Three Recent Books Book Reviews The Enchanted Verses Poetry Magazine 2015
This article reviews recent books from three different countries where English is the spoken language. The article opens with Waiting For Bluebeard by Helen Ivory from the United Kingdom, followed by Belmont by Stephen Burt from the United States and closes with Sputnik’s Cousin by Kent MacCarter from Australia. I found each of these books unique and challenging for different reasons. It is not my purpose in this overview to compare and contrast the work of these authors, since that would be like the proverbial comparison of apples to oranges. However, I will briefly acknowledge some of the idiomatic and syntactic nuances in the work relative to British English, American English and Australian English.
- Waiting For Bluebeard ~ Helen Ivory ~ Bloodaxe Books Ltd. 2013 112 Pages
Helen Ivory’s fourth collection of poems Waiting For Bluebeard is an important book from a poet and visual artist from the East Anglia region of the United Kingdom. The collection consists of 95 very short poems and may be the most thematically unified of the three books. The language is colored by syntax and idioms that are distinctly British English. Some of the phrases that sound magical to my Midwestern-American ear are: “the chunter of her sewing machine,” “clitter-clat,” “the church jumble sale,” and “gipsy land.”
Waiting For Bluebeard derives its title and general context from a French folktale Bluebeard (La Barbe Bleue) that tells the story of a violent nobleman who murders his wives and the attempts of one wife to avoid the fate of his earlier wives. In this book, Helen Ivory explores and plumbs the depths of interior landscapes through dream imagery and metaphor. She creates her own myths and folklore, invoking some of the darkest and most disturbing classic fairytales by the Brothers Grimm. She anthropomorphizes inanimate objects and animals, imbuing them with human characteristics, emotions, motives and behavior in ways that remind me of children’s nursery rhymes and Lewis Carroll’s characters in Alice in Wonderland. (What the Cat Said, What the Dark Said, What the Bed Said, The Paper Bag Man.)
Helen Ivory writes in a strong narrative voice, distinctly and uniquely her own, drawing the reader in with glimpses of human experience that reflect back something that is recognizable and eerily familiar. Her poetry is rendered with a visual artist’s sensibility and she utilizes bold imagery and unexpected juxtapositions to create short, powerful poems that demand to be read aloud.
Part One of the book consists of sketches and reflections of a childhood part remembered, part reimagined. There are poems about her grandmother, mother, father, neighbors, pets and séances. Her father, in particular, is a shadowy and vaguely menacing figure who hovers in the fringes of her childhood memories. (My Two Fathers, Oil, My Father’s Accident.)
Part Two opens with the book’s titular poem Waiting For Bluebeard, where Bluebeard first makes his appearance. A seductive and often deeply disturbing journey through a dark and sinister psychological landscape, this section is, for me, the heart of the book.
(from) Waiting For Bluebeard
We are waiting for Bluebeard
and when he happens here
in his grey-silver car
he will unleash wolves
The Bluebeard poems depict the domination of one person over another in an abusive relationship and their crippling co-dependency. “Disappearing,” another series of poems in Part Two, is woven in an alternating fashion with the Bluebeard poems. The Disappearing poems are a devastating depiction of the gradual disintegration and annihilation of the personality and identity of both the protagonist narrator and the antagonist Bluebeard. The book closes with a poem called Hide in which the antagonist is not Bluebeard, but Father. And so it comes full circle in a mysterious, disturbing and haunting way.
My father offered me
the pelt of his dog-
how quickly his knife
freed that beast from its skin.
I climbed inside while it was still warm
zipped it up tight
then walked into the fire
so he could not give me his love.
Poetry is a means to describe the indescribable and to say the unsayable. It’s what happens when all else fails. Like a shaman’s incantations, Waiting For Bluebeard is not only an excavation of the poet’s childhood and an abusive relationship, but an exorcism to cast out demons associated with those parts of the poet’s life and psyche. It seems that this book was born into this world as a result of coming to terms with those experiences. Waiting For Bluebeard harkens back to the age-old tradition of oral storytelling and myth and the beastly bridegroom Bluebeard is not unlike the fearsome monster Grendel in the epic Beowulf.
Waiting For Bluebeard is not an easy book. I read through it a number of times to wrap my mind around its structure and sequence, which led to a deeper understanding of the work. The brevity of the poems belies their true depth and power. This book denies summary categorization and should not be sold short by pigeonholing it with an academic label. The writing could be variously described as minimalist, surrealist, magic realist, symbolist, ethereal, lyrical, and atmospheric. This collection is made from whole cloth and as a body of work, it creates a synergy where the integrated whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Helen Ivory is also a visual artist. She created the cover art for Waiting For Bluebeard, a tableau of 8 sealed mason jars on shelves and a white lab rat on its hind legs appearing to be examining the label tag on one of the jars. Each jar contains a different collection of objects which include old black and white photographs, bird feathers, a vial of spilt pills and severed doll parts. A cardboard tag with a descriptive label dangles from a length of twine wrapped around the lid of each sealed jar. The jars appear to be specimen jars in a laboratory. In my mind, the poems in this collection are like the objects in each jar, each one, separate unto itself, yet somehow interconnected to one another. The visual effect also triggers a connection to The Bell Jar by the late poet, Sylvia Plath. As in the work of Joseph Cornell, her visual art invokes the magnetic power of found objects grouped together in unexpected ways.
I feel an inextricable connection between her poems and her visual art. I would even go so far as to call her visual art pieces “visual poems.” Although her visual art and her poetry each exist on their own terms, I feel a symbiotic relationship between them; each one wrought with the same artist’s sensibilities, discerning eye, careful hand and human heart.
II. Belmont ~ Stephen Burt ~ Graywolf Press ~ 2013 ~ 93 Pages
Stephen Burt is a prominent figure in 21st century poetry as a poet, scholar, essayist, critic, TED Talk speaker and Harvard professor and much has been written about Belmont, his third full length collection of poetry. So much so, that I’m concerned that I may not actually have anything new or unique to add to the conversation. So the best I can do is to refrain from actually reading reviews of this book until after I’ve responded so my own authentic and honest engagement is not overly influenced by viewpoints and opinions of others. It’s not unlike watching a film before you’ve read or heard too much about it.
In fact, I found reading Belmont actually was a bit like watching a film. Stephen Burt’s poetry in Belmont is cinemagraphic, atmospheric and infused with enough sensory stimuli to evoke memories, reflections and impressions of my own. Poetry can be puzzling and is subject to individual interpretation. Therein lies much of its power and its attraction for me. Any of the questions that arose from my reading Belmont may be my questions alone. I don’t pretend to fully understand the deeper meanings of all these poems, nor is it my intent to tell you how to interpret them or feel about them. My own life is at a distinctly different stage than Stephen Burt’s. Nevertheless, Belmont engaged me in a way that I see myself and much of my own life reflected back at me in these poems; my coming of age, my journey and the political, philosophical and lifestyle choices I’ve made as a husband, father, and working professional. That simple testimony alone might be enough to say that this collection has successfully done its job.
This is not Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Belmont is not necessarily literally about Belmont per se. Belmont is named after the suburb in which Stephen Burt lives. It’s also the name of the imaginary place in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which he alludes to in the epigraph of the book. Belmont may serve as a metaphor for the idealized place where we all hope to live happily ever after.
Although there is nothing in the language and syntax that would set this aside as specifically American English per se, many of the settings and cultural references are distinctly American. (Draft Camp, Self Portrait as Muppet, Over Connecticut.) There is also an exuberance and sense of celebration that walks in the steps of the great American poet Walt Whitman.
While some of the poems in Belmont are rooted in remembrances of childhood, they are not nostalgic or wistful longings to return back to earlier times. They serve more as reference points charting the passage of time and the progress of life. For me, some of these poems bring to mind some of the most sublime philosophical ruminations of Thomas Wolfe in his definitive work You Can’t Go Home Again.
On the surface, many of the poems in Belmont are about childhood dreams and aspirations, juxtaposed to the realities of adult life. They are about having babies, raising children, going to work and living a safe and secure life in the suburbs in 21st century America. Upon first glance, the poems lack the gritty conflict and tension that would be found in work depicting the struggles of a “dark and brooding suffering artist,” dealing with dysfunctionality, poverty, starvation, substance abuse, mental disorders, and lack of recognition.
However, the sources of conflict and tension in Belmont are much more subtle and nuanced than that. Life’s choices alone provide plenty of conflict and tension. The poems contain universal themes and observe milestones that might be found in life in most modern cultures. Milestones that might include decisions about putting away one’s own childish things to honor your own children, seeking the correct path and correct work, providing food, shelter, safety and education for your family while still managing to live an authentic, artful and creative life that feeds the soul as well as the body.
There is nothing “in your face” or heavy handed about the poems in Belmont and Stephen Burt doesn’t bang you over the head with bluntly worded questions. As a poet and teacher, he raises questions in a quiet, gentle and understated manner, with a deft Socratic touch. Among other things, Belmont invites us to reflect on our lives relative to choices. Choices driven by safety and security for families, careers and longevity. There are poems about children and flowers, an ode to his car, and sketches of characters whose lives may not have turned out how they might have imagined; “wanna be” rock stars and athletes with hopes of going pro, but who never made the “Big Time” (Bad Newz, Draft Camp). On the other hand, I’m reminded that if you follow your instincts and go with the flow, things may turn out the way they should for your own higher good.
(from) Butterfly With Parachute
When we ask that imagination discover the limits
of the real
world only slowly
maybe this is what we meant.
Many of the poems tacitly raise questions that leave it to the reader to arrive at his or her own answers. Belmont gave rise to questions for me. Does a domesticated lifestyle make my life any less authentic because I’m not living the dog eat dog life of my hunter/gatherer forbears? What trade-offs have I made along the way? Have I “sold out”? Do we live a life of quiet desperation in the suburban world of Subarus, baby strollers, soccer Moms, manicured lawns and the commute to and from our jobs? The stage is set to ask these kinds of questions in
Belmont Overture (Poem of 8 A.M.)
it when we say we like it; we feel sure
it’s safe around here, and once we feel safe, it’s our nature
to say we’re unsatisfied and pretend to seek more.
The poems were written over a period spanning a number of years. Like time lapse photography, this offers an opportunity to catch glimpses of changes occurring over the passage of time. I think this may account for a refreshing variety in this body of work. Stephen Burt experiments with different poetic forms and devices that include forays into more traditional structures and internal rhyme schemes, (Kendall Square in the Rain) playful explorations with formatting so that the words almost read like musical tablature on the white page (Color Theory, Owl Music, The Paraphilia Odes) and the concept of text messages and tweets as small poems. (Text Messages) This all challenges notions of what poetry is and what it should look like.
Belmont is a book I can go back to time and again. If poetry can help us understand things that are inside of us even though we may not be able to identify or understand what those things are, then I think Stephen Burt has helped me with this collection. I found Belmont evocative, thought provoking, calming and life affirming. It’s a collection infused with warmth, good humor and wisdom, and I think it will endure.
III. Sputnik’s Cousin ~ Kent MacCarter ~ Transit Lounge ~ 2014
Sputnik’s Cousin is Kent MacCarter’s third collection of poetry. This is the most challenging of the three books I read for this article. In many ways, it’s also the most fun. Initially, I found the writing as confounding as Australian Football and every bit as rambunctious, rough and rowdy. It’s a dense and unconventional mixture of prose and poetry, often abstract, with many unfamiliar historical references. I often found myself scrambling outside of my comfort zone and blindly groping for points of reference, concerned that I must be missing an inside joke.
However, once I stopped resisting and wriggling madly like a fish on a hook, struggling to understand the meaning of every word, image or turn of phrase, I relaxed and surrendered to the experience and just let it all wash over me. He plays with language, form and syntax in a unique and experimental fashion that is not always easily accessible. This is not criticism. Engaged readers should do most of the heavy lifting. Here’s a taste.
(from) Zoo Break
Freed a binturong
accelerated its wave
exquisitely in cosines
quelching car radios
and plots of gibberish
replacing the news
Kent MacCarter is an American expat, now a permanent resident of Australia, living and working in Melbourne. He was raised in the United States, and even though the lexicon of American English is native to him, his writing is heavily influenced and flavored by Australian English, with its uniquely musical vocabulary, syntax, idioms, and quirky expressions. (“arse,” “Christ-load,” “dunebuggery,” “spooks your cookies”)
His use of idiomatic language, made up words and sounds, and experimentation with structure, form, line breaks and enjambment create a synesthesia that connects his work solidly to the lineage of James Joyce, Ezra Pound, John Cage, jazz, surrealism, abstract expressionist painting and assemblage sculpture. It’s nuanced and multi-layered and full of vitality and brilliant imagery. Sputnik’s Cousin is also a cousin of Language Poetry which emphasizes the reader’s role in bringing meaning out of a work and this book demands that the reader stretch in new and unexpected ways. Here’s another freewheeling riff.
(from) XXIII. THE FIRST ESCALATOR IN CAMBODIA
Narrow gauge choo-choos haystacked with cloud books
dodder on … bloodbath tracks to Battambang
hoppers-on nap near, mime. Doodlebugs en-
tangle gyroscopes. Shot, their scurries like …(con’t.)
Kent MacCarter’s poetry is diverse and wildly experimental; with language that gushes forth in dense torrents. Perhaps the poems that best epitomize the spirit and audacity of this book are found in Beiderbecke, a series of poems about Bix Beiderbecke, the mercurial, red-hot jazz musician of the 1920’s. The Beiderbecke poems are also good examples in which spacing and formatting interacts with the white space on the paper in a way that connects it to music and visual art.
(from) Revisiting Bixology (Volumes 9-11) in Beiderbecke
When Bix got volcanic
When Bix got his’self revving
The mud he slid
a Mississippi through April
The oomph that horn throttled
you in yaw, pitch and roll
like a Bleriot’s physics
during a Channel cross
Flight – the way Bix piloted
That cottontail rag
Kent MacCarter’s literary ancestry can be traced back to Nelson Algren, James Wright and Philip Levine; and their gritty, blue collar, realist influence is discernable in the two sections of nonfiction prose, Fat Chance and Pork Town, that depict, among other things, historical plane crashes and slaughterhouses.
An undercurrent of wickedly wry humor runs through much of the work in Sputnik’s Cousin. Some of the pieces defy description and conventional understanding, chuffing away like fulminating steam punk contraptions with connecting pipes and valves that whistle and wheeze, chitter, chirp and cheep, threatening to blow up at any moment. I like that.
His stream of consciousness romps, some pensive, some raucously playful, some mordantly funny, are acrobatic combinations of words and images in a private language that create a sense of cognitive dissonance, tear down established literary boundaries, defy labeling and challenge preconceived notions. Sputnik’s Cousin is a significant body of ground breaking, modernist work from an important Australian poet and this is a book worthy of critical attention as a bellwether signaling trends in contemporary literature.
(Published in The Enchanted Verses)
This Wasted Land: and Its Chymical Illuminations, by Marc Vincenz (annotated by Tom Bradley). New Orleans, Louisiana: Lavender Ink, April 2015. 242 pages. $19.00, paper.
“And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot Fighting in the captain’s tower While calypso singers laugh at the And fishermen hold flowers”Desolation Row ~ Bob Dylan 196
This Wasted Land is a ponderous tome indeed. I say that because it truly caused me to ponder, and I haven’t stopped pondering since I read the 902-line poem for the first time. In this age of attention deficit sound bites, ad-driven Internet blogger journalism, text messaging, instant messaging, tweeting, and “literature” as amuse-bouche single, bite-sized hors d’œuvres, here is one of the books that cannot be lightly skimmed or accessed by a quick read. It requires and deserves attention, cross-referencing, rereading, and as I said, pondering. It is copiously annotated with over three hundred entries by Tom Bradley and includes a twenty-three-page bibliography, a comprehensive index, and one of the most outrageous and confounding afterwords I’ve ever read by one Siegfried Tolliot, whose very existence is in question, but I don’t want to spoil the fun by saying too much about him now. I will say this, however. This Wasted Land is a masterpiece collaboration between Marc Vincenz and Tom Bradley.
A trenchant shot across Tom Bradley’s bow from the mysterious Siegfried Tolliot:
I suspect such peccadillos are not all that have kept him out from behind the professional podium. Displaying what can only be described as flippant disregard for intellectual rigor, Bradley has sunk alongside T. S. Eliot into “remarkable expositions of bogus scholarship.” He indulges in deliberate non-sequitur, which he no doubt dignifies as “impressionistic analysis.”
And some sardonic scholarship from Tom Bradley regarding Siegfried Tolliot:
Tolliot showed up in the “schizy ward” on the rounded heels of the author of Howl after the latter had orally primed old native Idahoan … the priapic eunuch put himself into position to lend Ezra Pound a carton of Kool mentholated cigarettes …
The book is a multilayered opus of brilliant prose, lyrical poetry, erudite scholarship, high culture, low culture, acerbic wit, droll humor, high parody and satirical exchanges between the author, the annotator, and the mysterious Siegfried Tolliot. This Wasted Land is a hybrid of ekphrastic parody, tribute and scholarly research. To be honest, my initial encounter with the book left me confused and befuddled. In fact, I wasn’t sure what was a put-on and what was actually serious. There are mysterious passages in German and French and a dizzying array of far-reaching annotations that include links to the Rosicrucians, the First Golden Age, alchemy, the occult, magick, the Annunaki, the Nephilim, and enough other esoteric references for a PhD dissertation. There’s even a disambiguation of the musician Manfred Mann and his classic hit from the sixties British Invasion, “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy.” The old country song by Skeeter Davis, “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” came to mind as I remembered so many historical references that had been relegated to the dustbin of my own liberal arts education. If you are willing to dive headfirst into this grand literary smorgasbord and pay close attention, you will emerge with an updated education in classical humanities. Here is an example of some of Vincenz’s gorgeous lyrical poetry:
blue heaven begins to hum a far less wretched tune of rain and chymical sorcery, coercing tubers and roots
to squirm within sallow layers—and serpents twisting beyond the line of sight; thawing toads seek beguiling light, yes, even millipedes tapping into steady locomotion.
In order to understand a parody, it is necessary to understand the actual subject of the parody and context of the satire. This sent me back to revisit T. S. Eliot’s actual poem (“The Waste Land”) and the role that Ezra Pound played in co-creating the work with his editing, notes, corrections, and annotations. As important as Eliot and Pound were to modern literature, I was thoroughly dismayed by their politics, homophobia, and anti-Semitism and found it hard to separate their personal viewpoints from their art. But it did help lead me to a greater understanding of the references in This Wasted Land.
Vincenz’s poem closely follows the actual structure of “The Waste Land,” and Bradley plays Pound to Vincenz’s Eliot. The work closely parallels things that Eliot (and Pound) did with blending language by interjecting French and German passages, writing (“dead”) languages of ancient Greek and Latin and the concept of poetry as spoken word and song.
It’s important to note that this is not madcap comedy. It’s sophisticated and nuanced parody; but wrapped beneath this cloak of parody is a very real work of art. This Wasted Land is a virtuosic display of language and historical context. It is a work that is unique and totally new while still honoring the lineage from which it comes. This Wasted Land is a work about alchemy as a transformative agent and the allegorical journey to find the meaning of existence. It invokes James Joyce’s (and Joseph Campbell’s) monomyth, the hero’s journey and the classic archetypes of ancient myth: Ulysses, Perseus, Heracles, Achilles, Odysseus, Orpheus. It is also about the pursuit of our shadow selves and the realization that we are the ones that we have been waiting for.
I was reminded of the critical roles played by Eliot and Pound as modernists charged with pushing the wheels of culture forward and one of Pound’s most famous exhortations: “Make it new.” Vincenz and Bradley certainly have taken that to heart and succeeded in doing that by using “The Waste Land” as a springboard for This Wasted Land. In fact, they’re using it as a trampoline for their dazzling literary acrobatics. While Eliot’s poem ends with the Sanskrit prayer invocation “Shantih shantih shantih” (“Peace, peace, peace”), Vincenz references Eliot’s notes from “The Waste Land” in the final passage and then ends his poem with: “Kanti! O blessed one. Kanti! Cuckoo!” (“Patience, forbearance, forgiveness”), something we would all do well to remember.
(Published in Heavy Feather Review)