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Staff Picks 2010

Hyperart: Thomasson

Zack Tuck recommends

Hyperart: Thomasson by Genpei Akasegawa

This book made me laugh out loud on the BART. It also encouraged my awareness of and engagement with the aesthetics and ethics of my urban environment. For those who doubt that art criticism and urban studies can be accessible and hilarious, Hyperart is the broccoli AND the ranch! But what, you may ask is a Thomasson? On one level, it is an American slugger who was paid handsomely to strike out with spectacular regularity for the Yomiuri Giants. On another, it is Genpei Akasegawa's metaphor for aspects of the urban environment that have been rendered useless, but are nonetheless maintained-like a staircase leading to a bricked in door, whose rail, rather than being removed, is given a fresh coat of paint. The concept of Thomassons (and the sense of participation) so inspired me while reading this book that I stalked around San Francisco, hunting and documenting them. This is evidently something the publisher anticipated, since they have a form for submitting Thomassons on their website-very much in the spirit of the book, which gathers Akasegawa's columns from a photography magazine in which he responded to readers' submissions. This edition also features various materials contextualizing Akasagewa within art history and Japanese culture, including as essay by translator Matthew Fargo on the Hypertranslation called for by Hyperart. Please read this book and get caught up in the phenomenon of Thomasson-spotting-new Thomassons appear and disappear every day.

 

Procedural Elegies/Western Civ Cont'd/

Noah Levine recommends

Procedural Elegies/Western Civ Con't/ by Joan Retallack

Joan Retallack begins her inventive new collection Procedural Elegies/Western Civ Con't/ by clarifying three terms: procedure, elegy, and humor. On the book's final page (a second explanatory note where many of Retallack's methods and procedures are revealed) we learn that these three definitions form the first official work in the collection. Procedural Elegies is filled with formal twists, letter puzzles, and appropriations; however, there is no shortage of emotional resonance. The poem "AID/I/Sappearance" might require a pencil and scratch paper; but it is nevertheless a devastating and unambiguous song of lamentation. Retallack's designs never create the "illusion that nothing dire is at stake. ( It's a game)." These machines are fiercely intelligent, direct, and human. "1990 CE an elderly neighbor pets my dog and says It's too bad; we're really stuck; this is not one of your better centuries, you know." Western Civ Con't plays dazzling and profound improvisations on a six-thousand year timeline of factoids. This poem turns out to be playfully cynical about lock-step historical narratives. Readers are taken on a ride that jumps forward by three-hundred years, skips backwards by two millennia, and stops briefly to declare: "1278 CE invention of glass mirrors sends thousands into irremediable shock." Observations such as this suggest that compiling a Western history may be like trying to attach one's reflection to a looking glass. The real question, within this poem, is far more personal and local. Retallack's most passionate and sincere inquiry is directed towards "the pronouns we inhabit for a while and then pass on to others." Like every piece in this collection, Western Civ Con't uses an esoteric and complex process (universal history) to arrive at the purest of elegiac expression.

 

The Creepy Girl and other stories

 

Shannon Thompson recommends

The Creepy Girl and other stories by Janet Mitchell

Janet Mitchell is not afraid to write about themes that might make her audience uncomfortable. Throughout her collection of fifteen stories, the reader is introduced to a series of intriguing characters in thought-provoking situations, all enlivened by Mitchell’s energetic prose. The characters themselves are either coping with a life-altering change, or acting decisively and challenging the reader to make sense of their choices. Each story is an introduction to a fresh, novel perspective. Overall, it is an enjoyable, impressionable read.

 

Styrofoam

Justine el-Khazen recommends

Styrofoam by Evelyn Reilly

Evelyn Reilly is unpacking a lot here.  STYROFOAM is certainly a meditation on plastic, but it is not, in the words of its author, an eco-rant.  Styrofoam itself becomes the occasion for something else: the dish for an immortal line of cells, a mummified body of waste that won’t biodegrade.  As they draw more and more material in, road kill, ecstatic saints, discarded batteries, an albatross, these poems stage relationships that displace what we think we know about Styrofoam, what it does and what it means.  There isn't an edge this book doesn’t play at bending, the material, the lyrical, the found and the made.  In that, it is plastic, although I think what is most arresting and subversive about STYROFOAM is how beautiful the language of waste and artifice becomes under Evelyn Reilly's influence.

 

BLACK LIFE Book Cover

Monica Storss recommends

BLACK LIFE by Dorothea Lasky

As we all know by now, scary girls often write the best poetry.  Dorothea Lasky, self-proclaimed “scary and sad” poet (“I love a mathematician” p.37) proves that, indeed, you can be scary, sad, beautiful, sexy, and funny all at the same time.  Black Life— the follow up to her 2007 book, AWE— is full of Lasky’s own unique voice; one that is heavy with the perfume of the postmodern feminine.

A thick heaping of humor and good nature cradle darker subject matter: divorce, disease, death.  No Gen-X poetess would shy away from straight shooting the confessional: body image, affairs, mistakes, redemption. But what makes this book special is that Lasky’s work is equally bold in its jubilance, giving the reader permission to feel, as well as reminding them to laugh.  Full disclosure: my favorite poem in this book is entitled “Thank You to Jason M. Helms.”  The speaker gives a direct shout-out to someone named Jason M. Helms, reminding us to say thank you for moments of goodness in our lives.

Just to prove she knows what she’s doing, Lasky wrote a poem called “Ever Read a Book Called AWE?” which is the ultimate in funny self-referential awareness.  She’s not afraid to look at herself (or the publishing industry) under that same funny-sad-happy lens to which she has affixed her bookascope. Sure, Emily Dickinson makes an appearance in the poem “Emily D.”  There are lots of references to fire, hell, in general.  But Lasky is at her best when she pulls out the humor, and reminds us that, despite the title, life has more textures and colors than just plain ol’ black.

The Book of Frank Book Cover

E. Spero recommends

SLEEPINGFISH8 - Gary Lutz and Derek White, eds.

Let's say you were to walk into an elevator. Let's say you were running & you just barely caught the last train across the Bay, or let's say you're in the fingerprinting line at the food stamps office, or it's that moment right at the very top of the SEA DRAGON carnival ride when you're all suspended up in the air all together for just one breathless time-collapsing pause before the plummet.  Well O.K., but really you just walked into an elevator. This is when the dreaded moment occurs. The doors slick shut & you're trapped now in this un- space with one or maybe even four or five total strangers or vague acquaintances for maybe two whole minutes, or it could even last four minutes if you're, say, going all the way up to the 17th floor, which of course, you are. Any other day, this would be torturous. Any other day & you would be rolling your eyes up to the security camera just to avoid direct or mirrored eye contact with your fellow cell-mates. But not today.  You reach into your satchel/knapsack/clutch & extract your suddenly-materialized copy of Sleepingfish 8 (it only exists in in-betweens) & start reading aloud/under your breath "when you get swallowed by the sidewalk chances are if you don't die you will end up in a small house with a chimney" or "The Vanished".  Also, don't worry if you don't finish the story before floor 17; you'll probably have to come back down sometime.

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Harmonic Book Cover

Jonathan Lay recommends

SING, MONGREL by Claire Hero

Claire Hero’s Sing, Mongrel is an address to the worst parts of our being.  Haunting and timely, she words her poems with terrifying sensuality that create a mirror of the horror inherent and capable in every individual.  She draws on the powers of B-horror movies and the blood of animals butchered to depict the political and the personal in lines that tug back and forth between repulsion and pleasure creating a music that soothes and indicate the onset of disaster.  Sing, Mongrel forces you to learn that every song is not for your ears.

 

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