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.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Quick Takes: TO KEEP TIME

Joseph Massey. To Keep Time. Omnidawn, 2014

To Keep Time is the first book of Joseph Massey’s I’ve read, but I recognize his voice immediately. It’s the sound of November, when walks outside become chill at the edges and solitary, and the loudest voice becomes the one inside your own head. There’s a way words sound when you whisper or cajole yourself in a soft room or a crisp field. You’re hearing tones literally from within your body as well as from without: so each word, phoneme by phoneme, becomes as deeply resonant as it is evanescent. Massey has that sound down. 
You could read this book with enormous pleasure just following the movement of vowel sounds as they make abundant progress in tight spaces. Track the sound of “o” from “An Undisclosed Location in Northern California: “As long as blood runs / the body, / there is no silence.” Three lines, three kinds of “o”s—the “ah” of “long” and “body,” the “uh” of “blood,” and the “oh” of “no.” Or, listen to the fructifying, entwining “i”s in “The Bend”:



above a sidewalk

with bird shit.

These poems find gorgeous detail and sound everywhere: “Dryer vent steam / veils hydrangeas // in the driveway.” Or here: “skunks / scuffle under // the floorboards / and a car alarm’s // echo comes apart / in a parking lot.” Recognizable, right? And strange. 

Once or twice Massey’s talent for mapping the stuff we live among comes up with a word that sounds wrong to me—“interstices,” for example, or “aperture”—like it's visiting on a grant from the academy. These kinds of words are probably an occupational hazard for a writer who’s subsumed so deeply in the complexities and counter-turns of his own solitary thought. And they are not in the end that distracting: they're among the very few mis-steps in the sinuous, sensate manner these words and sounds make their way through place. Each poem in To Keep Time enacts a tension between idea and action, thought and thing — “Call it / consciousness.” This all-alone business it turns out, is busy, ample work. Silence itself is revealed to be a highly charged and active field, “Silence hums.” So does this book.