Review at DIAGRAM of Moritz and Patterson’s Elementary Rituals/Dirge

Now up at DIAGRAM is my review of Rachel Moritz and Juliet Patterson’s Elementary Rituals/Dirge, two chapbooks brought together with an unusual binding. Stitched dos-à-dos, these works share a back board while their front covers fall on opposite sides of the book. I wrote about Moritz here on this website and Patterson here. Their work, then and now, is formally innovative and lyric in its intensity:

The dos-à-dos bindings has its origins in the prayer book, and Elementary Rituals/Dirge has the reverent quiet and scope of a devotional. Here is a prayer book for despair in which one death speaks to another over a natural bridge: a moment in which two deaths occur, a connection of chance and mortality.

For the full review, go here.

Rachel Moritz’s Night-Sea

In Night-Sea, Rachel Moritz looks at history through a lens that sharpens and then blurs with rain. She specifically focuses on Abraham Lincoln in this somber and sparse chapbook. Lincoln is a plain man described plainly in the first poem “Abduction.” He is “tired and worn out. / Such a homely face.” But he is undefined too since Moritz never refers to him by name in this poem. The reader can only infer his identity from an epigraph at the beginning of the book, a quote from Lincoln himself: “Herewith is a little sketch, as you requested. There is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me.”

The Lincoln that Moritz sketches in Night-Sea blends into the people he represented as President of the United States. At the end of “Abduction,” he becomes part of an audience that has gleaned elements of his character while listening to him, elements such as “his determined spirit” and the “sadness of his soul.” Lincoln comes to resemble the “blurred figure in rain” that arrives in the poem’s last lines since he too is vague around the edges and afflicted with a sadness as vast as rain.

Moritz goes on to blur the distinctions between not only people but time periods. The result can be overwhelmingly uncomfortable. In “Each Man Is,” the speaker is so submerged in the past that his or her words reverberate numbly, like an old trauma. While remembering a childhood home, the narrator brings up images vivid enough to overtake the present: “the moldy basement” in the rain-soaked house and “rifles propped in golden oil.” Moritz reveals how a well-armed past can take control of the present, ending the poem with: “How much nostalgia lives / inside rusty bullets, amputation kits. / This idea of the ‘great moment’ and the ‘hero’–“

Here and there Night-Sea comes together to offer an antidote to the “great moment”: the ordinary moment formed from anonymous figures and seen in quick shifts in time. At some points, it seems as if Night-Sea is a coming together of the vague, the forgotten and traumatically remembered. Not far into the chapbook comes the question: “What is form but a moment / coalescing?” Silently answering the question, these poems, pulled by strong emotion and language, coalesce for a moment before drifting back into a dark sea.

Originally posted on 7.30.2009

Peter Conners’ PP/FF

In his introduction to the 2006 anthology PP/FF, Editor Peter Conners sets out to explain the title. It turns out that the letters are more than an abbreviation for the two forms that this book, at first glance, appears to contain: prose poetry and flash fiction. Conners begins his explanation by talking about these two forms. Quoting writer Michael Benedikt, he says that prose poetry is “characterized by the conscious, intense use, of virtually all of the devices of verse poetry” except for rhyme, strict meter and the line break. Conners goes on to say that prose poetry cannot offer too much plot or else “it becomes fiction.” The extremely short story, or flash fiction, runs a similar risk of turning into prose poetry if it fails to “follow a narrative arc.” For this anthology, Conners selected much work that lies near to, but outside of these parameters. He refers to this writing as “PP/FF,” and he believes that it is vital. In fact, he calls it “so contemporarily important as to define a zeitgeist.”

He does not support this statement with further explanation, which he should be able to provide. Not only is he an associate editor at BOA Editions — a publisher of poetry — he is one of the founding editors of Double Room, an online journal specializing in prose poetry and flash fiction. While his introduction is sketchy at points, the writing that follows is often alive with detail, and as Conners suggests, many of these pieces fall in between established modes of writing in exciting, creative ways. On the line that separates memoir from pure fiction, for instance, lies “Sister Francetta and the Pig Baby” by Kenneth Bernard. In it, the first-person narrator repeats a story that he first heard from his childhood teacher, a nun named Sister Francetta. She had many stories but this one was different from the others in that “it had no moral.” The tale was short: as a child, Francetta once looked into a baby carriage and saw an infant “with a pig head.” The narrator analyzes the symbolism of the baby with dry brevity and says about the story in general: “it was just there: there had once been a baby with a pig’s head.” Bernard’s story too is just there, displaying a curious blend of traits, much like the pig baby. It is both fantastic and seemingly honest.

Other pieces in PP/FF such as Joyelle McSweeney’s “Apolegit” and Arielle Greenberg’s “The Amityville Horror” explore boundaries both in and through language. McSweeney’s narrator moves through roles like an actor seen on a bright screen of words: “I practiced my Jackie Gleason in the spoiling sodium light. My gut arose. I never got home that night or any, I wore the mark of cane like a gold golf club’s shaft above the eye.” This voice sometimes asserts its legitimacy with blithe hostility, making remarks such as: “I thumbed and kicked through the flut Seminoles.” He also describes a town as being “preserved in its ruined, ha-ha, state.” It’s hard to say who is really laughing in this last line since the person speaking is playing a role and this role keeps changing. On the next page, he — or she — takes on a part much different from that of the lone traveler: “I was an ingénue again. I was folded frilled and strategically in and out of the doorjamb.” Now the joke appears to be on the speaker whose body, like everybody and every place in this piece, is foldable nonsense, existing solely as a polished style on the page.

Physical boundaries and borders have more meaning in Arielle Greenberg’s “The Amityville Horror.” They also are harder to discern, at least initially. Greenberg punctuates her writing with long lines that seem mysterious when they first appear in the opening: “Hey, Eloquence. Stardust. ______ all about the common currency.” The horizontal line appears to mark a place where words have been excised, but it’s not obvious what sort of phrase is needed to complete the sentence “______ all about the common currency.” Soon Greenberg gives us sentences that better lend themselves to this game of Mad Libs: “One night ______ walked until night was gone, a neighborhood of very new houses.” What’s missing from this sentence is its subject. All we need to know is who was walking, but while we are trying to fill in this particular blank, the prose suddenly quickens, and Greenberg draws us into these long lines so that we are the ones walking down this street; we are encountering what has been silenced in this neighborhood. Soon inflammatory phrases start to appear. Right before we hear of how “______ father drove ______ home in a scotch glass,” we read of “the abnormal smear of ______ lynched sex.” A few paragraphs later, Greenberg writes: “______ religion is a velvet cloak someone else will sew for ______ to wear to the rape fair.” The prose starts to elicit a visceral horror, recalling the movie and book that gives this piece its title.

“The Amityville Horror” is one of many effective pieces in PP/FF, a book that is an essential read for anyone interesting in cutting-edge writing. If Conners’ description of the work that he has collected is sometimes unclear, it’s because much of the book is hard to describe, a point that he himself addresses at the end of his introduction. He says that the writing in PP/FF “resists definition” and “often challenges readers’ assumptions about genre, form, style, and content.” It is a book in which lines are drawn, explored and crossed.

Originally posted on 2.24.2007

Juliet Patterson’s The Truant Lover

I am rereading Juliet Patterson‘s first book of poetry The Truant Lover. The poems, which clearly reveal the influence of Lorine Niedecker, are both pared down and startling. Through her precise language, Patterson evokes profound ambiguities of the heart and mind. Many of the poems in this thrilling collection have appeared in journals before. One of my favorite ones “A Narrative” was first published online in three candles journal.

[Note 7/2009: While three candles journal has gone offline, the link to the archived version of Patterson’s poem still works. Other links to Patterson’s poetry and prose, including audio samples, can be found here at her website.]

Originally posted on 10.31.2006

Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

Trying to understand the tragedy of New Orleans, my mind reaches for poetry and brings me back to a passage from Claudia Rankine’s book-length prose poem Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. In the passage reprinted online as an excerpt in Boston Review, Rankine writes about James Byrd Jr., the black man who was dragged from the back of a pickup truck in Texas during George W.’s governorship. While publicly talking about the brutal killing, Bush could not recall some of the most basic facts about the crime. Through images combined with the clearest of prose, Rankine explores the deep connection between Bush’s poor memory and his racist apathy. She brings us into the dead center of Bush’s not caring about black people. There, she reveals a profound nihilism. What does life mean when individual lives, erased through sanctioned hate, do not matter?

Rankine raises enormous, painfully pressing questions throughout Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. One of them is “Define loneliness?” This question comes as a delayed response to a request made four pages earlier when a voice says, “Define loneliness.” This dialogue between two inner voices – one quietly demanding, the other possibly in shock, trying to respond – is palpably lonely. Heightening this feeling is what comes in between the request and the reply: on one page, we find a picture of a static-filled television; on the next comes a scene in which the poet is listening to her sister, who has just lost her children and husband in a car accident. When we then turn the page to discover the words “Define loneliness?” we are immersed in a lonely state, one which seems too large to define, but because Rankine’s voice goes directly to the heart and conscience, we are connected too. We are with the poet and her voices, and we are all terribly alone:

Define loneliness?
Yes.
It’s what we can’t do for each other.
What do we mean to each other?
What does a life mean?
Why are we here if not for each other?

The final question provides the last print on the page. It hangs above several inches of white space. In that space, these questions repeat themselves, forever defining the infinite loneliness of this world.

Originally posted on 9.12.2005