Thursday, March 31, 2011



The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens edited, and with an introduction by, John N. Serio
(Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007)

Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems edited, and with an introduction by, John N. Serio
(Knopf, New York, 2009)

Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction by Edward Ragg
(Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010)

Although born in 1879 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Wallace Stevens did not see his first published poetry did not appear until approximately 1921 when he was 42 years of age. By that time, he had spent a great part of his life as a lawyer for the Hartford Insurance Company becoming vice-president. Certainly, he had written poetry prior to 1921—mostly to his wife, Elsie Kachel, whom he married after a five year courtship and spent one year happily married after which, while remaining married, each went their separate ways. This estrangement may have been as a result of Steven’s estrangement with his family over his plans to marry Elsie. Stevens was from a prominent New England family (his father being a prominent lawyer). As expressed by Joan Richardson in the first chapter of the Cambridge ‘Wallace Stevens: A Likeness’, “Stevens’ parents never approved of their son’s relationship with this young woman who was literally from the wrong side of the tracks.”(15) As Richardson presents it, at the time of their wedding, “No one from his side of the family was present.” He initially became involved in writing verse dramas such as Three Travellers Watch a Sunrise and Carlos among the Candles, neither of which received much, if any, acclaim. Which is why, with his first book, Harmonium (1923), it is surprising that he should emerge with such poems as ‘The Snow Man’ and ‘Le Monocle de Mon Oncle’ and become one of the major poets of the modernist movement.

To say that Stevens is a difficult poet is an understatement. Serio, in his introduction to Cambridge (hereafter ‘C’), refers back to Eliot when he states: “Eliot’s famous observation on modern poetry remains apt. It ‘must be difficult’ because the ‘variety and complexity’ of modern society, ‘playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more, and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.”(2) Along comes Stevens to correct Eliot’s statement “A poem need not have a meaning and like most things in nature often does not have.” advising that, in order to read a poem, “you must love the words, the ideas and images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all.”

Stevens published his first book, Harmonium, in 1923 adding to it when it was republished in 1931. But he had been writing poetry, as already alluded to above, for some time. As Robert Rehder says, in ‘Stevens and Harmonium’, “he had started writing poems seriously when he was a student at Harvard (1897-1900) and made a new start in 1907 when he began composing poems for Elsie Kachel”(C, 23) Rehder shows how Stevens had been for some time considering the putting together of a manuscript but was concerned with the inclusion of ‘miscellany’ going so far as to correspond with William Carlos Williams upon the publication of Williams’ third book, Al Que Quiere! (1917). About this first book, Rehder states that “the unlikeliness of Stevens’ vocabulary is matched by the unlikeliness of his images”(C 26) and “There is no American poet more idiosyncratic than Stevens and with whom the strangeness is so often humorous. He uses the comic to avoid the sentimental.” but does find fault with it: “Despite Stevens’ efforts to find his true subject, there is a certain miscellaneousness about Harmonium.”

When you recognize that some of Stevens’ best and best known poems are found in this first volume, you know that there is much that must have preceded it. But Harmonium begins with such poems as ‘The Snow Man’ which opens with the line “One must have a mind of winter / To regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow”(7) and ends with one of Stevens’ patented philosophical lines “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” There is free verse here as well as blank verse the latter first represented by ‘Le Monocle de Mon Oncle’ which moves in 11-line stanzas so that the argument presented is always unbalanced. Based upon the sonnet, there is always a volte in the middle of the stanza as can be seen in stanza 5:
The measure of the intensity of love
Is measure also, of the verve of earth.
For me, the firefly’s quick, electric stroke
Ticks tediously the time of one more year.(9)

That line beginning “For me...”, the sixth line of the stanza, here provides the turning. The final quoted line shows one of Stevens failings—the overuse at times of alliteration. We get an energetic feeling in reading “Ticks tediously the time”, certainly not one of tediousness. The ‘unlikeness of Stevens vocabulary’ is found in stanza 3 where the opening lines read “Is it for nothing, then, that Old Chinese / Sat tittivating by their mountain pools.”(8) ‘Titivating’, which means to spruce up, to neaten, to add decoration, should have only a single rather than a double ‘t’. One of the most perfect lines in all of poetry occurs in ‘The Comedian as the Letter C’: “This auditor of insects! He that saw”(20) —an Anglo-Saxon line with the exclamation marking a mid-point caesura with two stresses on either side, a completely unexpected line that startles with its perfection. Who else would have thought of ‘auditor of insects’? This is one of those moments where meaning does not matter; sound does and the sound is perfect. And all this found in the midst of iambic pentameter blank verse. Contrary to what Serio had to say about it, ‘Anecdote of Men by the Thousand’ is a work of philosophy masquerading as a poem. Stevens set out to prove the opening syllogism “The soul, he said, is composed / Of the eternal world.”(35) with the concluding quatrain “The dress of a woman of Lhasa, / in its place, / is an invisible element of that place / made visible.” Although an interesting proposition, it is far too vague to make it as a poem—a thing which demands the concrete. ‘Sunday Morning’, with its internal monologue of a woman eating an orange and its fifteen line stanzas which are reminiscent of sonnets except there is no volte, no turnaround, will always be one of Stevens best poems, its final lines as near to poetic perfection as one can get: “And, in the isolation of the sky, / At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make / Ambiguous undulations as they sink, / Downward to darkness, on extended wings.”(45) that last seemingly a pagan recognition of spirituality. This is followed by a seldom discussed poem ‘Six Significant Landscapes’ which is a precursor to ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, also found in Harmonium and both reflecting Cubist influence, each one a facet of some poetic gem, each bearing significance. I’ll complete this discussion of the poems of Harmonium by mentioning one of Stevens most incredible and most ignored poems ‘Sea Surface Full of Clouds’ which is the most Cubist of his poems with its four reflections on the ‘slopping of the sea’, each a subtle shifting of the image. This poem must have influenced the L.A.N.G.U.A.G.E. poets although, to my knowledge, there is no definitive proof that it did.

Stevens would not publish anything further for another thirteen years following the initial publication of Harmonium which led to some critical speculation that Stevens had lost whatever talent he had. Then the 1930s arrived. Alan Filreis, in his essay ‘Stevens in the1930s’, says that “a sequence of three books in just two years—Ideas of Order (1936), Owl’s Clover (1936), and The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937)—forced [Stevens detractors] to abandon altogether their deciphering of Stevens’ post-Harmonium silence.”(C 38)

The first poem in Ideas of Order, ‘Farewell to Florida’, never makes it off the ground mostly because the rhythm implies a broken wing. Consider these absolutely pathetic lines from the third stanza:
Curled over the shadowless hut, the rust and bones,
The trees like bones and the leaves half sand, half sun.
To stand here on the deck in the dark and say
Farewell and to know that that land is forever gone.(67)

What was it that Stevens was thinking in releasing these lines. The repetition of ‘bones’ in lines one and two causes the poem to limp—but it is not broken yet. That is taken care of in the next two. The rhythm of line three exacerbates the limping particularly due to the repetition of the anapest—‘on the deck’ ‘in the dark’—but then that fourth with the repetition of ‘that’. A person who has never written a line of poetry in their lives may have written this. Even if we allow that Stevens was attempting to imitate the waves, those waves swamped that ship a long time ago. One would not think that the same pen could create this:
Last evening the moon rose above this rock
Impure upon a world unpurged.
The man and his companion stopped
To rest before the heroic height.(‘How to Live, What to Do’, 72)

That opening line with its assonance on ‘o’— ‘moon’, ‘rose’, ‘rock’—taking into account just about every way to pronounce that vowel—followed by that play on ‘p’ and ‘u’— ‘impure’, ‘upon’, ‘unpurged’—is a master’s touch. The slant rhyme of ‘rock’ and ‘stopped’ is the ribbon that ties this package. This is incredible craftsmanship. For all of its shortcomings, Ideas of Order does give us ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, one of Stevens’ best. Consider the lines:
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.(75)

This is one of Stevens’ tour-de-forces that leave the reader breathless. One would think these words were written for a woman—but they’re not. They are written for nature (or for the muse). Nature was Stevens’ refuge, the place in which he delighted, where he encountered the spiritual. And these words, indeed, reflect a profound spirituality, although one that is more pagan than Christian.

Owl’s Clover, which Filreis describes as “the long poem...embodies an elaborate—at times allegorical—exchange between various advocates of the public and private realms, and it certainly carries on the discussion of in ‘The Men That Are Falling’ of the fate of the isolated poet in a time of real political changes”, has not been included in the Selected. This may be as a result of its chequered history:
The whole poem was published by a small press in 1936. The edition was tiny—just 105 copies were printed—and only a few readers saw this complete version. When the work next appeared, as one of the ‘other poems’ in The Man with the Blue Guitar & Other Poems in 1937, published in a trade edition by Alfred A. Knopf, ‘Owl’s Clover’ had been cut drastically by 198 ½ lines. The titular reference to Stanley Burnshaw has been eradicated; in the Knopf edition, the second section was now titled ‘The Statue at the World’s End.’(C43)

The Selected having been published by Knopf, perhaps they wanted to shield themselves from this history. By the way, the reference to Stanley Burnshaw is important. Burnshaw was a reviewer and reporter who worked for left-wing publications and who had critiqued Stevens for having lost touch with the times and whose position had been supplanted by younger, more radical poets. Stevens wrote this poem in response to that critique.

Filreis describes The Man with the Blue Guitar as providing
a means of discerning why poets feel they must answer questions about content through the way their words, phrases, and lines are organized—arranged on the page, given meter, endorsed, or undermined by choices of tone or rhetorical devices. What is perhaps so exciting about these stanzas strummed on an instrument by a poet-figure thirty-three ways is that form becomes his only means of addressing ethical complaints raised against his mode. ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ is a poem that is organized, or styled, to account for charges to be made against the invariability of its ideas about art. It responds through sheer variability and an incessant shifting of positions. These positions are not just political ones, but are also the sitting, or setting, or arrangement that the guitarist-poet takes or assumes in relation to his guitar.(C46)

One may be reminded by the rhythm of this poem of Dr. Seuss—although I do not mean this in a disparaging way. Written in couplets, it moves along like an inchworm with its middle lifting up as its front slides forward.
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves.

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”(90)

Note how the rhythm is distorted by the first couplet, how ‘green’ is used in a humorous manner to contrast with the repetition of ‘blue’ to follow. By creating this rhythm in the first stanza and referring back to it throughout the poem, Stevens creates an interesting effect. The last two couplets in part XI are
Wingless and withered, but living alive.
The discord merely magnifies.

Deeper within the belly’s dark
Of time, time grows upon the rock (96)

The first of those couplets is a variation in the rhythm which is returned to in the second. Because of the strong reminder of the base rhythm throughout the poem, the variations create a counter rhythm where we hear both happening simultaneously—an effect borrowed from Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The 1940s were not a kind period for Stevens. Yet, this was the period during which ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’ was written. During this decade, Stevens released two books: Parts of a World (1942) and Transport to Summer (1947) with Notes appearing in the latter. The former contains such dismal poems as ‘The Man on the Dump’, a fitting title for this:
The green smacks in the eye, the dew in the green
Smacks like fresh water in a can, like the sea
On a cocoanut—how many men have copied dew
For buttons, how many women have covered themselves
With dew, dew dresses, stones and chains of dew, heads
Of the floweriest flowers dewed with the dewiest dew.
One grows to hate these things except on the dump.(117)

Repetition had, by this time, become a hallmark of Stevens’ verse. We have already seen several examples where this has been put to great effect. Here, as in other poems in this volume, it is vastly overdone. In this brief segment there are eight mentions of ‘dew’. Perhaps Stevens was trying to satirize himself. He took it to overkill. This is the corpse being stabbed, shot and bludgeoned and the inspector attempting to discern the cause of death when one would have been sufficient. This volume is partially redeemed by ‘A Dish of Peaches in Russia’, the first two couplets of which are
With my whole body I taste these peaches,
I touch them and smell them. Who speaks?

I absorb them as the Angevine
Absorbs Anjou. I see then as a lover sees,(129)

Stevens is fully restored with the writing of ‘Of Modern Poetry’, a much underrated poem. The first stanza is brilliant in itself but leads to even better:
The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
                        Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.(135)

Stevens left the 1940s with Transport to Summer (1947) demonstrating once again why he is one of the best poets of the twentieth century. Included here is his long, fifteen part poem ‘Esthétique du Mal’ which begins
He was at Naples writing letters home
And, between his letters, reading paragraphs
On the sublime. It was pleasant to be sitting there,
While the sultriest fulgurations, flickering,
Cast corners in the glass. He could describe
The terror of the sound because the sound
Was ancient.(160)

This is a poem of ideas, of aesthetics written brilliantly. Undoubtedly, this poem, and others like it, was a major influence on John Ashbery. As James Longenbach, in ‘Stevens and his Contemporaries’, states: “Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, James Merrill, John Ashbery—major figures from each subsequent generation of American poets—have been shaped by Stevens’ seriously playful sensibility.”(C76) One can hear Ashbery’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ within the tenor of this poem. But this is not all Transport has to offer. Toward the end you will encounter some ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’. Milton J. Bates, in ‘Stevens and the Supreme Fiction’ describes this poem:
Besides the philosophical challenges in ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,’ the reader encounters a couple of literary challenges. Though the poem’s prosody remains consistent throughout—each canto is composed of twenty-one lines of blank verse, arranged in seven tercets—the tone and rhetorical form vary considerably. The cantos are by turns rhapsodic and satirical, musing and bemused, impassioned and detached. They take the form of addresses to an imaginary pupil, a lover, and a soldier. They tell stories, stage mini-dramas, and develop arguments. They ruminate on the past and speculate about the future.(C50)

A couple of tercets from the first part of this voluminous poem will demonstrate the depth of Stevens’ poetic ability:
Never suppose an inventing mind as source
Of this idea nor for that mind compose
A voluminous master folded in his fire.

How clean the sun when seen in its idea,
Washed in the remotest cleanliness of a heaven
That has expelled us and our images...(195)

‘A voluminous master folded in his fire’ is a masterful line. An example, once again, of Stevens use of the Anglo-Saxon line this time with the caesura created by the necessity to pause between the difficult sounds of the ‘r’ concluding ‘master’ and the immediately following ‘f’ of ‘folded’. Each part has two stresses, the last of which for both parts falling on the ‘r’ sounds. The sound of the last part ‘folded in his fire’ is exquisite. The first line of the next tercet—a line of eleven syllables but iambic pentameter none-the-less—is also exceptional. The internal rhyme of ‘clean’ and ‘seen’ interrupted by the alliteration of the s’s on ‘sun’ and ‘seen’ creates an irresistible rhythm.

B.J. Leggett, in ‘Stevens Late Poetry’, writes of Stevens’ last volume of new poems, The Auroras of Autumn (1950), as well as the twenty-five previously uncollected poems attached to his Collected Poems—published to coincide with Stevens seventy-fifth birthday:
Although difficult from the beginning, Stevens’ poetry had become increasingly theoretical and abstract, and thus increasingly obscure, since Parts of the World in 1942, and The Auroras of Autumn represents the culmination of this tendency. Coming directly after this demanding poetry, the poems of The Rock are unexpectedly plain, stripped of the imaginative flourishes and epistemological quandaries of the preceding volumes. Stevens’ late poems are thus not of a piece formally or stylistically, even if they address many of the same themes.(C62)

By this time, Stevens was being recognized by many awards and honours—the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize, the Gold Medal of the Poetry Society of America, a second National Book Award for his Collected Poems, a Pulitzer Prize as well as the awarding of honorary degrees from Bard College, Harvard, Mount Holyoke, Columbia, and Yale—as one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth-century. In the title poem, ‘The Auroras of Autumn’, which Leggett refers to as Stevens’ best long poem, Stevens provides one of the most powerful opening lines of any poem “This is where the serpent lives, the bodiless.’(221). This is a line guaranteed to grasp the reader’s attention. With such a powerful opening, demand is on the poet to deliver an equally powerful poem. Stevens does so sustaining it for ten full pages. Part II is no exception. The following two tercets demonstrate his ability not just to maintain but to build interest through repetition:
An ancestral theme or as a consequence
Of an infinite course. The flowers against the wall
Are white, a little dried, a kind of mark

Reminding, trying to remind, of a white
That was different, something else, last year
Or before, not the white of an aging afternoon.(222)

White, the emptying of color, of life—this passage builds to a crescendo where we know that Stevens is the white thing of that afternoon as he contemplates his own mortality. But Stevens will not let this section die without returning color to it in its final stanza:
With its frigid brilliances, its blue-red sweeps
And gusts of great enkindlings, its polar green,
The color of ice and fire and solitude.(222)

Those latter colors are the colors of the poet and the state of same. Skipping over the single poem, ‘Someone puts a Pineapple Together’ from The Necessary Angel, we move into those twenty-five newly collected poems of The Rock. Leggett says of this collection:
This emphasis on the real and the paradox it entails—the premise that the apprehension of the real requires a supreme act of the imagination, a supreme fiction—persists in the poems of The Rock. In 1954, Stevens was asked for a statement on the major ideas of his poetry, and he responded that the ‘central theme’ was ‘the possibility of a supreme fiction, recognized as a fiction, in which men could propose to themselves a fulfilment’. Stevens’ use of the term ‘supreme fiction’ dates from Harmonium, where he had implied that the poet’s supreme fiction, the poet’s attempt to reconcile us to our existence in the world, would replace religion’s supreme being, a fiction no longer credible. ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’ was a tentative definition of the poetic fiction—it must be abstract, must change, must give pleasure—but in many of the poems on The Rock Stevens attempts to realize such a fiction, most often in his conception of a godlike imagination.(C69)

Stevens opens The Rock with ‘Lebensweisheitspielerei’ looking back at life and wondering what will be left in the end:
Weaker and weaker, the sunlight falls
In the afternoon. The proud and the strong
Have departed.

Those that are left are the unaccomplished,
The finally human,
Natives of a dwindled sphere.(278)

Is this the life of the poet whose fiction has finally failed, that mock heroic being purporting to be an Argonaut? But Stevens has not lost anything, his poetic strength and wisdom remaining as he demonstrates in the last couple of couplets of ‘Long and Sluggish Lines’:
...Wanderer, this is the pre-history of February.
The life of the poem in the mind has not yet begun.

You were not born yet when the trees were crystal
Nor are you now, in this wakefulness inside a sleep.(293)

Up to the end Stevens adhered to his Symbolist influence. We see this in the title poem, ‘The Rock’, when he writes “Turquoise the rock, at odious evening bright / With redness that sticks fast to evil dreams”(299). ‘Red’ had been a symbolic word for Stevens, part of his personal mythology, since the beginning of his career representing the sun and, hence, life and, also, poetry, the poem, and the poet.

Interspersed within the discussion of Wallace Stevens Selected Poems have been excerpts from essays contained in The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens. There are a number of essays remaining to be examined. In ‘Stevens and Romanticism’, Joseph Carroll writes that “For Stevens, romanticism is the highest form of imaginative fulfillment.”(C87) going on to discuss how Stevens sought to “create a new romanticism and thus to give new life to the imagination.”(C88) After examining the influence on Stevens of Emerson, Tennyson and Wordsworth, Carroll concludes that Stevens “own style and manner draw heavily on the style and manner of the great romantics, but it also has behind it the historical experience of realism, aestheticism (Parnassian?), symbolism, and modernism. Stevens’ new romanticism incorporates this experience, and it incorporates also the modern belief that all metaphysical ideas are merely constructs of the imagination.”(C101)

One of the most recent additions to the field of Wallace Stevens studies is Ragg’s Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction. This may have the honour of being one of the most welcome of additions to an already crowded field. Stevens was known as a master of abstraction. His ability to merge the greatest of abstractions with the reality of concrete images just before that abstraction succeeded in destroying that poem as if the image were the cavalry riding in at high noon was the hallmark of his genius.

As Ragg states on p. 4 of his introduction: ”This book is principally interested in the turn to abstraction and its influential aftermath that occurred in roughly 1935 in Stevens’ work. That the place of abstraction in Stevens remains underappreciated, misunderstood and the subject of considerable debate, makes careful ground-clearing desirable.” Ragg continues, on p. 5:
What emerges is a Stevens attracted to the mental processes enabling abstract figuration rather than a poet mimicking abstract painting in verbal form...Once he had embraced abstraction as a positive force in his writing—around 1937—the main aesthetic challenge Stevens faced was exploiting what abstraction offered. This would see him dispatch the overt abstract rhetoric and specialist symbolism of ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’ (1942) and embrace a more boldly abstract verse reflecting on the ‘baldest' concept: ‘metaphor’, ‘resemblance’, ‘description’, ‘analogy’, ‘the ultimate poem’. However spare these concepts appear, Stevens crafted from them a verse of human abstract meditation whose various expressions are intimately pursued throughout.

If it isn’t clear yet, Ragg makes it so with the title of his first chapter: The abstract impulse: from anecdote to ‘new romantic’ in Harmonium (1923) and Ideas of Order (1935). As he says, at p. 38,
By the mid-1930s, then, Stevens sought an abstract idiom he had not previously required which attempted to transcend the nominally ‘impotent’ aesthetic of Harmonium. However, Stevens craved rejuvenation not because the Harmonium anecdotes were defective but because ‘The Comedian at the Letter C’ inadvertently revealed he was uncomfortable integrating anecdote into larger, more realized poetry projects...To effect transition Stevens transformed the desire for a new aesthetic into a self-reflexive language designed to overhaul dead ‘romantics’.

Ragg confines his attention in this chapter to an analysis of ‘Academic Discourse at Havana’—an interesting choice given that this poem never made it into Stevens’ Selected Poems but which Ragg categorizes as “a pivotal poem in Stevens’ early development, its concerns over imaginative creation anticipating the poet’s own problematic silence from 1924 to 1929.”(48)

In analyzing ‘Owl’s Clover’ in his next chapter, ‘The turn to abstraction’, Ragg says
Fearing the ‘abstract’ as ‘evasion’, something removed from its context...Stevens ponders a poetic that risks ‘meaning without a meaning’. What the poet could not have known was that he was about to write a work which critiques abstraction in an abstract space. ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ achieves this abstract locale through ‘repeated phrases’, but those hardly comprise the superficial ‘meaning’ ‘Owl’s Clover’ rejects. In fact, repetition and rhyme create and dissolve meaning in ‘Blue Guitar’; a poem that neither reads like a ’Johnsonian composition’—which Stephens implies is writing a little too perfect and self-contained—nor has any truck with an ‘abstract man’.(58)

Ragg continues:
Stevens characterizes ‘Blue Guitar’ as being not pejoratively abstract; as intimate with ‘conjunctions’ between imaginative and actual life. In differentiating the poems in this way, however, Stevens overlooked the battle within ‘Blue Guitar’ between the poem’s assault on abstraction and the creation of an abstract locale where an ‘un-locatable speaker’ speaks.(58)

Stevens defines ‘pejorative’, in his essay ‘The Irrational Element in Poetry’ (1936), as “The pejorative sense applies where the poet is not attached to reality, where the imagination does not adhere to reality, which...I regard as fundamental.”(59) Ragg goes on to indicate the changes in Stevens’ perspective during the early 1940s: “‘abstraction’ indicates neither the failure of the poet to ‘adhere to reality’ nor the imagination’s wilful distortion of ‘reality’, but a creative process where the idea of ‘poetry’ inspires realized poems.” Once having established a working concept of Stevens’ ‘abstract’, Ragg provides an in-depth analysis of ‘Blue Guitar’ taking the analysis through all thirty cantos of the poem during which he establishes some interesting insights.

In ‘The ‘in-visible’ abstract’, Ragg directly addresses Stevens’ indebtedness to the Romantics:
Although [he] derived much from the British Romantics, Coleridge especially, in forging an abstract vocabulary, Stevens was neither a latter-day Romantic nor a Romantic in quasi-Modernist clothes. Unlike Yeats, Stevens could never claim ‘We were the last romantics’, even where, contemporaneously, the poet manipulated Romantic themes. Yet, while Stevens’ relations with the Romantics have been repeatedly discussed, little scrutiny exists of how Stevens’ modern idealism combines with abstraction.(80)

After discussing Mallarmé’s and Heidegger’s influence on Stevens, Ragg quotes Stevens refinement of his conception of the abstract:
The abstract does not exist...the fictive abstract is as immanent in the mind of the poet, as the idea of God is imminent in the mind of the theologian. The poem is a struggle with the inaccessibility of the abstract.(90)

We will leave Ragg and Stevens with this quote from the opening paragraph of chapter 4— ‘Abstract Figures: the curious case of the idealist ‘I’’:
In 1938 Stevens entered one of the most fecund phases of his writing career. With The Man with the Blue Guitar & Other Poems he reached the end of an experimental period, during which he realized abstraction’s potential and the poetic possibilities of a novel first-person speaker...In the poetry following ‘Blue Guitar’ Stevens would break new ground, attracting fewer comparisons with a dandy or Surrealist aesthetic...(110)

Following Stevens, poetry would never be the same. His explorations of the abstract would be continued by many poets, in particular, John Ashbery. Others would react against his impersonal manner of verse—such as Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. Numerous poets up to the present day would, in one way or another, be influenced by him. The three books discussed present us with a strong picture of this maverick who remade poetry.


John Herbert Cunningham is a freelance creative writing living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He is engaged in reviewing Winnipeg cultural activities and novels for The Winnipeg Review. He reviews poetry and poetics books for several literary magazines both in Canada and the U.S. He is currently completing a poetry manuscript as well as writing plays, a novel and a short story. He is the host of Speaking of Poets Sunday afternoons on CKUW 95.9 FM, Canada’s only radio show dedicated to poetry.



The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom by Leslie Scalapino
(The Post-Apollo Press, Sausalito, CA, 2010)

“Only Those Actions Occurring”: Leslie Scalapino’s The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom

Lesle Scalapino, who died early last year, opens The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom (a continuation of her novel Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows) with an introduction explaining that she wrote the book by “leafing through Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary choosing words by process of alexia, not as mental disorder but word-blindness: trance-like stream overriding meaning, choice, and inhibition.” Her initial goal, she writes, was “to bring about an unknown future” by way of a complex, syntactically expansive interrogation of narrative. (The book, like its first part, is billed as both fiction and poetry.) However, in the process of writing her “sensual exquisite corpses”—the prose units (with occasional dips into verse) that make up the book—Scalapino discovered that “there isn’t any future, isn’t any present”; rather, these event-clusters exist in another textual space altogether, as an ‘instant’ outside a past, present, or future, embodying a new, simultaneous tense. This is a difficult project to articulate, but for those familiar with her other works, it is a recognizable poetics. Like much of her poetry of the past twenty or so years, this book performs a panoptic analysis of events and their time through a continuous shift in perspective and tense. In Dihedrons, Scalapino has furthered her project by entering into even more “endless landscapes” of events and characters, both the fictional and nonfictional, where narrative in its usual sense (A to B to C) ceases to matter. In this regard, Scalapino’s effort is most like being in everyday life, where “narrative is from the outside always."

So how does this work? The book itself is divided into two sections, the first untitled, the second titled “Cromorne.” The first begins with an introduction describing the project, and ends with that same introduction recapitulated (with some changes) at the end in verse. Scalapino writes in the second version,
                        In the accumulating stream of events,
hybrids repeating parts of an event in different combinations,
the parts rearranged by imagination begin to pierce each other
single outlines and boundaries, the sense of infinite combinations are

The events Scalapino chooses (and invents) are patterned, with much variation, throughout the book. Some of the most important ones that move throughout the first section are an octopus performing fellatio on a woman, the escape of orphans, the 2009 protests and Twitter activities of Iranian students, Sarah Palin’s bid for the vice presidency, the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, an escape from a plane, the CIA activities of the base runner (who’s also the octopus), the healthcare reform/death panel debate, and a woman’s memories of her father in World War II, to name a few. While section two resembles the first formally, it differs in its events (though we are told they happen simultaneous to part one), limiting itself mostly to the lives of the orphans. But in both sections, Scalapino creates several free-floating narrative hubs, which repeatedly establish and collapse the narrative “boundaries” normally present in fiction. By creating these interactive hubs, each as autonomous as it is subject to intervention, revision, or erasure, Scalapino attempts to realize a ‘timeless’ narrative space, in which all events happen at once, in an instant. In Dihedrons, there is no time; everything is always occurring. (The obvious comparison is to Gertrude Stein’s “continuous present.”) The point of all this muddying of normative boundaries and language, Scalapino writes, is to create a “paradise” free of restrictions of the clock. She writes toward the end of section one, “Therefore single events, that don’t exist anyway, are paradise—are at all (by such) and are paradise.” And later: “As sequence, in sequence, a single event is paradise.” The sensation of reading a novel unanchored by narrative convention, in which everything happens ‘at once’ and always, certainly seems paradisiacal to me. And like paradise, it seems equally impossible to reach on earth, if at all.

Several images by Jess [Collins], Masami Teraoka, Margaret Hofbeck, and Kiki Smith accompany the text but none, Scalapino writes (excepting Teraoka’s), have anything to do with the events described. While this seems true enough, it’s hard not to find Jess’s collages technically analog to Scalapino’s exquisite corpses or see the orphans’ faces in Smith’s spinsters. These images are more helpful as a technical compliments to Scalapino’s collages than as anything else. But their general indifference to the text (less so in the case of Smith) makes their presence feel somewhat flat to me. I am not convinced that their absence would lessen the book any more than I am that their presence improves it. Often, if anything, I found myself distracted by them. An intentional effect? Perhaps. It seems doubtful, and Scalapino does nothing to dissuade me from feeling this way. However, there are so few (fifteen in all) that it never seems so problematic as to lessen the text itself.

The narrative of the novel is quite complex. While the introduction is somewhat helpful, it takes some time before its ideas become clear. (I had to read the first thirty pages twice.) The highly elaborate syntax and word helixes, which often bucks univalent sense—and any authority other than that of the reader—in favor of endless meanings, might prove especially difficult to anyone unfamiliar with Scalapino’s work. Passages like
As boat-tailed grackle in air flow not mirroring boats below, is the bobby calf’s relation—the opposite of a bobby dazzler to sensation of time in the flower? Or/Oar is not existing (time). The old by not having ability have even as halve things with eyes sail up to them become bobby dazzlers. All of the flowers when radiolysis haven’t fear? Or/oar just not knowing.

might put a more casual reader off, especially if they’re in search of a novel with a recognizable and standard narrative. But passages like the above quote will become much clearer with some work—and a dictionary. A bobby calf, a young cow used for veal, is the opposite of a bobby dazzler, which is an English slang term for a well-dressed man; therefore “the time of the flower,” which I take to mean potentiality, would have quite a different meaning from one subject to the other. Radiolysis is, according to Wikipedia, “the dissociation of molecules by radiation”—an apt invocation considering the fate of the bobby calf.

Much of the book is an exploration of the violent exploitation of the innocent by those in power. From the orphans to the Iranian students, the persons and events Dihedrons explores all involve the terrible inequality that accompanies violence. There must always be a victim, which becomes almost unbearable for the book in part two. In blurbing the first part of this project, Floats Horse-Floats or Horse Flows, Rae Armantrout writes, “Like the one we know, this world is filled with disaster and violence. The difference is that here we don't see it coming; we can't hide behind dead verbiage; we can't brace ourselves." Alexia, the brain defect that prevents a person from being able to read that Scalapino’s book imitates, does just this: it prevents the reader from reading the signs before her until it’s too late. To replicate this effect in text, where much of the sense of the action comes too late, after its already happened, horrifies me, as I think Scalapino intended.

The second half of the book is a more direct exploration of the impact of violence on the innocent. The section deals primarily with a group of orphan girls who have been captured by a group of terrorists/fundamentalists/children soldiers. The girls are to be sold into sex slavery, and each is named after their destination (e.g. Dallas, Des Moines, etc.). It seems that these terrorists/slave traders are the same who committed—are about to commit—the Mumbai attacks. In any case, a struggle and escape (which is alluded to throughout section one) ensues over a crocodile pit, costing the lives of many of the children until the gazelle-dihedrals (whose role in the book is somewhat mysterious to me; they seem to serve a far more abstract, atmospheric purpose than the rest of the characters) swoop in to protect the remaining orphans. I cannot stress enough the flawlessness of this section. While retaining much of the dense syntax of section one, section two breathes much easier to me, is far more certain of itself, and is, to put it simply enough, beautiful. Here is one of the final sections (“Parachronism”), in which the Antillean nighthawk is attacked:
The cricetid pneumotropic clinging at that place (at the lung) on the corpse corpses flung on trash heaps the bud breathing in some of them still flicker in some seaming corpse—Venus arising the arms raised above the ocean of on-lookers with the WHOK! in the air shouting cremorne cylindrical tube’s sound a soundless butterfly (the air that the cremorne’s sound parted) frenulum a strong spine on the hind wing of the butterfly projecting beneath the forewing serves holds the 2 wings together in flight dives who’s Venus WHAP! rallies with such strength the Antillean nighthawk hologram arises ‘then’

In this section the girls’ dilemma, articulated in such a complex syntax, is matched perfectly by Smith’s stark drawings. The other images would have worked better, I suspect, if they too had been played for their (complimentary) differences with the text, rather than as technical analog.

Dihedrons articulates much of my own ‘blinded’ shock at much of the violence of the events the novel covers. And it is, however despairing, a wonderful, relentless final book. It is difficult, and I suspect sometimes (but only sometimes) too resigned to accepting the world-for-the-way-it-is. This is perhaps a product of Scalapino’s Buddhism, and reflects a degree of patience with the contemporary moment absent in many others (including myself). But to say so risks too reductive a reading of Scalapino’s project. It is a restless novel, despairing of the fate of the innocent while endlessly critiquing the position and language of those in power, like Sarah Palin and the current Iranian leadership. I cannot imagine anyone finishing the book without feeling not only enraged at the many overriding injustices featured here, but prepared to act against them, however wounded we are by their persistence (as Scalapino seems to be). The novel ends, after all, with one of the girls “ranging among birds wailing with pain rage loose restedness too cuts to pieces.” Nevertheless Scalapino, in every recording I have heard of her reading from the book, treats the text with the utmost calm. She is even “heroic” in her attention, as Fanny Howe puts it, to the future as well as the present, both things she so effectively erases. These things happen everyday, we are reminded, and we must continue to confront them.


Andrew Durbin's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Otoliths, Washington Square, Antennae, and NAP. He lives in New York and can be reached at



Doggy Doo by Bob Brueckl & Jukka-Pekka Kervinen
(cPress, Finland, 2001)

You were waiting for a poetry book titled Doggy Doo, I know. How shall I present it to you, eager Reader of reviews? You expect some charge, some lighting of fuse, else why place the book in consideration. Okay, I take the challenge.

I don’t know what to make of it. That’s my official response, and why you should hanker. The book’s strangeness does not prepare an easy invitation. Why should one bother with it?

I have the up here in that I have seen much work by both authors, as they send work (or is it play?) regularly (singly, I mean) to the listserv Wryting-L. Jukka should be known to many of you, assuming dear Reader has troubled to be troubled. Bob has been less forthcoming of his work to the wide view.

This collaboration mitigates two different processes into a formal mess. Jukka uses computer programs to dispatch the usual. He inputs stuff, if you want to get technical, and outputs other stuff. That’s how I understand it, and I am 100% percent certain I could be half wrong.

I do not think Bob uses such technology to overrun the ramparts of our language base. He absorbs language in some way then processes it according to rhythms of bespeak and bespoken that are mathematically ineligible. He praises Gertrude Stein routinely, as well as Zukofsky, Eigner, and Grenier.

So anyway, these two went back and forth over the course of some weeks to create this book. Bob wrote to me (I don’t claim objectivity here—what a silly feature that would be in a review!) that he could not always tell what part of Doggy Doo was by who. I thought I could guess but now I’m not sure.

So what up, dear Reader asks, fairly enough. I should just type the book into this review and leave it to you. Well, too, I could invoke capitalism to the degree of imploring you to possess this book. Just to exercise that part of the brain that has not dealt fully with the likes of Brueckl and Kervinen. I mean that not as praise, tho I am ready to praise them. I offer their work as earnest of possibility in the silly biz of writing poems that have not happened before.

Okay, so here are the first few lines of Doggy Doo:
wyf, iAS OmbaNK SQU)PANSY SMX;1IN ToDd cardoon rubber lil’ tiny nest b6StCEDPA snooty zwimpfer milkier coo istarted milkin’ the prostate concretions of the ghostly ghaist…

It goes on (transcription errors likely), but what make you of that? Hints that I can offer include that Bob scours a weird sort of scatological language, while Jukka contentedly sprays consonants together. Were you looking for ‘real’ words and real, um, sentiment?

Look closer.

Isn’t the first word above Old English for wife? Or if not, why couldn’t it be? iAS reverses capital first person, and includes the next word, as¸ for an impending but incomplete sentence (idea).

OmbpaNK suggests to me, obviously om¸ and the rest is breath and emphasis: bank, pank. See the way the letters, urgent to become words, shimmer into stances that one could ‘read’? Well, you’ll have to keep doing that, with every letter and every word. I don’t say it aint hard, I’m just saying that it’s there.

For more Bruecklian moments, this comes later: I assume they are Bruecklian.
Eight Heidegger hugger muggers:

I’ve got 5ive farkle fins!

& a little o –
der die das –

ein husk-tusk sunk in the sink,

skin’s dusky music

You might say that that makes no sense, and I would be inclined to agree. It does not make sense, it renders sense obvious in unobvious ways. As in, what does ‘making sense’ mean?

This is original poetry in the original sense. This poetry discovers awe, just in the way Emerson said each word originally was a poem. We as readers—I include you, dear Reader—let laziness confine us, assuring ourselves along qualitative lines about things that have no measure. Words within the veil of meaning have no measure.

This book indicates the gates of language. When the dire proclaim poetry’s importance, they shine a light on one of our utmost dependencies. Language happens every second, and it defines and integrates our lives within ‘it all’. The confident challenge of this book centers on how our limits, which Olson said we’re each of us inside of, define us and the world. The very fact that I don’t get it makes this book important. That’s the quickening of light that I received.
good god! so little ado
over nine pods of dapper doggy doo


Allen Bramhall is the author of DAYS POEM (Meritage Press) and blogs at Tributary.



Sonja Sekula: Grace in a cow’s EYE : a memoir : by Kathrin Schaeppi
(Black Radish Books, 2011)

Verbo-visual Inventions: Kathrin Schaeppi’s Sonja Sekula: Grace in a cow’s EYE : a memoir :

Drawing on Swiss artist Sonja Sekula’s assertion that “writing is drawing”, Kathrin Schaeppi’s exhilarating first full-length collection is formed at the intersection of the spatial and the literary, an ambitious codex of the verbo-visual possibilities inherent in language and typography. These poems are rife with invention, a tumult of language and image that echo the paintings to which the poems are responses. Patterned with sound and silence, as with typographic invention, the poems are divided into sections composing a memoir of Sekula’s life and work and Schaeppi’s engagements with Sekula’s work.

Sekula herself resisted the separation of modes of expression, writing of word-images(1) and image-words, of colorwords and wordcolors, her oeuvre marked by vivid poem-paintings, picture letters, and calligraphic abstractions.

Sonja Sekula’s picture letter to Adrien de Menasche (1961)

In this collection, Kathrin Schaeppi re-imagines typography, riffing on her futurist forbearers. At the potent intersection of sign/symbol/meaning, hers is an argot as concrete as it is abstract. Tildes paired with the punt volat. A fleuron-like ornament or star: “snowflakes” falling like grace or grief upon the gray landscape of each new section and between lines, a pattern of stars falling, foretelling what is to come. The plus sign marking both “and” and multiplicity itself, the impulse of the manifold visually emplaced within the linguistic space of the poems. Musical rests shimmer, shudder, stutter over the rare pleasure of the words composed beneath their surface. Box forms, arcs, rectangles, mirror images, bridge forms, poems in frames made of letters, shapes that cross and re-cross the space of the page, Schaeppi’s work recalls Jerome Rothenberg’s total translation, the fullest possible recuperation of the idea—visually, graphically, aurally—in translation: Schaeppi’s book a fruition of and homage to Sekula’s desire to bring out a book self-illustrated...with the painting ‘mixed in with’ the writing. In these pages, Sekula and Schaeppi demand we study the space between the leaves, the space between the verbal and the visual, and the new space composed of both + in the air between.

Schaeppi’s “memoir” collages Sekula’s language with her own, composing a hybrid memoir, an archeology of a lost life—Sekula, after years of electroshock treatment, being wrapped in wet sheets and left alone, isolated from the community of artists she had joined in NYC, committed suicide in 1963—a tribute to the multiple erasures that Sekula was subject to as a woman artist, a lesbian, and one of the mentally ill. Lines drawn from Sekula’s journals, artist books, and paintings haunt the page. Traces of desire, of an artist at work, of woman’s life: now I know • that I am an artist, even when “The ‘Giants’ (Newman, Pollack Reinhardt, Rothko, Still and others)…/ / /…request fewer women artists be included in Parsons’ program.” These pages become a habitation. As Sekula stands at a window, brush or pencil in hand—where one lives—Schaeppi returns the vanished to presence: swoosh of ink / wash over canvas • a town dawns brushbound. To read these poems is to touch the curve of ache.

Schaeppi’s lines interrupt one another, layered or lathed, juxtaposed atop and across each other, voices competing to be heard. To be heard. In “Private Totem”, a litany of personal saints and a prayer, we hear Sekula ask, how have you helped me when I was most desperate. In between: “I am the blue-brown collage • one only sees • when not looking.” In “Poeme, 1951”, two texts signing/singing against and with one another, Sekula and Schaeppi speak against gaps of time and loss:

(Now is the 16th of 1951 in March)              tip
to write a poem in my new home called hospital

Next Sunday we shall all jump out of
of              a spoon
                         the window
a paperclip

Signing to be heard. Between language and image lies the air between. Schaeppi records that air also, filling these hybrid poems with silences. The failed conversation of “Sample Gesture”, which dies as it begins, its voices stuttering into mute stillness. The great gap of white space between two lines beginning and two lines ending (“Improvisation, 1961-62”). The blank page of “The rooms, the holy (between), 1948”. What cannot be said, what silence speaks: “the distance from my eye to yours.”

Schaeppi has created a marvel of invention, hybridity, and stillness. A lamp in the darkness, a wild re-invention of the page that is as myriad in its forms as in its graceful passages though the language and work of Sekula. A dialog with what is lost and what remains, radiant and provocative, this is a fine beauty of a book: Kathrin Schaeppi’s Sonja Sekula: Grace in a cow’s EYE : a memoir :

(1) Following Schaeppi’s technique, quotes from Sekula appear in italics.


Marthe Reed has published two books, Gaze (Black Radish Books) and Tender Box, A Wunderkammer with drawings by Rikki Ducornet (Lavender Ink), as well as two chapbooks, (em)bodied bliss and zaum alliterations, both part of the Dusie Kollektiv Series. A third chapbook is forthcoming from Dusie Kollektiv 5. Her poetry has appeared in New American Writing, Golden Handcuffs Review, New Orleans Review, HOW2, MiPoesias, Big Bridge, Moria, Fairy Tale Review, Exquisite Corpse, and Eoagh, among others. Her manuscript, an earth of sweetness dances in the vein, was a finalist in Ahsahta Press’ 2006 Sawtooth Poetry Contest. She has guest edited an issue of Ekleksographia and served as assistant editor for Dusie Kollektiv. Further information about her work can be found at her homepage and at the publisher page for Gaze:



Sonja Sekula Grace in a cow’s EYE : a memoir : by Kathrin Schaeppi
(Black Radish Books, Lafayette, LA, 2010)

Kathrin Schaeppi’s first full-length poetry collection is unlike most first poetry books—for one, it displays a mature synthesis between its underlying poetics and the poems engendered. Sonja Sekula… presents poems ekphrastically founded on one of the artist Sonja Sekula’s artworks. I confess to not having heard previously of Sekula until this book; here’s the publisher’s press release about her:
“Swiss poete-peintre Sonja Sekula (1918-1963) was an avant-garde artist active in New Yor in the 40s and 50s. Her word-image combinations and ‘scratchboards’ are astounding and unique. Though Sekula exhibited in New York and was part of a broad artistic social network that included Cage, Cornell, Breton, Kahlo, Schwarzenbach, Carrington and others, her name is unfamiliar, even new. This poetic memoir, which is but a trace, is homage to this versatile, under-represented artist.”

As homage, Schaeppi’s book is a lovely tribute in part due to the poems’ intelligent manifestations of Sekula’s statement, “…to me writing is drawing.” For examples, look at the book’s first two poems. Here’s the first “Early Painting, 1942”(1):

The text
Not yet old enough to go alone to bed
every night alone in a lovely apartment
                                                         to go to bed

was inspired by a 1942 painting—it’s an “early” painting though I’m confused at the referenced age of “20” since, based on the press release’s bio, the artist would have been 20 years old in 1938, not 1942. In any event, one can presume it’s a painting made in the artist’s relative youth. Thus, it can be a sad poem, bespeaking loneliness. What’s smart—and visually so—is how the third line “to go to bed” is presented as indented. With the line ending where the first two lines generally do, it evokes a sad conclusion. Had the line been written flushed-left, the space after the short line could have implied a continuance. Instead, with the way the line is presented, there’s a conclusion there and it’s unequivocable: the poem’s persona went to bed alone. It’s not a small point—it’s this choice of visual placement that more effectively evokes what blurber Cara Benson calls “true pain”.

Then there’s the second poem entitled “Evolution of man and comets, 1942”:

The poem begins
amazons …
electrify one another

followed by the quad-centered phrase
I am

It’s obviously fitting that “I am” be quad-centered for emphasis. But it’s not just a matter of egotistic self-insistence; any arrogance about that placement is quashed by the following tercet
an artist
inside outing
a skin envelope

One need not know that Sekula was a lesbian to glean some (inner) clash between the “artist” and the self constructed by a particular body. The imagined psychic battles evoked by the tercet continues the hearkening of some “true pain”.

Last but not least on this poem, the last three lines which are set on the page’s bottom right corner. It’s the same corner, isn’t it, where many artists write their signatures on drawings or paintings? Yet the identity referenced there is the artist’s materials. The implied choice made certainly would be a painful one, as known by artists and poets whose journeys regarding identity have been accommodated to the demands of their art…? (I end this with a question mark because I raise it as a possibility, not as a definitive conclusion.)

The above are just two of the many lovely poems in the book, but exemplify how, with relatively small “marks”, Schaeppi can evoke so much as to warrant the book’s subtitle of “memoir”. That these are (often minimalistic) poems, thus involving the reader, does not preclude the full presentation of a life. The whole approach is so integrated that one looks at the dedication page anew with fresh eyes. That is, suddenly, this

is not just a “for you” dedication but the visual of that “U” suddenly evokes a vessel that can be filled, in this case, with the gifts of poems.

I consider these poems “gifts” partly because of the clear interest in, through art, creating a relationship (e.g. relationship with reader). The poem “Moist Bark, 1958”, for instance, concludes with
I wait for someone to
read with me + to realize
what I try to convey

I believe that “+” in the middle of the second line is significant. The poet, after all could have used “and.” But doesn’t “+” elevate the importance of what follows: a realization of what that “I” was trying to convey? It’s not sufficient to be with one (“read with me”); ideally, one also would recognize (“realize”). All from a simple mark, a “+”.

It’s worth noting, too, that a sense of gentleness comes across in reading through many of the poems—as if the poet was consciously careful not to be overbearing with her own “take” on Sekula’s works. The effect is such that even a most grandiose statement like (from “God with child, 1948”)
God with child is

oil with canvas

, with all the baggage that comes with the use of the word “God”, doesn’t strike a false note. The all of Schaeppi’s achievement is indeed a manifestation of Grace, a grace hrough a careful, wise discernment: from “Grace, 1952”:
we balance with the fireflies

that collide

where Grace is found in a cow’s EYE

(1) My photos come off dark; please know the book has white pages.


Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects as she's its editor, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere to reviews of her books. Her newest book SILK EGG: Collected Novels is reviewed or generated responses by Joey Madia in The New Mystics HERE; Allen Bramhall over HERE; by Amazon top-notch reviewer Grady Harp over HERE; by Leny Strobel over HERE; and by Jean Vengua over HERE and HERE. Her THE SECRET LIVES OF PUNCTUATIONS, VOL. I is reviewed by Edric Mesmer in Yellow Field and reprinted HERE. Her THE THORN ROSARY: SELECTED PROSE POEMS 1998-2010 is reviewed by Arpine Konyalian Grenier over HERE. Allen Bramhall also reviews the "Hay(na)ku for Haiti" series over HERE. If the latter two get you curious, please note that participating in this fundraiser for Haiti is supported by Marsh Hawk Press, publisher of THE THORN ROSARY: if you order at least $15 worth of booklets, you will receive a copy of THE THORN ROSARY which is priced retail at $19.95; this is one of the best bargains in the poetry world, even as it helps out with a Haiti fundraiser.



petals, emblems by Lynn Behrendt
(Lunar Chandelier, Brooklyn, N.Y., 2010)

Lynn Behrendt’s first full-length collection petals, emblems (in an attractive edition from Lunar Chandelier) begins with the sentence “Thee thine hat is a ship called Ruth,” so we know right away to expect a degree of disjunction. However, the next line immediately qualifies that disjunction: “What is & what is & what isn’t a that?” We can parse this line a bit: what exists, and of things that exist, what is and what isn’t a that—what can and can’t be defined or demonstrated? The language is reminiscent of Aristotle’s definition of substance as “a this,” which Zukofsky called Stein-ish. I can’t help but hear all three of these people in Behrendt’s opening.

In any case, the question presupposes that something is that isn’t a that, that can’t be named or classified, and petals, embers feels to me like an extended attempt to track down these ineffable . . . what would we call them? This question’s precisely the problem, since to say what can’t be said is, on the face of it, impossible. Behrendt’s solution is to adopt a firmly immanent stance toward her material: she plants herself inside the language and attempts to “feel out” the space from within, to ask, “What are our whos? / Where are our whats?” The words ask questions of words, and the structure threatens to collapse—it’s a scary place to be, and Behrendt occupies it fully and confidently, setting up this poem’s final, disguisedly programmatic sentence:
It used to depend on red define it map—
a faux history, part prep part roach,
how the hook plex
re matters the so next now into such

exact pleural writhing—
love’s contextual It.

We can hear where the punctuation might fall in the first line: “It used to depend on red” then the command to define “it,” which can somehow be achieved by mapping “love’s contextual It.” While at the same time Behrendt tells us that the process of mapping takes the form of a faux history that revolves “the hook plex / re matters.” Hooks pull, -plex is a suffix of joining, re means regarding, matters could either be concerns or materials—a joining of something (words?) that isn’t quite the concerns of the world but has a real relationship to it. This overlaps with the second promise, one the ear hears: the book “re-matters the so next now into such // exact pleural writhing”—the book puts words’ detritus into new configurations, gives it new concerns, and makes it matter in a new way, to effect a writhing of pleura (a membrane in the lungs we need to breathe or speak). It’s hard to not hear “plural writing” in “pleural writhing”: Behrendt’s poems, as the gesture toward what can’t reside in words, cannot proceed by a naïve creation ex nihilo but engage in the fundamentally plural process by which meaning must arise, in which love’s It is necessarily contextual.

At the beginning of another stand-out poem called “The Ulna Slash Uvula Laid Bare Lingual Age” Behrendt tells us “I am a language vole too.” This feels instructive: voles burrow. The fourteenth issue of Galatea Resurrects contains an interview with Lynn Behrendt, in which she describes her use of word lists, limiting herself to a fixed set of vocabulary options so that she can better focus on “the glue or waste in between the static objects/ideas/things that linearly chronologically accumulate into narrative—the syntactical substance that moves, displaces, makes things ping off one another, or decompose.” It’s a method of approaching language from the inside, one that acknowledges the presence of collage at the bottom of any writing act—whatever we establish as the basic unit of composition is a material given, whether it be phrases taken from texts & Google-searches or words that we didn’t invent or the letters of the alphabet. Again, creation ex nihilo is not an option: Behrendt establishes rules and explores their implications, burrowing into the language.

The result of her methods is thrilling to read. In this sort of writing, the texture of the vocabulary comes to mean so much, and Behrendt seems to favor the “primitive” in her sources—when she writes of living things, she favors insects, reptiles, root plants—when she writes of the human body, she tends to write of its constituent parts. The poem “Slats” reads, in its entirety,
tree stripped of bark
moss miasma
coastal stain

lotus bowl
rope derision

chemical slipper
osmotic paste

larval socket

The sequence of words has no “sense” because this poem’s subject, built by burrowing in words, is not a that. But to me, at least, this poem seems to evoke a very specific feeling: the tree gets stripped and gives way to moss and stain, the lotus bowl gives way to derision and forceps, and in the end the scale of the poem’s referents is reduced to the larvae of some unidentified species: though before we could assume the forceps exist to pull a human child into the world, we have no idea now what kind of larvae is developing. But of course, to tell us what the larvae are would be to make them into a that.

Elsewhere in the book, Behrendt builds an illusion of a stable “I,” one that flirts with the psychic integrity of the Confessional lyric only to step back and mock it. Quite a few poems and passages are based around an “I am this; you are that” pattern. For example, “Marcasite” includes the lines
I’m the clouds—I just coagulated—did you see that?
You’re the retrograde hail that starts to fall
a mathematical migration, boyscout carrying canteen.

You’re a bridge with a flag on it, obstruction in the rock salt road
a crucified rune or rock carving—after the third or fourth sedative
I’m something small & spin-dried, a bull in a labyrinth.

There are some broadly thematic trends we can notice in the poem: the “you” seems in each of these metaphors less ephemeral and more fully-defined than the “I”—even migration is mathematical (the math describing the event can outlive the event). But to call these metaphors feels imprecise, since they can’t be “solved” in the way that metaphors invite us to attempt. Like the “I” and the “you,” the metaphorical structure has been generated by working from inside the language: it’s being exploited as a rhetorical construction, not as a one-to-one equivalence among the things these words can signify within their “proper” contexts. (Having seen the way Behrendt can pull the rug out from beneath the language of the personal lyric, I was pleased but not totally surprised to learn that she’s working on a book that uses a Google-sculpting method similar to that of Katie Degentesh’s remarkable book The Anger Scale.)

All of which is just to say that I had fun with this book. It’s a joy to watch Behrendt twist the screws on words and make them do things that they shouldn’t. There’s always a sense of something sinister in her poems, and there’s always a swagger in the face of danger, as in this passage from the long poem Luminous Flux (formerly issued as a chapbook that, I think, is sadly impossible to get now):
give pussy some milk
prepare an all-night vigil near my vagina
I’m not minor I’m not minor I’m not nothing
drugged in the back room
papilla drawn on paper
verily my dried buffalo skin
performs coitus with just the thought of you
a tingling sensation doctrine
lump of something in the throat
it’s dangerous, isn’t it sister, dangerous
but I want to eat strange foods
and not even ask what they are
perform pathopoeia on what used to be
lumbered, embezzling
your gallows lousy with verbs

That, to my ear, is a virtuoso performance, building a unnerving pathos out of what used to be simply the material given of a word list. This is strange food, but it goes down smooth, and though I have finished the book I keep thinking about the unnamed, unnamable “I” and “you,” no doubt each pl(e)ural, that appear in so many almostsensical configurations in petals, emblems. It’s a beautiful book, well worth the time it takes to read.


Allen Edwin Butt is a poet from South Carolina. His work has appeared in a variety of magazines and web publications, including Peaches & Bats, Otoliths, ditch, 2River View, Faultline (forthcoming), Venereal Kittens, and Poetry.



For the Ordinary Artist: Short Reviews, Occasional Pieces & More by Bill Berkson
(BlazeVOX Books, Buffalo, N.Y., 2010)

Weeks after I first read Bill Berkson's For the Ordinary Artist: Short Reviews, Occasional Pieces & More, I kept going back in my mind to something he'd said about Alfonso Ossorio whose works are known to me. Berkson said of (some of) them:
…they bespeak a love of (or anyhow fascination with) “immobility,” a.k.a. Inertia.

I'd never thought of "inertia" before as regards Ossorio's work, undoubtedly because of the riot of color, surfaces and found objects in his works. But, you know, Berkson is right (or, I agree with Berkson). There can be a flatness (and I don't say this negatively) in some of the surfaces/colors of Ossorio's work. There can be a paradoxical stillness within his assemblages, such as in the following image where each part (as can be delineated, say, by individual found objects) remains apart from each other:

In the past—and whether aptly or not—I’d often looked at Ossorio’s assemblages mostly abstractly—that is, focusing on the shapes and colors instead of the content. It’s Berkson’s “inertia” comment that makes me pause to note, Yes, that’s an eye; yes, that’s a piece of driftwood … and so on. This doesn’t dampen my appreciation—indeed it heightens my appreciation from having the benefit of additional information about process in addition to seeing the result.

Therein, for me, lies the way in which one approaches a book like For the Ordinary Artist. Because if it's a collection of writings on how Berkson engaged with various art works, how does one critique that? Everyone's entitled to their opinion, right? Or, regardless of the opinion, one could, I suppose, look at how well he wrote his opinion—and many such passages are deliriously and deliciously lyrical, e.g. the beginning of his essay “Empathy in Daylight: Edward Hopper and John Register”:
John Register gathers evidence of the material world around him like a private eye on a case where human presence has lapsed almost beside the point, so thoroughly have furnishings, light and weather—in short, the environment—absorbed its capacities for mythic import. The polished surfaces and sprawling, sunstruck angularities that fill Register’s pictures can be reas as contradictory signals of high expectations and abandoned purpose. They display a soulful luster like that of distant stars, compelling though uninhabitable except by a wild leap of empathy. The leap must be instantaneous, of its own moment; this eternity of recognizable particulars brooks no nostalgia. Perhaps this is why there isn’t in fact very much weather in sight in Register’s views, although the upper tier of a picture window prospect will have “sky” things going on in it. Many of the inside-outside vistas suggest, in the artist’s phrase, “waiting rooms for the beyond”—the built environment’s more or less coherent mesh of functions caught in a slow, entropic skid. The impending vacancy feels already flooded with recall.

In other places, his writing also gets witty and hilarious, such as the beginning of his commentary on Viola Frey:
Since the early 90s, Viola Frey has been prodding the outer surfaces of her ceramic sculptures to get the physical form together with a patchy, transfiguring impetus. In going for this extra vitality, she’s moved away from a prior refinement. Now thick, drawling paint and pitted overglazes coat the figurative contours, mimicking enlarged effects of light and shade and suggesting internal anatomy, too. Sometimes the modeled forms are so swamped as to seem complicated supports for high-keyed painting; at best however, the paint helps the eye follow each volume around from any angle so the figures’ three-dimensionality appears more blatant. It’s as if Frey were purposely reversing the procedure that Jean-Paul Sartre claimed for Alberto Giacometti’s thin people: she’s putting the fat back on space.

Yet to focus on the quality of Berkson’s written word seems to sidestep the point of art writing. Yes, art writing can be poorly written and thus be criticized on that basis. But isn't a more fundamental point how the art critic engaged with the subject art work?

And so I return to my determination, as exemplified by his writing on Ossorio, that For the Ordinary Artist is effective because Berkson’s insight widens further the expanse through which the reader-viewer may later engage again with not just Ossorio but generally with all art works. For me, there were other examples besides Ossorio, and to the extent I knew of certain artists he reviewed, I noticed how what he wrote impacted my previously held viewpoints about those artists. For example: I get everything he writes about Deborah Oropallo but his description of her paintings’ debates (about what is graspable, what can be grasped, what can be remembered, what can be identified et al) as a “perpetual deferral” radicalizes my own views about her balancing acts, making me appreciate Oropallo even more.

One can certainly speculate how Berkson came to his wonderful, profound eye. One can cite his erudition, sure. But I suspect a more key element is the love he clearly feels for his subject matter. To love is to show interest. Berkson considers his response to art work to be a continuation, or a sparking, of a conversation. Wonderful. Perhaps the ultimate test of art criticism is whether it makes the reader go out of one’s way to look at the reviewed art works. Well, thanks to this book, this Courbet-appreciator is now off to pay a closer attention to Poussin about whom, Berkson says in comparing two exhibitions at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, “To some eyes, stacked next to Poussin, Courbet ranked suddenly (and perhaps just this once) as a somewhat cheesy egotistical bungler….”

By showing how one might look deeper, the receptive reader can be a deeper looker, too. To such a book, one can only say “Thank You” and highly recommend.


Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects as she's its editor, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere to reviews of her books. Her newest book SILK EGG: Collected Novels is reviewed or generated responses by Joey Madia in The New Mystics HERE; Allen Bramhall over HERE; by Amazon top-notch reviewer Grady Harp over HERE; by Leny Strobel over HERE; and by Jean Vengua over HERE and HERE. Her THE SECRET LIVES OF PUNCTUATIONS, VOL. I is reviewed by Edric Mesmer in Yellow Field and reprinted HERE. Her THE THORN ROSARY: SELECTED PROSE POEMS 1998-2010 is reviewed by Arpine Konyalian Grenier over HERE. Allen Bramhall also reviews the "Hay(na)ku for Haiti" series over HERE. If the latter two get you curious, please note that participating in this fundraiser for Haiti is supported by Marsh Hawk Press, publisher of THE THORN ROSARY: if you order at least $15 worth of booklets, you will receive a copy of THE THORN ROSARY which is priced retail at $19.95; this is one of the best bargains in the poetry world, even as it helps out with a Haiti fundraiser.



the Arakaki Permutations by James Maughn
(Black Radish, Lafayette, LA, 2011)


Worldbook: 1925—a poem by James Maughn
([g.e. #5] Poetry Flash & g.e. Collective, San Francisco, 2010)

James Maughn has four books out now that I have, and they just keep getting better. That is to say, from book to book as I read them they are sharpening their practice, and as I read them again and again I get more from it. The last two to come to me are the Arakaki Permutations (SF: Black Radish, 2011) and Worldbook: 1925—a poem [g.e. #5] (SF: Poetry Flash & g.e. Collective, 2010). These books deal, each one of them differently, with form and feeling. These are the two most basic of the five skandhas or “heapings up” of consciousness in Buddhist thinking. These are no orientalist volumes, though, despite the presence of Maughn’s serious kara-te practice in one of them. In an “Author’s Note” at the back of the Arakaki Permutations, he explains his use of the kata forms that he has studied (and mastered, from what I’ve seen) in a previous book called Kata:
In that book, I explored the connections and intersections between my practice of traditional Karate and my practice of poetry … . I aimed to write a poem, grounded in my study of particular kata, that would somehow partake of the kinetic signature of that form.

He succeeded nicely in Kata, and now in the Arakaki Permutations he continues and deepens the poetic practice parallel to “focusing on a handful of kata” in his karate. He tells us of this more pointed practice:
In keeping with this change, I wanted to write a book that would reflect my new relationship with the kata I’ve chosen to make my own. Rather than writing one poem for each kata, I’ve written new poems for each line of the original kata poem, and tied the writing of those poems to my daily study of particular techniques and sequences in the kata. (117)

This is a serious practice and this is the more seriously “feeling” of the two books under consideration here, but lest this seem too serious—I would insist that the poems can be read nicely without this note and that Maughn did well to put it at the end. I have seen him read these poems and I have seen him demonstrate karate kata, each standing well for itself.

These are not illustrative compositions. They are not really demonstrative either, though they enact something. They demonstrate attention to the heapings up of consciousness described by the five skandhas: form, feeling, perception, concept, and consciousness. They delight a mind that can sustain a little “negative capability” for seeing how wording fits into this scheme. The empty mind of the “empty hand” (kara-te) practitioners is at the heart of this book.

There are five sets of poems played out from lines in the Kata poems based from these kata, five now gone further into. The reason I say they deal with form comes from both their kata forms, which I have seen but don’t know well enough to recall, and from this form of the book and the forms the individual poems take. Here’s one from “Niseishi Permutations”:
X. (cast light)
as likely
  through as
to deliver
  a pre-
concept in
           or on
the targeted
  date you’ll
laugh those
           eyes out
damage’s done
  bodies wall
as likely
  through as
up is

This shows the form as precipitous, grammatical, and shifty. Meanings gleaned along the falling through are not intercepted by a pre-conceived concept but moved up by the giddy vertiginous motion. And emotion.

The reason I say they deal with feeling comes from the feelings you get as your eye/mind moves through these poems; the raw data of emotion formed at the concept/consciousness levels are held here in precipitate suspension. It’s a feeling I trust to be accurate to the kata gone into here, but I don’t have or need any notion of what that form is; it is there throughout.

Here’s part of another from “Sochin Permutations”:
I. (fit to and awake)
what all I’m fit to finish
gets better left under
           than stood
up and without iron
except fitted over
the bone
shirt I’m bent on

The foreshadowing vocabulary of a sliding frame here lets “iron” link with “shirt” and “under” and “fit” and “fitted,” “under” also with “up” and “over,” “bone” with the un(der)stated “hair” suggested later in the image of an anchorite, as “bent on” recalls the sense of “fit to finish” even as it also fits the iron a smith might forge upon. That “bone / shirt I’m bent on” can only be the body and yet … and yet.

There are poems in this book that I don’t “get.” There may be some that you won’t either. But it is well worth finding out. The piling up of meaning is at work and on display here. I’d have to say that the Arakaki Permutations is a lesson without object in how the mind works, and I mean works.

Worldbook: 1925—a poem, on the other hand, is playful in its use of where it comes from. A little reading in it will reveal its source as the 1925 edition of the famous encyclopedia volume “from A to Bee” as it says on the title page. The language may all be found there. The composition is what we’re after. Diction encompassing everything teaches what a mindset is like. The composition gives the critical angle, and it’s hilarious. From the simplicity of “XVIII.”:
Give four reasons why basketry should be popular.

to the wild set of study questions in “XX.” about bees, we can see and laugh at the encyclopedia’s efforts to teach even as we learn about their more pernicious aspects in the image given of an Abyssinia looked at from the white world in “I.” “VI.” gives a serious critique of arithmetical calculations even as it makes us laugh; it asks:
how much stovewood in one

standing tree? does poultry
pay a profit? how
to determine the advantage

his neighbor may have over
him? with common
fractions & some fair degree

of rapidity largely occupied
with figures as true
as if a tool of perfect control

This is fine poetry both in its Jakobsonian use of grammar and its Lakoffian sense of parsimonious framing, as well as in its simple satire or its deeper perceptions. I get a kick out of it; you will too.


T.C. Marshall is a beautiful curmudgeon living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, chasing the seasons as they come to him, book by book. He pays the bills, accepts gifts, and teaches. Friend him on FaceBook to converse and to find out more.



DAYS POEM, Volume I and Volume II by Allen Bramhall
(Meritage Press, St. Helena and San Francisco, 2007)

Allen Bramhall’s Days Poem: A Critical Analysis of a Dying Art
“There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues. That is all.”
--Rebecca West

Allen Bramhall’s Days Poem addresses everything under the sun, with a blend of wit and cynicism, reminiscent of the disenchanted preacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes and correspondingly enlightening. The phraseology within its verses is clever and succinct yet complete and rich in profundity.

“Torture”—the speaker’s consummate designation for dialog, encompassing several besetting metaphorical labels for mundane, trivial, belligerent, self-righteous and “me”-dominated mutually-exclusive verbal exchange—is repeated throughout this extended work of poetic prose. Bramhall makes frequent reference to the “bear,” symbolic of the strong and silent insolent, the “chicken,” synonymous with the perpetual loquacious, the “bird,” typifying the silent but ostentatious proud, “Tarzan,” “hobos” and the “train,” figurative of the uncouth, and the “ truck,” depictive of the oppressive. His tone bears no protective persona, blatantly advising the reader to “end the conversation before it starts” (47. 8. 1). Discerning the verses, the reader may thus come to appreciate the true nature and agenda of conversation or perhaps be rendered humble by means of exposure to the pervading lines suggestive that his inflated sense of self-importance and virility is ironically lain claim by ceaseless numbers of egos exterior to his individual rampart of uniqueness and significance.

It is apropos that the writer personifies diatribe as being “tyrann[ical]” since verbally abusive taskmasters may randomly direct such oral floggings in the forms of vociferous denunciation and threats at their vulnerable and defenseless underlings as a method of control and dominance (1. 3. 2). “[T]hey talk and react… / in quack” (28. 18. 1-2). Their “tornado” “skirts” the issue, its ravaging winds desperately endeavoring to devastate the hapless and disadvantaged scapegoat in its stead (345. 3. 8). The author wittingly refers to the bully as a truck, intimidating the smaller vehicles (43. 12. 1-3). Belligerent talk, however, is but a passing storm, and the staunch and enduring bear ultimately perseveres (28. 18. 2). Ironically, the verses ambiguously perceive the bear to be an admirable figure, respected for his “momentum” (39. 7. 1) and defiance of authority yet self-righteous in his own right, not practicing what he preaches (37. 2. 3). He is the noisy wheel, the whiner, “hungry” (69. 6. 3) and a presence to be reckoned with (64. 6. 1-2). Thus, the belligerent ought to beware of the bear that has had “enough” (351. 2. 1).

The reluctance to engage or assert one’s self directly in converse is an all-too-familiar syndrome, inciting insecurities and fears of vocal retribution by the receiver, and escaping into a world of solitude and isolation via the age of communication technology merely perpetuates this vicious cycle. Bramhall’s “Lewis and Clark” expedition parables such vagueness and indirectness, whereby the intimidated individual circumnavigates his statement or contention to his receiver yet ultimately “return[s] to the exact / word[s] [h]e meant to say” (1. 5. 3-5). The listener’s patience begins to wear thin: “[S]ay what you mean,” he abruptly replies (90. 7. 1). For the inhibited, “expression is half the battle” (129. 6. 1). What is assertiveness but a vocal expression of one’s inner turbulence; thus, effecting change in his recipient plays secondary in intent or objective. One’s agida is effectively mitigated through communication.

Inhibition and insecurity are further amplified in an atmosphere of competitive dialog. Who has not been exempt from “occupational challenge,” anxious to measure up to her peers who boast of vocational success (108. 8. 1)?

“[D]ialogue resumes as emphatic tornado” (1. 1. 1). Be it the voice of the proud, the insecure or the unenlightened, Bramhall subsequently refers to it as “ideologue,” coining metaphors to depict the bullish, indignant and often ignorant assertions of the provincial and self-righteous, which her audience may naively perceive to be confidence (1. 1. 3).

“[B]eware of dogmatic lightning,” hence, the absurdity and futility of open-minded, mutually enlightening political, theological or philosophical discourse with a one-sided “train” (35. 18. 3), personified as the narrow-minded, which can only conclude in altercation (26. 15. 3). Buy the truth and sell it not (Pr. 23.23). Educated and profound words are often in fact wasted on the “hobos,” “lost to ex- / planation” (59. 7. 1-2). Advice may arrive with “fresh towels” (72. 13. 1), but wisdom advises against placing pearls before swine. Thus, the wise are cautioned against conversations of substance with the provincial. But then, even Tarzan, with his “unkempt vocabulary” (247. 5. 1), is entitled to his convictions (100. 2. 1). Ironically, these self-ordained ideals are ephemeral to the ego, which defends them tenaciously until they are eventually replaced—“a page is turned, vacating the old plan” (34. 23. 1).

Broadcasting such emphatic “importan[ce]” on personal doctrine naturally invites a forum for debate, subjecting one to vulnerability (30. 2. 1). “Religious affronts occur” (54. 12. 3-4). “[D]iscussion / grows violent” (114. 9. 1-2). Acknowledging one’s fallibility, on the other hand, can prove to be a quite humbling and liberating experience.

Self-righteous dogma by the ordinary individual can in fact be disregarded. It is quite another story, however, when words are manipulated to conventionally define what those in authority find convenient and of benefit to themselves, and quite often appeasement is advisable, given these disadvantageous circumstances (50. 9. 2,4).

And then there are the malcontents, oblivious to the balance of assets and shortcomings of the circumstance at hand and ultimately destined to perpetually distinguish between a pot of gold and a mound of earth. They are “the appalled, [the] gregarious,” continually disputing and expressing discord (105. 1. 1). The flags of discontent are, however, necessary to offset tyrannical elements: “[S]omeone has to add” (105. 1. 3).

“[P]eople discuss their nature with elegant detail”; that is, one tends to glorify him- or herself with exaggerated, even nonexistent attributes and accolades (1. 7. 1). They “talk of their ‘colours,’ and of mountains they climbed just yesterday” (15. 7. 1). Carl Sandburg referred to this hyperbolized self-importance as a form of lying. The East terms it ego, and the West calls it self-esteem. Are our audiences a medium for sincere communication or merely recipients of one’s pretension, with the ultimate expectation of a word of recognition or “approv[al]” (1. 7. 2)? It is the speaker, paradoxically, who is ultimately impressed with himself—“little will be noticed” (18. 1. 3). Impressive news is ephemeral.

Such communication and self-gratification are virtually nonexistent, however, when two or more cackling “chickens” vie for attention from one another, each attempting to outdo the flock, further intensifying their notions of narcissism (1. 8. 3-4). “[W]e talk a lot, don’t we?” (1. 26. 5). “[T]here are so many who wish to / speak, but it’s a careless job best left to those with airy claims to make” (9. 6. 2-3). Individuals desire to be heard; however, waiting for that “opening in the conversation” can seem eternal with that speaker who is never quite at a loss for words (17. 6. 1). We all “have a word to say” and often wait anxiously for our “chance” to speak in this stichomythic game of musical chairs (66. 4. 1, 64. 2. 1).

Stories change and facts are “modified” (4. 16. 2-3); thus, “people will structure their words with newer ideas” to accommodate subsequent exaggerations and other falsities (1. 17. 2). “[W]hen things are explained, the package runs from one dealer to the next” (202. 2. 1). This is ironically their Achilles heel, their inconsistency ultimately being discerned through repeated exposure: “[W]hat say you [when] the musket shots pepper your ideology?” (76. 13. 3). When your pretentious and exaggerated claims and assertions are challenged? And what of their lasting impression (77. 7. 1)? Such braggarts edit their dialog, revealing only that which will elicit envy or respect (4. 16. 1-2). The covetous “I wish I had your arrangements” is the projected and likely reply (218. 2. 1). They “have their say, / and make something special,” but “don’t mention debt” (13. 3. 1-2).

The bird, the marvel of the animal kingdom, lays equitable claim for attention as does the braggart. Her method, however, unlike the latter, is nonverbal, precluding blatancy, procuring center stage, nonetheless, “sing[ing],…blow[ing] the whistle, or…simply [her] own horn” (237. 3. 1). She is a “balloon,” proverbially composed of torrid gaseous matter (237. 7. 1-2). Be not gulled, however, by her gracefulness, for she, too, possesses her dark side, which eventually is manifested verbally (238. 7. 1-4).

Is counsel truly altruistic, or is it ulterior in motive, further nourishing one’s ego with additional manifestation of self-importance and self-aggrandizement? Do we rejoice in our beneficence or delight in selfish fulfillment (1. 24. 1-2)? “[I]deas come and go” (91. 3. 1).

Advice, however, which the “counselor” deludes is a creative and original breath of wisdom, is merely a reinvention of a wheel long since patented (4. 14. 4-5). “[W]e talk into holes, thinking / we fill” (4. 23. 1-2). Indeed, delusions of grandeur continually infiltrate the egos of the narcissistic who fail to realize that their “answers” are in fact age-old: Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? (Holy Bible, Ec. 1.10). The same can be said of theories, [which] are remorseless and ongoing (284. 7. 1). “[W]eather itself is imaginary, [the] theorist indiscreetly declares” (317. 1. 38).

“[W]hat can we talk about today, that / hasn’t been mentioned before?” (166. 5. 1-2). Equally nauseating is the mundane and trivial, to wit, ceaseless and senseless idle chatter, essentially practiced to camouflage discomfort and quietude, which Western culture deems aberrant. Talk, “the world is full of talk and talk is full of words” (65. 3. 2). “[T]alking all night doesn’t make the night” (3. 5. 2). “[Y]okels” may practice such impertinent discourse, analytical discussion and debate, accomplishing nothing in the end (28. 19. 1-2). It is “cheap but so aren’t the people talking” (180. 8. 1). It simply generates further futile discussion (23. 21. 2). Philosophical principles, for one, are often debated and compared rather than discerned, appreciated and practiced.

“I love you”—a hackneyed, superficial expression, at best, and a deceptive lure by an unscrupulous “lover,” at its most destructive. The poet likens such shallow words to “houses that fall down when empty” (61. 6. 2). This often insincere declaration is equated with “a phrase painted on our foreheads,” when such an influential statement should be handled with delicacy (52. 4. 2). The naïve especially are vulnerable to the artificial “candidate” who “say[s] the same thing,” furnishing the gullible with agreement, assurances and other falsehoods (113. 2. 2-3).

Then there are the attention seekers, spewing words of fatigue, and perhaps illness, to those who will nourish such neediness through silent reception. The receiver need not respond, except for perhaps nonverbal gestures and countenances of sympathy, and any words of response may paradoxically be unwelcome (39. 4. 3-4).

Words are powerful (Dickinson). “[A]re you comfortable when you lay down?” (112. 4. 2). Perhaps you publicly uttered foolhardily, prematurely or unfavorably. Apprehension sets in.

Whether it is the diatribe of the belligerent, the egotism of the self-righteous, the reasoning of the unreasonable, the superficiality of the shallow, the demands of the pathetic, anger-induced self-recriminatory statements or the hyperbole of the artificial, one is inevitably exposed to dialogue, to torture. “[U]ntroubled airplanes are / above somewhere”; thus, ending conversation before it starts is ideal (203. 1. 2-3). To “give delight” and “take it” is unfeasible, however Utopian (284. 6. 1). Forewarned is forearmed, and discernment of the profundity in Allen Bramhall’s Days Poem will shield one against the impending barrage of verbal onslaughts and absurdity.


Works Cited

Bramhall, Allen. Days Poem: Volume 1: St. Helena: Meritage Press, 2007. Print.

---. Days Poem: Volume 2: St. Helena: Meritage Press, 2007. Print.

Holy Bible. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 1982. Print.


Nicholas T. Spatafora is an educator at Joseph Pulitzer Intermediate School in Jackson Heights, Queens and an English Professor at the City University of New York. He holds two graduate degrees from Hunter College in New York City and has enjoyed a successful career in education spanning twenty five years. Contemplating a life in Catholic ministry, he attended Cathedral Preparatory Seminary in New York. He is a member of the Tao Society in Tai Pei, and prior affiliations include the Religious Society of Friends and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. Spatafora is the author of Hurt, the feature article “Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha: A Fictional Account of the Life of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha,” “A Review of Jack Lynch’s Manhattan Man and Other Poems,” “Challenging Perspectives: A Review of Thomas Fink’s & Maya Diablo Mason’s AutopsyTurvy” and “Kingdom by the Harbor,” featured in Eileen Tabios’s Galatea Resurrects. Spatafora and his wife Hsiaochen (Judy) reside in Flushing, New York.