Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Sometime today, the National Book Awards will be announced. Among the nominees in poetry are Berkeley’s Ben Lerner & Nathaniel Mackey of Santa Cruz, both fine writers. Also nominated are H.L. Hix, Louise Gluck & James McMichael, the latter two both representing FSG, the largest of the poetry advertisers.  If I have a personal preference in this for Mackey, it’s only because his decades of superb writing – groundbreaking poetry, groundbreaking fiction – and his work as an editor of Hambone over all these years raises his nomination to a level that none of the other poets on the short list can touch.

Lerner, tho, is also doing good work, and NO, the bi-annual journal he co-edits with Deb Klowden, is a positive joy to receive. Issue number five is a recent arrival at my door and it’s no exception – it may be the best issue yet. It’s a generally brilliant combination of design & editing with a great sense of focus that relatively few poetry periodicals ever achieve. Its trick, to call it that, is to be generous in the amount of space given to each of its contributors. The current number has 300 pages for just 27 people, at least counting by those listed in needlepoint (!) on the back cover, tho I notice that it doesn’t include the credit given to Judy Dater for her photograph of Barbara Guest or Che Chen for the needlepoint.

Contributors include a broad range of mostly familiar names with an orientation that reflects Lerner’s roots coming out of the writing program at Brown: both Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop, C.D. Wright, Dallas Wiebe, Rae Armantrout, Clayton Eshleman (both as poet & as translator of César Vallejo), Barbara Guest, Kevin Killian, Aaron Kunin, Jacqueline  Waters, Tan Lin, Mark McMorris, Erín Moure, Lisa Robertson, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Juliana Spahr. There is also a complete opera by Robert Ashley called Empire that is at least partly a history of tomato sauce (I’m not making that up!). The CD enveloped on the inner back cover makes for an interesting, just slightly up-tempo meditation track.

But the person who gets my attention first, and most deeply, on my first reading is someone of whom I’ve never heard before, Amanda Nadelberg. What I know about her is that she used to live in Boston, but is in Minneapolis now and that Lisa Jarnot picked some work of hers for a chapbook award. Lisa’s instincts are right on. Here is the first of Nadelberg’s two poems, “Peninnah”:

There’s so little for
this place. A few
sandwiches and
some coffee and
free refills and then
her church (was
Catholic) and my
church consisted of
a dark room of sad
people. Do you
like my picture
map? I bought it
for myself with eight
dollars. We went to
Greenwich Village
where we did not see
any of my heroes.
We saw some
people but none
of them smiled.
Teeth in that
city can be
more special the
most special of
anything. Wear
them in your
mouth or find them
in the sink of a
fancy restaurant’s
washroom. That
bitch punched the
other one’s teeth
out and left them
in the sink right there.
Who would try
smiling after that.

Two things about this poem completely win me over. First is that it handles that radical shift in tone (and back again) with what I can only call complete élan. The second is its use of what I think of as Alan Dugan’s linebreak. Contrast this – or for that matter, the following poem of Nadelberg’s, “Rella” – with something like Dugan’s famous poem, “Poem”:

Whatever was living is dead
and a lot of what was dead
has begun to move around,
so who knows what
the plan for a good state
is: they all go out
on the roads! Wherever
they came from is down,
wherever they’re going
is not yet up, and everything
must make way, so,
now is the time to plan
new city of man.
The sky at the road’s end
where the road goes up
between one hill and ends,
is as blank as my mind,
but the cars fall off
into the great plains beyond,
so who knows what
the plan for a good state
is: food, fuel, and rest
are the services, home
is in travel itself,
and burning signs at night
say DYNAFLO! to love,
so everything goes.

Dugan actually makes less use of enjambment here than does Nadelberg – there are other works of his that use more – but the essential formal premise of both is of a linebreak so very soft that it is barely audible. If Charles Olson (to pick a polar opposite) were the linebreak equivalent of Charlie Parker or John Coltrane, Dugan & Nadelberg are Satie & Messiaen.

The other work in the issue that feels especially worth noting is what amounts to a sizeable chapbook entitled The Kansas Poems by Dallas Wiebe, who like the Waldrops (&, later, Bob Perelman, Tom Clark & Jane Kenyon) comes out of the writing program at Michigan. In fact, since most pages in this segment of the journal have two poems, this could easily have been a full-length book, tho many of the poems are two or three lines long (and some shorter). Just as Dugan used to title a lot of poems “Poem,” virtually half of Wiebe’s book consists of poems with the simple title “Tornado.” As in, to pick three from different places not quite at random:

In Cincinnati
I long to see one.


After the storm,
oatmeal tasted awfully good.


Come again.

As is often the case with Wiebe’s work, I find myself wanting to like these poems a lot more than I finally do. A good contrast to these poems might be the work of Robert Grenier, especially his writing from Sentences to A Day at The Beach, where individual poems often operate at the same length. Grenier’s work almost always invoke dimensions of language & of the ear (or, occasionally, the graphemic), whereas Wiebe’s seldom do, opting instead for little social insights. The result is that Wiebe’s poems too often feel flat & one dimensional, in spite of their almost infinite good nature.

No is hardly a perfect journal. I’m not at all persuaded of the idea of different types of paper for different sections – which the length of the libretto for Ashley’s Empire isn’t able entirely to fill, for example, leaving blank pages mid-journal as the design feature from hell. Geezers like me will be reminded of the old magazine Trace from the 1960s and this didn’t look good then either. Similarly, the combination of contributor’s notes with the table of content yields the front material all but unfathomable.

But overall the work transcends the limits of the production. I’d much rather have No take a chance with Dallas Wiebe and fail, then not take chances at all. And again & again here, from Rae Armantrout to Kevin Killian, from Jackie Waters to Lisa Robertson, No’s editorial instincts prove solid.


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