Sunday, June 17, 2018


n.b. Since Graham Foust blurbed my forthcoming book, I don't feel comfortable writing a formal review of his glorious new Nightingalelessness. But the poems are too good for me to stay silent on; so I'm going to put some thoughts down here.

“The Nightingale” is the founding ghost of modern consciousness—caught between waking and sleeping; between song and silence; between idle fantasy and visionary imagination; between painful physical reality and aesthetic escape; between mortal death and immortal transfiguration. Instead of seeing these spaces between as a static prison or simple closed-off abyss—neither this nor that—Keats’ innovation in “Ode to a Nightingale” was to see the poem as an energized field of activity. The poem tracks the movement of thought in a new way. Two centuries later, it’s a way we’re still reckoning with.

Keats’ great poem begins with the “light-winged dryad of the trees” and ends—“fled is that music”—with the creature’s silence. This is the point where Graham Foust’s Nightingalelessness begins. As the second poem in the book begins, “Oh, I lead off with loss again” (“Sentence Sounds”). Foust’s poems take up Keats’ project to explore that space between the lost past and the future we seem to be losing faster everyday: “History was a mirror at a corner of the future” as he says in the book’s first poem, “Appraiser.”

The past is gone. The future is going fast, a fact made all the more obvious with reports of climate change and species extinction. The present’s not much better, somewhere off “around the corner in a room / against a wall near the floor.” (“Appraiser”) Or, as he says in “Sentence Sounds,” “the present / tense behaving the back way into the past.” 

How do we locate ourselves then? There are gardens in this book, and movie theaters, playgrounds, hotel rooms, dark bars. But maybe location is not the answer.

The answer may lie in the ability of the particle to be both present and not present. Quantum mechanics indicates the indecisiveness of the most stubborn matter, which is now understood to be both here and there, substance and absence. That’s an understanding Keats had no access to, though he might well have understood it given all the losses he attended to, of his parents, his brother, his lover, and, ultimately, himself. 

While the governing energy of Keats’ poem is anxiety, for Foust’s poems it’s humor. The joke is the thing that “is not meant” and yet conveys meaning. The joke is made up of words, but the laugh that follows the joke cannot be explained. 

Foust’s book is filled with play: between words, between ideas, between pop songs and canonical poems. The most canonical poets of the 20th century-—Eliot, Frost—are deployed as jokes that take and twist their words in play that does not mock but instead does the originals honor. This is a skill he shares with John Beer—and, not incidentally, the Eliot of the Waste Land—as is his ability to weave pop culture staples into a state of deep play with ideas.

“Field Day” is energized by the puns that begin even in the title. A “field” in painting is the background setting for the figure. A “field” is also another word for a parcel of earth filled with grasses, crops, or flowers—it’s a cultivated space, as opposed to a meadow or a plain. A “Field Day,” is a day set aside for play, where the cultivated space is no longer the site for work but for goofing off, for games. The games here are linguistic, a playground for ideas: “what thought is: // the opposite of money, which change (pun lived with) / or for one definition of ‘interest’ to have vanished.” Foust has an uncanny ability to work with words across the full breadth of definitions. Here the “change” in money is both what’s leftover after a transaction and the act of transformation where one thing turns into something else. Similarly “interest” here functions as both the focus for thought, as well as the money that accrues (if you’re the lender) or depletes (if you’re the lendee) resources over time.

Foust is also a master of rhyme, deploying it to draw similarities between disparate ideas while simultaneously indicating distance. In the collection’s eponymous poem, rhyme both roots and moves thought forward:

Everyone who’s dead’s now ”problematic”—
leave that out of this. 

You’re where you write not fading into traffic.

But that rumor’s always attached to here
Is absolutely capital—you hear

Of a bird; you hear, in fact, a bird.

You can hear the distance travelled in this poem from rhyme to rhyme: from “problematic” to “traffic”; from “here” to “hear”; and from the idea of a bird (“you hear of a bird”) to an actual (“in fact”) bird. The distance between what’s real and what’s imagined is not any closer than it was before the poem, but the “traffic” between them has increased and, increasing, brings them closer even as nothing has physically moved. The action is in sound, even sounds that are homophones: “here” to “hear.” Present is both absent and accounted for. 

In “American Originality”, Louise Gluck writes, “Rilke claims for himself the attributes of non-being, space flooded by impressions.” (17) Foust eludes the trap Rilke set for poets in the generations to follow by moving in the opposite direction. Foust’s poems are an effort to empty himself of all his evident learning, “I should...throw the whole works / into the drink.” (“Anniversary”). Or, as he writes in “Q&A”: “I’d give my right brain for a box to haul / my ideas a little less than halfway across the country / so that they could be unceremoniously dumped into the Pacific.” “No ideas but in things,” Williams wrote. But what happens when the “thing” is the Pacific, and what’s going into it is all the “ideas”? Well, the ideas dissolve. 

The poems in this book are spilling-over with erudition, and yet at the same time utterly humble. It’s a work grounded, in “Poem to my Daughter”, in “getting the mirror to mean / not only me.” We can’t escape narcissism, but with love (a word threaded deeply, surprisingly, thoughtfully, through the whole book), we can open it up, tickle it, get it talking, and talking to it, listen.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

New Poems in the Fall TLR

I am thrilled to have two new poems in the Fall 2015 issue of The Literary Review: "The Bishop of Bamberg" and "A Difficult and Melancholy Business." Both are in my book forthcoming from Four Way Books—but if you want to read them before the fall of 2018, you'll have to go buy the latest TLR....

....which has a lot to recommend it! It's a great issue: work from Ernesto Cardenal, Ariel Dorfman, Kevin Prufer, James Galvin and many more.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

In|Filtration Reading Friday, January 22

Who: Marcella Durand, Sylvia Gorelick, Jim Handlin, Cole Heinowitz, Bethany Ides,Timothy Liu, Evelyn Reilly, Michael Ruby, Christopher Funkhouser, George Quasha, David Rothenberg, Sparrow, Tom Thompson (hey, that's me!), Edwin Torres and Sam Truitt. 

What: Reading from "In | Filtration" a new anthology out from Station Hill at Barrytown

When: Friday, January 22, 2016 at 7:30PM

Where: Berl's Poetry Shop

Where?: 126A Front Street, D.U.M.B.O., Brooklyn

Friday, January 1, 2016

Balaam in Winter

Happy and proud to have a new poem in the Fall 2015 Colorado Review. 


Happy and proud to be in this anthology of Hudson River Valley poetries from Station Hill of Barrytown. Click here to find out more. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Quick Takes: Void and Compensation

In the Subjunctive Mood

Void and Compensation is a book filled with absences. That is, “filled” in the sense of the Beatles’ “How many holes does it take to fill the Albert Hall?” Some of the holes include but are not limited to mothers, fathers, lovers, friends, and children. There is one mother in one of the poems who’s actually physically present, but the only thing she says is, “Pretend I’m not here.”

This is a warm book, though, not despite the absences but because of them. The “void” here—in Michael Morse’s title and throughout his poems—is Tsimtsum. As he describes it, “The concept of Tsimtsum…considers how God, who is everywhere, needed to withdraw in order to make the space in which the world could then be made.” Or as it’s described elsewhere, “Tsimtsum is a way of being present in your absence.” 

You don’t have to know anything about grammar to see the subjunctive everywhere in this book—not only in the syntax but even the word itself is everywhere. This makes sense. The subjunctive is, after all, the term for how we talk about something that’s not there in terms of what might be. Webster’s 1913 edition has it this way:

Subjunctive \Sub*junc"tive\, a. [L. subjunctivus, fr. subjungere, subjunctum, to subjoin: cf. F. subjonctif.
See {Subjoin}.] Subjoined or added to something before said or written. 
{Subjunctive mood} (Gram.), that form of a verb which express the action or state not as a fact, but only as a conception of the mind still contingent and dependent. It is commonly subjoined, or added as subordinate, to some other verb, and in English is often connected with it by if, that, though, lest, unless, except, until, etc. 

It’s the form used in wishes, commands, and exhortations—words that try to call into being. “Let there be light,” is how one version of the world begins. “Where there is nothing, let there be this.” Or, as Michael Morse has it, “where there is void, let there be compensation.” This is not the poet as Adam, namer of that which is there, but instead it is the poet as one apart, who longs for that which is not. “I can’t name it,” Morse writes. “As in it’s raining.” There’s a continuous discontinuity in these poems. Where there is a subject there is no action. Where there is action, there is no subject. 

Most of the book’s poems are set in a kind of eternal spring, which after our bitterly ice-ridden February might sound pretty good. But consider a spring that doesn’t know summer, a subjunctive season when things are always about to happen but don’t quite ever occur. It’s a reminder that spring hurts a little: “Brave subjunctive bird. What on earth will do?” For Keats, the bird is the figure of a saving knowledge, of being present, a momentary grace. But for Morse, the bird is just as caught as any speaker in the subjunctive. Morse gets the most out of every phrase, so when he says, “What on earth will do?,” it’s “will do” not only as in Will anything suffice?, but also as in the infinitive “to do”: Will anything be present enough to act? Wallace Stevens is a profound influence throughout—in the poems' structures of thought, their active modes of solitude, and in their ways of words. But this is not the realm of Stevens’ “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” “in which being there together is enough.” There is no being together, only the wanting to.

While Morse, like Stevens, makes poems of the mind, it’s a mind that wants action. This makes for a moving tension between the ephemeral mind and the physical presence it craves—played out hilariously in several of Morse’s poems through the language of sports, the most now-focused language in our repertoire. There’s a lot of glorious horseshit energetically spewed on ESPN and WFAN to the effect that the only thing that matters in a game is what happens on the field and in the moment. But the sports heroes we meet in Void and Compensation don’t follow that narrative. Perhaps most prominent among them is Stephon Marbury, the star who promised to transform the Nets and Knicks into winners, but never did quite come through despite all his talent and talk (and in the process broke my heart). “I need a Mr. Make-It-Happen,” says the speaker in “Stephon Marbury” (which is exactly what I said as a woe-betide New Jersey Nets fan), but Marbury never could quite turn any team around. Later, Morse name-checks Ruffian, the 3-year old filly who promised to outrun all the colts of her day, but broke her leg on the way to history and never made the finish line. Not even sports can provide a hero who makes things happen. 

There’s a discordance throughout the book between mind and place, perhaps made most explicit in the title of a poem set at a race track: “Reading Beckett in Saratoga.” No simple past nor simple present. This is the land of the subjunctive. In poem after poem, Void and Compensation expertly puts to work this metaphysics of grammar, the tense through which a subject lives and acts in a place that doesn’t exist.

The drama between thought and action is played out throughout the book, but perhaps most centrally in “Poem as Aporia Between Lighthouses”—a lovely, long meditation filled with intent and wit and errancy on this stateless state of being. The title immediately puts us in a realm as rhetorical as it is physical. Here’s the 1913 Webster’s on “aporia”:   

Aporia \A*po"ri*a\, n.; pl. {Aporias}. [L., doubt, Gr. ?, fr. ? without passage, at a loss; 'a priv. + ? passage.]
(Rhet.) A figure in which the speaker professes to be at a loss what course to pursue, where to begin to end, what to say, etc.

So from the very title we are in a directionless and positionless rhetorical space. Not even lighthouses—those real, practical structures built to provide direction and location—can point the way. Dante begins the Commedia, “In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself lost in a dark wood.” Morse begins there too, in the middle of the dark “would” (sorry, couldn’t resist; is it an admissible defense to say that Morse's wry way with puns drove me to it?). But there’s no Virgil to point the way. Here in the middle of the poem that’s in the middle of the book comes the central statement:

If I’ve only found faith in loss  
and measured commitments in distance, 

I still have thoughts of reconciliation:  
that I might speak as the houses would, 

that I might stutter love and make it fluent.

Grammatically, the lines are structured as an “if-then” statement—among the most grounded and logical structures in rhetoric. But the “then” in this case leaves us nowhere solid, only in “thoughts of reconciliation.” So how to speak of love, that ephemeral verb with physical consequences, the connector, the bridge? It’s a question with a quest in it, one that reveals the longing inherent in love. How do you move from a solitary self all the way to the real shore of your beloved? Not so easy a move as an if-then statement:

I’m sorry that I keep you at bay.

For the monotony of what if? beamed out  
as a broadside for living. You and me,

even if you or I are impossible . . . 

In these lines the metaphysics of grammar reveals—and even enacts—the problem of connection between two speaking beings. The relationship of “you and me” is possible only when the subject (the “I”) is pushed into the mode of an object (the “me”). In a gesture echoed throughout the book, the poem ends, where it began, in the space between a question and a longing:

Are you lonely there? Yes, I want you here.

Out of the most radically contingent and provisional language, Morse has made a book filled with a sustained and deeply grounded connection delivered with a light touch. It’s an apparent contradiction, but one that makes these poems, filled with so much loss and longing, a rich pleasure to read.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Quick Takes: Wunderkammer

Cynthia Cruz. Wunderkammer. Four Way Books. 2014

Is there a poet writing today with a better ear for a short, sharp, snare of description than Cynthia Cruz? You can recognize a phrase of hers a mile off: her “kremlin of clutter” and “lavatorial” death. This is what we mean when we talk about the importance of style and “voice”: a knack for turning a phrase so unique it shocks with a kind of intimacy into something you as a reader suddenly grasp and seem always to have shared. Everybody wants it, few have it — and among those who do, I’d include two poets we don’t hear enough from anymore, Chelsea Minnis and Jeff Clark. 

The poet most often linked with Cynthia Cruz, of course, is Sylvia Plath. Such a comparison is inevitable, nearly irresistible, and does both credit, but Cruz’s latest, Wunderkammer, does more than echo Plath and Plath’s lineage of Stevens, Dickinson, and Shakespeare. Yes, Cruz sets Germanic words in her English lines so they glitter—or, more accurately, detonate—like jewels just as Plath did. But Cruz’s Germany is not the savage fatherland of “Daddy,” it’s a haunted 1970’s Berlin where the self is born without memory (or rather a “don’t go there” ghost of memory), dressed like David Bowie in Low- and Heroes-era drag. It’s a drag that Ophelia shares with Marilyn Monroe, and also somehow with “Beautiful white Warhol wigs”—more androgynous than voluptuous, sexualized to death. Mortality is as much companion to glamour in these poems as it is in George Grosz’s art and Baudelaire’s poems. 

In fact, these poems have more kinship with Baudelaire’s work than Plath’s, as in “Wonder Room” with its “Decadence, and its magnificent diamond / Of glut, / Glittering its warm doom and contagion.”  Where Baudelaire had opium, these poems have Benzedrine and lithium. Where Baudelaire was drawn to the “luxe, calme et voluptĂ©,” Wunderkammer’s poems are awash in ostentatious brand names, from Chanel couture to Swarovski jewels, Balenciaga shoes to Bösendorfer pianos. Yet, the speaker in these poems doesn’t celebrate and push these objects so much as seem subject to them: “An IV drip of consumption, whether or not // I want it.” Cruz reveals consumption to be both the glittering activity of a hyper-capitalist society and a sickness as pervasive, debilitating and contagious as the 19th century’s version of “consumption,” tuberculosis. The poems brilliantly hold these two seemingly unrelated modes of a single word in a single gesture, “Always…wasting in its / Accumulating.” 

In a 2010 talk called “Trendsetting: Poetry’s New Thing,” Rae Armantrout cites George Oppen’s “The Gesture” as a way to discuss the different manners in which a thing can be held: “Grasped” as an idea, a new knowledge, or as a rope in a river attended with seriousness and purpose; or “Proferred” as a salesman holds out “a bauble” to be sold. Being Rae Armantrout, she smartly points out the contradiction in that position. Sure, Oppen positions himself didactically against the salesman, but isn’t he also putting the poem down on a page to share and get “off his hands” in a manner that’s at least similar to a salesman with his merchandise? Throughout this book Cruz holds up objects we recognize from storefronts and movie screens, but holds them in a private, interior way, as intent as you would grasping a rope in a river. 

Grasping, but not quite getting, as in the book’s concluding words, “Some Velvet Morning”: 

“…After the ten year
Junket at the School of Ophelia,
I tried, but finally, could not.
Every time I open my mouth
To speak, just these terrible
Blue diamonds fall out.”

There’s no profit in it, these beautiful baubles, these "horrible," "delicate," "lacquered" words, these goods spilled out of intimate and unknowable space. But they promote the kind of grasping and not quite getting you get addicted to, that you want to return to and want more of. Art in other words.