Staff Picks 2015



Sarah Stoves recommends

Confidence by Seth Landman

Love is a plague, and Seth Landman is its steward. He is your lover. He is your ex-lover. He is your biggest fan. In this unfiltered ode to the lovestruck, permutated passion overruns and leaks out, causing the reader to rubberneck at obsessive, self-inflicted emotional wreckage. Confidence romps, at times emboldened, at times embittered, but with a sensitive tow for every lone ship to waywardly set sail on unforgiving waters.


Johnny Hernandez recommends

The Bellfounder by Steven Toussaint

There is something primal at the heart of Steven Toussaint's newest collection The Bellfounder. Amidst references to the work of Andrey Tarkovsky and the development of bell making, Toussaint draws parallels between these sources that track the emergence of a social sacredness. He attempts to strip off the object-ness of bells, while at the same time referencing their casting from melted earth. He also draws a direct connection between the creation of worship-- as a means to collect as one social consciousness (through the bell's signaling), to transcend the observed and connects this with the collectiveness of a shared tool of transmission (language and its semiotics). The Bellfounder is a collection that looks at the intangible of social and spiritual connection that is created by the tangible artifacts that, in and of themselves, mean nothing: Language (words, like the bells) becomes a means to connect to any and all who can receive their meaning. The bell's sound connects those who receive their ringing melodies just as language rings out with ideas, objects and actions. The Bellfounder is a contemplative exploration of space and attraction, while at the same time it bridges the spiritual with the environmental.


Janice Worthen recommends

The Black Unicorn Sings by Aja Monet

In THE BLACK UNICORN SINGS, Aja Monet gives us a collection of poems that shimmer when held in the palm, the throat. Her words are direct and honest, but they are also alive with music and magic, magic that's not necessarily in what is but what's seen. I want to keep this book with me so I can read her on the bus, in a line, to a complete stranger. Monet, a gifted performer who won the Nuyorican Poet's Café Grand Slam at 19, tells her reader, "This is meant to be read aloud, where someone can hear you, where you can hear yourself" (4).

And because "A song is how a thing is free'd" (from Monet's title poem inspired by Audre Lorde), the stakes couldn't get any higher. Her song poem is sometimes a "tortured jewel," as the speaker is in "Weathering: one" who addresses her lover with a diction of breaking and scattering amidst a cyclical rejoining (27). Tortured like the daughter in "Born" who speaks of a mother who is "the strongest woman I never want to be," a poem reminiscent of Audre Lorde's yearning "From the House of Yemanjá" (36).

But even as Monet's song poems present the tortured, the broken, and the chained as she explores gender, race, love, and the self, they are a celebration of strength, of the black woman who breaks again and again and can still set storms raging and thunder booming with a laugh, a gesture.

Monet transforms the everyday into the mythic and the mythic into the everyday. A woman becomes a black unicorn who uses her black magic. God, freedom, and the spirit become women--broken, powerful, and undeniable. Monet can weave a spell, cast a legend, with a simple description of smoke rising: "She blows ghosts from her lips/ fashioning cigarettes between her fingers like magic wands" ("If ever you find yourself on the J Train," 14). When reading her poems I feel, over and over again, transported.

But with all the myth making and magic weaving, Monet reminds her reader that she is not "a symbol." She tells her reader that whatever her poems may be, they are always political. In her collection, women can claim their freedom through the act of creation but they can also be trapped by that creation. She writes, "Because I have learned, even now, how one can be enslaved in the books of men, how your words don't ever seem to belong to you once they've left" (4).

Despite this risk, I am grateful she chose to sing these songs, songs that sit deep in the chest where the heart beats, where the "spirit is/ Dancing." I look forward to the magic she has yet to weave.


Nicole Trigg recommends

The Cardiff Tapes (1972) by Garth Evans

I figured I would love The Cardiff Tapes since I love everything published by Soberscove. Like another of their titles on Moscow Conceptualism (and one of my favorite books at SPD), Collective Actions, The Cardiff Tapes documents diverse observations on a piece/ action of art by numerous individuals/ participants, here transcribed from original audio recordings made by the artist, Garth Evans.

One day in 1972, Evans installed his sculpture in the middle of a pedestrian area in the city of Cardiff, Wales, where it would directly impact the daily flow of bodies and gazes. The next morning he asked people to speak their reactions to the piece into his tape recorder, without letting on he had anything to do with putting it there. The large steel sculpture, described by MAN IN THE BUTCHER'S SHOP as "a long pillar—and then a flat piece there with a rounded edge—and, um, a triangle" elicits copious questions—among the most frequently asked are "What is it for?" and "What does it mean?"—and a string of statements as to what it ISN'T: it's not a representation, it's not purposeful, it's not useful, it's not even a design. One woman just says, "No." It also elicits laughter from the grown-ups (in lieu of explanation or interpretation), and physical play from the kids who go to climb it.

This "Beckettian transcript" (it says on the back) that documents several people of Cardiff's encounter with the bewildering (making wild or strange) of their routine landscape invites us to muse on the role of public art and questions of accessibility. Evans makes an argument for the "difficulty" and "unknowability" of public art in the afterword: "if it is to be worthwhile it needs to be able to disturb, confuse, and disorient. This is because the sculpture's purpose is first to engage and then to challenge our sense of what is real and true and to provide an opportunity for some realignment of these concepts."

Outside the space of the museum, ppl demand an explanation for "art" if there is none, but perhaps in the process of asking themselves and others, "what is it," something else happens: the rearranging of established codes of meaning, or at least their temporary suspension—what we might call thought itself!

It's like the 41ST MAN says: "you may come to the right conclusion and you may come to the wrong conclusion, but you [will] have speculated, you see, thought."


John Sakkis recommends

Way Too West by Julien Poirier

If Ed Dorn had grown up under the shadow of Mt. Diablo he might have written something like Julien Poirier's WAY TOO WEST. A folksy, old timey (via Back To The Future Part III), sittin' around the campfire drinking bourbon reading the French Surrealists and the Projective Verse Manifesto kind of book. A very representative excerpt goes something like this "--Generation-skipping hipster abolitionists/ hitchhike through the dust bowl/ glyphed in a speck Monsanto corn/ just as Nerds/ glyph root canals/ in Crips blue." I love this book, you should too.


Miles Marie recommends

The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

Most people picking up a copy of Nell Zink's THE WALLCREEPER won't know what a wallcreeper is. While the tongue pieces together the three syllables the imagination dissects them, wall/creep/er. Taken literally the wallcreeper could be a party of creeps acting as a unified wall, or one creep on a wall. The er' suffix indicates the action of creeping, or wallcreeping, but rarely are nouns so straightforward. The definite article eludes us. The cover of the book gives no indication. Backwards bare feet show the flexibility of their tendons while taking a pose on the balls of the toes and the rest of the body hides behind an opaque green blob of dense brush strokes. The body the ankles are attached to, as well as the room they stand in, are hidden behind this green void. The image gives no tell. Once past the cover and into the first few pages of text Zink introduces the title's namesake, a species of small bird that pecks around the fringes of its habitat, "breeding and feeding," disregarding the rest. If the reader's attention exits as fast as the bird in the story then only part one of the definition has been revealed.

Part two: The jealous overtones of the narrator, Tiffany, and the surviving instinct that burdens her ability to "breed and feed." Her resentful feelings worm their way into her head and project onto the actions of others in a way the reader is never sure are actually happening.

Part three: The renegade actions of environmental activists like Tiffany, her husband, and the cast of characters all working with a visible persona, then within that persona through a web of deception. Whether the actions underneath the radar of society are cloaked to further a communal goal or a personal agenda are left up to the reader. While Tiffany's projections of those around her are delivered to the reader, her self-assured demeanor comes in waves and leaves doubt for all spectators, keeping them reading until the last few pages.

Part Four: Language so expository, yet crisp, it goes unnoticed until the reader pulls back to reflect. It infests itself inside the frontal lobe, yet lies unknown until its name, wallcreeper, is called.  


Zoe Tuck recommends

Red Juice by Hoa Nguyen

Hoa Nguyen's RED JUICE: POEMS 1998-2008 (Wave Books, 2014) demonstrates the enduring power of the political lyric. The work collects several earlier volumes published during her years in Austin, Texas, spanning as well an historical era that moves from the peak of US confidence to the abysm of the Bush era, taking on disaster capitalism, environmental degradation, and racism with poetic intelligence. RED JUICE also holds dream and delirium, being threaded through with the chthonic feminist mysticism I associate with Alice Notley (a major influence). Nguyen's pedagogical practice of teaching texts by reading them aloud shows in her poetry. The consequences of this simple but profound act, beside a close reading, include a close relationship with a poet's music, her melopoeia. Although embodiment has become something of a buzzword, I can think of no other way to describe Nguyen's relationship to her influences. The result for the reader or listener is that Nguyen's own work hums with many musics which are nonetheless fully her own. We may live in a world in which, "They sell you what disappears" but the poems in RED JUICE made to last.


The Great Medieval Yellows Jim Krull recommends



Beast Feast

Garin Hay recommends

Beast Feast by Cody-Rose Clevidence

BEAST FEAST is the ecopoetics book I've been pining for but have sought in vain until now. Many other postmodern pastorals have a politics, a critique of gender, a critique of "nature" and the "natural," use Language-poetics-inspired ecological mimesis, or depart from an anthropocentric phenomenology, but rarely all five of these elements. Beast Feast is sensuously immersed in "nature," but this nature is deeply self-aware, political, queered, and rhizomically ecological in subject matter. Cody-Rose Clevidence warns the reader to "BE PREAPRED FOR MANY FORMS," and the book at large pushes language into new forms using a vast toolkit of Language poetics in order to alter-naturalize human phenomenological experience, to reconceive and re-sensualize what a human in "nature" might look like through an intervention of radical poetics. The incredible success of BEAST FEAST is in its use of Language poetics for mimesis: mimesis not only of sounds in nature for example, but of ecological processes, even of genetic processes. Rife with neologisms and words pulled apart into their basic lexical elements in order to maximize their potential connectivity, Clevidence understands that a new conception of "nature" will require fundamental transformations to the language through which we conceptualize that nature.


Clevidence explodes our typically conservative zoopolitics, or the organisms we typically see poets write about (e.g. birds, bears, trees, etc.). Although they do mention more charismatic species like wolves and flowers, Clevidence frequently zooms into the molecular level in which the borders between live and dead matter are in flux. All earthen activities are fair game and deeply at stake in Clevidence's analysis of sovereignty in this economics-ecologics-politics. Agamben and the Derrida of The Beast and the Sovereign are present as Clevidence reckons with the assemblages of human beasts on this earth:

"| | :: I radii poured cement & wept (j/k) - is a lol in the sovereign face-is a membrane of the Real-is kind of like whatever- hauled galvanized aluminum screwed nailed & stroked load-bearing beams thru which I erect a wound cut into the meadow- is my sovereign resistance embedded in dumb hard wood is my resistance a material stance:: | |" (41).

Any human gaze and any privileged human phenomenological position to make objective sense of its "surroundings" is delightfully and sensuously troubled throughout BEAST FEAST. Flora and fauna actively return the human gaze and pierce us: "my apples are full of madness. / each daisy is looking out at us" (11). Clevidence's poetics refuses the human a set of senses by which we can neatly objectify the world, but rather insists through new ecologies of language that we must cultivate new senses, as many senses as there are things: "to cultivate a sense of the many senses needed to sense the many things- / versus to cultivate a way to parse the world into sensible objects" (6).

Clevidence maximizes the potential of genetics to serve a queered ecopoetics; the organic and non-organic forms of BEAST FEAST are in metamorphosis, are a shifting mosaic of sex, selfing, parthenogenesis, trans-species and trans-life assemblages:

"rhizomic, lightly soiled, multigendered lily of / hypersexual ungraceful fluxuation, amassing in / mutagetic saprophytic bud all gown, strut o / lunge into this the forest where all nature's dethroned" (2).

Although replete with forms that transcend the human, Clevidence does make ample use of the lyric to write (often humorously) through any typical notion of a human longing for nature or a romantic sexual completion via sexual dimorphism: "U centaur in yr accident // corrosive in yr gendered unicorn be all like fuck you in my pink quartz diodes I'll jizz in my own paradise" (81).

In "THIS THE FOREST" columns of text exhibit manifestos that are rendered difficult to read by lack of spacing between words and the presence of distracting computer keyboard symbols. The section functions-much like the project at large-as a mimesis of the forest itself, of a human attempt to garner anything of use and meaning from the dense and overstimulating environment of a forest: "Fjfn;ual;ksd / AMFULLof / DesIREIAM / IAMFulloF / DESIreInthe / FORESTWh / ereSAREyo / OU?}{jkw;r" (53).

Even in their more straightforward language, Clevidence wields the comparative horizontal reading of Language poetics to demand active reading:


At its most utopian, BEAST FEAST is a practice in "radical ambiguity," which "if taken seriously would dissolve ‘rationalist' structures of division like ‘subject/object' ‘cause/effect' ‘mind/body/world' ‘he/she' ‘right/wrong' ‘syntax/semantics' ‘supply/demand' (98). The book's exploration of organic form at the least denies any appeal to "nature" in order to defend the dichotomous powers that be, a much needed intervention in a long pastoral poetic tradition in which nature is used to naturalize oppression. But more than this, BEAST FEAST's linguistic sensuality offers hope that we may employ the prosthetic graft of language that is/on human organisms to realize a radically non-anthropocentric phenomenology while also critiquing the oppressive socio-political-biological pitfalls of our current racialization, sexualization, class-ification of other human organisms.


Ban en Banlieue | Bhanu Kapil | Nightboat Books

Jim Krull recommends

Krull Review: Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil
The Islands | John Sakkis | Nightboat Books

Jim Krull recommends

Krull Review: Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil


deadfalls & snares | samantha giles | futurepoem books

Garin Hay recommends

deadfalls & snares by Samantha Giles

DEADFALLS & SNARES uses the travesty of the torture of prisoners carried out by the US since the War On Terror to elucidate the horrific complicity of our human interconnection within this nation. Giles insists on "I" and "we" over other pronouns to the radical extent that the first-person performs violent acts upon itself. The prison guard tortures him/herself or the prisoner tortures him/herself: "I routinely deprived myself of food and water. At times, I gave myself spoiled food, which caused me to vomit. I shackled myself for extended periods and denied myself access to a toilet, causing me to soil my pants" (22). The work of deadfalls & snares is not only to remember, but to alter the place of torture in our public imaginary.

Ostensibly torture is used to gather intelligence, but this dimension of torture is completely absent in the book. Any notion of knowledge garnered to protect the US citizen has already degenerated into the pure play of torture. Giles writes through the documented cases of torture to foreground the carnival in which the binaries of guard-prisoner and of spectator-spectated generate their own baleful logics (when was sexual assault on minors ever necessary for "homeland security?"). Other poets have similarly isolated and exhibited the logics of brutal state power, but Giles takes the next step, implicating the reader and public by writing an impossible social relation of masochism. An "I" that tortures-is-tortured (by) itself exemplifies the self-wounding of our social body-all of us who form the US and benefit from its power-under militarized governance. This masochism implicates us in a collectivity that we hitherto could not think or feel until reading these poems. deadfalls & snares' historical work is to mandate recognition of what has been rendered by our militarized society impossible for us to feel and acknowledge publicly but whose structure constitutes our very citizenship via militarization-as-social-self: sadism turns into masochism once you deprivilege the level of the individual and think on the level of the social.

The relationship between the trapper and the trapped animal further provide grounds for exploring this social self-harm. The fur trapper must sympathize with the body of the animal: "know what pose you / are trying to replicate / the bend of the legs / curve of the back / placement of feet;" so the torturer similarly sympathizes (in the more literal sense of the word) with the body of the tortured: knows it, its possible positions, and its limits intimately. The torturers imagine themselves in the body of the tortured. This is the dimension that deadfalls & snares investigates: masochistic sympathy in which one forcibly fantasizes the body of another. As spectators of torture via media leaks and belated Freedom of Information Act document releases, we must be re-sensitized and newly sympathized to the torture whose forms we receive so distantly through screens.

Sectioned throughout the book, Giles excerpts every moment of the word "white" in Moby Dick: "what the white was has been hinted at it was the whiteness that above all things appalled me, whiteness refiningly enhancing beauty [...]" This is the study of whiteness via the epic, by whiteness's semantic effects and associations, revealing its aesthetic-discursive optimization through literature. The word repeats hypnotically among the fractured and compounded stream of Melville's beautifully-wrought prose, a monopoly on the aesthetic of the epic-the text of the national community. The white aesthetics of the hunter-like the hegemonic aesthetics of the torturer and the state.

We find we have been fighting for a world in which prison guards gleefully adopt the nicknames of Saturday-morning cartoon characters. "hello Dr. Claw / hello to you Piggy and Twitch / we're here to watch / just fit ourselves through the bars to say / hello Gilligan and Yuck Mouth and Big Bird." The friendly world on television we watched as children is easily militarized. The cartoonification of militarized torture, of power, has been the logical conclusion of our seemingly passive spectatorship. Throughout deadfalls & snares Giles takes apart recognizable forms and presents us with their fragments or with an unfamiliar relationship composing them, re-attuning us to the form (digital) and hidden human content from which we have been affectively estranged.

Torture is part of the logic of everyday relations of power in the US, but of course our ability to see and feel it is hidden from us. By writing these powers as masochism, we feel what has been rendered impossible for us to feel: namely, the effects of our living in their very constitution.

It's not simply that the torturer is affected by the act of torturing, that when we hurt others we are also hurting ourselves. Torturing as a relationship is productive itself, unbounded by a single subject and object. Nor are there spectators for whom this experience is simply translated via media.

It's essential to find collective social emotion within seemingly singular and hidden acts of violence, not as memorialization but as collective self-indictment. Our emotional lives are not our own. Our emotion belongs to how we are produced, protected, and regulated. Our emotions belong to surveillance and to the military.