Friday, May 19, 2006

On Wednesday, Andrew Schelling noted the importance of the Christmas broadsides that Moe’s Books published during his days (1982-90) working in the store. This is one tradition that may continue to this day, although Andrew also noted the poetry reading series Owen Hill has started in the store, which has grown in a relatively short time into being one of the two major reading series in the East Bay (the other being the 21 Grand series in downtown Oakland).

Broadsides, chapbooks, memorable reading posters are indeed all excellent re-enforcers of any marketing effort to get readers to grasp your commitment both to poetry and to quality. In recent years, quite a few reading series – and at least two different talk series that I can think off – have begun to add some kind of material companion to the event itself. I’ve had several wonderful broadsides done for readings that I’ve given over the years. One – a letterpress version of Albany done by Chax Press for a reading at Woodland Pattern in April of 1989 – has been framed and up in various prominent positions around our house for the past 17 years. MultiPlex was published by Wild Honey Press of Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland for a reading that Karen Mac Cormack and I did at Stanford University, at least 6,000 miles away.

Commemorative materials need not represent the high end of fine press printing, as both of those projects do, to show ambition & have an impact. One of the most impressive programs of such reading-related work in the U.S. belongs to the Belladonna reading series in New York, whose pamphlet series is rapidly approaching its 100th volume. The one I have in front of me today, Fetch, containing the latest work of Rae Armantrout, is number 92.

Fetch contains six poems, nine pages of actual work – right within the range of six to twenty pages favored by the Belladonna series. Here is the title poem:


Was it a flaming mouse
that burned Mares' house down
or was it just the wind?

On Tuesday Mares and his nephew
stood by the original version.

Is this plausible?

Fire Chief Chavez said Tuesday
that he thought so.


Let's see

your itty-
bitten specificity

your mom's phantasmic

held conspicuously
under threat.

Day hoists its mesh
of near

(its bright
skein of pores.)

Eyes fetch thrown

Readers of this blog will know already that Armantrout is one of my half dozen favorite poets of all time & this poem is full of evidence as to just why this should be so. The first section is descriptive with that clean, hard edge one associates with the likes of Williams & Oppen at their very best, tho what is here depicted might as easily be the plot for an episode of the X-Files. The image of the flaming mouse is hard to shake once you’ve read it & impossible to see as just setting up that internal rhyme of the second line. The poem’s second section has the familiarity of a New York School program – even that favored pronoun, you – but said here with a tone that is far closer to the deep sarcasm of a Spicer. The shift to bitten where the reader anticipates bitty in the second stanza is critical to the edge in that sneer – the use of the internal t, always preceded by a schwa, then alternately followed by long e, short e, long e, short i sounds in that stanza is as amazing a sound sequence as I can think of in any poem since Zukofsky – you’ll hear the internal t echo again in phantasmic before spiraling outward into what’s-it & threat, which in turn sets up the vowel-rhyme of mesh, etc. The whole second section seems calculated to turn the three one-syllable words of the next-to-last line into the sharpest possible individuation, accentuating the contrast with that last word shadows. That is as good a poem as I’m apt to read all year.

Fetch was released last week, when Armantrout read in the Belladonna series with Laynie Brown and Marjorie Welish, both of whom also have new chapbooks out in this series (tho I’ve seen neither). Overall, the Belladonna series is, and has been, a who’s-who of post-avant women poets: Fanny Howe, Eleni Sikelianos, Kathleen Fraser, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Norma Cole, Carla Harryman, Tina Darragh, Chris Tysh, Jennifer Moxley, Alice Notely, Eileen Myles, Lydia Davis, Elaine Equi, Maggie Nelson, Summi Kaipa, Anne Tardos, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Leslie Scalapino, Nada Gordon, Catherine Daly – the list just goes on and on. It’s not an accident that American poetry in my lifetime has made the transition from being a male dominated art form (think of the Allen anthology in 1960, with just four women among its 44 contributors) to one in which women hold up more than half of the sky (think of the new Bay Poetics anthology, 59 of whose 110 poets are women). A series like the Belladonna has been both instigator and beneficiary of this transformation. Its chapbooks are small editions – there are just 126 copies of Fetch – and yet 74 of its first 93 books remain available.

It’s also been an excellent week for Armantrout overall, who became, I do believe, the first contributor to In the American Tree to have a poem in the New Yorker, of all places. I take that as a sign, not unlike the fact that my district, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by roughly two to one, just elected its first Democrat to the Pennsylvania State Senate in over a century. Spring really has arrived.