Hot Llamas Thirsting for Glacial Omens
Thank heaven for great foreign writers living in America. Who else could get away with issuing a statement like the following: "It is better to be a new young god in American Poetry than to be President of the United States. It is the only divine and democratic position available. There are not many such places in human history."
This hyperbolic proclamation from Croatian-born poet Tomaz Salamun is even juicier as the lead for his introduction to a new first book of poems called Oubliette (Verse Press), by Peter Richards. Sage observer of the avant-garde and secret godfather to a species of new American poets, Salamun recognizes, like many readers, an impressive recent outpouring of verse from fledgling talent.
Peter Richards and folks like Noelle Kocot and Ben Doyle, who've also just published their first books, may well be forming a distinct offshoot on the literary family tree. I might call it a movement, might even give it a name, but this is not a consciously organized, manifesto-waving school. At least not yet.
One way to view the new poetry is to compare it to the dominant avant-garde of the late 20th Century, Language Poetry, which tends to treat poems as painterly fields of abstract wordplay. The new poetry, "Post-Language" to some, gleans L.P.'s radical experimentation and combines it with more personality and nuance, digesting lessons from the more innovative but established poets like John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, Heather McHugh, and James Tate.
Using Salamun's terms, if L.P. is often single-mindedly "divine" with imagination, the new poetry is both "divine and democratic," fleshing out that imagination with a more intimate, often humorous voice, and giving more refined, accessible patterns to the words. As if asserting his own willingness to glue the fragments together, Richards opens his volume with these lines from a poem called "Remainder":
I am not broken as they envision, am not partial,
porous, nor will I grind into hopes pestle held.
In so many ways I shame impact.
On impact, I lie about the stars burning gently.
We may find only tentative meanings in a passage like this, but it's not hard to embrace the quiet, earnest tone of a person trying to communicate even while he confesses untruths or reclines passively "about the stars."
This compelling human sound pervades Oubliette in pages of brief, shimmering lyrics. At times they read like tiny philosophies whose syllogistic tidiness is jarred by frighteningly emotional undercurrents (see spiritual definitions come to naught in "This Is the Color"). Or a Richards poem might toy with narrative scene-setting, then leap associatively like a child reporting dream events, ending with the sort of anti-closure found in a poem like "Bulrushes": "Those were the days in one sitting./Nothing can happen in a cream-colored conversation.//'You're welcome,' she said, though I still was not born." Despite its bold tears in the fabric of time--did a fetus have this conversation?--the voice stands humbly on the ground, implicating itself in our 21st-century mess.
Echoes of the divine and democratic are similarly found in Noelle Kocot's new volume, 4 (Four Way Books). Kocot drenches her poems with an "I" that can't stop flying through lush and fragile landscapes, often attempting to deliver some crucial information to a "you." Movement and absurdity fuel poems that begin with lines like: "The end came swaying toward you/Over a field of hot llamas thirsting for glacial omens." Or, "You came to me just like that,/A quasi-lunar jukebox booming/The smoky burden of all I have not said...."
Self-consciously wackier than Richards's spare sculptings, Kocot's verse dares to overqualify, mix metaphors, and generally proceed like a party on wheels; she's barely able to end sentences before spilling all their viscera and subordinate clauses. It's not just a lot of language, though. Like her Romantic forbears, Neruda and Keats among them, Kocot convinces us that her exuberance comes from a genuine source, that familiarity and stasis are really hallucinations masking the profoundly freaky world we inhabit. So we sense that she's sincere when ending a poem called "Outing": "Some lighterfluid was percolating on the stove./I thought about smog/And what it could be in the hands of a master."
Of these three fine newcomers, Ben Doyle is the most versatile, and perhaps the hippest. His book, Radio, Radio (Louisiana State University Press), is peppered with sly devices: numbered lists, multiple-choice answers, parenthetical asides, italicized dialogue, sudden postscripts, footnotes, and blanks to be filled in later. Esoteric minutiae and pop-culture references abound, as evidenced in titles like: "Immortalities (dance remix)" or "GoldStar for the SONY Robotdog" or "Meanwhile, our situation has been upgraded to a 'Situation.'"
Doyle pokes much fun at America's bland, evasive rhetoric, our democratic flattening of everything to the lowest common denominator. Like many new American poets, he knows the entertainment value of irony and sarcasm, but he doesn't leave us stranded in shallow Lenoesque punch lines. As Stevens taught us in poems like "The Man on the Dump," there is beauty and "purifying change" in everyday ugliness; we must embrace the crap to transcend it. So Doyle gives us lines like these that end the book's penultimate poem, "Vigil":
Amniotic installations. Creative new packing materials
made from odorless molds. Broken water. Floating
deaf and helpless between two ridiculous saline tits.
God's posh silver sterile grave, in a cryogenic tube--
In Case of Emergency Break Glass.
And then I see a man running before a vine of ivy lights,
a child in his arms. I see rows of dull bells shift their weight
silently so far in the chapel's open-air attic
& I remember, hey
I read this "hey" not as slackerly indifference but as the unfiltered wonder of a real person, a sudden remembering that, yes, the miraculous can happen in this bumper-sticker culture that commodifies even birth and death. So while Radio, Radio broadcasts lots of contemporary noise, keeping us tuned in is that buried melody called empathy.
"Hush I think now I may/be the future...," utters another of Doyle's poems, and if you'd like a glimpse of what's to come in poetry, each of these new volumes will take you there. Emerging now after the Language wave is a sizable phalanx of new American poets with adventurous and generous visions. They're published almost entirely by independent and university presses, and by plucky little magazines like Fence, Spinning Jenny, and Volt. They have no premeditated collective agenda, and many are their modes. But they do have a way of working in what Salamun calls that "inscrutable" place where poems can be inviting yet thoroughly surprising.
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