Thursday, May 20, 2004


Free Radicals: American Poets Before Their First Books is a relatively slender anthology, but an absolutely shocking one. Shocking because there are several people here whom I can’t believe have yet to have their first “real” book out, especially Alan Gilbert who has been a major presence on the U.S. literary scene for at least 15 years. But also Jim Behrle, Del Ray Cross, Katie Degentesh, Cole Heinowitz & Max Winter. With all of the books of poetry that are stacking up everywhere in this house – I have begun to use the Eastern-most lane of the stairways here as additional bookshelves – how are these people slipping through the cracks?


With 18 contributors dividing 130 pages between them – an average of 7.22 pages apiece – it’s difficult to argue what in fact its editors seem to deny: that this gathering constitutes anything other (or more) than a sampler of the writing that is available right now from poets who have yet to publish a book. A more interesting reading might be constructed from the two editors competing introductions, with Jordan Davis stressing the earliness of all this work – he actually characterizes the work as “the stumbles and the first felicitous phrases” of these poets – while Sarah Manguso argues for the more ambitious “terrible freedom of not yet having published books.”


I’m with Manguso here. What happens to a young poet as soon as the irrevocable first book appears is a market process that, while we may all be familiar with it, nonetheless gives a lot of writers the heebie-jeebies – the transformation of the self from a human being into a brand. Later on, this can create all kinds of havoc if said human has an impulse to stray far from the predictable confines of whichever market segment he or she has become a party to – imagine, for example, Gregory Corso shifting from the beats to the new formalists, or Gertrude Schnackenberg joining up with the language poets.


Perhaps the best real-world example I can think of for this process was the reaction to the start-up of the newsletter HOW(ever). I recall founding editor Kathleen Fraser telling me that she had anticipated relatively open hostility from male avant poets & acceptance from relatively conservative feminist writers of the Gubar & Gilbert persuasion, only to discover that her expectation was exactly the reverse of the reality.


Some of the poets in Free Radicals have been such strong presences already that they have elements of brand equity without having published books, most notably Alan Gilbert & Jim Behrle. Behrle is rightfully well known for his blog – a cartoon social commentary on contemporary poetics that isn’t as facetious as it pretends to be – and for his work as part of the Boston poetry scene. Neither aspect of which happens to be his poetry, per se. So it’s a pleasure, frankly, to see that the man can write too. There is an energy & roughness in his pieces that is quite consistent with the Behrle one finds in his weblog – it’s something he’s in touch with that produces a predictably good result wherever he puts it to use.


Gilbert already is, as I’ve suggested, a major poet & has been for some time. “Relative Heat Index,” the 23-part poem produced here, is the heart of this anthology. By itself, it could easily have been a substantial chapbook &, had it been one, would have been one of the best books this year. Viz the first section:


Everything is capable of being broken.


The mast of a miniature ship

snaps off beneath a fountain’s cascade.

Children are silenced by a desert


where steel shimmers in the heat.


Who called? What’s the address?


You hand me slivers.

You hand me over.


Storm clouds gather west of the west.

Slumming time.


This is a poem that inhabits a space between two very different masters: Barrett Watten & Jack Spicer. In Gilbert’s hands, it becomes something different from either & yet I’m not sure I would have seen the points, if not of comparison then at least of correspondence, between those two poets had Gilbert not found this space.


Spicer shows up as well as an influence in the only poet in this collection to have been accorded more pages than Gilbert, Del Ray Cross. It shows up in Cross’ bus poems – the book has multiple examples – plus poems whose titles mention Spicer or start off with a visibly Spicerean flourish:


(I want a love)



as Kubrick


(like in) the movie

we watched

that night


Kar-wai Wong’s
In the Mood for Love


Cross’ poems appear to be more of a selection than Gilbert’s, which is to say that they don’t immediately suggest a completed work or book. There is more of the lyric here also that one associates (counterintuitively, I suspect) with New Brutalism. It is evident that a 150-page collection by Cross would be a Major Event indeed.


Between them, Cross & Gilbert account for 40 percent of the anthology’s volume. It almost makes me wonder if the Spicer influence – the one thing they do seem to share as poets – isn’t an underlying principle here. One finds it again in the work of Tim Griffin and Tonya Foster, a poet whose work was entirely new to me. It’s fascinating that, some 39 years after Spicer drank himself to death at the age of 40, his presence among a fairly diverse range of younger writers should seem so palpable. That suggests that several things, most of which insinuate that whatever forces Spicer was in touch with have deepened in our society over the ensuing period. I’m sure that even Spicer – perhaps especially Spicer – would find that deeply disturbing.


For these writers, it’s almost more like reporting – it’s part of the landscape & a portion of it that is particularly hard-edged. One hears that edge elsewhere here even when Spicer’s hand (or his radio transmitter) feels faint indeed, in the work of Jeni Olin, say, a poet closer to the working-class focus one finds in the writing of a Rodrigo Toscano. Or in the poetry of Jennifer Knox, again somebody whose writing I had never before read.


It feels obvious to me that some smart small press should be jumping in here and literally taking these poets on – it would be a terrific series overall & somebody very soon is going to want to be known as the press that publishes Amy Lingafelter & Michael Savitz. In that sense, this book is not unlike a “scouting combine” used by a major sport – except maybe that these poets won’t be signed to eight-digit deals over the next six years. And that makes me realize that a book like this every couple of years would be a great idea indeed.


I have  one lingering question & I’m sure it’s because my surname begins with an S. This book has a weird bias for poets whose names are in the first half of the alphabet – 104 of 130 pages go to them, with just three of the eighteen poets coming from the last 14 letters of the alphabet combined. There is no question in my mind that having a surname up around the “A”s & “B”s has a survival value – if you open any urban telephone book to its midpoint, you will find yourself in the letter L, not between M & N. But it’s so skewed here – the midpoint of this anthology puts you in G – that it makes me wonder if there wasn’t a longer manuscript at one point that got cut back almost in half because of the financial constraints of the subpress collective’s book project. I have no clue if that’s just a paranoid fantasy on my part or not. But the evidence of the table of contents makes me wonder.

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