Three Mini-Reviews

Zach Savich
March 20, 2012
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We’ve recently featured some wonderful reviews of poetry collections on KROnline, including Craig Santos Perez’s discussion of three first books by Latino poets and Kristen Evans’ consideration of beauty and excess in Anna Moschovakis’ James Laughlin Award-winning collection, You and Three Others are Approaching a Lake. The first reviews of KROnline’s Spring 2012 edition are similarly insightful: Dan Rosenberg offers his most recent installment on contemporary poetry in translation and Kascha Semonovitch highlights the “rapid shift of scale” in Jeffrey Yang’s Vanishing-Line. As one of KR’s Book Review Editors (along with Semonovitch and Dan Torday), I’m excited by the aesthetic range of the books we have reviewed and by the lucidity of our reviewers’ writing: we hope these reviews serve a general interest literary audience, especially when they discuss poetry that some consider difficult. (What does it mean for a poem to be “difficult?” See Rachel Abramowitz’s review of Charles Bernstein’s Attack of the Difficult Poems for some ideas.)

But we can’t feature every book of poetry we’d like to. Here’s a round-up of three recent poetry titles I have been happy to read and re-read over the last year. They will take a reader from the rarefied vineyards of France to the observations of beachcombers to a Roy Rogers on the New Jersey Turnpike, like every spring break should.

Gustaf Sobin, Collected Poems, Talisman House, 2010, 756 pages, $27.95

Tender, honed, intent on the “shred of syllables, / thrust, projected” into silence, Sobin’s Collected Poems presents the inexhaustibly rich lifework of a poet I hope will be a chief influence for the next generation of innovative poets. In lines as vertically sensuous as vines on a lattice, enfolding “each parched, irreparable / instant,” Sobin portrays the “luminous clay,” “chasm-weeds,” and “black / rafted branches” of the countryside of southern France, where he spent much of his life. By illuminating the “sparkling wastes” at the margins of vision and speech, Sobin shows the rapt, gorgeously disorienting life of “a heart, honking at nothing, treading air, guessing at itself.”

As Peter O’Leary notes at The Cultural Society blog, the result is Orphic in the manner of Rilke and Robert Duncan; it also shows Sobin’s debt to Rene Char and the expansive precision of Oppen and Creeley. I never tire of Sobin’s crystalline poems, in which “the words take you towards wherever they’d come from,” so I’ll stop this entry before it becomes pollen-clogged with quotes. Let me just say—if you are curious about poems that don’t only depict landscape but lovingly ingest it, if you’ve come to believe experimental poetry neglects the sensual world, if you’ve enjoyed the breathlessness in a book like Carl Phillips’ Rock Harbor—Gustaf Sobin is a poet to read.

Geri Doran, Sanderlings, Tupelo Press, 2011, 60 pages, $16.95

Doran shares Sobin’s rapturous regard for the natural world, though she stages her encounters more in the manner of Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Henri Cole, whom she cites as influences; one could imagine Sobin transcribing the sound of sand as “hush, hush,” but Doran, in her collection’s titular poem, gives us the full scene:

This is the way the sand talks to me:

hush, hush. Whooshing along in the water’s din.

Feet sunk in was how Mama said hush.

 

Sand says no stone left unturned. But sand

won’t broach the Irish-green moss-covered rocks.

Further up, slick wet seal-colored rocks.

With the flush of how “prayer assails the unbeliever,” Doran’s poems move between the natural world and the meanings we find in it, highlighting the “false logic on the nature of permeability” between our lives and the landscapes they bring us to. (“One skyrise sees itself / in the windows of another,” Doran writes. “So we look onto ourselves, / and what we see is glassy, bent.”) The music in her lines is tight as a stone wall with nothing but gravity for mortar—“The hackberry blackens in the March wind. / The bur oak in the backyard waits”—and accretes so that even moments of relative calm feel ardent and poised at the edge of “sweet bewilderment.” “Easy, now. Rains are falling,” Doran writes, and one feels the fullness of her poems’ onrushing images heart-breakingly restrained in the pause.

Sommer Browning, Either Way I’m Celebrating, Birds, LLC, 96 pages, $16.00

In such moments of reflection and rainfall, the poems and comics in Either Way I’m Celebrating get restless. In them, Browning is likely to play “ping-pong with your ennui” through fast-talking pile-ups of one-liners and delightful shifts in form. “I collect books found in celebrities’ bathrooms; so far / my life sucks,” one poems begins. Another, “This One’s Called the Ecstasy and the Ecstasy,” is composed solely of lines beginning “and this one’s called.” These poems go off with the beauty of fireworks designed to fizzle or of clowns in ridiculously large shoes…which fit their feet perfectly. Or of mixed metaphors that combine clowns and fireworks, imperfectly.

Browning’s work often takes place in settings that could traditionally seem unpoetic, such as “the Roy Rogers / at the James Fenimore cooper travel plaza / on the New Jersey Turnpike,” and then articulate blunt and unexpected beauty (“Only the golden oil refineries // nestle”); Mathias Svalina, in a promotional blurb, aptly links this sensibility to James Wright. The book’s two longer poems, which focus on a stay in a Long Island hotel and a house seen from many angles, show Browning’s talent for mixing tones; her juxtapositions slyly transform the quotidian, without obliterating it into overheated lyricism. “The lobby was the lobby of a plush planet,” she writes. “A child with a buoyant noodle walked by in her underpants; I noticed the staff using fake British accents.”

The effect is as surprising—and, at times, disquieting—as the late night television one might watch only in a chain hotel. Browning’s comics, which appear between the book’s sections, resemble what one might draw on hotel stationery while watching those shows. I think they are funnier than they look, and I’ve tried more than once to describe them to friends over the phone, always at the wrong moment. They include one titled “I’m Sorry I Ate That” and another in which Critique of Pure Reason appears in a sandwich.

 

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