Category Archives: poetry review

The Self vs. Apollo the Dork: Ish Klein’s “WE WILL FREE EACH OTHER”

Klein’s complete poem is in the previous post and following the essay below.
         Two things about Ish Klein’s poetry have consistently grabbed the attention of reviewers: the voice, which is conversational yet poetically sophisticated; and her use of exclamation points both in the title of her first book (Union!) and sprinkled throughout her poems as the emotion associated with the “bang” arises and overflows.
          Klein’s poems exude personality, and that inimitable voice of hers makes them fun to read. It’s what Frank O’Hara might have sounded like if he had texted his poems.
          And just for fun, here’s a comparison of two passages showing the exclamatory trademark of each poet:

                    O’Hara, from “Autobiographia Literaria” (3):

                    And here I am, the
                    center of all beauty!
                    writing these poems!
                    Imagine!

                    Klein, from “WE WILL FREE EACH OTHER” (6):

                    I hissed

                    and he hissed back.
                    It was so ugly!
                    I cried and he cried
                    and I thought pathetic!

          In her essay “Frank O’Hara: Nothing Personal,” Elaine Equi writes of O’Hara’s “giddy” and “orgasmic” use of the exclamation point. She also notes that such instances can be read as “a curious mix of the heartfelt and the insincere. . . . His poems ask to be read as genuine, even as they retreat into irony.” And in Klein as in O’Hara, what saves all those exclamation points from being irredeemably hokey (or a little “too happy,” as Jerome Sala puts it [qtd. in Equi]) is that they serve a richer purpose beyond simple wonder or crankiness.
          In the following, I talk about Klein’s famous exclamation points, but first I want to zoom out and consider broader themes in one of her poems (“WE WILL FREE EACH OTHER”), within which enthusiasm and its signature punctuation mark are players on a dialectical stage.
          I wasn’t expecting to find the Genesis myths of creation and Eden lurking in Klein’s child-like speaker, but in fact they form the backdrop for her struggles with a conflicted self. First, Klein opens the poem with a hint of the biblical story of creation: an image of stars and the idea of things coming into being, expressed with a sense of awe and excitement:

                    [. . .] the stars,
                    they were wondering, “When is X coming out?”
                    Considering the material, X will be something!”

Also, the speaker sometimes uses biblical diction, reinforcing the allusions to biblical mythology:

                    As a stone on the base of [the mountain] did I make me.

Moreover, echoing the story of the Fall, the speaker takes the form of a “serpent.” After the “dorky actor” (more about him in a moment) insists on imposing form on the speaker, she “hiss[es]” at him in annoyance, whereupon he hisses back. Lastly, at the poem’s end, the actor and the speaker simultaneously lament that they “sold [their] birthright for food” to satisfy hunger—another reference to the Fall.
          A major theme in the creation myth of Genesis is the division of the previously amorphous universe into hierarchical dualities as God differentiates light from dark, land from sea, human from animal, male from female. In Klein’s poem, the theme of division plays out on several levels, including, at the opening, a Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy between the enthusiasm of the exclamation point and the “dork” of an “actor” who arrives to contain the Dionysian excess and impose order.
          First, let’s consider the exclamation point, for Klein the punctuation mark of the Dionysian: “A glamorous anus . . . mark[s] the sentiment” of the sign, which also connotes excess (waste, appropriate to the anus) and superfluity:

                    Always it was exclaimed.
                    It was exclaimed!!!

Those who have taught Freshman Comp (or who have ever been young, for that matter) will recognize the novice writer’s tendency to signal such emotional excess, regardless of the rhetorical situation. Students are taught to curb this tendency in formal writing and save it for texting friends. But in the above passage from Klein’s poem, free reign is given to the diction of overflowing and youthful excitement, also emphasized by the repetition of the sentence “It was exclaimed.”
          These two lines not only heighten the theme of Dionysian excess; they also enact a little self-reflexive moment: “It was exclaimed!!!” with its excess of exclamation points enacts the enthusiasm it announces. That reflexivity is a harbinger for the larger theme that emerges in the interaction between the speaker and her alter-ego, the “dorky actor.”
          And it is this actor who emerges to spoil the Bacchanalian fun, demanding form and accuracy and coming after the speaker with “calipers.” This Apollonian presence gradually merges with the speaker through his mimicry of her: he is characterized as an “actor” who merely “pretends.” Yet this actor also remains at a critical distance of the self, which is characteristic of Nietzsche’s exploration of the Apollonian overseer of the self:

                    . . . the measured restraint, the freedom
                    from the wilder emotions, that calm of
                    the sculptor god [whose] eye must be
                    “sunlike” . . . (35)

          At the opening of the poem is an echo of the Apollonian “sunlike” eye and of the eye of God. Both Apollo and the God of Genesis impose order on formlessness, but Klein satirically figures the eye of Apollo/God as “larval”:

                    Yes, yes larval,
                    larvalous was eye–the stars,
                    they were wondering, “When is X coming out?
                    Considering the material, X will be something!”

“Larvalous was eye” echoes Psalms 118:23:

                    This is the LORD’S doing; it is
                    marvellous in our eyes.

as well as numerous biblical passages referring to the eye(s) of God. And there is a hint of the “eye/I” play on words as well—for the poet-speaker is also a maker and a shaper. But here the eye of the divider (whether of God, Apollo, or the self) is a mere larva, all potential rather than action. Klein, in one concise image cutting the divine Apollonian down to a potential insect, hints at the larger battle that develops between ecstatic enthusiasm and formal restraint.
          I have been pointing out Klein’s talent at foreshadowing themes, such as that of reflexivity in the sentence with three exclamation points, and of the dethroning of the Apollonian in the “larvalous eye.” The poem is rich in such moments, and I want to examine one more such instance. In the very image of the exclamation point (“line dividing over a little black hole”), the dividing line foreshadows the arrival of the Apollonian impulse of the actor, and seems to contain within one little symbol the dichotomy worked through later in the poem: the division between chaos and order, between Rimbaud’s “je” and “autre.”
          The remainder of the poem develops the struggle between the self and its Other, the enthusiastic “I” fighting against the dorky “me,” all calipers and control and “seeing-me-capacity,” and trying to outsmart and evade her shape-shifting pursuer.
          The poem’s playfully Romantic enthusiasm (its Wordsworthian “spontaneous overflowing of powerful feelings”) comes across more like a spoof, a cartoonish mimicry of Romanticism. In this cartoon, the caliper-wielding hunter pursues the hunted speaker, but every time the latter turns around, she seems to be looking into a mirror. The two forces within the split self may be endlessly duking it out, but there’s also an underlying identity between them, an identity that becomes ever more apparent at the end. The actor

                    mouth[s] my every mood. Instantly I say,
                    “Don’t believe him–he isn’t it.
                    He isn’t something; he’s pretending.”

                    Which is what he’s saying.
                    Then he says (and this comes from my mouth, too),
                    “Sold for food.
                    I sold my birthright for food.

                    I was hungry.
                    I WAS HUNGRY!”

                    But I am not hungry.

                    But I said it anyway.

          In this retelling of the myth of the Fall at the end of the poem, there’s a movement like a pendulum coming to rest at the mid-point of its arc. Throughout the poem, the self and the “dorky actor” have been reacting to each other. In the end their identities become one, like Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre.” They dissolve into one another and what’s left is indecision, a self conflicted: Hungry or not hungry? To say it or not to say it?
          The self-conscious self is a paradox. On the one hand, the self is in a sense discrete: an undifferentiated “aspic, unset,” or an Icaraus-like being, “the sun touching only me.” It is simultaneously the “pretender” who, having located his “seeing-me-capacity,” comes after the speaker with evaluating “calipers” and points at her.
          Klein’s self is never resolved but remains a seething contradiction, saying that hunger made it eat the apple of knowledge, yet simultaneously denying its hunger. The self and its “dorky” other may be mouthing each other’s words in an ongoing chain reaction of mirror neurons, yet it’s still a story of “he said/she said.” Knowledge may be power, but it’s also problematic. It’s like a detective story in which two criminals point the finger at each other, and as long as they continue to do so in the absence of evidence, the case will remain open.
          And what of the title? Have the self and the dork freed each other? I think the poem itself is proof that they have.

Here’s the complete poem:

WE WILL FREE EACH OTHER

Yes, yes larval.
Larvalous was eye—the stars,
they were wondering, “When is X coming out?
Considering the material, X will be something!”

Always it was exclaimed.
It was exclaimed!!!
The expectation and their faces like the mark:
a line dividing over a little black hole.

A glamorous anus was the mark of the sentiment.
And then, and then came the actor.
The dork who wanted form. And he figured
where the seeing-me-capacity was and he watched me be.

This guy had been practicing accuracy
and still he came upon me with calipers.
Calipers! Still he pointed towards me
until I hissed

and he hissed back.
It was so ugly!
I cried and he cried
and I thought pathetic!

So I rolled up and grumbled.
I put a mountain in my mind.
I broke from it—a boulder me
and I hurled down a slope—the hardest part of the mountain.

As a stone on the base of it did i make me
and then I said slowly,
“Mountain. Go. Away. Leave. Me. In. Space.
The. Actor. Can. Look. At. A. Rock.”

When I looked out the actor was a rock,
a rock who may have been there before me.
I should not have been so astounded.
So much the fool was I being.

I was, I was, I was
just short of being nothing
and the actor was more on top of it than me.
This actor—watch out!

If you see the actor, evaporate—
find a place—be there instead,

I returned to the serpent form. I said,
“Stop looking at me while I’m working on stuff!”
And I know you know this. I know you know
he’s saying when I say this at the same time

the same exact time. And maybe even—
No. That’s just me but some would say
he’s saying it first. Some would say,
I said it first.

“STOP LOOKING AT ME
WHILE I’M WORKING!”

What do you want then?
What do you want?
So weakened was I then being, indeed, NOW recounting
recounting turns me into an aspic, unset—

a drooling reverberating—just recounting,
and I have been recounting for hours,
every day in some point, in stone time,
although I am not now a stone girl.

In-between-worlds / during / visiting
under the heat lamp sun, the earth—
our incubator. Within this context
of incompletion, I am coming to power in space.

So it’s electric flying too
over grey and glinting paths,
the sun touching only me like so
because it’s my feeling

and wild-eyed I find myself aloft
and taken away: hurray, hurray
I say, “We’re here!”
and the ground comes up

and the actor is on the pavement splayed,
mouthing my every mood. Instantly I say,
“Don’t believe him—he isn’t it.
He isn’t something; he’s pretending.”

Which is what he’s saying.
Then he says (and this comes from my mouth, too),
“Sold for food.
I sold my birthright for food.

I was hungry.
I WAS HUNGRY!”

But I am not hungry.

But I said it anyway.



Works Cited

Equi, Elaine. “Frank O’Hara: Nothing Personal.” Conjunctions 29 (1997): n.pag. Web. 14 Mar. 2012.

Klein, Ish. Moving Day. Ann Arbor: Canarium Books, 2011.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Birth of Tragedy.” Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Tr. and Ed. Walter Kaufmann. (New York: Modern Library, 2000). 1-144.

O’Hara, Frank. The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara. New York: Vintaqge Books, 1974.


Camille Martin

“Chafing at the Margins”: An Interview with Joel Dailey

           

[“I’ve reveled in obscurity my whole writing life, and publishing with presses that were close to the ground, or even underground, well, they were a fit for my work, which is chafing at the margins . . . “]

Poet and publisher Joel Dailey is the author of Lower 48 (1999) and My Psychic Dogs My Life (2008), both from Lavender Ink. Since the mid-70s, he has published numerous chapbooks with small presses, including Surprised by French Fries (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011), How to Wallpaper Like a Pro (Unarmed, 2007), Biopic (Igneus Press, 1999), Audience, Ambience, Ambulance (Blank Gun Press, 1999), and Mars, 1953 (Rumba Press, 1979). His magazine publications are too many to mention, but let’s just say they include Rolling Stone, Exquisite Corpse, Fuck, and New American Writing.
         For many years Dailey has been an influential and generous presence in the New Orleans poetry community and far beyond. Through his long-running and iconoclastic magazine,
Fell Swoop: The All Bohemian Revue*, he has published countless poets as well as many single-author issues by the likes of Ted Berrigan, Aram Saroyan Keith Abbott, Bill Berkson, and Richard Martin.
         As for Dailey’s own poetry, Hank Lazer praises
Lower 48 as “an energetic, humorous, edgy successor to Allen Ginsberg’s “America” in which “Dailey wanders this world of manipulative consumerism resisting its hold with his blazing stun-guns of outrage, paranoia, passion, and comedy, leaving a laminated America del Norte in his wake.”
         And in
My Psychic Dogs My Life, Kevin Killian “feel[s] the New Orleans gris-gris emanating from this book like candyfloss” and “the magic of a true trickster substituting words and ideas like dice in a shell game, conjuring spells on the unprepared.”
         Samples of Dailey’s gris-gris can be found here, here, and here.
         The following interview was conducted in one fell swoop, so to speak, on February 26, 2012.

* Subscription to the print-only Fell Swoop is $15 (USD) for three issues per year:
     
Fell Swoop / PO Box 740158 / New Orleans, LA / 70174 / USA

Camille Martin: Thanks, Joel, for sitting down with me in our respective cities of New Orleans and Toronto for this interview.

Some of your earliest poetry publications were in Rolling Stone, which you later collected into a chapbook, Not on the Cover. Before I knew that about you, I didn’t realize Rolling Stone was a haven for poetry. What was it like publishing there? Please tell me they paid you in concert tickets and coke bashes.

[“The Rolling Stone poems had to be brief, quick and clever….writing for this market was actually good exercise for me at that time.”]

Joel Dailey: Back in 1978 I was living in West Los Angeles working at a “literary” bookstore in Santa Monica called Intellectuals and Liars. At that time Rolling Stone was a newsprint weekly, publishing short poems between and among record reviews in the back pages of each issue. I don’t recall how or who but someone tipped me off that Charles Perry did the poetry editing out of the San Francisco office. So I sent off a batch of short poems and he took a couple. I later found out that Perry would have the accepted poems typeset and thumbtacked them all to a bulletin board. When an issue was nearly ready to go to print, he’d look for spaces in the record review section, and the poems which fit the openings were published. RS paid a modest sum upon publication, but I was convinced that hundreds of thousands of readers were having their lives changed by my little ditties hopping out of my typewriter. The RS poems had to be brief, quick and clever….writing for this market was actually good exercise for me at that time, as a writer I mean. How to say something deliberate and humorous, perhaps, was a challenge, and many of the ideas came right out of my journals from that time. To this day, my crisp journal entries, my habitual (yet another bad habit?) collecting of language sticks and stems, often leads to poems—or they become integral parts of poems. I still have the ten or so back issues of RS in which my poems can be found. The chapbook you mention is long out of print………..

CM: But thankfully not your long-overdue first book of poetry, Lower 48 (1999), nor My Psychic Dogs My Life (2008).

You’ve also published a plethora of chapbooks since 1975. The fifteen chaps of yours that grace the shelves of my left field poetry collection are gems of pop-culture mashup, cynical (and sometimes not-so-cynical) advice to the lovelorn, and other timeless matters. The earliest that I have is Positions, published by Morgan Press in 1976—a beauty of a little book.

Morgan Press and the others that have published your chapbooks read like a who’s who of renegade small presses from the 70s to the present: to name only a handful, Pentagram, Shockbox, Rumba Train, Blank Gun, Semiquasi, Lavender Ink, and of course your own self-styled “All Bohemian Revue,” the justly infamous Fell Swoop.

There’s a whiff of samizdat—or at least underground basement operation—about the small press culture and especially these chaps. Please describe your affinity for chapbooks, which you’ve made into a kind of art form in your oeuvre, and your experience publishing them with the small presses that you’ve worked with over the years.

[“I got a small printing press one Christmas and began printing The Garfield Gazette . . . I’d leave copies on the neighbors’ front porches.”]

JD: You’re probably the one person besides me who thinks Lower 48 was overdue…..When I was growing up the kinds of jobs I imagined one day having all had to do with communication: I wanted to be a radio announcer, a journalist, a teacher. I got a small printing press one Christmas and began printing The Garfield Gazette, a three or four page newspaper. My mom still has a few issues salted away. I’d leave copies on the neighbors’ front porches. So this yearning to communicate was strong within me. I got onto poetry via Rod McKuen during my adolescent years and began writing. When the quality improved years later, 1975 saw my first chapbook, Exploring Another Leg, issued from Pentagram. Some of those deep-image poems appeared in magazines, but I had the feeling that them appearing separately diminished their impact. I needed to group them, the best of them, and fashion a chapbook—which I did, and the ms. hit Mike Tarachow at the right moment; he was very excited and had to publish it. Bless him.

Jack Spicer of course had the great idea that individual poems were better in a field of work; his notion of writing books (or chapbooks) instead of single poems was a valuable insight and very different from the workshop idea of penning the immortal poem, the one that will get you into The Greatest Hits of Am Po…..I’ve reveled in obscurity my whole writing life, and publishing with presses that were close to the ground, or even underground, well, they were a fit for my work, which is chafing at the margins, and now satirically attacks mainstream media, Am “culture” (when I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for the remote), and Am Poetry itself….I’m comfortable standing at the edge of the crowd rather than being engulfed in the thick of it.

CM: I hope someday we’ll be treated to the greatest hits from The Garfield Gazette!

I know that the work of Ted Berrigan was important to you early on. What was it about Berrigan’s work that affected you? What other poets were early influences? If you were to write your bildungsroman, would you describe any poetic epiphanies?

[“We met Ted and Alice at the train station with a cold Pepsi (we had read The Sonnets, noting Ted’s favorite liquid) and he began talking and chain smoking….”]

JD: Don’t hold your breath for seeing issues of The Garfield Gazette! I spent my junior year abroad at the University of Nottingham. At the time I was writing but I thought I was going to become an English professor with a Phd in Literature and the Nottingham year was, I thought, a necessary stepping stone in my envisioned academic career—but I was wrong about that….I met Philip Jenkins, a fellow student, a Welshman, at school there and he was heavily into the New York School and got me reading those poets, as well as the Black Mountain gang. Then we learned Ted Berrigan and the pregnant Alice Notley were at Essex for the year where Ted was teaching. Jenks took over the fledgling Literary Society and used its budgeted funds to bring this barbarian Ted Berrigan to read and give a lecture. We met Ted and Alice at the train station with a cold Pepsi (we had read The Sonnets, noting Ted’s favorite liquid) and he began talking and chain smoking….What he had to say in his non-stop fashion was beyond interesting. I had stopped attending classes at the university; I was disenchanted with the academick path I once sought and didn’t know what to do next…..Ted came on like gangbusters. His American accent, his bearing, his sureness in the idea that serving Poetry and living Poetry was not only the right choice, but the only choice—that devotion—all of that impressed me and guided me. Plus, at his reading he read great stuff; his works were terrific! Meeting him there on foreign soil changed my life for the better. I’ve never doubted that. Ted’s works have a lot to teach writers, and I’m delighted to see his Collected Poems and now his Selected Poems published so that a new generation has access to his work.

CM: Surprised by French Fries (haven’t we all been?) is a terrific chapbook hot off the Ugly Duckling Presse. The poems are by turns irreverent (“no ideas but in socks”), enlightened (“The earflaps are detachable so shutup.org”), and disturbed (“The previous owner may be previously disturbed”). Do you think of your poetry as holding up a mirror to media-saturated baby boomers and Gen-X? If we recognize ourselves in that mirror, should we be afraid? Very afraid?

Or do you think of it as helping us to chuckle through the sobbing?

Both? Neither?

[“How to be boring in a new way is not my goal. The language has to be up to something….”]

JD: I think we should all be terrified every second. Hiding under the bed as a matter of course can become a way of life, an indoor sport. Humor has always been an effective instrument and the definition of satire is humor with a point or at the point of a sword. I like to think that a reader of my work is immediately thrown off-balance by the poem not reading like his or her concept of what a poem is, or what it can do. For me, poetry has got to be entertaining and I set that standard for my own little creations, my windup monsters unleashed on unsuspecting readers of any generation. Milton Berle, that great standup slam poet, once said, “Laughter is an instant vacation…” I agree with him. Another great poet of our time whose works I treasure and admire, Anselm Hollo, once told me that for him if Language Poets didn’t have a sense of humor on display in their works it was a problem because then all you have is this dry, unending language flow. How to be boring in a new way is not my goal. The language has to be up to something…. I often surprise myself with the zingers that line up in my works….they are often pulled from my journal in which I record all manner of language bits, from magazine covers, tv news broadcasts, things I hear people say, to offbeat or common phrases I discover in student papers. The language surrounding us and creating our agreed-upon “reality” is rich, and out of that language pipe, I fashion poems. Ideally, the poems create an experience themselves instead of narrating past experiences—reading the poem is itself a fresh experience……

CM: Your poetry has been unflagging in its satirical edginess—to pick up on Berle, it has been an uninterrupted vacation. Has your writing changed from the time you started publishing around the mid-70s leading up to your most recent book, My Psychic Dog My Life, published by Lavender Ink, and beyond? Have you become more inclined, like a good Strangelove subject, to stop worrying and love the detritus of mass-pop-culture (please don’t reach for the remote just yet)? Or less?

[“. . . beneath this entertainment surface, there’s a critical, satirical message that happens without my completely controlling and engineering it . . .”]

JD: Recently a girlfriend of mine from the 70s when I was starting out with writing, recently she contacted me after no contact for 30+ years to say I ruined her life and she was dispatching a team of professional assassins to “take me out…” (just kidding). Actually, she was cleaning out her attic and stumbled upon a box of my letters, poems I’d written, etc. She was going to throw it all away but then thought better, found and emailed me, and sent this box, a literal and figurative blast from the past.. In exchange I sent her some recent books. She was astonished by how the 2011 scribblings were so different from the 1975 works—but she said many of the same elements were visible in the later works that she knew from the early, young man poems. Yes, a line of development (and hopefully, improvement) is clear as it is in many poets’ work if you get to see all of it. My poems from the 70s were more serious, but then I was also writing comical prose poems, and the Rolling Stone poems were lighter in tone. The surface of my writing now is fast in pace, humorous often by way of juxtaposition, but beneath this entertainment surface, there’s a critical, satirical message that happens without my completely controlling and engineering it. The message shows up, and I hope it’s heard or understood, understand?

CM: And the message is all the more effective, I think, because, as you say, you don’t completely control and engineer it, which is as good a segue as any to my next question.

Something you told me years ago about writing and editing has stayed with me, a twist on Kerouac: “First thought, best thought—unless it’s not.” I like the way this alerts us not to take the dictums of the legendaries too categorically. With all the manifestos and -isms stirring up the history of poetry, is there a danger in taking poetic camps and icons too seriously?

[“My entire life I’ve yearned, especially at night, to one day become an ism and finally amount to something….”]

JD: Wait a sec, Camille—this question’s a lob, a telegraphed fastball right down the middle of the dinner plate…..I adore the movements and the isms….My entire life I’ve yearned, especially at night, to one day become an ism and finally amount to something….I liked Actualism, actually, a movement out of Iowa City (of all places!) in the 70s—which was a tongue-in-cheek goof, sort of, on isms and movements. The interested reader can find an informative essay on Actualism by Dave Morice on Andrei Codrescu’s website. Who’s to say the Surrealists weren’t kidding? Marcel DuChamp was—or wasn’t he? Writers of the NY School never really fancied themselves a school at all, but it’s facile to refer to them in that way. Same with The Language School or Black Mountain (which really was a school, sort of, with a campus and a towering giant named Charles Olson) These are individual writers whose work deserves individual attention (in varying degrees)….I believe there’s a real danger in taking everything too seriously—and for a poet, taking him/herself too seriously? That is a disaster, as it shows up in self-inflated, self-important, self-serving (that’s a good dose of self, no?) poetry which isn’t worth reading….I’m a cardcarrying member of the infamous Post Contemporary School—wanna see my badge?

CM: That’s tempting, Joel, let’s talk.

You have now published more than a hundred issues of the intrepid Fell Swoop, which takes its cue from the great mimeographed zines of the 60s such as Ed Sanders’ Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. That makes it one of the longest-running small press magazines on earth. Ever. And it’s the only one I know that, like a box of Cracker Jacks on crack, includes the occasional plastic utensil to surprise and delight the unsuspecting subscriber.


the “None of the Talent, Half the Brain” issue

What’s the history of the Swoop? If there’s a secret to its longevity, does it come in a convenient, easy-to-swallow capsule? And do we dare to hope that it will never, ever, bow out gracefully?

[“Our stated mission is to destroy American Literature . . .”]

JD: It’s really a newsletter for the Insane or the Inane; it’s a bad habit and I’ll probably go blind from keeping at it….I’ve vowed to quit producing the Swoop dozens of times, but always returned to do another issue. I enjoy making the issues and sending them out….I guess when I stop enjoying the process, I’ll quit it. Our stated mission is to destroy American Literature, with a spotlight on Am Po, but truly Am Po is proving adept at destroying itself; it’s fraught with self involved careerists who are churning out Real Drivel (as opposed to Unreal Drivel, which might be more interesting)—and getting rewarded for it, as they slime trail along their “career paths” to Hooterville….

[“. . . the magazine was born the summer Ted Berrigan died, in the early 80s. My reaction to his death was to create something.”]

History? The right Reverend Richard Martin has been a contributor to every general issue; he is also our Resident Historian, a non-paying and rather cramped position….the magazine was born the summer Ted Berrigan died, in the early 80s. My reaction to his death was to create something, and so the Swooper was birthed and has continued these many years, publishing hundreds of engaging and worthwhile writers—including you, Camille…..

CM: It has been a privilege to contribute to the Swoop’s worthy cause of general mayhem.

Speaking of mayhem of a different sort, you and your family were greatly affected by Hurricane Katrina. Your home was flooded and you were displaced for months. I’ll never forget when you Fed-Exed your house key to me from your Pennsylvania home-away-from-home, so that I could sneak back into New Orleans, still under mandatory evacuation, and check up on your two cats.

In post-apocalyptic New Orleans, there was a point when Fell Swoop aficionados wondered whether the magazine would survive the disruption and continue to inject us with an antidote of impertinent chutzpah on a semi-regular basis. Après le deluge, what has given you the grit to forge ahead with your magazine, your poetry, and life in general?

A related question: In My Psychic Dogs My Life, there’s a section written under the sign of Katrina, “My Evacuation.” Whereas some poetry inspired by that muse-bitch takes a more lyrical, somber approach, in your work there seems to be a continuum in your absurdist take on the horrors-that-be—no doubt reflecting the nonstop flow of sense-defying news, pre- and post-K, in the (un)real world from which you draw your poetic raw materials. Was it difficult writing after Katrina, or was it—so to speak—cathartic?

[“It was a lot of work mixed with truckloads of Uncertainty, but, hell, the terms of existence bleed Uncertainty—”]

JD: Katrina spawned a lot of things: reconstruction, displacement, suicides, divorces, widespread fraud—and I have to tell you, HK “inspired” a lot of terrible poetry. Of course HK affected me personally, as you point out, but in terms of my writing, it added a layer, another post-apocalyptic level. We literally started over here and did without numerous comforts people take for granted. There was no mail delivery in Orleans Parish for weeks, so the Swoop rented a po box in nearby Metairie in order to receive and send dispatches; we published an issue with Joe Brainard’s adapted and adopted beloved comic character Nancy on the cover screaming “Help!” We’re the better for having experienced HK I think; the city is stronger and making a comeback. It was a lot of work mixed with truckloads of Uncertainty, but, hell, the terms of existence bleed Uncertainty—we foolishly convince ourselves that we’re secure. Olson’s warning comes to mind, “Beware of Permanence!” Part of returning to the ‘normalcy’ of my life after HK was getting back to writing; the hurricane changed many things but not my continued and continuous absurdist view of the world and peddling it through new poems.


the historic Nancy issue

CM: Are there any top-secret projects in the wings that you’d like to spill to WikiLeaks?

[“We just released The Human Bond by Clark Coolidge, a single author issue. This is Clark’s recent James Bond sonnets—not to be missed.”]

JD: I wish I had a top secret or a top hat project to give you and your readers a scoop, but o and alas. We just released The Human Bond by Clark Coolidge, a single author issue. This is Clark’s recent James Bond sonnets—not to be missed. He is a very interesting writer whose work I obviously value, a writer who’s sort of flying beneath the radar, but his work pushes limits and buttons and it does and has been doing so since the 60s. Another recent single author number is The ABC Of Duck, by a creature named Duck Martian, an alphabetical work; this feathered fowl definitely knows his ABC’s. So interesting material is still being created, and Fell Swoop is proud to offer these works to an adoring public……

CM: Rightly so.

I’ve known you for a long time, Joel, yet the marrow of your being remains a mystery to me. My Psychic Dogs My Life opens with a devastating autobiographical exposé:

A little about my life
Remove shrinkwrap.

Please help your fans understand: who’s the real Joel Dailey? Who or what will we encounter under the layers of shrinkwrap?

[“We’re all walking (or crawling) contradictions…..”]

JD: You make me chuckle, Camille….What’s inside your shrinkwrap? I looked up the meaning of my first name once; Joel was defined as “lover of literature,” and that’s true, I am. I often teach British Lit. Survey; the Romantic Age is my favorite period. I love Shakespeare’s tragedies. My two daughters grew up hearing, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” I can leer like Lear. My tastes in fiction tend to be conventional (Jane Austen is the berries, as Al Capone might have said) rather than experimental or just plain old mental. We’re all walking (or crawling) contradictions…..It’s like my Uncle Walt was fond of observing, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes….” In point of measurable fact, I’m an extra-large——

CM: Thank you for sharing, Joel.

For our readers: Below is a bonus package of Dailey chapbooks. Click on any one to get the gallery view.


Camille Martin

“Toronto poets Camille Martin and Mark Goldstein bring lyricism to BIG NIGHT”

Sheila E. Murphy and Lewis LaCook: “Accidents of startled symmetry”

Beyond the Bother of Sunlight
Sheila E. Murphy and Lewis LaCook
Buffalo: BlazeVOX, 2011
(cover art: Sheila E. Murphy)


         Sheila E. Murphy is not only one of the most prolific contemporary poets; she’s also one of the most generous collaborators with other poets. Sometimes, collaborating poets engage in a clearly-delineated dialogue and indicate who wrote what, as in Leslie Scalapino and Lyn Hejinian’s Sight. But Murphy’s collaborations with poets such as Douglas Barbour, Charles Alexander, mIEKAL aND, and Peter Ganick tend more or less seamlessly to synthesize their respective contributions so that the textual offspring, so to speak, blends genetic material from both.
         This is the case with Beyond the Bother of Sunlight, Murphy’s most recent collaborative effort, in which she pairs up with Lewis LaCook, who publishes much of his work on his blog, Xanax Pop. Beyond the Bother of Sunlight consists of fifty-two untitled poems, suggesting perhaps one poem for every week of a year, as well as a series exploring related themes. Though their collaborative process is not described, knowing LaCook’s proclivity for digital manipulation of text, it’s possible that this played a part in the compositional method. But whether or not this is the case, there is ample evidence of a very human, joyous, and intelligent shaping of the material. And the result is, to my mind, a smooth blending of their poetics and a serendipitous duet. To borrow their own words, the poetry creates “accidents of startled symmetry,” “birthing fluid children.”
         It’s not surprising that both Murphy and LaCook have musical backgrounds, because reading the poetry is like listening to music whose complexity becomes more apparent as the piece progresses: gradually the listener becomes aware of themes and motifs, and during the course of the composition part of the pleasure is in the recognition of patterns and the recontextualization and development of those melodic fragments.
         The word that comes to mind to describe this intensely musical poetry is relational: Murphy and LaCook bring words from particular realms of signification in relation to one another so that their meaning shifts as, for example, when a words from the semantic fields of spirituality and sexuality are juxtaposed. A bit later, a word with sexual connotations might be set next to a mathematical term. Thus words such as “wafer” and “bless,” “tryst” and “moan,” and “fraction” and “equation” surface in varying contexts throughout the book, suggesting a kind of musical grammar in which words recur within different syntactical and semantic frameworks. Very early into the poems I began to perceive and enjoy the deft interweaving of themes that give the poetry an inner coherence but that also allows it generous room to breathe semantically due to the contextual shifts.
         In the following four passages, taken from different sections of the book, note the recurrent themes of consciousness, sexuality, spirituality, mathematics, language, time, and light/colour:

1)
What if sleep were as translucent as desire?

Desire breaks out of its equation
As mathematics clarify, language amples

2)
The frozen integers lacking this much space
Become a world thus far undocumented

3)
The more I simmer, the more you pave
The more you reverence, the more I stave off
Glyphs tearing into torpor

4)
Only a certain paradise knows
How to pause a shape of color in your sleep

These and other themes are subtly intertwined throughout the book, giving the poetry (to use an analogy other than music) the texture of an intricate fabric woven with colourful threads that create recognizable but shifting patterns. There are sonic patterns, too, as in the assonance created by “lacing gaps” and, later in the same poem, its anagrammatic echo, “lapse of grace.”
         The semantic field of Beyond the Bother of Sunlight is constrained by the vocabulary derived from particular realms of experience and knowledge yet also expansive due to a kind of lexical synesthesia that blends terms from these realms and enriches their experience. The result is poetry in which “language amples” into “a world thus far undocumented.”
         This is a book to which I’ll return to savour its mysteries. To appreciate more fully the beauty of Murphy and LaCook’s collaboration, you should read more than just a couple of poems to experience the sympathetic vibrations of the motifs that surface throughout the book. Nonetheless I’d like to offer two in their entirety, which I hope will entice you to to read more:

4/

Pacing bequeaths to water
What water and the sky do best:
Replenish.
Smile extinguishes all traces of significance.
We motor our way home, inventing machines to carry or to carry us.

Punctuation creeps into our codes, lacing gaps
Into our bodies, bracing pauses
Through which topographies of lingo
Merge, filling the map

That way I’ve got everything flattened
And before me, ready to be folded
Along all the wrong spines,
Awaiting translation in the temporal plain.

But there’s nothing so-so about you.
Only every once in a while in the crackling
That swept over my brain text like viral winds
Swallowing scorched information affords
Fabulous blossoms,
So beautiful, so suspiciously pure, you
Doubt your touch of it.

Purity eventually is traced
To touch. Suspicion twines around
Topographies that embrace
The merging of sweet spines.

A singular fulfillment rescinds the stencil
That reduces bliss to genuflection.
Are we there yet?

A physicality endears itself to lapse of grace
Whose map occurs to us. In time,
A blossom purrs with listening.
We hear in our flesh the tension of it,
The awful urging pulsing breaks.

5/

It was eventually found that the paint
Would pane around the letters in ghost
Plains, and this complicated into
A false sense of depth.

When walking on
The surface her feet sometimes
Slipped through
It was all she could do to keep herself
Balanced, his
Inattention was her fated goal.

It had been a long time since he looked you in the eye.

We’re a conquered people, servants
In our own land. Tranquillizers, accidents
It is forbidden for anyone to open that book
Until physicality becomes religious combustion

I see it as hopeless to try to reason with you
Just in case the flowers didn’t work
He burrowed into the fields of narrativity
Slipping through the confluence of probable branches
Until he walked on translucent panes, interlocking,
Layered. Tranquilizers conquer you. Lovely tranquilizers,
Accidents. It is forbidden for anyone to open that book.

Tranquil is a word. Speech.
Ventilation coughs up
Translucence and transmission.
Changes lock open
The book of wheels, the book of patter, the book
Of a religion
Killing beams no episode at all.
All out of kilter then, the plot’s made simple
And advisement borrows shrapnel of nativity.
Bloom time once crescent shaped is domed
Its wheatened blue comes close to venture
Spawn.


Camille Martin

Signifying the Tradition: Kaie Kellough’s Maple Leaf Rag

         The following is a review essay on Kaie Kellough’s Maple Leaf Rag that I wrote for Influency 10: A Toronto Poetry Salon. During this course, rob mclennan also delivered a paper about my Sonnets.

Be sure to check out the YouTube link at the end of this review for a spell-binding performance by Kaie Kellough!


Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2010

Signifying the Tradition:
Kaie Kellough’s Maple Leaf Rag
by Camille Martin

         Kaie Kellough’s Maple Leaf Rag is an exemplary Influency text—a model of intertextuality that weaves together history, genres, disciplines, and processes. Its historical themes include the history of the African Diaspora, the Middle Passage, slavery, the Jim Crow era of segregation and discrimination, and the lingering racism experienced by people of colour. It’s also in dialogue with musical and oral traditions: jazz, blues, reggae, bebop, and dub poetry. In its blending of the oral and written, it pays tribute to the strength of both. And it engages issues of social justice, infusing its rhymes, rhythms and wordplay with the caveat to remain vigilant about racial prejudice.
         Maple Leaf Rag pays homage to black culture and also engages in a lively dialogue with traditions. And this doubleness is important to the heritage in which the text swims. On the one hand, its identity is linked with the history and experiences in black culture. On the other hand, it also uses processes within that tradition to “play the dozens” with its own heritage, to riff, pun, encode, and ironize its text, so that the book is a continually shape-shifting, meaning-splitting exploration of moments leading to its own creation.
         This tradition of intertextuality in black literary history is explored in a landmark book of criticism, Henry Louis Gates’s The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. In African, Caribbean, and African-American mythology, the trickster figures of Esu and of the Signifying Monkey represent messenger types (like the Greek god Hermes) who convey and interpret messages between the gods and humans (5, 6, 8). Some of the qualities of Esu include “satire, parody, irony, magic, indeterminacy, open-endedness, ambiguity, sexuality, chance, uncertainty.”(6). Above all, this mythical figure represents “figurative language and its interpretation” (6).
         Gates summarizes the ways in which these tricksters inform the entire lineage of black culture, from pre-slavery Africa to the present. First, he describes a double-voiced discourse, a tension between oral traditions and the written page that manifests as “finding a voice in writing” (21).
         A second type of doubleness in the black vernacular tradition arising from the trickster figures of Esu and the Monkey “undercuts . . . the literal” and “privilege[s] the figurative and the ambiguous.” Think of this doubleness as the very figure of a metaphor, a dance between the literal and the figurative.
         A third rhetorical strategy that arises from the trickster myths is the “indeterminacy of interpretation” (22). For Gates, this means that “[t]he text . . . is not fixed in any determinate sense; in one sense, it consists of the dynamic and indeterminate relationship between truth on the one hand and understanding on the other”(25). In “the highly structured rhetoric of the Signifying Monkey” in “Afro-American vernacular discourse,” “a chain of signifiers [is] open to (mis)understanding. The open-endedness of figurative language, rather than its single-minded closure, is inscribed in the myths of the Signifying Monkey” (42). Signifying “is a rhetorical practice that is not engaged in the game of information-giving”; instead, it “wreaks havoc upon the signifier” and thus “meaning is deferred” (52, 53). There is a “repeated stress on the sheer materiality, and the willful play, of the signifier itself” (59). Signifying doesn’t so much preach but instead sends its message indirectly, through verbal play and wit.
         In short, the Signifying Monkey is “he who dwells at the margin of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language” (52).
         Gates also emphasizes an important rhetorical strategy in black literary tradition, related to the trickster trope of interpretation and revision: intertextuality or pastiche. He quotes Kimberly W. Benston’s definition of “genealogical revisionism”:

                  All Afro-American literature may be seen as one vast
                  genealogical poem that attempts to restore continuity
                  to the ruptures or discontinuities imposed
                  by the history of the black presence in America. (123)

As Gates puts it, “pastiche” is literary history naming itself. . . . Writers Signify upon each other’s texts by rewriting the received textual tradition”(124). Referring to the texts of others can serve the purpose of homage, with no criticism implied, or critical, implying some kind of revision or critique of the text: repetition and revision (79).
         I’d like to explore Kellough’s Maple Leaf Rag through the lens of the signifying tradition in oral and written black culture. Kellough’s introduction, entitled “readeradar,” alerts us to the disrupting and deferring of meaning through puns and double-talk as well as through the sound or oral element of the poetry:

                  sound guides each poem, often to a place where words
                  are splintered, meanderings belaboured, & meanings
                  are blurred. sometimes sense is suspended, sent up,
                  upended while sound is riffed on, the way a jazz
                  singer swerves from word to scat. some of these poems
                  are kin to the blues while others are jazz offspring.
                  I have tried to make the words scat, sing, swing. to this
                  end i’ve spaced them out on the page in dense prose
                  blocks, loose spiralling helices, narrow
                  descending lyrics, hand-drawn diagrams, &
                  so forth. (13)

The vernacular tradition on which Kellough draws also embraces music, which like a scat singer splays and reorders syllables that come in and out of meaning, always repeating, giving the sense of continuity, and revising, giving a sense of transformation, of never staying in one place. To the element of sound he adds the musical scoring of words on the page, in an imitation of the syncopations of jazz.
         In “readeradar,” Kellough also points to the project of intertextuality in his poems:

                  these poems contain numerous references to
                  black canadian, caribbean, and african american
                  culture: from hair styles to slave cemeteries,
                  athletics to immigration, musicians to
                  rainbow coalitions. (13)

         Thus in Kellough’s introduction are strong clues that he is drawing on the traditions that Gates analyzes in The Signifying Monkey. In the first of the three main characteristics of the signifying tradition, Gates demonstrates in much written black literature the meeting of—and tension between—oral and written traditions. Likewise, Kellough’s poems in this collection explore the conjunction of sound and writing; of, on the one hand, dub poetry and musical practice, and on the other, their arrangement on the page as if in a musical score. Two obvious examples of this conjunction occur in the real score notated on pp. 73-74, as well as in “word sound system #2” (32), which explores various permutations of “word” and “sound,” and invites the reader to imagine how it might sound if performed. The mind’s ear is a powerful compulsion in many of these poems.
         And in the strongly rhythmic “block rock” (53-55), the percussive repetitions and revisions of “BOOM BOOM BAP” alternate with lines that bring together the rhythmic bouncing of basketballs on asphalt, “life’s hard knock,” babies being rocked to sleep, “junkies,” the rhythms of life on the street, jazz, “funk talk,” and most ominously, the “morse code” of “gunshots.” In the onomatopoeic and ever-shifting “BOOM BOOM BAP” lines is a sense of the materiality of the words: they are nonsense words imitating the basketball’s bouncing. But these word-sounds also create a nether-space of pure rhythm overlain with meaning, as the words shift to “BOON,” “DOOM,” BOOM,” and “CLAP,” which parallel the shifting significations of the joyous as well as dangerous rhythms of life.
         In a similar way, “échos / montréal nord, 11 août, 2008” (33) with its strong visual and aural components, reflects on violence begetting violence, which echoes and reveberates like the sound of a revolver shooting. The idea of echoing gunshots is achieved by the anaphoric repetition of “BLAMM” in large, bold font that diminishes like a receding echo with each line. The main subject of the poem is the Montreal police shooting, without provocation, of unarmed citizens. The date in the subtitle refers to a night of rioting in North Montreal to protest the allegedly unprovoked police shooting of Fredy Villanueva (the “unarmed brown boy,” an eighteen-year-old Latino man), which echoes in turn the police shooting of Anthony Griffin, a nineteen-year-old man who allegedly was also unjustly shot and killed by Montreal police. Marcellus Wallace, the fictional drug kingpin in the film Pulp Fiction is apparently mentioned as a symbol of violence begetting violence, this time in the world of organized crime and drug trafficking.
         The violence that reverberates through the poem seems to be the result of the riot: “the eye socket ruptured by a rock,” the “molotov,” the storefront (“vitrine”) smashed by a bat, the “bricks . . . batter[ing]” an “ambulance.” It also echoes the “slug” of rum the police captain downs and the “shutter” of the “reporter’s camera” as well as his “deadline” for getting in the story. In the last line, “BLAMM” has become “BALMM.” The morning is personified as begging for an end to the violence, replacing it with the soothing balm of its soft light.
         “quittin’ rhyme / blues-bop for Kim” (22) sets to paper the fast pace and short, crisp, rhyming lines of bebop music. The tight and intricately interwoven rhymes of the short and long “i” sounds and word repetitions create a bebop effect. The poem is also rich in assonance, rhymes, half-rhymes, and alliteration, accentuating its musicality.
         The poem is in three sections, each introduced by the same tercet:

                  if you quit me
                  on the quick
                  split me in a lick

This tercet introduces patterns that are repeated and varied throughout: the “if” subordinate clause, which introduces a cause-and-future-effect pattern: “if you quit me . . . my heels’ll kick me.”
         The fast-paced repetition of “you” and “me” give the poem a sense of urgency as well as humour. “Quick” means both suddenly and “alive”; the latter meaning contrasts with the various plays on death, such as the speaker’s heart stopping, digging a pit or ending up in a ditch, his kissing a chill glass lip, diving into die, wilting, and being blasted by ice.
         The rhythm of the poem slows down in two places: the “tlick / tlock. tlick / tlock / ’ll seize / stop” of the speaker’s heart. The tripping meter of the opening tercet is slowed down to the spondaic rhythms of his beating heart.
         It also slows down in the last line, whose rhythm is so different from the trippingly light rhythms of most of the poem, it arrests the reading and draws attention to the startling image of a “flower blasted by ice.”
         The poem’s insistent short i’s suddenly become long i’s in the third section: “dive . . . die . . . jive . . . spite . . . like . . . vice,” then briefly return to a couple of short i’s (will . . . wilt) and then the final long i of “ice” delivers the sucker punch.
         The poem’s theme is as old as poetry itself: the spurned lover. But in the poem, the lover’s misery becomes an festival of rhythms and rhymes that belies the bitter occasion of the poem’s creation. We should also be so fortunate with such sublimation of pain.
         As a dub poet himself, Kellough dips into the dub tradition in “boyhood dub / self portrait” (25). The poem creates strong rhythms emphasized by the short lines. The poem’s musicality is brought out by rhymes, half-rhymes, and assonance playing and echoing off one another, as well as interwoven word plays, puns that expand the meaning and enlarge the semantic possibilities of the text.
         “boyhood dub” (25, 26) is a paean to reggae music—especially the experience of becoming lost in its “riddims.” The speaker of the poem is in Montreal during the winter, listening to a record of Bob Marley accompanied by the I-Threes. He’s grooving to the music and creates a kind of fantasy of being in Jamaica listening to a live performance. His imaginary world is strong and detailed: he imagines the parts of the drum set (tom, steel, hi-hat) and the organ and the skank of the guitar (strumming on the off-beats). But Anansie, the Spider (a West African and Caribbean trickster figure) spins a thread and climbs down the wooden “trunk” of the electronic speaker, bringing the fantasy back to reality: the “sham isle” has feather dusters for flocks of tropical birds, a wooden woofer instead of a tree trunk, a light bulb and electric fan instead of a tropical sun and breeze.
         However much the “cynic winter” murders his fantasy, memory once again draws him into the music, gives him a sense of connectedness to the history of the African diaspora and slavery (“toiling,” “coffled”).
         The last words of the poem (“real me”) can be read in several ways: 1) as an imperative to make the world of reggae real, to bring it to life instead of “failing to wail” in a “vapid living room,” 2) “reel” as in to reel with dizzyiness or joy, 3) to “reel” in a fish, as the music is reeling him in (with Anansi’s silk line?), and 4) “reel” as in spin (the record, the fan). If the music isn’t the real thing (he’s listening to a record in cold Montreal, in a rather sterile environment, it nonetheless makes him feel more real, give him a sense of self, of identity, and connects him with the stream of Black heritage.
         My last example of Kellough’s use of music forms and oral tradition on the printed page is the poem written in a traditional twelve-bar blues form, “simon the cyrene’s harlem dream” (37). Here’s the first stanza, each line constituting two of the twelve bars:

                  When I get to heaven
                  Ima ditty on in
                  When I get to heaven
                  Ima bop on in.
                  st. peter best
                  park my wings.

The blues form creates a strong auditory effect as the reader imagines hearing the words sung to the traditional blues harmony.
         Of course, in all of these poems exemplifying Kellough’s written expression of oral and musical traditions, we can also see ways in which the strong element of sound, playing with word sounds and shifting their meanings, as in “blam” to “balm,” and “boom” to “boon” to “doom,” splays the meaning, splitting the words and re-splicing them in new contexts to create a slippery progression of meanings that reverberate, recalling Gates’ description of the repetition and revision of signifying texts.
         I’d like to return briefly to “simon the cyrene’s harlem dream” as a poem that exemplifies the idea of intertextuality, which is integral to the signifying tradition. The historical Simon the Cyrene was from a Jewish community in present-day Libya; according to some Gospels, he was compelled by Romans to carry the cross for Jesus on his way to the crucifixion. Because he lived in northern Africa, Simon has become known as the first African saintly Christian. In passion plays, his character is often played by black actors (such as Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier). “simon the cyrene’s harlem dream” imaginatively blends the identity of Simon the Cyrene and a Harlem blues singer invoking a heaven for himself after a life of suffering under racial discrimination. In this poem Simon fantasizes going to heaven as a passage into a music club, where St. Peter will park his wings and Paul as “maître-d” will give him the best seat next to the stage. “Jesus in an apron” will serve him “rum ’n rocks.” The angels will be “sepia-fine,” “brown as praise.” Famous entertainers from Harlem Renaissance days will perform for him: Josephine Baker, James P. Johnson, and Willie the Lion, and Fats Waller. In other words, in heaven, he will be given the best seat in the house, whereas in life because of his race he was denied entry into some Harlem clubs, such as the Cotton Club, despite the fact that most of the entertainers were black.
         There’s another tradition that Kellough riffs on in this poem. Depicting biblical characters as black has a tradition dating back to the first converted slaves in the sixteenth century and reaching a zenith during the 1920s and 1930s, especially during the Harlem Renaissance (Pinder 223). Countee Cullen’s conflation of Christ with the lynched black man in his long poem “The Black Christ” (1929) is one of the most famous examples.
         As Kellough dips into the long and rich history of black culture in Africa, the Caribbean, North America, and Europe, he recovers voices and details that might otherwise be forgotten. For example, “pardner hand savings plan” describes the experience of African and Caribbean blacks recruited to help rebuild British cities damaged by German blitz attacks during World War II. This immigration began with the arrival of about 500 Jamaicans on the Windrush in 1948, who sought greater economic opportunities and were attracted by the low boat fare. Pioneers in the racial diversification of Great Britain following World War II and dissolution of the British Empire, these immigrants were often given jobs of hard labour, and they faced racism and discrimination (Facing History). To cope with their adversity in their new home country, many of them formed benevolent societies to benefit, in turn, each member of the society, with a lump sum gathered from the tithing of all.
         In the poem, the labour is described as de facto indentured servitude, a postcolonial extension of imperialist use and abuse of black labour. Uprooted and degraded in the country where they wished to improve their lot, these immigrants often felt themselves to be in a cultural limbo, wanted for their labour but shunned by racist attitudes. As if to emphasize their conflicted and transcultural identity, Kellogh, in a twist on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, describes these labourers as the “ghosts / of empires past,” and in an ironic echo of the social strata of India, once part of the British Empire, as the “untouchable caste.”
         Similarly, “the executioner” (63) recalls the story of Bernard Hopkins, African-American champion boxer. Written in the first person, the prose poem is a boasting, rollicking autobiographical rant that ends with a mythical ascension to the sun to become “the pure light beamed into your living room” as “you, dark doubter and cynic, flick on your television, receive my violent illumination.” The bright light of the television screen is likened to the “leather-melting ring-lights” and to the sun to which he ascends like an Icarus whose wings are immune to melting.
         “jelly roll in canaan land” (19) recounts the story of the early New Orleans jazz musician’s stay in Vancouver, an interesting note in the history of jazz.
         And lastly, “the didnt dues / for nobody” (44) also riffs on moments or aspects of African-American culture and history. Using the repetition of “I didnt,” the speaker ironically denies playing a part in or emulating any of them, from bebop to the rainbow coalition to the crip walk to jheri curls.
         The last words, “national dearth” sounds like “national debt”; “debt” combined with the “dues” of the title turn the “didn’t’s” of the poem into an ironic statement of apathy, whereas vigilance against racism should foster a sense of indebtedness toward those who have contributed to Black culture or paid their dues in creating awareness about racism. The action of the 1968 athletes with fists raised in a Black Power salute becomes here a metaphor for thrusting the fists through the national dearth or debt, suggesting either a lack of awareness of racism or an indifference to the need for vigilance against its roots.
         The poems in Maple Leaf Rag participate in the long and venerable tradition of genealogical revisionism; the words and meanings of its poems, disrupted by rhythmic splitting and splicing, multiplied by its polyphonies, both rupture and heal. These are poems of defiance and anger against racism, past and present. They are poems of vigilance, rattling the cage of complacency. They are poems of joy and playfulness reveling in expressions of black culture. And they are poems recovering pieces and voices of history in danger of being forgotten by a generation who sometimes feel themselves to be untouched by the historical baggage of discrimination and xenophobia, despite the official Canadian mantra of multiculturalism.

Works Cited

Cullen, Countee. The Black Christ and Other Poems. New York: Harper, 1929.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Identity and Belonging in a Changing Great Britain. London: Facing History and Ourselves Foundation, 2009.
Pinder, Kymberly N. “‘Our Father, God; our Brother, Christ; or are We Bastard Kin?’: Images of Christ in African American Painting.” African American Review 31.2 (1997): 223-33.


Camille Martin

Intelligent Nature: Ken Belford’s Decompositions


Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2010

“I transgressed the imagined
and resisted the ordered metaphors
of threat.”
– from Decompositions

          For most of his life, Ken Belford has lived in the rural and wilderness areas of the Nass Valley in northern British Columbia. In his latest book of poetry, Decompositions, his meditations on humans and nature have entered a new breadth of poetic maturity and ecological wisdom that comes from years of sustaining himself from the land and being attentive to the “intelligence of nature” (Belford).
          His poetry is down-to-earth, conversational. But Belford’s self-description as an autodidact—poetically or otherwise—should not be construed as a marker of unsophistication. Here is an ecologically-minded poet whose complex thought arises not only from scientific knowledge of ecosystems, geology, microbiology, and genetics, but also—and more importantly—from a lifetime of observing and meditating on the intricate connections between land and its inhabitants. And in Decompositions, Belford voices his seasoned understanding of the natural world and the human pressures that transform it. It’s poetry that has been decades in the ripening: rooted in long experience, enlightened by keen awareness, and expressed with an original and quietly compelling poetic sensibility.
          I’m fascinated by the uniqueness of Belford’s poetic voice in comparison to that of many contemporary nature poets. And I think it’s important to understand what sets his work apart because of a set of expectations that readers (including myself) may bring to nature poetry and its more current rubric, eco-poetry. So first: what his approach to nature poetry is not.
          Nature poetry can dazzle with lavish description and linguistic pyrotechnics, but in contrast to poets who offer the reader an epiphany of place recognition, Belford asks,

                                                         Who
                    says good writing conveys
                    a strong sense of place?

Belford is wary of the type of “possessive poem” that attempts to capture its object through descriptive details:

                    The aggressive impulses of
                    the lyric load the details
                    of the story with what seems
                    to be a post-dating hangover.

Tongue in cheek, Belford suggests that, perhaps counter-intuitively, a poetics of descriptive infatuation might have a numbing effect as one becomes inebriated with the language that tries more to “capture” the lover than to explore and cultivate a mutual partnership.
          Also, some nature poets are inclined to forewarn and prescribe, but for Belford,

                    The apparent attempts at
                    moral instruction from poets
                    who do not own their own
                    lives makes me think that about
                    is control, which is why I’m
                    not convenient, and more
                    temporary, why I long to be
                    idle and purposely dormant,
                    and accelerate from
                    those empty places country
                    does not allow escape from.

Inconvenient indeed, if what a reader seeks is use-value to adorn an ideological or political banner. Belford’s poetry resists the easy sound byte and knee-jerk emotions about nature that may find themselves subservient to causes.
          And nature poetry can lament lost Arcadias. But Belford renounces idyllic worlds that never existed anyway:

                    It’s best to blink and learn to forget
                    if it’s arcadia or aecidia, best to be
                    happy, and forget the topological terms
                    of day, the derivatives of night, and
                    let the pre-existing ideal slip your mind
                    and be bygone, and accommodate
                    the misfit. Images are nomadic.

         In short, Belford isn’t so much interested in generating a sense of wonder about nature, in offering artificially-imaged nature as “a lifestyle Photoshop retouches,” or in engendering a feeling of melancholy or moral outrage about ecological disruption. This is not eco-poetry with an agenda. Belford’s more concerned with exploring with open mind the entanglements of nature (wild or channelled) and human perception, language (including poetic language) and social interactions. And in these explorations, “misfits” are not anomalies, and images—being the product of brains whose plasticity mirrors nature’s own continual shiftings—are not stable.
          “Inter-connectedness” has become an ecological cliché, a vague truism for the web of dependence linking natural phenomena. As Belford questions his relation to his natural surroundings, he avoids such easy sentiments (which might arise from an “about” branch of nature poetry) by meditating on processes of evolution and genetics:

                    [T]he type of contact I lived was not
                    a food, or family, or animal contact route,
                    but evolved from a common ancestor.

His relation to nature doesn’t so much resemble the unthinking and likely accidental “contact route” followed by the spread of pathogens. It’s more like a feeling of relatedness to other beings through the genetic links of common ancestry. He describes his genes as having descended from

                    an old sequence recopied upstream
                    in a new strand that follows flooding
                    and I’m good at attaching to surfaces.

          His arrival from distant ancestors is a traversal of nature in time that recognizes his (literal) inter-relatedness with all beings by virtue of his descent downstream, “follow[ing] flooding,” from common ancestors. Although this kind of genetic transmission is “vertical” in the biological sense of descent from parent to offspring, Belford emphasizes the horizontal links with other beings, forged by common ancestry. He views distant cousins on the tree of life as important a part of his family as great grandparents.
         He also portrays his existence in the world in horizontal terms: he “attach[es] to surfaces” and

                    integrat[es] in through recombinations
                    as a naked piece of DNA in the environment,
                    not passed vertically
                    from generation to generation,
                    but by means of the conjugation of plasmids
                    into the occupation of the new.

          The metaphors of horizontal and vertical genetics offer a distinction that is important to Belford’s outlook. Vertical genetic transfer represents the line of ancestry from which each living being has descended. An emphasis on the vertical thus prioritizes one’s own familial lineage, as opposed to recognizing one’s relatedness to species that branched off from our own line. The image of verticality makes it easier to conceptualize homo sapiens as having a unique and special rank at the pinnacle of the evolutionary tree.
          By contrast, Belford likens his being within nature to horizontal genetic transfer (as in the conjugation of plasmids), which involves the passing of genetic material from one cell to another. The receiving cell is not considered to be the offspring of the donating cell though this type of transfer can be a mechanism of evolution.
         Thus Belford envisions neither himself as a child of nature nor nature as his Garden of Eden. Instead, he sees himself and his natural environment as interacting systems of lateral exchange and mutation. And this view allows him to recognize that the human mind is only one instance of intelligence in nature, which has endowed other beings with their own native intellect in negotiating their worlds:

                                      A wolf decided to
                  walk with me. They keep lists.
                  C is for company. You go up and
                  north at the same time. Everything
                  that lives acts in a particular way
                  and has a reason to live.

         As a dweller in the wilderness who has seen the encroachment of loggers and farmers, Belford writes in many poems in Decompositions about the disruption of ecosystems and the ensuing ill effects on nature and humans, especially the poor: deforestation, the decline of diversity, the invasion of non-native species, and the spread of pathogens (“the fevers that go with harm” and that disproportionately affect the poor). The latter is both a literal problem and an analogy for economic forces that pave the way for the dissemination of disease and, ironically, enough, for the

                  good roads [that] bring
                  health care in because the
                  villages are going to need it.

         In the midst of the disturbed soil and leaching toxins that degrade wilderness and disrupt ecosystems, Belford reflects on the ecological philosophy that he embraces, for he’s

                    sympathetic to trans-species, overgrown
                    gardens, and fragmentation and loss, and
                    of the conflicts and pathways toward coexistence.

         I almost glossed over the word “trans-species” but learned that the term refers to an environmental outlook developed by Gay Bradshaw that

                    re-embeds humans within the larger matrix
                    of the animal kingdom by erasing the “and”
                    between humans and animals that has been
                    used to demarcate and reinforce the false
                    notion that humans are substantively
                    different cognitively and emotionally from
                    other species. (qtd. in Marino)

In Belford’s reference to trans-species, I’m again reminded of his emphasis on the horizontal exchange of genetic material. Vertical descent can suggest differentiation among species, notwithstanding the common ancestors that unite humans to every other living being. But horizontal cellular exchange implies, in the here and now, a non-hierarchical stance in relation to other beings and, indeed, the topology and matter of the land.
          Belford’s turning away from the vertical “sequence of ancestors” is also consonant with his more general “shifting trust of order’s / single-file chain of incidents”: He’s no writer of “orderly passages” but of thoughts that “deviat[e] from the expected.”
         I admire and respect Belford’s Decompositions because of its groundedness in science and long experience. And these tell him that inherent in biological and geological processes are constant shifts among order, chaos, growth, and decay:

                                                         The body
                    is weather, the mind is a wetland,
                    instincts come and go, responses
                    evolve, and signals mix.

And it also reminds him that like his poems, to which he attributes “high mutation rates,” his own life is part of nature’s ongoing process:

                    I’m forever in potential,
                    always wandering around, getting to
                    the top, and rolling down the other side.

I’ll give Belford a long last word by quoting a poem, one of my favourites, from Decompositions:

                    I bit into a persimmon and the weather
                    on the other side of town seemed murky
                    and sour, not because it was still and
                    without explanation, but a skip. It’s
                    just what happens. After all, nothing
                    is restricted to straight lines, and
                    the reflective surface of the page is
                    sometimes cool and cold, or warm and hot.
                    And there, by the edge of a weary pond,
                    smelled the ba and bit and breath of life,
                    for the earth does breathe, and flicked
                    a match and smoked in the breathing place
                    where phenomena are not perception,
                    but drag one weary foot after another.
                    And in the fetid air, inhaled and exhaled,
                    and stayed a while, for something like
                    a happy hour in the brush, for a puff
                    of air and a puff of smoke and a rest
                    in the steam and stench of suggestion.

Works Cited

Belford, Ken. “de comp.” Message to the author. 10 July 2011. E-mail.

Marino, Lori. “A Trans-Species Perspective on Nature.” In On the Human: A Project of the National Humanities Center. http://onthehuman.org/2010/11/trans-species-perspective/

 


 

Camille Martin

Influencied!

photo: rob mclennan


I’ve been Influencied! Last Wednesday, Sonnets was the focus of Margaret Christakos’ Influency class at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Education. After Margaret’s warm-up introduction, students read reflections on the book and rob mclennan gave a talk about it (which can be read here). I read from the book (and from my manuscript “Looms”) and then there was a general discussion.

What a brilliant idea, this class! In a few weeks, I’ll be on the other side of the magnifying glass as I give a talk on Kaie Kellough’s Maple Leaf Rag. I’m especially looking forward to hearing Kaie again. I read with him in Montreal a couple of years ago—he’s a mind-blowing performer!

 


 

Camille Martin