"This book gives us two outstanding works in one: a fine and selective anthology that's also a critical introduction to some of the most provocative, and some of the most original, poetry out there (in several senses of 'out there') today."Stephen Burt
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MARY JO BANG
FROM The Eye Like a Strange Balloon
There's a city outside the mind. Another inside.
A mind full of something becoming because.
A face too small for this red mouth. Look how
the line isn't a street anymore but a track. Like that. The graveled shroud of a train. I'm not usually like this. A linkable Like arrives without its What.
Parks the car.
I remember the camera.
The clear click. The clean cutting off of the instant. Good-bye, good-bye.
The slide in the sleeve.
This opening eye. Wanting to take
everything in, sequence after sequence.
The framed now that never ends ending;
the blue suit pulled from a pool of aqua dreaming.
Not knowing why aside
from theory. Sexual configurations of glamour. What is the scene?
What is the cover? The frozen waiting for focus and drive.
Look, look, look. Art is what
looking takes you to. A red mouth opening to say,
Don't look away.
I'm not usually like this.
The camera sliding by with its aperture
open. Form, repetition, constructs,
content, it happens. Here is the needle that speeds the plot to the ambush.
It happens. The Whole Truth shading desire.
over drama. Chiaroscuro focused on a point of desperation.
The recurrent dream of a catalog of surprise revelations.
Having makes wanting
continue a darkness both familiar and strange.
"What have you got there?"
"A translation of a story of a dream world." The sequence of events exists.
Here, one; here two;
here, buckle; here shoe.
Now let there be sound.
Now let there be light.
Once there was this now.
Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters
We live in an ocean of white waiting to fall.
One of us is not like our mother and it's me. It's I.
My eyes are mostly closed.
My mother knows how to make snow. We never see our feet. Our skirts end in the oncoming frost.
My sister wears ermine. I have a narrow waist.
I no longer curl my hair. Why bother?
I love my sister but hate my mother yet we're all of a piece.
Endless snipsnip. Ragged fragment.
We still live where you last left us —
between the palace where you keep your winter and the summer garden of the ersatz emperor.
Did I hear you say China? If I did you are right.
We live atop the continent that contains such poverty. Such pollution.
Such eerie beauty. Always a mountain.
Always a screen. White washes
over me. I do not act like my mother. I lean farther.
What I make annihilates the mirror of China but not the mountain.
Not the man walking away.
My mother says throw more snow but I can't help thinking.
There is more to being than erasure.
You are wrong, she says. You don't wear your cape.
Untitled # 70 (Or, The Question of Remains)
The day she put on her glitz teardrops and O Hon lip gloss,
ate an orange on an empty and took the 8-train to Grackleville, she met a man climbing a narrow stairwell,
repeating to himself, This is all, this is all.
The music of a popular march played in his head. This, he said, is all,
directing any further comment to a longtime opposition blooming in his chest.
No, he said, to the offer of a chaotic labyrinth of clouds,
devotion, rain, creatures of fables,
and opulent solitude.
Alone he entered the thicket of empty situations, the rhetorical force of conversation,
muttering as he went, This is all —
Apprentice to death. Toxic grace.
Terrible and beautiful repose.
Dismay and murkiest waters.
The blighted morning.
The coordinate night.
The sad fact of the pink glow of Grackleville's late iridescence.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
How could I have failed you like this?
The narrator asks
The object. The object is a box Of ashes. How could I not have saved you,
A boy made of bone and blood. A boy Made of a mind. Of years. A hand
And paint on canvas. A marble carving.
How can I not reach where you are
And pull you back. How can I be And you not. You're forever on the platform
Seeing the pattern of the train door closing.
Then the silver streak of me leaving.
What train was it? The number 6.
What day was it? Wednesday.
We had both admired the miniature mosaics Stuck on the wall of the Met.
That car should be forever sealed in amber.
That dolorous day should be forever
Embedded in amber.
In garnet. In amber. In opal. In order
To keep going on. And how can it be That this means nothing to anyone but me now.
Parole. Mote in one's own eye. The deceit That a lifetime is. I wasn't there When something happened. Something
Happened. A chair was pushed out from a table.
Don't listen if you don't want to know What happened, the Sergeant said. I don't want to know
The future as it's seen on that inked slip of paper That says one has only now and no more.
It was fourth grade or fifth.
Or it was eighth grade or the grade up the side Of the river or the ditch at the side of the road.
It was very steep. It's always been difficult.
Breath like a hollow rasp but almost silent.
A management that keeps one sane. A hand gliding An iron over a piece of fabric.
Like skates, like a sewing stitch Done to keep one's attention from wavering.
The self talking to a mirror.
All the doctors know that. The ones who see you lying On a sofa. They know that there is a sound In one's head. They know there is that deep
Relief from the waking state called sleep. How little else They know unless you tell them. I tell them I wish I could lie under the summer.
FROM The Bride of E
And as in Alice
Alice cannot be in the poem, she says, because She's only a metaphor for childhood And a poem is a metaphor already So we'd only have a metaphor
Inside a metaphor. Do you see?
They all nod. They see. Except for the girl With her head in the rabbit hole. From this vantage,
Her bum looks like the flattened backside
Of a black-and-white panda. She actually has one In the crook of her arm.
Of course it's stuffed and not living.
Who would dare hold a real bear so near the outer ear?
She's wondering what possible harm might come to her If she fell all the way down the dark she's looking through.
Would strange creatures sing songs Where odd syllables came to a sibilant end at the end.
Perhaps the sounds would be a form of light hissing.
Like when a walrus blows air Through two fractured front teeth. Perhaps it would Take the form of a snake. But if a snake, it would need a tree.
Could she grow one from seed? Could one make a cat?
Make it sit on a branch and fade away again The moment you told it that the rude noise it was hearing was rational thought With an axe beating on the forest door.
B Is for Beckett
There is so little to say.
C Is for Cher
Culture miniature and clad as Cleopatra, she descends A set of semicircular steps Tiled in a geometric mosaic pattern
And there she finds the answer: everything Changes depending on whether You're up or down. Behind her,
A high-relief rectangle proscenium;
Beside her, whatever intrigued her last.
An unofficial fan leaps feverishly into action. At that,
She seems to multiply. History will be filled With the shower of dots that will become her.
At that, she becomes. It's complex.
Through the glass she sees a pair of dazzling slippers.
At dinner her drink was called a Vladimir,
Hers was the plate that contained Washington oysters.
There she held a fork. There she was on a stage Of discourse. Of course. Mickey Mouse comes over And stops to stare. Cher is dressed in a long gold dress.
The sequins form stripes. "If I could turn back time."
She's singing. And Mickey in his red pants is acting Like the goodwill minister to an enraptured world.
Mickey thinks. He turns the corner.
To the gift shop: ever open.
He buys retractable mother-of-pearl opera glasses
As a present. Yes, it's over. The present.
In which you discovered forward-thinking thought.
In the Present and Probable Future
Here we are viewing the land: waves of grave and grain.
That slight tremor? A house settling. A violent past walking through.
And over there, the burning deck. The political machine.
The inanimate come to life. The conventional flag wave.
Cormorants on pitched roofs watch the ship of state mandate folded Twice over. Many ingenious lovely things are gone. This turbulence. This
Coming one-two march through a landscape created.
The dark relative against the brilliance of the last act
Of some staged production. The cast bows. A tape player click, click,
Clicks. Some kind of clock. A unit of measurement.
We wish ourselves back on the boat. Wish for the answer To the question: When should we walk out Of the theater into the night? When should we accept that life is only An exaggerated form of special pleading, romanticized
Beyond saying into moon, stone, flock and trees?
What in the picture would you get rid of? The land that stretches back
To prehistoric times? Myriad islands? Ice caps and etcetera?
The atmosphere? The human body? All of the above?
All but the latter? You'd like to keep human as an aspect of the formula But rid it of its grappling ambition to destroy? Good luck with that.
What does it mean to have a point of view? What does it mean To have a notable achievement? To succeed in representing
The nuances of a determinate activity?
Listen, however events turn out, if we want we can continue to see
The image of the moon as an outburst of lyric, a vision of John Keats And his friends, but we still have the battle to fight.
How many more days will be there? The unperceptive will be busy Believing in magic: crop circles, the unmanipulated image, definitions
That defy definition. Others will take at face value the less favorable Consequences of both cynicism and commercialization.
The latter will say the flock is simply an assemblage,
An obsessive presence looking down on the building where someone sits
Predicting the landslide rate. Long after we are gone We can say we were here. We were working, wittingly or not,
Towards the eventual erosion of places ground down And fought over, especially in the literal sense — exploitation
And industrial damage. Nothing is lost. If anything, we gain Experience. There will be that unsullied moment, down to the last
Detail, when the acquired interview and other quaint signs of demise Will speak about us to the flood and the fire.
FROM the Mrs. Dalloway series
Opened and Shut
She had prepared a looking-glass: hair, dress, thought,
sofa in the glow of dogs barking.
Beautifully close up. And once, flames eating the edge of the sofa.
Her eyelashes blurred. Chin, nose, forehead, some lips.
The cheek. The glass looking first at one thing,
then another: nose, eyes, evening.
She sat looking at the map of her hands.
The window, the clock, her pulse.
The body was busy thinking, conjuring the museum of a moment: emotion, scenes, people,
bags of treasures. Heaps of theories.
Theories to explain feeling the here and the back of the hand.
A theory allowed one thing after another.
First, dinner, then morning.
Her hand was the world.
To get to it she had to look at herself.
To get at the truth one would have to disregard anything false. Yet the truth was intangible.
One eye on the horizon: a long indeterminable,
mere straightness, a few plants.
That indescribable purple.
Doors being opened. Visual impressions —
as if the eye were the brain, the body entering the house.
The diversity of what is called poetry makes it near-impossible to make any general statement about it outside of perhaps noting that poetry, however it presents itself, usually emerges from a state of absorbed self-interestedness. Paradoxically, that very state of self-absorption, when it's intense, can produce an ecstatic state of unself-consciousness, what the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has called "flow." This state can arise regardless of the type of poetry one is writing — traditional, avant-garde, it doesn't matter. It also occurs in rock climbers, dancers, painters, tennis players, and even in corporate CEOs. Writing poetry is only one of many types of activities that offer a single-minded immersion that has the potential to create a particularly pleasurable autotelic experience, an escapist state that T. S. Eliot wryly remarks on in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent": "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things."
When I attempt to isolate poetry from the long list of single-minded activities, and make a claim for poetry that will hold true regardless of the myriad forms it takes, I come up with this: poetry rests on the assumption that language is unstable — unstable because while it gestures toward both the material world and the world of interiority, it can never be either — just as the pipe in René Magritte's iconic painting La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images) will never be a real pipe. The painter has reminded us of that impossibility by writing "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("This is not a pipe") under the image of the pipe. Like René's painting, poetry, whatever else it does, has the potential to draw attention to the gap between the subject and the representation of it. Some poems make use of poetic strategies that have a long tradition of use (or are slight adaptations of traditional strategies) and others foreground an attempt to rearrange language in less traditional ways; either way, the poem exploits the innate instability of language. If the rearrangement is radically different from what has come before, we tend to think of these poems as "experimental."
Of course the clean edge of the new, any given moment's "experimental," is continually being corrupted; what is experimental in one moment drifts over time toward the center. Eliot's "Prufrock," flamboyantly outside the mainstream in its moment of publication, looks rather mainstream now. Stein, who in her day was more adamant at drawing attention to the unstable nature of language than Eliot, still appears less conventional than he does. Because certain aspects of Stein's poetry have been very intelligently deconstructed by scholars (especially by Marjorie Perloff, Ula Dydo, and Steven Meyer) and appropriated by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets such as Lyn Hejinian and Susan Howe, and echoed in various Oulipian strategies, her writing now seems less unorthodox than it once did. At least it seems less unorthodox to many readers. There will always be readers who would prefer to exclude such radical experiments from the realm of poetry and reserve that nomenclature for poems that hold a mirror to the poems of the past (broken lines, a single identifiable speaker who assumes a pose that looks like the poet's, near-normative syntax, etc.). For those who feel that poetry, and all art, is best viewed as a means of provoking thoughts and raising questions, radical rearrangements that violate convention, such as Stein's, are fruitful provocations. These latter poets tend to have more of an anthropological neutrality about the forms a poem might take. For them poems are architectural interiors to be filled as they wish, to various effects. They appreciate that innovative poetic compositions will over time create texts that enlarge the domain of poetry, although these strange new poems sometimes require new ways of reading and a reconsideration of what constitutes a poem. Since nothing is off limits, those kinds of poets, and readers of the poetry they produce, eagerly await the next surprise, even if the next surprise is the poetry of boredom (see Kenneth Goldsmith's poetics statement, "Being Boring," in the 2007 edition of American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics).
If it's difficult to make a general claim about poetry, it may be even more difficult to make a claim for one's own practice. While I don't consider my poems to be radical rearrangements of language, I'm always aware, while I'm writing them, that language is shifting. And I never lose sight of the fact that any "reality" that language gestures toward is artificial. To conceive of the poem as a stage and the speaker in it as a character acting in a play (instead of as a poet plumbing the depths of her psyche) provides me with a sense of remove. That sense of remove allows me to treat the poem as a constructed space, a set piece, where I can briefly animate a figure, allow it to speak or act, and afterward place it back in its dummy case. What occurs on the set, as well as the set design, can then gesture toward the conceptual. The poem can become a complex and unconsummated (thus, non-dictatorial) means of variously illustrating the abstract, or personifying values, or enacting ideas; a form of non-literal encoding.
Many of the compositional methods I'm drawn to in my own work, and in the work of others, fall under the rubric of Ostrananie — a Russian Formalist strategy named by Viktor Shklovsky in a 1916 essay entitled "Art as Technique." Ostrananie translates into English as "making strange." Strange in at least two senses: one, the estrangement through defamiliarization of the quotidian world, and the estrangement by dissociation of context from form. The hallmark of the strategy is a combination of collage and idiosyncrasy and the result is the creation of a neo-surrealist façade that can be informed in subtle ways by the political. This method asks the reader to surrender the need for completion and linearity and fathom the poem as if it's a record of the mind skipping. At the same time, every element in the poem is a clue to interconnectedness.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Eleven More American Women Poets in the 21st Century"
Copyright © 2012 Wesleyan University Press.
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