself, through the use of only colons as end-stop like marks, into a continually opening but palpable surface reflection of survival and questioning. "the interior has debatable contours : from within i am in danger of becoming a cautionary tale :"he writes in "Adjustment Disorder""time for a dream language : tales of galactic standard :"he writes in "Xenophilia." Stunningone of my favorite books this year.
A magic experiment, this small volume of verse-as-rituals evokes a sense of longing, whimsy, and fire. These verse forms coil on the page, spring-like, and voice leaps, insistent, up at you. "as backup / money became / IOUs my lipstick / smear gave cheating / a certain charm / just kiss me / asshole" snaps "Jupiter.1." Each poem is a flash, "a shot of gold in the seam" ("Home.2"). Great read, interesting project.
One privilege of working in the SPD warehouse is proximity to literary deep cuts. I get a thrill out of supplementing anticipated new arrivals with something from the archives, and so when I took a chance and plucked DARK BRANDON from the shelves on a whim, I had no idea what I was in for. DARK BRANDON isn't a bookit's a DVD that accompanies a book of the same name, which I have not yet read. "What happens when the poet swallows the sushi when he is a vegetaris?" asks the back of the DVD case, and I had to find out. Perhaps I should have known that the narrative boasted by the case is a loose metaphor for two discs of 60s Bollywood numbers, public access poetry, and nature documentaries. While I did not find the vegetaris, I was delighted by the discs' flirtations with deadstock lit readings and the uncanny valley early days of CGI. I realize it's difficultif not insaneto push DVDs in 2016, but DARK BRANDON would be unbeatable projected at your Halloween party, or on date night with your favorite stoner introvert. After all, why would we be poets if we didn't want to get weird?
As if from inside a small, powerful radio that transmits kaleidoscopic frequencieslinguistic, geographic, intimate, and publicthese poems' time-traveling, empire-dismantling, polyglottal, transcribed, queer, reverberating voices speak in and of "the acids of our ethnic backwash" knowing that although "you have the watches""we have the time." Alidio reclaims time from the official past, unarchiving, naming, and refracting a precise shimmering now, whose specificities include the branding of public vulnerability, a bird without feet, and the history of ketchup. Sassing back against the violent displacements of colonial power and linguistic erasure that would have their speaker "Acting a saint with saucer eyes under Sally Struthers' armpit," cutting a sharp gaze into the pit(y) of any and all such Sallys, AFTER PROJECTS THE RESOUND loudly, quietly, brilliantly LOLs at the center. When Alidio writes, "I want to jump from an endowed hall to a dinner table to a sea cliff"I think, take me with you.