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Stampanado, Jonathan. "Four Poetry Books & a Masterpiece (Review)." Chicago Review 47.2 (Summer 2001): 97.
Peering onto the racks of the poetry section at your local megastore emporium is an increasingly depressing affair. Who are all these people? How is it a poet I've never heard of can have a retrospective brick just out on Norton? The Collected Limericks of Angus MacKilt, with Notes & Commentary by Glyn Maxwell: I think I'll pass. And then the endless stream of matte-finish volumes of verse: this one's won a prize (the Olga Klumpff First Book Over 60 Pages Prize); this one's gotten a wink from Marjorie Perloff (the poet cites Cage, Benjamin, and Baudrillard in the title suite). Where's a young boy or girl to turn for the News That Stays News?
Turn first to Mark Nowak's first book, Revenants, finely produced by Coffee House Press (2000). The pages are big, the typesetting is handsome, and, most importantly, the poetry is dynamite. Nowak, who edits Xcp: Cross-Cultural Poetics, and can be spotted around Minneapolis impersonating a dragon, has written one of the most engaging books of poetry, let alone a first book, I've read in a few years. Revenants is comprised of three poem suites, two of which I'd seen before: "Zwyczaj," which was a Backwoods Broadsides Chaplet, and "Back Me Up," which appeared in Xcp. But I had never seen the major sequence of the book, The Pain-Dance Begins, which is a sixty-page Polish-American cosmogony, replete with myth, city grit, cultural skepticism, and that crucial ingredient frequently missing nowadays, greasy mythopoeisis. Excerpts of the poem won't do it justice. Reading it, I found myself asking the question: When did young poets stop reading Olson in favor of Theory? Nowak's book shows irrefutably why this has be en a mistake. Not quite Maximus, these are the Zwiastowanie Poems, and St. Casimir is glad for them.
Next, track down any copies of Ibis Edition books you can find. Ibis is a collectively run outfit, relatively new, located in Jerusalem, dedicated to producing books of writing from the Levant. So far, titles have included two books of Harold Schimmel's poetry (Schimmel is from Jerusalem), admirably translated by Peter Cole; Ahmed Razim's The Little Bookseller Oustaz Ali, translated by Gabriel Levin (Rassim was an Alexandrian who wrote primarily in French); and most recently Taha Muhammed Ali's Never Mind, translated by Cole, Levin, and Yahya Hijazi (Ali is a Palestinian poet presently living in Nazareth), a book that captures some of the sense and senselessness of living in a land of frequent political and religious chaos, as in these lines:
I do not consider myself a pessimist,
and I certainly don't
suffer from the shock
of ancient, gypsy nightmares,
and yet, in the middle of the day,
whenever I turn on the radio,
or turn it off,
I breathe in a kind of historical,
(41-42). Another recent Ibis Edition is Michael A. Sells's Stations of Desire, which translates some love elegies of Ibn Arabi, the medieval Sufi, to which some of Sells's own poems are added. What's interesting (to me) about this book is that Sells is a scholar of religion, with a specialty in Islamic mysticism. His book Mystical Languages of Unsaying (Chicago, 1995) is a seminal treatment of the importance of apophasis—a negative impression or even a negation of God—to mystical speech. Scholars don't often make good poets; Sells in this book is a welcome exception. Besides bringing new and interesting translations into the light of day, Ibis Editions are really handsome little books with uniform covers on a thick cardstock, folded to create the effect of a jacket. Ibis has a website and its books can be ordered through Small Press Distributors.
Now, find a copy of Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry, edited by Timothy Liu (Talisman House, 2000). As tedious as this collection might sound (why do we need another anthology? and why a gay one?), it's full of delights and treasures. There are no real surprises in terms of the inclusions (though I only learned that Bronk was gay last year and find it surprising to think of him in this context even still); the real surprises are in terms of the exclusions, which are not many. Most notably Merrill is missing, presumably because of prohibitive costs in reproducing his work (Liu goes into some detail about this in his thoughtful preface). Organized chronologically, the anthology has a couple of very tasty juxtapositions: Bronk followed by Duncan (represented by his late suite: "Circulations of the Song" about Rumi, a very good choice); and Frank Bidart followed by a selection from Joe Brainard's very funny I Remember. Perhaps the greatest strength of Word of Mouth is that it fearlessly includes works by established, mainstream poets (Auden, Ashbery, Mark Doty, Carl Phillips) with that of experimentalists (Robin Blaser, Stephen Jonas, Kevin Killian, Jonathan Williams), making for an interesting conversation. The Experimental v. Mainstream Smackdown is pretty sensational these days. It's refreshing to find a book that constructively ignores these foes.
Speaking of Joe Brainard, I Remember has just been reissued by Granary Books in a delightful pocket-sized paperback, featuring a Joe Brainard painting on the cover. This new edition collects all three editions of this book that Brainard himself issued, making for maybe the best book for summer reading ever published. Two strophes, picked at random:
I remember, when you've done a real stinker, hoping there won't be someone waiting to rush in right after you.
I remember a spooky job I had once cleaning up a dentist's office after everyone had gone home. I had my own key. The only part I liked was straightening up the magazines in the waiting room. I saved it as the last thing to do
. You wouldn't think a repetitive device so trite would make for a great poem but it does, over and over. I read my copy only in the morning, only after finishing breakfast, and only for ten minutes, so I could stretch reading it out as long as possible.
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