Saturday, September 28, 2002

I posted something nice about Anselm Hollo to the Poetics List and two things immediately happened. A friend wrote to let me know that warm positive regard for Anselm and his poetry was not, in fact, universal. And a copy of so the ants made it to the cat food: 20 sonnets (Samizdat, 2001) showed up in my mailbox. I figure that one out of two is better than Barry Bonds is hitting this year, so I won’t complain.

The title poem of Hollo’s new book gives me goose bumps:

so the ants made it to the cat food
but then you scrape them into the compost

one day we’ll set out under solar sail
to the systems of fifty new planets
discovered this year

who knows if we’ll do any better
than these ants you think
then contemplate vast grids upon grids
shifting and twisting
clashing and jelling flowing apart exploding

shrinking    to this little blob of cat food
in the kitchen sink

oh it gives one the flesh of the hen
comme on dit en fran├žais.    cat disappears into bush

This is a typical Hollo poem, so relaxed and straightforward that one can easily enough miss all that’s going on. It’s a domestic poem that includes both a sort of science fiction and a dose of street philosophy. But most of all, it’s composed out of the organized distribution of opposites, which might be best viewed if we followed Levi-Straus a little and itemize the imagery into categories I’ll label raw (i.e. natural &/or primitive) and cooked (i.e. cultural &/or processed):

Look at that first couplet:

so the ants  [RAW] made it to the cat food [COOKED]
but then you scrape them [COOKED]  into the compost [COOKED

There is a leap in scale between the first and second stanzas that at first seems dizzying & possibly even arbitrary, as we shift from the cat food to space exploration, most definitely cooked, but notice that Anselm has chosen not one but two exceptionally raw terms, “solar sail,” to describe this process. This duality continues through the end of the stanza as he describes other worlds – a form of the raw – that can only be reached by the highest order of technology.

The third stanza returns the reader’s attention to “we” [COOKED], then back to the ants [RAW] in the second. It then proceeds through a series that begins modestly returning to “you think” – the very process by which the cooked got cooked in the first place – & then in the next line suggests that we turn our attention to “grids upon grids,” as abstract & cooked a vision as one might imagine. But line four, “shifting and twisting,” is completely ambiguous on this cooking scale. Hollo decides to “bam it up a notch,” as Emeril would say, in the stanza’s last line, a description of cosmic writhing that both harsh cultural terms (“clashing” & “exploding”) to bracket decidedly organic ones (“jelling flowing”)

The fourth stanza brings us harshly back to the cooked, literally, in the form of “this little blob of cat food / in the kitchen sink.” This last gesture literally lets us know that Hollo has given us everything in his cosmic vision, even including that. So it is right after that last “nk” sound, which a linguist would note signals closure, triply so coming at the end of the line & stanza, that Hollow appears suddenly to veer in a completely different direction. The first line may well be a literal translation of how one describes goose bumps in French – the awkwardness of it all is profoundly cooked, as (even more so) is the phrase en fran├žais that starts the last line.

The final phrase, “cat disappears into bush,” starts with an image that appears to be raw, an animal, but is by virtue of domestication, really cooked. By disappearing not into, say, the garden, however, it vanishes instead into the raw (rendered even more raw by absence of article*), completing the poem as neatly as if Hollo had put a large red ribbon atop it. It’s a masterful tour de force.

Only those little hints of polylinguality & erudition** keep Hollo’s texts from sounding like the most purebred Yankee voice since Ted Berrigan & Allen Ginsberg & Phil Whalen left the room. And I think that it’s part of the sheer pleasure of reading Hollo’s work that his ear so acutely captures an idiom that, after all, he came to only as an adult.+

Appropriately enough, Robert Archambeau’s Samizdat Editions published so the ants as its “anti-laureate chapbook, 2001,” following a spirited Poetics List discussion about the diabolically reactionary selection the Bush administration had made.*** We should all thank the gods of fortune, & especially John Lennon’s lawyers, for ensuring that this alien who was once picked up for possessing a doobie wasn’t pitched out of the country during the days of the Nixon Gang. Otherwise Anselm Hollo might now be one of the great poets of, say, France.

* Hank Lazer has criticized the American poetic habit of dropping articles, which everyone traces back to Ginsberg although Allen probably got it from Pound, as a form of “Tonto speech.” Even as I excise articles in my own work, I consider its implications.

** The very first reference in the chapbook is to Eugene Jolas and Elsa von Freytag. Just under half of the poems have notes attached – the one quoted here translates its French.

*** I used to compare Billy Collins with Edgar Guest & Ogden Nash, but fans of the latter two have accused me of slandering those writers.
+ Anselm appends: “One little correction: I didn't really come to the idiom "only  as an adult" -- I read Moby Dick at age 14 (though didn't, then, find it  quite as zingy as Treasure Island had been a year or so before) -- my  "English" got started around age 10, after German Swedish Finnish (in that  order).  And I strongly doubt that I could have become a French poet --  French came to me too late for that.”