Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Poets send me work all the time asking me if I will comment on what they’re doing. It’s something to which I can seldom reply, simply because I lack the time. I do, however, often read, or at least read over, whatever they have sent. In the process, I’ve concluded that the surest quick test of whether or not a poet has anything going for them as a writer is specificity. And the quickest test of specificity lies in description. I pick up any new book that’s come in the mail, open it and just let my eyes drift down a page:

Quickening footsteps on wide oak planks, on palatial
slabs of marble.

Check. My eyes drift down further:

Water splashes
and plays at the center of circled

columns, the pale
sunlit dome.

Double check: not only is this language specific, but I immediately realize just how much I like the play of the language, the decisions as when to pause & break the line. So I flip randomly to another page:

A new catalog of roses,
thirty rosebushes in a box
on the front porch
in time for spring,
bare of all but thorns.

Again, specificity. Again, I realize how much I like the sense of line here. This writer’s touch is light & remarkably accurate. By now I realize that I’m going to have to (not really the right word: going to want to, need to) read this book. Which was sent to me not by the poet, but the publisher, tho it is by a poet I’ve been reading now for decades.

Begin At Once admonishes the title, some of the best advice I’ve gotten from a cover of a volume of poetry. The author is Beth Joselow, whom I think of as a “DC poet,” tho she’s been living far enough out on the eastern shore in Delaware for a few years now that I probably need to revisit that notion. The book is out brand new from Chax, so new in fact that it’s still listed on the website there as forthcoming.

Joselow is also a poet whom I think of as something of a DC (Delaware?) parallel, say, to Beverly Dahlen, another Chax author whose work I like enormously. Dahlen is perhaps the poet of my generation most deeply engaged with Freud & the consequences of his work; Joselow is a professional therapist who trained at Johns Hopkins (where Gertrude Stein also once studied psychology). Also like Dahlen, Joselow has been around language poetry for decades now but has kept her own work & identity separate from the hoo-haw & the poetry wars attending that phenomenon. I think an outsider looking at her work in general, or this book in particular, wouldn’t think “langpo” any more than they would if they were reading Maxine Chernoff, Joel Lewis or Elaine Equi. In an editorial forum on gender & editing that appeared back in the very first issue of Chain, thirteen years ago, Joselow explained her perspective, which I suspect probably still applies, and not just to the poetry of gender:

I am always drawn to work by women, and to collections of women's work. At the same time, I am dedicated to the idea of mainstreaming everyone in order to more quickly blur the boundaries between us, if that is possible. I'm not sure that it is possible, but I recall how frustrated I felt when my friends were wearing shirts that said, "It's a black thing. You wouldn't understand." I want to. And I want to keep the dialogue open and lively.

As readers of this blog will realize, blurring the boundaries is not a perspective I’ve shared over the years. I’ve felt – with just cause I must say – that being identified with the language poets has had an enormous, positive impact on my work and on its ability to find a broader audience than I might otherwise have. My own t-shirt would probably read “It’s a language thing. Let me explain….”

One real consequence of her position is that Joselow’s work, like that of Dahlen, is something that should be much more widely known, appreciated & celebrated than has heretofore been the case. Consider this concise piece, which takes its title from the first phrase of the last stanza, that being the one “in prose”:

The elusive optimism
skin of ice on the pond
early morning
all water by

Imagine a different fate
one less repetitive
mild insistence pursuing
the same mistaken path.

When we were violent they were more violent so we became still more violent until all of the rocks and blades were gone over to the other side for further use and so on and so forth and so on.

There are so many things that are terrific here. I love, for example, the uses Joselow makes of grammar throughout, from the deliberate omission of the key verb phrase in the first stanza – highlighted in fact by the presence of the period – through the “perfect” syntax of the second to the trailing, deliberately repetitive & “violently” general use of language in the prose sentence. Equally fascinating is how well she balances the concreteness of the first stanza and the first half of the paragraph with the deliberate abstractness of the second stanza & end of the paragraph. Indeed, this push-pull dynamic between abstract & concrete reminds me more than a little of strategies Rae Armantrout deploys in her poetry, tho the overall feel here is different perhaps because of the framing in the first stanza, which can be read as “rural” or “natural.”

Joselow’s work shows both a remarkable range – from the jazz scat start of “Tantrum,” which begins

Bellyfish lobster-lolly
craydaddy bang
hoopla benny burden
crack crinkle spine

before revealing itself a few stanzas in as a litany of military ordnance-related proper names –

Osprey Atlas
Centaur hydrazine
Dragon Javelin

Bushmaster Chain Gun
Walther carbine
Grenade launcher Browning

Kalashnikov Tomahawk
Bradleys Abrams Scout
Peacekeeper Gatling
Sparrow Phoenix Harm

Polaris Poseidon
Nike Stinger SLAM
M4 MP5
Maverick Harpoon

a roster that continues literally for three pages, becoming a hypnotic (if profoundly & deliberately “ugly”) satire a la Ginsberg’s classic¹ “Hum Bom!” – from this all the way over to dour dramatic monolog, such as one hears in the first stanza of “Genes”:

I come from
A family of artists
And bedwetters.
I wanted to be
Poor but honest,
But it didn’t work out.

The risk in poetry with this wide a range is that it can feel amorphous, the work of a talented writer without a strong sense of direction. In this regard, Joselow feels much closer to the New York School. In fact, the presence of a single longer poem – “Self Regard,” first published by Chax as an exquisite chapbook back in 2000 – almost suggests John Ashbery’s books from the mid-1970s (with their echo of the Wesleyan formula for its School of Quietude editions from the 1960s) of the 100-plus page volume with a single long poem usually either first (the way “Litany” leads off As We Know) or last (as with the title poem of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror).

But Ashbery isn’t Joselow’s model, and the real key to the organization of Begin at Once is, I think, its three divisions, entitled “One,” “More” & “Time.” The seventeen-page “Self Regard” is the ninth of the 13 poems in “One,” whereas most of what I’ve quoted above thus far comes from “More,” none of whose 17 poems reaches five pages. Two of the six poems in the final sequence, “Jackpot!” and the book’s title piece, are at least that long.

It may seem, given what I’ve quoted here, that I prefer Joselow’s shorter poems. Of the lines cited above, only the very first two passages, which are both from “Self Regard,” come from any of Joselow’s more extended work. The shorter pieces do seem to be the ones best suited for the kinds of treatment I’m giving these lines here. But I actually think that Joselow is at her very best in the longer poems, where tone, image & affect all accumulate over several pages to create a really luminescent meditative space. There is just no way in a form like a brief review, however, to give a sense of what a single one-line stanza, such as

It is my name.

can mean without an enormous amount of context, the sort of thing that never translates well when cast into five or six dense paragraphs of critical prose. So you’re going to have to trust me on this. When freed of the need to have an immediate payoff for this line or that phrase, Joselow soars. Both “Self Regard” and “Begin at Once” make me wonder what she would do over the course of 40 or 100 pages. My gut sense is that it would be awesome. Begin at Once is a terrific collection because Beth Joselow is a writer with a great gift, but it’s also a tease. Because this is a book, all 104 pages of it, that leaves you wanting to read so very much more.


¹ A poem that appears twice in Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, albeit in slightly different versions, tho with the same dates.


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