Staff Picks (February 2017)
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.
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Did you know that Wyatt Earp is buried in the Bay Area? I didn't. Did you know that Richard Nixon liked to put ketchup on his cottage cheese? I didn't know that either. Rachel Loden's DICK OF THE DEAD is where you find out. I found myself reading a lot of these poems out loud to myself, tons of assonance and alliteration, slang, portmanteaus, Loden's language pop pop pops, real good mouth-feel. I don't really vibe with Gabriel Gudding's blurb about how these poems render "the suffering and emotional impoverishment this nation has endured since the presidency of Richard Nixon"; this book is way more fun than all of that. I do like what Silliman says: "...Loden works with Nixon the way Shakespeare worked with Lear...using him to show us ourselves...".
Jill McDonough calls this sharp little collection "a middle finger tucked in the hip pocket of your favorite dress." A middle finger, yes, and a fist held up, black and beautiful. A knife quick to the hand when "no" isn't enough. A shotgun mounted on a wall for the sake of what's tender because "the world is full / of weapons." But these poems are also hands held, palms out, hands cuffed behind, flesh that can't stop the bullet, tears mixing with blood as the calendar turns. They are the voice that rises even as it breaks, radiant with power, "beautiful / and frightening / and free." Hill writes "we told to be silent / about our magic...our wild I spawning / this flourish without their approval." But the words, the ghosts, will get out: "Gonna learn how to speak because silence / is father to son to mama to brother to / sister to cousin to friend to rape and / they ain't gonna tell us what we remember anymore." This is a collection to be carried along, yes, and spoken aloud.
Violence is a kind of stylean invisible grammar that underlies the logic of statehood. We could reverse this formulation and the same remains true: style is a kind of violence. The discourse of imperialism remains impenetrably wrapped in myths of "security" and "legality," masking its fundamentally exploitative and xenophobic roots. ESTILO / STYLE both resists and flirts with this logic, struggling constantly to loosen itself from the grips of the murderous syntax that determines citizenship, the state, and the border. The mute, the devastated, the disposablethese are the voices that reverberate and echo throughout this text. "We are your codes, a line of figures for you to subjugate. Numbers, red and brilliant. Boiling." The chorus of ESTILO / STYLE functions as a site of extraction, violence, and exploitation. "We have arrived like negation so you can exterminate us in the attempt," they say. "We are the fresh fruits of war." These are the voices consistently muted by the machinations of state-sanctioned cruelty. The text reads as visible erasure, "each line dispossessed." In the face of unspeakable violence, repression, rage, and terror, what modes of expression are available to the disenfranchised? Dorantes' answer is fractured, wounded, and decimatingher text cuts and draws blood.
In an interview I did with him Robert Creeley once stated that poetry "...brings a relief or a recognition in situations where almost nothing else can." I think about this comment a lot while standing among the many books SPD houses and sellsit might be the only way to explain their reason for being. If poetry indeed runs along a narrow but equally unique wavelength, then what I think of as the "notebook-style" subgenre of poetry (which Creeley also practiced) has to be even narrower, but to me provides just as much of that relief and recognition when it's well done. THE HERMIT by Lucy Ives, which came out last summer, fits comfortably into that "notebook-style" subgenre. Made up of fragments, notes, lists, facts, incidents, and most of all ideas, it reminded me a little of Kafka's Parables and Paradoxes which I used to carry around with me kind of all the time. Of course lots of writers keep journals and have notebooks and some of them get published but this feels more like a compilation pulled from various notebooks and places, edited almost like a poem but with notebook fragments as the core units instead of words. Anyway it's finally the quality of the thought that is so worthwhile here. Ives's ideas are never pretentious, and while there's a lot of snips that one just passes over, and pleasantly so, at pretty regular intervals she'll come up with a few sentences that are so perfectly balanced they feel true and mysterious at the same time. Really the whole book is like that: you're never quite sure what she's getting at in some overarching, thematic sense, but you're sure it's there, it's real, i.e. what she's working at and towards is genuinely derived from her existence, surroundings and life, and so holds together and is just frankly an exceedingly nice place to be for a bit. This book was a real relief to me, in a situation where I'm pretty sure almost nothing else would have been.
THE REPUBLIC OF EXIT 43 exists in the toxic landfill of the author's childhood neighborhoodScappettone, a poet, scholar, translator, and performance artist weaves the garbage of this history into part epic poetry, part language landfill, which at times feels like text generated from some corporate mechanism. Scappettone suggests in the underture, "when in reading you're caught in redundancy, it's because we've reached uroboreality, a point of spatiorhetorical choke." Many of these outtakes have existed and will exist off pagebut this book leaves ample room for the imagination of possibility for this project in alternate spaces as well as an anticipation to catch a future performance. Though it is worth a gander for the photographs, maps, and collages that are included.
I love collaborative works. Really everything is a collaboration, between mind and body, earth and sky, female and male. But if it's true, according to Wallace Stevens, that "in the sum of the parts, there are only the parts," then a hybrid work is not as simple as 1 + 1 + 2, or 1 + 1 + 1. That is, the goal for our chimeric hybrid author in WELL WELL REALITY is not mere doubling nor a union, but a blending of figure and ground, to create "moments / when the light and dark of bodies fits the random / detail of a curtain."
When one hears a child first forming words, one hears language itself, not what it purports to describe. Well, I don't spend a whole lot of time around children, but I'm guessing it's somewhat like that. What I like about these poems, or autonomous authorless units, whatever you would like to call them, is that they have the child's flair for recombination. I don't care that the directions for these blocks call for a stupid castle, I'm going to build something half hedgehog, half Tree, half ice-cream. Our two authors are not afraid to play games with tenses, with the structure of language itself. And at the bottom of games are molecules that crystallize and fall apart again, leading to fragmented glyphs such as, "I could touch prosody / and stroke vertigo into law / if palaces reflected / in anthills or this / change in texture / reflects from a vertical wall." In this realm, "mirror" becomes "mere error." Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" is rearranged to create a series of independent lines, obscuring intent: "I have learned / to look / On music that disturbs." Different parts of the book are anchored by a preposition or conjunction that appear in each poem"until," "since," "if,"so that the poems are paradoxically rooted in the subjunctive, the uncertain. Thus, the way we receive the words in these poems is not in their chiseled and mastered aspect, but just at the moment of their becoming. Not the car driving, but the parts disassembled and waiting for a new form to emerge.