In her most recent collection of poems, A Beautiful Name for a Girl (Ahsahta Press, 2011) Kirsten Kaschock explores different concepts of identity, and how identity is constructed. These concepts become increasingly constricting, and the book ultimately acts as a means of finding an escape from the self and society.
The opening poem, “Assemblage,” gives readers a sense of ownership and construction, using architecture as a trope for constructing a self that is wholly self and not dependent on any outside factors. By placing this as the introductory poem, Kaschock establishes identity as something that must not rely on outside standards but must be constructed within; shelter cannot be sought, only built. “This is the house Jane built by being the house / Jane built by being” (32-33). She establishes the search for identity not as finding oneself, “Once, this was Jane finding Jane” (2-3). but as embracing what is already there.
This foundation crumbles with each poem that follows, however, as Kaschock writes from increasingly varied perspectives, and in doing so writes her own mythology of gods and angels and demons, spiders and machines. Each poem follows a thread of this mythology, exploring the different perspectives of human, monster, dancer, teacher, mother, woman. What makes the poems so intriguing is how these perspectives interact and weave their way throughout the collection through her masterful repetition of words and themes. Just when a subject seems thoroughly exhausted, Kaschock brings it up again, forcing the mind to stretch to encounter it in a new way.
The culmination of these variances is most apparent in “Snuff Ballet (A Monologue for 2, 3, or 7),” a long poem that makes up the entire middle section of the book and captures the voice of a playwright, her critics, and her audience, all fixated on the display of the single dancer, a woman. The poem oscillates between these voices, and although the voice of the dancer is never heard, she is described:
required to be omega
older than her peers, in some way
bird-like, quick and puckish, prone to flight
prone to spasms
prone to on-stage orgasm
armed with working feet and a hole
in her heart that could lead
to certain death (strains of the 5th—three duhs
one duhm) therefore
karma-wise, all birds have issues
hollow bones, a diet of seeds
small eyes, their alertness instinct
not intuition, not intellect although
appearing intellect, required to
required to fool us all—up to and including
moment omega, and crucially
she must not believe in her own death (68-86)
These descriptions of the dancer’s character, costume, choreography and motivation are interspersed throughout, each increasingly eerie and invasive until eventually it is the playwright, the artist, who is on display and poised to fail.
“Fail. Now— / there’s a beautiful name for a girl” (35-36), is how Kaschock ends the penultimate poem of the book. This line seems the inevitable conclusion to these fable poems, the word “fail” serving as a reminder of what happens when all these voices are heeded and the foundation of the self is not preserved. But it still comes as a shock that this mythology is also tragic in nature: after listening to all these voices, there is still no hero to banish them, and Jane must build the house herself after all.
BIO: Kirsten Kaschock earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia, and is currently a doctoral fellow of dance at Temple University. A Beautiful Name for a Girl is her second collection of poems and is available from Ahsahta Press.
According to a study by the University of Manchester in England, the amount of information in word order is a universal trait in languages, regardless of origin. This could point to a universal factor in how people process language cognitively. So what does this mean for writing and translation? How about the way language is used in poetry and fiction across cultures? Check out the article in Wired.
So even though the apocalypse did not occur as predicted yesterday, if libraries continue to close around the country, life as we know it will never be the same, according to Charles Simic in the New York Review of Books. His point: that even though the Internet makes research easier, it doesn't exactly create lifelong readers. And it's true; there's something comforting about the fact of a library, even if its purpose is slowly changing. But I'm hopeful that even as libraries evolve to accommodate the latests trends in technology, they will never actually go extinct.
“Life only seemed worth living where the threshold between waking and sleeping was worn away in everyone as by the steps of multitudinous flooding back and forth.” – Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism”
Reading poetry has become an act of flooding, a flood of words, a bleeding between of meanings. The very act stimulates a panic in the reader, an almost political paranoia of language. Can we even trust poetry? What can it offer us now?
On one hand, there are those who place infinite faith in the hope of poetry’s renewal, those who theorize and attempt to write works that are conceived as the great new innovation of the art (Conceptual writing, or the new trend in “theme” centered collections of lyric). On the other hand, there are those who wholly disparage poetry (beware the New Classicism! and the alienated non-reader!) for its allegedly growing obscurity and inaccessibility, and therefore its alleged uselessness as a social fact.
Larry Sawyer’s Unable to Fully Californiais wholly aware of these questions. Yet, in lieu of quelling the reader’s anxiety about poetry’s place, his poems rather expand upon the aforementioned questions; he does not seek to answer, but to complicate. The poems themselves are frenzied and varied, vocalizing both a multitude and a solitude.
The opening poem, “Crawlspace Tango,” presents a kind of heteroglossia of entropic clashing of voice and breath. The use of the capitalized first letter of each line (“On a bench my newspapered nerves flutter./Bloom of a dark, wide silence, the human/Tether keeps pulling.”) gives a charge of individuality to each line, to keep each breath different, separate yet always engaged in a dialogic presence with each other, which calls to mind Ashbery’s disruptive vocal flow that blows apart the binary distinction between the intimate and the publicized. Thus, Sawyer presents a poetics of a split world, one of drifting and one of torpedoing.
Sawyer’s sense of politics takes the form of surrealist juxtaposition and disruption. For example, in “Circle the Wagons,” he writes: “nothing like a good Afghanistan/to clear the sinuses.” The infringement of the political landscape into the nasal cavity forms a central theme in Sawyer’s poems, that of the ever-pressing potential of an aesthetic and revolutionary consciousness. The surrealist techniques Sawyer employs—from the long tradition of Koch, Ashbery, Wakoski, etc.—inverts the overstuffed imagery of media and literature on its axis, blurring the lines of image and noise.
The social function of poetry is also a baffling question. He writes in “For Guillaume Apollinaire”:
sad music of presidents regard the women beautiful
you are an orange or else the moon
a house, a table, the lips of a rose
you resemble a song, familiar as yourself
brilliant son of lost waters.
The place of the poet in such a context becomes a place of hesitation. The aforementioned passage gives us a list of options, a minor litany of poetic choices that poets can concern themselves with. The poetic voice is thus an appropriately Melvillian “brilliant son of lost waters,” an Ishmael-esque body without a center and a voice without a set timbre. Left with no absolute essence of subject, the poem/poet then chooses that all of these choices are up for grabs, no choice of content being incorrect.
The poet now becomes an elasticityof social function, both the legislator and the schizoid ranter. Thus, in such confusion, Sawyer’s poetry compels us to main an emotionalresponse to these stimuli, the ultimate necessity of lyricismas poetic act:
Without dolor the character
muses, dialogue moons,
edges me into time
(“Like You Know”)
The character of lyric is maintained through dreaming. This stanza, echoing Lorca, engages the voice with non-existent elements that become existent through wordplay and sound textures. The lines employ traditional figures (“dolor,” “moons,” and “me,” especially) to reconfigure lyrical logic into a recognizable yet shadowy imagination.
Sawyer’s book engages not only information but also the act of poetry itself. When language becomes so fraught with media blending and abstraction, the poem becomes both the stretched mediator and the conscientious objector. But the poem must always strive to actwithin a context of passivity and unconscious flow. Therein lies the relevance of Sawyer’s work: the struggle to write poems that are, as they should be, an act. An act upon meaning, on language itself. As he demonstrates in “From 27 Voices,” (“Salmon hands, Pacific hands, Pisces-born, there are flies in my sleep”), the formulation of a poetics is necessarily a state of indeterminacy, of uncertainty. Neither the poet nor the reader can sit satisfied with clear definitions of “the dream” or “the real.” The act of the poem, for Sawyer, is the entropic expansion of these spaces of meaning and feeling. This expansion becomes the key to relevance, to the survival and recreation of the poem.
Bio:Larry Sawyer, who lives in Chicago, is the current editor of milk. He also curates the Myopic Books Reading Series in Wicker Park. The author of several chapbooks, his first book, Unable to Fully California, is now available from Otoliths Press.
A poem I love and a photograph I took, presented together, with no further explanation:
Dream Song 14
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no
Inner Resources." I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as Achilles,
who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.
Meanwhile, over at The Literarian, Sarah M. Gilbert lists five great books that you probably missed. Whats makes Gilbert's list particularly notable is not necessarily that all the authors are largely unknown, nor that they are all women, but that their work dates back to the 14th Century. One notable omission we'd append to this list is the indispensable Tale of Genji, an 11th Century work attributed to Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu, which many believe to be the first novel ever written. The next time a bout of bickering crops up over whether women writers are well-represented or if their work is as worthy as their male counterparts, this list might prove useful. Women have been writing novels for a millenium now, afterall, and their words are quite literally indispensable.
Check out Alexa Ortega's musings at HTML Giant on the best way to share poetry, and literature in general, with a public that might not necessarily be inclined to attend literary readings. Is poetry actually dead to the mainstream, Ortega wonders. And is it? I think she brings up a good point: maybe writers think so because they often write and read for a handful of critics and then don't necessarily reach beyond that. But in a city like Chicago, poetry hardly seems dead. It seems like every week a new reading series begins and a new literary journal releases its first issue. And with the Internet, "local" and a "larger audience" don't necessarily have to be as different as Ortega describes them. Yes, the Internet lends itself a certain sense of large-scale longing to "make it big." But if local artists can more easily share their work with others, then more power to them. I don't think it detracts from the intimacy of a reading or performance—if anything it can only help generate interest. Because that's what art and writing is all about, really: a way to share something meaningful.
The Utne Reader released the nominee's for their 22nd annual Independent Press Awards. It's a great, thorough list of magazines seperated into general excellence, best writing, arts, political, social/cultural, and more. It was a great reminder that I wanted to subscribe to Gastronomica!
Scientists feel they may be onto a form of technology that would allow people to talk with dolphins. Given the recent push to declare dolphins as "non-human persons" and the sheer joy that images like this one can elicit in the human imagination, there is but one question that simply must be answered were this technology to prove successful: "Is anyone in the history of the world cooler than Bowie?"