Wednesday, March 31, 2004


Involuntary Vision: After Kurosawa’s Dreams, edited by Michael Cross, from Avenue B, isn’t “really” a One Shot, although it partakes very much of the spirit of one – it is as “in between” a publication as I’ve seen in some time. At first glance, the book looks like a miniature anthology of poetry on a theme – Kurosawa’s great & ultimately spooky 1990 film – but it’s not. It’s really The New Brutalist Anthology, but – in keeping I suspect with NB’s discomfort at movements in general & its own self-presentation as one – sort of in disguise. As someone who has long since learned that anthologies on themes – just like magazines devoted to same – often represent the worst editing instinct imaginable, the redaction of content to a single signifier – poems on baseball, poems on the war, poems on dogs & toddlers – I could have missed this publication altogether. Contrary to that misimpression, Involuntary Vision is one of the most important books around right now. It’s definitely in the “if you only buy one book this month . . .” category.


Michael Cross, one-time Oakland host of the 21 Grand reading series – which is not on 21st or Grand – that gave rise to the New Brutalism at least as a publicly recognized entity, makes the usual anthologist’s claims for the writing in the most careful of framings:


there is no single practice characterizing their work . . . . The real affinity . . . is that these poets have taken part in an ongoing dialogue with one another, and at the heart of this dialogue is an unwillingness to accept objective conditioning . . . .


Socially, the point of connection – the actual, practical context for this dialog – is that everyone included here seems to have either taught or studied in the graduate writing program at Mills. The teachers are familiar names – Stephen Ratcliffe, Elizabeth Willis – the students (or former students) less so, although bloggers & listserv readers no doubt will recognize Tanya Brolaski, Geoffrey Dyer, James Meetze & Cynthia Sailers, in addition to Cross. Others who are here include Ryan Bartlett, Julia Bloch, Trevor Calvert & Eli Drabman.


Cross, whose arrival in Buffalo seems to have sent that school’s poetics faculty fleeing in all directions, is right at one level – the discussion is far more important than any idea of a shared aesthetic stance – but not so right in that there is indeed a sense that seems to underlie all of the work here: for a cluster of relatively young poets, this is a remarkably well-wrought collection, so much so that it suggests that there is an impulse toward the basic crafting of the poem that is, say, a far cry not just from the spirit of the Beats some 50 years ago, but possibly even the New York School. Thus Julia Bloch:


There again I’ve angered
the atmosphere. But there’s
still these hips
in long
light. It was a flurry
of news, a digital you,
then the thing itself.

Sounds as though we’re
coughing up snow.
opposed to all those
blurry lines, I’m just
We froze up to our
kneecaps. Then broke
through that winter bitch.


Or James Meetze:


No dancing while the world is ending.

No nuclear family photo melting in the heat.


I saw a small island cry when the lights went up,

sewn to the sky, everything going up at once.


She looks impressive and incredulous, a rocket

without a planet. I am pale in the red clouds rising to meet her.


She’s pretty good, she’s paramount. Going away from

what explosions knit the possibility of dying, sigh.


The kindness of our atmosphere raining down a carpet

of amnesty. No safety in disaster.


I saw her walk toward a cliff’s edge clutching a baby,

then she was gone. Without a grasp of an image


there is only conclusion. There is the boom, the panic,

the quiet desperation in tragic weather.


Or Cynthia Sailers:


We never took advantage of the sea,

A drop of squid ink from a crime.


I wanted the explanatory plan. The imperial

Bird descending a slope mediated by

A sign for road work, a sign to require

This station to provide air and water.


To desire the language instinct. An obvious cow

In pastures of warm order. The Army inoculates us,

Our adopted child looks out the window.

I had been driving down to City Hall.


There is base morality and there is the weather.

You have to look hard to see the crows

Shaped into small pieces of paper, turning

Windmills. The classic statues are more baroque,

And time more exaggerated.


I was a huge fan of artifacts when we first
Started dating.


There may once have been a Dreams Project, that is, the idea of everybody writing something “in response” to the film, or the idea of the film – so James Meetze suggests in a comment to yesterday’s blog – tho the connection to Kurosawa feels more conjectural to me, more of a metaphor or point of departure – you hardly need to have seen Dreams to appreciate this book.* More apparent than any image is the use of the series as an organizing principle – Geoffrey Dyer is the only person here not to resort to the series, whose individual sections are mostly untitled.


I think the pieces above reflect both the strengths and the potential weaknesses of the New Brutalism – the very same commitment to craft can just as easily keep these mostly young poets from pushing hard enough against the glass ceiling of received wisdom, which is why so much groundbreaking writing often looks so ragged, rather than shaped. There are moments in all these poems – not just in the three quoted above – when I want them to go further, really to push their writing out of control just to see what turns up.


But I trust that idea of a common discourse – it’s what the New York School & language writing both had in common, it’s what made the Beats the Beats, and gave life to Spicer’s Circle. It will be interesting – that word is cloaking a dozen other alternatives – interesting to see if the New Brutalism can extend beyond the common thread of having been at Mills circa 2002, and if they can bring other people into this discussion, local &/or otherwise. The benefits of such a sharing are more than just incremental, the gains are very nearly geometric – it makes everybody involved a better poet, just because their work is responding to so many things at once. If the New Brutalists can do this, and that frankly is a very tall order, then I can predict that, thirty years hence, these poets will agree that the New Brutalism was the best thing that ever happened to them as writers.




* The idea of involuntary vision – the essence of the nightmare – is an interesting one with respect to this film. Although, frankly, I should offer a consumer warning here: what I saw of the movie may well have differed from what anyone else saw. The reason is that, at age nine, I was pulled off of a moving motor scooter by a snarling collie that was roughly the same size I was. The sequence in which the man approaches the tunnel only to be confronted by snarling dogs (their growling electronically enhanced) touches a very deep phobia of mine. In my memory – it’s been at least a decade since I last saw it – Dreams telescopes down to that one unforgettable image. 



Җ         Җ         Җ



I’m going to be on the road for much of the next two weeks, in San Diego tomorrow & Friday, then wandering around Virginia after that. I’m not taking my laptop, at least on the latter portion, so am unlikely to be blogging. You’re on your own until I get back.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004


7 is a beautiful, but extremely modest, chapbook that was prepared, perhaps even written, to be distributed to the audience at a poetry reading in our nation’s fair capitol earlier this winter. The binding – literally a rubber band – suggests that this is not a project intended to last a thousand years. The title itself appears mysterious until you realize that the linked poem within consists of 21 sections, seven for each collaborator.


The seven by three form shows as well in the construction of each page, without which the work would have that pure linked verse quality, say, of  “Tambourine Life.” Each is constructed around three stanzas, the first two of which are only one or two lines long, the last of which consists of seven one-word stanzas. The first two sections – with one notable exception – likewise each contain seven words. In all sections save the first, at least one word appears which has been used previously. In a book that is only 146 words long, beginning to end, that reiteration gets felt. This stanza, for example, contains 113 words, only 33 fewer than 7.


The work is spare, but it’s not apt to be mistaken for neo-Objectivism. The opening section reads


My parachute
and artificial limbs are oil.


What I hear in this first & most of all is the work of the ear, the t & sh sounds in both parachute & artificial setting up a balance that is then pulled, almost taffy like, through limbs & then torqued in the complex vowel-work of oil. As a work, in & of itself, it’s simple & silly. And yet, also, it’s not. Like so many works of miniaturism (think of Grenier or early Saroyan or Coolidge), it’s also a project of magnification – everything in this couplet is preparing you to hear the twist in oil.


Reading a project like 7 raises dozens of issues. Does one read it as a single work? As a collection? Who wrote which piece? Is it possible that each page arranges the trio of authors in the same configuration? If so, then I propose the theory that CA Conrad, who has been an advocate for the poetry of the late Frank Samperi, is the likely hand behind the seven line works – yet I flipflop in my opinions of the first two pieces on each page. That looks just like Frank (whom I know). Or maybe it doesn’t. The book is a great tease.


The idea that it’s a book at all is part of the tease. Using a rubber band as a binding is kin in spirit (if more cheerful) to something like the Situationist scrapbook, An endless adventure . . . an endless passion . . . an endless banquet, which has a sandpaper cover. Where the Situationist book – a One Shot if ever there was one – can’t be put into your bookcase – it will attack the other books, literally scraping their covers off, 7 promises to dissolve or at least come unbound before your eyes.


My understanding is that it was created to be given away at a reading, the audience literally gathering & then dispersing. Those folks are the only people besides the authors who may be able to tell you if there is a consistent pattern of authorship in this linked sequence or if – tho I hesitate to imagine such – they maybe even cowrote these seven word sections, obliterating the nets of being.


So the idea of the One Shot here really provides an analogy to the work itself. Indeed, no publisher is listed, nor any address. The work amounts to a temporary convergence – there is a lot to like in these 21 little poems, not to mention the great mystery of the one six-worder


battery of gasps between sleepers’ shores


beyond, that is, the clutter of hard consonants given way to the liquid tones at line’s end, but like three strangers at a corner, waiting for the light to change, suddenly aware & mutually bemused at the idea that their waiting together constitutes an instantaneous if evanescent dance, 7 was made to be read, understood, even maybe “grokked” in the 60’s sense of Heinlein’s great verb. But it consciously & deliberately wasn’t made to last.

Monday, March 29, 2004


Readers of this blog will know that I do love categories – you can’t discuss something until you have a noun around which to put some language. One might think of, say, the School of Quietude as just, for example, “poetry” if one didn’t have a term through which to indicate that that cluster of extremists is far from the unmarked case of anything. Similarly, the early history of the prose poem was also, & perhaps even foremost, the history of a noun phrase. Without which Aloysius Bertrand’s little prose vignettes would exist today as so many indeterminate thingees.


Thingee, widget, doodad, whachamacallit – there are more than a few great synonyms for those intermediate phenomena in our lives that are not quite this, not quite that. In the arts, of course, we have intermedia, happenings, conceptual art, all of which carry at least some of this same betwixt-&-between-ness about them. And calling something post- very effectively is one way of avoiding having to say what just a thing might be, focusing instead only on what we know it is not.


One of my favorite forms of the in-between is that publishing entity best known as The One Shot. Not a magazine through lack of periodicity, but not yet an anthology for want of heft, The One Shot has a long & hearty history. One could argue, for example, that Tottel’s Miscellany (which Richard Tottel himself called Songes and Sonnettes), first published on 5 June 1557, was not merely the first collection of English language poetry & the begetter of the sonnet as fad, but was itself precisely a One Shot.


The One Shot differs from a book, most often, in that it doesn’t necessarily fall within the larger publishing program of a book publisher, with all of the implied social networking that goes into distribution. In that sense, it maybe more closely resembles all those books that emerge from presses that publish exactly one book & don’t quite know how to get the word out, get reviews, get it into Barnes & Noble. After all, what is a book that exists primarily in boxes stacked in a corner of your garage? Cartons of paper.


Sitting in front of me today are two excellent tho diverse examples of the One Shot – 7, a chapbook containing a collaborative poem penned by Jen Coleman, C.A. Conrad & Frank Sherlock, and Involuntary Visions: After Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, edited by Michael Cross & issued by Stephen Ratcliffe’s press, Avenue B. Tomorrow & Wednesday I’ll do a little contrast & compare.

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