Wednesday, December 04, 2002

When Curtis Faville’s L Press published Blue is the Hero, a comprehensive collection of Bill Berkson's poetry between 1960 & 1975, it demonstrated just how effectively Berkson had adapted the aesthetic devices of John Ashbery and turned them to an entirely different project, one with a radically different scale. That memory has popped into my head on several occasions while reading Hoa Nguyen’s Your Ancient See Through (subpress, 2002). Nguyen’s model appears not to be Ashbery so much as Ted Berrigan, particularly his use of fragments, especially within lines, combined with sharp jumps from apparent subject to subject.

Sharp is an adjective that comes to mind a lot when reading Nguyen’s poems:

I’m almost your cat’s pajamas
your topsy turvy all over
almost a pinup of yarnballs
at the rest-stop of undeclared wars
(the way Descartes faked it)
give me history or give me
a name unknown in zoology
So I can be anything but empty doll
all jammed body doll       a pregnancy
to be “natural”

A poem like this is like discovering that one of your Christmas tree ornaments is a live grenade. It concentrates all the resentment of the subaltern into that word “almost,” showing at one level a bright, multicolored surface – think of the careful but casual prosody of “almost a pinup of yarnballs” – only to reveal an old-school feminism that concludes on a moment right out of Donna Haraway’s “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” the word “’natural’” in quotation marks. Writing this tight, this intelligent & this full of emotion on so many different levels is always exciting, thrilling even.

Nguyen’s poems often leave inexplicable openings into the world that give them the resonance of life, deeply lived:

Cats underwater as part of a zoo
tableau              orange tabby cats
sad wet fur                      They blink
so rarely             moldy necks
My sister doesn’t feel anything
I was wearing the old black hat
on the subway    when I saw the old lover
I think he has a “lard ass”

At one level, this is a poem with two major half-comic “events”:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>the depiction of this strange feline tableau
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>the sighting of a former lover
What rivets the text, however, in more ways in one, is the connecting line – neither comic nor ironic in the slightest – “My sister doesn’t feel anything.” It generates more than a contrast, almost a yawning chasm between the two bemused sections, an undercurrent of sadness that the poem is never fully permitted to escape.

Think of how differently this poem poses its tension compared with something like Rilke’s iconic “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” in which the radical shift of the famous last sentence, Du mußt dein Leben ändern, carries the ponderous weight of all 13½ previous lines. Nguyen’s poem actually ends on the ironically optimistic note of envisioning her former lover with a “lard ass.“ Where the structure of Rilke’s sonnet is cathartic, Nguyen’s poses a 3D universe in which depression & humor co-exist, precisely as it is seen to do in the tableau of the cats with their (not coincidentally) “sad wet fur.“ Rilke gives us a lesson; Nguyen gives us the world.

Poem after poem in Your Ancient See Through opens up to this sort of close reading, revealing an extraordinary universe, vibrant, comic, angry, both in turn & at once. Nguyen never settles for the easy road to the polished effect. One result is that I trust her instincts as a poet completely.

Your Ancient See Through is the latest book in a terrific project, subpress (the name deliberately lower case). Other volumes to date have been by Scott Bentley, Daniel Bouchard, Catalina Cariaga, Brett Evans, Camille Gutrie, Jen Hofer, Steve Malmude, John McNally, Prageeta Sharma, Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard, Edwin Torres & John Wilkinson. A note on the verso states that

subpress is a collective supported by 19 individuals who have agreed to donate 1% of their yearly income for at least three years. Each person is responsible for editing one book.

With six volumes apparently still to go, subpress already boasts an all-star line-up of mostly newer writers. You certainly would much rather your first big book come out from subpress than, say, the Yale Younger Poets. Both series may be committed to bringing serious attention to new writing, but it is subpress that delivers the goods. That name on the spine alone warrants buying each new volume as it appears. Hopefully, the subpress collective won’t disperse once the first 19 volumes come into print. And hopefully also others will take note of this approach to small press publishing – it’s definitely a winner.