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Posts from the ‘Poetry’ Category

“It is how to live”: Eleni Sikelianos

sikelianos-happy

Make Yourself Happy is the fifth book of poetry by Eleni Sikelianos issued since 2001 by the fine Coffee House Press, just north of me in Minneapolis. I’ve been reading and rereading this compelling book for the past two weeks. Kudos to Coffee House Press for turning out a beautifully designed and produced book that is visually elegant and wonderful to hold.

As a poet, Sikelianos like to think big. Her books deal with topics like science, mythology, history, ecology, extinction, and even, as she writes in one poem sequence in this new book, “the history of man.” Previous books have included a nearly 190-page poem dedicated to California (The California Poem) and a book-length biography in poems (You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek)). Sikelianos is also one of a handful of poets who regularly uses photographs in her books, with four of her Coffee House Press books having imagery of one kind or another.

Make Yourself Happy consists of three long poem sequences, followed by two short stand-alone poems. “Make Yourself Happy” is comprised of 39 individual poems.  Superficially, one might say that the sequence explores the many meanings of “happiness,” whether it’s eating croissants in Paris or simply being alive. But Sikelianos is after something far deeper and more complex than that. Slowly but surely, as this nearly 60-page poem sequence evolves, Sikelianos unravels the whole notion of happiness. Yes, there is a true, indomitable form of happiness that “baffles what’s trying to get in” to destroy it, but there are also false states of happiness that are driven by things as simple as the consumption of sugar-filled snacks or the indulgence in drugs like heroin. Heroin, violence, misery, and other decidedly unhappy themes are always lurking in these poems. In one poem, we see happiness used with decidedly Orwellian intent:

In the United Arab Emirates there is now a Ministry of Happiness
“You can be happy as long as you keep your mouth shut.

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“Midpoint”: John Updike’s Pointillist Poem

Updike Midpoint_0001-001

Engraver and Apprentice, in their room
Of acid baths and photophobic gloom,
Transform to metal dots ten shades of gray…

I have never been a fan of John Updike’s writing, but I have to admit I was really curious when a Vertigo reader mentioned that Updike had published a book of poetry in 1969 that contained numerous photographs. “Midpoint,” the long poem that opens Midpoint and Other Poems (NY: Knopf, 1969), was written “to take inventory of his life at the end of his thirty-fifth year – a midpoint,” as the book’s dust jacket puts it. As it turned out, “Midpoint” was written a few years prematurely, since Updike (1932-2009) lived to be nearly seventy-seven.

“Midpoint” has five sections or cantos.  X.J. Kennedy referred to the poem as “a personal history in heterogeneous parts —terza rima; a family photo album; a celebration in Spenserian stanzas of metals, ceramics, and polymers; Poundian cantos, complete with glosses; and a meditation in heroic couplets…” (April 1993, New Criterion). Each canto begins with an “argument” that sets forth the poet’s own summary of that section. In Canto 1, the “Introduction,” Updike writes of “early intimations of wonder and dread” and opens with the telling line “Of nothing but me, me.” Then comes Canto II, “The Photographs,” which consists only of a brief argument and twenty-one photographs of Updike and his family – grandparents, parents, siblings, himself at multiple ages, his wife (the book came out five years before his divorce from Mary), and his children. Read more

Hardly War

Hardly WarI was narrowly narrator,

yet superbly so.

In an essay several years ago for the British magazine Source Photographic Review, I wrote: “if one were to look for the most innovative and challenging uses of photography in literature today, I would point to a handful of contemporary poets who are finding ways to turn visual images into poetic vocabulary, notably Anne Carson, Christian Hawkey, Susan Howe, and Leslie Scalapino.” Today, I would add a number of names to that list, one of which is Don Mee Choi, whose new book of poems and photographs Hardly War (Seattle & NY: Wave Books, 2016) I have been reading and rereading for a week now. Choi pulls off quite a feat by blending several languages, photographs, and drawings into a unified whole. She has a distinctive voice that is playful and confident, and Wave Books, as always, has produced a brilliant design that turns Hardly War into a bravura visual performance on paper. Choi was born in South Korea and her father was a photographer and cinematographer who mostly worked in Asian war zones – including the Korean War and the Vietnam War and she deploys photographs by her father and others in this book.

What I am attempting to do with my poems and my father’s photographs is what I used to do as a child when I stared at my father’s photographs and maps. I’m trying to imagine race=nation,its language, its wars. I am trying to fold race into geopolitics. It involves disobeying history, severing its ties to power. It strings together the faintly remembered, the faintly imagined, the faintly discarded, which is to say race=nation gets to speak its own faint history in its own faint language. Its mere umbilical cord is hardly attached to anything at all. Hence, hardly=war.

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Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

Graves_0001-001

Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (St. Paul: Graywolf, 2004) is a book-length prose poem filled with photographs and a few non-photographic images. It toggles between meditation and anger on a wide range of subjects, including death, cancer, depression (and anti-depressants), suicide, rape, 9/11, racism, history, politics, and literature, but the central trope is the ubiquitous television set. A repeated image of a static-filled television screen serves to separate the segments of the poem, signalling that Rankine is about to change the channel on us. The book’s epigraph from Aime Cesaire is an admonition to not be a spectator: “And most of all beware, even in thought, of assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator,for life is not a spectacle, a sea of grief is not a proscenium, a man who wails is not a dancing bear…” In Rankine’s poem, the television is so much a symbol for the media, it’s simply the biggest source of bad news and despair. In one section, with the controversial vote count over the reelection of George W. Bush as the backdrop, Rankine writes: “I stop watching the news. I want to continue, watching, charting, and discussing the counts, the recounts, the hand counts, but I cannot. I lose hope.” Read more

“The Lovely Disorder” of Suzanne Doppelt

 

Doppelt and SwensenCole Swensen and Suzanne Doppelt

“You see an object better by looking at it sideways rather than straight on” [RRW]

Perhaps because she sees herself as both a poet and a photographer, Suzanne Doppelt’s books place words and photographs on equal footing. Neither one illustrates or explains the other, they rarely even seem to refer directly to the other. And yet the text and the images find a kind of harmony and balance that is probably impossible to describe. To date, Doppelt has only had two of her books translated from her original French into English: RING RANG WRONG (Burning Deck,  2006) and The Field Is Lethal (Counterpath, 2011). Both deal with the cosmos, nature, mysterious powers, and, at times, philosophical concepts, yet the “world” that one steps into upon reading Doppelt seems delicate.  Eveything is permeable. Doppelt’s work is densely referential and allusive – and decidedly elusive. It’s almost a kind of attention-deficit poetics, with objects, ideas, voices, places, references, and more making momentary appearances in the poems as if they were transitory particles being recorded in an accelerator. Read more

“A glimpse of one’s own exile”: The poems of Derek Jarman

Jarman cover

“November”

A glimpse of ones own exile
radiating across green lawns
passing geometric laughter
someone had painted the oak yellow

2014 is the twentieth anniversary of the death of Derek Jarman, artist and queer activist. Derek Jarman was one of those artists without boundaries, simultaneously pursuing filmmaking, painting, writing, creative gardening, set design, and more. His astounding notebooks, which look like overstuffed scrapbooks, were filled with collages, calligraphy, poetry, objects, drawings, and pasted images of all sorts.  As part of the celebrations taking place under the auspices of Jarman 2014, London’s Test Centre has reissued Jarman’s only published book of poetry. What’s especially interesting about A Finger in the Fishes Mouth is the fact that every poem is paired with an image from a postcard that Jarman collected. Read more

Found – Midway on Life’s Journey

SONY DSC

This is the last of my trio of posts on recent books that consist of found or appropriated texts and photographs. Elisabeth Tonnard’s In this Dark Wood (J and L Books, 2013) pairs ninety different translations of the opening tercet from Dante’s Inferno with a similar number of photographs from the archive of Joseph Selle, housed at the Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester NY. Elisabeth Tonnard is Dutch-based artist and poet who has made a number of artist’s books that often fuse existing texts and photographs. The Man of the Crowd (2102), for example, combined photographs of a man walking through Paris with a reworked version of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “A Man of the Crowd,”while other books have payed playful homage to several of of Ed Ruscha’s classic artist’s books. Read more

Conversation with Uwe Schütte

Figurationen

Uwe Schütte is a Reader in German at Aston University, where he has taught since 1999. He has a PhD. from the University of East Anglia, where he studied under W.G. Sebald. His new book about the poetry of W.G. Sebald has just been published by Edition Isele in Eggingen, Germany, at the very affordable price of 16 Euros.

Vertigo: Your new book Figurationen is a study of Sebald’s poetical writings. Why did you decide to write about this aspect of Sebald’s work?

Schütte: The book actually came about by chance. For a long while I meant to write an essay on Über das Land und das Wasser (2008), the collection of Sebald’s poetry edited by Sven Meyer, but I never really got round to doing it. Then the opportunity arose to present a paper on Sebald’s poetry at a conference in Cardiff, Wales. I actually couldn’t attend due to illness but nevertheless wrote the essay for inclusion in the conference proceedings volume.

Taking a closer look at the poems, which I had so far only considered to be appendixes to the prose texts, I discovered that they have considerable merits independent of the prose books. In connection with my research, I came across some articles by the Swedish scholar Axel Englund which contained incisive close readings of several poems that stimulated my interest further. Another factor were the often eye-opening explanatory notes provided by Iain Galbraith, the translator and editor of Across the Water and The Land (2011), the English version of the poetry collection. Read more

Found – in the Mountain

Coal Mountain Elementary

One of the things that can happen – perhaps uniquely – with poetry that appropriates existing texts is that this repositioning of a text into a poem can also dramatically redirect our understanding of that text back within its original source. Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press, 2009) does exactly that. Coal Mountain Elementary is a kind of activist poetry comprised of preexisting texts that have been combined with color photographs by Nowak and British photojournalist Ian Teh. Read more

Found – in the Desert

Lost and cover

I am queuing up three posts on recent books of “found” poetry and photographs. Each book represents a different approach to re-using extant texts, as well as distinctly different types of photography. Read more