Thursday, June 23, 2011

Brief Reviews

wordlick, the latest book by Joe Ross (pictured above), pushes its astonishing linguistic pyrotechnics as far as it can go, then pushes it several steps farther. The series of five-line stanzas, each of which ends in a period, and spread out three to a page, purposefully never make clear whether we are reading one three-stanza untitled poem per page or an ongoing long poem. Each line is crammed with invented word combinations (“Casinochipped in wonderskated breezeby reserve”) that sometimes end in single words and sometimes in further word combinations.

The language of wordlick immerses readers in a social and political bog from which there’s no easy way out (“Kneeraised buttocklock in doggystyle war” is just one of many impossible to navigate morasses), and the bog just keeps coming, overwhelming and fascinating simultaneously. The poems very consciously range in the layered subjects they take up, glance at, and slide by on into the next tongue-twisted-and-numbed-and-twisted-again word package. If the poems undoubtedly revel in language play that’s meant to impress, they do so always with the purpose of showing that it’s not a game at all, but a serious evocation of what might just be more, and more manipulated, social meaning and control than any of us can stand.

It’s worth hearing Ross read these poems live, his shoes clicking, shoulders and head bobbing in some off-kilter combination of tap dancer and prize fighter. Reading them to yourself, be forewarned: even more than most contemporary avant poetry, it’s difficult to get through more than a few pages of wordlick at a time without suffering linguistic burnout. But return to the poems every so often, and the power of what Ross is doing grows and digs in, leaving readers of wordlick with the kind of elation that only exhaustion can create.


Kathryn l. Pringle’s Right New Biology knows exactly what the central point of all political and social difficulty is: human (and other) bodies. Pringle’s book shows many and often conflicting large global forces coming to bear on that most intimate physical context. Psychology, theology, war, culture, nation states; these are only some of the pressures that human bodies encounter daily.

Right New Biology also reveals that language itself is a body, and makes readers constantly aware of the physical of language through jarring usage of capitalization, broken words, and shattered syllables wobbling unstable across the bland whiteness of the page. This fracturing of words and syllables and different mishapings of the look of the page (which works both against, and with, the fact that the whole book might be considered a single long poem) reminds me a bit of the physicality of Hannah Weiner’s work, although Pringle’s subject matter is framed much more blatantly by competing discourses of power. “broken muscle AND RIGHT/ where all langering furls from endorphins to WAR/ a FOND ignorance we calls it/ this that is sprung of METTLE/ and lending spaces/ veterans MISPLACED limbs/ that trivial uttering/ encamped unfolding/ surreptitious following.” This is a smart, challenging, and remarkable book, informed not just about poetry but about the many non-poetic tensions in which poetry is enmeshed, and bristling with insight about all of them.


The sensitive, understated lyric surfaces of Lacey Hunter’s poems in her inaugural chapbook The Unicorn hide more deceptive angles that undermine and break up the angst of sexual and romantic desire that the poems often explore. The Unicorn acknowledges how things right in front of us, or things we seem to care about most, are filled often by what people don’t understand or fail to notice, since we’re all too busy obscuring our observations with our needs.

These are poems about the odd edges of loneliness and failed connection, and the way some moments can’t be captured by images. “She took off her danger—the house/doing the good ordinary thing / the narrow/ quiet thing all fighting to rush out together./ We were just going to take a little/and then bring out the car.” Expect to see more worthwhile future work from Hunter, a young poet currently based in Ashland, Oregon, and contact her if you'd like a copy of the chapbook.


Robert Mittenthal’s Wax World is a crucial book of poems that, I worry, may not be read as widely as it deserves. Mittenthal, based in Seattle, writes poetry that operates at the nexus of several key approaches to contemporary poetry. Anybody interested in new developments in poetry fully informed by the theoretical, political, and aesthetic histories of language poetry and of Vancouver Kootenay School of Writing work will find Wax World as good an example of extending the power of those histories as there is in newer generations of contemporary writing.

Wax World is a brilliant mix of concreteness and abstraction operating not simply as aestheticized technique (a problem in too much contemporary experimental poetry) but as a political case study, and a fully realized instance of its own theory in action. These poems show, through their precise accrual from line to line, a world in which “the abstract power of society creates its concrete unfreedom,” in Guy Debord’s famous phrase.

Mittenthal’s poems in Wax World always risk collapsing into the oblique, dissociated haze of contemporary confusion as a necessary gesture in portraying how contemporary capitalism bewilders us with terminology and megabucks sleight-of-hand. Then certain lines twist, sharply, into moments of political clarity. Mittenthal doesn’t write the flashiest poems around, and he certainly doesn’t fetishize the new in an attempt to grab center stage in the avant poetry popularity contest of the moment. Instead he writes developed, precisely delayed word bombs designed to pinpoint the center of whatever structure he’s going after and blow it open. “Each letter a snapshot of what remains——previous occupant unknown/The body decamped, leaving its plastic bivouac/ An indistinct wave which yields no magic/ No flakes of dead skin. No DNA samples for the imagination.” Wax World also contains the poem “Value Unmapped,” which appeared in an earlier Mittenthal chapbook that I blogged about here.

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